Solidarity and Recursion

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal. Also, Gregory Rader of On the Spiral is joining us as a blogging resident on the Tempo blog this week. 

“Solidarity” is an old-fashioned term, trailing connotations of earlier generations of union activists and leftists, but rarely used in mainstream discourse. We don’t think about it much, and we don’t miss it, although every so often a pundit will point out a deficit of something sort of like it, usually under more anodyne terms like “community” or the grating “social capital”. Corporations try to instill it in their employees, again under some depoliticized term like “team spirit”, but only the clueless really buy it. The military depends on it and have their own jargon for it (“unit cohesion”). But the term itself is as musty and out-of-fashion as the old-school industrial trade unions who used to sing songs about it.

That’s a shame, since it points to one of the most important and fundamental phenomena of human social life – the ability and tendency of groups to form, of people to join into groups, to align their interests, to take collective action, to increase the strength of individuals by banding together. This series of blog posts will address a variety of questions about solidarity, taken in the broadest possible way (for instance, I may touch on theories of how individuals create something like solidarity amongst their conflicting internal parts). Since I’m not by training a sociologist, this will be something of an amateur’s romp through foreign intellectual territory; and/or a hacker’s view of how human groups work. Talking about the texture of social life is sort of like a fish trying to discern the nature of water – and it’s only the odd fish who is even prone to notice the medium they spend their lives swimming in.

Group Agency

“For the word “We” must never be spoken, save by one’s choice and as a second thought. This word must never be placed first within man’s soul, else it becomes a monster, the root of all the evils on earth, the root of man’s torture by men, and of an unspeakable lie…” — Ayn Rand, Anthem
“Corporations are people, my friend.” — Mitt Romney

My previous post touched on the notion of group agency, that is, how and when groups of individuals can combine to form something that is treated as a single agent. Solidarity, from this vantage, is the emotional glue that makes these clumpings possible, the means by which group agents assemble and sustain themselves. It is the feeling, among members of a group, that you share interests and commitments with the other members and with the group as a whole. This is somewhat distinct from agency as such, because it leaves open the question of how a group decides and acts. Solidarity comes first, to make the group cohere, although of course in practice these are going to be combined.

“Unless the number of individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests” — Mancur Olson
“A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.” – Ostrom’s Law (see also Elinor OstromType of Good and Collective Action)

Groups don’t form around nothing. They require some kind of coordination — which can be either a central authority or person, or in more distributed groups, an abstraction such as a symbol, slogan, or ideology. The most successful large-scale groups usually employ both techniques together (think of how Apple’s corporate ethos the persona of Steve Jobs worked together, or Lenin and communism). Even if people have a natural desire for and tendency towards solidarity, they need to figure out just who and what they are going to be in solidarity with (the uncertainty of where one’s loyalties should lie might not be found in more traditional societies where family and tribe dictate loyalties, but the modern individual has choices, for better or worse).

Thomas Schelling, musing on the nature of how coordination is achieved by parties that can’t communicate, developed the idea of focal points (now known as Schelling points) that would be natural centers where that agents would gravitate to, based on their uniqueness or salience or that they are universally known (for instance, two people who had to meet in Manhattan without knowing where might choose the clock at Grand Central Station). The libertarian economist Daniel Klein has a theory that government is a Schelling point, a “binding communitarian force”, a necessary locus for people’s coordinated sentiments of loyalty.

Klein, given his ideology, thinks that the resulting loyalty and solidarity is a bad thing, the cause of people’s over-devotion to government and the state. But the question of how much loyalty and solidarity is optimal is, to say the least, and open question. In the US, for constitutional, political, and historical reasons, we have a deliberately hobbled political system that often finds it has the inability to act coherently. The US’s failure to act in its own benefit (for instance, in maintaining its infrastructure, educating its citizens, and general problem solving) in comparison to, say, Sweden, makes it less agent-like. Even in its military side, where it spends enormous resources, the lack of a coherent connection between military force and political will makes its military actions incoherent.

Of course, the US is more agent-like than some other countries, such as those that ceased to exist once the political forces that bound them together altered: Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR, once so powerful an agent that it defeated Hitler and posed an existential risk to the US, yet it dissolved practically overnight.

Macro-rituals and micro-rituals of solidarity

Kevin Simler has written a post about how solidarity is built through rituals. For the most part, these are what we might call mass or macro-rituals such as military drills or sports rallies. These phenomena are all quite striking and often overwhelming.

But the social world is held together by solidarity rituals that happen on a smaller scale, by the practices of everyday life. Every small face-to-face personal interaction is an act that collaboratively creates the ongoing texture of social existence. The role-playing aspects of these interactions have been described in great detail by Erving Goffman.

Goffman’s descriptions of the intricate details of interaction are often oriented towards what might be called failures of solidarity: those occasions where a social interaction results in embarrassment, confusion, loss of status, or alienation, precisely because those phenomena are more readily noticed. But his heart I think was in those occasions when interaction worked well:

Thus, as Adam Smith argued in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments, the individual must phrase his own concerns and feelings and interests in such a way as to make these maximally usable by the others as a source of appropriate involvement; and this major obligation of the individuals qua interactant is balanced by his right to expect that others present will make some effort to stir up their sympathies and place them at his command. These two tendencies, that of the speaker to scale down his expressions and that of the listeners to scale up their interests, each in the light of the other’s capacities and demands, form the bridge that people build to one another, allowing them to meet for a moment of talk in a communion of reciprocally sustained involvement. It is this spark, not the more obvious kinds of love, that lights up the world. — Goffman, Interaction Ritual, p 116-7

Recursion and Mimesis

Goffmann’s view of social interaction is fundamentally dramatic – it emphasizes the roles, loose scripts, and improvised sequences that participants collaboratively generate. He did not spend much time addressing the psychological mechanisms that would be required to support this activity. But we can make some speculations about what must be true in order for individuals to play the complex roles and execute subtle social movements that he outlines. Individuals, at minimum, have to be able to model each other, and these models must be recursive in the sense that A’s model of what B is thinking includes B’s image of A’s thoughts of B, etc.

It’s thought that the need to perform such complex social calculations was one of the prime drivers in human evolution. But like any complex biological capability, it has to have its roots in something similar, and it would seem that the root of complex recursive theories of mind is likely in a more primitive mimetic ability. Social mimesis has been observed in dogs and the neural mechanisms underlying it are beginning to be understood. A picture of the roots of solidarity starts to emerge from these findings. The native ability of individuals to mimic and synchronize with each other provides a substrate for unified action.


Social life is the medium in which we live and breathe, out of which we construct our selves and the roles we play, the glue that holds us together. I’m using “solidarity” to refer to the various techniques by which this semi-miracle is accomplished, but it feels somewhat inadequate to the task. Can one word help us understand both the bodily synchronization that takes place in conversation or dancing, and the political processes that generate vast nations and armies? It seems ambitious, but I can’t help see an insistent common thread. It seems to me that that developing a better set of concepts and technical vocabulary for understanding and cataloging the various ways in which collectivities manage themselves is one of the more important tasks we can take on, as a step towards solving the world’s variety of intractable collective action problems, at all scales.

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About Mike Travers

Mike Travers is a software engineer based in the Bay Area. His ribbonfarm posts explore the nature of consciousness, community, and varied other themes. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. You should take a look at sociologist Randall Collins’ book Interaction Ritual Chains, which I think attempts something similar to what you’re talking about . I haven’t read it, but his second book, Violence, is amazing and draws heavily on the first one.

    More about it here:
    The first chapter is here:

    • That looks amazing. I remember feeling transformed (and wanting more) after I read “Interaction Ritual.” So… thanks! I’ve added this to my reading list.

  2. This is a fascinating and (as you mention) really important topic. I agree that a better understanding of solidarity (and collective action more broadly) is extremely valuable, and I love the micro/macro approach.

    Some thoughts, in no particular order:

    * Are you familiar with Ibn Kaldun’s notion of asabiyah? ( I learned about it through Peter Turchin’s work. He has a lot to say about the center/periphery dynamic, and how the periphery (as a niche) tends to produce greater levels of solidarity than the center. For me, this raises the question of what to do after solidarity ‘succeeds’ in producing strength/centralization. What causes it to erode, and how do you prevent it?

    * How does punishment fit into this? Since you mention recursion, I’m reminded of how the norm of “punishing those who don’t punish others” helps group to stabilize on other, first-order norms.

    * I feel like it might be productive to look at solidarity through the lens of signal interference. Which behaviors interfere constructively vs. destructively with which other behaviors? Synchrony, mimesis, punishment, and deviance all seem to have an ‘interference’ component, which might help explain how groups can stabilize around some behaviors while suppressing others.

    • I’ve heard of asabiyah but don’t know much about it other than it’s sort of an Arabic term for solidarity. Sounds more interesting than that. Riffing on your brief summary – I guess solidarity is needed more in tribal, pre-state, or non-state situations (the periphery), organized societies and states replace it with bureaucratic rules and enforcement (the center). The best way for advanced states to produce solidarity is to go to war.

      Punishment is no doubt important. I guess it is a big factor in Goffmann’s work – everyone is always worried about losing face, which is sort of a micropunishment. But real solidarity probably needs to be motivated by more positive factors.

      “Interference” does not synchronize well with my own set of concepts. Or as in the terms of another commenter, I’m not attuned to it…

  3. I’d say a recursive theory of solidarity somehow needs a bottom, but I suspect there is none. One might build cooperation from the bottom up and all rationalist theories of cooperation attempt for more or less the same, they try to explain how our egoist drives lead to cooperation. Cooperation has a bottom which is the individual and its desires. It mostly goes unchanged out of an act of cooperation. Solidarity however doesn’t necessarily has this trait but might be born out of the self-sacrifice of a particular individual or group. This sacrifice doesn’t even have to be performed in the service of another group but on the contrary, it can be devoted to abstract values – not to a “social life as the medium in which we live and breathe” but to a social life which is yet impossible and hoped to come. The emotionality of workers solidarity doesn’t rest in workers liking other workers, accumulating “social capital” and go bowling together. They have struggled together for a better life to come.

    I guess for most of us this is just inconceivable. We really just do think its all about bowling, annual salary increases and receiving feel-good messages from others or their substitutes in the form of Facebook likes.

  4. The word attunement from psychoanalytic literature might be useful to you:

    “Attunement in psychotherapy refers to the ability of your therapist to pick up on the nuances of your responses and to respond in a way that accurately captures the sense of how you were feeling in that moment. You feel heard.”

    • This is indeed a useful word. I’ve heard it used occasionally, but it isn’t part of my regular vocabulary. I think I need to make it a regular part. It helps me understand why some consulting conversations go far better than others, and also why providing thoughtful and useful advice to others is hard when you try to make a group larger than about 3-4 feel “heard” together.

      • One way of building attunement is to look for the needs and emotional charges around things which go unstated, then bring them into conversations in a non-alarming way. Doing light psychotherapy really, but in different contexts and to different ends. There’s another psychoanalytic idea that can be helpful here, “phantasy”, which roughly means the emotional and imaginative charges we bring to things but aren’t necessarily aware of. This book is a good introduction to it –

        I also find it much harder with groups, there are so many more variables and nuances to be mindful of. Phantasies can resonate and cascade between group members very quickly. You’re a group member too, of course, and it’s easy to get swept along and caught up in the resonance without realising. It’s one thing to be in a group, but to be attentive to the dynamics can take a lot of effort. Working to deliberately shape or funnel them can be harder still.

        Foulkes was a pioneering group analyst who you might find interesting to look at. He wrote about groups having a matrix, “The matrix is the hypothetical web of communication and relationship in a given group. It is the common shared ground which ultimately determines the meaning and significance of all events and upon which all communications and interpretations, verbal and non-verbal rest”.

        While it’s a very broad idea I’ve found it helpful for simply for putting words to this phenomena, and for giving a foundation for further thinking – it’s appreciative rather than manipulative, as you might say.

    • This attunement and synchronization talk is interesting. I’m sure it’s important, but since it’s entirely subrational I’m not sure how to think about it, or use it in real life (I’m probably very bad at it F2F, although possibly improving). I am guessing some practices like improv or jazz have the most to offer in this area (eg: )

      Other topics in this space (in my queue for later posts) — René Girard’s theory of mimesis, and mirror neurons as the mechanism by which all this stuff is accomplished.

  5. The go-to theory that seems related to much of what you are talking about here is French anthropological philosopher René Girard’s model of mimetic desire and rivalry. Particularly to the point since mimesis/imitation plays a part in the model you sketch out.

    Girard: “When modern theorists envisage man as a being who knows what he wants, or who at least possesses an ‘unconscious’ that knows for him, they may simply have failed to perceive the domain in which human uncertainty is most extreme. Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed, sometimes even before), man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being.”

  6. There is (or was) a researcher into facial microexpressions named Eckhart (sp?) who also did research where he viewed video footage of a family interacting, but slowed down to an extreme degree. He found dance-like patterns in the movements of the family. One person would make a characteristic movement and it would ripple through the group. He found this in other interactions. We subconsciously mimic each other as we converse.

    This is one reason why I have always doubted the concept of an “online community.” We are still hard wired for face-to-face interaction. It’s all those little, seemingly meaningless daily interactions that make a community solid.

    • Without the face-to-face interaction in an online setting, the desire to subconsciously mimic each other may manifest itself in other ways such as parroting back similar lines of argument, community slogans/humour or patterns of conversation (written/verbal synchronization and signalling), or adopting the same ideas (classic group-think) and general memes of the community.

      F2F interactions serve to powerfully reinforce online community interactions (ribbonfarm refactor events or informal meetups are examples that spring to mind here).

  7. All of the words in question are synonyms for trust. Recursion and ritual provide the functional framework on which trust may be developed.

    • I thought it was the exact opposite and rituals were destroyed precisely because of the form, hiding the truth. Not sure we have moved thus far out of Christianity that even the distinction between faithful-to-the-letter and faithful-to-the-spirit cannot be understood anymore?

      As pointed out before I don’t believe all of this can be situated within a positivist ( naive ) setting, as if there was actually a “functional framework”. Bruce Schneier made a nice attempt to understand trust within the modern society but it is more an elaborate discussion of all the facets of the problem without a conclusion than something making people happy with an engineering and can-do mentality. The latter is really belief and you can bet whom I trust, those who don’t force their conclusions or those who jump to them in an act of faith.

    • Trust and solidarity seem to me to be closely related, but not identical concepts. Trust is more transactional, a relation that exists between more or less rational more or less well-defined individuals. Solidarity, at least the aspect of it I’m trying to get at, is more primal and subrational, the stuff out of which selves are constructed (This may make more sense after later posts in this series. Or may not).

  8. Mike, I disagree with the characterization of trust as “transactional.” My experiance with trust has everything to do with the opposite of a transaction and the simple expectation that people will perform a certian action (a ritual even) in a specified way in order to prevent harm to you or those around you.

    Perhaps that is more of what you meaning by solidarity; yet, to me its the other way around. Trust is instinctually primal (and is THE first decision anyone ever makes about someone else the first time they meet) and it comes well before one makes the more rational, more thought-through (and political) decision to claim one is “in solidarity” with another person or group.

    Kay, my thinking involves the classic western ritual of arriving “on time” and other such rituals (such as the daily commute) that save us from our own selves and those around use. In western culture it is often the ONLY ritual left with which people might share.

    Now this isn’t a demand the everyone always show up on time, just that the way people treat and act about the rituals collective meaning speaks to its shared or “social value”.

    This example is instructive since even the most avid deconstructionalist professors (ie those who might claim that rituals have “no collective meaning”) would still rather abjectly demand his or her students observe the established collective ritual (of, at least, that class) and show up on time.

    There is also great potential for such situations to become filled with deeper collective meaning if the professor is also relying on an: institutional, company, or state policy as a means to enforce compliance with the basic ritual standard “as he or she sees it”.

    • O.K. Goblin, I do now better see what you mean by “functional frameworks”.

      I would like to add that a crowd can seek to achieve a shared emotional state which also defines the crowds temporary identity which might soon decline after its achievement. Being in such a state can dispense the rational agent which is even willing to risk harm or death. The whole crowd might even be willing for self-sacrifice and this is not because someone tricked them with kool aid.

      This an obstacle for rational choice theories which doesn’t mean that non-linear social phenomena aren’t entirely beyond grasp. As a long term reader of this blog, I wonder if there is a way to perceive them in an appreciative mode despite being detached from intense collective emotions.

      • I like to think my experience with the military has given me perspective on group motivations and individual feelings both within and about those groups: they are always breaking apart and reforming.

        Honestly, I think that there is no real way to detach oneself completely from a crowd or group one feels even slightly sympathetic for.

        I understand what you mean by “shared emotional state” and I suppose that is where the primal lies. Such “mobs” are alternately seen as “good” or “bad” depending on the institutional, group, and individual politics happen around them, and a great deal of the humanities is an endless debate on the scruples of said morals.

        Narratives, in general, have a habit of changing meaning depending on who exactly you are talking to. Interesting stuff to be sure (motivations and perceptions are always an intriguing subject), but I think the science of such “humanities” has never fully established itself, if for no other reason because there are never enough yard sticks to measure the social phenomena before it collapses and disappears.

  9. This post by Tom Slee seems to be trying to look at the same thing I am, from a somewhat different (and more understandable) angle. See especially “identity cascades”.

    • Assuming you are treading on the same intellectual ground as that you link to; you are well beyond “primal.”

      I suppose my thoughts mostly encompass individual to individual interaction while you are more interested in the political institutions of identity. Which are interesting to study if also prone, if one isn’t careful, to unsupported assertion, and political posturing.

      I suppose for me it comes down the the definition of collective identity as per the link. It essentially leaves the methods for evaluating “an individual’s cog­ni­tive, moral, and emo­tional con­nec­tion with a broader com­mu­nity, cat­e­gory, prac­tice, or insti­tu­tion” up to the researcher or writer without really getting deeply enough into the individuals actual relations to that diffuse “identity.” (i.e. it is easier to study such matters in “collective” societies.)

      I get the sense that such illegibility is part of the reason why online communications isn’t a neatly boxed in western culture like it might be in some others culture. The problem isn’t that “identity” is illegible, it is that someone thinks they can describe the illegibility in complete terms without missing anything important, since individuals have a mind of their own who knows what might be missing from the study?

  10. There’s some good stuff here!

    It makes me wonder about how much solidarity forms by direct conversation, and how much by intermediary expressions that stabilise mutual recognition.

    In other words, to really get to know someone, you presumably need to talk with them, although you can get a profound sense of knowing someone by coming across expressions with which you have a profound affinity.

    Going more practical again, if someone describes themselves in a high enough level of detail to make it seem profoundly personal, but does so in a way that describes you at the same time, they have implicitly created a kind of mapping, between their personality, identity and worldview, and your own.

    This mechanism is subject to deceptions just as conversation is subject to cold reading; using the existing mechanisms of reflection to gauge deception, so you adjust your action such as to create a false identity that is expressed in the work, by trying to imagine another person’s self-recognition, or even by using other works from across the nascent subculture you wish to unify. But the distinctive thing about a specific yet general expression of identity, is that even if it is not true for you, creating it will require you to make it true for someone, and it can still operate between them.

    This can be seen in writers who create characters they do not personally identify with, but who bring together people who do. This builds trust of a kind in that it allows strong prediction, in a constructive sense; you know what you can count on them to do, even if you can’t count on them to not do other things. And so this kind of expression encourages collective action without saying anything else about what the group will represent or how it will internally interact.

    This kind of solidarity doesn’t represent all social glue, and I suspect that a lot of building social movements is stacking control process kinds of trust and conversation structures within that beginning mass-action.

    I’m picturing a load of people who see a manifesto or particularly expressive political act, get inspired, immediately start clumping together, and then have some weird stilted conversations for the first meeting as they work through details of that clumping.

    • That picture, the “manifesto” or “expressive political act” is more a rhetorical feint then then an actual political thrust: at least in my observation (great irony develops when political movements don’t recognize this and fumble their “mainstream” pitch – to the rest of us – see:Occupy Movement).

      I see such tools, at least on the western political frountier, as nothing more then a means to build into the mainstream; once in the mainstream the rules and the resulting conversation changes with the new constituency and more then likely those who stick to their manifesto ususlly clutch to it with white knuckles as they are escorted out (see:OWS; see also 5-Star Movement, Beppe Grillo).

      History (like say “the news”) picks which of those pictures to rebroadcast, and when you discuss things in a historical mode you are building narratives without the measure of the events themselves.

      Heisenberg and a Social Theorist walked into a bar …

      • I wasn’t actually talking about whether political manifestos or actions are inherently politically effective, not least because I’m not totally sure what that would mean, but rather thinking about them as effective in structuring the internal recognition of people as a group.

        To pull that to one side, even if a specific manifesto or even doesn’t change the world, it may cause many people to recognise their common cause or similarity.

        I think your narrative doesn’t really fit OWS, as one of their distinctive features was a lack of manifesto or list of demands. People in certain media groups kept continually asking for one, but barely got anything. The details of why that happened and whether it was a good thing or not is another matter, but their model of interaction with their wider nation was fundamentally different to a paradigm of sending a political pitch to a separate mainstream.

        They actually form an example of how peripheral it can be given that their central identity forming action was more like “take control of a private space and make it public, camp out and talk about how to sort this mess out” than any document of a national program.

        And anyway, I wouldn’t restrict this to the obviously political, as there are many examples of communities claiming fictional figures as representations of themselves, and companies working out how to adapt to this new market opening up in symbolic identity markers, and communities working out to what extent they identify themselves as fans, or as some alternative identity.

        • If that’s the case then I think you are over-thinking the meaning of manifesto. I would argue that you are looking for the word “creed” , “values”, or “character” (as you suggest), as opposed to manifesto.

          If this is so, then I think I am on solid ground when I state that Occupy fundamentally didn’t understand how to relate their values, creed, or character to the wider public. Refusing interviews doesn’t help other people understand why you are beating drums and takeing up park space.

          The widespread public perception was that there was a manifestio and everyone wanted to know just what it was; you even use the words, “fundamentally different” in recognition that such a gap in dialogue exists. As we all know, in the end, rather then chosing to enter that dialogue with the broader public Occupy decided to block traffic instead.

          The whole idea of Occupy when placed in the terms you relate takes on a decidedly undemocratic feel. Democracy is all about the expression of one’s individual voice, and then finding collective voices that agree enough with yours, and baring that, entering a dialogue and at least comeing to terms.

          However, the Occupy movement silenced its individuals, and on top of that by claiming to be “leaderless” is passed the buck to the bewildered and didn’t bother explicating the value behind that logic.

          Of course this is where I have issues with the use of “solidarity” vs. some of the other similar words as have been discussed, to me solidarity implies that there is something beyond just a singular “group” solidarity seemingly represents broad based support of ideas from multipule groups, and as such is inherently more political then the issues of group identity or individual-to-individual interaction.

          Solidarity is “trust” between groups for a well explicated, shared political goals and as we’ve seen with OWS its only enough to sustain a mix of groups for so long before political infighting causes a loss of that shared vison, to bad there are no words to at least describe it for posterity’s sake.

          • Hmm, not really planning to get into a big discussion about OWS, but I’d recommend you give them another look; vast amounts of what was done by the occupy movement are documented online, by their supporters and detractors, and I think you’ll find that a lot of interesting stuff went on that you may not have been aware of at the time.

          • Josh, sorry to drag the discussion into an area you aren’t comfortable with. I was enjoying the conversation.

            If you think it is best to give it a rest then that’s what we’ll do.