UCL News


Press cutting: Group dynamics

4 April 2007

It is a measure of Mary Douglas's reputation as probably the country's greatest living anthropologist that tickets for a lecture she gave last night ran out weeks ago, and prompted a long waiting list.

Douglas's thinking has particular relevance now, according to the Young Foundation, which arranged the lecture in conjunction with UCL.

Her life experience of thinking about how societies organise themselves and how people relate to each other could offer insights into phenomena such as the rise of the far right and of religiously inspired terrorism. …

The theory conceptualises four main types of social organisation co-existing in different degrees of dominance in every society; they are in conflict with each other in a constant dynamic. …

Douglas explains the characteristics of the enclave as a strong sense of detachment from the mainstream. This needn't be sinister but there is often a tendency for the enclave to develop deepening hostility to the "outside world". A fear of "defections" drives the building of "a strong moral wall against the outside. This is where the world starts to be painted in black and white, saints inside and sinners outside the wall. It is a strategy aimed at making exit seem frightening." One of the most effective ways to keep the enclave strong is by "provoking attack from the outside. Then all the reasons for being together are revived. The more they are cruelly and unjustly persecuted by the outside society, the more the integrity of the enclave is saved." This is what can lead to terrorism. …

"When community flies out of the window, it leaves a population of isolated individuals. Boredom assails them. They are easy recruits to the enclaves that offer a new and better life inside a virtuous and loving community. So I predict our grandchildren will be joining enclaves in search of a meaningful life, defecting from them in disappointment, and trying to found their own."

The enclaves, Douglas predicts, could be all kinds of sub-cultures, benign and destructive - new religious movements, cults, organic communes and, of course, al-Qaida terror cells. They are all motivated by a search for greater meaning and deeper connection to a group.

Douglas's main concern is that many of those who opt out of the mainstream often see no rewards available to them in it, so they have a burning sense of injustice. And this would appear particularly true of Muslim extremists. "I believe the violence against the enclave group only sets off the positive feedback process, which escalates the anger and violence on both sides," she says. "It seems to be of paramount importance to seek out what they consider the injustice that has forced them out." That is something Douglas admits "would be a horrendous can of worms to open: if instead of hating enclaves and fundamentalists, we ask ourselves why they hate us."

The key policy application of the model is perhaps to the government's anti-terrorism strategy. …

Douglas may never personally have got closely involved in how her ideas translate into policy, but it is a measure of her intellectual achievement that many others have taken on that task, and keep returning to her work for inspiration.

Madeleine Bunting, 'The Guardian'