Social signalling and social bonding

Recently, I was sitting very cosily in front of a log fire in a pub waiting for a friend to buy the first round at the bar. Despite it not being very busy he took quite a while to come back. In explanation he said it was because so many people are now sitting at their table ordering using an app. We ruminated on this awhile before deciding that this defeated the holistic experience of going to the pub, part of which is to line up at the bar and wait your turn, catching the eye not only of the bar staff but also your fellow drinkers and – at least if you are the decent sort – acknowledging rightful precedence. This set off a train of thought as we sought other examples of this type of social signalling, such as the everyday “thank-you” to people for simple services or courtesies, or the raising of a hand or flashing of lights when someone makes way for you in their car – surely destined to extinction in the age of the self-driving vehicle to come.

My friend and I then both recounted anecdotes of a related phenomenon, which is the recognition and signalling of those belonging to the same spontaneous social group, such as driving the same niche vehicle, in the case of my friend a campervan and in my case a Japanese convertible. However, we had both experienced that this is mainly confined to people driving cheaper or older versions; drivers of newer and more expensive models do so much less, which suggests either that this may be a class thing or that there is an inverse relationship between wealth and signalling for social cohesion.

This conversation gave me the idea for the present piece, relating to a number of experiences and observations on life, which may on the surface seem to have nothing to do with each other, but are connected by the idea of what is called by some social capital, a type of invisible but tangible resource we accumulate through social interaction. A number of these observations seem to relate to driving. Perhaps that is idiosyncratic, but it seems to me the car is one of those places where the individual is both highly interactive in the public sphere but also mostly shielded from intimate personal communication, so perhaps is a place where personal outlook and attitudes towards others and the common good is most transparent. It is my contention that such seemingly insignificant interactions are one of the principal pathways by which mass society emerges and is sustained.

One of my pet peeves is people who fail to use their indicators when driving. Now we all forget to do that sometimes, but I’m talking about the people who weave in and out of the traffic, switching lanes with no indication of their moves, or brake and swing suddenly into a side road, putting all the burden on other road users to guess their intentions. On a few occasions I have seen people holding up traffic to turn right into a side road or entrance across oncoming traffic but giving no indication to either those behind or those approaching. We would, being temperate, say that they are ignorant, lazy and selfish. But there is something deeper going on with such behaviour; either consciously or unconsciously they are trading on the common sense and good will of the majority to avoid them paying the consequences of their behaviour. And I should add trepidation, for such people are frequently antisocial in multiple dimensions. I once gestured (not rudely, just pointed) at a young man who swerved without signalling into the side street I was at the halfway point of crossing. Immediately he braked and started reversing; it was only the prospect of him reversing into a main road that prevented an aggressive altercation from taking place.

Why is this an issue? Indicating is a form of social signalling that means that we recognise the reality and humanity of others, that their lives have meaning as our own does. It is a small sacrifice of effort and mindfulness we make for the sake of others, just like holding the door for the person following you, negotiating a path around others on a street so we do not collide, greeting others we come across in the remote countryside, or those with whom we find even tenuous common cause. It creates something.

These activities, and the inverse (failure) of these activities, point to a fundamental truth about the social condition, that it is essentially tribal. Even the use or failure to use simple signs of reciprocity cause us to divide people into two camps, “us” (naturally, the good) and “them” (the not good). We know we should be able to transcend such divisiveness, but even when we accept that “it takes all sorts” or make allowances for people’s displays of rudeness, entitlement or ingratitude, the residual moral perception remains. But rather than it being a simple case of the good defined individually (i.e., by “me”) as sustaining society and the bad eroding it, it is the fact of moral judgement itself that permits us to live together anonymously in such numbers.

Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister between 1978 and 1990, once famously asserted, “[W]ho is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” While Thatcher was addressing the issue of dependency and the lack of personal responsibility, this saying has become infamous for its supposed underlying Hobbesian implication of a “war of all against all”, and certainly a line of demarcation between the left, who believe in “society” and the social responsibility of government – and are always pressing for an expanded role for the state – and the Conservative right who prefer – at least ideologically, if not in practice – smaller government, a limited role for the  state and more emphasis on individual responsibility.

At one level, to put on my pedant’s cap, it is true there is no such ‘thing’ as society, but that is because unlike such ‘things’ as families, organisations or even nations, society is a more abstract concept. It is also, to be specific, unbounded, meaning it is a theoretically infinitely extensible network, extending as far as the reach of actual social relations. While the extent of an individual’s social circle is known robustly to be of the order of 150 people,1 all these individual circles overlap. So, the sense of ‘infinitely extensible’ is two-fold: for the individual across any class, national, or cultural barrier, and for humanity as a whole bounded only by the snapshot number of humans at any given time.

Society, therefore, certainly is a thing because we are inherently social beings, but society is not an entity that we can point to outside ourselves, responsible for the conditions of our lives, but something that emerges from the multiple social interactions we engage in. It does mean, though, that society, and we can refer here to specific ‘societies’ determined by the cultural boundaries of nationality, ethnicity and sub-culture that give specificity to segments of the theoretically ‘infinitely extensible’, can be characterised as good or bad, vibrant or moribund, or free or discouraging, based on the quality (and possibility) of the relationships between individuals.

Society, in this sense, rather than something that exists passively and objectively, is something undergoing a process (in a concept that has fallen out of favour in cosmology) of ‘continuous creation’ in the social relations that we establish. For some, this process results not only in the existential reality of the present society, for good or ill, but an invisible resource that we all, as citizens of actual countries and participants in social institutions, all draw on. This is the social capital referred to previously.

There is an extensive academic literature on social capital, but its fundamental definition, it seems to me, relies entirely on an analogy: that is with financial capital, the actual assets and hard currency that an individual, institution or a nation holds. Given that, by contrast, it is hard to put one’s finger on what would constitute evidence for such a hypothesised reality as social capital, so I am sceptical about whether such a thing really exists and wonder whether it is just a collective metaphor for a number of related social phenomena. Some, such as Bourdieu have used the term as an invisible form of wealth that the rich and powerful have abundantly as well as material wealth. However, this seems to be an extension of the critique of capitalism and the bourgeoisie without adding much to our understanding of what it is constituted. Having researched the area, I have come to the conclusion that there is one thing that most closely correlates with social capital, which are those interactions that contribute to trust between people. Trust is one of the few qualities that I can think of that does not diminish by oversubscribing to the activities that generate it; even monetising relations of trust – while it may change the nature of that relationship – does not necessarily diminish that trust.

While it is the job of authority, whether national or local, to promulgate ethical narratives and norms, this frequently comes into conflict with the spontaneous sociality of the population. Two examples come to mind, again both car related. One is those helpful individuals who flash other drivers that a police speed checkpoint is just around the corner; to my knowledge that has now been made illegal (although I cannot imagine how a successful prosecution would proceed). The other is the practice of passing on parking tickets to others just arriving, so they can benefit from the unused time allocation. This is increasingly being thwarted by local authorities installing machines that require the car registration to be entered. There may be legitimate reasons for doing these, but it is interesting that both actions are a move by authority to undermine the building of social solidarity through a form of resistance to that authority.

Rather than attempting to create conformity of opinion, which is something many governments and their tame media tried through mask and vaccine mandates and the suppression of dissenting voices throughout the pandemic, and institutions are attempting to do through the implementation of policies based on identity politics, moves which create resentment and social polarisation, a genuine path to social cohesion allows individuals to come to their own moral judgments about others. Divisiveness and tribalism should effectively be privatised and localised where they do less damage. There are always going to be unpleasant people as well as kind and generous individuals; it is hardly a secret that each of us can be – and considered as such – unpleasant in some contexts. This is the grist of life that enables us to tolerate each other enough that we can live in societies of millions without them fracturing.


1. Robust because established both rationally, based on projections from the comparative ratios of brain to body size and social group size of a range of mammals, and empirically, based on anthropological work on close religious communities and personal social networks.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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