Peculiarity of Groups and Organizations Going Out of Control—Collective Identity Sought in Individualizing Society

Mamoru Yamada
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Wicked Groups and Organizations

Society has many problems that are caused by its group/organizational nature, and by the time particular cases are made known to the public, most of them have already fallen into tragedy. Examples of this include domestic violence, repeated cases of malicious bullying in elementary and junior high schools, as well as “black businesses,” a Japanese term for businesses that exploit their employees by imposing extreme work conditions on them. Of course, the abnormal personality of the culprit could play a major role, but if that person had not been part of a particular group or organization, they may not have committed such unscrupulous acts. The problem is that this chain of pathological behavior is not acknowledged as a crime, but it is rather perceived as the norm in a group or organizational setting.

This issue is not limited to individuals who have a tendency to stray from conventional behavior. Even ordinary people, if caught up in certain groups or organizational situations, could act in a way that would have been unimaginable under normal circumstances. For example, when determining the distance travelled by a light source in a dark room, an individual probably would have answered that the source travelled a short distance if they had been alone. However, if there are other people in the room who claim that the light has travelled an excessively long distance before the individual could say anything, they will become influenced by the others and mention a distance longer than what they really thought. Another example is if a person is told repeatedly that they are participating in an important experiment on memory and learning, the participant who plays the role of “teacher” will end up giving considerably strong electric shocks as punishment when the “learner” answers incorrectly. These tendencies have been confirmed through classic experiments in social psychology.

Japanese Collectivism Today

These serious effects, resulting from being part of a collective, have been confirmed throughout the world, and the group and organizational pathology seen in domestic violence, bullying and black businesses is not unique to Japanese society. Attention should also be given to the fact that conventional Japanese collectivism actually possesses mechanisms to control spontaneous discharges of ethnocentrism as it is. In order for single, collectivistic society to function, there is a need for a social device to adjust the strength of individual groups, lessen friction and resolve disputes among the different groups. A situationally-oriented mindset is what controls this in Japan, which is expressed by showing deep concerns not only for individuals, but for the relationships among groups as well. By occasionally relaxing acts of great dedication towards your group, you can make use of diversity within the group and cooperate with other groups in a meaningful way. This accumulation of considerate actions enables a unique social environment to be maintained, where each group has its own strong identity yet respect the independence of its members and their dedication to society at large.

However, this Japanese, situationally-oriented mindset is currently in crisis. Domestic violence, bullying and extreme working conditions are results of a significant lack of consideration for other groups, organizations, and institutions. In other words, groups that have closed themselves off from the rest of the world began to behave in unconventional manners. What surfaces here is the pathology of raw ethnocentrism.

In Japan today, especially among the younger generation, the “reading between the lines” attitude has permeated society. Some may believe that this is the situationally-oriented mindset spreading in its own way. However, this tendency to read between the lines is nothing like the conventional situationally-oriented mindset, which effectively mediates between individuals and groups. I have previously categorized Japanese situationally-oriented mindsets into two types: the classical considerate-and-mindful type and the modern read-between-the-lines type (Table 1). In the latter, customs and rules involving pre-established relationships and groups are simply ignored and are dictated only by the group atmosphere at the moment. In addition, this group atmosphere applies only to a situation they are currently in and does not serve as a base for maintaining the same behavior in a similar situation. What becomes apparent is the seemingly arbitrary attitude of people who are in control.

Table 1. The Two Types of Situationally-Oriented Mindsets

  Place / circumstance Relationship rule and group rule
The considerate-and-mindful type Fixed Present (or fixed)
The reading-between-the-lines type Fluid None (or flexible)

Source: The Hope to be Ordinary [Futsuu to iu Kibo] (Mamoru Yamada, Seikyusha, 2009, p.117)

The central figure leading domestic violence, bullying or black businesses (and frequently their followers) are in fact reading between the lines. However, they are not concerned with what is normal behavior at home, at school or at work. The collectivism that they exhibit shows no understanding for others and closes off the path to sociability and public awareness. Their collectivism, in a bad sense, is more pure and radical.

Desire for Collective Identity

Modern Japanese youth are extremely social, have many friends, respond to and are emotionally swayed by social media. Does this add warmth to relationships? Not necessarily. Let’s take a look at data from a survey conducted on high school students (Tables 2 and 3). In response to a multiple choice question regarding the respondents’ subjective definition of “friends”, two out of three students answered that they were classmates, and one out of three students answered that they were acquaintances. This shows that they do not place much importance on people who are supposed to be their friends. Furthermore, two out of three said, “I feel more relaxed alone than with friends” and one out of three stated that, “I do not completely trust my best friends,” indicating that while youth today seek friendship, they actually live very private lives.

Table 2. Definition of “Friends” (Multiple answers)

Classmates 67.0%
Acquaintances 33.1%

Source: Communication Today among Youth [Wakamonoteki Communication no Genzai] (Akio Koyabu and Mamoru Yamada), in Toshio Tomoeda (ed.) Young People Living in Risk Society [Risk shakai wo ikiru Wakamonotachi] Osaka University Press, 2015, p. 69

Table 3. Increase of Individualization

  2007 2013
I feel more relaxed alone than with friends 54.8% 65.6%
I do not completely trust my best friends 28.7% 36.6%

Source: Ibid., p. 64

While human relationships, in some ways, are becoming weaker, the pure and radical collectivism mentioned above provides a sense of social solidarity that is difficult to obtain. Incidentally, this phenomenon is not restricted to Japan (or to the younger generations). While individualization progresses rapidly, a great desire for a collective identity may be a common trend for many people across several generations in many advanced nations. People wandering around on the streets, the wealthy living in gated communities protected by fences and guards in high-class residential areas, international terrorist groups, radical religious groups and extremist nations are all alike in that they exhibit naked ethnocentrism.

One effective method of avoiding collective and organizational pathology is to not throw oneself into a collective identity simply out of loneliness and a need for human relationships. However, avoiding all groups and organization is not realistic or desirable. The power of a group or organization is significant. As with physical and intellectual strength, how it is put to use may be beneficial or harmful to society. It is important is to seriously contemplate the group or organization, reduce its negative aspects as much as possible and exert maximum effort to develop its positive aspects.

Mamoru Yamada
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Mamoru Yamada was born in 1962. After serving as an assistant at University of Tokyo, Assistant Professor and Associate Professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, and Associate Professor at Rikkyo University, he began teaching at Waseda University in 2003.

[Publications] (in Japanese)
Institutions and Cultures: The Invisible Power that Moves the Organization (Joint authorship) (Nikkei Inc., 2004)
Path of a Trusting Society: The Japanese People’s Image of Themselves (Joint editorship) (Harvest, 2007)
Do! Sociology: Diagnose Modern Japan through Sociology (Joint editorship) (Yuhikaku Publishing, 2007)
The Hope to be Ordinary (Seikyusha, 2009)
Sociology of the Extraordinary (Gakubunsha, 2010)
The Power to Publish Books: The Organizational Identities of Academic Publishing Firms (Joint authorship) (Shinyosha, 2011)
What is 21st-Century Society?: An Introduction to Modern Sociology (Joint editorship) (Kouseisha Kouseikaku, 2014)
Sociology of Groups and Organizations [Tentative title] (Sekaishisosha, 2017) (scheduled for publication)