Wednesday, July 11, 2012

So what are groups really?

When I had not yet finished The Righteous Mind, I was trying to explain the book’s proposal that some of the fundamental differences in viewpoint that can underlie conservative strands in various cultures can have to do with seeing things more at the group level than at the individual level. It seemed right when I read it but when I try to explain it it seemed to be: wait a minute, aren’t the liberals and progressives the ones known for championing groups like how want to pursue the interests of minorities or of the poor? So I’ve been thinking about groups and what they are. I think first of a collection of people. But if your dealings with a group are just a collection of dealings with individuals then what is the point of calling the people a group. I think we sometimes fall unconsciously into thinkin of a group as a sort of uber-person. Just like any other person, but bigger. This might be connected to the idea of homo economicus and similar statistical models that assume people have basically the same goals so that in similar situations people will react similarly. If one hungry person equals a concession stall sale then if you multiply the number of hungry people by 5 then just multiply the number of sales. In the same way we can tend to think of a group as an individual behavior multiplied by a number of members. When we deal with a group as a whole the only pattern we have is to treat it as if it was just a big individual. This seems to be the part of what underlies the Citizens United decision.
I see two problems with this way of viewing groups. This first is a tendency to blur distinctions which can lead to stereotypes and the type of category confusion Sarah Hoyt points out in I am a Culturist. If a group is just the set-of all people with characterises x then for the purpose of the discussion all people with characteristics x are interchangeable. Take this article about the reaction to the conviction of a group of men for sex offences. It seems that the way the crimes were committed (though not the crimes themselves) were in some way correlated with some aspect of their culture. But race religion and culture are all mixed up in the public’s minds. So these men’s incorrect way of adapting the Asian culture in which they were raised to british culture is spilling over into negative perceptions of the race and religion they are associated with. Situations like this which ‘Muslim’ is treated like a nationality or a place unintentionally confuse people and increase stigmas. If you start thinking of a group as all people with characteristic z = one big person with the average of its members action you are making everyone collectively responsible for each member’s individual actions.
The second problem is that if a group is just a collection of people than being in the group doesn't change your actions; as long as you have characteristic x you will behave in way why whether there are any other members of your group involved or not. You don’t have people above ,below, and beside you, people you influence and whom you are influenced by. I saw this neat graph:

see the whole story at druks and lampposts.

and realized it was actually a picture of a group. Philosophy wouldn’t be what it is without philosophers reaching out to influence and be influenced by other philosophers. How much more will membership in a tribe, an ethnic group, a church or an activist group be affected by how members are interconnected with each other. How group membership affects you wil be mediated by whether you are a leader or a follower, on the fringes or in the middle. Because of that Network of ties you can deal with this sort of group as one whole. Its internal ties can cause it to have coherent responses pressures and persuasions, but they won’t be the same responses any one person would have. They won’t even be the same responses prominent leaders in the group would have on their own. A group is a different type of thing than an individual and if you are just looking for individuals you will miss the forest for the trees.
It takes different things are needed to keep a group cohesive and functional than are need to keep a person happy and health. People acting in groups do not act in the same way as they would outside of the group. Things that make a good person do not necessarily make a good group. Whenever we are dealing with more than one person at a time we need to be clear in our own minds whether we are dealing just with a collection of people who happen to have some particular trait in common or whether we are dealing with a true group. In the first case we need to make sure that minimise as far as possible averaging our perception and our response over the different people. If it is the second case we need to make sure we are alert to the ways the group will NOT behave like an individual. We need to open our minds to seeing groups as something different from the individuals we are used to dealing with.

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