Family, Clans, Tribes, and other Social ‘Networks’

“You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family,” Anonymous

In working my way down the sequence from civilizations to trying ultimately to apply Toynbee’s arguments to the individual, the next post was to see if Toynbee’s arguments from A Study of History would apply to groupings smaller than ‘organizations.’ I began to wrestle with the questions, “What are other groupings that aren’t formal organizations, and is there any simple way to characterize them?” After all, the term ‘organization’ as we understand it is defined as covering a wide variety of large, formally organized groups of people who are joined for specific purposes. What about smaller groups who are not formally organized?

A workable ‘resolution’ to those questions grew to be complex and long enough to demand a separate, introductory post by itself. So, here you have it, albeit a bit longer than usual, my thoughts on using the ‘trendy’ term ‘Network’ to describe various and broader types of groups that appear to fall into this ‘not-so-formally-organized’ category.

Family, Clans, Tribes, and Other Social ‘Networks’

Times are changing and as a consequence the opening cliché should probably be updated,

“You can pick your network, but you can’t pick your family, clan or tribe.”

Looking at the implications of this trite but accurate cliché, I think there are actually four distinct groupings here, each of significant consequence. Consider the following:

Related networks:       These would be groups of people who have inherited characteristics in common, ones that you do not choose (but which can also include some cultural and behavioral aspects). For instance, consider your

-Immediate family (a subset of a clan, typically and historically related by a common family name), and

-Extended family (the larger clan, and the tribe, which historically are related clans but with differing family names);

Relational networks:  These would be groups of people who have chosen characteristics (culture, as well as values) in common – these members you can choose and possibly change over time. For instance, consider your

-Close friends, and

-Extended contacts (a social network, to which your Dunbar number applies.  This is one of my Thought Provoking Articles from 2013). These might include neighborhood friends, friends at work or within an organized group or profession, mentors, advisors, etc.

These are the four simple groups for ‘Networks’ I have chosen here, characterized by relative size and certain membership qualifications (‘inherited’ or ‘chosen’ characteristics).

In reality, these four groupings are not quite perfect, as there will be Relational networks within Related networks (consider families with ‘some’ compatible and incompatible relationships, for instance, or similarly skilled workers within a family owned business), and Related networks within Relational networks (families members within an organization).

But for simplicity, consider how large your immediate family is versus your extended family, and then consider the size of a larger related people grouping (clan or tribe) you could also be associated with (Irish, Japanese, Navajo, etc.). The latter is probably far larger than any organization, and is itself not ‘organized,’ but for better or worse is often considered as a group.

As an example, the business I ran manufactured custom medical devices whose manufacture demanded carefully detailed manual work. We were predominantly staffed with workers whom corporate Human Resources preferred to categorize on forms simply as Hispanic, Asian or some other group. Privately, however, many took a moment to individually let me know that they were not Hispanic, but Guatemalan, Mexican, Spanish, Portuguese, or El Salvadoran. I learned something new everyday, and now 20 years later it contributed to a potentially greater understanding, again.

Network Purposes

The purpose of an organization was described in an earlier post in its simple definition: people working together to fulfill a specified goal. But what purpose(s) do networks play? In fact, one could also now ask, even though Toynbee began dealing with this directly, what purpose does a ‘civilization’ play?

For the first group, Related networks, the main purpose (stated or professed) I think appears to be twofold:

-1st: Immediate Survival, primarily just staying alive, and

-2nd: Propagation of the given or inherited aspects, that is, providing offspring to carry on the family name, heritage, values, and culture, whatever those may be.

For Relational networks, the main purpose (again stated or professed) appears more to be the encouragement and maintenance of chosen values, characteristics, and culture, as a means of their survival and propagation. Think here of immigrants who congregate together in larger communities for mutual support (Little Italy, Chinatown, etc.)

On a smaller scale, we pick our close friends for common values and interests and are open to sharing and developing them. They affirm us. Professional associations would fall into this category.

The Dunbar Number represents the average size of a (relational) network group that an average individual can develop and maintain while having mutually beneficial two-way influence and affirmation. Studies show this is number has historically been about 150 people across differing cultures and circumstances. How many ‘friends’ on Facebook do you really have interactions with or care about? Notice that this number is drastically smaller than the size of a typical clan or tribe, or organization or community, however.

What about a civilization? I don’t think we consciously think of ourselves as being part of a ‘civilization,’ although possibly we are aware that we are part of a ‘culture,’ a particular set of attributes and values that defines us.

The ‘civilization’ label appears to arise when people find they are describing or studying a people group that is much larger than any single tribe, or some archeologists and anthropologists dig up some artifacts and declare, “We must be dealing with a lost civilization!” This is similar to calling a flock of geese a ‘gaggle.’ The geese flock together for survival and propagation purposes as well as common values (they look and behave alike), but they have no idea they have formed a ‘gaggle,’ or goosey civilization. Whatever.

Similarly, we have no idea we are in a ‘civilization’ other than historians and others tell us so. Which makes Toynbee’s observations ever more interesting: If we don’t know we’re in ‘One,’ how do we have any influence over ‘It?’  Very simply, through our Practiced Behaviors.

Practiced Behaviors

It becomes more interesting then to look at these four groups’ Practiced Behaviors, or, in other words, how they execute their specific Purposes.

For Related networks, we have all experienced in our smaller family units the differences that appear among our offspring and siblings. You have a sibling you just cannot connect with. Or, you have a wonderful first child and think you’re wonderful parents who ‘get it,’ and then number two comes along and destroys your thesis. And for number three you just throw up your hands, so to speak.

In keeping with the family’s above purposes as a related network, parents (and siblings and often the extended family) work towards instilling common values and principles and guiding behaviors so that each child develops to be able to use their strengths and make a contribution to society, thus aiding survival and propagation. The Practiced Behaviors are (or should be) primarily building and reinforcing of individual strengths and capabilities. Parents, as Toynbee’s ‘dominant minority,’ are also the primary source of acquired values, principles, and culture. At least until adolescence when parents often find that others in the ‘village’ may have been salting the well.

Looking more closely at the extended family, we all have experienced distant members with ‘unusual giftings.’ Every extended family has its black sheep, odd Uncle Harry and/or weird Aunt Alice (or maybe someone closer). We generally tolerate them in the rare family reunions. Our response is more toleration since we don’t have to live with them. But they are still family.

A decisive and detectable change, however, comes when we look at the larger clan or tribe (collection of clans). While the Professed Behavior is to provide for the survival of the group’s values, principles and culture, its Practiced Behavior seems to shift. While shared values and traditions are encouraged and reinforced (main purpose), deviations from these are more often subjected to correction or punishment. The Practiced Behavior then appears to shift from encouraging to enforcing. Members not aligning with traditional values, traditions, and culture (thinking and behaviors) are often shunned, blackballed, or even possibly excommunicated. Consider Romeo and Juliet, or more recently, the conviction of a Somali woman who converted to Christianity.

Consider also that very often this enforcement of cultural values is not just performed by the ‘dominant minority,’ but is often performed by committed members of the ‘non-dominant majority,’ the ‘internal proletariat’ operating but under the permissive watch or approval of the ‘dominant minority.’ Also known as ‘peer pressure.’ For an example here, see the article concerning the government’s apparent role in the anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

When we lived in The Netherlands we observed various cultural behaviors including weekly garden weeding and raking as well as weekly window washing (always large windows and always curtains open).   Both had origins from The Netherlands being an occupied country during World War II, the former behavior to maintain a reacquired cleanliness and neatness, and the latter to be able to keep an eye on who might or might not be cooperating with the occupation. Privately, friends related that both were a bother, but did them anyway due to social pressure. And while living in Eastern European, we would routinely hear gripes about corruption, but in practice there was an unwillingness or inability due to social pressure to refrain from participating in it when beneficial. There are ample examples in this country also, adolescent peer pressure to urban gangs.

A reason for this I think can be seen in a reasonable conjecture of how and why ‘cultures’ developed. In the early development of man and his survival, it was critical for each family/clan/tribe to know who was ‘one of us,’ and what defined who ‘we’ are and what ‘we’ do. This was/is a good thing.

But every coin has a flip side – there are no one-sided coins.

The flip side of culture’s positive ‘who is one of us’ is the negative ‘who is NOT one of us.’ Too often that consideration becomes the primary unproductive purpose of looking at or enforcing cultural differences.  Also known as ‘racism.’

In relational networks, we are all more likely to foster building relationships and activities that promote our shared values and principles, whether this is a professional association or simply ‘friends’ in a social network. It is instructional to see that every digital Social Network provides a simple and non-pejorative means to ‘unfriend’ or ‘unfollow’ someone else. Nice.

It is also instructional to look at larger relational networks, such as political parties or their sub-parties, and see that ugly labeling and shunning techniques are still quite often the norm. Short-term survival rather than long-term strategic building, I think.

That’s enough of a picture, I think, to move on to the next part, seeing if Toynbee’s arguments can/will be applicable to these four groupings. In the meantime,

What Relational networks are you a part of? Which of these are at work and which outside of work?

What Relational network are you a part of within your Related (family) network?

How does the size of your Relational network compare with the Dunbar Number?

Next: Toynbee and Networks


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, Lessons from History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Family, Clans, Tribes, and other Social ‘Networks’

  1. Bill Clarkson says:

    One of the largest difficulties that college graduates face when they enter the workforce is the whole “assimilation/socialization/orientation” sequence….becoming maze bright, learning the unspoken societal rules, etc. It doesn’t get any easier as you move through your career, especially when you jump sectors – business –> church, or church –> higher ed, or back to business.

    Your blog points out how important relationship is when “tackling the new.”


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