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The Social Cure: Creating new paths for global change

By Diane Cole

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World
By Tina Rosenberg
W. W. Norton. 288 pp.
ISBN: 9780393068580

Peer pressure has gotten an undeservedly bad rap, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Rosenberg in her breezily enthusiastic new book, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Rather than dwelling on the dark side of peer pressure, with its well-known potential for encouraging antisocial behavior in teen gangs and groups of any age, she advocates focusing on the many ways positive peer pressure can help motivate change for the better in every realm, from public health to political governance to spiritual well-being.

Rosenberg has even coined a catchy term to describe what happens when you do what her title suggests and “join the club” (or join a club) designed to help mend at least one small part of the world: participate and—instead of remaining part of the problem—you become part of what she calls “the social cure.”

In her upbeat attempt to encourage the social cure, Rosenberg clearly has been influenced by behavioral economics and Positive Psychology—not to mention the current trend toward rethinking social issues from the kind of counterintuitive point of view popularized by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell. Countering the current legislative mania for slashing budgets and increased privatization, she cheerleads for even more funding for demonstrably successful public programs and for new, socially based approaches to age-old problems, like prejudice and poverty. What distinguishes her approach from traditional liberal remedies is reliance on the new tools of web-based social media and the latest tactics borrowed from sophisticated marketing campaigns and savvy advertising agencies.

Rosenberg rightly points out what public health and social-reform advocates have known for a long time: standard appeals to get people to change bad behavior by throwing information or prescriptive slogans at them (“Say No to Drugs”) often fall on deaf ears because most people have long since learned to tune them out. In addition, scare tactics usually fail because those who smoke or do drugs or don’t use condoms believe bad things will happen only to other people.

Rosenberg presents a plethora of new models that demonstrate how to get across a message in a non-preachy format. Unfortunately, what gets lost in her emphasis on the new is a sense of how much the programs she highlights owe to the “old” disciplines of social psychology, sociology, education, and social work. Looked at more closely, many of the programs turn out to include new spins on familiar 12-step features. For example, some of them give each new group member a sponsor or a mentor, or offer regular small-group sessions in which members share their stories and help support one another. Perhaps her enthusiasm for relatively recent social programs explains Rosenberg’s otherwise puzzlingly skimpy discussion of Alcoholics Anonymous and its offspring. But I fear this omission will leave readers with the impression that, to succeed, all new programs need to invent themselves from scratch. While that may sometimes be true, many of these programs demonstrate that the most successful strategies from the past can still work, especially if they’re repackaged in a contemporary, “with it” manner.

To demonstrate her thesis that peer pressure is one of the most powerful tools for social reform, she describes a wide-ranging list of innovative programs from around the world. For instance, in the 1970s, in rural India, a husband-and-wife team of doctors began training impoverished women, mostly from the Untouchable caste, as village healthcare medics, who then recruited and taught others to do the same. As these former outcasts brought better sanitary and health practices to their villages, they shed their past identities as members of a powerless underclass and came to be seen as members of a newly empowered group of women dedicated to a worthy cause. In the process, they earned the respect and gratitude of the very neighbors who’d always disdained them, but now depended on them for medical information and assistance. This is one “social cure” that does indeed benefit everyone.

Rosenberg asserts that in Belgrade, positive peer pressure played a significant role in the overthrow of the genocidal dictator Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s. One particularly influential “club,” she argues, was Otpor (Serbian for Resistance), a small anti-government youth movement, which drew outsized support for reform by staging attention-getting public pranks (like rolling a barrel painted with Milosevic’s face down the main street of Belgrade and inviting passersby to whack the dictator for a dinar a shot), thus making it seem cool to be both in on the joke and part of the revolution. Such ad hoc activism by young dissidents resembles the youth-led grassroots movements now striving to reform dictatorial regimes throughout the Middle East.

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