Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Economic Sociology: A Fresh View

Originally posted on April 21, 2008

I’ve been thinking about what helps people find and sustain an optimal level of a sense of social connectedness. It occurred to me that part of the problem is that it seems mundane, almost a matter of economics—not of money, but of an exchange of talent and interest. Sure, there are some elements of non-neurotic good will, but more it’s a matter-of-fact acknowledgment that some people have certain types of natural shared interests, regions of compatibility, and that many if most other people do not. This is the way it is—individuality breeds the natural evolution of special sub-group interests, hobbies, activities, and so forth. There is nothing bad or sad about this—unless one carries into the enterprise attitudes or desires rooted in early-mid childhood that one is entitled to be loved unconditionally by everyone. These must be relinquished in people are to make it into the hurly-burly world of maturity, in which part of the game is to realize that most folks aren’t your type, and that you’re not the type most folks want to hang out with. The other part of the game is to find the other not-most folks, those who are your type and who will want to play with you.

So the socio-economic issue being discussed here is not money but the variety and quality of people’s social connectedness. It’s important to recognize a fundamental shift in the nature of relationships that emerge in mid-late childhood: Before that, the bonding is more diffuse, and the individuation has only begun. Separation from parents began with the learning of the word “no,” but the key point is that through early childhood, one plays with whoever is around, and the child wants to be loved unconditionally. Being “not chosen” is felt to be not just a rejection, but a hint that maybe “nobody loves me.”

There’s a key maturational point that doesn’t get addressed much: At some point, I begin to find that increasing numbers of people are not my natural friends. Sometimes this takes many years. I find that many people have interests that differ from my own, and that I wouldn’t have much fun playing with them. I find that a few people have interests that are similar to mine, and I do have more fun playing with these folks. Wanting to be liked by everyone is a residual of the childish state of mind. I don’t like everyone—in the sense of wanting to play with them. I may be relatively benign and tolerant, but also realize that most folks have different tastes, life styles, and interests, and that it’s all I can do to find those few who click with me. It’s not possible to devote adequate time to more than a small number of good friends and a slightly larger number of congenial acquaintances. That means that 95% of people or more may be okay, but they’re not really my type. I should not feel personally “rejected” when I become aware that 95% of people might in turn not prefer me as their playmate. It’s not personal, for the most part, but rather a mundane assessment of common interests. That’s the economics of it.

Of course there are many other factors that bias this core process. A neurotic disposition that makes one excessively competitive, seeking one-ups-manship, narcissistic, withdrawn, manipulative, and so forth can obscure this natural process of individuation and social selectivity. The neurotic still treats everyone as if “they” were like early family, in an all-or-nothing feeling of they love me or they don’t.

Another very prevalent factor is that this natural economics emerges along with the process of individuation, and that process refers to the person becoming more explicitly aware of how she is an individual, unique, different. This means that the person can identify personal preferences, interests, abilities, activities, types of enjoyment. It is better if this process proceeds with some fluidity, rather than either remaining amorphous (which it does for many), or coming to premature closure (which it does for many others, and for another group, both features operate in different roles).

Our culture offers so many distractions that generate illusions of being alive that it is easy to delay individuation. People can traverse adolescence without developing a clear sense of what they have to offer others, how they might fit in the world, what their natural talents are and which ones they enjoy exercising, what interests them and how can they play these interests out in wholesome ways with others, and so forth. These are the core of a healthy mind in economic sociology, because then one can seek and find others with whom one is likely to be more compatible and able to share activities.

Making social connections based on other criteria—superficial appearance, mere “hanging out” (i.e., staying in relatively close physical proximity), sharing in whatever fashionable enthusiasm generates a collective loss of individuality (intense experiences of drugs, alcohol, “party,” sex, music, religion, etc.), — these are common adolescent intermediate stages, but they also serve to obscure the deeper healthy process of individuation.

My suggestion is that the issues of individuation be made more clear in middle school: I envision more classes that emphasize not learning what the teacher has to teach—the curriculum devised by others apart from the realities of pre-adolescent mental and social development, a curriculum that is machine like—treating each individual as a non-individual cog in a machine. Instead, classes are more like vocational guidance programs, in which kids are helped to identify preferences, interests, and differential abilities. This one discovers that he really likes the game of spelling; that one, music; another kid, math. And so forth. More time is given to special interest clubs—art, science, chess, different sports, noncompetitive games, drama, and so forth. Within these, the point is a little bit goal oriented, but equally process-oriented, helping kids to find their natural niche.

The psychology of economic sociology is taught: Maturity involves not being loved by everyone, nor really liking everyone; rather, finding that subset of people with whom you most naturally experience rapport. This is a process of shopping, and also self-disclosure. You need to become more sensitive to what you have to offer, what you’re willing to give, and what kinds of experience generate the optimal sense of compatibility. This requires freedom to check out various alternatives, try out things, change your mind, try out other things, and also to try out people.

I confess to an old-fashioned bias of seeking to promote open dating, playing the field. This could be done with no sense of promiscuity because the kids avoided actual genital contact. The eroticism was more mental and sublimated as sentimental romance. I confess that I liked that and I think it channeled a great deal of energy into such constructive parallel courtship activities as dancing to steps (ballroom dancing), square and folk dancing, singing in the chorus, and other wholesome activities. The avoidance of sexual involvement is suggested not because of old standards of morality, but rather because this respects the need of kids to find themselves free of too much stickiness in the interpersonal field. Sexual involvements tend to fix relationships at least for a while, and also fixate attention on the hormone-excited domains of the body. Girls, especially, tend to emotionally feel deeply connected when they open their bodies—and the fantasy that one is more powerful if this can be numbed is common, illusory, and ultimately counter-productive. Mid-teen sexuality was adaptive 10,000 years ago—and really there were no contraceptive alternatives, so it was sort of inevitable, as was early mothering. However, now there are other things that girls can do that involve other parts—especially their minds. The key underlying point is freedom to keep flexible and to try out different social possibilities, to avoid getting tied down, even with successive monogamy.

Psycho-Spiritual Short Cuts

Talking about love, maturation, compassion, spirituality, and the like have their place, but these issues cannot bypass the psycho-social tasks of individuation. I fear that much of psychology does just this, assumes that if the deeper emotional themes can be rectified, that all else will fall into place. I think it’s the other way round: That if we open the social system to a more matter-of-fact exploration of common interests, apart from the extra load of having to think in terms of unconditional acceptance and other noble principles, that there will be a more enduring and mature process of differentiation.

Much of psychology focuses too much on the earlier years, with the assumption that if this is handled well that the later years will do okay. I think that’s an error, because the later childhood and early teen years is very vulnerable to the distortions imposed by school, church, mass media, and types of available recreation. As these change, the basic processes shift. Unconditional acceptance and other noble principles of parenting and early childhood become less relevant. As I noted, it is normal and healthy for kids to realize that just as they don’t really click with everyone, so also everyone won’t be clicking with them, and to give up that childish yearning.

I think much of teen angst has to do with deep confusion about all this. I think that some depression has to do with the registering that many peers don’t really connect—this is partially also a projection: The teen doesn’t feel much rapport with most others. This is misinterpreted as a child might—that “they” are the rejecting ones. I wonder if the analysis of the situation as laid out in this paper might be helpful.

So I imagine kids being told the following:

“Okay, now that you’re 10 or 11, you’re going to find that you have more of your own interests and you’ll want to find others who also share these. There are certain skills involved in doing this, and we’ll help you learn those skills.  This is what the early teen years are about!!

“You will find that there are other kids who enjoy you for who you are, but you’ll have to go shopping for them. They’re looking, too, they’re looking for you. You’ll need to learn ways of communicating to others what your interests are, and also meanwhile cultivating your own natural interests and abilities, your hobbies and talents. We’ll help.

“You’ll find that you don’t click with lots of kids, but this is just because as we differentiate between 8 through forever—this process of becoming increasingly clear about what you like to do and the kinds of activities you enjoy goes on throughout life— that this is part of what it means to grow up. You don’t want to be close friends with everyone, and you need to accept that it’s not a personal failure on your part that most folks don’t want to be close to you. You just have different interests and tastes, and that’s normal.

“You need to notice that there is a bit of a pull back to wanting relationships to be simple, as they were in childhood, where you could feel liked for just who you were, and it seemed you were liked by everyone. This is a little bit true because your parents were interested in the whole child, and because you weren’t so much of an individual back then. You were inside, but it hadn’t really been that important until you started mid-to-late childhood.

“You can look forward to finding a few friends who like you in more than one way, they like you in several ways. This is called multiple role complementarity.  You may find a few people who love you in lots of ways, and if it really clicks, then you might have a best friend or get married. Multiple role complementarity isn’t very common—get that clear in your mind—but it does happen if you shop around and keep alert.

“You need to learn to show what you can do and who you are, to be willing to give of yourself a bit, join some groups, volunteer some help. Let others find out about you. You don’t want to share everything right off the bat—most folks, even in some groups, might not click with you about all your unique ways. But little by little you’ll draw to yourself those with whom you have a natural affinity.”

I imagine the ideas just presented being part of a curriculum that includes practical psychology as well as the “Three R’s” (i.e. ‘Readin’ ‘ritin’ an’ ‘rithmetic).


If this thesis is valid, who in psychology or social psychology is talking about it? The closest I can find to this stuff arises out of the field called “sociometry,” a rather obscure sub-set of sociology associated with the method of psychodrama. But it needs to be worked with and brought into its own maturity, and possibly, as a revolution in education, introduced as a core of the middle school curriculum, the design of pre-teen church youth groups, and so forth.

I hope this essay can begin a wider conversation among child development specialists, educators, social psychologists, psychotherapists, and others. I’m open to revising this—that’s one of the fun things about webpages or blogs— your comments are welcome.

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