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Banbury Cross

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Post details: Sunday Soccer: A Study in Sociology

Sunday Soccer: A Study in Sociology

While the most structurally complex objects are carefully engineered by external designers, living things have an amazing ability to self assemble into highly non-trivial formations without any external premeditation. The driving force of such architecture is willingness of each member to constrain their behavior by the perceived well-being of the whole ensemble. For example, let us look at schools of fish or political grass roots: each constituent acts locally, letting the global chips fall where they may, and yet the whole group shows distinctive marks of macro-behavior: the common purpose and the division of labor. How exactly does order and hierarchy arise from a chaotic soup of individuals without any blueprint is an intriguing question and a subject of intense research in sociology.

Every Sunday morning, unless it rains or my muscles are out of commission, I play a pick up soccer game in Fairfax. That means that a grab bag of some 20-30 heads and twice as many legs gathers on the field, forms two teams based on the color of their t-shirt and starts kicking the ball. But it's not like when we were kids and swarming the ball was our only tactics. Adult games are more intricate. It is no longer "where ball, there everybody".

At first, people take random positions, some in the midfield, some in offense and some in defense. But as soon as the game starts, everyone learns quickly who the solid players are and who are the weak links, who to pass the ball to in a clutch and who needs more time to control the round beast, who can dribble past their opponent and who just kicks the ball as far away from own goal as possible. If there is a weaker defense, some people draw back, if the defense is solid, more people venture on the attack. There are no powwows. It's all self-adjustment. Everyone tries to maximize their value for the team and after about 30 minutes of playing you have two smoothly operating machines. Without a captain, without a coach. And often, without a word.

Scientists interested in how communities form should participate in the pick-up games. They have very fluid dynamics and provide an instructive crash course in the Evolutionary Sociology 101. I think they would be well worth a Federal Grant. No textbook or lecture in the world can really substitute for hands-on experience. Or legs-on for that matter.

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