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March 8, 2011

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Let me make two comments on Mark’s excellent post.

1. First, his thesis is well-summarized: “Although we have little control over our social world when we are young, upon reaching maturity we are responsible to choose, manage, and reject our social networks, by reflecting on what they imply about who we are and who we want to be.”

As people mature, they surely do choose. People (in America) switch religions, they move from one state to the next, and so on. But there is one sense in which choosing is very difficult. Our infant brains are sponges for information when hormones allow for rapid acculturation. If one spends the first 15 years of life immersed in speaking and thinking in English only, it will be very difficult to pick up other languages and speak as an unaccented member of another language group. Biology to some degree dictates one’s later choices.

For example, as someone who lived for five years as a foreigner in Brazil (ages 10-16), I acquired a pretty good Portuguese accent and vocabulary, and made many friends. Yet I never perfectly fit in. The slang terms and local accents eluded me. I was an “outsider” and would always be so. Biologically, it was not possible for me to join the group of native Portuguese speakers because I started too late.

2. But the more important debate is this: Do social relationships mold the individual (Brooks’ argument) or do individuals exist in isolation from social relationships (Mark’s argument)?

I’m not sure why we should be forced to choose between these two approaches. Why not start by assuming that both cases are true as extremes, and that most of us are somewhere in the middle. Let me justify this: On some aspects our individuality is shaped by some relationships in the past that (for most purposes) permanently make us part of a linguistic or cultural group. There are people at the fringes who give up this identity, but the vast majority of us keep the language of our parents as a primary tongue. Someone might choose to move from New England to the South, or switch from Presbyterian to Methodist, but these are minor choices in comparison to disavowing allegiance to the United States or to Christianity, say.

To state this in neoclassical economic terms: Many choices today are strongly constrained by past relationships, because the costs of change are high and the benefits uncertain. There clearly would be a distribution of people, some of whom have low costs/high benefits of switching, and others in the reverse camp. Most of the rest of us are somewhere in the middle.

Thanks, Mark, for clearly stating the case for the second view. It is helpful in clarifying (for me) why I belong in the middle.

Good points, Jonathan - I see your point about path dependence, that even if we reject certain social ties now, our choices are ineliminably (and often unconsciously) affected by our past ties. Interesting...

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