“I can't belong to groups. I've tried. I behave normally, but people don't look at me normally.”
Behavioural psychologists used to love studying the group. Between the 1950s and the 1980s people like Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram made their names constructing experiments that examined the way the group behaved. Milgram definitely wanted to consider the question in the light of the Holocaust and how easy it was for individuals to sacrifice their ethics to the group. Asch, who was born in Warsaw but migrated to the US in the 1920s probably had the same set of issues on his mind when he set up his conformity experiment in the 1950s, but he was also witness to the unedifying spectacle of Americans freely betraying one another to the House Un-American Activities Commission; proof, if he needed it, that culture was irrelevant. The behavioural psychologists were ultimately most interested in that moment the group turned into something else, it fell apart or became a mob, and how easily it could be manipulated to reach that state. You also get the impression that Asch, Milgram and the others already knew the answers to their questions and the experiments were needed to provide evidence to formally justify their worst fears.
There are literally millions of photographs of groups floating around. Most don’t hold our attention for very long and if they do it is usually because of the incongruities; someone is behaving out of synch with everyone else, the people form a shape or there is some other graphic detail that makes the image work. Occasionally you come across something else. Everyone has come together for a common purpose, they maintain their essential individuality but the strongest personality belongs to the group itself. Beyond the obvious reasons for the group’s existence, the image represents something more abstract, subtle and interesting, an attitude or character that reveals how groups work.
In a properly functioning group everyone understands its objectives and their role, whether they’re happy with that or not. The success of the group also depends on each member sustaining their individual identity. In some of these photos the leader stands out though the clues might not be immediately apparent. It is something in their expression or a gesture that tells us they bear the weight of responsibility or in some way they define the essential nature of the group. We can also find people who have been given licence to behave in certain ways, others who have tried to keep some distance from everyone else and sometimes people who don’t really belong. It isn’t entirely paradoxical that people secure their sense of self by belonging to a group. One thing Asch discovered was that some people, or personality types, can be easily persuaded to change their ideas to fit the group but even more independent minded people tended to express doubt rather than outright disagreement, as if they too wanted to be a part of it though on their terms. Unfortunately Asch nor other behavioural psychologists never pursued the further question of whether people who didn’t fit in were genuinely alienated or more simply hadn’t found the group they could fit into. Not feeling a part of the group doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to belong.
Current thinking has it that the group as we knew it is a dying organism. Computer technology has given people more rights to individuality but also isolated them o whether we are sitting on a bus listening to an MP3 player or at home on the Internet we don’t need the tangible group anymore. Neither do groups and collective action require that previously necessary element that everyone knew each other. This is a somewhat overheated argument. Firstly, we can be sceptical about how much of a role social network sites play in spontaneous collective action; you only have to look back 20 years to the collapse of Communism to see that you don’t need Twitter or Facebook to galvanise protests. Secondly, the traditional group is still going strong in families and workplaces, which have always been foundations of social activity. We haven’t replaced them, just enhanced our means of communication. Maybe there are contemporary Milgrams and Aschs conducting experiments on Web based social networks. The suspicion is that they would quickly discover those groups are far less cohesive, more open to suggestion and easily fragmented than a genuinely structured group should be.