Group thinkings / by Rachel Briscoe

I’ve recently been re-making our website. Along with being generally shinier, we wanted it to reflect the collaborations that lie at the centre of the work that we do. So we decided to have a page with all our (semi)regular collaborators on it. The process of hounding everyone for their biog and pic and putting these on the website made me really think about how genuinely brilliant the people that we work with are. I was reminded of moments of generosity, faith and bravery – as well as all the food we’ve eaten together and bizarre people we’ve met. As I look at the page, I think about the different things, energy, skills that each individual brings to the creative process.

And I really hope that we can maintain those distinctive ideas, tastes and experiences. If you’re replicating the same input as someone else in a group, I think that stops being collaboration and starts being ‘bring your mates to work day’. It’s all very well to express a commitment to working longterm with people, but how do we ensure that we don’t arrive at a groupthink? That we keep enough distance from each other to be able to disagree? I mean, we’ll probably be ok – (sadly) fanSHEN are not in a position to employ everyone to work together for even the majority of the year – and we’re all exposed to different influences in the meantime. But it is something I think about.

Our Tooting Field Days project; the July event, during which a group walked a massive orange bird across South London green spaces.

Our Tooting Field Days project; the July event, during which a group walked a massive orange bird across South London green spaces.

A friend who has worked for various start-ups told me about a process whereby when a certain company have a project to deliver, all the employees secretly write on a card how long they think the required work will take – and then all turn over at the same time. It prevents people from converging on whatever time the first/ most high status person says, for fear of appearing slow/ slapdash. Creating space for individual response within a group feels vital.

I was recently in a ‘brainstorming’ situation where some initially exciting ideas gradually had the life ‘consensussed’ out of them by a group of people keen for everyone to feel part of the project and reluctant to disagree. Death by post-it. Convergence towards a group norm isn’t just inefficient, sometimes it can lead to dull, painfully mediocre ideas. Which is obviously not what I want for fanSHEN. I suppose at the moment I’m thinking a lot about how to create/ preserve difference within the group.

(I put this pic in my 'cool images' folder ages ago; sorry whoseever artwork it is that I am not crediting you)

(I put this pic in my 'cool images' folder ages ago; sorry whoseever artwork it is that I am not crediting you)

I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading recently about groups and groupings. During Jan and Feb we have a residency at ISIS Arts to think –in broad terms- about how we can encounter people different to ourselves. (Not we fanSHEN, we people in general). I think for quite a lot of people, Brexit was a wake-up call. In the months and weeks leading up to 25 June, many of our friends and colleagues were incredulous about the possibility that the UK might vote leave. And indeed, it wasn’t difficult to convince yourself that people in the UK would never take this decision: our social media channels were filled with confident declarations of solidarity; myth-busting facts; and memes ridiculing the ‘out’ campaign, laughing at their ignorance and even their spelling mistakes. When the votes came in, this confidence turned to disbelief. Who were these people? We didn’t know anyone who was going to vote leave – which is not particularly surprising, given that 98% of people who work in the arts voted remain. It’s not rocket science but I was shocked by how similar to me most of the people in my networks were.

This is a thing – it’s called homophily. Homophily is the principle that contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people.

…people’s personal networks are homogeneous with regard to many sociodemographic, behavioral, and intrapersonal characteristics. Homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience.
— Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks - Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James M. Cook, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 27 (2001)

(And this article was written in 2001 – they’re referring to actual social networks, not Facebook, twitter and all the other online social networks that you can use to reinforce your bubble with a bunch of mirror-yous. That’s a whole other thing.)

As the title of the article implies, this is kind of something we all know: birds of a feather flock together. Overwhelming evidence shows that we’re more likely to form ties with people like ourselves, and that ties with people unlike ourselves dissolve more easily: this is problematic in lots of ways. For example, we have a problem with diversity in the arts – in general, a group of university-educated, able-bodied, cis-gendered, white people employ more university-educated, able-bodied, cis-gendered, white people to join this group. I’m not excusing this behaviour or apologizing for it. I’m saying that I think we underestimate just how hard-wired we are to surround ourselves with people like us.

(There’s a whole other thing here about status homophily, in which similarity is based on informal, formal, or ascribed status like gender, ethnicity or occupation, and value homophily, which is based on values, attitudes, and beliefs… within the lefty, liberal arts bubble, many of us have close friends of a different gender or cultural background but how many of us have a close friend who is homophobic, believes in the death penalty or doesn’t believe in climate change?)

A photo, put on twitter by Amelia Bird, of the self-'registration' of attendees at D&D, an annual gathering of people who make, watch and/or care about the arts.

A photo, put on twitter by Amelia Bird, of the self-'registration' of attendees at D&D, an annual gathering of people who make, watch and/or care about the arts.

Recently I read this very interesting article by David Roberts, in which he draws on research by Dan Kahan to argue that one of the big obstacles to people changing their minds about something big, is that to do so would bring them into disagreement with members of their tribe. We are totally able to ignore or misconstrue evidence if that means that we don’t have to fall out with our group: being right is not worth picking a fight with the group you identify with. I listened to a programme on Radio 4 recently which included the story of a very conservative Republican senator who had changed his mind and started believing in climate change. He lost his seat, the respect of his peers, and also many of his friends. The interviewer didn’t ask him if he regretted it but you have to wonder.

In the second part of his article, Roberts talks about how we address this hardwired tendency:

The remedy for this deeply rooted limitation of individual human cognition is also not found at the individual level. Liberals and scientists are always fantasizing about improving education, teaching critical reasoning skills, informing the public, etc. They want to create better thinkers, individuals in possession of the available evidence and the intellectual skills and habits necessary to critically evaluate it. This hope is almost certainly forlorn.
— This one weird trick will not convince conservatives to fight climate change - David Roberts

Instead, Roberts suggests that ‘We create institutions meant to counterbalance our worst demons, temptations, and limitations.’ He sees society as the way to mitigate against the tendencies we have to live in a divided way and to increasingly entrench those divisions.

So to link this back to the birds of a feather, and to talk on a more micro level than Roberts is addressing in his article, where are the places/ institutions within society that we can encounter people different to us? danah boyd’s recent article Why America is Self-Segregating identifies two places in which the trend towards self-segregation (or homophily) is increasing: the military and in colleges. It’s the first of these that really interests me, because, boyd argues, it wasn’t always so.

boyd argues that the military was/ has the potential to be somewhere that self-segregation is actually countered,

…commanders are forced to find ways to build up morale across difference, to actively and intentionally seek to break down barriers to teamwork, and to find a way to gel a group of people whose demographics, values, politics, and ideologies are as varied as the country’s.
— Why America is Self-Segregating - danah boyd

I feel slightly uncomfortable including an argument about the positive social role of the military (my prejudice), but what she says also makes me think of the way my grandparents identified the time they spent conscripted in the army as a transformative experience – it gave them (a shop-keeper’s son from Birkenhead and a miner’s daughter from South Wales) access to an education and networks which meant they had options for their lives that their parents really hadn’t.

But boyd includes this in her article because it is changing. The US military is being privatized, with huge impact of its potential to counter segregation:

Private vendors are not engaged in the same social engineering project as the military and, as a result, tend to hire and fire people based on their ability to work effectively as a team. Like many companies, they have little incentive to invest in helping diverse teams learn to work together as effectively as possible. Building diverse teams — especially ones in which members depend on each other for their survival — is extremely hard, time-consuming, and emotionally exhausting. As a result, private companies focus on “culture fit”…
— Why America is Self-Segregating - danah boyd

Reading this, I wonder if our tendencies to homophily or self-segregation are not facilitated by privatization in a wider sense. Michael Sandel argues that we’ve passed/ are passing from a market economy to a market society, in which the principle of the market is applied to all kinds of basic social protocols. Take queuing for example, that great British institution – basic principle: we get attention in the order we arrived. No groups here – doesn’t matter what age/ ethnicity/ political views you have or hold, you get served after the person in front and before the person behind.

But in many contexts now, you can pay to queue-jump – Speedy Boarding, for example. Application of the market here means that the people who can pay will be in one group, while the people who can’t will be in another group. Marketisation has created two groups. And we see this in the education system and all sorts of other places. Privatisation and its big brother marketisation are further reducing the spaces where people encounter others not like them – no need to rub shoulders with someone different at the school gate or in the departure lounge.

I do know that this blog has done rather a meander since I started worrying that fanSHEN would get cultish or group-thinky. I guess I just think it’s worth acknowledging how strong our tendencies to make pretty homogenous groups are. And I also acknowledge that however any of the fanSHEN lot behave within a creative process, we and our collaborators share many characteristics. So on a level of methodology and a higher strategic level, it feels like how we create space for difference is something that will be part of our work this year…

To be continued.