Tribal size

Ted’s post on Finding your Tribe reminds me that I’ve been meaning to see if I could hack something together to say about scale and groups. How many groups is a person typically a member of? If we ask the various social sciences -anthropology, sociology, economics, politics, demography, physiology – do they have answer for us? If we ask the various social movements what have they to say? Or ask similar questions of other metrics on these tribes? What of size of the tribe? What of the half life of membership; or the length of time required to join? What of the topology of overlapping groups?

I’m very suspicious of a kind of pop sociology that declares some number to be definitive. For example that there is an upper limit on the number of friends you can have; or the number of groups you can be a member of; or the set of skills you can accumulate. There are some very large tribes; American Catholic Democrats, or South American women soccer fans, or people who clip coupons. Notice all the tribes unmentioned in Ted’s posting: fathers, dwellers in wet places… It would be a real project to make even a reasonably good list of the groups one is a member of.

Modern life has brought about a shift in the overall statistics of group/tribal membership. Since people, on the whole, seem a happy lot, i suspect, should you ask the members of some insular tribe, or a modern city dweller you probably get about the same distribution of happiness. But the life the insular are living is totally different than that the urbane dweller can live. The richness of modern economics, the density of human habitation, the network of communications allows some people to engage with the world in surprising ways. Ways that are not just hard for the insular citizen to imagine they are actually impossible for him to experience. For him an upper physical reality created an upper bound on what was possible. In that situation the rules of thumb are self evident. When the upper bound evaporates the rules get harder grasp.

If the numbers suggest, which they do, that the group forming is scale free then we need to go back and ask each of those social sciences and movements what they wish make of that. If they wish to sing the praises of a particular scale, or disparage some other scale what should we make of that? The numbers certainly don’t care, they are the facts. Are the new ways of living displacing the old insular models? I think that’s obvious.

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