Who holds the power – Part 1

As the MSM bring heart-wrenching newsfrom Mumbai, I cannot but look back to the earliest history of humanity…  Acts like these are despicable and horrible and unequivocally condemnable!!!

Yet, it leads me to ask, within our human social groups, how do we decide who holds the power?

We, humans, build communities.  It is one of the secrets of our success.

Yet, this sets up natural competition on two different levels:  within each community and between various communities.  Unless we understand the ‘simple’ dynamics of these basic competitions – and the psychology underlying them – we cannot hope to understand the complex dynamics of what is going on globally.

Competition within a community

Perhaps it is fitting that I raise this today, when many in the US are celebrating Thanksgiving…  Like most holidays – secular or religious – families, extended families or ‘social families’ (you know, including neighbours and friends…) get together.  And, many mental health professionals tell us that it is precisely these social get-togetherness which can cause some serious ‘stressors’ in people….


Because we are forced into ‘togetherness’ with people we both love, like, dislike and cannot stand – and we must smile and be ‘civil’ throughout the duration of the festivities.  Sometimes it is easy – and truly enjoyable.  At other times – it can be pure torture!

In order for us to get along, we must know our ‘pecking order’ within the social community in question.  Most of the time, this is just fine.  But it depends a lot on the other people within the group…

We have all met people who are so inadequate, they cannot feel good about themselves without putting down others – right?  They come in all ages, both sexes…  And they can poison the atmosphere of any festivity – especially if they are in a position where we owe them respect due to their role in the social group, or if the ‘senior’ members of the group do not set out clear expectations of behaviour. 

(You don’t need to be an Aspie, like I am, to feel the stress of these situations!)

I am not an expert on psychology (sic), so I will not try to offer some deep insights here.  All I am hoping to do is to call attention to this dynamic – present in our social groups today – and ask you all to imagine how these relationships must have resolved themselves when we, humans, lived in social groups (tribes) of about 30-150 members…. and when every day of our lives, our very hope of survival, was very much like the careful social balancing act we need to perform during holidays and their related social get-togethers.

So, who holds the power within a community?

While we usually set up a lot of social rules about who holds the power within a community (and, here, now, I am discussing a small, autonomous community of under 150 people), the truth of the matter is that the person who controls others holds the power. 

The ‘why’ can be variable – customs, religion, consensus…  It is interesting as a question on its own, but it is never nearly as clear as the ‘how’ that person controls the rest of the community: this is usually very constant (especially when we look at the history of the dawn of our human communities).

The means of controlling a community always involves access to food and protection of lives.

The shaman may successfully intercede with ancestors to send plentiful game for a hunt – or to send rain for a good harvest.

The successful chieftain will negotiate with neighbouring tribes both the boundaries to be respected, and the marriages and trade to take place.

OK, so I am not a historian or an anthropologist, either, but I have asked several historians and several anthropologists a lot of questions about this…  and, greatly simplified, in my never-humble-opinion, it appears that we have always allowed individuals whom we trust to protect our lives and ensure our food supply to control our little social groups.

Perhaps it is less obvious in today’s world – but there are still signs of it in our social customs.  Consider the honour of ‘head of the family’ being the one to carve the turkey:  this is a symbolic ‘control of the food supply’, whether we know it or not.  Or what ‘social prominence’ is given to what female, along with the ‘honour’ to provide what dish…  I know in my own extended family, the woman who gets to make the apple pie is the ‘top dog’ of the day….

Of course, ‘Black Friday’ is a study in chaos theory – or, perhaps, in ‘group competition’ dynamics….  Yet, if you are enjoying some major social interactions over this US Thanksgiving (or during the many upcoming Christmas parties), look around and think about our customs and how they relate to our group dynamics…. and how we know who is in charge when.

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