'Utopias, in theory', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on the sociological.

Utopias, in theory

Dunbar’s number. Many of you have heard of it. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who, some years ago, came up with a number that he suggested represented the most stable unit of people that could live together in a society in relative harmony. Actually, there were several numbers: 5, 15, 50, 150, 500 and 1500. The number ‘5’ was the number of people with whom he figured we formed our closest-knit unit, namely, the nuclear family (or modern alternative). On this small group, Dunbar proposed, we expend up to 40 per cent of our social energy. Go outwards from 5, and you get to 15 (intimate bonds), 50 (the social ‘band’), 150 (small community), 500 (large community) and 1500 (‘tribe’). I’ve no idea why these units are all multiples of 5, but I guess there’s some kind of impressive, mathematical weirdness involved. Dunbar came to his numbers by examining three primary groups: new-age utopian communes in North America, Israeli kibbutzim, and the Hutterites of Germany, a kind of self-sustaining community, like the Amish or Mennonites, built around strong religious bonds. Dunbar noticed that the Hutterite communities always ‘fractured’ when they overshot 150; what tended to happen was they’d wait until the number was 200, and then the group would spilt in two, into one group of 150 and one of 50. This way, there was ‘inbuilt’ stability to the spilt, the Hutterites somehow intuiting that 50 and 150 were much more stable than, say, two groups of 100. It seems they had come to the conclusion that 150 was the “limit at which community cohesion can be maintained without the need for formal laws and a police force with which to maintain discipline”. Hear that? Yes… tightly control the population and eliminate the need for authoritarian control. Anthropologist Anthony Forge came to a similar conclusion by observing farming tribes in New Guinea, concluding that, “when community size exceeds 500, the rising intensity of social and other stresses threaten community coherence and stability, and cohesion can only be maintained if some mechanism is available to suppress or mitigate these disruptive forces”. Forge went with the higher number, but both men seems to agree on the basics. 

 The numbers in the kibbutzim were not so clear cut, but the minimum number of souls that gathered in any one kibbutz was 150. A clear factor in this number seemed to be the minimum people required to sustain an ecological balance, and to have sufficient bodies in order to make any kind of agricultural endeavour viable. Nevertheless, the mean size of the kibbutz amounted to about 468 individuals, just within the proposed upper limit of five hundred.    

Interestingly, Dunbar noticed that religious communities survived significantly longer than secular ones, theories for this positing that perhaps religion functions as the social glue, or that maybe the abstract notion of God acts as the ‘all-seeing eye’, like Bentham’s panopticon, maintaining self-control within the population.     

The 'Social Brain Hypothesis'

What is most interesting, perhaps, is that Dunbar, in a separate study, linked the size of our social groups to brain size, or more accurately, to the size of a certain part of our brain. This became known as the ‘Social Brain Hypothesis’. By studying apes, Dunbar came to the conclusion that the size of our neocortex informs the size of the social group to which we may belong. By finding the correlation between the volume of the neocortex and the size of the social group, Dunbar posited that the maximum size of the neocortex directly determined the absolute limits of the size of the social group. Incredible.

So what of modern societies, and what of the virtual world, where we all exist with increasing duration, each day being sucked deeper into the universe that exists purely in virtual electronic spaces and algorithm? Well, Dunbar went back to work a few years ago, in 2016, and performed a study that examined the social circles of people on Facebook. There exists real and observable constraints on the social energy which we can invest in our real-world social relationships, yet there is no ceiling to how many people can interact with our posts online. Yet, despite this, he saw that many of the same laws applied, and that “there is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communicative advantages of online media are unable to overcome.” Dunbar observed the same structure of hierarchical layers within online social systems as he did with human and primate social groupings, namely, the increasing units in multiples of 5, which functioned in the virtual world much as they did in the real. The mean network size of those online amounted to around 100–200, and furthermore, heavy users of social media did not have larger offline social networks than those who spent less time online. Common sense might tell you that indeed the opposite is true. His conclusion:

“…online social networks remain subject to the same cognitive demands of maintaining relationships that limit offline friendships. These constraints come in two principal forms: a cognitive constraint derivative of the Social Brain Hypothesis and a temporal constraint associated with the time that needs to be invested in a relationship to maintain it at a requisite level of emotional intensity.”

What am I getting at? Well, I’m all for the virtual environment. Not only is it essential for me to maintaining long-distance friendships, but, as a creator, it is indispensable in getting my name out there and getting my work into the hands of those that would enjoy it. But, as an environment, I believe that for many of us the sheen has worn off, the novelty of it long-disappeared. I keep a Twitter account with some two hundred odd followers, and don’t know a single one of them. But that’s a different story.

Social groups, on or offline, appear to be prone to very specific laws. There is no perfect environment out there within which you might flourish, but you might just increase your odds of finding balance should you bear these laws in mind. Keep your circle tight. Keep it small. Keep it close. Forget about the rest. It seems Utopia is only in your own head, after all.     

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 ‘Utopias, in theory’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

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