Saturday, June 04, 2011


Not long ago I watched a video about “tight” societies versus “loose” societies that didn’t just describe them but tried to explain why they were that way.  The spokesperson was female in this presentation.
The concept is that various forces interact to create the general norming of nations, with those under threat or recovering from disasters or struggling with shortages, etc., tending to be the most tight, that is, most conservative and intolerant of deviation.  This is Razib at Gene Expression making some observations.  I’ve been reading this guy for years and he’s pretty sharp.  Specifically, he’s good at analyzing research studies.

The unspoken assumption is that looseness is good and the US is very loose and that’s a reflection of our virtue, but that we need to understand “tight” countries so we can deal with them.  There’s a little hint of “well, we must be patient because they’ve had hard times.” 

One of the relevant variables considered was population density, about which the researchers were a little conflicted.  They feel that the denser the population, the more there are niches and bubbles, which amount to looseness, but Iceland has very low density and a loose population, so maybe the less space competition, the less one has to conform?  But strangely, the population density of a country in 1500 was highly relevant to their attitudes now. 

Is the relative tightness of Asian countries due to their population density or something cultural or even something genetic?  Are religions that are focused on conformity the result or the cause of the tightness of a country?  There doesn’t seem to be much attention paid to the influence of the environment -- some places are tougher to live in and require more group cooperation.  There was mention of ag-based lives versus industrial or corporate or bureaucratic -- however you define it.  Urban.  They took no account of undercultures, particularly criminals which can be stabilizing to the point of paralysis or totally destabilizing in a situation like drug cartel Mexico.

I also think about enclaves of people who prefer looseness but live in a tight society, like Unitarians in the Bible Belt.  In my experience, they like looseness only in certain dimensions and require conformity to the norms of the in-group.  As an individual who is a free-thinker and a free-styler in personal habits, I’m happy to live in a relatively “tight” town because the things they want conformity to are things I already do anyway: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t drive around fast, sleep around, etc.  The only problem is they want my house and yard to be nicer than I can afford, but they understand poverty and old age.

It’s harder to understand enclaves of people who prefer tightness in a loose society.  Convents, I suppose, but also cults and -- to some degree -- schools.  The real reason I’m reading this stuff is to try to solve the on-going struggles in Heart Butte where what seems to be a loose society demands tightness from their school, but not really.

Last night on “All Things Considered,” the latest college athletics scandal was discussed and once again it was proposed that education and sports competition should be separated.  It strikes me that sports goals are best pursued as “tight” communities, indeed, filtered for skill and determination.   But education goals can be developed either as “tight” (meeting all those Bushy testing goals) or as “loose,” supporting every student in his or her style and interests.  But only a private school can be “tight” in the way an athletic team is, discarding anyone who doesn’t fit.  And “loose” can become aimless wandering.  Or just disruptive.

Today’s NYTimes has an article about the distress of “loose” teachers (specifically,loose-lipped on Facebook) trying to enforce tight standards, though they don’t set up the discussion that way.  The precipitating incidents were teachers complaining about how much they despised their students.  I sympathize.  Students who dislike their teachers, who hear their parents mocking and berating them, who hate being regimented in any way, can be monsters of balking, sabotaging, attacking. 

They always make me remember a movie from the Fifties in which Annie Oakley was substituting in a frontier one-room school house.  The “big boys” smarted off.  She pulled her six-gun, forced them to put their inkpots on their heads and then shot the inkpots so they ended up with ink running down their smart aleck faces.

A contrasting incident is when I was briefly teaching in an adjacent town and had a class that had deliberately run off their previous teacher, a young man.  They did what they pleased throughout the school and it was fairly transgressive, though not as much as they thought.  They were unhappy, mostly, because they were skilled athletes and being exploited for the prestige of the coaches and administration.  They sort-of knew it, but couldn’t get outside the conformity of small-town team adulation.  I was shaking my head over them when I went to eat my lunch sandwich and sat down with some veteran teachers.  “What would you do with these boys?”  I asked.  The answer was immediate:  “Kill them.”  And they meant it.  Annie Oakley, aiming low.

The irony was that some of these boys will kill themselves, one way or another.

The people doing the study were particularly concerned with immigration, where persons of one style move into another society with quite a different set of unspoken “rules.”  Such people understandably express much isolation and bafflement.  Sometimes they throw themselves into being “more American than Americans” and other times they define themselves as outliers and stay in a tight little defensive band like buffalo facing wolves. 

A school that has teachers from “outside” as Heart Butte did in the two years I was there is going to have trouble.  The grade school teachers had over the years assimilated to the village or maybe had come from the local scene anyway.  But high school teachers came from outside -- sometimes quite different places.  They were a shock and since they came as a group, they reinforced each other.

Structural considerations, matters of style, nearly unconscious standards and definitions, are all on the table these days -- partly because of our internal differences which have grown to the level of legislative gridlock and partly because of the difficulty in resolving international problems without simply bombing hell out of them with predator drones.  Bin Laden managed to seriously dislocate our assumptions, justifying a LOT of tightening.  Whether we can find looseness that isn’t simply, well, “floppy,” will be a long task, maybe more than the economic crash.  Anyway, how much does the commodification of everything promote “tightness” (gotta have a certain lifetyle) or “looseness” (deregulation in order to make money).

It’s interesting that bin Laden’s prestige and power were not much affected by demonizing him.  In fact, that possibly made him more powerful.  What has deflated him in a commodified world was discovering that he lived so “poorly” in a “bare room” with “old furniture” and a blanket over his shoulders, watching vids on a monitor that wasn’t even flat screen.

1 comment:

Karen Scott said...

The "two cultures" of tight and loose can exist within one culture, depending on circumstances. I was raised in a tight family culture, and liked the order and firmness of an old traditional school. My grandchild's school is much looser, and I think better since it accepts variation better.
The Japanese islands can be compared to England in many ways. The old Japanese culture was much tighter and produced much more skilled art than English culture. But England, too, had tight class systems and standards of behavior. W. W. II changed both cultures, but the English and Japanese are still not welcoming to immigrants or change. Change seems to be difficult for all humans, everywhere, perhaps because predictability gives us the illusion of safety. Now Japan is looser, but I don't think better. And England, much like the USA, is unsure what it is.

Other studies have shown that too many choices makes life harder for people, not easier. So multiculturalism really doesn't work
very well when it comes into conflict with, say, the American Constitution and amendments guaranteeing freedom of thought and religion. Should a pluralistic culture be tighter or looser?