Group-Grid Theory for Classifying Social Groups

I’ve recently been introduced to Group-Grid Theory, a framework from anthropology for classifying group dynamics and power structures. Let’s examine the model from an interest in intentional community building.

Under Group-Grid theory, communities are described along two axes, predictably “group” and “grid”. Here, “group” means how cohesive the community is, in terms of both clear delineation of membership (it’s obvious who’s a part of the community), and in how group-centric the thinking and policies within the group are. Slightly more complex is “grid”, which represents how structured the group is in terms of both leadership hierarchy and sophistication of / emphasis on rules.

Group/Grid Low Grid High Grid
Low Group Individualism Fatalism
High Group Enclavism Hierarchy

The above four groups are the most extreme corners of the axes - of course any real group will contain attributes along both axes, and land in a gradient rather than discrete categories.

The Four Archetypes

Hierarchy

This is the organizational structure we’re most used to, for organizations like corporations, the military, and student clubs. Membership is explicitly defined by initiation rites including contracts, swearing-in ceremonies, paying dues, and attending meetings.

The organizations not only have well-defined rules, but formal leadership hierarchies like officer positions, defined in bylaws or community guidelines.

When problems occur in these communities, they fall back on rules to assign responsibility or blame, and determine what courses of action to take.

Enclavism

Enclaves are groups without complex, well-defined structure, leadership, or rules, but clearly-defined membership qualities. Examples include communes, families, and other “horizontal” organizations.

These organizations are not without power dynamics, and frequently assign implicit authority based on experience or age. Membership is based on physical proximity (often living together), shared contributions of labor, or shared genetics.

In these organizations, problems are often framed as something external threatening the in-group. Conflict resolution revolves around the in-group collaborating to either deal with the external force, or in extreme circumstances, growing or shrinking the in-group to maintain cohesion.

Individualism

Individualist organizations, as the name implies, have neither strong respect for authority nor clear group boundaries. These can include loose social “scenes” like hactivism or security culture, social movements like Black Lives Matter, or loosely organized hate groups. There are shared attributes in the organization, such as an ethos or area of interest - otherwise there would be no social group at all - but there is minimal structure beyond this.

Membership in these groups is usually permeable and self-defined: What makes someone a part of Anonymous beyond declaring that they are? What makes them no longer a member of that community, except ceasing to speak in those circles and dropping the Anonymous title? As members join and leave with ease, tracking the size and makeup of these groups is extremely challenging.

When these groups face pressure they fragment easily, making multiple overlapping communities to encompass differences in opinion. This fragmentation can be due to disagreements over ideology, hatred or reverence of a particularly person, group, or action, or similar schisms within the in-group. This apparent lack of consistency can in some ways serve as stability, allowing groups to adapt to change by redefining themselves with ease.

Fatalism

Fatalism describes organizations with sophisticated rules and rituals, but no communal behavior or allegiance. One example is capitalism as an ecosystem: There are rules of behavior governing money-making activities, but there is no care given to other participants in the community. In ultra-capitalist models, corporations are cut-throat to both one another and their own employees, prioritizing money-making over community health. Other fatalist groups include refugees, governed by the system of rules in their host country, without being cared-for members of it in the same way as a citizen.

These groups are called fatalist, because there are no tools for addressing conflict: The leadership structure hands down decisions and their effects, and there is little recourse for those impacted. The community holds little power, and has little trust in the benevolence of the grid.

Early Thoughts

The Group/Grid lens illustrates trade-offs between making groups with formal rules and leadership systems, and building a more anarchic self-organized group. It also shows benefits of declaring formal membership criteria and focusing on community-building, or allowing permeable, self-defined membership. Early intuitions are that a focus on community builds a more committed membership, which will be less prone to fragmentation and dissolution. Unfortunately, strong group identity can also breed toxic group dynamics, as members are more invested in seeing their vision realized and more resistant to “walking away” when the group moves in an incompatible direction. Similarly, group hierarchy can be efficient for decision-making, but can alienate the community if applied bluntly. Hierarchy works great at a local level, as with school clubs, where it’s effectively just division of labor. If the grid is no longer operated by the community, then we inevitably reach fatalism, which has extreme drawbacks.

These are sophomoric first impressions, but now I have group-grid as a tool for describing and analyzing groups, and can apply it moving forwards. I’ll probably return to this topic in future posts as it becomes relevant.

Posted 6/13/19