Beware the Universal
I have long found wisdom in the uses of a small scale. It has been decades since I read FritzB
Schumaker’s book Small is Beautiful. It speaks to both the enrichment from smaller “human
scale” and the frequent diseconomies of large sizes.
My colleagues in Results 1 st are working with groups that have this theme well in mind. They
seek place-based development in which the setting is often defined as people known to each
other. At this scale, social capital is not a matter of forces. It is individuals and families that
others know are the people you go to for help.
We tend to use terms like large and small to anchor end points of size. I just came across
another way to put the difference. An August 19 article in The Economist on voter psychology
raised the distinction between “particularism” and “universalism.”. One end speaks to those
who favor engaging with those close to them, such as family and neighbors. The other end
speaks to those who favor large groups and persuasions, where the ties are uniform and wide,
if not deep. This paper on which the article is based can’t be too flaky given that the authors
are from Harvard, Boston University and Oxford.
This has me thinking of how views of the particular and the general influence interactions in a
geography. This distinction provides a kind of mapping. Rather than ask people where they live,
ask them how many people think like they do. I just finished a casual try at this and learned
that about half of my friends and colleagues referenced national, regional, or city numbers. The
other half gave a small number—people they knew.
I have always sought diversity in views and everything else. I have looked for it in ethnicity, age,
gender, color. As I think back over years of doing self-help projects in small settlements,
however, the strongest success came from groups who were clearly at “particularism.” Many
were diverse in terms of demographics. They all held the same values of intense localism. They
were quite particular about them.
I am clearer on the limits of universalism. Most of us into fixing things have learned to watch
out for a part that is deemed a universal fit to the make and model we are repairing. Parts, like
people, are just not that interchangeable.
My apologies for the spotty appearance of new blog entries. I have just finished a book called
Put Results First that has taken my time. It is for nonprofit and civic organization leaders and
staff as well as those who invest in them. You are in great danger of learning where you can get
the book at the end of this year.