The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar spent years researching isolated societies, both past and present. He discovered a remarkable similarity across geography and context. Human societies, he found, naturally sort themselves across three distinct levels of intimacy. The first, and most intimate, Dunbar labeled bands. These are the people who sleep together in overnight camps and know one another intimately. They rarely number more than a few dozen together. At the other end of the intimacy spectrum are tribes, groupings that live under the broadest and thinnest common banner. Fellow tribe members may share in certain rituals and traditions, but they rarely know one another personally.
Situated squarely between bands and tribes are what Dunbar termed villages. A village, generally speaking, marks a collection of bands, and groups of villages constitute a tribe. Correspondingly, fellow villagers are rarely as intimate with one another as they are with fellow members of their band, but they are more intimate than they would be with outside members of their tribe. Villagers do not necessarily know one another personally but they are often able to converse about something specific. They’d know if someone’s mother were ill, or if their child had achieved an outstanding feat. Upon seeing one another, their conversation would flow from a common frame of reference.
What held the American community together through its first four migrations was a very specific and shared sociological architecture. Colonial villages, frontier towns, urban tenements, and even some first-ring suburbs were classic examples of Dunbarian villages in that they were suffused by familiar, but non-intimate, relationships. The vicissitudes of ordinary life made it almost inevitable that people who lived near one another would be socially connected. It wasn’t just, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, that Americans were unusually likely to join voluntary associations. The demands of democratic government the fact that power flowed up from the grassroots prompted similarly situated strangers to get to know one another in pursuit of the common good.
Today’s reinvigorated cities boast much of what made urban America so vibrant during its heyday. The cultural amenities, the coffeehouse culture, the vast diversity, and even the convenience of public transit have emerged in places for which, in the mid-1970s, conventional wisdom predicted continued decline. But one feature distinguishes today’s urban meccas from those of eras past. The core sociological building block that Jane Jacobs celebrated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities the Dunbarian village instantiated in an urban neighborhood has all but collapsed.
FPF helps neighbors connect and build community. We accomplish that by hosting a statewide network of online neighborhood forums designed specifically to increase social capital among neighbors. About half of Vermont households participate on their local FPF. Learn more here.