The ideal size of societies

The term “society” comes from the Latin word ‘societas‘, which in turn is derived from the noun socius. Socius means a friend or an ally and it is used to describe a bond or interaction between parties that are friendly, or at least civil.

Talk of societies today, and a lavish picture pops up in front of our eyes. A massive unending township with amenities like swimming pools, kids’ play area, nana-nani park, a well-equipped gymnasium, a salon and spa for relaxation and so on. The list is exhaustive!

Today’s housing societies are filled with a large list of amenities.

With middle class taking the front seat, the individual houses sell like hotcakes and each individual embarks upon a journey of life. Knowingly, their life gets adapted to their surroundings and work schedule around them. Unknowingly, it shapes up their behaviour responsiveness to stimuli as well! But society is beyond just the compound walls of your society. It further expands to the larger term ‘human society’.

Current scenario of societies

Talking about the human society as a whole, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that we aren’t doing too well.

The first issue to unpack is the notion of what society’s goal should be. Keeping with the notion that we are discussing this generally, as in on a larger scale like a national or global scale, the goal of society should be to raise the quality of life for its members. That’s an all-inclusive goal which would mean that equality would be an aspect underpinning that main objective. Equality doesn’t happen in a vacuum and requires an educated populace in order to gain it.

So, we have equality and education as two required components necessary to raise the quality of life for a society’s members. What else is needed? Well, one would argue that a society needs freedom, in the sense that education requires a freedom of thought and expression. Individuals, in order to be treated as equals, require either the same restrictions or absence thereof on their movement, application of the law, and access to services. Freedom, in a loose sense, provides for these conventions.

In order to maximize the quality of life, a society requires an educated populace, equality, and freedom. So, how well is this being implemented on the society scale today? We need a check right from there.

Reasons behind lack of social interaction

I came across a very interesting concept recently called ‘Dunbar’s number’. British evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar, states that 150 people are the ‘point beyond which members of any social group lose their ability to function effectively in social relationships.’

In Dunbar’s research, he mentioned that the 150 people are made up of:

  • 5 intimate friends
  • 15 good friends (including the 5 intimate friends)
  • 50 friends (including the 5 intimate friends and 15 good friends)
  • 150 acquaintances (all-encompassing)

Of these, he says that we spend 60% of our time with our core groups of 50 friends, and 40% with the remaining 100 people. The number can be said to derive from our brain’s ability to maintain memories of 150 people, as well as the time necessary to devote to the group in order to keep relationships going.

Robin Dunbar, who effectively breaks down the number of people as per social circles

The societies which function better

For this, I visited two nearby mass housing types. Example A is a chawl, and B is a modern housing society.

Example A: Chawl

100 dwellings, divided up into 5 clusters of 20 households each. Theoretically, 80 people per cluster, 400 people total.

Example B: Housing Society

4 apartments with 44 flats in each building, with 4 being the average family size. Hence, 176 people in the society.

Now, one may feel that in example B, people will be living as a cohesive unit, compared to example A. The answer is a polite No. Apart from 176 being smaller by 50% than 400, a chawl functions differently than how the housing society functions. People flock together for festivals and enjoy it like one big family. In the nuances of day to day life, a chawl culture still manages to have the cohesiveness running through their daily communication. Most of it can be attributed to the planning of a chawl. For example, long connecting passages is an important aspect. When one steps out of his/her house he/she must pass at least 10 main doors to reach the staircase. In this, often small talk is exchanged between him and the neighbours where intangibles like security, social interaction and being aware of the general well-being of the community are taken care of.

Longer passages become one of the key elements for social interaction in Chawl culture (Image courtesy: Hindustan Times)

On the other hand, modern planning reduces the circulation space to a bare minimum and fewer houses on per floor if it is a high rise apartment. The access from your home to the elevator is so short that you barely get to see the neighbours. Privacy being a major concern, thanks to smart crime providing more insecurity to us, we tend to be comfortable in our own shells. The awkwardness in elevators between the inhabitants tells a lot about how we want to rather look into our mobile phones than at the face of the person standing next to us.

Human psyche behind social interaction

In November 2015, a study was published that changed the perceptions of how social isolation can cause measurable medical damage to people. It found that perceived social isolation can lead to fight-or-flight responses that can lead to illness and even early death. The feeling of loneliness can activate danger signals in the brain, which in turn affects the production of white blood cells. The shift in output can help to cause further loneliness and contribute to the associated illness and death.

Social interactions produce oxytocin which makes human beings, a ‘social animal’

On the other hand, a study out of Stanford Medical School showed that oxytocin, a hormone previously linked strongly to love, was shown to be released any time that positive social interaction is completed. The oxytocin triggers the release of serotonin, which rewards the person, a form of positive reinforcement. This positive reinforcement is key. It creates the wanted response from the person: increased social interaction in the future. It also suggests that pair bonding came out of our natural tendency to live in a group, and thus uses the chemicals originally intended to help reinforce social interactions.

The difference made by culture

Culture defines society as a whole. Culture is essentially what keeps society going and is used to make sense of the compromises one must make to be a part of a society. It is the glue of civilization because culture contains traditions, attitudes, techniques, and structure.

Puneri patya (Message boards in Pune) are a perfect example of how culture reflects in the society (Image courtesy: Lokmat)

Today, with the rapid increase in telecommunication and international travel, people are experiencing inter-cultural contact like never before. That’s why the study of culture and its influence on people has become particularly relevant. A cosmopolitan society will have a mix of cultures. The need is to be socially more acceptable, which means looking at every individual as a global citizen rather than someone of a ‘different type’. Forcing social interaction is as ill-advised as making a person who is full, have some more food. Our social circles are based more around work and we spend more time at our workplaces than at home. The bridge between the outside world and your home is the community wherein you live, and strategically planning few events spanning across the year is what can keep the society as a whole from crumbling.

Are townships ideal? Should they be planned differently?

This brings us to a question: has modernization affected us so much that advertisements like ‘live in a no-neighbour home’ or a ‘separate entry home’ lure us more than ‘let us live together’? The idea of townships has been in our genes, including animals and birds. The learnings from successful mass housing examples can be taken into account to redesign the model of a township. One beautiful example where we can learn of a good social housing is ‘Sa Pobla’ in Spain. The Architects quote

” The aim is to give significance to the nuances and tangible scale of the domesticity and the details. We developed a catalogue of houses that were grouped three-dimensionally (aggregation) following rules that were precise and simple, but also open enough to solve a housing complex adapted to the diversity of situations that the programme and the context required. The proposal complies with the street alignment and puts in value the depth of the plot. The volume of the housing complex is stretched between the boundaries, playing with the party walls that limit the plot, obliterating some and putting others in value, and wraps an interior courtyard-plaza that organizes the circulations and public areas.”

Sa Pobla is a fine example of mass housing with a responsible approach towards the social and cultural fabric of the neighbourhood (Image courtesy: Archdaily)

Hence, we can conclude that the ideal size of the society remains highly dependent on different aspects. Rather than defining the tangibles in terms of numbers, we should, as Architects, look into the finer aspects of design like circulation, public and semi-public spaces, unwinding zones and try to assimilate the components into a holistic design where people can look up to with trust, co-existence, security and joy! Because despite all the amenities and jaw-dropping aesthetics of the design of a township, what a person carries home to his bed is the content of being asked a simple ‘How are you’ as he walks towards his home.


About the author:

Tejashri Deshpande, an Architect by profession and an animal lover by obsession, has her own design practice in Pune by the name of Design Doobki.

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