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Tiny Publics

A Theory of Group Action and Culture

Gary Alan Fine

Publication Year: 2012

If all politics is local, then so is almost everything else, argues sociologist Gary Alan Fine. We organize our lives by relying on those closest to us—family members, friends, work colleagues, team mates, and other intimates—to create meaning and order. In this thoughtful and wide-ranging new book, Fine argues that the basic building blocks of society itself are forged within the boundaries of such small groups, the “tiny publics” necessary for a robust, functioning social order at all levels. Action, meaning, authority, inequality, organization, and institutions all have their roots in small groups. Yet for the past twenty-five years social scientists have tended to ignore the power of groups in favor of an emphasis on organizations, societies, or individuals. Based on over thirty-five years of Fine’s own ethnographic research across an array of small groups, Tiny Publics presents a compelling new theory of the pivotal role of small groups in organizing social life. No social system can thrive without flourishing small groups. They provide havens in an impersonal world, where faceless organizations become humanized. Taking examples from such diverse worlds as Little League baseball teams, restaurant workers, high school debate teams, weather forecasters, and political volunteers, Fine demonstrates how each group has its own unique culture, or idioculture—the system of knowledge, beliefs, behavior, and customs that define and hold a group together. With their dense network of relationships, groups serve as important sources of social and cultural capital for their members. The apparently innocuous jokes, rituals, and nicknames prevalent within Little League baseball teams help establish how teams function internally and how they compete with other teams. Small groups also provide a platform for their members to engage in broader social discourse and a supportive environment to begin effecting change in larger institutions. In his studies of mushroom collectors and high school debate teams, Fine demonstrates the importance of stories that group members tell each other about their successes and frustrations in fostering a strong sense of social cohesion. And Fine shows how the personal commitment political volunteers bring to their efforts is reinforced by the close-knit nature of their work, which in turn has the power to change larger groups and institutions. In this way, the actions and debates begun in small groups can eventually radiate outward to affect every level of society. Fine convincingly demonstrates how small groups provide fertile ground for the seeds of civic engagement. Outcomes often attributed to large-scale social forces originate within such small-scale domains. Employing rich insights from both sociology and social psychology, as well as vivid examples from a revealing array of real-world groups, Tiny Publics provides a compelling examination of the importance of small groups and of the rich vitality they bring to social life.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Series: A Volume in the American Sociological Association’s Rose Series in Sociology

Title Page, Copyright, Series Information, Dedication

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About the Author

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p. xi-xi

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Introduction: Tiny Publics as Social Order

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pp. 1-18

IF ALL POLITICS is local, so, I argue, is almost everything else. Action, meaning, authority, inequality, organization, and institution—all . . .

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Chapter 1: The Power of Groups

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pp. 19-33

WE RESIDE in a universe of groups, a world of tiny publics. Through the associations we share with others—close and knotted ties—we find affiliation that allows us to conclude that others . . .

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Chapter 2: The Dynamics of Idioculture

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pp. 34-51

THE CONCEPT of culture has become so thoroughly enshrined throughout the social sciences that it sometimes has escaped attention how little we know of culture in situ—culture as it is played . . .

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Chapter 3: The Power of Constraints and Exteriority

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pp. 52-67

AS A RULE, we should avoid playing havoc with the slogans of others. Yet, in this chapter, I mischievously invert the title of Randall Collins’s (1981) influential essay, “On the . . .

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Chapter 4: Norms and Action

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pp. 68-88

MORALITIES, ETHICS, laws, customs, beliefs and doctrines, far from trifling concerns, depend on interpersonal relations, arenas of action, and shared understandings. Perhaps the fact that we . . .

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Chapter 5: The Performance of Ideology

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pp. 89-106

GROUPS CAN be self-contained, focused on their expressive culture, but their potential goes much deeper: small groups serve as the very basis of political life when they establish the conditions for . . .

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Chapter 6: Wispy Communities

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pp. 107-123

IN A HOTEL in Louisville, men and women from thirty-five states and four countries, many of them strangers at the outset, gather for a long weekend. They intend to pay homage to a cult film that is dearly . . .

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Chapter 7: Tiny Publics in Civil Society

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pp. 124-139

I TURN FROM the constellation of groups as building blocks within the cultural order to the analysis of groups as fostering a politics built on the local: How do groups constitute and organize political life within . . .

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Chapter 8: The Extension of the Local

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pp. 140-156

A SOCIOLOGY THAT focuses exclusively on small, interacting groups is a limited discipline. Apart from a few microscopic “tribal” societies, most groups connect with other groups. This . . .

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Chapter 9: Action and Its Publics

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pp. 157-177

IN HIS PROVOCATIVE, transformative fashion, emphasizing the power of the local, James Joyce posed a challenge for thinking about society. For insights to be universal, they must be local first. This is, of course, . . .


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pp. 179-184


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pp. 185-213


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pp. 215-221

E-ISBN-13: 9781610447744
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871544322

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: A Volume in the American Sociological Association’s Rose Series in Sociology