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July 24, 2012 / Jonathan Matthew Smucker

A theory of political behavior (pt.1)

Why explore political behavior?

To inform my own organizing practice, I have been working toward a more explicit theory of political behavior, which this post will begin to lay out. Leading up to this exploration, last week I discussed some of my philosophy of social science, mostly asserting my embrace of a multiply-determined reality with all sorts of factors, explanations, and lenses—e.g. economic, structural, behavioral, cultural, psychological, even evolutionary—worthy of consideration in an examination of politics and political behavior. Then in The Problem of Collective Action in the United States, I briefly discussed the constraining context that has led me to study political behavior, namely that, “social movements in the United States do not presently have anywhere close to the capacity needed to mount sustained challenges to the entrenched power structures we are up against.” I want to figure out why that is the case, and how we can change it. Political behavior: Why and how do people—as individuals and in groups—become politically active (or not), with progressive or regressive politics? Getting clearer about a theory of political behavior is not an academic exercise here; the aim is to change the world.

Because there are some urgent matters at hand that require a massive collective response. In the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben offers his latest warning of looming and already unfolding disasters from global warming. This crisis, I believe, will define my generation and likely more than a few generations to come. In response to McKibbon’s article, I wrote:

…we need a World War II-sized mobilization of society — the kind of sweeping narrative that inspires people to sacrifice comfort now—and sometimes much more—for the long-term collective good. Honestly, achieving that kind of scale feels pretty hopeless at the moment. But we have no choice but to dig in and get started. And as devastating climate events are likely to continue to unfold as predicted, the possibilities of mass mobilization may expand much faster than what may presently seem realistic.

Those possibilities of mass mobilization are much more likely to become realities when we are ready for them; when we are oriented to recognize openings and opportunities for mobilization. That’s the point of this exploration of political behavior.

Emphasis on the group level

One could begin a behavioral investigation into political action with the question, “What makes a person become politically active?” or “What makes a person become an activist?” These are valid questions that belong somewhere in this exploration. However, for the reasons expounded in What’s Wrong with Activism?, I will begin instead with a more group-oriented question:

How are communities politicized?

This to me is a far more pertinent question if the objective is to understand how to organize grassroots political power. The big historic changes of note came about largely through the politicization and alignment of existing groups, networks, and institutions — not from one-at-a-time recruitment or self-selection of rootless individuals. Yes, groups are often shaken up through the processes of politicization, with new kinds of identities emerging. But the process is nonetheless a thoroughly collective (i.e. group-level) one.

To understand the processes through which groups are politicized then, we benefit by first taking a step back and examining some basic patterns of group behavior, and how politicization interacts with those patterns.

My foundational axiom in the construction of a more elaborate theory of political behavior is that individual behavior is significantly constrained by the social groups we are situated in. This assertion may seem so obvious to not even merit commentary. Who would argue with the idea that individuals’ behaviors are influenced and pressured by the people around them? Yet the overwhelming emphasis on the individual, individual expression, and individual choice in contemporary American culture makes it necessary to name this explicitly as an axiom — as one cannot trust that it will be taken for granted.

The second axiom is something of an inverse of the first: a great deal of human behavior is group-oriented. Contrary to modern mythologies about the autonomous individual, the prominence of individual protagonists in American folklore, and the American Dream’s emphasis on individual achievement and nuclear families, I believe that we humans (and even we Americans) are—culturally, psychologically, neurologically, and dare-I-say evolutionarily—deeply cooperative and group-oriented beings. This is not to suggest that individuals never act selfishly for their own individual interest at the expense of others. Neither is it to say that being group-oriented means the total absence of hierarchy or coercion. It is not even to suggest that most of our group-oriented behaviors are conscious. Rather, it is to argue that most of our everyday behaviors are based on complex cooperative systems and rituals, most of them so mundane that they escape our conscious attention. To be a functional human being is to be a team player. Overwhelming evidence from across multiple fields supports this assertion. Cultural anthropologists have long noted a striking pattern of fierce egalitarianism across nomadic cultures — wherein hording and sloth are severely sanctioned. Neurologists have illuminated how reward centers in the brain are activated when people cooperate and share with each other, even with strangers. Contemporary evolutionists like David Sloan Wilson have struck blows against the dog-eat-dog individualistic dominant evolutionary paradigm, advancing in its place new theories (e.g. multilevel selection theory) that explain how highly cooperative groups would have gained an evolutionary edge over groups populated with selfish individuals. Rational choice theory—the theory of individual actors making rational decisions, as individuals, about their own individual self-interest—though still a dominant behavioral paradigm in economics, has been thoroughly debunked by psychologists, behaviorists, sociologists, game theorists, and others. Moreover, every major world religion exhorts and codifies behaviors that serve the whole over the individual, suggesting universality at least in the esteeming of group-oriented behavior.

Identity is a group-oriented process.

We often think of identity in individualistic terms; identity as the definition, self-conception or self-expression of the individual self. However, defining or expressing one’s self implies an other to which one defines or expresses oneself. Identity implies relationship. It is a process that is constructed in relationship. Even identities that feature highly individualistic characteristics are still signaling something to someone other than oneself.

And it’s not just a relationship-constructed process. The next axiom: Identity is a group-constructed process. What we signal is largely about the groups we identify with and our place in the group. One can signal many particular things with (and within) an identity, but I want to suggest that the two foundational things we signal to each other with our identity expressions have everything to do with the group itself, and our place in it. These two things are belonging and distinction. For example, if everyone in my social network attends church, I too am inclined to attend church at least in part because it signals my belonging in my social network. (It may even be a required expression of belonging in some social networks.) And I may refrain from alcohol and drugs in order to distinguish myself from the other (e.g. sinners, non-believers, etc.). Now, I may be able to offer many good reasons why I have made an individual choice to attend my church and to take part in all of the rituals and life choices that go along with that. I am not arguing that these conscious reasons are false or disingenuous. But they do not change the fact that I am also signaling belonging and distinction through these identity expressions, and that this constitutes at least a layer of motivation.

I could reduce this framework further and argue that there are not two but only one foundational thing we signal through identity expressions: belonging; that belonging (to a group) is the foundational thing we signal through identity expressions, and that distinction (from other groups and identities) is a strategy employed in large part for the purposes of signaling belonging to one’s own group. Indeed, these two purposes are often accomplished simultaneously. For example, a self-identifying hippie man may grow his hair long to signal belonging to the “rainbow family”, and with the same expressive act he signals distinction from—perhaps even rebellion against—dominant social norms. I am not suggesting that these processes are fully conscious. Our hippie friend may explain it something like this: “I just like my hair long. It’s just who I am.”

This is not to pick on hippies. I believe the same phenomenon can be found to some extent in all human groups: dominant groups, subdominant groups, and marginal groups alike. The guy with the short crew cut and suit and tie on Wall Street is doing the same thing as the hippie: signaling likeness (belonging) to the group with which he identifies, as well as difference from other groups and identities. This signaling practice happens everywhere all the time. It happens through hairstyle, fashion, diet, lifestyle, musical tastes, dance moves, courting rituals, leisure interests, hobbies, career choices, political preferences, rhetoric, slang, even accents.

To summarize, I am suggesting that a primary function of identity is for group members to signal belonging and commitment to the group, thereby contributing to the health and well-being of the group, while also securing one’s individual place (and therefore survival) in the group. Group members can signal this by expressing commonality or distinction:

  • Commonality: I am like others in this group. I share values with this group. I belong in this group.
  • Distinction (A) from other groups: I belong in this group because I am different from members of other groups — especially groups that my group views as a threat or that the group identifies itself in opposition to.
  • Distinction (B) from other members of the same group: My particular role and contribution in this group is _____. I am especially or uniquely needed in this group because of my particular contribution.

We are constantly signaling belonging and distinction. It has everything to do with community. It has everything to do with power and politics. It has everything to do with us and them. And, I suspect, it has everything to do with primal and pre-conscious group-oriented survival instincts — with how we have evolved to behave in highly social and cooperative groups.

I will explore an evolutionary logic of group identity and values in part two.

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