It’s been decades since my teenage years spent talking with friends of opposite (and I mean opposite) political persuasions in a 1980s basement until the wee hours of the night, just before the Trivial Pursuit showdown. I would give anything to recreate those talks with my geographically-dispersed friends now, simply because the glimpses we get of each other on social media fail to capture the in-person goofiness that always accompanied our disagreements. That was true whether we were talking about Reagan, or about the lyrics to any songs by Howard Jones.
It’s also been years since I have been assigned to do a group project in school. You know, the kind where you have these 5 stereotypical people in your group:
Person A: the doer, the task-oriented one, the one who knows everything about the assignment and can quote it verbatim in her sleep.
Person B: the “everyone let’s just get along” person who may or may not know all of the assignment parameters.
Person C: the one who seems to never be able to get her part of the project done because she’s just got too much stuff going on in her life that’s hard, and everyone in the group oscillates between sympathizing with her and feeling just a little bit suspicious.
Person D: the one who may or may not have had an adult beverage before the group work began in order to make things a little more fun, and who has surprisingly great penmanship.
Person E: the one who loves everything about the project except the one part where you have to write a poem. Poetry, in her estimation, is a deal breaker. To the point where she may risk getting a bad grade by opting out, or perhaps asking for an alternate assignment with fellow poetry-haters. [note to my poet friends: I’m sorry for this analogy. I think poetry is wonderful.]
In my schooling and career and co-curricular life, I’ve been each of these persons, sometimes simultaneously. I’ve also been charged with leading groups and figuring out how best to have persons A, B, C, D, and E get the work done while also not throwing sharp objects at each other.
I’m curious to apply this notion of the school group project to some current goings-on.
Okay, let’s say you recently marched. You were with a group of, say, three million people around the world. You had a goal of showing how social change is coming, how current leadership needs to be challenged, and how the impetus of change stems not from a few weirdos in a basement playing Trivial Pursuit, but from a large collective with shared aims.
But, alas, in the midst of post-march pink pics, voices are sprinkled in that say things like “I felt excluded,” “I would have done this except for a massive deal-breaker issue,” or, “I was throwing up and thought I should probably keep my germs to myself. It is cold and flu season, after all.” And so the question that’s lingering is, what’s the next step in the project exactly, who’s willing to do it, and what kind of deliberating are Persons A, B, C, D, and E doing about all of this?
Sociologists talk about groups a lot, especially when it comes to social movements. And sometimes we even talk about groups that are in our high schools…you know, groups like Trivial Pursuit clubs (okay, that probably was not a thing, but it totally should have been). When we do this, not only are we concerned with size (my inauguration audience was bigger than yours and that makes me more popular), we are also concerned with the main function of the group. In fact, we give these functions names. A group is dedicated to expressive tasks when their main reason for being together is to show emotional connectivity and support. Like a family, or like your book club that’s really more about relationship counseling over wine than it is about reading and discussing books. Contrast this with a group that is defined as a group because of instrumental tasks — things that need to get done, sometimes that come from outside the group. Like a work project group, or like a book club where the members actually talk entirely about the books and don’t really spend time getting to know each other over wine. To keep going with the high school thread, expressive relationships include those who are close friends or dating partners (most of whom we get to choose), and instrumental relationships are the stupid group projects that your teachers assigned. Lab partners who would be mortified if someone asked them to hug each other. Classmates who have no social connection other than the fact that one of their dads drives them both to school.
Let’s say for a minute that steps toward inequality for groups that are disadvantaged in our society by lots of measures require instrumental tasks performed by groups. Groups working on concrete tasks that don’t necessarily get to choose each other. And let’s also say that some of the groups find expressive connections to help their tasks get done better, faster, and with more zeal. Tasks with love. Let’s get stuff done, and let’s do it by supporting each other’s emotional well-being.
So, what happens to our project group with regard to instrumental and expressive functions in a scenario that includes political issues and action like marching for a cause? Here is one possibility:
Person A: I marched because that’s what I am expected to do and I have memorized the entire lexicon of the movement in order to make change happen. I am inspired by the energy of everyone to work towards change. I will be a leader and get this stuff done. Instrumental wins!
Person B: I marched and it was a wonderful moment of shared vision, good vibes, and friendship. I am affirmed emotionally. I don’t know exactly what all of the details of the platform are, and I’m not sure we’re getting stuff done, but it sure felt great to meet all of these cool people. Expressive wins!
But wait. It gets complicated. And not just because there does not exist any real person who falls squarely into A or B. It gets complicated, as in…
Person C: I marched, but only for a block, because it hurt my feet and plus I had to go to work.
Person D: I marched because it was like a party and also I made a super cool sign with my awesome penmanship that I think may have been captured by a drone camera and sent to the New York Times.
Person E: I marched but with a bit of nausea because I just can’t support every item on the agenda for the group. I’m not sure I can continue with the project because parts of the project conflict with what I think is right.
And then, what if people don’t do the project, maybe even at the risk of getting a bad grade (from whom? from the teacher? from other group members?)? As in…
…I didn’t march. I think women’s lives are fine, especially if you compare our lives to our mothers’ lives. I didn’t march. I had to work. I didn’t march. I’m pro-life and felt excluded. I didn’t march. I’m not in a privileged group and felt excluded. I didn’t march. I feel guilty, but it’s easier for me to show my views in more private ways. I didn’t march. I look terrible in pink and I’ve only knitted one scarf in my life that made it to only about 4 inches long before I gave up and plus my head gets way too hot in a stocking cap.
I didn’t march. I didn’t even know anything about it. I never got the assignment because I don’t go to your school.
And then, there is the person who refuses to do the assignment on the basis that the assignment is overwhelmingly flawed: I didn’t march. I understand the assignment completely. I disagree with the whole thing.
For that person, the work has to do with deciding whether there may be some merit in the project. She decides there is not.
And what is the work that everyone else has to do?
The doer has to work on being okay with recognizing that not everyone is going at her pace or has her image of success crystallized in their minds.
The “everyone just has to get along” person has to work on realizing that there are some issues that make getting along simply impossible. To get along means eradicating decades of culture wars. But the project still needs to get done enough. It’s figuring out what “enough” is that takes some work, which is particularly hard for people who want everyone to get along. Weighing instrumental tasks and expressive ones.
The person who refuses to participate because they simply couldn’t has to work on relying on the rest of the group to get her the markers, art paper, or assignment description so she can do her part, or she has to work on being okay with the rest of the group carrying her. The rest of the group has to work on being okay with some extra carrying.
The perhaps-inebriated-but-good-at-penmanship person has to work on deciding whether it may be time to notch up some skills beyond penmanship for a greater good. Everyone else in the group has to work on realizing that sometimes just having good penmanship is a tremendous contribution to a larger group project. An instrumental task within an instrumental task.
The person who hates poetry and thus refuses to participate because their deal-breaker issue of the poetry mandate is big enough to thwart their participation has, perhaps, the most work to do. She has to work on figuring out whether there are any instrumental tasks that are okay to do. She has to work on figuring out whether she needs expressive support in order to maintain affinity to the group’s instrumental tasks, either from the group or from others who think like her. Or whether it’s just not possible. The rest of the group has to work on deciding whether they’re willing to do some work listening to those who hate poetry in order to get to “enough.”
People have never always agreed about what work there is to do. People have never always gotten along. What is happening now is a figuring. A figuring about what the task is, what the relationships are, and what parts of each of these must be set aside (because there is always a setting aside, and there is never all-instrumental or all-expressive) in order to get enough done.