Fads as a Paradigm of the Social Cycle

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

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 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: if the "rubes" have adopted φ, then it is no longer hip. 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 generates the actions that will lead to its abandonment. The cyclical movement is endogenous to the phenomenon itself.

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.

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?"

But Joy would certainly approve of this:


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