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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Reputation. New Issue of COMMUNICATIONS, Seuil, Paris.

I have edited an issue of the French journal COMMUNICATIONS on Reputation. Here below you will find the English version of the introduction. Please, do come to the book launch on November 22nd, 2013 at 5 pm at Columbia University, Maison Française

Et si vous êtes à Paris, venez à la présentation du numéro à l'EHESS, 105 bd. Raspail, le 28 novembre à 5 heures. On va tester la réputation de quelque bonne bouteille !

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation!
I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what
remains is bestial.

Othello, Act II, scene iii

Thus speaks Cassio in the second act of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, when he discovers that after a dispute with another lieutenant he has lost Othello’s good esteem. His first worry is not about the material consequences this loss will have on his physical existence, but about another part of his being, his reputation, which is reflected in the eyes and words of others. Iago, who is secretly trying to ruin Cassio by manipulating his reputation, knows very well that “the immortal part” of ourselves is also the most fragile: we often obtain or lose it without deserving to, and we constantly try to reassure ourselves about what others think of us.
Essentially comparative, this interpersonal dimension of ourselves is also the most mysterious. What is a reputation? Why is it so socially and psychologically important? Is it the natural product of our anxiety about social status? Or is it something specific, which can be studied by the social sciences?

This issue of Communications seeks to answer these questions. It considers reputation as a key concept in exploring themes of different disciplines including sociology, moral philosophy, political science, economics, game theory, anthropology, history, and psychology. In trying to understand the role of “this immortal part of ourselves,” this excess of ourselves seen by others, in the construction of social reality, this issue takes on a strong interdisciplinary character.
We can see reputation as the informational remains of our past actions. According to the standard dictionary definition, it is the credibility that a person has accumulated through repeated interactions in the eyes of a third party. But how this credibility is accumulated is not nearly as clear as what classic models of reputation would have us believe. Information is relayed through communication, which opens it up to distortion and allows psychological biases to influence what we hear. In short, reputation seems condemned to subjectivity and biased opinions. It lends itself to manipulation and craft. In such conditions, it is difficult to build the basis of an objective theory of social phenomena. This is why economists, sociologists, and philosophers have neglected the subject, preferring instead to explain motives for human actions with more “objective” concepts such as rationality, utility, or interest…

Yet this apparently elusive notion seems to be appearing in, or in some cases returning to, several disciplines. Once banished from economics as a vestige of pre-modern values, it plays a crucial role today in explaining the consequences informational asymmetry has on markets. It is becoming important again in sociology, showing phenomena of visibility, which are increasingly central in explications of social behavior, and the role that rankings play in the perception of products and services’ quality. In game theory, it is a central idea that provides a rational explanation for altruism and cooperative behavior. In international relations, we are increasingly asking about its role in confrontations between states, conflict strategies, and the emergence of new powers. Indicators, such as systems of financial notation, rankings, and new governance techniques, put the question of reputation at the center of political analysis. In moral philosophy, reputation appears as a justification for disinterested behavior, and in psychology it is at the foundation of the notion of “character,” which allows for an explanation of the development of social emotions like shame and embarrassment. Finally, the internet and social networks make reputation essentially a new “currency” and a powerful tool for the extraction of information. In short, reputation seems to invade our social, moral, and cognitive lives. It then deserves to be reconsidered as not just a social label, but as a constitutive dimension of our relations to others and to the world.

Reputation is profoundly anchored in our reading of the social world, because it informs us, through direct or indirect signals, about others’ hidden qualities. Thus, in Les Liaisons dangereuses, Madame de Tourvel, taking into account the rumors about vicomte de Valmont, cannot be certain of his honesty when he declares his love. In order to acquire a good reputation in her eyes, Valmont comes to the aid of impoverished peasants. When news of this action is immediately passed along to Madame de Tourvel, it sends a signal of virtue—of generosity—and helps dissipate the reputation of immorality that had accompanied Valmont.

As reputation informs us about others, it is a shortcut to understanding and classifying those before us. As we see in Valmont’s case, this shortcut is easily manipulable and hardly trustworthy. Nonetheless, we take as our point of departure here the fact that reputation is a necessary dimension for understanding the world, others, and their value. Reality cannot be independent of what is said about it: reputation both builds and is built by the social world. The central task, then, for a rigorous study of reputation, is to distinguish norms, values, and practices that allow us to make “good use” of them, tending to bias information and amplify false rumors. It is at once normative and descriptive. How is reputation built from people and objects, and what role does it play in social and mercantile interactions? How do notation systems shared by different institutions create a world of economic, political, social, and epistemological values? The extraction of information from indirect clues has become one of informational societies’ most urgent concerns. What cognitive practices, what social norms, what deference to authority, guide our uses of reputational clues in the choice among products, information on the internet, doctors, economic investments?

These are questions we need to ask to escape a dead-end situation. Reputation obviously takes on a central role in contemporary societies, but social practices concerning its use are still “charmed.” They are based on hearsay, or the almost magical perception of the aura that a subject or object can obtain if others look on it favorably. Or else they are influenced by authority. Similarly, when reputation is objectified in rankings, notation systems, or shared evaluations, the norms underlying the establishment of these criteria are rarely discussed collectively. Too often they are passively accepted as a requirement with no alternative and, despite their inefficacy, are never questioned. It is then a question of accepting reputation’s preponderant role in our lives immerged in strongly interconnected social networks, all while trying to ensure a critical and reasoned appraisal.

The reappearance of reputation also corresponds to the increasingly apparent examination of a model of human motivation, Homo economicus, essentially based on individualist motivations. The need to compare oneself to others, to construct one’s identity relationally, in other words, the “fight for status” and not just for material goods associated with status, make reputation a fundamental ontological and anthropological component of our social lives.

The twelve essays in this volume address these questions from different and complementary perspectives. From the perspectives of anthropology and evolutionary psychology, Nicolas Baumard and Dan Sperber distinguish the evolution of moral concerns from those of reputational ones. According to evolutionary explanations of moral behavior, we are interested in acting ethically to win reputation and the indirect benefits that that can bring. But concern for acting in an ethical way can have two very different phylogenetic histories. Jon Elster, for his part, takes up some of these themes in developing the argument that desire for reputation can inspire moral actions without taking others into account. He maintains that the motivational role of self-esteem and self-reputation explain this desire: I do something to show myself that I am the sort of person who does this sort of thing. These two articles share neighboring visions of the essentially individualist human nature according to which the motivation of human action is to be found in each individual’s rationality.

Approaching the question from a genealogical perspective, Barbara Carnevali challenges this individualist model and puts essentially comparative and relational motivations (glory, triumph over others, the fight for physical and also symbolic supremacy) in the center of social ontology. She retraces here the genealogy of these passions in the works of Thomas Hobbes, particularly in his treatment of the passion for glory. From a cognitive point of view, Philippe Rochat adopts the same perspective, retracing the ontogeny of reputation in children and making “sense of others” the pillar of the construction of identity.

Nicolas Emler adopts the perspective of social psychology and of social representation theory to defend the hypothesis that although it is manipulable, reputation remains a robust social instrument that permits us to extract information about who others are and what we can expect from them. 

In my contribution to this volume, I defend an argument close to the epistemological point of view, considering that reputation is an indispensable tool for the extraction of information. There is no Robinson Crusoe, that is, no subject in contact with a reality unfiltered by others. It is through the detection of complex traces of judgments and evaluations of others that we come to extract pertinent information from a corpus of knowledge. In the absence of filters, existing evaluations that form a domain of knowledge, we would be permanently like Bouvard and Pécuchet, the two partners in Flaubert’s novel who, in the frenzy of trying to learn everything, end up knowing nothing. The necessity, for evaluation, of the judgments of others is clear in economics of in the singularities presented here by Lucien Karpik as well as in the sociology of rankings exposed by Pierre-Marie Chauvin.

Lucien Karpik distinguishes the logic of reputation that characterizes standard products from that which distinguishes singular products, that is, the prestigious goods for which uncertainty about the quality is very strong. In the second case, reputation cannot be modeled like a variable of price dynamics with standard price theory, because the disjunction between the price scale and reputations becomes greater as uncertainty about the quality increases. Pierre-Marie Chauvin proposes a sociology of reputations based on the role of social evaluations in the construction of collective representations of value, insisting on the definition of the circle of social actors that share this evaluation as a central element of the work of the sociologist in this domain.

In his article on information asymmetries in economics, Pierre-Michel Menger takes up classical economic theory of reputation as a repeated game of strategy. According to his argument, this strategic dimension is what distinguishes reputation from similar concepts, such as celebrity or notoriety. Reputation is a decrease of uncertainty that depends on the strategy chosen by the two partners in a repeated game. But this model only works, as Lucien Karpik insists, in situations where uncertainty is symmetrical. When informational uncertainly is strongly asymmetrical between the two actors, strategic reputation is no longer sufficient and the market of statutory guarantees must be introduced.

Dominique Cardon’s article describes two distinct models of reputation that exist on the internet, a terrain where competition for visibility is becoming more and more brutal. The first, which comes essentially from Google’s Page Rank algorithm, exploits the social network structure of links on the web to organize a hierarchy of pages from them. With the second, Web 2.0, reputation becomes a more vague measure, based on the number of likes or retweets, a result of promotion strategies of more debatable objectivity. Here one leaves the “closed” world of Google style searchreesults in which, in the end, reputation is only a measure of impact (the number of times a page is “cited” by other pages) and enters the “open” universe of echoes of visibility produced by the widespread repetition of the same information by the Web.

The game of rumors is also at the center of Ariel Colonomos’ analysis of the role of financial notations in states’ reputations. Today these financial notations, inaugurated in an age of intelligence, serve principally for different actors in the market as an evaluation at the base of negotiations; they represent a “focal point” around which the actors organize themselves. Yet unlike a certain common perception of these indicators’ role in the recent financial crises, Arial Colonomos shows that the effect of states’ notations is to contain rumors, not to amplify them.

Still on the subject of rumors, the historian Jean-Pierre Cavaillé retraces the history of the lost, and found, reputation of the burlesque musician and author Charles Dassoucy (1605-1677). He discusses the birth in modern times of a type of reputation which is based on gossip and on the diffusion of opinions permitted by the press, and thus differs greatly from the medieval fama.

Some articles in this volume come from papers presented for the first time in a workshop organized by Pasquale Pasquino at the Foundation Olivetti in Rome in 2007. I would like to express here my gratitude to him for having enthusiastically welcomed the idea—at the time still developing—of an interdisciplinary reflection about reputation. Other contributions evolved with my seminar on social epistemology at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales during the 2011-2012 school year. I thank all the participants in this seminar, colleagues, students, and listeners, who contributed to making a new conversation about the importance of “how we see ourselves seen” emerge.

Gloria Origgi
Institut Jean Nicod, EHESS/ENS

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