Reputation Traps

Social Evaluation and Governance Failures


  • Rafael Wittek Department of Sociology, University of Groningen



Reputation, Cooperation, Governance, Networks, Microfoundation


Reputations and the related social processes of evaluation are increasingly hailed as one of the most promising mechanisms sustaining cooperation in a variety of mixed-motive settings, ranging from neighborhood communities and formal organizations to online markets. But if reputation is such a powerful route to sustain cooperation, why do we then see cooperation breaking down so frequently? The present essay argues that such reputation failures should be conceived as part of a broader set of governance traps as they result from institutional designs that are based on misconceived assumptions about human nature. My argument comes in five steps. Using a social rationality approach, I first outline the contours of an alternative explanatory framework. Distinguishing between two types of managerial control philosophies (rational vs. normative) and two forms of control (bureaucratic vs. collegial) I then review the four major theoretical templates that currently inform the design of institutions and organizational governance structures: agency, stewardship, reputation, and social identity theory. Drawing on available empirical evidence, I subsequently describe how each of these design principles may trigger vicious cycles of cooperation decay. I refer to these processes as incentive, reputation, empowerment and identity traps. I contend that the common denominator behind each of these sustainability traps is that the structures in place fail to support the normative frame required to sustain joint production motivation. I then present findings from selected empirical studies showing how specific relational support structures may prevent the emergence of these sustainability traps, or mitigate their consequences. The essay concludes with a discussion of implications for future research on cooperation.


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How to Cite

Wittek, R. (2022). Reputation Traps: Social Evaluation and Governance Failures. Sociologica, 16(2), 75–102.