So I’m finally taking the opportunity and use my knowledge and experience of the amazing country of Bolivia to dive into the topics of groups and differences a little bit further. Although I have to admit that I do not have the romantic view over the green mountains from my wooden cottage and the virgin mary or Christ who is looking over me from the nearest hilltop. The current location is a combination of a scarcely furnished office by a busy road and a barred entrance and a small hotel room with a view on the bus terminal. But Bolivia has many faces, all of them defined through the history of its country and especially the different kinds of social groups that have lived here, and are still living here.
What to talk about? Well the narcissism of minor differences and the established vs the outsiders, that is at least what the authors call it, but I like the terms. I want to talk about how differences between groups are enlarged in order to make sure you can be distinguished from others and how access to a group is made more difficult through the definition of group norms.
First a bit more about the situation what we’re talking about. By now we’ve seen that an action has way more results that just the one intended, so change comes from intentions and interests of a person that are translated into action although it might not be the change that is intended. And here comes the answer we’ve all been waiting for. This discrepancy between design and outcome comes from the lack of understanding of the social world (Blok, 2001). Mind that actions of people are still rational, but just that the outcomes are unintended. The problem is that we try to still explain changes by referring to the actions of persons rather than that of groups. Take for example the story of King Oedipus (Blok, 2001). For those who don’t know the story, there was a prophecy that he would kill his father and then marry his mother. So he left his family, travelled a far distance. Killed a man who stopped him on a change of roads and then married his wife, who turned out to be a queen. Only later he found out that these king and queen were his father and mother who had dumped him with another family in fear of the prophecy. The clue of this story? We can know the outcomes but neither the events leading to the outcomes nor the full scope of the outcomes can be understood just by knowing the plans. So, if we want to understand this process of ‘change beyond intention’ we need to look to social structures. In this case we are looking to how groups work and influence outcomes of actions.
In neither of the texts there is a very clear explanation why groups are important for processes of change. I will take a bit to try and explain why I think the writers find groups important in social processes. In this lies a very big assumption that the individual actions are defined by the groups of which this individual is part. Two points on this, first it refers to what I’ve discussed before how the idea of individuals is diminished once the people are part of a group because they want to fit in and set themselves off to all that are not part of the group. Through this one could then argue that therefore individual actions are not really individual actions but rather actions that are defined by the group the individual on the moment of doing the action feels most connected to. This nuance, the specification of the group is important because individuals can belong to different groups. I can for example be a teacher at a school but also be a mother of one of the children on that school. In that case my actions concerning anything related to the school can be done either as mother or as a teacher. However I still think there are a few issues in this assumption that individuals represent groups. Because in that way you in a sense deny the possibility of individuals to make a choice by themselves, all would be defined by the group they are connected with at that very moment. I think that is untrue for people are connected to different groups with different strengths. Therefore individuals in the case of making a decision may not be aware of linked to that group while for the outsiders they would seem like being linked. And I think in this idea of being connected to different groups at the same time makes it altogether impossible to decide that individual decisions are based on groups. If the connection to a group is not clear or cannot be defined, as is the case as no one can determine to what group one feels most connected to when doing the action, the result of the action is just as random as that of an individual. The question is then whether it is really the influence of the groups or just the inherent motivation of the individual, although that might still be based on experiences with groups.
Before I start to confuse everyone, including myself, I will follow the argumentation of Blok (2001) in the following assuming that groups are important for defining social processes and thereby actions.
In the two texts, there are two different concepts explained. Blok (2001) talks about the narcissism of minor differences, a nice term for the way in which groups enlarge small differences to create identity. The idea behind this is fairly simple. If you want to distinguish yourself from others, you have to make a social distance greater. The bigger the differences, the easier it is to explain that you are different from the other. This does not only work in the way of maintaining your own identity, but it also works in working against threats from the outside. But I’ll come back to the latter one in the second part on established and outsiders. We see that where there are clear differences in power, people also work on greater social distance (Blok, 2001). This also can be reasoned from the idea that if people are much different from me, it is not possible that they will take over my position of power. The same counts for cultural differences to which I will come back in my final example on Bolivia. For the case of narcissism of minor difference I think that one of the clearest examples can be found within the development in religion. From the Middle Ages onwards you can see the development of different christian ‘religions’ that have distinguished themselves more and more from each other by means of norms, rituals and for example ways of dressing. Nowadays we can see this development very clearly when looking to the process Islam is going through. In the time of my life (just over 20 years, for those who haven’t kept track) there have been several ‘groups’ with the islamic religion that have distinguished themselves from the rest. Take Al-Qaida, who blew up the twin towers, and now IS who is bombing its way through Europe. We see them as muslims, people of the islamic faith. But in their own region they have made very clear that they are different. By introducing several rules and habits different than those of other parts of the islam and by enforcing them on the people who live within their reach, they distinguish themselves for muslims. It is in this actually quite ironic that we are generally fighting against the Islam while they are trying so hard to define and defend their own identity from other muslims. Mind that in the actions of IS we have to make a division between the actions done against muslims and the actions done against countries like Belgium and France. The first kind are indeed actions that are to defend and reinforce their own identity. The second is of a whole other kind to which I can dedicate a whole paper on its own, but won’t do in this writing.
The enforcement and the distinction of identity creates a so-called the established vs the outsiders (Elias, 1994) situation. In this there is one group who generally has a higher cohesion and more power which is setting off against the rest. The power and cohesion within a group are used to both remain in the position of power by reserving powerful social positions for themselves as well as the cohesion by locking everyone else out. The established take many tools to stigmatize the other group, all to the result of excluding them even more. If one wants to be part of the group, the established, one has to give up some personal aspects in order to fit into the norms and restraints of the group. Often outsiders fail to notice how to comply to what and the established become more distant as they don’t want their ideas and group polluted with those of less power and understanding. Groups are normally formed through shared experiences or memories. I for example have been on several trips with groups, some longer some shorter, but living together with difficulties of the weather, food and other changes and going through that together creates a bond. This makes it harder to join a group after its formation, because there is a sheer amount of that ‘shared’ basis missing. Keep for example in mind a boy that joins the final grade of primary school, he will take some time before he is part of the group. Because he hasn’t been on that excursion to the entertainment part or wasn’t there with the terrible teacher to explain mathematics. On the other hand when all these children go to secondary school, the roles might just change. As he finds people from his former school he can connect with. That I assume is also the function of introduction days for all first-years in both uni and secondary school, to create shared memories and through that the basis for a group. One of the examples that has managed to deal even more effectively with this concept, in my opinion, are sororities. First years there are definite outsiders, however those persons who bully you the first two years might just be your best friend in your final year of undergrad. Why? Because the whole set of norms and rules that you have to comply to, the whole process of being bullied, humiliated and put at the bottom of the bottom, is something that everyone has to do. And once you’ve gone through that, you are seen as a person with the same (shared) experiences and memories and therefore you’ve become part of the group. All those, like me, who haven’t joined and committed to these norms are seen as a threat to their society and will be seen as outsiders.
One more side-step before I move to Bolivia. Because I would assume then that if a certain set of rules and norms is set and maintained over time, that at a certain point the reasoning for why these memories and experiences are important gets lost. So I can image that over time groups with a long history of norms cannot explain to outsiders why they should comply to norms and values of their group in order to become part of it, other than because of the shared memories. I would then wonder if norms and rules develop over time, I think they have to. But that would also mean that despite the efforts of the group to keep threats out, with each new member committing to the norms and rules, there is a change about to happen. If not explained through the idea of the argumentation of norms and the basis of a group, then through the idea that organization, including that of a group comes from the individuals. Once a new individual in introduced the organization is bound to change.
So now for the bigger picture, Bolivia. After the colonization of Bolivia by Spain, the higher areas of the country, the Antiplano (part of the Andes) where ignored for development and so were it’s people. Only three places, Oruro, Potosi and La Paz were exploited because of their richness in metals that could be obtained through mining. However after the Spanish left and the division of lands was defined (leaving the antiplano between Peru and Bolivia as part of two countries) there was a very clear division between the people in the east in the country, highly influenced by the Spanish, and those in the West, not influenced at all or only negatively. Besides the social status, there was also a big cultural difference since the indigenous people of the Antiplano were still holding on to their natural way of living, including the cultivation of coca leaves. The oriental part of the country was westernized and used more techniques that came from the knowledge of the Spanish. The division created in this country plays still a major role today. Not only in politics but also in general life. The ways in which people live are different on either side of the country, the food is different and even the language is different. The interesting question is how this has changed in the past 15 years since Evo Morales, a Quechua coca-farmer, has been president. While his policy has been focussed on the respect and reintroduction of traditional languages and practices, he also tries hard to keep the rich people on his side of the house. So here we see a person that tries to commit to two groups, thereby taking into account which points are important to one but not to the other. However while the president has been chosen with a good majority (after an unstable period of 4 presidents in two years, about) there is a clear difference within the country on the support for Morales. This was especially expressed during the referendum at the end of February where the possible third term of his presidency was asked. The rural (mostly indigenous) people voted in favor, the cities against. I think that with such an extended history and deeply rooted differences, it is hard to be part of both groups.
Elias, N. (1994). A Theoretical Essay on Established and Outsider Relations. In Elias, N. & J. Scotson (1994): The Established and the Outsiders. London, Sage Publications.
Blok, A. (2001). Honour and Violence. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers: introduction (pp. 1-14), and chapter 7 (the Narcissism of Minor Differences), 115-136.