Saturday, March 30, 2013

Do you even read?

Since 2011 my colleagues and I have been thinking about cultural tightness and looseness and how it might pertain to the religious congregations we engage with as part of the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project.  For those unfamiliar with these terms, tightness refers to the strength of norms and sanctions within a particular group.  Groups with strong norms enforced by sanctions are said to be "tight" while those with weak norms or with a high tolerance for deviant behavior are said to be "loose."  In principle, it is possible to rank communities on a continuum between "loose" and "tight" and to do so for groups as small as local congregations or as large as nations.

We've found this to be a particularly interesting conception for several reasons.  First, it resonates with our observations in the field.  Some churches we visit seem to emphasize the individual and his or her personal spiritual journey, valuing diverse spiritual expressions and individual autonomy.  Other churches, by contrast, place much more emphasis on shared values and group conformity, with highly constrained beliefs, behaviors and practices.  Second, the relative tightness of groups correlates with environmental factors.  In particular, it correlates with existential insecurity such that communities that face (or believe they face) greater threat tend to be tighter than communities that are (or perceive themselves to be) more secure.  This fits well with our ecosystems approach to studying religious communities. Finally, tightness and looseness are, at their roots, about tolerance for variation, and variation, in turn, is the essential building block upon which natural selection can work its wonders.  As such, the tight/loose axis of cultural variation fits more directly into an evolutionary narrative than virtually any others that are frequently discussed and it does so in a way that is readily amenable to study from a multi-level selection perspective.

The classification scheme is not without its problems, of course.  For one, it's a bit uncomfortable approaching churches about how tight or loose they might be.  That just brings a whole list of unfortunate connotations to the table that inflect in particularly unfortunate ways in religious communities.  But these are the terms we're kind of stuck with, at least at an academic level.  As a number of papers point out, these were terms laid down by an anthropologist by the name of Pertti Pelto in 1968 in his seminal paper entitled "The Differences Between 'Tight' and 'Loose' Societies."  For instance, Gelfand et al (2006) state that:

"Pelto (1968), an anthropologist, was the first to theorize on tightness–looseness, arguing that traditional societies varied in their expression of and adherence to social norms." p. 1226

Similarly, Gelfand, in a 2012 paper, explains:

"The idea that societies vary on tightness-looseness dates back to early anthropological work by Pertti J. Pelto."  p. 420

So we have Pelto to blame.  Except, of course, that we don't.  Pelto was not the first person to use these terms.  In fact, his 1968 paper was not in any way about describing some new cultural syndrome that no one had articulated before.  Rather, Pelto was complaining about the lack of any objective standards in the anthropology of his time by which to evaluate tightness or looseness.  So how did Pelto become the father of this construct?  I'm not sure, but I suspect it's because his paper is one of the most cited by researchers in the field.  Almost by default, if you're going to introduce the concept of cultural tightness in a paper, you're probably going to cite Pelto's 1968 paper.  The fact that he is now being credited, though, as the founder of these concepts makes me wonder how many people actually bother to read the article they're citing.

Now, I understand that it's not possible or desirable to trace every scientific concept back to its very beginnings.  Moreover, I understand how tedious it can be to work through relatively archaic literature.  However, Pelto's 1968 article is only 4 pages long and it's not like you have to dig too deeply to discover that he was not the one to coin these terms.  In fact, you don't have to read beyond the very first sentence!

"For about 30 years, anthropologists have been classifying human societies as 'tight' or 'loose.'" p. 37

Okay, I'm just being pedantic I know.  In the grand scheme of things this is not a terribly important bit of history that scholars need to get right.  Moreover, it doesn't even make a difference in how firmly entrenched these terms are.  If anything, a more accurate history just shows that these terms have an even deeper history that make them that much less amenable to change.  Nevertheless, I do think it represents a wider problem in science that seems to be getting worse as the information age proceeds at an ever increasing pace.  People either don't have the time or just don't see the need to read the sources they're citing.  Instead, they seem just to skim abstracts or they get a sense from what others have said rather than going to the original.  How many people, for instance, could tell you that Hardin's famous articulation of the "Tragedy of the Commons" was in support of a rather radical call for draconian birth control mandates?  Similarly, how many people know that Darwin did not, in fact, have an epiphany about the mechanisms of natural selection while visiting the Galapagos Islands?

Maybe none of this really matters.  Nevertheless, I hold on to a quaint belief that the text that falls between the introduction and conclusions sections of papers or chapters of books is doing more important work than simply taking up space.  If we dispense with it entirely, then we might as well go to Twitter as our primary means of publication.


Gelfand, M. J. (2012). "Culture's Constraints: International Differences in the Strength of Social Norms." Current Directions in Psychological Science 21(6): 420-424.

Gelfand, M. J., L. H. Nishii and J. L. Raver (2006). "On the Nature and Importance of Cultural Tightness–Looseness." Journal of Applied Psychology 91(6): 1225–1244.

Hardin, G. (1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162: 1243-1248.

Pelto, P. J. (1968). "The difference between "tight" and "loose" societies." Transaction 5(5): 37·40.