What is the Optimal Size of Your Tribe?

We’re no ordinary class. Other classes have structure and definitive standards regarding what constitutes an A, B, C, D, or F. We don’t have that luxury. We operate in the real world.  The real world is chaotic. And, we learned early on that imposing too much structure only handicaps our ability to respond and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. So, we don’t have a grading rubric. We have a code, a culture, and 11 Promises.

Prospective members of our Tribe must commit to our way of life. Now, in the moments leading up to their membership, we know that they cannot imagine anything other than fulfilling their commitment. However, past experience informs us that some students will be tempted to spend more time and effort on classes and projects that have clearer assignments and standards. We know it. We’ve felt it ourselves. We feel it (all the time).

So, we’re left wondering “Is their commitment to our way of life credible?

The answer to this question is intimately connected to the size of our Tribe.

The size of the Tribe:

1. Influences the Cost of Monitoring and Enforcing our Culture

We work side-by-side. Not top-down. This is great for heightening student responsibility. However, it makes monitoring our culture a collective responsibility. Like contributing to public radio, it’s a public good. And, like a large minority of public radio listeners, members of the Tribe have an incentive to free-ride on the monitoring efforts of others.

Monitoring is also difficult. Our work is the result of a complex collaborative process. This makes it costly to identify one individual’s contribution from another. You may not receive the accolades you deserve or expect you deserve for your work. This can be demoralizing. But, an important part of our culture is the belief that your reward for good work is the opportunity to do more work. Our intense interdependence also makes it possible for behavior that is inconsistent with our culture to go unnoticed. However, even if you were called out for breaking one or more of our cultural norms, you would not expect anyone to enforce our high expectation because enforcing our culture is also a public good.

As forward-looking individuals, there is an incentive for prospective members of the Tribe to commit to our culture today knowing that they will break a norm tomorrow. No Tribe can escape this difficulty. But, it can ameliorate it by staying small. Smaller numbers ease the cost of mutual supervision by making the behavior of all more noticeable. Smaller numbers also allow the benefits of monitoring and enforcement to be shared among a fewer individuals. In turn, the reward for maintaining the health of our Tribe increases. In turn, knowing that others are more likely to monitor and enforce our culture, gives you a reason to hold yourself accountable. Self-monitoring and enforcement becomes the norm (And, any artist, freelancer or entrepreneur needs to know how to do this).

2. Influences the Informational Integrity of our Rituals

We have an amazing history of getting shit done. It draws a lot of people our way. Some are change-making animals in their infancy who want to make a dent in the world. Others want the respect and prestige that attends being one of US without having to pay the price. We need to know who is who. So, we use rituals to screen prospective members of the Tribe. They are effective because they are (1) costly and (2) not everyone finds it worthwhile to endure them. They are valuable because someone’s choice to endure our rituals is a signal from her to US regarding her commitment to our way of life. Those who are committed will pay the price of the ritual. Those who are not, will not. In turn, we are left with a Tribe of committed individuals.

We can only increase the size of our Tribe by reducing the costliness of our rituals. And, if we reduce their costliness, those who previously chose not to endure our rituals may to do so now. They will find it worthwhile to parrot our language and imitate our walk and our way. Unable to tell who is who, we may accept them into the fold. Their presence is a fundamental source of concern:

  • When we are sharing stories of vulnerability, will they create a safe space by lending an empathetic ear?
  • When the going gets grueling, will they press forward without hierarchical direction and external reminders?

We make these open questions by making it easier for more people to join US. Lowering the costliness of our rituals puts into play forces that sow doubt, hesitation and undermine our solidarity.

3. Influences the Immersiveness of Our Culture

Outside of the Tribe, we are immersed in a claustrophobic celebrity-centric consumerist culture that values leisure, consumption, and instant-gratification. It values materialism, processed foods and tanning beds. Its spokespeople sell superficialities, short-cuts, and empty promises. They know our fears. And, they use our fears to confuse and misdirect us. They manipulate us by repeatedly and endlessly bombarding us with falsehoods spoken by a perfectly chiseled jaw.

Standing against this torrent of lies is our Tribe. We are here to create, not consume. We are about connection and community. We value empathy and vulnerability. We stand for solidarity, justice and love. We place a premium on patience and delayed-gratification. And, above all else, we value the work. We value the grind. Because, we know that there’s no short-cut to the change we want to see in ourselves and in the world.

We strengthen our commitment to our culture by surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals and repeatedly interacting. The smaller the Tribe the more immersive is the experience. With a smaller Tribe there are more interactions, conversations, reminders and affirmations of our way of life. On the other hand, whenever the numbers increase and/or the members of the Tribe are relatively unfamiliar with each other or interact only on rare occasions – we witness a weakening of the commitment to our culture and a different less effective pattern of work.

I have had a Tribe of 6 students. I have had a Tribe of 15 students. In an effort to accommodate the schedules of as many students as possible, I have had two Tribes meeting at different times during the same semester. In order to fill a particular need of our project, I have allowed students to enroll without the responsibility of having to meet with the rest of Tribe face-to-face on a regular basis. After all these iterations of Tribal configurations, I have learned that when it comes to making commitments credible we must all meet at the same place, same time all the time. And, it is best to go small or not at all.


If you liked this post, you may also like the other posts in Rewilding Pedagogy.

Thanks. – shawn