Negative Aspects and Consequences of Solidarity

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In sociology solidarity has primarily been conceived as an inherently

positive concept. In most theories of solidarity its beneficial effects to

the group members are stressed. From the early theories of TЁonnies and

Durkheim on, it has been assumed that acts of solidarity are directed at

achieving a common good and generate feelings of interconnectedness,

a “conscience collective,” and a shared identity. These theories emphasize

the benefits deriving from a Gemeinschaft of strong communal ties

and shared interests, or from a sound Gesellschaft in which mutually

dependent individuals profit from a functional division of labor that

strengthens their feelings of organically belonging together.

However, solidarity is not predominantly or exclusively the warm and

friendly category we usually assume it to be. Various types of risks may be

involved in group solidarity (Komter 2001). While several authors have

discussed internal risks that threaten solidarity from within the group,

its external risks – risks for those who are not participating in the solidary

group as a consequence of the behavior of the participating group

members – have received far less attention. Internal risks are, for instance,

free riding, the decay of the overall salience of solidarity as a consequence

of the high costs involved in executing solidarity (Lindenberg 1998), conflicting

interests internal to the group (Ostrom1995), or strong emotional

reactions to losses that could result due to the uncooperative behavior of

other group members. In strongly tied networks this maylead to vendetta

and endless feuds (Uzzi 1997).

Other internal risks to group solidarity are pressures toward conformity

and egalitarianism. Strong group norms may impede innovation

in organizations. In his discussion on relations of trust, Coleman (1990)

mentions as an example the financial community in London. In some

financial companies in which trade secrets play an important role there is

a general norm against hiring an employee who has left a sensitive position

in ac ompeting firm; this group normmay reflect ingroup solidarity,

but at the same time the ensuing practice reduces innovation because

many good ideas remain unexploited. Although firm groups may successfully

mobilize resources in order to maintain themselves, they may at

the same time put under restraint the innovating potentialities of individual

group members by enforcing conformity to group norms. In addition

to harboring tendencies toward conformism, the group may adopt behavioral

codes of egalitarianism by sanctioning individuals who perform

better or attempt to excel over their fellow group members. Dominant

group norms may threaten the individual freedom of the group members

by isolating them from the surrounding culture. Among American

immigrant communities a person who has aspirations to surpass

his or her own group is teasingly called a “wannabe.” In their description

of what they call a “hyperghetto”Waquant andWilson (1989) stress

the same phenomenon: solidarity based on a common adversity discourages

individuals from taking advantage of possible chances outside

the ghetto.

What negative external risks may be involved in solidarity? A first example

concerns the negative norms and beliefs toward nongroup members.

While strong ingroup solidarity favors acting in accordance with

the rules of honesty, acceptance of authority, and mutual respect, it may

discourage such attitudes toward outsiders. Strong feelings of ingroup

favoritism may encourage differential moral standards toward in- and

outgroup members: values and behavior of outgroup members are not

measured by the ingroup moral standards but are seen as a deviation from

these and therefore not as worthy of acceptance or toleration. Groups

with strong religious convictions come to mind here (with fundamentalism

as an extreme consequence), but also rival football clubs or groups

with strongly contrasting cultural backgrounds. Ingroup solidarity may

also result in concrete inimical behavior toward outgroup members. The

stronger the inclusive power of solidarity, the more pronounced will be

the boundaries that separate the ingroup from the outgroup, “us” from

 “them,” and the stronger and more concrete the exclusion of outgroup

members will be.

Some attempts have been made to elucidate the relationship between

solidarity and exclusion – in particular, those originating in the traditions

of economic sociology and anthropology. A representative of the

former school of thought, Roger Waldinger (1995), for instance, studied

the interaction between economic activity, ethnicity, and solidarity

amongAfricanAmerican, Caribbean,Korean, and white entrepreneurs in

the construction industry in New York. Embeddedness within informal

networks of one’s own ethnic group engenders social capital promoting

people’s capacity to obtain scarce resources. Social capital is taken to

refer to the advantages ensuing from relationships of mutual trust and

cooperation. When somebody has similar ethnic, class, or gender characteristics,

he or she is simply perceived as more trustworthy. Mutual

trust promotes cooperative behavior and the exchange of information

and allows people to profit from their networks (Raub 1997; Raub and

Weesie 2000). Waldinger concludes that solidarity has two sides: on the

one hand, embeddedness within informal networks fosters economic

activity within one’s own ethnic community; on the other hand, it is

a powerful means to exclude newcomers: solidarity reinforces informal

resources for group members but impedes membership for outsiders by

refusing them access to these resources. Also Portes and Sensenbrenner

(1993) have recognized this phenomenon; they discovered that the same

social structures facilitate goal-directed activity for some but put restrictions

on the activities of others. The foregoing examples make clear that

strong ingroup solidarity may be dysfunctional from the perspective of

the wider community: the achievement of the interests of the wider collectivity

may be thwarted by the strongly felt ingroup solidarity of its


In many cases a combination of internal and external risks occurs,

as is shown in de Swaan’s (1988) sociological-historical account of the

rise of collective state-based solidarity arrangements in various European

countries and the United States. From his analysis of the spontaneous

associations for mutual financial assistance in case of unemployment

formed by Dutch citizens in the nineteenth century, it appears that

authentic mutual solidarity was at the same time a strength as well as a

weakness of this form of collective care. Although homogeneous membership

was a source of solidarity, it could also cause new risks – shortage

of expertise, insufficient inspection, no fixed rules and procedures.Moreover,

the autonomous collective arrangements resulted in the exclusion

of the less privileged citizens.

Strong ingroup solidarity, then, may not only generate pressures toward

conformity and egalitarianism, it may also contain the potential

for defining other groups as enemies and engaging in conflict with them.

Conflict with another group may, in turn, serve to increase the ingroup

solidarity of both groups, thereby intensifying the conflict between them

(Wrong 1994). More generally, as Georg Simmel (1950 [1908]) already

made clear at the beginning of the twentieth century, social ties necessarily

imply both bonding and exclusion, namely of those who do not

share the distinctive group characteristics and who are allowed neither to

share the group aims and interests nor to participate in the activities to

achieve these aims and interests. Solidarity and exclusion, then, are two

sides of the same coin.