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When is a group an entity in its own right rather than just a group of individuals?

V – so anything you want to report on this month?

A – yes, it’s come out of the mental health work, but it’s more about the nature of groups than mental health issues as such.

V – OK, so where did it come from?

A – We’d agreed to have a review on how to help people in crisis, which would include the service provided by the mental health trust but also the role of the police, ambulance service, A&E, voluntary sector, friends and family and so on.  The idea was to start with a big meeting of service users and professionals to begin investigating the various problems and issues.  So far we’ve had that big meeting which has been written up, with recommendations.

The thing was, when it came up in the mental health group, it was assumed that the report from that first event was enough and we could now move on.  I made the case for a review, but others who I think might have supported that weren’t there.  In the end it was decided to discuss it at the next meeting, which was fine.

It got me thinking, though, about the nature of the group – in this case a committee – as an entity, distinct from the individuals that make it up.  We tend to see such groups as, perhaps shifting coalitions of different views, some of which become manifest through voting or consensus, and are then implemented.

But groups or ‘collectivities’ more generally, like organisations, can sometime decide and act differently from their constituent members.  (I made this point in relation to the Health and Wellbeing Board (HWB), that collectively it’s not as good as the individuals making it up).

I got thinking further about this when I went back to a NESTA article on Collective Intelligence.

V – so you were thinking, could you explain the committee’s behaviour in terms of it as an entity rather than a coalition of the members?

A – exactly.

V – so do you want to remind us what you mean by considering groups or ‘collectivities’ as entities?

A – yes, but it’s a bit complicated, I haven’t quite got my head round it all yet and-

V – just the short, simple version, then please.

A – OK.  First is the question of whether such ‘collectivities’ are different sorts of things, entities in their own right.  I’m not sure I’ve come to a final conclusion on that but I think probably it doesn’t make much sense.  Different from what?  All the bits that make it up?  A cloud is made up of all its constituent molecules but it makes sense for us to think of it as a whole thing.  The same with organisations and society).

Another question raised in ‘Collective Intelligence’ and which harks back to my point about the HWB is, can the group or collectivity be more or less than the sum of its parts?  (This is thinking about groups ‘performing’, like problem solving or instituting action rather than, say, getting agreement or buy-in).

But how can you make sense of that?  Here are some ways you could interpret or operationalise the concept.

One way would be to consider how the group performs compared to one of its members, if they were to try and complete the whole task themselves, spending the same amount of time as the sum of time the members spend in the group.  So if five people spend an hour as a group trying to do something, can one person, spending five hours do as well?  That could be considered in terms of how well the worst member would do, the best member or perhaps an average.   If the group doesn’t perform as well as the worst of its members, then certainly you could say it is less than the sum of its parts.  Perhaps also if it performs less well than its best member would.

Another way of thinking about it is if each person does what they’re best at and it’s all assembled afterwards – that’s surely ‘the sum of the parts’ but it’s also (generally) more than any one individual could do.

So what makes the collectivity different.  This is not exhaustive, but there are things like:

  • People are influenced by others in groups (e.g. their judgement and even ability to solve problems).
  • one person solves part of a problem enabling another member to solve the next part
  • one person sparks off another
  • motivating or inspiring each other
  • they each bring different skills and abilities
  • those things can become embodied in ‘cultural artefacts’ – procedures, systems, the layout of buildings, culture, norms etc.

Thus the history of the collectivity can influence its current nature, which in turn can influence its members.

V – so the way the mental health group reacted to the idea of a review of crisis might have been supra-personal, something which had become embodied in the group as an entity, almost independent of the views of the current members?

A – yes, it could have.  But actually on reflection I don’t think it did – I think this was probably  just an example of shifting coalitions of views which happened to settle on a particular answer because of the combination of people who were there.

M – what the f-

V – so everything you’ve been telling us about collectivities is totally irrelevant?

A – well no, it’s important and it may well come up ag-

M – I look forward to it!

V – well thank you for a fascinating, oh, I don’t know …

A – look, I’m sorry, wait – come back both of you – it’s interesting, really …

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