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Volume 1, Number 4

Publication Date: April 8, 1996
First Submitted March 18, 1996 
Resubmitted March 28, 1996 
Accepted March 28, 1996


      Barry Markovsky
      University of Iowa


Social psychology stands to benefit from multilevel theories that link 
it to both lower and higher levels of analysis. Making the link, 
however, requires a level of theoretical rigor heretofore relatively 
uncommon in the social sciences. After refuting several common 
objections to this brand of theorizing, I offer a rationale and a set 
of criteria for multilevel theory construction. 

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Several years ago, just before flying out to give a series of talks, I 
went to see a doctor. I had a lingering cold and wanted to see if 
there was any precaution--or drug--that I could take to prevent the 
changes in cabin pressure from making my head explode. The doctor 
asked where I was going and I responded, half facetiously, that I was 
going to give some talks on making sociology more scientific. He was 
surprised. He said, "I thought sociologists use a lot of statistics." 
I told him that they do, but that using statistics is not the same as 
being scientific. The key, I said, is how they state their claims and 
what they then do with those claims. In the 45 seconds he spent with 
me I could not really explore the idea. Consequently, I think he 
didn't really understand what I meant. But had he understood he might 
have been a better doctor, and my head would not have exploded during 
the plane's descent that evening. 

   In sociology and elsewhere, working in a scientific mode has little 
to do with the stereotypical trappings of science. Quantitative data 
analysis is not essential. Neither are laboratories, mathematical 
theories, journals or conferences--though all of these can be put to 
good use. If there is an essence to science, it lies in how we 
express our claims and in what happens to them as a result of that 

   There is now an emerging body of perspectives and theories that 
some of us have dubbed "structural social psychology" (Lawler, 
Ridgeway and Markovsky 1993). It is bursting with potential, and will 
have some sort of a life span whether or not its proponents operate 
scientifically. Here, however, I will argue that the quality of that 
life will be compromised if we do not devote special attention to the 
expression of claims and to how those expressions are treated. In 
other words, the integrative, multilevel approach that is implied by 
the label "structural social psychology" is even more subject to 
pitfalls of pseudo-scientific temptations than less integrative, 
single-level approaches. 


To anticipate some familiar criticisms, I want to first emphasize that 
it is neither arrogant nor fetishistic to argue this position. On the 
contrary, most sociologists who adopt scientifically rigorous methods 
tend to be very modest. They know that they cannot accept credit for 
inventing their approach and that their work is but a fine thread in 
a very broad fabric. Furthermore, it seems that some formal theorists 
become more concerned with building theoretical castles in the air 
than with explaining empirical phenomena. However, much too frequently
we see reviewers and critics tarring any formal theory with this same 
brush, even those associated with long-standing programs of 
empirical research. 

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   Second, the position is not narrow. On the contrary, it is 
boundless. Narrowness would imply that it rules out too much. But 
what actually gets ruled out includes claims that cannot be tested; 
claims that can be tested, but have failed to survive empirical tests; 
and claims that contain self-contradictions, ambiguities, or invalid 
arguments. In short, we exclude the untestable, the false and the 
fuzzy. There are actually very few substantive interests in our field 
that are outside the realm of scientific inquiry. So the approach is 
not narrow in that sense. 

   The narrowness critique is also leveled at issues of argumentation. 
We hear that adopting rigorous theoretical language precludes 
important issues such as human reflexivity, capriciousness, and other 
ethereal qualities. This is patently false. Rigor only demands that 
the theorist states defining properties for concepts such as 
reflexivity and capriciousness and that he or she provides statements 
relating these terms to others in the theory. Also, if reflexivity 
and capriciousness do not matter for a particular theoretical 
purpose, then there is no obligation that they be in the theory, even 
if they happen to be universal human qualities. 

   Another facet of the narrowness critique is that scientific 
standards demand too much of sociological arguments, and thereby 
stifle them. This claim has a surface reasonableness until one 
examines it a little more closely. It suggests that lowered standards 
are justified because our subject matter is difficult. It is not easy 
to come up with really tight, solid theories, so we should settle for 
looser, feebler ones. It also suggests that we are justified in 
dissuading one another and our students from scrutinizing theories too 
carefully, that doing so shows a sort of fetish with form over content. 
But we must remember that, when the form is not there, neither is the 
content. If structural social psychologists want to adopt standards 
that allow or promote ambiguity of terms and invalidity of arguments, 
then they must be prepared to admit that they have no theoretical 
standards. As a group, we do not want this to occur because it will 
totally politicize the testing, acceptance and rejection of theories. 

   To deflect a third common criticism: all else being equal, rigorous 
arguments are not generally more difficult to understand than looser 
ones. I am baffled by those who assert that, by not defining their 
terms and by not subjecting their own arguments to logical analysis, 
they are somehow producing a work that is more easily communicated. 
If communicating a theory means getting others to share one's 
understanding of its terms, its claims and its consequences, then one 
must tell them what those terms mean and how to go about deriving the 
same conclusions. By not defining terms, one allows the uncritical 
consumer to experience a feeling of comprehension since the consumer 
has inferred his or her own meanings. These are unlikely to be the 
theorist's intended meanings, however, and so communication has not 
really taken place at all.

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   Fourth, scientific theorizing is not mere rhetoric, any more than 
a book consists of mere letters on pages. Theories build codified 
systems of meaning. If those systems develop in conjunction with 
stringent testing, then they will have empirical import that reaches 
beyond unaided insights and intuitions. 


If structural social psychology develops in accord with other 
sociological sub-disciplines, then it will probably be long on quasi-
theorizing and short on theory-building. By "quasi-theorizing" I mean 
efforts to develop perspectives, interpretive schemes, metatheories, 
agendas, and the like. I want to urge structural social psychologists 
to learn to distinguish these from a narrower, but more useful, 
definition of "theorizing" because there are some crucial differences: 
Unlike theories, quasi-theories are not held to any consistent set of 
communicative, logical, or empirical standards. 

   Quasi-theories best serve when they inspire us to theorize, but are 
pointless when mistaken for theories and debated as to their truthful-
ness. Most of what is called sociological theorizing is debate over 
quasi-theories. As such, along with others in sociology and the other 
sciences, I think it is worth reserving the term "theory" for a more 
restricted class of objects, namely sets of logically related 
statements comprised of well-defined terms that survive harsh tests. 


Interestingly, despite all the talk for and against scientific 
theorizing in sociology, such theorizing is not so much an ideological
starting point as it is the result of implementing a small set of 
conventions. Taken one at a time, those conventions are much 
less debatable and controversial than more diffuse questions about 
whether sociology can or should be scientific. These are summarized in 
Table 1, a list of eight desirable qualities for theories. I will 
briefly summarize them here, referring those who desire more detail to 
Cohen (1989). 


 (1) free of contradiction
 (2) free of ambivalence  
 (3) communicable
 (4) abstract
 (5) general
 (6) precise
 (7) parsimonious
 (8) conditional

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   (1) A theory containing a contradiction loses all explanatory power 
because any such argument is always logically false, whatever its 

   (2) Ambivalent statements such as "gender may affect attitudes" are 
ineffectual in theories because they are always logically true, 
regardless of content. 

   (3) Communicability requires theories to be accessible to 
interested others--adherents and skeptics alike--so that they can 
understand the theory well enough to submit it to stringent tests. 

   (4) Abstractness is the quality of not being bound to specific 
objects, times and places. Theories help to explain particulars, but 
also must transcend them. Abstract theories often contain terms unlike 
any used in everyday discourse. Though perhaps counterintuitive to 
some, this can be a great asset when the terms are well-chosen and 
sharply defined insofar as theories are supposed to provide insights 
which go beyond everyday points of view and familiar empirical 

   (5) Theories are general to the extent that their statements are 
both interpretable and corroborated for a large number and variety of 
cases. The criterion of abstractness does not anchor the theory in 
empirical reality; the criterion of generality does. Interpretability 
thus requires the terms of the theory to be connected to many and 
varied empirical instances, whereas corroboration requires that the 
theoretical assertions built from those terms are verified through 

   (6) Theories are precise to the degree that they generate accurate 
and detailed statements about phenomena. 

   (7) The criterion of parsimony demands that, all else being equal, 
smaller theories are preferred to larger ones. If Theory A can 
generate the same hypotheses as Theory B while employing fewer terms 
and fewer assumptions, then Theory A is preferred. Parsimony 
facilitates communicability and provides greater opportunity to 
explore logical entailments. 

   (8) Finally, Cohen (1989) cites three ways that theories are 
conditional: (i) They contain chains of logically related conditional 
statements that predicate the state or level of one concept on that of 
another. Without these types of statements there is nothing to test. 
(ii) Initial conditions[1] employ definitions of terms to bridge the 
theoretical and empirical realms, allowing us to derive hypotheses 
about real-world phenomena. (iii) Scope statements formulate domains 
within which hypotheses may be tested. Without them, a theorist is 
either deceiving herself or trying to deceive others as to the true 
generality of his or her theory. 

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   By offering these criteria, I am not implying that we must force 
ourselves to think in ways that avoid their violation or to avoid all 
forms of scholarly discourse that fail to measure up. Good theorizing 
may be born of illogical and ill-defined progenitors. The critical 
point is to know the difference. 

   A variety of methods satisfy the eight criteria. One need not 
decide upon a particular method of constructing theories. Rather, as 
one works with a theory, trying to balance such qualities as 
parsimony, generality and communicability, one finds oneself becoming 
interested in properties of the conceptual system and the logical 
structure of the arguments. 

   In general, these methods promote a kind of openness that, in turn, 
promote cumulative growth. When enough people in a field agree that 
it is the terms and relations of explicit theoretical statements that 
are to be the focus of debate and research, then it no longer matters 
who wrote them, what he or she "really" meant, or who believes that 
it does or does not matter. Egos are removed from the loop, and 
theoretical analysis and critique rise above latent or manifest 
meanness. It also relieves individuals of the burden of trying to 
convince others that they know a great deal, and focuses attention on 
what really matters: whether the theory explains what it is supposed 
to. To borrow an abstract and general notion of Shakespeare's, the 
theory's the thing. 

   Another reason for adhering to these criteria is avoiding the error 
of reification, a confusion of the symbolic elements of the theory 
with some "reality" to which it purportedly applies. Theoretical 
statements create a virtual reality, a system of idealized entities, 
relations and processes that possess only the properties assigned to 
them by the theorist, along with whatever consequences follow from 
those assignments. As such, the theory is a sort of artificial lens 
through which we may view certain phenomena and see things that we 
might not have otherwise. Problems arise when one assumes that the 
statements of a theory do more than this, that they are "descriptive" 
of empirical phenomena or can be used as "sensitizing" frameworks. 
Empirical description and creative interpretation are essential to 
the theory-building process. However, any conception of theories that 
permits them to possess these qualities will be a weak one. At 
minimum, the product sacrifices communicability, abstractness and 
generality. On the other hand, the theorist must build the virtual 
reality with some care, since all that s/he wishes to say with the 
theory, and none of what s/he wishes not to say, must be communicated 
to others. The benefit is protection against misinterpretations, 
misapplications, and inappropriate tests. 

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For the present purposes, adopting norms of explicit and rigorous 
theorizing provide another important service: they facilitate 
multilevel theory-building. Beautiful and useful multilevel theories 
have developed in virtually all other scientific fields. Furthermore, 
current knowledge about social systems is comparable to pre-
multilevel conceptions in these other fields: (1) A fair amount is 
known about the properties and behaviors of micro and macro level 
units; (2) there is some consensus among scholars with macro interests 
that, for certain problems, understanding micro foundations may be 
useful; and (3) many scholars with micro interests want to 
demonstrate the macro implications of their ideas. When cross-level 
connections are forged, complexities get bracketed and simplified, 
and new theoretical tasks are placed into clearer focus. 

   Sociology and social psychology have some superb multilevel 
theories with varying degrees of development and activity. Here I 
will mention just two areas, but note that there are several others. 
First, theories employing social network models are often among the 
most explicitly and naturally multilevel. They generally consider 
causal interactions bridging across structures, sub-structures, 
positions, and sometimes actors in positions. Ronald Burt's (1981) 
"Toward a Structural Theory of Social Action," James Coleman's (1990) 
"Foundations of Social Theory," and Thomas Fararo's (1989) "The 
Meaning of General Theoretical Sociology" are notably rigorous in 
their integration of models of the interests and judgments of humans 
in relational structures, organizations, stratification systems or 

   A second area showing multilevel theoretical activity was inspired 
by the so-called "problem of collective action": self-interested 
actors come to invest resources for collective goods rather than 
refusing to contribute and simply enjoying the benefits. This work 
has a strong multilevel flavor and fits squarely with the structural 
social psychology agenda. It is directed at explaining emergent group 
phenomena based on mutually contingent choices of actors in those 
groups. The most rigorous of this research uses computer simulations 
to express with precision its theoretical assumptions and to capture 
dynamics too complex for intuitive approaches. Theories of Oliver and 
Marwell (Oliver, Marwell and Teixeira 1985; Oliver and Marwell 1988a, 
1988b), Heckathorn (1988, 1989, 1990) and Macy (1990, 1991a, 1991b) 
are exemplary, and to varying degrees integrate network structural 

   Ironically, in the several volumes on micro-macro linkages in 
sociology that have appeared in the last decade, multilevel theories 
such as those noted above are scarcely cited. Most of the talk 
concerns strategies for theorizing rather than actual theorizing. For 
example, there is much debate about what conceptual linkages are 
best, without concomitant efforts to develop theories that utilize 
those concepts and linkages. 

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Having explored the concept of multilevel theories, let us now 
consider a set of general criteria for them. The actual criteria 
exist in set theoretic language (manuscript available from the 
author), but also lend themselves rather well to the less formal 
summarization below. In this scheme, multilevel theories extend 
unilevel theories, which, in turn, are aggregates of theoretical 
building blocks called "theory units." As shown in Table 2, a theory 
unit is a set with five elements, each of which is also a set: 


 TU == {C, S, P}, where
   C = theoretical concepts
   S = scope statements
   P = two conditional theoretical statements, e.g., "If x1, then y1"
       and "If x2 then y2", logically linked so that y1 = x2.   

  Note: "==" indicates an "equivalence" relation

Theoretical statements and scope statements consist of theoretical 
concepts and logical connectives. Some concepts are expressed as 
primitive (undefined) terms, and the rest are defined terms where 
definitions consist of primitive terms and/or previously defined 
terms. Logical connectives are defined outside of the theory, e.g., 
through a particular mathematical branch. Theoretical statements
are known by such labels as axioms, propositions, premises, or 
assumptions. In short, the TU is a knowledge generator, bringing 
together defined terms and logically connected statements in an 
explicit domain. 

   In turn, theories are comprised of interconnected TUs, those 
interconnections being defined by the criteria shown in Table 3. 
Simply stated, the TUs must overlap in their scope, language and 


Given more than one TU, a theory exists if and only if

 (1) all have at least some shared S
 (2) each has C shared with at least one other
 (3) each logically connects with at least one other 

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Thus, theory units only combine to form a theory when they all have at 
least one scope statement in common. Otherwise, some theoretical 
statements would not be applicable under the same conditions for 
which other statements would apply. The second condition requires that 
every TU intersect with at least one other TU, thereby providing a 
conceptual "interface" through which TUs may inform one another. To 
then require logical connections among TUs means simply that each TU 
must have either an antecedent clause ("x" in "If x...") that also 
serves as a consequent ("y" in "...then y") in another TU, or the 
reverse. This permits TUs to be linked into longer chains of 
theoretical reasoning. 

   Multilevel theories (Table 4) require two further sets of criteria: 


 (1) Containment Conditions
    (a) there are statements at two or more levels of analysis
    (b) units at higher levels contain units at lower levels
    (c) a higher-level unit contains multiple lower-level units 

 (2) Bridging Conditions
    (a) there is a conditional statement in which the level of the
        antecedent differs from that of the consequent, or      
    (b) the subject of the higher-level statement is defined in terms
        of the lower-level subject.

Containment conditions ensure that there are at least two distinct 
units of analysis in the theory with multiple instances of one unit 
contained within single instances of the other. The latter condition 
both reflects the way multilevel theorizing is implemented in other 
sciences and rules out trivial cases of single-instance lower-level 
units, e.g., an army of one. 

   The bridging conditions allow two kinds of cross-level linkages. 
First, there may be a conditional statement that links two levels of 
analysis, e.g., "If actors make only short-run self-interested 
judgments, then the social system they comprise will disintegrate at 
an accelerating rate." Second, the link may be accomplished through a 
definition, e.g., "A class system exists if and only if socioeconomic 
strata form a transitive hierarchy." 

   Although it is not my purpose in this brief document to contrast 
the foregoing criteria with alternative formulations, it should be 
useful to draw a few comparisons with Coleman's (1987, 1990) popular 
argument for micro-macro linkage in sociology. 

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   Coleman's mission was to offer guidelines for explaining the 
relationship between a macro antecedent and a macro consequent by 
bridging to a micro level of analysis. This allows, for example, the 
explanation of the effects of Protestantism on capitalism by (1) 
bridging from Protestantism "down" to particular values held by 
individuals, (2) from those values "across" to certain individual 
economic behaviors, and then (3) "up" to capitalism. In Coleman's 
discussions, the "macro" always refers to a social system and the 
"micro" is always thought of as individual persons. 

   Coleman thus offered criteria (of a sort) for one kind of 
multilevel theory, a type that is and should be of great interest to 
many sociologists. In contrast to what I have offered, however, he did 
not set out to incorporate more fundamental criteria from the realm 
of theory construction, i.e., the semantic and logical requisites for 
well-formed theories, or the role to be played by scope conditions. 
Furthermore, he neither addressed nor ruled out alternative 
multilevel theoretical patterns which are explicitly permitted in my 
conceptualization. For example, a theory that only explains a micro 
process in terms of a macro condition could satisfy my criteria but 
not Coleman's. Importantly, in fact, much of what constitutes 
multilevel theorizing in other scientific disciplines would not 
conform to Coleman's specification. Finally, Coleman restricted his 
units of analysis to individual humans and to social systems. Again, 
while these units hold much interest for sociologists and others, 
they are not the only units that may be incorporated into multilevel 
social scientific theories. For example, Network Exchange Theory 
(Markovsky, Willer and Patton 1988; Lovaglia, Skvoretz, Willer and 
Markovsky 1995) simultaneously incorporates assumptions about 
individual judgments and actions, dyadic exchange conditions and 
processes, and social network configurations. 


It will be tempting to not bother with criteria such as these. They 
require time and attention, and the payoffs in theory are largely 
unappreciated. By ignoring them, however, we can be assured that 
structural social psychology will come to manifest many of the 
hallmarks of pseudoscience (e.g., Radner and Radner 1982). For 
instance, with "research by exegesis," the words of esteemed others--
usually deceased--are taken as sage and beyond question. All that 
remains is to interpret specific cases in light of this received 
wisdom. Another hallmark is "looking for mysteries." For us, this 
means chasing after and trying to explain particular interesting 
phenomena in an ad hoc manner. Other markers of pseudoscience include 
a grab-bag use of evidence, offering irrefutable hypotheses, 
explanation by scenario, and refusal to revise in light of criticism. 
All of these warning signs are flashing in various corners of our 
discipline, sometimes near the center, too, and sometimes in bright 
colors and stunning combinations. We ought to avoid them, but we need 
to first educate ourselves about them. 

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   To conclude, I would like to describe a process that I will call 
the evolution of nebulousness. Evolutionary epistemologists have 
likened theory growth to evolution by natural selection. Ideas, 
whatever their sources, are thrown into keen competition with one 
another. Survival depends on relative fitness, or resistance to 
empirical falsification. Natural selection is uncompromising. When one 
species is less fit than another, its environmental impact diminishes 
along with its members. Similarly, when a scientific collective is 
uncompromising in applying stringent theoretical criteria, unfit ideas 
diminish in their impact. 

   Whereas natural selection is a physical process, idea selection has 
a visible hand. The human factor comes into play, and the 
evolutionary epistemology can break down if left unattended. When the 
eight basic criteria are not collectively enforced, what evolves 
instead of knowledge is nebulousness, the progeny of which are unfit 
ideas kept alive by extraordinary means. The proponents of such ideas 
hide them behind perspectives, frameworks and metatheories, never 
really putting them to the test. They appear to live on--if one could 
call that living. But there is a stiff price paid in improvements 

   Astrologers are proud of the fact that their essential ideas have 
remained unchanged for around two millennia. As we know, however, 
their language of prediction excludes practically nothing, so the 
ideas do not improve. The field is stable not because it works so 
well, but because it is utterly stagnant. 

   Structural social psychology, with a domain and range that is 
perhaps broader than those of either sociology or social psychology, 
could be the astronomy of the social sciences. This can be 
accomplished without sacrificing any of our substantive interests--
families, emotions, personality, networks, perceptions, self, status, 
justice, power, etc. We must continually check the semantic and logical 
structures of our own theories and those of others, and we must train 
our students to do so as well. Further, we must lay bare the flaws that 
we discover and focus our attention on them, rather than trying to 
sweep them under the rug with irrelevant rhetoric. Yet, without a 
collective interest in upholding stringent criteria for the semantic 
and logical structures of our multilevel theories, structural social 
psychology will only be another in a series of social astrologies that 
have retreated into nebulousness or passed on with their founders. 

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[1] As pointed out by a reviewer, this is not the only meaning for the 
expression "initial condition." It is perhaps better known in the 
empirical sciences as the set of starting values for the parameters of 
a dynamic process. 


Burt, Ronald S. 1981. Toward a Structural Theory of Action. New York: 
Academic Press.

Cohen, Bernard P. 1989. Developing Sociological Knowledge (2nd 
Edition). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. 

Coleman, James S. 1987. "Microfoundations and macrosocial behavior." 
In Jeffrey C. Alexander, Bernhard Giesen, Richard Munch and Neil J. 
Smelser (eds.), The Micro-Macro Link. Berkeley: University of 
California Press. 

---. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard 
University Press. 

Fararo, Thomas J. 1989. The Meaning of General Theoretical Sociology. 
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Heckathorn, Douglas D. 1988. "Collective sanctions and the creation of 
prisoner's dilemma norms." American Journal of Sociology 94:535-562. 

---. 1989. "Collective action and the second-order free-rider 
problem." Rationality and Society 1:78-100. 

---. 1990. "Collective sanctions and compliance norms: a formal theory 
of group-mediated social control." American Sociological Review 

Lovaglia, Michael, John Skvoretz, David Willer and B. Markovsky. 1995. 
"Negotiated Exchanges in Social Networks." Social Forces 74(1):123-

Macy, Michael W. 1990. "Learning theory and the logic of critical 
mass." American Sociological Review 55:809-826. 

---. 1991a. "Chains of cooperation: threshold effects in collective 
action." American Sociological Review 56:730-747. 

---. 1991b. "Learning to cooperate: stochastic and tacit collusion in 
social exchange." American Journal of Sociology 97:808-43. 

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                             [page 42]

Markovsky, Barry, David Willer and Travis Patton. 1988. "Power 
relations in exchange networks." American Sociological Review 53:220-

Oliver, Pamela E., Gerald Marwell and Ruy Teixeira. 1985. "A theory of 
the critical mass. I: interdependence, group heterogeneity, and the 
production of collective action." American Journal of Sociology 

Oliver, Pamela E., and Gerald Marwell. 1988a. "The paradox of group 
size in collective action: a theory of the critical mass. II." 
American Sociological Review 53:1-8. 

---. 1988b. "Social networks and collective action: a theory of the 
critical mass. III" American Journal of Sociology 94:502-534. 

Radner, Daisie, and Michael Radner. 1982. Science and Unreason. 
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 


Barry Markovsky is Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa. 
He directs the Center for the Study of Group Processes, and the Iowa 
Workshop on Theoretical Analysis. He is also Co-editor of the annual 
Advances in Group Processes, Deputy Editor of Social Psychology 
Quarterly, and Associate Editor of Current Research in Social 
Psychology. His research and writing have been in the areas of status, 
power, justice, decision-making, solidarity, social networks, social 
judgment, social perceptions, social psychophysiology, computer 
simulations, and theoretical methods.

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