Special Issue of JEM on Thomas Schelling

10 February 2008 at 2:43 pm 3 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Nobel Prize winner (2005) Thomas Schelling makes social science come alive. He has contributed fundamental insights to game theory (e.g., the notion of a focal point, the importance of commitment, early insights in the epistemic conditions of Nash equilibrium, signaling, etc.) and to the understanding of social dynamics (e.g., the famous 1971 checkerboard segregation model; early insights in “critical mass” and “tipping”). He is among the founders of game-theoretic conflict theory. 

Schelling has an amazing knack for drawing fundamental lessons from simple illustrations. He rarely uses advanced mathematics, he is more interested in processes than in equilibrium states, and substantial parts of his work is accessible to the educated layman (e.g., this one and this one). He is quite an unusual social scientist.

The latest (Dec.) issue of the ever-interesting Journal of Economic Methodology features a Symposium on Thomas Schelling edited by Abu Rizvi (who, in other journals and volumes, has published some of the most penetrating meta-theoretical work on game theory).

Besides a brief intro by Rizvi the special issue features an excellent article by Alessandro Innocenti (“Player Heterogeneity and Empiricism in Schelling”) which very convincingly makes the point that player heterogeneity is absolutely fundamental to Schelling’s approach. However, the “inductive” nature of this approach flies in the face of traditional game theory and explains why little progress (beyond Schelling’s own contributions) has been made within the “Schelling program” in game theory. A paper by N. Emrad Aydinonat discusses Schelling’s checkerboard model, and Esther-Mirjam Sent discusses “Thomas Schelling as a Cold Warrior” documenting Schelling’s role in the national strategy development process during the 1950s and particularly 1960s, played out through his many ties with the Department of Defense (some commentators in fact think that Schelling was the main culprit behind plunging the US into the Vietnam War; e.g., Ayson). All three articles are highly recommended, although my personal favorite was Innocent’s paper (which I learned the most from).

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Recommended Reading.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. michael webster  |  10 February 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Hmm, most of Schelling’s commitment devices were examples of ignoring sub-game perfection.

    The examples were compelling, but there was little theoretical or formal examination of what Schelling was up to.

  • 2. Rafe Champion  |  10 February 2008 at 10:26 pm

    Without reading the articles I could be wide of the mark but it always looked as though game theory was based on the wrong games. If you analyse a game like cricket you end up with a kind of Austrian (or Even More Austrian) analysis that takes account of the rules of the game (the institutional setting), plus the way the rules are interpreted by oficialdom (the regulators) and any local traditions that are relevant, plus the individual strengths and weaknesses of the players, including their capacity to learn, the tactics and strategy employed by the teams (including changes of personnel) as the game (and the series) proceeds over time, plus elements of technology that intrude. And the weather. http://www.the-rathouse.com/EvenMoreAustrianProgram/OffspinneronReductionvsExistence.html

  • 3. Nicolai Foss  |  11 February 2008 at 3:38 am

    Michael, u are entirely right, of course, but isn’t this like complaining about the way Solow treated the residual, or about Hayek’s failure to define a role for money in general equilibrium, etc.? Isn’t it appropriate that Selten AND Schelling both received the Nobel?

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