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Sticking rigidly to our ways can be both a blessing and a curse

By Mark Randell - posted Monday, 2 June 2003

Society. There is no such thing, said Margaret Thatcher. There are only individuals, doing their individual thing.

Yet every psychology undergraduate hears about Stanley Milgram's famous "obedience to authority" studies, which demonstrate the ease with which people give away their rights, responsibilities, and humanity, in the face of a perceived societal authority. We do it every time we let a petty bureaucrat berate us (we do it every time we adults wear a bike helmet on an island with no cars - but that's another story).

Group influences on the individual are marked, easily demonstrable and pervasive. We live in groups. There are such things as interpersonal effects, there is such a thing as "society", with its rules, traditions, moral codes and ethical standards that affect us all. These do not arise simply as a consequence of individual actions, but from the interaction of individuals.


Societies have been around a long time-time enough to evolve their moral codes and traditions. Societies are the superset of "communities", smaller groups banded together as a result of interest, geography, safety, necessity. What then is the case for community? Is there such a thing as "community"? And how do they evolve, and what do they offer us that "society" does not?

Principally, they offer us familiarity. Familiarity with our surrounds, our neighbours, our walking trails, our built, natural and social environments. Communities are the right size to retain the familiar. Communities are large enough to offer diversity but small enough to offer familiarity; "society" is "out there", other people, people we don't know in places we don't live. Communities, not societies, are where we live.

Going down the scale once more, communities are inhabited by groups. Interest groups, resident's groups, walking groups, knitting groups. And right down the scale we find traditions, rules, "ways we do things around here".

The "ways we do things around here" are called, in technical psychobabble terms, norms. And every group needs to develop them if it is to survive.

On a grand scale, at the societal level, we might write our norms down - this we call "legislation", law. It's the way things are done around here.

How then do norms arise? Can we predict the success or failure of groups, communities, societies?


One way of conceiving of the maturation process for small groups is via the process of "forming, storming, norming and performing". In plain terms, a group will form (around some topic of interest, or because of geographical parameters, or for some other reason), and then spend some time arguing and trying to achieve something. At this stage, there is little consensus on "how we do things around here", so much of the time is spent in argument about the rules, the standing orders, the constitution, the committee structures, and so on. The ratio of group "management" time to productive work is high. This is the "storming" stage.

Eventually, the group settles down, and adopts norms, rules, routines (which will eventually become traditions). The ratio of group maintenance time to productive work goes down, and the group starts "performing". Everybody has become comfortable with "the way we do things around here".

Of course, the formation of the "in-group" implies the creation of the "out-group", those who are not "us", and who don't understand the way things are done around here. The tensions between the "in" and "out" groups can become considerable. This highlights a potential problem for our newly-performing group-how does it survive without dissolution, without opening its doors to outsiders?

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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