Social Roles Make Sense

The modern world relies greatly on a vast division of labor, wherein we each do quite different tasks. Partially as a result, we live in different places, have different lifestyles, and associate with different people. The ancient world also had a division of labor, but in addition to doing different tasks, people tended to have expectations about what kinds of people would tend to do what kinds of tasks, live where, and associate with who. Often strong expectations. Such expectations can be called social “roles”.

For example, in a society with “gender roles”, there are widely shared expectations regarding the kinds of tasks that women do, relative to men. In some societies these expectations have been so strong that all women were strongly and directly prevented from doing any other tasks. But more commonly, expectations could often be violated, if one paid a sufficient price. Similarly, ancient societies often had roles related to family, ethnicity, class, age, body plan, personality, and geographic location. People who started life with particular values of these parameters were channeled into particular tasks, places, training regimes, and associations, choices that tended to support their doing particular future tasks, with matching lifestyles, associations, etc.

When there is an existing pattern of what sorts of people tend to do what tasks and fill what social slots, then it is natural and cost-reducing to at least weakly use those patterns to predict what sorts of people will do well at what tasks in the near future. Furthermore, it is natural and cost-reducing to at least weakly use future task expectations to decide the locations, training, associations, etc., of people earlier in life.

It seems obvious to me that it is possible to have both overly weak and overly strong social roles. With overly strong social roles, we rely too much on initial expectations, experiment too little with alternate allocations, and act too little on any info we acquire about people as their lives progress. But with overly weak social roles, we rely too little on easily accessible info on what sorts of people are likely to end up well-suited to particular roles.

For example, consider climate roles. If you grow up in a particular climate, there’s a better than random chance that you will live in a similar climate when you are older. So it makes sense early in life for you to adapt to that climate in your habits and attitudes. When people are looking later for someone to live or work in that climate, it makes sense for them to prefer people already experienced with that climate. Part of this could be genetic, in that people with genes well suited to a climate may have been previously preferentially selected to live there. But it mostly doesn’t matter the cause; it just makes sense to respond to these patterns in the obvious way.

(Yes, sometimes one will want to pick people who seem especially badly-matched to certain tasks or context, just to experiment and check one’s assumptions about matching. But such experiments are unusual as choices.)

Of course the world may sometimes stumble into inefficient equilibria, wherein we keep tending to assign certain sorts of people to certain tasks, when we’d be even better off with some other pattern of who does what. In such cases we might try to break out of previous patterns, in part via discouraging people from using some features as cues to assigning some aspects of tasks, locations, associations, etc. This is one possible justification for “anti-discrimination” rules and laws.

But this certainly doesn’t justify a general prohibition on any sorts of social roles whatsoever. And any decisions based on theories saying that we were in inefficient equilibria should be periodically re-examined, to see if observed patterns of who seems to be good at what support such theories. We might have been mistaken. And unless there is some market failure that we must continually fight against, we should expect to need anti-discrimination rules only for a limited time, until new and better equilibria can be reached.

Yes, among the features that we can use to estimate who is fit for what roles, some of those features are easier for individuals to change, while others are harder to change. However, it isn’t clear why this distinction matters that much re the suitability of such features for task assignment. Even when features can change, there will be a cost of such changes, and so it will often be more cost-effective to use people who already have the suitable features, instead of getting other people to change to become suitable.

From a conversation with John Nye.

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