Fads as Social Cycles

We don’t follow fashion
That would be a joke
You know we’re going to set them set them
So everyone can take note take note — Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni

by Gene Callahan*

In his book Knowledge and Coordination, Daniel Klein distinguishes between mutual coordination and concatenate coordination. Mutual coordination is coordination which people intend: you and I plan to meet for lunch, or several con artists devise a scheme to defraud an elderly widow of her fortune. Concatenate coordination is coordination that is pleasing to an impartial observer: one of Klein’s examples is a room designed with a harmonious combination of colors, shapes, and so on.

It is important to note that successful mutual coordination does not imply concatenate coordination. If the con artists pull off their scheme to defraud the widow, they will have achieved mutual coordinaiton that is not concatenate coordination. (I really cannot do this schema full justice here; I am just introducing it to make sense of the rest of this post, and you really must read the book to fully grasp it.)

Let us analyze fads using Klein’s terms. We will posit a population consisting of two types of people: T, the group of people who are trend-setters, and F, the group of people who are followers. In a fad, first the population of T mutually coordinates around some fashion or other cultural element, φ. What they wish is to identify themselves as members of T by adopting φ while other members of T but only other members of T do so. That situation, to them, represents a pleasing concatenate coordination. (Note: they are not Klein’s ideal, impartial observers!)

The next thing that happens is, that as φ becomes widespread amongst T, the members of F begin to notice it doing so. What is a pleasing concatenate coordination to them is that they adopt φ given that everyone else, both members of T and members of F, does so or will soon do so.

But what is a pleasing concatenate coordination to members of F is very displeasing to members of T. As φ diffuses through F, the members of T begin to seek for some new “cutting edge” fashion to adopt. When they do so, we are back at the start of the cycle above.

This analysis is, of course, highly simplified: We really have an entire spectrum of people from extreme trend-setters who are happy to, say, wear something no one else at all wears, to followers so sluggardly that they are barely now adopting fashions from a decade ago. But I don’t think this simplification harms our analysis much. In any case, we have here a paradigmatic example of a social cycle: The widespread adoption of the fashion itself generates the actions that will lead to its abandonment. The cyclical movement is endogenous to the phenomenon itself.

As to what Klein’s hypothetical impartial observer, Joy, would see as concatenate coordination in this situation, well, I imagine she would say, “Can’t you all just settle on togas or something else plain and simple, and cut this nonsense out?”

* This has been cross posted at La Bocca della Verita.

11 thoughts on “Fads as Social Cycles

  1. Nice, Gene. A bit of frisson between the “impartial observer” and your T’s and F’s, who are presenters of themselves, not necessarily observers, unless observing themselves makes them observers. They’re certainly not impartial.

    What they choose to do may strike outsiders as unpleasant. I’m not sure such fads make for “concatenate coordination” if you include outsiders in the universe.

  2. Yes, you are correct, Chidem. That was the reason for including: “Note: they are not Klein’s ideal, impartial observers!”

    But it seems as though they are striving for concatenate coordination pleasing to them, even if not to Joy.

  3. Oh, yes, and: “who are presenters of themselves, not necessarily observers”

    Well, they present themselves, but also are very interested in observing how others present themselves, and aligning their presentation “properly” with that of others (the Ts with other Ts, the Fs with all Ts and Fs).

  4. Addendum: I menat to get the following paragraph in the above post, but Mario and I failed to achieve mutual coordination:

    And fads tie in to ideas developed earlier about disruptions and adjustments as factors in the social cycle: The members of F adopt φ in an effort to adjust to the disruption the adoption of φ by the members of T created in their plans: the members of F found themselves no longer wearing (or saying, or listening to, etc.) the “in thing.” In an effort to adjust to this disruption, they adopted φ. But that adoption was itself a disruption for the members of T, since they now found themselves no longer on the cutting edge. And so they adjust by embracing a new fad.

  5. Yes, the fad spread-decline mechanism is clear but is that what is meant by concatenate coordination if you no longer rely on the benchmark of “impartial observer”?

    In-group mutual coordination, yes, but not clear it goes beyond that.

  6. Chidem, what I meant by using the term thusly was that the overall pattern achieved was pleasing, in one case, to the Ts, and in the other, to the Fs. That is something more than merely mutually arranging to do X or Y. And I think that Klein’s idea of concatenate coordination can be usefully extended in this sense: we can understand that, say, the dictatorial personality might be pleased by the spectacle of an entire population cowering before his commands, while acknowledging that Joy would not be so pleased.

    I wonder if we can find out what Dan thinks of this? (I will alert him to this comment thread.)

  7. Yes, Gene, we, the analysts, might enter into the sentiments of trend-setters and speak of concatenate coordination from their point of view. That is, I do not think that talk of concatenate coordination needs be restricted to discussion of what we guess an impartial spectator thinks of the matter.

    I think that talk of coordination of a concatenation works best when we have an alternate concatenation in mind. That is, we have a sense of “Compared to what?”

    I suppose we could enter into the sentiments of the trend-setters and ask whether they feel that seeing the followers also take up the “in” fashion is better coordinated than the followers not doing so (and hence not spoiling the inness of it). But I’m not sure why we would do that, and hence why we would be talking that way.

    As for the impartial spectator, again, what concatenations are being compared? Are they the following?: (1) What happens as Gene describes as the trend-setters adopt φ;, and (2) What happens when they don’t adopt φ. Well, what does happen when they don’t adopt φ? Do they wear togas? Whatever is in their closets? And then do they turn to other means of assuming some kind of inness?

    Chidem writes of “the benchmark of ‘impartial observer'”. As I understand the Smith and the impartial spectator, I wouldn’t speak of it as a benchmark.

  8. “But I’m not sure why we would do that, and hence why we would be talking that way.”

    The reason I am doing so is I am trying to see my way to a general theory of social cycles, which would include business cycles, and I am starting with simpler and less ideologically charged cases like fads, to try to get my footing firm before proceeding.

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