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The Stone Soup Experiment

Why Cultural Boundaries Persist

The Stone Soup Experiment is a remarkable story of cultural difference, of in-groups, out-groups, and how quickly and strongly the lines between them are drawn. It is also a story about simulation and reality, and how quickly the lines between them can be dismantled. In a compulsively readable account, Deborah Downing Wilson details a ten-week project in which forty university students were split into two different simulated cultures: the carefree Stoners, and the market-driven Traders. Through their eyes we are granted intimate access to the very foundations of human society: how group identities are formed and what happens when opposing ones come into contact.
The experience of the Stoners and Traders is a profound testament to human sociality. Even in the form of simulation, even as a game, the participants found themselves quickly—and with real conviction—bound to the ideologies and practices of their in-group. The Stoners enjoyed their days lounging, chatting, and making crafts, while the Traders—through a complex market of playing cards—competed for the highest bankrolls. When they came into contact, misunderstanding, competition, and even manipulation prevailed, to the point that each group became so convinced of its own superiority that even after the simulation’s end the students could not reconcile.  
Throughout her riveting narrative, Downing Wilson interweaves fascinating discussions on the importance of play, emotions, and intergroup interaction in the formation and maintenance of group identities, as well as on the dynamic social processes at work when different cultural groups interact. A fascinating account of social experimentation, the book paints a vivid portrait of our deepest social tendencies and the powers they have over how we make friends and enemies alike. 

176 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Education: Higher Education, Psychology and Learning

Psychology: Educational and School Psychology


“Alas, we cannot re-create the original state of nature as envisioned by Rousseau or Hobbes. But in this fascinating and surprising book, Downing Wilson provides vital clues about the evolution of different human cultures.”

Howard Gardner, author of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed

The Stone Soup Experiment is a highly engaging, theoretically sound, and original book that reads as swiftly and seamlessly as a novel. This narrative quality does not subtract from its scholarly merit, however. It weaves cultural theory and scholarly literature to offer new insights about cultural formation in small groups and, importantly, new insights about teaching about culture, which opens its audience up to anyone who teaches about cultural diversity, multiculturalism, cultural communication, or any related subjects.”

Kysa Nygreen, author of These Kids

“This is the most important controlled study of how groups construct themselves through confrontation since Sherif and Sherif wrote about the Robbers Cave experiment a half century ago. It is beautifully documented and written, a fast-paced ethnographic account with lessons for everyone from cognitive scientists to international relations scholars.”

James Wertsch, author of Voices of Collective Remembering

The Stone Soup Experiment is the story of an ambitious classroom simulation. In her course on cross-cultural communication, Wilson began by randomly assigning each of her students to one of two cultures: Traders or Stoners. In the ten weeks that followed, she and the students became participant-observers. They reported on allegiances and prejudices, commitment and conflicts, as the Trader and Stoner cultures were shaped by their members, and vice versa. Heavily seasoned with excerpts from student ethnographies, the book reads like a novel. There are plenty of plot twists (theft, betrayal, refusal to reconcile) as the students, and at times their instructor, experience a full range of preconceptions and partialities, including ethnocentrism, hindsight bias, and confirmation bias. Through it all, Wilson’s voice is deeply reflective and honest. Integrating perspectives on groups, culture, and communication from a broad swath of the social sciences (e.g., psychology, communication studies, sociology, anthropology), the book’s theoretical perspective is fresh. Warning: faculty readers may be inspired to new levels of daring in the classroom. . . . Highly recommended.”


Table of Contents

Introduction: The Romantic Classroom
1. The Inception
2. First Encounters, First Crimes
3. The Justification
4. The Unreconciliation

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