A few years ago I read a great book by Nicholas Christokis and James Fowler called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks. There are a few points about social networks that I’ve been thinking about as relates to our social networks like the church, Facebook, and the blogs we frequent.
Given the findings of the book, the most important aspect of our church life is our local ward. At work we used to say that to an employee, their direct leader was the whole company, for good or bad. The same can be said of our local wards: to members, the experiences in those local wards are the whole church experience (or nearly so). Having a ward you like and where you feel accepted is therefore pretty important.
Human beings cluster in communities of about 150 (Dunbar’s number). Even if a community has more than 150 people in it, we really only mentally keep track of about 150 anyway. When people lived in small towns, this made it easier for the community to self-police, to know who was safe and who wasn’t. With urbanization, people stopped knowing their neighbors and crime became harder to manage. With the internet, we find our virtual networks maxing out similarly. Likewise, when you consider the people you really know at church, 150 is probably about the maximum range, even if the ward is much bigger. Most people only have 4 “strong” ties in their network (people who truly know them intimately). Weak ties (our broader social network) are how information and ideas are passed along and adopted. In networking, weak ties are actually the most important.
We are influenced by those in the community we perceive to be superior. Credibility may be based on intelligence, attractiveness, charisma, wealth, “coolness,” social skills or whatever else is important to us individually. We all have people we look up to whose opinions we prize. If they share an opinion, we immediately try to understand why they are right because in our view, they probably are “righter” than others.
We influence those who perceive us to be superior. What they base this perception on may differ from what’s important to you. These are the people who give us a “thumbs up” or who “like” our comments or posts on Facebook. They may be the ones who go out of their way to praise our talks or lessons at church (and really mean it). These folks may praise the wisdom of our ideas. These accolades cause us to feel that we are valuable contributors to a given community. Being ignored gives us the opposite feeling.
When we perceive someone to be inferior or not credible, we are dismissive of their influence. Sometimes we form this judgment immediately. Sometimes something a person has said or done changes our view of them; they fall from grace. When we read their comments or hear them speak, they rankle. We subconsciously look to find fault with their arguments. This is a natural reaction to marginalize their influence in the group because we feel they are not valuable contributors.
Here’s the tricky part.
We gravitate toward groups where we are somewhere in the middle of the pack, but slightly above average – where we are both able to influence and be influenced, but we still feel just a little bit superior to the majority of the group. If we are too high in the pack, we deem the group not valuable to us because we’re always the smartest (or coolest or whatever) person. If we are too low in the pack, we may feel intimidated by the group or as if we are not accepted or valued because of our inability to influence. The greater the disparity we perceive between ourselves and the community, the harder it will be to stay in that community.
Do these two ends of the spectrum equate to being prideful (feeling superior to the group) or offended (feeling inferior to the group) or are they just a normal evolutionary psychological phenomenon that protects humans from bad or dangerous influences?
Many disaffected people share negative stories on the internet about experiences in their Mormon communities: family and ward members who say ignorant things, lack social skills or who otherwise make them feel embarrassed to be a Mormon because of their intolerance of others. Without these horrifying folks, I question whether the bloggernacle would exist. Many who have left the church are surprised that others with similar issues still find value within the church. One key difference is the “150 people” who constitute their Mormon community. Depending on who we know, where we live, how we were raised, my Mormonism may truly be a very different culture from the Mormonism someone else experiences.
If the church wants to retain and grow, it has to have enough “cool” people in it. If we distill our ranks to only include the most uptight orthodox members, we substantially lessen our influence among those who don’t find those folks influential or who feel dismissive of them. Likewise, we will be unattractive to converts whose social networks mostly consist of non-Mormons unless they perceive the Mormon community they are considering joining to contain a superior network of contacts (more wealthy, successful, intelligent, attractive, cool or whatever). For this reason, the “I’m a Mormon” campaign is pure genius for attracting non-LDS people. Visitors to the site can select the members they want to “meet” virtually based on their own criteria. However, if they then attend a local ward that is not like the idealized virtual ward they’ve read about, they may feel disappointed.
An interesting byproduct of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign was some of the initial negative reaction from members. Some felt that such diversity was an indictment of their milquetoast lives; they felt marginalized by the cooler group being touted to appeal to outsiders. Others said they wished the Mormons they knew were really like that; they perceived their own community of Mormons to be inferior.
Geographic ward boundaries should usually create more effective social networks because members are more likely to attend with their socio-economic peers. Wards that have more mixed socio-economic groups may encounter more difficulty with cohesion. For example, in a ward with (apartments + houses) or (marrieds + singles) or (students + older families), there may be a tendency for some to feel dismissive or inferior along socio-economic divisions.I recall in my very early married life, while we were still students commuting from north Salt Lake to BYU (me) and U of U (hubs), being in a local ward with apartment-dwellers and home owners. Based on my own upbringing, I saw the home-owners as far less educated and financially successful than what I was accustomed to, but they saw the apartment dwellers (like us) as inferior (transient, unreliable, young, no children). The ward even segregated the Gospel Doctrine class into a class for those living in apartments and one for those living in houses. Within a month, we were completely inactive in that ward and eventually transferred to a student ward across town, a much better fit. In their minds, this doubtless proved they were right, that apartment dwellers were unreliable flakes.
In another ward, I really struggled in the second and third hour because I was the only woman with a career and one of only three sisters in Relief Society who had served a mission; only two of us had finished a college degree. I found most of the comments in class lacked insight. Often people simply resorted to standard answers or the teachers just failed to prepare well. I fluctuated between boredom and being appalled at the views some fellow ward members expressed unopposed. One gospel doctrine teacher actually opined for the days when it was permissible to hit children in school and blamed rape victims due to how they were dressed. Most ward members either chuckled in agreement or didn’t want to say anything because they were in awe of this person who said it. I was at church every week, but my mind was elsewhere. My husband enjoyed that ward because the men were plain spoken salt-of-the-earth types. He found them to be good-hearted and willing to help others. I think he was right.
In yet another ward, I remember having this strange sensation of finally hitting the right mix. I felt a little in awe of some of the successful, educated, well informed, articulate people around me, yet I also felt that I was listened to when I gave a thought provoking comment. Just like Goldilocks, I felt I had found the ward that was “just right.” However, at the same time, my husband struggled because the men were likewise well educated and successful, but they often seemed to be status seekers who were cold and arrogant and too busy or important in their careers to show up to help people. I theorized that perhaps education and success elevated women while bringing out worse qualities in their husbands.
- Have you left a community because you felt that you didn’t get enough out of it or because you felt intimidated by the group? What types of things make you want to divest from a group? What makes you want to stay involved?
- What have your experiences been in various wards? Do you prefer similar people or diverse wards?
- How does your view of people in your church community affect your membership and desire to participate? Do you feel their opinions are valuable? Do you feel you have influence?
- Does the church’s stance on attending in your geographic area improve retention or create attrition (including going inactive)?