Monday, June 6, 2011

'Nature As Alive: Morphic Resonance and Collective Memory'

Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.d.

ABSTRACT: Memory is inherent in Nature, and what we think of as the laws of Nature may be more like habits. The basis of this memory process is morphic resonance, which is the influence of like upon like through or across space or time. Its implication, in the realm of heredity, is that inheritance depends not only on the chemical genes coded in DNA but also on morphic resonance from past members of the species. Other implications are an accelerated rate of evolution of new patterns of form and behavior; memory in individuals being based on self-resonance and not stored in the brain; the existence of a collective memory, to which we all contribute and on which we all draw; and providing understanding of past-life memories, survival of bodily death, telepathy, and ritual.

This hypothesis is part of a wider change in paradigm in which all of Nature, the entire cosmos, is viewed as being alive. This new sense of the life of Nature connects with the morphic resonance idea in the idea of the memory of place, or field, exemplified by the sense of places both haunted and sacred, which is the basis of such human activities as pilgrimage. Regardless of the ultimate validity of morphic resonance, a return to the sense and idea of Nature as alive and animate is absolutely essential to coming into a better relationship with the environment, on which we depend, and therefore is probably essential for our very survival.

Memory Inherent in Nature

I suggest that there is a memory inherent in Nature and that what we usually think of as the laws of Nature may be more like habits.

I will give an example. When you make a new chemical compound, the first time it crystallizes it is usually assumed that the crystal form, the lattice structure, is completely determined in advance by the laws of Nature, electromagnetic laws, Schrodinger's equation, the laws of thermodynamics, and so on. It is assumed that these laws fully determine the crystal's structure. Therefore the way a crystal forms the first time, the thousandth time, or the millionth time should be exactly the same, because the laws of Nature never change and they are not themselves influenced by the events they determine.

This is the standard view. By contrast I suggest that the first time a compound forms there will not already be a habit developed for its structure. It may actually take a long time for that to happen. Still, the second time it forms there will be an influence on it from the first time it formed by a process I call morphic resonance. The third time there will be an influence from the first and second times, and so on. These events contribute to a cumulative memory, which is expressed all around the world. So the new compound should become easier to crystallize as time goes on, all around the world. A memory, a habit, is building up.

In fact new chemicals do generally get easier to crystallize around the world as time goes on. And chemists usually explain this, not in terms of rigorous theories, but in anecdotes which are part of the folklore of chemistry. The most common anecdote is that this happens because fragments of previous crystals get carried from lab to lab on the beards of migrant chemists. Another explanation that is heard is that fragments of crystals get wafted around the world in the atmosphere.

Obviously, I am suggesting that this increased rate of crystallization happens even without migrating chemists and even if dust particles have been filtered from the laboratory air. So, the formation of crystals is one example of the buildup of habits in Nature, which we mistakenly assign the status of laws.

The Present Crisis in Science

This idea of a memory inherent in Nature is obviously a very radical, controversial, and unconventional view. The reason I think we need to consider it seriously is that science is at present in crisis because two of its most fundamental models of reality have come into conflict with each other.

The Model of Eternal Laws

The first model is the idea of eternity: nothing really changes. This model has dominated the physical sciences for a very long time, beginning in ancient Greece with the Pythagorean who thought that the realm of mathematics—the realm of number and proportion—was an eternal truth and that the changing world we live in was a reflection of that eternal order. Plato incorporated these ideas into his well-known philosophy of eternal forms or Ideas. And with the revival of Platonism in the European Renaissance, these Platonic forms or Ideas were built into the foundations of modern science.

In Christian Neo-Platonism, as formulated by Saint Augustine, the eternal Platonic forms were ideas in the mind of God. And for the founding fathers of modern science—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, DesCartes, and others—science was about finding out the eternal mathematical truths which were these ideas in the mind of God. God begins to be conceived as an ultimate mathematician, and this is a perennially popular idea with mathematicians even to this day.

So the idea that the laws of Nature are eternal has a strong theological and metaphysical background. Most scientists do not actually discuss it; it is simply taken for granted, built into the foundations of the scientific method as we know it. The idea that any experiment should be repeatable anywhere, at any time, follows from this idea, as the practical application of it. The reason scientific experiments are supposed to be repeatable at any time is because the laws of Nature are supposed to be the same at all times and in all places.

Of course, these laws are not things you actually meet or encounter. You do not see E=MC2 written in the sky. You do not find it under stones. These are things that are abstract ideas. They are not made of energy or matter; they are not part of the physical universe in fact. They are part of a cosmic dualism built into mechanistic science since the Seventeenth Century: on the one side, eternal laws; governing eternal matter and energy on the other.

This way of thinking is deeply imbedded in the mentality of scientists. It is one of the most fundamental paradigms or models of Western science.

The Model of Evolution

The other fundamental assumption of Western science is the model of evolution, which is the idea that everything changes and develops in time. This one came to us not from the Greek but from the Jewish part of our cultural heritage.

Unlike most ancient peoples, the Jews believed that the historical process involved a development in time. Most ancient peoples, like the Greeks, the Hindus, and the Buddhists, believed that time was essentially cyclical. Things just repeated in cycles . . . including great cycles of cosmic repetition. But the Jews emphasized the nature of the historical process as a journey—the prototypic journey being the journey of the Jews out of Egypt through the wilderness and to the promised land. And in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature this promised land became the Millennium, the kingdom of God, the time in the future when history would end.

This idea was subsequently secularized in the Seventeenth Century and gave rise to the idea of progress through science and technology. And it is of course the same idea that underlies systems as diverse as Marxism and the New-Age movement. In Marxism it is thought there is an evolution to an end of history when the state withers away. Well, Marxist states have withered away, but history has not ended. And the entire New-Age movement is another way of thinking of history leading to some kind of new culmination.

Anyway, these originally Jewish ideas of change and development in time led to the idea of human progress. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, most people agreed that human beings progressed and society progressed, but the rest of Nature was still thought to be static. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the idea of biological evolution was gaining ground. Darwin's theory was generalized so that human development was seen as part of a much larger process of biological development, biological evolution. Some philosophers began to suggest that maybe the whole cosmos evolves.

However, the physicists quickly contradicted them. They said the cosmos was not evolving, that it was an eternal machine that is in fact devolving—slowly running out of steam, heading toward a thermodynamic heat death. So it was generally held that the cosmos is going downhill whereas evolution on earth was a progressive development, a kind of momentary fluctuation in a universe headed nowhere.

It was not until the 1960s that physics finally adopted an evolutionary cosmology. This occurred with the introduction of the Big-Bang theory—the idea that the cosmos started small and has been growing ever since. With its corollary that the cosmos is continually forming new patterns and forms within it as it grows, the Big-Bang theory gives us a model of the cosmos that's far more like a developing organism than like any machine we know of. So we now have an evolutionary cosmology. All Nature is evolving. Human development is in the context of biological evolution. Biological evolution is part of a vastly greater evolutionary process, cosmic evolution.

Evolving Laws of Nature

It follows that until the 1960s the question I am raising did not come up. If the universe was eternal, the idea of eternal laws of Nature made sense. But if Nature were evolving, why should the laws of Nature not evolve as well? Why should we think of the universe as governed by a cosmic Napoleonic code which was fixed at the outset rather than being governed by evolving principles. As a matter of fact, as soon as you begin to think about laws of Nature you realize that this is an extremely anthropocentric concept. In the Seventeenth Century the image was clear. God was lord of the universe, and His laws applied to everything. Not only did He make up the laws, but He was omnipotent and provided the role of the all-powerful law-enforcement agency.

However most scientists no longer bring God into their thinking. And if, from a scientific point of view, we no longer think of God as a cosmic legislator, then why should we think of laws of Nature at all? As the English writer C. S. Lewis said, "To say that a stone falls to earth because it is obeying a law makes it a man and even a citizen." So this concept of law is intensely anthropocentric. And I think it is much better to change our metaphor than to continue this. The metaphor I suggest instead is habit.

Things may have the regularity they do and Nature may have its patterns of regularity because of habits that build up within Nature according to what has already happened and according to how often it has happened. Furthermore, habits are subject to natural selection. They can evolve. Only successful patterns of activity are capable of being repeated, and only the ones that are repeated become habits.

Morphic Resonance and Morphic Fields

Obviously, if there are habits in Nature, then there must be a memory in Nature. Our own habits depend on memory, largely unconscious memory. There is no need to assume the habits of Nature are any more conscious than our own. So what I am suggesting is an inherent memory process in Nature. The basis of it is the process I call morphic resonance.

Morphic resonance is the influence of like upon like through or across space and time. Similar things resonate with subsequent similar things on the basis of similarity of pattern and, particularly, of vibratory patterns of activity. A chemical of a given kind resonates with previous chemicals of that kind and is influenced by it. A member of a given species, like a giraffe, is subject to morphic resonance from previous giraffes. Each giraffe draws upon a collective memory of the species and in turn contributes to it. Each organism, I propose, is organized by a morphic field, morphic from the Greek word meaning form: morphi.

The morphic field is the organizing field of a system. Each crystal has its own kind of morphic field; each species has its own kind of morphic field. Then, say, within the body, each organ has a morphic field, each tissue, each cell, each kind of organelle, each molecule. There are nested hierarchies of fields within fields. The whole of Nature is built up of systems within systems: solar systems within galaxies, the Earth within the solar system, ecosystems within the Earth, and so on. Each of these, I suggest, has a morphic field which organizes it in accordance with habit, in accordance with the habits of that kind of thing.

Things that have been around for hundreds of millions of years—hydrogen atoms, for example, or salt crystals—have habits that are so repetitive that they become effectively fixed. They behave as if they are governed by eternal laws.

Therefore where we see the difference between the conventional theory and the one I am putting forward is when we look at new systems, new patterns of behavior, new patterns of activity. There, according to morphic resonance theory, it should be possible to see new habits building up, and this should be testable by experiment.

Testing Collective Memory

I have already mentioned a possible test with crystals. But the same theory applies in animal behavior, in biological morphogenesis, the development of form, and in many other areas. For example, the theory predicts that if you train rats in a new trick in Prague, then rats all around the world should learn the same thing quicker just because the rats have learned it in Prague.

Now, there is already evidence from studies done on rats in laboratories that this kind of effect actually happens. I have summarized this evidence in my books, A New Science of Life and The Presence of the Past. In fact, it is surprising how much evidence there already is for this principle.

The hypothesis also applies to human beings. It should be getting easier for children to solve or play video games of a particular kind just because so many have learned them . . . or for people to learn new sports, new skills like windsurfing. In the human realm I am suggesting that what we learn is facilitated by morphic resonance from all those who have learned it before.

This is the area where the theory has been tested most extensively. Some of the first experiments were done in response to an international competition organized by the Tarrytown group in New York, sponsored by Bob Schwartz. The Tarrytown group offered prizes—twenty-thousand dollars in prizes—for the best tests of the morphic resonance theory, which could either support or go against it. The results were very interesting. There were some very good experiments done in human psychology; these are summarized in my book, The Presence of the Past.

This effort was preceded by a competition in the British magazine, Scientist, which offered a more modest prize for suggestions of inexpensive ways of testing the theory. One of the things that has happened as a result is that I have been led to see that really interesting research can very often be done on very small budgets. With an idea as radical as this, that is a very convenient finding, because as you can imagine it is difficult to get conventional grant giving agencies to fund this kind of research. But if it is so cheap that anyone can do it, you do not need funding. Some of the most interesting experiments have actually been done by students. Research in morphic resonance is now going on at universities in Europe, in New Zealand, and in America.

Space does not allow summarizing all the work that is happening at present. I will just mention one experiment done recently. It is not, in fact, the best experiment, but it is the easiest to explain. This was done with crossword puzzles in the psychology department at Nottingham University. The young woman who did it, Monica England, reasoned as follows: If morphic resonance is happening, it should be easier to do today's newspaper crossword puzzle tomorrow than it would have been yesterday.

So we managed to persuade a London newspaper, The Evening Standard, to supply its crossword puzzle in advance for the purpose of this experiment. Students were tested in Nottingham the day before and the day after the crossword was published in London. They were also tested with a control crossword which was not published during that period. This of course involved testing different groups of students before and after. The control crossword gave a measure of each individual's ability to do crossword puzzles of that kind.

It turned out that students' performances on the test crossword did indeed improve by about 25 percent after it had been published, compared with the control crossword. This result is statistically significant and is, of course, very interesting.

Several other experiments have subsequently been done through the media, including magazines. Previous experiments have been done in Britain on television—the results of these are summarized in the Appendix to the new edition of A New Science of Life. Other tests are under way. Obviously this is an area where if the hypothesis is supported by evidence, as it seems to be so far, it could lead quite soon to applications in the realm of training and education. For if we could facilitate, if we could improve the way that we tune into the experience of others through morphic resonance, we could learn things quicker.

Implications of Shared Memory

Heredity and Genetics

This hypothesis has a great many implications. In the realm of heredity it suggests that inheritance depends not only on the chemical genes coded in DNA but also on morphic resonance from past members of the species. In fact, I think that chemical genes have been grossly overrated and that what they actually do is what we know they do, that is, code for the sequence of minor acids in protein. They give organisms their chemical heredity. They are able to make particular chemicals. But the way those chemicals are organized, the form they take up, and the way organisms behave—all that I believe is primarily controlled through morphic fields and morphic resonance.

So heredity involves both genetic changes and morphic resonance. If you think of the rat example I mentioned—rats learning things quicker in London after rats have learned them in Prague—there is no need of change in the DNA of the rats here or the rats there. The rats tune in on the basis of their chemical similarity, but what they pick up doesn't depend on genetic change.


This also gives us a new view of evolution, because it allows new patterns of form and behavior to spread much more quickly than they could on the basis of conventional, neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory based on random genetic mutation followed by generations of natural selection. Rats learning a new trick in one place could enable rats elsewhere to learn it much quicker, within days; it would not take many generations of natural selection.

In the human realm this, of course, has many interesting implications for change. It suggests that new ideas and new attitudes spread much more quickly than they might otherwise. Over and above the influence of the media and so on, morphic resonance enables these new things to spread much more quickly and effectively.

In the realm of evolution there are some examples that suggest this really happens. The best known of them concerns the behavior of certain birds, blue tits, in stealing cream from milk bottles. In England at the beginning of this century a system of milk delivery began where people had bottles of milk delivered to their doorsteps. After about twenty years in one city, Southhampton, blue tits started tearing off the tops of the milk bottles and drinking the cream from the bottle. This was a very successful habit. It spread by imitation throughout the whole city, and usually it worked very well. There were a few tragic cases where blue tits were found drowned, headfirst, in people's milk bottles, but most of these birds got a free breakfast. After a while this turned up in another city far away. The rate at which the habit spread throughout Britain was carefully monitored by observers all over the country.

Now, blue tits are home-loving birds. They move very short distances from their homes, so at the time it was concluded that the habit was being independently discovered again and again in different parts of the country. Yet the rate of discovery was accelerating. The professor of Zoology at Oxford, Sir Alistair Hardy, suggested this was so remarkable that it perhaps depended on telepathy. I would say, however, this is exactly the kind of effect you would expect with morphic resonance in evolution.

The most interesting developments actually came from Holland. After British blue tits had started stealing milk, Continental ones began doing it, too. And in Holland the habit spread as it had in England, until by the time of the Second World War, all over Holland blue tits were stealing milk. Then unfortunately for the Dutch blue tits, the Germans invaded and milk delivery stopped. It was not until 1948 that deliveries began again. But blue tits do not live more than three or four years, so there could have been no blue tits around in 1948 that remembered the golden age of free cream before the war. Nevertheless the habit reestablished itself all over Holland within two or three years.

So this is the kind of effect we would expect with morphic resonance. There are not many examples where people have studied behavioral evolution in animals; but this is one of the few well-documented cases, and it fits very well with the ideas I am suggesting here.


Another area where this hypothesis has many implications is in the realm of memory. Morphic resonance depends on similarity. The more similar something is to something that has happened before, the more effective, the stronger the resonance will be. It is a general principle that organisms in general are most like themselves in the past. I am more like me half an hour ago than like you. I am more like me ten years ago than like you ten years ago. In general the most specific morphic resonance acting on an organism from the past will be from its own past states. Thus, self-resonance is the predominant kind of morphic resonance.

In the realm of form, this self-resonance enables organisms to retain their form through the stabilizing of the morphic field even though the chemicals and the cells within the body may be changing over time. In the realm of behavior it enables organisms to tune in to their own past patterns of activity. If I get into a car, for example, and start driving it, then I come into morphic resonance, through similarity of the condition and of my activities, with all the previous times I have driven cars. There is a kind of habit memory that is transmitted through morphic resonance.

I think the same also applies to remembering events or acts. If I remember the last time I came to Prague, which was in 1971, that memory is also accessed in the same way, suggesting that these memories depend on morphic resonance, on tuning-in to ourselves in the past. We are the transmitters in the past. Morphic resonance moves through time; the tuning-in involves a resonance through time with ourselves in the past.

In other words I am suggesting it is not necessary for memories to be stored inside the brain. I am not ruling out the possibility that this can happen. Tony Soipler from Saint Petersburg, for example, has developed a kind of hybrid theory of memory bringing together a conventional molecular basis of memory and morphic resonance. That is possible. But what I am suggesting at the moment for purposes of clarity is the most extreme form of morphic resonance: that memory depends on morphic resonance through tuning-in to the activities of the brain in the past, but it is not necessary for your brains to store memories as traces.

This may be difficult to imagine because we have all been brought up with the idea that memories are stored inside the brain as memory traces. This just shows how much we are influenced by the dominant paradigms of science. This is very much part of the materialistic, mechanistic theory of the mind. From this outmoded view, the mind is just an aspect of the brain. We have memories, therefore they must be in the brain. This is taken for granted by a great many people. Many people, who have never studied science at all, take it for granted as an act of faith.

Yet it is not something borne out by a great deal of evidence. In fact throughout this century many scientists have looked at brains to try to find memories in them, to find localized memory traces, and they have failed repeatedly to find them. The evidence for memory storage in the brain is, if anything, weaker than it was fifty years ago, through repeated failures where millions of animals were sacrificed on the altar of science and vast amounts of money spent in research.

This failure to find localized memory traces is what led Karl Lashley, the great investigator of memory, at the end of his career to despair of finding it. He said, "Memory ought to be impossible, yet it happens." Someone else who worked in this field, Boycott, said, "Memory seems to be both everywhere and nowhere in particular in the brain." And this is the context in which Karl Pribram (1971) put forward his well known holographic theory of memory storage to account for the failure to find localized memory traces.

Well, I am suggesting that memory may well be holographic in the general sense of David Bohm's (1980) implicate order theory. It may not be present in the brain as memory traces at all. If I came to your house and analyzed the wires and transistors of your television set to try to find out what programs you had been watching last week, I would not be able to find any traces of them. That is because the television does not leave traces. What you tune into goes through the set. It is not stored within it. And I am suggesting the brain might be more like a TV receiver than like a video recorder.

Now, you may wonder, why is it then if we have accidents, brain damage, there can be loss of memory. This is not difficult to understand. Think again of the TV set. If I came and cut out bits of your TV set in the sound circuit, the TV set could no longer produce sound, but it could still give pictures. In other words you would have an aphasic TV set. This would not prove that all the sounds, the music, or the voices rose inside the bit of the set that was damaged. It would merely show that part was important for the reception of the information that was coming from somewhere else. Likewise, brain damage leading to loss of memory does not prove that memories are stored inside the damaged brain. It simply shows that those bits of the brain play some role in the recovery or the tuning-in to the memories.

Collective Memory

If we tune into our own memories, why do we not tune-in to other people's? Well of course, I think we do. The whole basis of this theory is that we tune into the memories of many other people, that there is a collective memory on which we all draw. This is something that many people are already familiar with from Jung's theory of the collective unconscious. From the point of view of morphic resonance, if the collective unconscious did not exist as a theory it would have to be invented, because it fits very well with this way of thinking.

However, Jung was suggesting the collective unconscious only in the human realm. I am suggesting that this is part of a much more general process throughout all Nature.

From a conventional, scientific point of view, a mechanistic point of view, Jung's theory does not make sense. And it is not taken seriously by most scientists. It is regarded as a flaky, marginal theory, which might appeal to people with literary educations but not to anyone with a proper scientific way of thinking. Of course it is of great value in many forms of psychotherapy and is one of the important ingredients in transpersonal psychology. However, from the point of view of morphic resonance Jung's theory becomes absolutely central, no longer on the margins of scientific psychology. It becomes absolutely central to an understanding of the human mind. Collective memory is an important ingredient of what we are.

Past-Life Memories

This also leads to several other rather surprising implications. One is that if we tune into lots of people in the past, occasionally we could tune into particular people in the past who are now dead and through morphic resonance pick up memories of past lives.

On this note, there is quite good evidence from the work of Professor Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia that some young children remember incidents from previous lives. They have memories which can not be explained normally and which seem to be valid when checked up on. There is also some evidence, which I think is less reliable, from hypnotic regression of past-life memories.

Usually this evidence produces a polarized response: on one side, a lot of people, usually dogmatic mechanists, say this is impossible therefore the evidence is wrong. We can not explain it, therefore it can not happen. That is one reaction I am sure everyone is familiar with. On the other side are people who say this is reincarnation, which is exactly what we believe anyway. But I am suggesting a middle path. It is possible to accept this evidence for past-life memories in terms of people tuning-in to people in the past, but it does not necessarily prove that you were that person. That is another question. It leaves that question open.

Survival After Death

This question of memory has many other implications. It has a great relevance to all religious theories of survival. All religions that I know of suggest that there is some form of bodily survival of death, some kind of personal survival—either in some shadowy ancestor realm or underworld; or through reincarnation or rebirth; or as in the Judaic, Christian, or Islamic traditions, through some kind of after-life. None of these theories would make sense if memories are stored in the brain, because obviously when the brain decays, all memories would be obliterated. Materialists like the idea of memory storage in the brain—not because it is strongly supported by evidence, it is not—but because it is such a simple and convenient argument which can be used to refute almost all religions. If memory is in the brain, the brain decays at death and that is the end. It would not make much sense if you arrive at the Last Judgment, for example, and you have totally forgotten who you are and what you have done.

However, if memories are not stored inside the brain, then the question of survival of bodily death is left open. This is one of those areas where changing the boundaries of science changes the boundaries between science and religion.


Indeed this change in perspective shifts the boundaries between the so-called normal and the paranormal as well. In a world in which morphic resonance occurs, telepathy also ceases to be shocking. You could even see where some people could say to me, "Well what's so new about morphic resonance? Isn't this just telepathy?" However, from a scientific point of view that would not be quite accurate. I think morphic resonance may be very akin to telepathy, but morphic resonance is a more general principle. We would not, for example, speak of a crystal influencing another crystal by telepathy, which means thought transference. Still, in a world with morphic resonance, telepathy would cease to be a shocking, paranormal phenomenon. It would seem quite normal. This is another one of the reasons why my hypothesis is so controversial.


This hypothesis has many other implications. We can think of societies as governed by morphic fields, and I go into this in some detail in my book, The Presence of the Past. Here I will simply mention one implication, which has to do with ritual. All societies have rituals, and rituals are patterns of activity which are done usually in order to recall or relate to some previous event. The Jewish Passover Festival, for example, is a re-creation of the original Passover dinner, which Jewish people have celebrated every year since then. The Christian Holy Communion is another example like this, and so is the American national ritual of the Thanksgiving dinner.

In rituals people deliberately do things in as similar a way as possible to the way they were done before: the same words, the same language. In Hindu ceremonies, for example, the Sanskrit language, their ancient language, is used. There exists a great conservatism of ritual language; the same smells, the same places, the same gestures, the same food, and so on, are employed. I think that through ritual people are deliberately re-creating a particular pattern of activity, consciously re-creating this pattern of activity, in order to connect with those who have done it before. Through ritual, people claim there is a presence of the past, that the past becomes present to those participating in the ritual, that there is a kind of collapse in time. In the Christian Holy Communion, for example, it is believed there is a presence of the original Last Supper in the spirit of Christ and also of all those who have partaken of this ritual since—the Communion of Saints.

These kinds of ideas are found all around the world in all societies. From the point of view of conventional rationalism, this is just another example of meaningless mumbo-jumbo and superstition; but from the point of view of morphic resonance, these ideas make perfect sense because the conservatism of rituals creates exactly the right conditions for a morphic resonance between the present participants and those who have done it before. There really would be some kind of influence through time brought about by the ritual, which is exactly what those who do the rituals believe they are doing.

Nature As Alive

This hypothesis is part of a wider change in paradigm that is going on, which I summarized in my most recent book, The Rebirth of Nature, the idea of Nature as alive. This idea is not only that of the Earth being alive, as Gaia, but of the entire cosmos as alive, akin to a developing organism. Through science the mechanistic theory of Nature is being transcended. Science is returning us, I believe, to a new sense of the life of Nature.

Memory of Place, Field

To summarize one way where this new sense of the life of Nature connects with the morphic resonance idea, I wish to introduce the idea of the memory of places. All traditions have ways of thinking about the quality of place. Each place has its own kind of quality or character. The Romans spoke of the genius loci (spirit of the place). We all know that different places have different feelings or atmospheres; but there is nothing in mechanistic science, with its universalistic laws, that enables us to understand this very well. In terms of morphic resonance theory, however, I think it is possible to think of places as having fields. Places can have morphic fields, and morphic fields can have an inherent memory through self-resonance.

Upon my first thinking of morphic fields this way I thought, thinking of the fields of places is going too far. It is taking the concept beyond its legitimate limits. Then I realized that the concept of fields in the first place comes from placed bits of land in the countryside with hedges around them. The field concept was introduced into science by Farraday who borrowed it from the ordinary English usage of the word field—the primary use of which is agricultural. It has to do with a region of land. The most general definition of field is a region of influence, a region of activity.

So thinking of the fields of places on the one hand makes it easy to understand traditions of geomancy, which are ways of understanding the relations of different parts of a place in terms of its field. It also enables us to think in terms of the memory of places. The place itself can have a memory. There can also be a memory through going to a place. You are in the same environment other people have been in before so you can tune into the collective memory of other people in that place. Therefore there are two senses in which places can have memories: through the human collective experience in that place and through the memory in the place itself.

Now, this concept makes a lot of sense of beliefs found all over the world. For example, it is believed in most parts of the world that certain places are haunted, that there are ghosts or spirits in those places because of bad things that have happened there in the past. Ghosts are a kind of memory, if you like, of what has happened there. It is also believed that certain places can have a positive effect through what has happened there. These are holy places, where great men or women have been born or enlightened, or where many people have prayed, as in the great cathedrals of Europe, the great temples of Asia, and so on.


And these sacred places are traditionally, all around the world, places of pilgrimage. The Australian Aborigines with their song lines, the American Indians with their power places, the medieval Europeans with their great networks of pilgrimage all over Europe—all were relating to the spirit of places through a basic human tendency, this tendency to go on pilgrimage to places of power because of the memory and the power in that place.

Almost the only societies where pilgrimage has not happened are the Protestant societies of northern Europe. Pilgrimage was suppressed in the Protestant Reformation in England and elsewhere because it was identified as being essentially pagan by the reformers. I think they were right to see it as pagan in its roots. However, they were wrong to see it as something contrary to the spirit of religion. And I think that this suppression of pilgrimage has a great relevance to us today. Pilgrimage is such a basic instinct, it could not be suppressed for long. And within a few generations the English had invented tourism.


Tourism is best understood as a form of secularized pilgrimage. Tourists, you see, go to the great sacred places of the past, the cathedrals, the temples, the holy mountain, the pyramids, Stonehenge, and so on. But because they are modern people who think they have risen above superstition and that kind of thing—because they are rational, educated and modern—they are alienated from the places they go to. They can not kneel down and say a prayer, or light a candle in a cathedral. They can not do a puja in a Hindu temple. They can not invoke the gods or the goddesses, or the patron saints of the place, because that would be superstitious. So instead they have to pretend they are going to these places for educational reasons and are primarily interested in some figures about the place.

Well, this is a profoundly ambiguous activity. If they really did not feel anything about the power of the place, they would stay at home. Yet people are drawn to these places. In fact in England we call them "tourist attractions," and people come there because of the power of the place. When they arrive, they can not relate to the place adequately because the mechanistic theory of Nature first of all treats Nature as entirely lacking in any sacred power. There is nothing sacred in a mechanical world. Second, there is nothing animate. It is seen as some primitive animism to relate to places in this way.

If we recover instead a sense of the life of Nature, the life of the Earth, we can see that we can recover this sense not only theoretically, as I have been describing in this article, we can also recover it through a variety of actual practices. What follows is just one of the ways that we can recover a sense of the sacredness of the Earth. I suggest that one of the paradigm shifts that could make a big difference in the way we relate to the Earth is a very simple one—the shift from tourism to pilgrimage. If only a small percentage of the tourists would go as pilgrims, then the whole world would be linked up by networks of pilgrimage encompassing the sacred places of each country in the world. Already people are going there; already the infrastructure is in place to get people there. I believe that this would be one of the ways that this new paradigm, this new spirit, could be expressed in practice in our own lives.

Recovering Nature's Aliveness Essential For Our Survival

These ideas, you see, are part of a more general move, as I mentioned, towards a recovery of the sense of our life in a living world—Nature as alive. The morphic resonance idea as a scientific hypothesis has to be tested by the methods of science, but it is part of a more general movement of the recovery of the sense of the life of Nature. Regardless of whether morphic resonance turns out to be right or wrong, I believe that this sense of the life of Nature is absolutely essential for coming into a better relationship with the environment, on which we depend. In fact I think these changes in ideas are probably essential for our very survival.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Supporting Subversive Education

  • from Neil Postman's book "Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

    This is written almost 40 years ago by Neil Postman;

    "This book is based on two assumptions of ours. One, it seems to us, is indisputable; the other, highly questionable. We refer to the beliefs that (a) in general, the survival of our society is threatened by an increasing number of unprecedented and, to date, insoluble problems; and (b) that something can be done to improve the situation. If you do not know which of these is indisputable and which questionable, you have just finished reading this book (quote).

    If you do, we do not need to document in great detail assumption (a). We do want, however, to remind you of some of the problems we currently face and then to explain briefly why we have not outgrown the hope that many of them can be minimized if not eliminated through a new approach to education.
    One can begin almost anywhere in compiling a list of problems that, taken together and left unresolved, mean disaster for us and our children. For example, the number one health problem in the United States is mental illness: there are more Americans suffering from mental illness than from all other forms of illness combined. It is advancing rapidly on many fronts, from delinquency among affluent adolescents to frauds perpetrated by some of our richest corporations. Another is the suicide problem. Are you aware that suicide is the second most common cause of death among adolescents? Or how about the problem of "damaged" children? The most common cause of infant mortality in the United States is parental beating. Still another problem concerns misinformation - commonly referred to as the "the credibility gap" or "news management." The misinformation problem takes a variety of forms, such as lies, cliches, and rumors, and implicates almost everybody, including the President of the United States.

    Many of these problems are related to, or at least seriously affected by, the communication revolution, which, having taken us unawares, has ignited the civil-rights problem, unleashed the electronic-bugging problem, and made visible the sex problem, to say nothing of the drug problem. Then we have the problems stemming from the population explosion, which include the birth-control problem, the abortion problem, the housing problem, the parking problem, and the food and water-supply problem.

    You may have noticed that almost all of these problems are related to "progress," a somewhat paradoxical manifestation that has also resulted in the air-pollution problem, the water-pollution problem, the garbage-disposal problem, the radio-activity problem, the megalopolis problem, the who-am-I problem, and the what-does-it-all-mean problem.

    Stay one more paragraph, for we must not omit alluding to the international scene: the Bomb problem, the Vietnam problem, the Red China Problem, the Cuban problem, the Middle East problem, the foreign-aid problem, the national-defense problem, and a mountain of others mostly thought of as stemming from the conspiracy problem.

    Now, there is one problem under which all of the foregoing may be subsumed. It is the "What, if anything, can we do about these problems?" problem, and that is exactly what this book is about.....

    It is the thesis of this book that change - constant, accelerating, ubiquitous - is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in and that our educational system has not yet recognized this fact. We maintain, further, that the abilities and attitudes required to deal adequately with change are those of the highest priority and that it is not beyond our ingenuity to design school environments which can help young people to master concepts necessary to survival in a rapidly changing world. The institution we call "school" is what it is because we made it that way. If it is irrelevant, as Marshall McLuhan says; if it shields children from reality, as Norbert Wiener says; if it educates for obsolescence, as John Gardner says; if it does not develop intelligence, as Jerome Bruner says; if it is based on fear, as John Holt says; if it avoids the promotion of significant learnings, as Carl Rogers says; if it induces alienation, as Paul Goodman says; if it punishes creativity and independence, as Edgard Friedenberg says; if, in short, it is not doing what needs to be done, it can be changed; it must be changed. It can be changed, we believe, because there are so many wise men who, in one way or another, have offered us clear, intelligent, and new ideas to use, ans as long as these ideas and the alternatives they suggest are available, there is no reason to abandon hope....

    All of these men have several things in common. They are almost all "romantics," which is to say they believe that the human situation is improvable through intelligent innovation. They are all courageous and imaginative thinkers, which means they are beyond the constricting intimidation of conventional assumptions. They all have tried to deal with contemporary problems, which means they can tell the difference between an irrelevant, dead idea and relevant, viable one. And finally, most of them are not usually thought of as educators. This last is extremely important, since it reveals another critical assumption of ours: namely, that within the "Educational Establishment" there are insufficient daring and vigorous ideas on which to build a new approach to education. One must look to men whose books would rarely by used, or even thought of, in education courses, and would not be listed under the subject "Education" in libraries.
    Subversive Orthodoxy...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Sense of Community"

Sense of Community
David W. McMillan
Nashville, Tennessee

This article revisits the theory of sense of community originally developed in 1976 and subsequently presented by McMillan and Chavis (1986). Chavis, Hogge, McMillan, and Wandersman (1986) demonstrated its empirical strength as a theory and developed the Sense of Community Questionnaire. This was essential work in getting the theory used. As reflected in the contents of this special issue, the theory has since stimulated considerable empirical research.

As I enter midlife, I review the issue in terms of the perspective and experiences of that period of my life. Thus, this paper examines the question: Do the past 20 years add any new thoughts to the theory? I believe the answer is “yes.” This article extends the principles offered by McMillan and Chavis (1986). The same four elements remain but are rearranged and renamed as follows: Spirit, Trust, Trade, and Art. Presently, I view Sense of Community as a spirit of belonging together, a feeling that there is an authority structure that can be trusted, an awareness that trade, and mutual benefit come from being together, and a spirit that comes from shared experiences that are preserved as art.


Spirit is the first element of this version of sense of community. Originally, the boundary aspect of the first principle of sense of community was labeled “membership” —membership emphasized boundaries that delimit “us” from “them” and that create the form of emotional safety that encourages self-disclosure and intimacy. Membership referred to one’s sense of belonging and to a sense of confidence that one has as a member as well as the aspect of acceptance from the group that facilitates belonging.

Membership also alluded to the cognitive dissonance associated with a member’s responsibility to sacrifice for the community. According to McMillan and Chavis (1986) cognitive dissonance facilitates sense of community in these ways. First, it enhances a member’s confidence. Second, it creates in the member a sense of entitlement. Finally, it serves to build loyalty to the group.

In the current version of the Sense of Community theory, spirit replaces membership as the defining aspect of this principle. Boundaries continue to distinguish members from nonmembers and provide emotional safety. Greater emphasis, however, is now placed on the spark of friendship that becomes the Spirit of Sense of Community. Each of us needs connections to others so that we have a setting and an audience to express unique aspects of our personality. We need a setting where we can be ourselves and see ourselves minored in the eyes and responses of others. In the view of some poets, human nature is naturally driven to express itself:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells:
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

To be nobody but yourself
In a world that is trying it damnedest
to make you like everybody Else
That’s that hardest Thing

e.e. cummings

Emotional Safety

Truth is the primary unit of analysis for the Spirit of Sense of Community. This raises two issues. First, membership opens doors. The status of member brings with it the right to be in the group. Second, can the community provide the acceptance, empathy, and support for members to speak their truth and be themselves? “The Truth” in sense of community is analogous to materials in the construction of a building or to an electric spark in the flow of electricity. Without Truth there can be no sense of community. What we mean by “The Truth” is a person’s statement about his or her own internal experience. No one knows better than the speaker how the speaker feels. He or she is the final authority about his or her emotions. If community members are willing to look inside themselves and honestly represent their feelings to others, then they are speaking “The Truth” as they know it. If they say, “this is my opinion,” or “I feel sad,” or “my left ankle hurts,”—who can argue with them? That must be “The Truth.”

The first task of a community is to make it safe to tell “The Truth.” That requires community empathy, understanding, and caring. There are three steps to creating such a sense of intimacy. The first step require the member’s courage to tell his or her intensely personal truth. The second and third steps involve the community. Can the community accept this truth safely? Can members of the community respond with courage equal to the self disclosing member’s courage and develop a circle of truth tellers and empathy givers?

Intimacy occurs along a range. At one end, is the most personal, which is telling a person or a group how one feels at the time about that person or group. This takes personal emotional courage and also incurs psychological risk. At the other end of the continuum, intimacy entails speaking about what one thinks about people, events, or things from another place and time.

McMillan and Chavis (1985) cited several studies to demonstrate that members are attracted to a community in direct relation to their emotional sense of it. Recent studies continue to confirm this point. Generally, these studies asked participants, “Do you disclose more when you feel safe?” The answer has overwhelmingly been “yes” (Canary & Spitzberg, 1989; Brandt, 1989; Canary & Cupach, 1988; Prager, 1989; Rosco, Kennedy, & Pope, 1987; Alexander, 1986).


My concept of boundaries remains relatively the same as before (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). As noted originally, boundaries make emotional safety possible. Evidence which supported the idea of community boundaries has focused predominantly on the social scientist’s sympathy for the deviant. Recent work continues to voice that concern by explaining the phenomenon of scapegoating as a way of defining group boundaries (Forsyth, 1988; Alexander, 1986; Stein, 1989; Ng & Wilson, 1989). Kalma and Ellinger (1985), for example, found that groups created firmer boundaries defining the “us” vs. “them” in circumstances of scarcity and lack of resources. Vemberg (1990) noted “us” vs “them” boundaries in his study of newcomers to the seventh and eighth grades. These newcomers had difficulty penetrating the boundaries of established peer groups. Recent work has added to the concern for the deviant the recognition of the benefits which boundaries provide to the members of a community. Reported studies demonstrate that boundaries allay fears by identifying who can be trusted as “one of us.” (Keller, 1986; Kaplan, 1988; Weinig, Schmidt, & Midden, 1990; Weiss, 1987; Simon & Pettigrew, 1990; Karasawa, 1988).

To the above purposes, I would add that boundaries define the logistical time/place settings for a group to be a group. Boundaries also relate to the content of communication. Do members disclose their feelings about the person or persons that are the object of these feelings or do members discuss subjects outside the community that are not shared and not intimate? Boundaries can distinguish the appropriate subject matter for group discourse.

Sense of Belonging

Similar to the concept of boundaries, sense of belonging basically remains intact with minor changes in language and emphasis. Originally, McMillan and Chavis (1986) identified one element of sense of belonging as “expectation of belonging.” At this time, that concept seems best described as the “faith that I will belong.” Acceptance remains unchanged. These two elements emphasize the two points of reference that are constant in sense of community theory—the member and the community.

Faith That I Will Belong

Faith comes from within the member. Acting on such faith represents a risk and requires courage since humiliation can result if the faith is not validated. In essence, people bond with those whom they believe want and welcome them. In addition to the evidence cited in McMillan and Chavis (1986) supporting the importance of faith, Rugel (1987) provides confirmation in the findings of a sociometric study of psychotherapy groups. In effect, when we believe that we will be welcome, that we fit or belong in a community, we have a stronger attraction to that community.


This element reflects the community’s response to the aforementioned faith. Just as a member has the responsibility of believing in his or her membership or right to belong, the community’s responsibility is to accept the member as a member. In their study of school football teams, Westre and Weiss (1991) demonstrated that acceptance from the team creates a sense of attachment in individual team members. Unchanged, therefore, is our earlier assertion that when one is accepted by the community one is more strongly attracted to that community.

Paying Dues or Cognitive Dissonance

Truthtelling, emotional safety, crossing the boundaries from “them” to “us,” and a sense of belonging are not achieved without sacrifice and challenge. Communities need to test new members to determine if they can and will be loyal to the community. Communities must know if a member will make available the time, energy, and financial commitment necessary to be a supportive, effective member. In McMillan and Chavis (1986), I defined this concept in terms of cognitive dissonance. This term, however, is too esoteric to convey the simple notion that to be part of a community involves “paying dues.”

Paying dues promotes sense of community by first opening a door for a member in the group. It also gives the members a sense of entitlement. In Walt Disney’s movie “Pocahontas,” Kohohan was promised the chief’s daughter for his brave sacrifice in battle. The war veteran’s respect and reward is just one obvious example of a community’s way to express its appreciation for a member’s sacrifices. However, just as paying dues “entitles” a member, a community also has the right to expect that dues will be paid. Children are often told that with rights and privileges comes responsibility. The rights of community membership come with the expectation that the community can call on its members to make sacrifices. The military draft and taxes exemplify this principle.

Beyond taxes and the findings originally cited by McMillan and Chavis (1986), recent empirical evidence extends the basis for associating paying dues with sense of community. Ingram (1986), for example, studied church congregations. He defined “paying dues” in terms of sharing one’s personal testimony or witness in front of the church. He found that meeting this challenge increases a person’s status in the church. Rugel’s (1987) study of psychotherapy groups demonstrates that the more one invests in a group the more one is accepted by the group. Findings from other recent studies suggest an important qualification to this principle. If the required sacrifice is too great, it can weather the member’s attachment to the community. Swan (1992) and Seta, Seta, and Erber (1993) argue that there is a limit to the amount of sacrifice that creates closeness. This position is consistent with the experience of psychotherapists who treat patients with phobias. When the therapist asks patients to create a desensitization ladder, it is essential that each rung be separated by reasonable increments. If the steps are too far apart, the patient will fail and treatment will increase rather than decrease fear. This caveat about paying dues is consistent with McMillan and Chavis’ (1986) prior discussion of the effect of humiliation on community membership. If members are asked to do more than they can do, then their inadequacy is exposed. The consequent shame may produce a need to distance oneself from the community.


The Spirit of sense of community can begin as a spark. With truthtelling, emotional safety, sense of belonging, and dues paying, this spark can become a flame. But it will never become a fire unless there exists in the community an authority structure that can sustain the fire.

In McMillan and Chavis (1986), this second principle was called Influence. A community must be able to influence its members and members must be able to influence the community. To be effective, a community must have these influences flowing concurrently to create a sphere of influence. The salient element of influence is the development of trust. Trust develops through a community’s use of its power. Who has it? When do they have it? If not present in some members, when don’t they have it? For the spirit of community to survive beyond its first initial spark, the community must solve the problems arising from the allocation of power.

The first requirement for such resolution is that people must know what they can expect from each other in the community. In effect, some sort of order must be established. This would include the development of community norms, rules, or laws. When a sense of order is present, one can predict, plan, and commit. Knowing a community’s norms or laws allows one to develop a sense of personal mastery. Consider what has been achieved by mankind’s knowing the rules of mathematics, engineering, chemistry, and physics. In a sport such as golf, order is found in knowing and executing the mechanics of a good golf swing. In baseball, knowing how to hold the ball in relation to the seams allows one to throw a curve ball. The relationship between knowledge and behavior extends to almost every human endeavor including dancing, drawing, music, etc.

Learning the laws of how things work gives one mastery and creates the potential for attaining one’s desired level of performance. In a community, this knowledge translates into social, emotional, and political potential. Without social norms, however, there is only social chaos. The results of studies of group cohesion, (Battenhausen & Murigham, 1991; Dobbins & Zaccaro, 1986; Fuhrer & Keys, 1988; Keller, 1986; Zahrly & Tosi, 1989) for example, suggest that people become more cohesive when they know what to expect from one another.

Once order exists, the next element for developing trust in a community relates to authority. It is assumed that an individual or individuals has to be in charge. A community must have a way to process information and make decisions. Without this capacity, the community will eventually perish. The decision maker or makers must have authority over the members for the sense of order to be maintained in the community.

In primitive times, the strongest man ruled. When he became weak or died, the community order was threatened or lost and the community’s survival was at risk. Eventually, primogeniture evolved to put an end to the power struggles related to the succession of leaders. This solution, however, left authority or law dependent on the leader’s will or whim. If the leader vacillated, order disintegrated. Leaders could be, and often were, self-serving and capricious and could not always be trusted to serve in other than their self-interest. For this reason in 1212, English noblemen forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. This mandated that the King would rule by establishing law and abide by legal principles instead of his personal will. It introduced into communities the concept that authority can serve many rather than self. Western civilization advanced with the American and French Revolutions to a governance concept of democracy. If leaders did not answer to the people they led, the possibility of rebellion was always present.

Social scientists have demonstrated that communities and groups are more cohesive when leaders influence members and when members influence leaders concurrently (Grossack, 1954; Thrasher, 1954; Taguriri & Kogan, 1960; Carson, Wirdemeyer, & Brawley, 1988; Newmann, Rutter, & Smith, 1989; Miller, 1990; Steel, Shane, & Kennedy, 1990). Grossack’s (1954) experimental paradigm clarifies this point. One set of participants are instructed to work cooperatively. A second group of participants are instructed to compete against one another. Grossack assumed that these instructions would create respective high cohesive and low cohesive groups. In fact, Grossack found that, in the “cooperative” group, members made more attempts to influence their fellows and accepted more pressure to conform than did those in the competing groups. A review of the social science literature confirms this point—the forces of love, intimacy, and cohesiveness operate from individual participant to the group, and from the group to the individual. This process occurs all at the same time because order, authority, and justice create the atmosphere for the exchange of power (McMillan & Chavis, 1986).

Lawler (1992) found that the more unequally the power is distributed within a group the meaner and more ruthless are all members of that group. Hung (1991) found that people exerted greater personal force when they were in a relatively strong position compared with others in the group. People exerted less personal force when they were in a weaker position. Lawler also found that people used greater personal force when they believed they were right. When people believe they are following a transcendent principle, they may be inspired to passion. Thus, the belief in “principle above person” can be as effective as authority. Seta et al. (1993) found that when groups expected more than was considered fair, those groups lost the allegiance of their members. The principle of justice as a cohesive force was also observed by Chin (1990) in a study of Hong Kong Chinese college students.

Cotterell, Eisenberger, & Speicher, (1992) studied wary and suspicious college students. When these students interacted with peers, their distrust was contagious. It is likely that the opposite is also true and that trust can be contagious. Roark and Sharah (1989) compared factors of empathy, self-disclosure, acceptance, and trust to see which of these were more effective in producing intimacy. They found trust to be the most important of these factors.

When a community has: 1) order, 2) decision making capacity (i.e., authority), 3) authority based on principle rather than person, and 4) group norms that allow members and authority to influence each other reciprocally, then that community has trust that evolves into justice.


A community with a live spirit and an authority structure that can be trusted, begins to develop an economy, i.e., members discover ways that they can benefit one another and the community. In their excellent review of the group cohesiveness literature, Lott and Lott (1965) stated: “It is taken for granted that individuals are attracted to groups as a direct function of the satisfaction they are able to derive within them” (p. 285). Since this premise is widely accepted, there is little empirical evidence to clarify exactly what is reinforcing in a relationship or group membership. Rather, most theory and research in this area only underscore the contention that if people associate together, then it must be reinforcing to do so. Since individuals and the groups that they compose are so varied, it would be impossible to define precisely what reinforcements bind people together into a cohesive group. It seems that a community is as strong as the bargains its members make with one another. In addition to a community meeting the needs of its members, sense of community will be stronger if the community can find ways to juxtapose and integrate the members’ needs and resources into a continuous bargaining process.

McMillan and Chavis (1986) made the point that communities must somehow reward their members. At that time, however, I highlighted the economic quality of community reinforcement. McMillan and Chavis (1986) labeled this principle, “Reinforcement: Integration of Needs.” This principle included the reward factor and the concept that it was the community’s function to integrate members’ needs and resources. Originally, I discussed various types (e.g., status, competence, success, and a member’s honor) of empirically supported rewards that a community might give its members. I now believe that there are innumerable types of such rewards; protection from shame to be chief among these.

When I first developed my theory of sense of community, I insisted that theory had to support the creation of a diverse community. Because of that, I incorrectly rejected similarity as being an important bonding force. In my ideal community, the democrats loved and supported the republicans and “the lion lay down with the lamb.” I now appreciate that the search for similarities can be an essential dynamic of community development. People seek a social setting where they can be themselves and be safe from shame. As communities begin to form, potential members search for those with whom they share traits. Bonding begins with the discovery of similarities. If one can find people with similar ways of looking, feeling, thinking, and being, then it is assumed that one has found a place where one can safely be oneself.

This is the driving force behind the tendency for people in groups to think alike. In social psychology, this process is called “consensual validation;” in business, it is called ‘group think.” Basically, the concept implies that individuals are willing to trade independence for safety from shame. For that reason, they tend to conform in groups. Since McMillan and Chavis’ (1986) original examination of the consensual validation literature, findings from additional studies have supported the point. In his study of cohesion and productivity in work groups, for example, Greene (1989) found that group consensus is associated with group productivity and cohesion. In a study of therapist-patient relationships, Klein and Friedlander (1987) found that when patients perceive themselves to be similar to the therapist, they are more attracted to the therapist. In a study of the effect of perceived homogeneity on interpersonal communication in groups, Storey (1991) found that perceived homogeneity facilitates group interaction. Bernard, Baird, Greenwalt, & Karl (1992) found that group consensus increased group cohesion and created room for dissent and disagreement in groups without reducing group cohesion.

Much of the “group think” literature seems, in my view, to complain about how group collaboration stifles creativity. I believe that it is important that community psychologists recognize how shame drives people to search for similarities (McCauley, 1989; Posner-Weber, 1987; Turner, Pratkinis, Probasco, & Leve, 1992; Turner, 1992). As noted, this search occurs at a relatively early phase of community development. As the group develops, the focus shifts from what members have in common to how they are different. This is strategically important because there can be no real trading unless members have different needs and resources. Simply stated, if members have the same things they would have no need to trade with one another. Differences in possessions create the possibility that one member has something another needs. Once differences are discovered and needs and resources inventoried, then bargains can be negotiated. The only bargain one can have in the discovery of similarities is protection from shame.

The search for and appreciation of differences represents a beginning step toward the development of a community economy. McMillan and Chavis (1986) referred to this process as involving “complimentarity of needs.” At that time, I cited several studies that made the point that a community builds cohesiveness if it can successfully integrate members’ needs and resources. This is an economic function. A recent study of musicians in rock bands confirmed the point (Dyce & O’Connor, 1992). This study found that if the bands were successful at integrating different personality styles, they were more stable and cohesive as a group.

A community economy based on shared intimacy, which is implied by the term “sense of community,” represents a social economy. The medium of exchange in a community social economy is self-disclosure. The value of a trade depends on the personal risk involved in self-disclosure. In a social economy, the most risky and valuable self-disclosures involve the sharing of feelings. A community’s members begins by sharing feelings that are similar, i.e., that they have in common. They move on to share positive feelings about one another. Once a base of understanding and support is established, the members can begin to share criticisms, suggestions, and differences of opinion. At this point, the basis of trading becomes part of the social economy. Members have established their safety from shame and believe they can work, learn, and grow safely in their social exchanges.

Tantum (1990) studied shame in groups. He contended that shame is a primitive response to the breakdown of one’s social presentation. When such a breakdown in pride, self- esteem, and dignity occurs one is likely to become self destructive, to appear “shame-faced,” to become resentful and brazen and/or to compulsively self-disclose. Effective communities protect their members from shame in their social exchanges.

When a community begins to develop an economy, it is important from the outset that the trades be fair, that exchanges are approximately of equal value. Once fair trading becomes an established practice in its history, the community will evolve to a stage in which its economy has little to do with keeping score and balancing value. Members in such a community give for the joy and privilege of giving, not for the getting. The case of parents caring for children is an example of this. In the middle of the night, a parent does not get up with a crying infant and change the baby’s diapers or feed it because the parent gets something in return. This is an example of giving for the sake of giving, not for what will be gotten back in trade. Polzer (1993) found that intimacy makes people generous to their intimates.

A community cannot survive unless members make fair trades with one another. But a community is not strong if it must always keep score. When communities transcend score keeping and members enjoy giving for its own sake, communities can be thought of as being in a state of Grace. This is the unexpected and unpredictable culmination of telling the truth together, trusting one another, and making mutually rewarding bargains. As a community develops a trading history, the trust it took to begin trade at the barter level evolves into faith. With a confident faith, the barter economy becomes a market economy and the entire community becomes a potential trading partner.


The final principle in this theory is “Art.” McMillan and Chavis (1986) labeled this aspect of sense of community “Shared Emotional Connection in Time and Space.” As explained, Spirit with respected authority becomes Trust. In turn, Trust is the basis of creating an economy of social Trade. Together these elements create a shared history that becomes the community’s story symbolized in ART. A picture is truly “worth a thousand words” and stories represent a people’s tradition. Song and dance show a community’s heart and passion. Art represents the transcendent values of the community. But the basic foundation of art is experience. To have experience, the community’s members must have contact with one another. Contact is essential for sense of community to develop.

The primary points made by McMillan and Chavis (1986) are repeated here. Contact is essential for community building, but the quality of that contact matters. Influences on the quality of community contact are: closure to events, shared outcome from the event, risk and sacrifice, and honor vs. humiliation. McMillan and Chavis (1986) referenced more than 40 empirical studies to support the principle called “shared valent event.” Originally, I offered two formulae to describe how this principle works:

1. Shared emotional connection equals contact plus high quality interaction.

2. High Quality Intervention equals events (with successful closure minus ambiguity) times event valence times sharedness of the event plus amount of honor the event gives to a member minus the amount of humiliation the event gives to a member.

At this point I will leave out the formulae. I would replace the term “shared valent event” with “shared dramatic moment.” The primary question at this point is: What collective experiences become art? I would suggest that a community chooses the events that become a part of its collective heritage. These events honor the community’s transcendent values. They challenge the community to meet its highest ideals. These events become represented in the community’s symbols.

In their classic study of Jonesville, a midwestern community, Werner and associates (1949) recognized the strong integrative function of collective myths, symbols, rituals, rites, ceremonies, and holidays. In order to obtain smooth functioning and integration in the social life of a modern community, a community must provide a common symbol system. Groups use these social conventions to create boundaries. Berneard (1973) observed that Black leaders used symbols to unify the Black community and defy White authority (e.g., Black Power and the clenched fist). Nisbet and Perrin (1977) observed that intimate bonds are symbolic. “The symbol,” they said, “is to the social world what the cell is to the biotic world or the atom to the physical world. . . The symbol is the beginning of the social world as we know it.” (p. 47).

Writing about sense of community among college students, Schlorshere (1989) suggested that symbolic rituals create a sense of belonging and of being a part of something important. Gregory (1986) studied a group of Air Force personnel who developed and used their own language. This code signified membership and sense of belonging.

What collective experiences become art? They are stories of community contact. But contact is not enough. The contact must have a certain quality for it to become a collected memory that is art; the community must share in the fate of their common experience in the same way. In effect, it conveys the sense of “all for one and one for all.” If it was a success for one, it was, in some way, a success for all members. In addition to being shared, an event must have a dramatic impact. What makes a moment dramatic is that something is at risk for the community or its representative. Dramatic moments may create a collective memory but this does not make that memory worthy of becoming art that will be passed from one generation to the next. Unresolved ambiguity or cruelty can destroy sense of community. Events that represent these experiences rarely become art. Dramatic moments of tragedy redeemed by courage are events worthy of becoming community stories. These stories represent the community’s values and traditions.

Symbols, stories, music, and other symbolic expressions represent the part of a community that is transcendent and eternal. They represent values like courage, wisdom, compassion, and integrity, values that outlive community members and remain a part of the spirit of the community. Art supports the Spirit that is in the first element of sense of community and thus, the four elements of community are linked in a self-reinforcing circle.