Conformity and consensus

Just worked through Dave Pollard’s Links for the Month. TheraminTrees YouTube video (a touch under 10 minutes long) summarising studies on group conformity stood out from some other amazing resources. Probably because I’ve been pondering this stuff of late, including in my recent post on certainty:

If you don’t have time to watch, here’s a taste of the author’s conclusions from his review of the studies that show a real tendency to conform to group views:

“Being part of a group doesn’t mean agreeing with every part of that group. We should always feel able to voice legitimate criticisms with any group…. When we stop feeling able to do that we give those groups a status and an authority that they don’t deserve and that they actually don’t possess. If a group can’t handle legitimate dissent it’s not a group I want to be part of”

Immediately the possible impacts on consensus decision-making are apparent. How do we move towards a shared group decision without eradicating minority opinions and dissent? How do we embrace those views and weave them into our decision-making? If we manage this how do we avoid co-option – by which I mean bringing them into the majority fold in order to exert some level of control over them? Hard questions with many, many examples of failure to illustrate the need to ask them.

Dave’s blogged about consensus as a force for the status quo in the past, and this research adds weight to his thinking, even though I’m stubbornly holding out in the belief that whilst it may often be like that it’s not a default setting of consensus decision-making itself, just how groups (choose to) use it. At the time I wrote:

The interesting aspect of this conversation for me is how radicals can come together and be conservative when gathered collectively to make a decision. Consensus tends to attract folk looking for an alternative to the status quo, disillusioned with mainstream models of power and decision-making. You could argue that they’re folk looking for radical change. So if Dave is right (and I’m sure he’s not the only one to have observed this trait in groups using consensus) what happens? Why do we default to conservatism?

Maybe the studies quoted in the video answer that question.

This week I met with my Leicester-based Rhizome colleagues. Given we live in and around the same city we don’t meet often enough, and it’s always refreshing when we do. Much of our conversation relates to this post – how we as Rhizome need to explore the diversity that 10 different facilitators with very different backgrounds and approached represent, embrace it and root ourselves firmly in it. When we do that we’re in a much better position to support other groups effectively. We need to model the struggle to have shared values but differing visions of the future which disable so many groups. The inability of people to reconcile their differences seems to be a major contributing factor to conformity. Eventually “the other” (whatever or whoever that might be) is alienated, made unwelcome, or forced to conform for the group to move forwards because there’s an expectation of a very narrow shared vision.

We’ll continue to share our journey into co-operation without conformity with you. Please share yours with us.

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