Communities of identity

I was talking with a friend over the weekend about his workplace, and he mentioned that one of his coworkers was from MIT, and I asked where they had lived at MIT. He told me which dorm, I said “Oh, so they’re like this!”, and he said “Yup!” We both found it extremely amusing that with that one question, I was able to use the stereotypes of MIT living groups to categorize this person I had never met. But any MIT alum will do the same thing – it’s the first question we ask another MIT alum that we meet. East Campus, Next House, MacGregor, TEP, DKE – if you went to MIT, you have very different archetypes associated with each of those living groups. And the thing is, unlike many stereotypes, this categorization tends to actually work.

This got me to thinking about why that question works so well at revealing what a person is actually like. How can this one answer with less than six bits of nominal information (less than 64 living groups at MIT) be unfolded into so much information that reasonable projections as to personality can be made from it?

The most obvious answer is that the living groups are self-organizing and self-selected (I’m ignoring the effects from the Freshman on Campus decision because I don’t know what’s going on now). All of the living groups at MIT had very distinct identities, and worked hard during Rush to attract freshmen who would reinforce that identity. For instance, the first adjective most MIT students would associate with TEP is “weird”, and we revelled in it; we would tell other living groups during Rush that if a freshman was too weird for them, send him our way.

I think it was also important that it was a two-way process, at least for the fraternities. Not only did the freshman have to pick us, but we had to pick them. It’s a circle of identity; we chose people who we liked, integrated them into our community, and who would then help to choose the next generation. And while the dorms did not have the power to select their incoming freshmen, they made their personalities very evident at Rush, and guarded that identity jealously. Bexley took it to the point where they “anti-rushed” each year, and locked the doors so that freshmen couldn’t even get in. Freshmen that chose dorms that didn’t fit them had only themselves to blame if they were then ostracized at their new residence.

I think another aspect of MIT that reinforces the identity of living groups is that MIT is really hard – so hard that you have to have the support of your living group. You can’t be struggling with both your classes and your housemates. So people quickly leave living situations that are not working for them; even if they initially are in the wrong place, they adjust. And once you do find the right place, the foxhole mentality takes hold – your fellow housemates are your only allies against the overwhelming coursework of MIT. There’s nothing like bonding over hot chocolate at midnight before getting back to your problem sets, or taking a break at 3am to run to the store for snacks. These are the people you fought the Tute with, and you survived, and that is a bond for life.

What’s interesting is that I have such a strong bond with folks I didn’t even live with. There are bunches of TEPs who I am close to despite not actually knowing them when I was at MIT. I can’t explain that bond through the foxhole mentality. But my claim is that the foxhole mentality reinforced the peculiar nature of TEP (and other MIT living groups) such that they “breed true” across four-year “generations”. So I can talk to TEPs I never lived with and have a reasonable expectation that we will have compatible personalities. Or folks from Senior House can go to Steer Roast every year and welcome new students to their community.

I guess the larger question that interests me is what are the characteristics of an identity-determining community? I believe that the MIT living group is such a beast, where membership in a community is sufficient to determine salient aspects of personality. Are there others? And what sets such communities apart?

I can take a stab at the characteristics necessary for an identity-determining community (IDC?). Membership has to be chosen by the participants; things like nationality, race, gender, or even school-selected housing are non-starters (although I might change my mind after reading the Amartya Sen book). I also believe that communities are stronger when they require commitment; in the case of MIT living groups, merely surviving MIT together was such a commitment, but in other realms, it may require active participation. The communities must continually be renewed and revitalized by participation.

What are the communities that people choose to represent themselves if they had to choose one and only one community? I would obviously choose TEP, as it encompasses more aspects of my personality than any other tag I can think of (management trainee, programmer, scientist, thinker, generalist, nerd, geek, singer, frisbee player, etc.). What would others choose? The only other community I can think of that might be similarly encompassing is the church that one belongs to. Or perhaps professional designations for those that identify themselves with their jobs (doctor, lawyer, etc.).

It’s an interesting question. An alternative viewpoint might be to view identity as the intersection of communities; for instance, I am the only TEP that is also a member of the Nehrlich family. By creating Venn diagrams of communities, it might be possible to create identity that way. But I think that should be fodder for another post.

P.S. I finally got enough downtime this past weekend for my brain to start functioning again! We’ll see if it lasts long enough for me to write up the several posts I sketched out, but I had some interesting ideas, and also got through a third of the way through the new Bruno Latour book, Reassembling the Social (Latour blew my mind last year with The Politics of Nature). So yay – we’ll see how long this surge of energy and brain power lasts.

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