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Experiments on the Sociological Origins of Categories [Berkeley Institute for Data Science]

November 30, 2020 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

Computational Social Science Forum
Date: Monday, November 30, 2020
Time: 12:00-1:30 PM Pacific Time
Location: Register to receive the schedule and access links.

Experiments on the Sociological Origins of Categories

Douglas GuilbeaultAssistant Professor, Management of Organizations, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley
Individuals vary widely in how they categorize novel and ambiguous phenomena. This individual variation has led influential theories in cognitive and social science to suggest that communication in large social groups introduces path dependence in category formation, which is expected to lead separate populations toward divergent cultural trajectories. Yet, ethnographic data indicates that large, independent societies consistently arrive at highly similar category systems across a range of topics. How is it possible for diverse populations, consisting of individuals with significant variation in how they categorize the world, to independently construct similar category systems? In this study, I investigate this puzzle experimentally by creating an online “Grouping Game” in which we observe how people in small and large populations socially construct category systems for a continuum of ambiguous stimuli. I find that solitary individuals and small groups produce highly divergent category systems; however, across independent trials with unique participants, large populations consistently converge on highly similar category systems. I develop a formal model of critical mass dynamics in social networks that accurately predicts this process of scale-induced category convergence. This model provides a sociological theory for how large communication networks can filter lexical diversity among individuals to produce replicable society-level patterns, yielding unexpected implications for cultural evolution. In subsequent experiments, I show how these results replicate for both American and Chinese populations, and I develop novel methods for identifying where different cultural groups are most likely to converge and diverge when socially constructing categories. Finally, I discuss ongoing work that leverages this theory of scale-induced category convergence to explore longstanding problems of sociological interest, including symbolic power and pluralistic ignorance.


November 30, 2020
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
Event Category:


Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS)