Okay, here is a short video with a broad outline of the Dunbar thesis… a fuzzy concept, but not necessarily invalid on that account.
The reason it’s fuzzy is because Dunbar’s number – 150 as the fuzzy constant – is the number of significant relationships a person can manage without interlocutors, that is, emotional cut-outs who attend to administration, management, and conflict resolution.
If you are my hiking buddy twice a week and my second cousin, we have a primary relationship. If you are my insurance agent or my boss, we have a formal, rule-mediated relationship.
I can only handle about 150 I-care-you-care relationships… for the simple reason that this number reaches certain cognitive limits that may be organic, and because there is simply not enough time for more without diffusing the quality of all relationships.
Obviously, the number is fuzzy, because with changes in culture come changes in relationships – so there’s that shifting boundary in addition to existing cultural variability – and relationships themselves are difficult to define precisely because they are not quantifiable.
One could go on and on about what is imprecise about this claim; but imprecision is not sufficient to dismiss the general concept.
We do have some limits on our temporal and cognitive capacities to do the things we need to do to maintain our personal, unmediated relationships.
So if we want to use 150 as a hypothetical constant, and it turns out to be – as it likely is – variable across some range, then the range itself is a valid premise for further fuzzy conclusions… again, whose fuzziness is not sufficient to dismiss them.
If you can’t provisionally accept that, then stop here, because this is one of the premises upon which I will base a kind of conclusion.
The next premise is that the break between primary and secondary relationships, that is, covenantal and contractual relationships, is a break where mutual care is replaced by the structural suspicion between the secondary relations.
A boss, an administrator, a manager or even a specialized conflict resolver will always put systems and rules before care. In fact, care is antithetical to the foundation of rule-based relations. They become the caretakers of impersonality, invested personally in impersonality; and that impersonality accrues power to itself over and against the individual.
In friendship or kinship, the relationship is not one of mutual suspicion (created by rules), but of mutual aid… or, if you will, service.
I’m not prepared to say that all institutions, administrative apparatuses, management, and governance organizations should be abolished outright.
First, it’s an absurd fantasy; and second, we can’t possibly know the consequences, given that society is currently self-organized around its formal organizations. Massive institutional disruptions do not always spell liberation. 2008-to-now is an institutional disruption, and we aren’t free of capital yet. On the contrary, we are seeing a terrible surge of suffering.
What I am prepared to say is that we ought to begin right now subjecting every institution to scrutiny, and work against the institutional tendency to transform from an in-itself into a for-itself.
Every time friends become a committee, we ought to exercise the precautionary principle; because our desire to get bigger and stronger to pursue tempo tasks can blind us to the more formidable strength we risk losing by neglecting – and underestimating – primary relations.
If we spend 80 percent of our time managing secondary relationships, then we need to figure out how we can flip that to 80 percent of our time nurturing primary relationships.
One of the reasons we have so little power to act creatively in the face of so many crises is that we are fragmented, yes, but cut off in a much deeper way by the lack of social cohesion that can only happen in the small, intimate group.
It is not hyperbole to say, I don’t think, that Management is the enemy of social cohesion, because it substitutes secondary weak bonds for primary strong ones.
It only seems symmetrical to suggest that by restrengthening primary bonds, we develop a greater capacity to resist, but also to creatively adapt to, the forces that seem so threatening now.
I’d welcome other thoughts.