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Ruth Latta, The Compulsive Reader

Dunbar’s number

Contributed by

“An old friend will help you move. A good friend will help you move a dead body.”

Jim Hayes
In Sum

Dunbar’s number refers to the approximate number of primary, care-based relationships people can maintain. The concept carries interesting implications for navigating the leap from organizing among friends to organizing under formal structures.

Origins:

First proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar in a 1992 article.

Most of our day-to-day interactions involve either primary or secondary relationships. If you are my twice-a-week hiking buddy, we have a primary relationship based in mutual care and reciprocal obligation. If you are my insurance agent or my boss, we have a secondary relationship based in formal rules. The Dunbar’s number concept posits that there is a limited number of primary relationships a person can manage.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that the average person can only maintain about 150 primary, I-care-you-care relationships. The simple reason for this is that we reach certain cognitive limits, and because there is simply not enough time for more without diffusing the quality of all relationships. Obviously, the number is fuzzy, because with changes in culture come changes in relationships, and because relationships themselves are difficult to define precisely because they are not quantifiable. But if we assume 150 as a hypothetical constant, variable across some range, then the range itself is a valid premise for a few conclusions.

One implication of Dunbar’s number is that when we shift from primary to rule-mediated relationships, mutual care is replaced by structural suspicion. This shift is significant. By necessity, a boss, administrator or manager will tend to put systems and rules before care or service. Administrators and managers become the caretakers of impersonality, and that impersonality accrues power to itself over and against the caring individual.

This invariably leads to rules that are designed to serve management and disadvantage the managed. In common parlance, “the tail starts to wag the dog.” This dog-waggery leads to resentment towards administration and management, who in turn become defensive, setting up a power struggle in which the administration is already advantaged by the growing dependency of the administered.

What does this have to do with consciously political actions? Well, every time a group of friends considers becoming a committee, we ought to exercise the precautionary principle. Our desire to get bigger, stronger and more efficient can blind us to the more formidable strength we risk losing by neglecting primary relationships.

In other words, if we currently spend 80 percent of our time managing secondary relationships, then we need to figure out how we can flip that to 80 percent of our time nurturing primary relationships. One of the reasons many of us feel powerless in the face of so many crises is that we’re cut off from the social cohesion that can only happen in small, intimate groups.

It is not hyperbole to say, then, that management is the enemy of social cohesion, because it substitutes secondary (weak) bonds for primary (strong) ones. By strengthening primary bonds, we not only develop a greater capacity to take effective action on our own behalves; we also increase our capacity to creatively respond to the forces that seem so threatening now.


Stan Goff spent over two decades in the U.S. Army, mostly special operations, from 1970-1996. He has worked as Organizing Director for Democracy South, a 12-state coalition working on money and politics (1996-2001), and as an Organizational Development Consultant with Iraq Veterans Against the War (2004-2006). Married, with four grown children and four grandchildren, he is the author of four books including Hideous Dream: A Soldier's Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press, 2001) and Sex & War (Lulu Press, 2006).


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