Community Size and True Diversity

Interesting remarks from Tim Harford, summarizing a study of friendships among college students:

They found that students in a large, diverse campus sought out and befriended other students very much like themselves. In smaller universities with fewer friendship options, young people had more varied groups of friends because the alternative was to have no friends at all. 


This reminded me of something Chesterton said:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique….The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell.

I think that Chesterton’s words represent an important truth, but by no means the whole truth. It is true that much is lost in modern society to the extent that people only associate with others like them. But it is also true that much is lost in traditional societies to the extent that people are denied the opportunity to seek out others of similar interests. And also, in traditional societies, the “fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences” of which Chesterton writes are often to a large extent mediated by standardized and ritualistic behavior.

13 thoughts on “Community Size and True Diversity”

  1. The internet has hugely increased this ability to seek out only one’s own, as the telephone, cheap postage, and printing did in past eras. We are exposed to millions of people who share our prejudices, and tell us how correct we are.

    The parish model is/was also a countermeasure to this, and CS Lewis wrote in Screwtape about the spiritual advantages of this, unsurprisingly echoing Chesterton. In the medieval era one could break out a bit, with effort, by choosing a local abbey or chapel instead, but generally there was little choice. One went to St. Dunstan’s because one was in the parish of St. Dunstan’s. I read years ago that Christians should simply go to whatever church was nearest. We were already involved with another by the time I read that, yet I have wondered over the years if that might not have been a better choice. Jesus’s directions were that our behavior toward those in the Body of Christ was one of, if not the, critical matters of the Gospel. We make much about getting to the right kind of worship and style – very American of us, but perhaps not very Christian.

  2. Makes sense. If you go to Small U, that fact binds you to everyone else, and that’s your tribe. If you go to State U, that group is so big that you may have no shared experiences or values with everyone there, so you will seek out a subset with some other commonalities with you to be your tribe. And people want to be in a tribe.
    The massive structural flaw in the modern world is to put all emphasis on the individual rather than in relationships, when the latter is far more important for human flourishing.

  3. Amusing sidelight on this concept. Paraphrasing Jack Kemp’s famous comeback, I’ve had my hands in the bellies and my fingers in the a**holes of more blacks and illegal aliens than Nancy Pelosi knows.

    People who work in “white collar” jobs can isolate themselves from the nasties of the world but some of us, and not just prison guards and cops, work with them every day.

  4. Perhaps we are in a period of adjustment between social equilibria (or, watching my metaphors, a period of unusually rapid change in mores and customs).

  5. At some point the rate of change peaks and slows. People adjust. The USA seems more likely than revolutionary France to end up better off than before. The costs of the transition are high and uncertain but it’s not obvious there is an alternative. Mass media, the Internet, contraception, inexpensive travel etc. aren’t going away.

  6. “At some point the rate of change peaks and slows…Mass media, the Internet, contraception, inexpensive travel etc. aren’t going away.”
    I don’t think any of those things are the cause for today’s social problems. The problem is the obliteration of small, local social organizations, from the family through to clubs, lodges, etc., even including small government bodies. And it’s only going to get worse, since small towns and “localism” as a concept are now openly viewed as the enemy by one political party, and the legalization of “recreational” drugs (when we’re in the midst of a massive drug epidemic already!) is going to be even more catastrophic. There’s no “adjustment” to family and social breakdown.

  7. “Mass media, the Internet, contraception, inexpensive travel etc. aren’t going away.”

    Au contraire, mon ami. All of those valuable things are products of a society with a massive amount of specialization. The transgendered lesbian who knows how to write the source code for a cell phone has no idea how to prospect for the lithium required to make the phone work — indeed,may even be unaware that the phone contains lithium. And so we see politicians with zero understanding of the societies that they want to run trying to do really stupid things like eliminate fossil fuels before they have developed realistic alternatives.

    Our electric power system depends on the existence of individuals who understand the mathematics of imaginary numbers. Now that universities focus on studies in homosexual outrage instead of mathematics, is it possible that we could absent-mindedly end up losing that essential knowledge — and watching the power system degrade?

    It is said that back in the days of Ancient Egypt, a pharaoh decided to move his capital south. The priests packed up and moved the astronomical instruments which had been used successfully to predict the seasons and times of Nile floods for hundreds of years. But when they re-installed those instruments at a more southerly latitude, they no longer “worked” — because the priests had lost the knowledge which had created the instruments in the first place. Remember the great geological Principle of Uniformitarianism — Anything which has happened before can happen again.

  8. because the priests had lost the knowledge which had created the instruments in the first place. Remember the great geological Principle of Uniformitarianism — Anything which has happened before can happen again.

    When new production of the Saturn V engine was to be started, it was found that no plans existed. Engineers had to reverse engineer from the few existing models.

    We could not reproduce the massive war production of WWII. Not enough skills left.

    I see it in Medicine. Surgical residents diagnose appendicitis with CT scans. Physical exam skills are being lost. Ten years ago, 30% of Cardiology fellows could not recognize heart murmurs. I’m sure it is worse now.

  9. Surgical residents diagnose appendicitis with CT scans. Physical exam skills are being lost.

    These are two different problems.

    The CT scans probably do a better job than the best physician of 10,20 or 30 years ago. I work with start-ups. One that has developed technology based on dark adaptation of the eyes that indicates a high likelihood of developing Age related Macular Degeneration (AMD) before any visible, and irreversible, symptoms of the disease are present. In their research they found that a large percentage of ophthalmologists could not detect Drusen when visible. These devices are expanding the talents of physicians dramatically as they advance the information available to the physician beyond what they could do personally. Every new technology that is effective has rendered unnecessary the skills used previously.

    On the other hand, necessary physical skills are being lost. An ophthalmologist estimated that as a resident he tied 700 sutures in completing cataract surgery. With the current technology these sutures are no longer needed and a resident would be lucky to tie a dozen during residency. This skill is necessary to treat traumatic eye injuries. This surgery is done with incredibly small instruments on the eye viewed through a microscope. Talk about skill! This ophthalmologist has developed a software/hardware solution that uses actual surgical instruments and a dummy head to allow the simulation of microsurgery so that surgeons can practice tieing microsurgical sutures. Now he needs to find the money to turn it into a product.

  10. Mike K…”We could not reproduce the massive war production of WWII. Not enough skills left.”

    We should note, though, that a very high % of the people who worked in WWII factories had no previous industrial experience whatsoever. There was something called the Training Within Industry program that was designed to address the great shortage of appropriately-skilled individuals:

    …couldn’t solve all problems, of course, you’re not going to learn to be a toolmaker in a few days of training, no matter how well-developed that training may be. But apparently did help a lot.

    I also wonder how the basic educational level of today’s unskilled workers…things such as basic arithmetic and literacy/comprehension skills…compares with the unskilled workers of the WWII era.

  11. The plan to build more F1 engines says more about the sort of bureaucracy that NASA is, and nothing good, than about American know how. I actually knew someone that worked on building them, from his stories, NASA never knew how they were built. The first question should have been: Why would you want to waste time and money doing something so pointless?

    SpaceX doesn’t seem to be having any trouble building new rocket engines that are far better than anything designed nearly 60 years ago.

    When medicine went back to using leaches, they figured it out even though, I’m sure, no living doctor had any practical experience.

    At the same time, I had to spend part of Tuesday explaining the very simple calculations that are used to evaluate a pressure vessel with someone that I’ve been assured has an engineering degree in a field that should have included that sort of thing.

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