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<b>COMPLEX SYSTEMS SEMINAR</b><br>Cohesion, Fragmentation, and Power: The Role of Inadvertent Robust Action

Tuesday, February 2, 2016
12:00 AM
411 West Hall

Political sociologists and political scientists have almost unanimously agreed with a formulation proposed in the 1950s by Robert Dahl:  that a highly unified elite has deleterious consequences for both the functioning of democratic societies and the well-being of the majority of the population.  In the United States, however, leading corporations were relatively unified during the three decades after World War II yet American democracy was generally effective and economic inequality was at historic lows.  In the contemporary United States, in contrast, the corporate elite is highly fragmented yet the polity is dysfunctional and economic inequality is at historic highs.

In this talk I discuss the historical and theoretical basis of Dahl’s argument.  Based on research that suggests a less-than-clear association between group unity and effectiveness, I raise questions about the tenability of Dahl’s thesis.  I argue that a fragmented and disorganized elite might provide a more difficult target than a unified and organized one because the former is difficult to identify.  This process, which, drawing on Padgett and Ansell, I refer to as “inadvertent robust action,” might explain how it is possible for a fragmented elite to reap an increasing share of a society’s rewards.  I then discuss the conditions under which this outcome is more and less likely to occur.  I conclude with a call for experimental work and modeling that would allow us to better understand these processes.

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