June 1, 2011

Tight and loose societies

There's a new cross-cultural study out that measures what they call tightness vs. looseness within a range of modern and developing countries. By "tight" they mean that individuals in those places do not have a whole lot of wiggle room in their daily behavior across a variety of social contexts. "Loose" means that people are cut a lot more slack if they deviate from what they're expected to do in those contexts.

To clear up a potential confusion, they are not interested at all in what the expected behavior is -- only the permissible variation or deviation from that expectation. For example, some object that Japan cannot be a tight society because you're more allowed to say things there that would be considered politically incorrect in the West. That only means that the Japanese average is more in the un-PC direction than the American average. As for the range around each country's average, only a clueless moron would not notice that the country that gave us the proverb, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down," is more formal, hierarchical, and hypersensitive about norm violations.

Likewise, you might find a group where atheism is the norm -- which would seem to Westerners as a more iconoclastic society -- but where no deviation from that norm is allowed, like the Communist countries. Within our own society, everyone gets a good laugh from those who style themselves as non-conformists simply because their clique's average is different from some other clique's average, while internally almost no variation is allowed. You wear the wrong faggot emo band's t-shirt, and you're not one of us non-conformists anymore. You criticize the sacrosanct leaders of the whiny indie scene, and you're excommunicated as a heretic. You choose yesterday's non-mainstream cuisine -- Greek instead of Spanish -- and you can't hang out with us trend-bucking foodies anymore.

On this measure of tolerance for variation, here is how the countries studied compare with each other, and with the average across all of them (click to enlarge):

Some of the values are a little suspect. The American measurement was done in the DC metro area, probably the most conformist place outside of the Boston or New York metro areas. If they'd chosen a place further out west, they would have gotten a much lower value. Still the ranking looks about right. Spain's value seems a little too low, and it was taken from people in Valencia. Had they gone to Madrid or Barcelona, where the desire to "see and be seen" is greater, the value would have been higher. The French survey was given in the English language, so I'm curious who they're studying in the Parisian suburb of Cregy -- perhaps a fair amount of non-French who come from more do-what-you-feel cultures. France should be at least several spots higher in the ranking. And the UK group came from Brighton, which gathering from their Wikipedia entry and not personal experience, sounds more like a haven for yuppies and semi-autistic tech professionals (who cannot tolerant anyone else's view being different from their own). I'd be curious to see how more northern groups, or the Scottish or Irish, would score. And India's value comes from the northwestern region near Pakistan, not from around the country as a whole.

I won't cover the correlations that the authors found between tightness and various historical and ecological variables. Razib has touched on some of them already. I'll get to those when I review Mary Douglas' concepts of "grid" and "group" from her book Natural Symbols. Briefly, "grid" is what these authors mean by tightness. ("Group" means how large of a group an individual feels strongly connected to, like solidarity or "asabiya," for readers of Ibn Khaldun or Peter Turchin.) Douglas also presents a much richer picture of how high-grid and low-grid cultures differ, and her ethnographic cases are from a wider range of cultures. After that, I will tie her concepts into my model of how violence rates affect life over time (this dynamic aspect is left aside in both Douglas' book and the study looked at here).

For now, I'll just throw out some predictions that would be worth looking into. In the authors' model of how the tightness of a group maintains itself, they include psychological mechanisms such as "self-monitoring," which I'll just call self-consciousness. The link is straightforward: the less leeway you are permitted to wander away from the societal expectation, the more alert you must be to potential transgressions you might make in daily life. The more you can stray from the average, the more you can dial down the spotlight in your mind that polices the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

- Lower self-consciousness makes a person easier to hang out with, since the goal of hanging out is to lower your own self-consciousness and go with the flow of the conversation and interaction. Are Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Estonians easier to get along with than English, Austrians, and Norwegians?

- Related to that, looser societies should be more sought-after by men who want an easy-going girlfriend or wife. The mail-order bride crowd seems to go nuts over women from the Ukraine and Estonia, and not just because of their better looks. They always mention the personalities of girls there. Is this lower self-consciousness part of what they're detecting? The guys who look more to Japan and China do not seem motivated to find a free spirit but rather someone who will just do what they're told, in which case higher self-consciousness would be chosen.

- It's easier to lose yourself mentally and physically in a crowd-feeling when you shut off your self-consciousness. So do looser societies find it easier to start up and join in a carnivalesque atmosphere? The low rankings of Venezuela, Brazil, and Greece, compared to the high rankings of East Asia, would seem to support that. Even among the Anglo countries, every touring rock band says that Australian and American audiences "give back" a lot more to the performers compared to English audiences, meaning they work themselves into more of a trance-like state, submerging their self-awareness under the frenzy of the crowd.

- Shutting off the rational, self-aware lobe of the brain must also make it easier for a girl to just go with the flow of a physical adventure and ultimately reach orgasm. So in less tight societies, girls should be more warm and yielding, vs. frigid and postponing in tighter societies.

- The appeal of popular music, as compared to higher art music, is to wash away the listener's self-consciousness so they can "just let go," "lose control," and so on. Lower self-consciousness will also help the musicians, as creativity requires zoning out somewhat and taking in a larger expanse of possible combinations. Nothing kills any form of art more than the sense that the artist was too self-aware and forcing it. Since few countries make most of the world's popular music, it's hard to tell from the chart how much support there is. Bear in mind that France's value is too low in the ranking, and the UK's too high (most of their pop music came from farther north in England, and particularly from Celtic people either in their homelands or after migration to England). There seems to be some good support, but it's hard to tell. In any case, it would be better to study the individual musicians vs. non-musicians, or die-hard music fans vs. musically apathetic people, to see whether tightness affects someone's enjoyment of music. Seems obvious enough to me, but still worth a look.

- The same goes for dancing, not surprisingly since music is so closely tied to it. Do people in looser cultures find it easier to cut footloose, especially in a more improvisational style? The Pakistani and northwestern Indian groups would appear to be a good counter-example, since they can cut a little rug, although isn't this usually still in a more formalized setting rather than people doing whatever comes to them on the dance floor? One thing I've noticed in every western European club I've been to is that they don't get as wild and trance-like as Americans do. I know that Australians are rowdier people in general, but what about specifically in the context of going out to dance at a nightclub?

- Are nicknames more common in looser societies? Another one that seems obvious, but would still be worth quantifying. The Prime Minister of Israel is called Bibi, while the President of (relatively) tighter America is not called Barry but Barack.

- The authors report higher importance of God and higher religious attendance in tighter societies, but there is something more important to look at -- how hierarchical vs. egalitarian their religious groups are. The less formal Anglo countries have a flatter hierarchy than the more formal Catholic European countries. Even within America, the more hierarchical Episcopalians flourish in areas of higher formality such as the east coast, while the egalitarian Holy Ghost People flourish in Appalachia, a slightly less formal part of the country. Zooming out, strict filial piety dominates religious life in tight East Asia, whereas the interaction between mortals and gods is more reciprocal in the pagan religions of Europe and the monotheistic religions of the Near East.

- Returning to the role of music and dance in cultural and social life, tighter groups should show less incorporation of these in their religious activities. The lower a person's basal level of self-consciousness, the easier they will be able to get into a trance-like or possessed state of mind. Behavioral abandon driven by spirit possession plays a huge role in much of Brazilian religious life, at least at the popular level, vs. not at all in Chinese and Japanese religions. Even within America, the Holy Ghost People let themselves go to dancing, speaking in tongues, and music that makes you get up and move. Spirit possession plays a far smaller role among Episcopalians.

Plenty more, but those are just some that come to mind.


  1. Agnostic,
    It's gotten to where when I come across anything that screams, "Celtic", I think of this blog...

    The Holy Ghost people made me think of Bill Monroe's "Workin on a Building" with its lines about it being a "Holy Ghost Building"; it's my favorite country/blue grass song, but the one on youtube isn't worthy. The PBS documentary, "The Appalachians" featured it, though.

    Anyway, there's a song I love that absolutely makes me think of you as it deals with some of your themes: Celts, passion, letting go, and youth.
    It's not normally the kind of thing I like, but it is just so genuine, has those four attributes in spades, and is just a well-written, yet simple song. It's a heartfelt song about a young guy just wanting to kick back. That's all. It doesn't try hard to be "redneck" or anything (ex. "Redneck Yacht Club"). It's the best song of the year in my opinion:


    Eric Church's "Smoke a Little Smoke"
    I especially love the last minute.

  2. Neat thing about bluegrass and the singing in Holy Ghost people -- look at how flatter the hierarchy is among the musicians, where at least two people contribute a lot to the singing.

    You also used to see that in the '70s and '80s when the lead singer would get all chummy with another guy in the band (having both sing into the mic, putting his arm around him in a no-homo way), just to show he didn't think he was the god of the band.

    Watching that Craig Morgan video reminds me how much I hate rednecks. Looks like he's from Tennessee, but obviously catering to the more hierarchical southeast ("deep south"), where the McMansion crowd would go for the white equivalent of a music video with yachts, bling-bling, and $1000-an-hour strippers in the background. Bastion of morals and spirituality my ass.

    Wikipedia says Eric Church is from western NC, and went to Appalachian State University. You can tell he's more hillbilly / mountain man than redneck. Didn't dig the song that much, but at least it's not bling-bling, and instead of a yacht there's a red '70s coupe tearing off in the background.

  3. Probably one of the reasons we don't have nicknames for Obama is his race. We've had nicknames and ephitets for most presidents in our past - Dubya, Slick Willie, Tricky Dick, the Gipper, Dutch, Jimmy, Mr. Nice Guy, the King of Camelot, Give 'em Hell Harry, Ike - not to mention acronyms. The only thing I can think of for Obama is "No Drama Obama", and that came around before he was elected. I think the reason we don't throw nicknames on him is that PC white people are a little more reluctant to throw names around when dealing with minorities. Something a little too tinged with racism gets you ostracized from the SWPL crowd, so we like to err on the side of formality. And you also get SWPL points for pronouncing foreign names in their original accent. Also, I think the PC crowd gets a little tingle by reciting a name with two Arabic components, as if it were an implicit FU to his Arab-baiting predecessor. Remember the innaugural ball, when the announcer said, not "Barack H. Obama", but "Barack HUSSEIN Obama". Again, the thrill of sweet revenge.

  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cs2j8f7H2WY&feature=related

    Video of people dancing to bluegrass music. It's really good, especially the second part where there are just two men dancing.

  5. Can you comment on the methodology used to measure tightness vs looseness?


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