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By the dozen

Democracy is born in conversation.
— John Dewey

I was wrong. The band is not the fundamental natural unit of the human species. And neither is the family, as we are enculturated to believe. The affinity cluster is. Gang kids call it the fam. Workplaces use work groups or committees. Revolutionaries convene cells. Small therapy groups form among people growing out of old wounds. There are study circles, book clubs, and hobby groups… the list goes on, even in the post-tribal human world.

A band is too large to give people the experience of intimacy and close connection we crave. Anthropologists have often documented how bands break up into small groups of close companions. The Delaware Indians, for example, would wander off in the summer, the time of plenty, to enjoy foraging with a small group of friends, some of whom may have been relatives. Similar data have been reported the world over.

Anthropologist Nurit Bird-David describes a south India hill tribe she studied. This valley was inhabited by a band of 69 people (adults and children) who lived in tiny groupings of one to three huts separated by 2-10 kilometers. The band was part of a larger tribe called Nayaka. Blood relations were of course common, but people had little interest in genealogies. Bird-David argues that kinship means something quite different to the foragers. “‘To relate’ in a pragmatic sense is something one does when one shares a place and cooperates with others.” This sort of ‘relating’ is what makes relatives!

People from the various clusters visited all the time, for varying periods. They all lived in easily constructed bamboo shelters, and so it was simple for visitors to add their own space onto what existed if the visit turned into a stay. Some moved away to another band; newcomers came into the valley and were integrated into the “kinship” stories. The Nayaka band used what anthropologists call “universal kinship” — all children were called sons or daughters, elders were senior mothers and fathers, the younger adults were junior mothers and fathers, sisterhood and brotherhood was similarly fluid. Even names changed often. She gives a picture of a society in constant sociable motion.

Britannica’s article on tribes and bands tells us: “The [Sioux] Sisseton, Sicangu, Yankton, and other independent “bands” in turn comprised numbers of smaller entities, each consisting of several households that lived and worked together. Membership was at this smallest level very fluid and typically coalesced around the bonds of kinship and friendship. Flexibility of residence provided an excellent way to access social support and to cope with the vagaries of a foraging economy.”

I speculate that blood families only came together as a firm social unit when foragers, first in the Near East, began to build permanent dwellings, forming towns. It was then that lineages, relatives’ burials in the floors, skulls on display, and mythical genealogies began to assume importance. After all, housing that lasted many generations needed uncontested inheritance customs. This pattern was reinforced when, later, families appropriated certain parts of the commons as gardens and fields.

How large would such a cluster of friends ideally be? Christopher Allen’s blog Life with Alacrity has a treasure trove of posts on “community by the numbers.” Here is my favorite one, explaining not only affinity clusters but also the limits of larger groups. Two or three people seem perfect as study dyads and triads. “Where two or three gather in my name…” — the first Christians began their house churches this way. A committee consists typically of 5 to 9 people. It has enough resources for effective decision-making, yet is small enough to keep conversation flowing easily. Everybody gets their say. I was once part of a wonderful women’s therapy group that was capped at 10. It worked best when 2 or 3 people did not show on a particular night; when we were full up, I fretted I might not get enough input into my own issues. At Twin Oaks Community, everybody is part of a small living group (SLG); one or two SLGs inhabit a group house.

If, as I believe, sociopolitical self-organization begins with conversations, then effective social units must begin with groups small enough to converse freely, leisurely, in-depth, without the encumbrance of rules and agendas attendant larger gatherings. Such informal conversation then prepare the ground for all-band or all-village decisions. Robert Wolff, in his remarkable book Original Wisdom, relates a story about a tribal village in Malaysia that lost its chief. Instead of organizing a decision-making body, they instead engaged in small group conversations for a full two years, at which point everybody knew who the next chief was; he at some point began to act the role. No vote was ever taken, and if a council was convened, it was to validate the choice the village had already made.

Jan Martin Bang notes in his book Ecovillages:

From my experience in community and with people, it seems to me that for most households it would probably be best to live in a group around a dozen. We all can gather around the table and have a conversation over a meal. When the table grows to fifteen or more, conversations tend to split into subgroups and the noise level grows, often uncomfortably. It’s crowded.

So here are some characteristics of affinity clusters that come to mind:

  • they are composed of people who like one another, enjoy each other’s company, work well together
  • they tend to stay within a dozen or fewer
  • the exact size is given by the purpose of the group, and can be adjusted up and down based on how well the group functions
  • they are small enough for easy-going, informal conversations
  • in a small group, simple consensus is usually easy and natural
  • odd-numbered groups may work best because the “odd man out” can moderate polarized views

Interestingly, psychologist George Miller had decades ago studied the connection between numbers and our neural capacities, as did Robin Dunbar much later in another context. But Miller focused on small numbers. In his paper The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, he hypothesized that we discern and remember best in clusters of sevens. I have a feeling it may provide a clue to affinity cluster size as well. I enjoyed his whimsical closing:

And finally, what about the magical number seven? What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week? What about the seven-point rating scale, the seven categories for absolute judgment, the seven objects in the span of attention, and the seven digits in the span of immediate memory? For the present I propose to withhold judgment. Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all these sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it. But I suspect that it is only a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence.

An aside: George Miller also formulated Miller’s Law which states: “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.” One of my personal major eye-openers.

Well then. If you show up worrying whether you’ll have a chance to express yourself, your group is too big. If you have to wait for permission to speak, your group is too big. If you’ve passed the dozen, your group is too big.

Beware the Judas Number! ;-)

Image: Conversation at Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati 1973. Environmental Protection Agency. Photo: Tom Hubbard. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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