By Lauren Wessel
Pierson argues examining temporal processes help explain fundamental social mechanisms. However, after readings these texts, I noticed that many things in my personal life could be explained through path dependence too.
On a drizzling Sunday morning during choir practice, I was dreaming away in my sheet music whilst listening to solo auditions. This led me wonder: why are always the same people auditioning? In my choir, choristers start when they’re about 10, and get assigned to the alto or soprano section. The development of your voice has “increasing returns” over time, meaning that once your voice develops as an alto, it becomes increasingly difficult to switch to the soprano section. Most solos were for the sopranos, which resulted in the same people getting chosen every time. These people were used to getting solos, so the risks of choosing someone else, got greater over time.
However, once at dress rehearsal, half of the choir was missing due to a flu epidemic. This left the conductor with a choice: hoping the usual solo singers would get better before the concert, or holding open auditions. The latter option turned out to be a good one as great solo singers were discovered. Afterwards, the conductor introduced open auditions to give all choristers equal opportunities. This did, however, not have the desired effects. Mahoney points out that after a critical juncture, the relative benefits of maintaining the status quo increase over time. The people that seized the opportunity to audition right after the introduction of the open auditions, became better at auditioning for solos, and thus solo performances, as they had more experience than the other. This has now resulted in equilibrium again, where a select group gets chosen for solos.
This blog post does not explain large social mechanisms, and this was not my intention. It does show that in my daily life, seemingly small choices made by actors can have large consequences for the institutional structure.