Five Scales of Microsolidarity

Probably the most distinctive piece of microsolidarity theory is the focus on group size: one of the "core competencies" of a microsolidarity practitioner is to develop a literacy of scales, to understand how a group of 4 is different from a group of 12 or 12,000. We’re learning the social physics of belonging.

The only theory you need to grasp is that different-sized groups are good for different things.

Unfortunately in English, we are missing words for different types of groups. When I say "group of people", I could mean 3, or 300, or 3 million. These missing words are symptomatic of missing ideas and skills. In microsolidarity we use some new words, to be more precise and to develop a sensitivity to the unique qualities of groups of different sizes.

Currently there are 5 group sizes that we’re interested in:

  1. The self-as-a-group

  2. The dyad (2 people)

  3. The crew (about 3-5)

  4. The congregation (about 15-150)

  5. The network of congregations

1: the Self

The first group has only one person, it’s Me (or You). Maybe it’s peculiar to think of an individual as a group, but I found it really useful to think of myself as a collection of parts, a network of overlapping identities who share custody of this body called Me.

This way of thinking has been used, for example, in formal therapeutic modalities like Internal Family Systems and Transactional Analysis. You’ll also notice it in informal usage, for example when you say, "there’s a part of me who wants X, but another part wants Y..."

**The metaphor of self-as-group highlights the parallels between how I relate to the different parts of myself and how I relate to other people.

For example, there’s a part of me who’s anxious as I’m typing this, feeling uncertain, imagining there are people out there reading and evaluating my competence as a writer. I want to do a good job, I want to impress you, and this anxious part can catastrophise and say, "Oh, you're doing a terrible job Rich, this is not working, this sucks, you suck!" It's easy for this anxious character to take up a lot of space.

I get to choose how I relate to the anxious parts of myself. There's one mode where I can try to squash them down, push them out, disown them. My mental narrator puts on a brave loud voice and says, "Anxiety is not welcome here! What's needed is confidence and certainty. Just shut up and go away!"

I don't know about you, but this attempt to disown my anxious parts doesn't actually do much to address my anxiety. It’s not effective for me.

An alternative approach is to treat that part of me kindly, like I would treat a friend. "Hey man, how's it going? What do you need? It's okay, people are not going to be judging you intensely. If you don’t write everything perfectly, it's probably fine. Do you want to take a break?"

There's a way I can relate to the anxious parts of me, which is more compassionate, more curious, more welcoming, and more calming.

I invite you to imagine how the relationship between the parts of yourself has a parallel to your relationships with other people. If I'm constantly trying to disown, or ignore, or dominate the anxious parts of myself, I’m going to have the same instinct when I see the anxious parts of you, right? If you come to me with anxiety, I'm going to be defensive and polarised against you, which is not going to be a great foundation for a warm trusting relationship. If I can learn to be more compassionate towards these parts of myself, I’ll be more available to be compassionate towards you.

The parallel works in both directions too; sometimes I find it easier to give compassion to my friends than to myself. So I can practice giving kindness to you, and use that as a kind of role model for how I treat the different parts of me that I have a hard time relating to.

This is a foundational part of the practice of microsolidarity: cultivating friendliness towards yourself, understanding that there are group dynamics going on between the parts of yourself that will affect how you show up in groups with other people.

ℹ️ Further reading:

  • Internal Family Systems (IFS) is one therapeutic modality that has extensively developed this "parts" metaphor. See this short video or this longer demonstration of IFS used in trauma therapy, or read this essay.

  • Or read Emmi Bevensee’s article on the "networked self" for an example of the parts metaphor outside of the IFS school of thought.

2: the Dyad

A Dyad is a relationship between two people.

Microsolidarity is deeply informed by Rianne Eisler’s work on partnership and domination. I’ll unpack that in a later essay, but for now we can use the oversimplified version:

  • Domination is imbalance, coercion, abuse, colonialism, the most controlling parent of the most acquiescent child.

  • Partnership is the balanced and consenting intimacy of two interdependent adults (could be a best friend, sibling, therapist, mentor, coach, imaginary friend, spirit guide, etc).

  • Domination is unilateral; partnership is reciprocal.

Speaking for myself: I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household, so while there was a lot of love in my family, there was also a strict authoritarian dimension. Our family had an explicit pecking order with the kids at the bottom, then mum, dad, church, and finally God at the top. This authoritarian principle continued at school: the teachers had the power to decide when I could speak, what ideas were acceptable, and when I could go to the toilet, and they’d physically punish me if I broke their rules. When I entered the workforce, there was the same domination-submission pattern: at first I had to submit to my boss, until eventually I reached a middle-management position where other people had to submit to me. Thankfully, I’ve also had friends, lovers, colleagues and collaborators that treat me as an equal peer: we relate as partners.

Take a second to scan through some of the important relationships in your life and see where they sit on the partnership-domination spectrum. Your story will be different to mine, but it’s a pretty safe bet that some of your formative relationships taught you more about domination & submission than about partnership.

So far I’ve only named fairly small groups (family, school, workplace), but this lens also applies to very large groups: think about the relation between women & men for instance. Most women have been taught to submit to men, and decades of feminist movement have only made partial progress on rectifying that balance.

The partnership-domination lens applies to all scales

You can dominate yourself, individuals dominate each other, and groups of all sizes get stuck in domination-submission relations too. Domination relationships are the root of all injustice, and partnership relationships are the root of all freedom.

Imagine what society would be like if all these domination relationships flipped into the partnership mode: I’m talking adult-to-adult, not parent-child relationships, from home to school to work to community to government. This is a vision of society that gets me super excited!

With just two people, an intentional dyad is one of the simplest places to observe relational dynamics. It can be a potent space for growth, healing, and self development, a place to notice when am I being more like a partner, and when am I being more like a dictator. In a dyad I can develop the fluency to come out of domination patterns and into partnership.

Honestly, I don’t know if we can create a partnership society. But I’m sure we’re more likely to get there if we know how to create partnerships at the Dyad scale.

Further reading:

  • My subsequent article on how we think about domination and partnership in microsolidarity communities.

  • Black vegan feminist Aph Ko argues that all oppression can be understood through the human-subhuman divide in their essay "Why Animal Liberation Requires an Epistemological Revolution" (chapter 15 of their book Aphro-ism).

  • Transactional Analysis is a therapeutic method for understanding interpersonal behaviour as parent-, child- or adult-like.

  • And check out ‘NO! Against Adult Supremacy’, an anthology of zines available online & in print arguing that all the domination & abuse in the world has its root in the dehumanisation of children.

3: the Crew

The third scale, I call the crew. I chose that word because I was thinking of the crew of a sailing ship, where everyone has a role to play: it’s active, dynamic, practical, engaged, all the parts are plugged into a coherent whole.

A crew is a very small group. The numbers are not precise, but I think about 3, 4, 5 or 6 people. It’s a group that can fit around a dinner table and have one shared conversation. If you have 8 people for dinner, the conversation will almost always break into multiple sub-conversations. This is just a result of our cognitive capacities: it’s easy for 4 or 5 people to hold a shared mental context, but the complexity increases exponentially with the size of the group. So the crew is on the small side of that line, where we can develop a shared understanding very efficiently. It's within our natural limits. We don't need a lot of infrastructure to keep a group of 5 people coherent, whereas a group of 50 people requires governance, structures, rules, and so on.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." ― Margaret Mead

A crew is a really efficient unit & it can also be highly impactful: five or six people can make a massive contribution to the world. One of the crews that made the most difference to my life was a company that I co-founded called Loomio. Loomio is a cooperative, we started with six people. We make software for democratic decision-making in groups. Our tool has helped hundreds of thousands of people around the world: a level of impact I could never have created on my own.

For most people, if you want to create a livelihood of meaningful work, you’ll need a crew to do it with. The size is important, because it is small enough to stay highly coordinated with minimal explicit rules & roles, and large enough that your enhanced impact is worth the cost of collaborating.

Not all crews are about "getting stuff done", though. I’m in another crew that’s met every 2 weeks since the start of the pandemic. The space we’ve created together is tender: we share what’s going on in our emotional lives and exchange commiserations & celebrations. This crew is not about “doing stuff” at all, and yet it has had a significant impact, creating more ease in my life, alleviating the loneliness of lockdown, and giving me new opportunities.

Generally speaking, the crew is the main site of activity in microsolidarity communities: occasionally we have gatherings at the larger scale, but most of the time, you’re meeting with 3 or 4 other people.

Further reading: you’ll find tons of resources for crew practices to experiment with, over on the Crewing page.

4: the Congregation

The Congregation is somewhere between 15 to 150 people: small enough that most of the members can know a bit about each other and big enough to support many Crews to coalesce.

I call it a "congregation" because the main activity at this scale is congregating. We get together once or twice a year for a really great time. Ideally the gathering is face-to-face, but it’s possible to do it online. I think of it like a dating pool, an opportunity for people to meet each other, for crewmates to find each other and for new crews to form.

The "minimum viable purpose" for a congregation is that it supports crews to form. In my experience the best way to find your crew is to spend some time in a congregation: I found my Loomio crew after I joined the Enspiral congregation (a professional network of 100-200 friends supporting each other to do more meaningful work).

The crews and congregation are in reciprocal co-development. Loomio wouldn’t exist without Enspiral, and Loomio’s success has made major contributions to the development of Enspiral. So there is an advantage to working at both of these scales simultaneously.

Social fabric is the substrate for shared infrastructure

In addition to the minimum purpose of supporting crews, the congregation can also pursue other ambitions. The larger scale creates opportunities for more collective impact. The Enspiral congregation for example has delivered numerous projects that require coordination beyond the crew scale: operating co-working spaces; organising conferences, retreats and workshops; publishing a book; and running many experiments in participatory budgeting & other forms of economic mutual aid. (Read more in the Enspiral Impact Report.)

While a crew can develop high coordination with little more than "vibes" (high trust & implicit shared understanding), coordinating a congregation requires more physical, financial and legal infrastructure. Successfully managing this shared infrastructure requires mechanisms for commons governance, including the ability to create and adjust rules, resolve disputes, and sanction antisocial behaviour.

Coordination costs scale nonlinearly with group size: a group of 5 people has 10 relationships, but a group of 50 has 1225. That’s 1225 possibilities for interpersonal tension, conflict & mistrust. So the bigger the group, the more difficult the governance challenges. ​​Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests there’s a threshold, somewhere around the 150-person scale ("Dunbar’s number"), which is about the limit of how many relationships one person can keep track of. This is why the maximum size for a congregation is around 150 people. Up to this size, the coordination can be fairly informal & efficient, especially in a group that puts extra effort into cultivating high trust relationships, so everybody knows a bit about everyone else. But in a group of 100,000, most people are strangers to each other, so it becomes a very different kind of organisation, with governance challenges that are out of scope for the microsolidarity practice.

People before projects

For collaboration and governance geeks like me, this is all fascinating stuff, but for a lot of people this is daunting or uninteresting. So it’s important to remember the shared infrastructure, commons governance & collective impact are optional extras. If you’re not interested in this level of coordination, just return to the "minimum viable purpose": if the congregation is only supporting crews to form, then it is successful.

Further reading: you’ll find resources for congregations over on the Congregating page.

Note: for now, a congregation is broadly defined as 15-150 people. It’s likely that there are other important thresholds within that range, e.g. at 15 or 50 people. In time, we may find it useful to create new terms to distinguish these additional sizes.

5: the Network

The Microsolidarity Network is a new addition in 2022. It’s the space for congregation hosts to get together, to learn & support each other through the ups and downs of community life.

If you want to join, you’re welcome: there’s an online space to chat with other practitioners, and we’re hosting gatherings in Europe and the USA in 2022. You'll find an overview of the network here.

Notice it’s "the network" not “a network”: there is currently no generic term for a collection of congregations. Maybe in future we’ll see congregations coming together to form their own “federations” or “assemblies”.

All good things happen inside a good context

Through each of these 5 scales I’m trying to illustrate a particular attitude towards development: growth always happens inside of something else. Your personal development is much more likely to proceed smoothly when you have a crew. It’s easier to find a crew when you’re in a congregation. The congregations are learning from each other in the network. Each step up the ladder of scale creates a developmental container for the previous.

On the other hand, larger groups are more complex: trust decreases and coordination costs increase with the square of the number of relationships. That’s why it’s called "micro"solidarity: for most people, it’s more fruitful to focus on the smaller scales, where groups are easier to manage. And if you have the ambition to make social change at the very large scale, you’ll almost certainly need to have firm foundations at the small scale.

Once you start to understand the “social physics of belonging”, the distinctive characteristics of groups of different size, the next topic we have to address is leadership. Read on...

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