Tag Archives: Dunbar

It’s not a drug, it’s not a vaccine. It’s women saving lives.

13 May

I have a real problem with science sometimes. Or is it the scientific approach? I’m not a Trumpist; I don’t believe in alternative facts, I believe in evidence-based decisions and policy, but I have a problem with what is deemed evidence. There’s a snobbery in science, it is rooted after all in a history dominated by men. Anything which doesn’t have carefully formulated methodology is deemed invalid – I’m not talking a validity of crank ideas or a culture of anything-goes, I’m talking about the acceptance of a historical or cultural knowledge.

So I approached Anthony Costello’s talk at the Swindon Festival of Literature 2021 with some resistance. His book, The Social Edge, delves into the power of sympathy groups. On the one hand, the facts and figures were extremely interesting and he has awe-inspiring experience as the director of maternal, child and adolescent health at the World Health Organisation amongst many lauded positions; on the other I felt that society already has the answers, it’s just that it’s women who have had them all along.

And what is a sympathy group?

The sympathy group was formally identified by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist. Robin observed a ‘tripling hierarchy’ of human groupings – family, sympathy group, affinity band and then active network. You may have heard of the ‘active network’ magic number of 150 – the maximum amount of people in a community one human can cope with – ‘your Christmas card list’? The sympathy group of 15 or so people is one step beyond the immediate family, brought together by shared goals and trust, typically spending a lot of time together to get stuff done. Anthony’s examples include coffee house culture from the eighteenth century as an ‘engine of debate’, a theatre company (such as the Festival’s own Farm Yard Circus), the core group behind Apple, a government cabinet and advisers, the suffragettes.

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