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Tiny Publics

Tiny Publics: A Theory of Group Action and Culture

Gary Alan Fine
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    Tiny Publics
    Book Description:

    If all politics is local, then so is almost everything else, argues sociologist Gary Alan Fine. We organize our lives by relying on those closest to us—family members, friends, work colleagues, team mates, and other intimates—to create meaning and order. In this thoughtful and wide-ranging new book, Fine argues that the basic building blocks of society itself are forged within the boundaries of such small groups, the “tiny publics” necessary for a robust, functioning social order at all levels. Action, meaning, authority, inequality, organization, and institutions all have their roots in small groups. Yet for the past twenty-five years social scientists have tended to ignore the power of groups in favor of an emphasis on organizations, societies, or individuals. Based on over thirty-five years of Fine’s own ethnographic research across an array of small groups, Tiny Publics presents a compelling new theory of the pivotal role of small groups in organizing social life. No social system can thrive without flourishing small groups. They provide havens in an impersonal world, where faceless organizations become humanized. Taking examples from such diverse worlds as Little League baseball teams, restaurant workers, high school debate teams, weather forecasters, and political volunteers, Fine demonstrates how each group has its own unique culture, or idioculture—the system of knowledge, beliefs, behavior, and customs that define and hold a group together. With their dense network of relationships, groups serve as important sources of social and cultural capital for their members. The apparently innocuous jokes, rituals, and nicknames prevalent within Little League baseball teams help establish how teams function internally and how they compete with other teams. Small groups also provide a platform for their members to engage in broader social discourse and a supportive environment to begin effecting change in larger institutions. In his studies of mushroom collectors and high school debate teams, Fine demonstrates the importance of stories that group members tell each other about their successes and frustrations in fostering a strong sense of social cohesion. And Fine shows how the personal commitment political volunteers bring to their efforts is reinforced by the close-knit nature of their work, which in turn has the power to change larger groups and institutions. In this way, the actions and debates begun in small groups can eventually radiate outward to affect every level of society. Fine convincingly demonstrates how small groups provide fertile ground for the seeds of civic engagement. Outcomes often attributed to large-scale social forces originate within such small-scale domains. Employing rich insights from both sociology and social psychology, as well as vivid examples from a revealing array of real-world groups, Tiny Publics provides a compelling examination of the importance of small groups and of the rich vitality they bring to social life.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-774-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. About the Author
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction: Tiny Publics as Social Order
    (pp. 1-18)

    If all politics is local, so, I argue, is almost everything else. Action, meaning, authority, inequality, organization, and institution—all have their roots in microstructures situated in what Erving Goffman (1983) described as the “interaction order.” Although downplayed in much recent social science, small groups order and organize human life, emphasizing the power of immediate surroundings and microcultures. To revive the small group as an organizing principle of social life is my task. Further, I argue not only that these groups are discrete zones of action but that through their power in defining rights and privileges, they fit into and...

  5. Chapter 1 The Power of Groups
    (pp. 19-33)

    We reside in a universe of groups, a world of tiny publics. Through the associations we share with others—close and knotted ties—we find affiliation that allows us to conclude that others care about what we do. Small groups provide spaces where sociality operates, and sociality generates the building blocks of society. The great theorist of sociality Georg Simmel recognized that it is through social forms that personal connections emerge. It is perhaps not surprising that the best-selling work of sociology—a true best-seller and cultural icon—was David Riesman’sThe Lonely Crowd(Riesman, Glazer, and Denney 1950); this...

  6. Chapter 2 The Dynamics of Idioculture
    (pp. 34-51)

    The concept of culture has become so thoroughly enshrined throughout the social sciences that it sometimes has escaped attention how little we know of culture in situ—culture as it is played out. The microclimate of culture has taken a backseat to the macroanalysis of culture as linked to society at large.¹ Social scientists have often ignored the idea that culture is a form of performance within a local context, with meaning derived from those contextual features, while treating culture as a thing in itself, separate from how it is used in practice. Even performance theorists, such as Jeffrey Alexander...

  7. Chapter 3 The Power of Constraints and Exteriority
    (pp. 52-67)

    As a rule, we should avoid playing havoc with the slogans of others. Yet, in this chapter, I mischievously invert the title of Randall Collins’s (1981) influential essay, “On the Microfoundations of Macrosociology.” My claim is that “the macrofoundations of microsociology” is equally invigorating. Although not the first to recognize the challenge of integrating levels of analysis, Collins has been particularly influential in arguing for the necessary linkage of “macro” and “micro” sociology, and he created a sociology of completeness that incorporates meso-level perspectives.¹ The meso-level is my playground as well.² Collins proclaims that an adequate macrosociology depends on microsociological...

  8. Chapter 4 Norms and Action
    (pp. 68-88)

    Moralities, ethics, laws, customs, beliefs and doctrines, far from trifling concerns, depend on interpersonal relations, arenas of action, and shared understandings. Perhaps the fact that we can coordinate so well is itself miraculous. Our frequent decisions to affiliate—the basis of social order—are inevitably local, contingent on our idiocultures, even as they are shaped by external structural forces.

    Decisions to trust—to embrace belonging—require the predictability and the expression of commitment to shared standards. People must believe that certain behaviors and responses are expected and proper, even while the details of group life are emergent and negotiated. In...

  9. Chapter 5 The Performance of Ideology
    (pp. 89-106)

    Groups can be self-contained, focused on their expressive culture, but their potential goes much deeper: small groups serve as the very basis of political life when they establish the conditions for political action and the foundations of civil society and the public sphere. We see this in social movements (Fine and Stoecker 1985) and in open gatherings, such as town meetings (Bryan 2004). As agents of change, groups are spaces in which a moral order and societal commitment are generated. In this I embrace the motto that all politics is local—not just because politics addresses concerns of bounded relevance,...

  10. Chapter 6 Wispy Communities
    (pp. 107-123)

    In a hotel in Louisville, men and women from thirty-five states and four countries, many of them strangers at the outset, gather for a long weekend. They intend to pay homage to a cult film that is dearly beloved by each of them. The film,The Big Lebowski, is not widely appreciated outside of their community. During the gathering, labeled the Lebowski Fest, participants discuss the details of the production, meet actors, listen to bands, hear academic presentations, consume food and drink mentioned in the film (White Russians), hold a costume party, and reenact favorite scenes.¹ For the occasion, they...

  11. Chapter 7 Tiny Publics in Civil Society
    (pp. 124-139)

    I turn from the constellation of groups as building blocks within the cultural order to the analysis of groups as fostering a politics built on the local: How do groups constitute and organize political life within the public sphere? How can one take the discourse on civil society and connect it to group dynamics? This turn moves the groups approach to the central circle of sociology. The argument is applicable to all Western society (Warren 2001), but nowhere is it more applicable than in the United States, given the competing ideologies of the individual and the association. We readily recognize...

  12. Chapter 8 The Extension of the Local
    (pp. 140-156)

    A sociology that focuses exclusively on small, interacting groups is a limited discipline. Apart from a few microscopic “tribal” societies, most groups connect with other groups. This recognizes the presence and power of networks in creating and extending social control, shared perspectives, and normative order and, at times, in generating divisions, inequalities, conflicts, and resistance. Culture extends from local scenes through processes of domain extension. Scenes build on each other to create a more extensive and robust social system. Local domains of knowledge are expanded when groups come into contact through the linkages of members, the deliberate diffusion of information,...

  13. Chapter 9 Action and Its Publics
    (pp. 157-178)

    In his provocative, transformative fashion, emphasizing the power of the local, James Joyce posed a challenge for thinking about society. For insights to be universal, they must be local first. This is, of course, the novelist’s creed. Each story describes a scene, but each must brim with insight, convincing audiences that the act of reading is not voyeurism but education. The places, the actions, and the persons depicted stand for more than themselves.

    Throughout this volume, I have presented a sociology of the local and described the role of group culture and shared pasts. Now, in attempting to bring the...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 179-184)
  15. References
    (pp. 185-214)
  16. Index
    (pp. 215-224)