6.7. Boundary Maintenance

It has to do with how we decide and enforce who’s in…and who’s out.

“Boundary maintenance” is an important concept in community-building.

It has to do with how we decide and enforce who’s in…and who’s out.

It’s especially important when it comes to exclusive groups: the wealthy, the powerful, and other kinds of elites.

Those groups wield a lot of influence. A lot of people want to break into those groups. But there are a lot of ways the people in those groups police their boundaries, so that they remain an elite few.

For instance, if you want to rise up the corporate ladder, if you want to join a religious community, if you want to break into an exclusive group of any kind—you have to behave the right way.

You have to have certain knowledge, beliefs, skills, habits, values, hobbies, and preferences.

If you don’t prove that you have those things, the elites won’t take you seriously.

Studies show that the reason most wealthy children become wealthy themselves, and most poor kids remain poor, is because of the advantages wealthy kids get as they grow up. They’re effectively socialized to become wealthy.

Similarly, if you’re trying to rise up the corporate ladder, embracing the culture by doing things like playing golf may give you an edge over someone else who’s just as qualified as you.

And if too many people start mimicking the behaviors that used to be the litmus test for getting into the group? The elites just change up the criteria to keep admission to the group sufficiently selective.

For the most part, people want to keep their groups exclusive.

They’ll even inflict verbal or physical violence to keep them that way.

It gives them a sense of pride and belonging, to be among those who have made it in, in contrast to those who are on the outside.

That’s why, when a community that used to be small and exclusive suddenly becomes very popular, the original members often whine about how the influx of new members has destroyed the group.

But it’s not just about feeling smug and superior. It’s also because the more exclusive a group is, the more power and influence you wield within it.

Elite groups control the flow of information, shut people out of the decision-making process, and ultimately groom their own successors.

This tendency is so pronounced that one of the first modern sociologists, Robert Michels, called it the “iron law of oligarchy.”

He argued that no matter how democratic a group may seem when it’s first formed, eventually it’ll reach a size and complexity that makes truly democratic participation impossible. And when that happens, a small “leadership class” within the larger group will claim the power for themselves, and start running it like an oligarchy.

We have to be aware of all these tendencies, if we want to form strong, egalitarian communities.

We have to be wary of imposing a bunch of litmus tests to join. Or resisting its growth, because we want to feel we belong to an exclusive group. Or turning what once was a democratic community into one that’s run by a small group of elites.

These are the hurdles that tend to trip up every burgeoning community. Don’t let yours trip over them too.


This is the 99th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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