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Monday, September 18, 2006

The "experiment" CBS's "Survivor" should have set up(?)

Okay, so the idea of any legitimacy attaching to social experimentation via a reality TV show like "Survivor" is pretty silly.  The sample size is too small, the tribe members are selected by producers and thus not randomly picked, and there are massive observer effects that would taint the experiment.  With that caveat in mind, I think CBS missed an opportunity to run a more interesting "experiment" than the one it has promoted.

For those who aren't "Survivor" fans, the show takes 16-20 contestants, and divides them up into "tribes," has the tribes compete in contests for rewards and "immunity."  The tribe that loses an immunity challenge has to go to "Tribal Council," where tribe members vote one of their own off the island and out of the game.  Later on, the tribes "merge," and the game becomes individual.  In the first season, four players formed an "alliance" to vote as a bloc and controlled the game, with all four going to the finals.  This has been the template for winning the game.

This year, "Survivor" cast 5 Caucasians, 5 African-Americans, 5 Latinos, and 5 Asians, with, you guessed it, four tribes of five each -- each consisting of players of the same race.  On the one hand, this was a laudable bit of diversification, since in the past, there had generally been one or two token minorities.  However, pitting tribes of different races against one another has left a bad taste among a lot of people.

It seems to me, however, that a far more interesting experiment would have been to pit a diverse tribe against one or more non-diverse tribes.  For example, tribe A could be all one race, tribe B all another race, and tribe C mixed of all races.  Is the strength of diversity, encompassing all different experiences and outlooks, overcome by the strength of unity, encompassing shared views, etc.?

Of course, I'm not serious about this proposal, at least, certainly not in the sense that I think it would be useful as an exhibit in any future Grutter-type affirmative action case before the courts.  Apart from the methodological problems identified above, "Survivor" is a far cry from an educational setting such as a university.  To the extent that it may dramatize the relative advantages (and costs) of diversity, however, the "diverse" vs. "non-diverse" tribe scenario would at least provide some water cooler conversation that would be more useful than the current incarnation.

Posted by Tung Yin on September 18, 2006 at 05:51 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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I think Tung Yin should have pitched his idea to Burnett before posting it here. It may just get snatched up for a future season.

Posted by: Jim Green | Sep 19, 2006 7:27:39 AM

Segregation seems to be the purpose behind this reincarnation of the show. As Mark Burnett pointed out, "By putting people in tribes, they clearly have to get rid of people of their own ethnicity. So that's not racial at all." For more of his funny ideas about how race taboos can disappear this way, go to: http://www.hollywood.com/news/detail/id/3549270

Posted by: Timotheus | Sep 18, 2006 10:38:23 PM

I thought the really interesting dynamic evident in the first episode was related to gender. With five members per tribe, some tribes have 3 men, 2 women and others have 3 women, two men. The "African-American" tribe had 3 women, who were excluded by the two men from decisionmaking over who to send to "Exile Island." The women exacted their revenge by sending one of the men off the island. I wonder if the teams with 3 men have an advantage in strength or speed-related competitions, and also if the gender divide will play as prominent a role in other tribal councils. It was pretty explicitly about men versus women in the first episode.

This raises another gender-related question - when they did "Battle of the Sexes" in Season 6 of the show, it wasn't at all controversial. Why did no one criticize the show for returning to the history of women's exclusion/segregation from institutions like the workforce, the vote, educational institutions, etc. I'm not saying gender discrimnation = race discrimination. I just think it's interesting that segregation by gender was ho-hum while segregation by race is outrageous, according to some.

Posted by: Lindsay | Sep 18, 2006 7:05:49 PM

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