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Norms and Networks

Understanding the classical sociological phenomena of social integration and segregation is key, in particular in culturally diverse societies, such as the Netherlands. In his research, Andreas Flache studies the conditions under which cultural, demographic, and political differences can be overcome and collaboration and cooperation becomes possible.

Flache argues that norms and networks play a crucial role. For instance, shared norms and a close-knit social network can foster cooperation in work teams. Team members, who have close contacts with their colleagues, are more motivated to commit themselves to the team. In contrast, team members that meet seldom can more easily shirk their responsibilities.

Norms and opinions, such as attitudes about ethnic minorities, are to a high degree the result of peer influence. Often opinions grow more similar when individuals interact, but when opinions differ too much then initial differences are reinforced, which can give rise to opinion polarization. It is an unresolved scientific puzzle when social influence has such negative consequences. Flache explores mechanisms of opinion polarization, for instance in the context of the emergence of opinions on the extreme political right.

Flache argues that many societal problems are unintended consequence of individual behavior. An example comes from Flache’s research on the emergence of “black schools” in the Netherlands. Obviously, there might be a few parents who select their children’s school as to avoid contact to foreigners. Other parents, however, might not share these preferences for segregation but might be socially influenced by the first parents, for instance because they want their to kids to be in a class with their friends. As consequence, black schools can be the result of a chain reaction that leads to much stronger segregation than the preferences of parents suggests.

In order to understand social complexity, the Norms and Networks research Cluster develops mathematical and game-theoretical models and computer simulations. “On the one hand, abstract models seem to have little in common with social reality. On the other hand, reality is often so complex that we need formal methods to be able to understand social processes and their outcomes”, says Flache. However, formal models are only the first step and models need to be tested empirically. In a project on school segregation, for instance, the researchers analyze data of all Dutch elementary schools. But models are also tested in controlled laboratory experiments where participants have to take decisions about real cooperation problems. ‘These experiments may seem artificial’, says Flache, “but they allow us to study precisely whether the behavioral processes we assume in our models capture what real people do.”

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Last modified:07 June 2019 10.49 a.m.
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