Questionable Motives

November 3, 2018

What is a group and why does it matter?

Filed under: Uncategorized — tildeb @ 5:20 pm

Almost seems like a silly question. group identity.jpg

A group (for my purposes here) is defined by the OED as “A number of people or things that are located, gathered, or classed together; Put into categories; classify.”

In this sense, classifying people into groups is an action undertaken not by the people classified but from those wishing to create a group by means of classification. Classifying people into groups is called a construct (meaning “an idea or theory containing various conceptual elements, typically one considered to be subjective and not based on empirical evidence” OED). In other words, a construct is constructed using elements selected by the classifier.

So what?

Well, it seems to me a great many people have forgotten that groups are not real things in themselves existing independently. They are subjective constructs (and a handy verbal shortcut for defining a portion of some population linked to the selected element they share). I think a reminder of this fact is in order when groups are used as if they existed independently of those who construct them… in exactly the same way many religious people need reminding that their faith-based belief in a divine and creative construct come from them and are not extracted in whole from reality. After all, if compelling evidence from reality could be extracted in such a way to demonstrate this independent existence of some divine construct, then no faith would be needed to construct and maintain the belief! The belief would become fact. The same is true for group constructs.

Why does this reminder about groups and the fact they they are constructed by artificial means – by the subjective selection of an element or elements – matter?

Believing groups are not subjective constructs but objective entities that then become independent objects subject to effect is a thinking error. It is a category mistake. Groups are not real things, real objects.

Groups of people are made up of individuals with an assortment of things, a wide variety of potential elements, that can be selected as the necessary element for membership in a group. But what is often forgotten is that what’s real, what’s true, is that the groups are constructs but the individuals who constitute them are the real objects. Very real. Policies and procedures that favour groups as real things over individuals as merely interchangeable parts whose primary value is the selected element demonstrate this forgetfulness of this fundamental importance of the individual, that without the base individual units, there is no group. The group is the construct; the individual is real. Selecting elements to form groups is a subjective and often biased procedure (not that bias is necessarily bad or unwanted or degrading but simply selected) and creates an artificial construct that is not real. Individuals are real and are made up of innumerable primary, secondary, and tertiary elements that can be selected for membership in this group or that one, in these 612 but not in those 74,817 groups.

Primary elements can be used like loose or attached ear lobes. Mustaches. Heart rate at rest. Number of offspring. Gonads. Hair colour. Weight. And so on. Specific knowable facts captured in time. Handy facts.

Then there are the additional secondary elements that can be used not so easily measured but simply shared… like interests, abilities, preferences and so on. Handy perhaps for dating, forming bands and reading groups, or aligning people with political parties.

The tertiary elements are even harder to define and measure without using some imported framework to create a means to compare and contrast, a framework like race, intelligence, sexuality, class, and so on. These terms have to first be defined and described as divisible into classifications first (always problematic but possible and often very practical in the mean) before one can be used as element for group selection. This is the meat and potatoes of Postmodernism, and its various offshoots of grievance studies, political correctness, identity politics, and being ‘woken’.

A group can be POOF!ed into being by the selection of one or more elements that we choose to define our constructed group. (As I mentioned, this can be problematic but also of practical effect, too; think of calculating medical risk, polling, voting preferences, advertising, search engine algorithms, and so on: group trends can be predictive.)

But here’s the kicker: when we think of people based on their group identity, we also POOF! into being all those not included. Two groups are always formed for the price of one! The with-the-element group and the without-the-element group. You cannot construct groups without constructing their binary and opposite twin. (We see this especially made clear in tertiary group constructs but always presented as the negative, such as the Oppressors of the Oppressed, the Victimizers of the Victims, the Privileged of the Underprivileged, and so on.)  Thinking and defining people by their group membership, group identity, means thinking and defining people in this binary fashion: included/excluded, Us/Them, with/without. This has huge and negative social consequences for everyone, for every individual who can be relegated to the negative group by the proclamation of social constructionist who made you as an individual into a despised and deplorable group member.

As the importance and defining characteristic of group membership rises through the ranks of being used not as personal constructs but into more widely accepted political entities that exist, of course it must be accompanied by an identical rise in partisanship. Partisanship is part and parcel of using group identity: the in-group element, the lack of the in-group element. Hand in hand. We make partisanship real and important and empowering when we use group thinking for identity politics.

It is essential, therefore, to be reminded that identity for membership in both the in-groups and out-groups is an artificial construct empowered only to the extent to which people are willing to grant it real world effect. Think of Blacks in apartheid South Africa. Think Jewish in Nazi Germany. Think Kulak in Soviet Russia. Think counter-revolutionary in Maoist China. Think acadmic in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Group thinking and the partisanship divide that it comes with can be the very worst human trait ever to motivate large groups of people.

What links all members of any in- or out-group together is the fact that both are made up of individuals, and so no real world effect drawn from group membership should cross the boundary into effecting this shared standard of respect, tolerance, dignity, and equality in law for ALL individuals that contains ALL the elements that can be used to form ANY group. That’s the sacrosanct base unit against which any and all group thinking must first respect. Not groups. Individuals.


  1. Two groups are always formed for the price of one. I really like the insight here. So we are divided by our very nature. I was reading the Gestalt Principle this week and we make groupings even when there are none.
    Some of us think differently than the rest. Religion has turned atheism into a group, be we are not a group, which automatically makes us a group. Now I understand a bit more where their circular reasoning comes from. It’s a phenotype.

    Comment by jim- — November 3, 2018 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

  2. I think the Gestalt principles do grasp the biological basis of how we perceive in a matter of preference and so I think this does offer some insight into human behaviour. But I also think neuroscience will do a much more thorough job of explaining how this happens which will then better inform why the preferences arise using a biological explanatory model rather than a psychological one. But the essential point you raise is important: we DO assign patterns and we DO show preference for order over chaos even if the order is artificial. And yes, this can help explain sticking with a model even when reality offers compelling evidence contrary to it. I also think this helps us better understand why tribalism and groupings precedes reason and is based on emotion – and projection – even though people will swear that they adduce these connections rationally… a very common rationalization.

    As for a phenotype, it reminds me of the biblical assertion about ‘kinds’. It’s a form of categorization but a phenotype is supposed to represent actual physical characteristics…not just a few selected out of many but those that combine both genotype with necessary environmental influences to produce observable behaviour. I don’t think the groups necessary for identity politics fits this bill but cherry picks whichever statistics for the group being framed as, for example, the Oppressor group vs the Oppressed group best fits the ideological binary framework. For example, all kinds of statistics can be collected to differentiate ‘blacks’ from ‘whites’ to reveal disparity supposedly base don these racial groups but the ideology insists any disparity MUST be a result of privilege and power to create the Oppressor and the Oppressed groups. This is called the disparity fallacy where the ideological assumption that the disparity is, in fact, true and causal is taken on faith because, well… statistics, you see. And we see this fallacy in operation all the time to justify approved ideology such as equity in the workplace or racial quotas for employment or education placement. What is dropped from the statistics is data that doesn’t fit the ideology, such as Caribbean blacks outperforming in many areas those of both other blacks but also the mean average of those who constitute the Oppressor category, group averages that supposedly reveal institutionalized racism that creates and maintains the disparity for the benefit of the ‘powerful’ and ‘privileged’ group… or the research data about sex-based preferences in employment where this freedom to exercise choice is greatest yet produces far greater disparity than can be attributed to the ‘powerful’ and ‘privileged’ group that supposedly produces the disparity.

    I don’t see the same kind of assumptions made about a phenotype, which is a much more stringent categorization than what is used to support identity politics and the ‘correct’ institutionalized response being so widely advocated to correct disparity.

    Anyway, Jim, thanks for your comment.

    Comment by tildeb — November 4, 2018 @ 12:07 am | Reply

    • The phenotype was a touch of sarcasm, but, like birds building nests, an extended phenotype might’ve been more appropriate in your conclusion. Still, I get you. Thanks for the feedback.

      Comment by jim- — November 4, 2018 @ 12:42 am | Reply

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