Forget Big Brother — it’s little brothers that count

by Florian Coulmas

ORDER BY ACCIDENT: The origins and consequences of conformity in contemporary Japan, by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000, 156 pp., $25/17.99 pounds(cloth).

The title of this book is misleading, although it captures the main idea of the authors, two social scientists working in Japan and in the United States. When compared to the U.S., Japanese society is more orderly or, to put it differently, more conformist. More people than in the U.S. comply with important norms of society and thus generate a higher level of social order. Why?

Rather than being the outcome of social engineering, the authors argue that this is an unintended byproduct of interaction between individuals and small groups. It is, in other words, accidental.

That suggests that it could be otherwise; that is, social order could flow out of some master plan for all of society called culture, law, structure or normative framework.

Few social scientists believe in this kind of social order imposed from above by a totalitarian authority. Whatever level of social order obtains — low, as manifested in high delinquency rates and an emphasis on individual freedom in the U.S., or high, as evidenced by low delinquency and an emphasis on group solidarity in Japan — it can only be an “unintentional byproduct” of complex social processes. It is questionable, therefore, whether the point that order in Japanese society is accidental is worth emphasizing or mentioning at all.

But the way in which high levels of social order are brought about is an interesting question. That Japanese society is a good case study in this regard is obvious.

Miller and Kanazawa identify two variables that have a direct bearing on social order: visibility in and dependence on a group. The higher an individual’s visibility within a group and the greater his or her dependence on a group, the greater the propensity to comply with that group’s norms of conduct.

Visibility can be understood quite literally. The difference between white-collar work environments in Japan and the U.S. illustrates the point. While many white-collar workers in the U.S. have their own offices, their typical Japanese counterpart has his desk in a big office shared with colleagues and supervisor. Because of each office worker’s greater visibility, the Japanese office is more conducive to norm compliance and conformity. Indirectly, then, it enhances social order.

What matters is the individual’s direct reference group, not society at large. The authors’ main argument is that groups are the decisive agents of social order, although their purpose is not to create or contribute to an orderly society, but to encourage individuals’ integration and group solidarity. Because groups enhance norm compliance, and because Japanese socialization values cooperation in groups, social order results, as it were, by accident.

To substantiate their theory, the authors focus on education, work, family and the criminal-justice system in Japan. Their discussion offers few new insights, but it does establish the connection between group membership and norm compliance.

What this book fails to explain, however, is why groups are so important in Japanese society and why social-order enhancing groups such as neighborhood associations, extracurricular clubs and work groups are both more numerous and more effective than social-order-threatening groups, such as crime syndicates and youths gangs, which also encourage norm compliance and solidarity.

Hence, Japan’s high level of social order appears to be accidental, which is another way of saying that the authors cannot explain this phenomenon any more than the cultural or normative theories they criticize.