Generally in speeches anecdotes are more reliable than jokes. It helps that they are personal, even better if they are true. There’s a story about a brutal put down I suffered as a County Councillor which I must have told a thousand times - it’s never once let me down.
It’s only fair I guess that when I make up, or wildly exaggerate, a story it doesn’t always go so well. After trying it out a few times with limited success, I have dropped the one about hearing a boys’ football coach shouting at his team ‘the reason we’re 4-0 behind at half-time comes down to the three T’s: The defence, the midfield and the attack’. I have actually heard comments nearly as dumb as this but not, I have to admit, this one.
I use the story in self-deprecation when listing points that I have managed to contrive to have the same opening letter. You know the kind of thing: success depends on planning, purpose, priorities, passion and poinsettias.
Which is all by way of excusing my retreat into intellectual laziness in response to the brilliant and bewildering comments I received over the weekend in reply to my Friday post on small groups. Making lists and classifying things is generally a very facile way of tackling concepts; I should know, this was more or less all I did as a sociology undergraduate.
But as I ran home from work tonight (to keep fit, I wasn’t being pursued by enraged Fellows), and, as I tried to keep at bay a rising pessimism over whether the idea of a study of the working of small groups makes any sense, I found myself reverting to typologies of small voluntary groups.
For example, in terms of group purpose we might distinguish between a finite/narrow purpose (for example, a campaign to keep a library open or stop a supermarket chain opening a store on the village high street) and an open ended/broad purpose (for example, an environmental group seeking to raise awareness of green issues). As groups evolve, finite purposes can often shift into broader campaigns and open-ended purposes can often be broken down into finite aims, but does this change the group dynamics?
It then occurred to me – partly because one of the Friday comments referred to how several roundtable groups organize local firework displays - that some group purposes are episodic and that this may be a particular characteristic of rural groups, relating to annual events like the summer fete or the Ambridge Christmas pantomime.
Another dimension is the degree to which aims are devolved or emerge locally. Local political parties will tend to use materials and respond to instructions from national HQ. There is, then, a continuum to entirely independent local groups. One of the most enjoyable organisations I joined was Leamington Spa anti-apartheid. While we got our inspiration from an international campaign (this was the late '80s and there hadn't been apartheid in Leamington Spa for at least a decade) and sometimes participated in national events, nearly everything we did emerged as ideas from our own meetings above a pub.
So what does this all tell us? Almost certainly absolutely nothing, apart from confirmation that typologies are a device for the conceptually craven. But by creating the paper-thin illusion that I have still got some momentum, it has at least allowed me to get to bedtime without abandoning as impossible the whole idea of writing intelligently about small groups. That’s my excuse for posting, you'll have to work out your own for reading to the end.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.