The human categorization machine

Sorting ourselves.

Belonging and membership can teach us about trust and collaboration. It can also reinforce the the categorization we use to segregate and separate one another. Future Community (that’s this newsletter) is about how people build the future together. Subscribe here.

Lulu Miller, the author of Why Fish Don’t Exist and co-host of Radiolab, recently spoke with Brooke Gladstone for WNYC’s On the Media. Miller says something during the episode, titled One Man’s Dark Obsession with Ordering the World, says this about the book and its historical subject, taxonomist David Starr Jordan:

The work of being a good human is to keep real vigilant curiosity about the creatures trapped underneath our categories.

Miller is referring to fish which, you may know or discover while reading the book, are real things but don’t exist as a separate category of living things.

Miller is also referring to people and all the ways we categorize one another. David Starr Jordan was a leading eugenecist during the first half of the 20th Century. A rigorous scientific mind couldn’t keep him from sorting people into non-scientific categories used to define their value to society.

(You might want to listen to that full episode of On the Media because the accompanying conversation with Professor Lilliana Mason about political identity and polarization is a fascinating and timely complement.)

Categorization instead of collaboration

Getting involved in advocacy, civic, community and political organizations is almost universally considered a social good. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is a seminal tome of how disengagement in civic life has weakened our communities and social fabric.

Belonging to membership organizations – PTAs, neighborhood groups, even political parties – can foster the muscles of collaboration and understanding. We learn partnership, create solutions together, and often work from shared values instead of personal interest.

Heck, membership and civic participation can improve health, according to Healthy People 2020, research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But humans look for simple ways to define ourselves and others. And our membership sort us into factions based on that urge “trap” ourselves with categorization. Environmental groups are liberal. Hunting groups are conservative. Chamber of Commerce members are more conservative. The categorization becomes accepted. We stick to those groups, collaborate internally and lose the ability to work outside those categories. We label one another from afar.

Membership bubbles

The 1996 essay Individualism and the Crisis of Civic Membership points out the limitations of community engagement in ways that now seem quaint but prophetic. Robert N. Bellah and his co-writers is a rejoinder to Putnam’s use of America’s declining social capital (Bowling Alone began with a 1995 essay by Putnam).

Bellah and his colleagues identify structural issues in America, including racism and what they call neo-capitalism, that create barriers to useful civic collaboration that no amount of membership can overcome alone:

...segregation by class arising from differential housing costs is increasingly evident in suburban America. Thus it is quite possible that in "getting involved" with one's neighborhood or even with one's suburban town one will never meet someone of a different race or class. One will not be exposed to the reality of life of people in circumstances different from one's own.

The last few years seem like an extreme but perhaps predictable endpoint to Bellah’s critique. We seem more polarized than before. Not less. Geography, color, economic status, education, what we watch on TV, the groups we support and the Facebook groups to which we belong. They only seem to amplify the filter bubbles and harden our categories.

Overcoming categorization and individualism

Bellah points to America’s deep individualism narrative, one that regained solid footing in neoliberalism of the 1980s and 90s, as the problem.

The “individualism” narrative is powerful. It makes us look for individual solutions to (and individual responsibility for) structural problems that no individual can solve. It also tells us that taking an action – making a social media statement, making a vote, even “getting involved”– is all we need to do. We become symbolic participants in our community. Not accountable actors. We took action. Others didn’t.

So how do we work structural change into our civic life, organizations and even membership work? How do we engage members in ways that help members, organizations and society? Some ideas:

  • Create more civic life. Not less.

  • Do more and support more solutions-oriented membership.

  • Create leaders and problem solvers. Not just donors and members.

  • Help leaders move on, step back and replace themselves. In other words, create space for community-led leadership.

  • Expose structural barriers. Talk about and address race, economics and class divides.

  • Leadership that recognizes the power of structural components and the power of individualism. 

  • Don’t just react and solve today’s problem. Identify and describe what a better future is and how you get there.

These seem insufficient to the systemic challenges we face. But recognizing the need to do more and work harder to expand the scope of community is a start.

The good stuff.

What we’ve read lately.

Polyvocal narrative: why many different voices make narrative change work.

Collaboration is a muscle that organizations need to practice, use and build over time. Eugene Eric Kim shares what he’s learned over years of helping groups solve problems together. 

Don’t undervalue consultants whose first question is “what do you really need?” Local Welcome on 5 things we did before hiring a tech lead.

Ethan Zuckerman on digital infrastructure and why we need spaces and systems designed for many ways we can have digital civic interactions.

Where to look for (mostly) academic jobs in political science in the US and abroad. Fabulous list of lists from Anna Meier.

Black Lives Matter protests in Gunnison County showed people of color they have more allies than they realized. Keep thinking about this recent story in the Colorado Sun. It’s a story about the power of social proof and taking a stand. We also rely too much on people of color to do the hard work of standing up for what’s right.

“Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” A clarifying statement if there ever was one. Anne Helen Petersen talks with sociologist Jessica Colarco about her research on moms and the pandemic.


Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash.