Previous posts have discussed group identity as something of an abstract notion. Today, I stumbled upon a more empirical measure. It starts with a simple wave. The (testable) hypothesis is that group boundaries can be identified by the presence (and elaborateness) of a salutation.
Let’s review some of the factors that define groups and the forces that bring them together. A group can be identified based on any shared attribute. These attributes can range, from abstract notions like values, shared interests or activities like knitting clubs, demographic groups like age groups and so on. The degree to which these groups stick together has alot to do with the presence of external threat, scarcity of group members, unified mission, personal benefit etc. So basically a group could be anything? Yeah, pretty much. Groups are everywhere, we are members of so many groups it is hard to keep track. The sum total of our group identities can be used as a representation of an individual.
Ok, enough with the review – now to move forward to the indicators. Some groups are close-knit, others are loose. Let’s say, for a hypothetical example that new yorkers don’t give a shit about each other. It’s a big city, people cut each other off in traffic bump into you on the sidewalk etc. Now put those same hostile new yorkers as the only two Yankee fans at a Sox game and suddenly they’re the best of friends. If you don’t like that one, make up your own example.
I was hiking in midstate Pennsylvania not too long ago. Now, I’m generally a reasonably polite city dweller. This means that I rarely make eye contact, smile, or say hello to people i don’t know. It was nice to be on a wilderness trail where there were simply no people, no noise, no signs of civilization. What’s interesting is that when you did see another person, this was cause for at least a 30 second conversation, or at least a polite hello. Walking down the street at night in a city, no matter how deserted would certainly not inspire the same response. What’s going on here? Well, hikers by the nature of the activity and the effort it takers to backpack indicates a set of values. It shows that “i care about nature, and self-reliance”. It is also an environment where serious injuries can happen so there is a need for hikers to be conscientious and take care of eachother as a way to insure the wellbeing of the dynamic community known as hikers.
Let’s take a more precise example. Today I was on a long bike ride through the suburbs of Boston. In the morning there were infrequent encounters with other bikers. On the trials closer to the city people rarely acknowledged one another except to avoid collisions. Out on the rural roads, it was quite common to get a nod and/or a wave. What’s interesting is how sensitive the waves were to specific context. In more dense groups of riders there were no hellos – that would just be silly to have to greet each of 100 riders all in a row. However, when there were individual riders spaced 5-10 minutes apart it was much more likely. This was, as long as the total number did not exceed a certain amount. This is perhaps an overly complex derivation of some intuitive natural community size. Dunbar’s number puts this at about 150 depending on the type of group http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/2004/03/the_dunbar_numb.html
What is really going on here? Are there some set of rules that bikers and hikers know to obey? Is there some reflexive urge to wave to others if the encounters are infrequent enough and look enough like me? Or are people just more friendly in the country? No hard social science going on here, but “activity” groups like hiking and biking do represent values, do reinforce personal accomplishment, have a beneficial social safety net and are clearly distinguished from non-participatory members. And, they are often found in regions where they are infrequent enough to form cohesion.