15 January 2017

Chess as an Institution

After the long yearend holiday break, let's return to The Sociology of Chess (November 2016), last seen in FIDE's Social Commissions. I spent part of my holiday watching a series of lectures on the Youtube UCBerkeley channel, titled Sociology 101 (that link is a playlist). The lecturer is Ann Swidler (wikipedia.org), and the syllabus can be found at Introduction to Sociology (PDF).

On top of learning a tremendous amount about sociology, I was further rewarded for the time spent by discovering a long discussion of chess in the third lecture. It reminded me of a quote, 'Chess is the Drosophila of Cognitive Science', that I covered in a previous post, The Drosophila of Unattributed Quotes (February 2010).

Sociology 101 - Lecture 3 (50:28) • 'Published on Sep 5, 2012 : Introduction to Sociology'

The lecture starts with a continuation of the second, previous lecture, which is summarized in an overhead slide...

The Individual and Society
- Dual nature of the self
- Paradox of modern individualism

...It then moves to a new topic, 'Institutions and Identities', with another overhead slide...

The Mystery of Institutions
- Created by human beings
- Constrain and regulate human activity

- Appear enduring, permanent, fixed
- Can be gradually transformed

...The chess portion is the first detailed discussion in the next slide...

Components of Institutions
- Rules or Recipes that define the institution (cognitive)
- Sanctions -- rewards and punishments -- that enforce the rules (regulative)
- Purposes that justify (and guide) institutional choices
- Moral codes (normative)

...where I'll quote Prof. Swidler's accompanying remarks.

I'm going to take a couple of institutions and talk about how these things work. First, rules are recipes that define the institution, the cognitive, cultural element. I'm going to talk about something -- I don't know if it is an institution -- but it helps you see the way human beings create things that have rules and then treat the rules as permanent. Think about something like chess (or any game: it could be football, basketball, bridge, ... [describes the physical aspects of chess]). It's obviously some medieval-type game originally. There are a set of rules that make chess 'chess'.

You don't have to play chess. If you're five years old, you can say 'I want to move the big piece to that far corner and I'm going to do it'. You can do that. You can throw the pieces on the floor when you don't win, but then it's not chess. Or you could use the pieces and play checkers [describes checkers]. When you constitute something as 'chess' you do it by creating a set of rules about what chess *is* and that's what makes it chess.

After a talk about 'marriage' as an institution -- 'You constitute something as marriage' -- Prof. Swidler returns to chess.

If you play chess, there is actually a group somewhere that regulates the rules about chess is. You can't play official chess if you don't play according to the rules. Even if you played it informally, certain rules would determine that the thing actually was chess. Again, it's humanly created, but the rules make it what it is.

If someone walked in -- this is the cultural cognitive part -- and said, 'That's not chess, it's mah jongg!', you would say, 'No, it's not mah jongg; there are no tiles. This is chess; we're playing chess.' The person who actually thought it was mah jongg wouldn't just have an opinion that it was mah jongg, he'd be wrong. It's not mah jongg (or bridge, or golf); it's *chess*. And that is a cultural cognitive definition. You don't have to care about chess; you don't have to love chess; you don't have to 'believe' in chess; it's just chess.

Let me make one more point. Chess not only creates rules about what playing chess is and what the board should look like, what pieces [there are] so you can't suddenly say I want to have 45 pieces, and have every square on the board filled, for example. It wouldn't be chess.

It also creates certain 'roles'. You could even say it creates certain 'people', if you want to think of the chess pieces as people. To constitute chess, you also create pieces that have certain moves they can make. You constitute Kings and Queens [describes the moves] and Knights [ditto]. To constitute chess is also to constitute a bunch of social roles.

The discussion returns to marriage and the role of 'husband'. The previous slide, 'Components of Institutions', under 'Rules or Recipes that define the institution' included a couple of sub-bullets that summarize the chess discussion.

  • Rules that make it what it is (what makes chess)
  • Roles defined by the rules (e.g. Pawn, Knight, Bishop, etc.)

One Youtube commenter wrote, 'It's pretty confusing toward the end when she talks about chess.' For me, it was pretty helpful.


Later (2021): At some time after I posted this, the Youtube video embedded above disappeared. When I looked for a replacement, I found the same video at a different address: Institutions, Individuals, and Society | Sociology 1 | Lecture 3 (youtube.com, 'Premiered May 14, 2020'). That link is part of a playlist. The syllabus says, 'Introduction to Sociology, Ann Swidler, Fall 2012', which dates it accurately for us.

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