Small Group

This is the nucleus, the little platoon identified by touch, trust and conversation which joins up with others to form the larger coalitions and associations which in turn make a society (for a summary table of key group sizes see Groups and Group Sizes).

The size of the small group is much debated, with the case being made by different scholars for anything between two and twelve.S36 And yet, since 1988, significant progress in understanding small groups has come from the study of groups among non-human primates—especially chimpanzees and gelada baboons known as “bleeding heart” baboons, from the hourglass-shaped patch of bare skin on their chest.S37

In a large group of observant, restless animals, any one individual on its own has problems: no status, no sustainable ability to defend itself—and probably not much food either. It follows that every individual needs friends; in fact, he or she needs to belong to a small coalition which can stand up for itself, and whose members know for sure that if any one of them gets into trouble, the others will come to their help.

These coalitions of individuals within the wider group are an example of holons. They exist for the well-being and protection of their own members; and they contribute as members of the larger group and enjoy the benefits it brings. There is a tension here that calls on the intelligent apes’ social and political skills: they are more than simply aware of their own relationships with the other individuals in the group; they are also conscious of the relationships between other individuals, and they are able to use this knowledge to advantage. They sustain their small-group coalitions of close friends in many ways—and the most important of these is grooming, by which pairs of individuals interact for many hours each day—but they also play politics: they deceive, they rumble the deceptions, they form alliances. They are explicitly aware of each other as individuals—their age, sex and kinship, their relative power, their past behaviour, their general disposition, their particular intentions, as judged by facial expressions, vocalisations, movement and posture.S38

All of this calls for brain power which can carry out “parallel processing”—that is, it can imagine and compare alternatives. The anthropologists Andrew Whiten, Richard Byrne and Robin Dunbar have thought through the implications of this. The part of the brain which does all this is the neocortex, the layer of neural tissue which is wrapped and folded round the inner brain. As discussed also in Neighbourhood, the most useful index of the power of the neocortex, correcting for differences which are due simply to different body sizes, is the “neocortex ratio”—the size of the neocortex relative to the rest of the brain. In most mammals, the neocortex comprises 30–40 percent of their total brain volume (i.e., a neocortex ratio of less than 1:1); in the case of primates, the ratio is between 1:1 and 3:1, rising, in the case of humans, to 4:1.S39

The larger the small-group coalition, the harder it becomes to keep up with all the internal politics, and the greater the demands on the neocortex, so the neocortex effectively sets a limit to the size of the coalition in which an individual can sustain active membership.S40 And it turns out that neocortex ratios are indeed associated in practice with coalition size: the least gifted primates (with the 1:1 ratio) consistently maintain coalitions of as few as two members; with the greater social intelligence of apes such as the gelada baboons, coalitions rise to between three and five members; and it is consistent with this link between processing power and coalition size that humans can sustain collaboration in groups of as many as twelve.S41

Twelve does sound rather a lot, and to make sense of this we have to move beyond the physiology, and think in a more pragmatic way about how human groups behave. We tend not to go around—nor indeed to collaborate closely and regularly—with twelve people at the same time. Nonetheless, in most people’s lives, there are degrees of intimacy. Surveys of social contacts show that a person typically has around a dozen friends who are regarded as “close” in the sense that he or she would be devastated to hear of the death of any one of them.S42 This group is called the “sympathy” group, consisting of the main dramatis personae in the narrative of the individual’s life. It includes—it may consist entirely of—close family and kinship bonds, which are generally very robust.S43 While friends often fade away following a change of job or leisure interest, or as a result of just growing up differently, kin often come to stay with each other, and they are more likely to maintain the relationship over a lifetime through difficulties such as illness and quarrels; more often than friends, kin are a source of major help (see “Kinship” sidebar below).S44

When trouble made a family

There is a dark but strong image of the power of kin in the story of the march of American pioneers who attempted in 1846–7 to cross the arid Great Basin of Utah on the way to Sacramento, California. They used an untested trail known as the Hastings Cutoff, got lost, were trapped by the snow, and began to starve slowly on a diet of their draft animals, their pets, then their own dead. The survivors, in almost every case, were those with the backing of kinship groups, who helped each other with material and emotional support, sustaining optimism and the will to live. But there was one group which showed something else which qualifies—or extends—the principle of kinship bonds: there was an alliance between two families; the Breens and the Reeds managed to bring their respective groups of nine and six individuals through the ordeal without loss of life, and in doing so showed that pure “kinship” is too simple a description for the bonds that can form to hold a household group together. The Breen-Reed household suggests that the household group can indeed consist of more than one family, under more than one roof; what matters is the commitment to hold the household group together—and kinship helps.S46

Evidently, ‘as-if’ kinship can be created between families that have no blood relationship, given a firm enough commitment to do so; the potential for durable association is there. And it was used as a matter of course in large households such as that of the 17th century London baker whose 13 members included children who became workers for at least some part of the day when they reached the age of three. The only word used at that time to describe such a group of people was “family”. The Lean Economy will see forms of the family which are inventive, unexpected and substantially larger than those of the late market economy. The Breen-Reed household and the baker’s household needed to be highly effective and self-sufficient in some critical ways. Their coalition beyond the blood relationship—forming robust household groups—gave them the practical and political weight they needed.S47


And yet, the sympathy group will almost always include unrelated friends, too. And it is relatively stable, changing only slowly as (for instance) members of the group die, and as younger people join. Here is a network of around twelve people (sometimes rising to fifteen) which, owing to its relatively large size—possesses a wide range of talents: its members participate in big events, such as carnival and weddings, together; it is counsel in times of emergency—and it is a vital social capital of intimates from which a smaller clique of around five or fewer can be drawn for most actual events, commitments, meals and conversations.S45

It is, in fact, to such smaller groups that we turn when it is coordinated action, or even a sensible conversation, that is needed. A group of around five is generally enough, and it is in groups on this scale or smaller that people spend almost all their interaction time. Smaller groupings can take the form of strongly bonded permanent relationships, of which the most significant is the family, limited in size, sharing one house, one supper table, one hearth, and recognising a reciprocal obligation which is “generalised” in the sense that—though not indestructible—it is unconditional.S48 Individual members affirm a commitment to promote the well-being of the other members, and of the group as a whole, and members may even see this collective interest as having priority over, and being more real than, their own interests as individuals.

That “around five” indicates simply that variants occur: six is common (the army’s “section”); in groups of seven there are likely to be some individuals who find they cannot participate enough (“can’t get a word in edgeways”) and they tend to self-correct themselves down to smaller numbers; groups of eight work notoriously badly: they tend to split into two equal factions, small enough for every individual to feel he or she is essential to it (and so has a power of veto), and large enough collectively to sustain a veto on the whole group. In groups of nine or more, minorities can form in small groups of three or four, which cannot dominate, but can talk things over in advance of the collective choice. Larger groups of 12–20 have the benefit of bringing wide experience and are a good source of recruitment for smaller groups, but are themselves unwieldy and find it hard really to get down to the detail. Groups above 20 tend to be paralysed by their large size, since individuals (on average) can only speak for 90 seconds in every half hour. The next useful size up, with 35 members (sometimes called the “overnight camp”—Neighbourhood), develops completely different kinds of discussion, with formal prepared debate rather than extended conversation.S49

And now back to the primary group. The significance of the number five is that humans can quickly form intensely-interactive coalitions of up to this size, and easily sustain them. And therefore they will do so. It is easy for us because, unlike our primate cousins, we have speech, which enables us to collaborate with a group of five, while keeping alive an active and up-to-date relationship with a larger coalition of more than twice that number. For the (non-human) primates, five is beyond the upper limit that even the most gifted can realistically sustain for any length of time: not only is there a limit to the amount of domestic politics their neocortex can handle, but there are not enough hours in the day to sustain serial one-to-one grooming in support of relationships of five or more—and still have time to eat. By contrast, since humans do habitually sustain coalitions of this size, human coalitions of a smaller size are at a relative disadvantage, and there will be occasions on which this disadvantage tells.S50

In the case of human groups, then, a distinction can be made between two types of primary group:

1. the small closely-collaborative group of five or fewer, which may be permanent (as in the family) or occasional (as in a group that often works together); and

2. the larger twelve-person coalition (i.e., twelve participating adults plus dependent children and old people) that provides the essential resource of close associates and friends.

In the Lean Economy, members of the larger group might be expected often to live in nearby households—as in the case of the informal groups of closely cooperative families whose reach extended round a “turning” (a street corner) in the East End of London.S51 This larger group is rarely a single household: as the social historian Peter Laslett notes, “the household has never been an autonomous and self-contained unit”—and in the Lean Economy the word “household” is used quite loosely, referring to family-centred groups, without specifying exactly whether it is a small group comprising an extended family, or one or two smaller groups.S52

And this ambiguity about the small-scale unit—that “building block” of society—applies equally to the family, as the anthropologist Manning Nash insists, pointing us in a direction which we might not expect:

Developmental schemes, on the basis of evidence, can just as easily begin with the band, or the lineage, or some other kinship atom as they can with the family. The family is apparently a product of economic evolution, not the social substratum or elemental unit sometimes posited.S53

In local lean economies, it will be as small groups of some kind that many—perhaps most—people take the first steps in investigating, forming or joining the community. The starting point for our existence and our affections is the family. The significance of the somewhat larger (sympathy) group is, in part, that it can call on the help of its members and may be able to use the politics of community to its advantage. The intelligent primates are able to sustain their wider communities of thirty individuals or more only by being able to rely on the loyalty of their close friends—and by investing massive emotional effort and time in those coalitions by the proven and effective method of grooming. Lean politics will require the same degree of emotional investment in friendship. The disadvantage of having evolved beyond heavy dependence on grooming for this purpose is that no substitute has quite that direct power of physical contact; the advantages of speech go a long way towards compensating for this, but physical contact, about which the non-tactile market economy is confused and embarrassed, has an important—and in some ways irreplaceable—part in forming and sustaining bonds between individuals. A “bond” implies both passive capture and active friendship, touch and speech, risk and security, service and freedom: that is, it is a marriage of opposites: a holon. It is the active principle of community. The combination of conversation and breaking bread together comes close, like grooming, to making and sustaining a contract.


Related entries:

Reciprocity and Cooperation > Direct Engagement, Play, Public Sphere and Private Sphere, Tactile Deprivation.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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