The highest meaning of a social group

Jim Ralston and Barbara Kingsolver: their thoughts on the highest meaning of a social group

Over the years, I’ve written frequently about associations, which are just one kind of social group. Our lives are defined by myriads of social groups, some self-chosen, some completely beyond our control. These groups have many origins and purposes, some beneficial and some destructive. Although individual value systems vary, I think it’s worth asking the question: What’s the highest meaning or purpose of a social group?

Columnist, essayist, and poet Jim Ralston offers this answer:

“The highest meaning of the social group is to foster the development of individual potential, for the community’s own well-being depends on it. When the goal of the group ceases to be the individual, that group goes into decline.”
Jim Ralston, July 1991 correspondence with The Sun

I agree with this, perhaps controversial, answer. There are plenty of social groups—including many (but not all) political movements, companies, and religions—that champion their collective interests over those of other groups or individuals. Someone who believes in these groups’ goals, is likely to give them a higher meaning than the development of group members’ individual potential.

From the point of view of associations, however, I think this answer stands. I’ve seen many examples of associations’ tails wagging their memberships’ dog., i.e. staff running an association for their own benefit or organizational survival at the expense of the development of individual members. A classic example is the National Rifle Association, which journalist Tim Mak described in his book Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA as having “a ‘Field & Stream’ membership with a ‘Fox & Friends’ leadership”. In my experience, such associations eventually either implode or—often reluctantly—radically restructure their administration or mission.

Barbara Kingsolver on altruism and self-interest

Novelist, essayist, and poet Barbara Kingsolver highlights a different perspective on the highest meaning of a social group: the tension between altruism and self-interest.

“Altruism was also part of our evolution, but, again, it was a very constrained altruism that would benefit our own descendants and nobody else’s. That’s the wiring we’ve inherited. And on this razor-thin leading edge of history, we’ve developed a civilization in which we generally acknowledge the benefits of cooperation beyond our immediate group. So we have charitable organizations and adoptions and nonprofits, and also international trade and NAFTA. But our nature is still pulling us back.”
Barbara KingsolverThe Moral Universe: Barbara Kingsolver On Writing, Politics, And Human Nature, interview by Jeanne Supin, March 2014

This is the same tension that plays out between association staff and membership wants and needs. Over time, if staff self-interest significantly outweighs altruistic motivations, association culture is likely to become increasingly introspective, rather than continuing to evolve to satisfy individual members’ wants and needs.

Ending a group

Some groups evolve to a point where they no longer serve the development of their members but concentrate on the survival of themselves as an institution. Such groups do little to benefit anyone but their staff. It’s likely that they served their purpose well at some point in their history, but that period is over. The best outcome is to close them down.


Jim Ralston and Barbara Kingsolver illustrate the importance of deciding the highest meaning of any social group, especially ones you manage. Your choice will determine the health and future of the group.

What do you think is the highest meaning of a social group? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image attributions: Jim Ralston from The Sun; Barbara Kingsolver (2023, January 10) from Wikipedia.

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