Networks, Organizations and Movements

We live in a society that’s become intractably resistant to the large-scale changes necessary for its own survival.

How do we overcome this resistance? Where are the levers? Theories abound on the left, right and in the center, many pivoting off different notions of “agency” and how influence actually moves through society. Are the levers of social change with the individual or the institution? If it’s with institutions, is it government, business, or the non-profit sector?

NetworkNetwork theory is a science of connection, and a useful frame for understanding the relationships that channel flows of influence in social change movements. To see a social movement with the eyes of network theory is to see the movement as a network. 

To apply network theory to social movements, we need to agree on the fundamental unit of connection; the ultimate entity that actually connects a social movement. Institutions matter, but putting individual human beings at the center of our analysis makes for a far richer, far more dynamic understanding of social movements. In short, social movements are, first and foremost, networks of connections between people.

While we may speak of this organization connecting to that organization, this perception is an illusion. There may well be a day when software enables organizations to connect directly with one another without human intervention, but today connections between organizations always happen through an underlying human connection. People in this organization have relationships with people in that organization. When those relationships coordinate work between the two organizations, we sometimes simplify the situation by saying that the two organizations are “connected.” But the deeper reality is an underlying human connection.

This is not to discount the important role institutions play within social movements, and this is a crucial difference between the social movements of today and those that so rocked our society in the 1960s. Institutions are now a much bigger part of the overall social change landscape today.

After the large-scale social unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s, much of the energy behind social change efforts shifted to more formal institutions, many of which reside in the larger nonprofit sector, which includes some 1.6 million organizations in the United States alone. This sector contributes over $750 billion a year to the United States’ economy (roughly 5.4% of the United States’ GDP) and has become an important source of jobs and economic stability to nearly nine million people.

Though social change organizations are just a subset of the larger nonprofit sector, they too, represent a move toward increased institutionalization. Institutions formalize relationships. They create structure, process and order to augment human connections. In this way, they helped transform the free-flowing social change movements of the 60s and 70s, crystalizing them into a social change sector.

A Bigger Sense of Organization

Placing the individual at the center of our perspective is important because it helps shift our understanding of what we mean by the word “organization” in the first place. We can use the word ‘organization’ as a noun, and when we do, we’re usually talking about institutions. But we can also use the word ‘organization’ as a verb, and in this case, it takes on a broader meaning; something more akin to organizing, or “the coordination of human effort.”

Organization is bigger as a verb than it is as a noun. In a social change context, “organization” can often mean a formal institution, but it always means the “coordination of human effort.” This networked perspective on organization is action-oriented, like a verb; it’s about the connection that occurs between people, regardless of whether or not they work in a formal institution.

 How Today’s Movements Are Different

This focus on individual agency, on the individual’s ability to exert influence and power, isn’t just some philosophical stance or convenient approach to applying network theory to social movements. It represents a palpable shift in society; one fueled by the rise of online social networks, and communication technology more broadly. We see the rise in loose-knit coordinations of individuals in the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, and more recently in the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement.

The resurgence of loose-knit organizing represents a counterforce to the increased institutionalization of the professional social change sector; a breath of new life for social movements. And though the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party share many similarities with their precursors from the 1960s and early 1970s, they’re also different in important ways.

The first, and most obvious difference is the way technology plays a critical role in maintaining connections and enabling loosely coupled collaboration across large numbers of people. Mobile phones, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook play critically important roles in helping these new, more networked movements to stay coordinated with minimal organizational overhead.

The second difference has to do with how these new networks deliberately adopt networked organizing techniques to run themselves. Tea Party activists regularly cite “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” as a kind of Bible for understanding the decentralized, peer-to-peer organizational structure of their movement. The Occupy Movement continues to refine and develop organizing processes that are the epitome of non-hierarchical, networked approaches to coordination. They are very deliberate in all of this, freely sharing their innovations as a kind of “open-source” set of processes that make them incredibly easy to spread from location to location.

The other big difference between modern social change networks and those that existed in the 60s is their existence within the context of a well-established social change sector; something that was still quite embryonic in the 1960‘s.

Today, when we speak of social change movements, it’s not completely clear what we mean. Are we talking about the social change sector, just those institutions formally dedicated to social change? Are we just talking about the more loosely structured networks like Occupy Wall Street? Or are we talking about some hybrid that includes both, and if so, how do these two very different approaches to social change connect with one another?

Over the next few months, I’ll be building on some work I did several years ago to try to better integrate these two very different approaches to social change; by re-imagining the movement as network.

 

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Image Credits:

99% image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ghalog/6782710791/

Hands image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/almostinfamous/2639848488/

Phone-a-thon image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zizzy/417767044/in/photostream/

People as “arrow” image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/350org/6178139413/

Arab Spring image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenz/6386305939/

Tweeting hands image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mdgovpics/6756420231/

Occupy listening image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/palinopsiafilms/6308034928/

About Gideon Rosenblatt

Gideon Rosenblatt writes about the impact of technology on people, organizations and society at Alchemy of Change. He is a technologist with a background in business and social change. For nine years, Gideon ran Groundwire, a mission-driven technology consulting group, dedicated to building a more sustainable world. Prior to that, he spent ten years at Microsoft in various marketing, product development and management positions, where he developed CarPoint, one of the world's first large-scale e-commerce websites. Gideon was raised in Utah, lived and worked in Japan and China for several years, and now lives in Seattle with his wife and two boys. More details on Gideon here.
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15 comments

  1. Infinite123Lifer

    Imagination is our most precious and powerful tool.  I suppose then that re-imagination is our 2nd most precious and powerful tool :)

    “To apply network theory to social movements, we need to agree on the
    fundamental unit of connection; the ultimate entity that actually
    connects a social movement.”

    and then

    “This focus on individual agency, on the individual’s
    ability to exert influence and power, isn’t just some philosophical
    stance or convenient approach to applying network theory to social
    movements.”

    I am just taking a shot at this, I am no professional and after seeing the google+ slideshow I guess I am just a consumer of information and since my lifestyle does not involve evaluating social change maybe I should not attempt this but I really need to concentrate on something so here I am..

    I agree (rather obviously) that since social movements cannot exist without people then ultimately the individual is the entity which connects a social movement in the 60’s and even now today, no matter the means of communication, be it fb, twitter etc… or cell phones or even walkie-talkie and dare I say like the “olden’ days” by word of mouth or no matter how institutionalized it gets its still a set of people, like the Tea Party, they are still people.  Which I think is exactly what your saying.

    I am having a hard time thinking outside of the box where the individual May Not Be the ultimate entity behind a social movement, as with the future software comment

    “While we may speak of this organization connecting to that
    organization, this perception is an illusion. There may well be a day
    when software enables organizations to connect directly with one another
    without human intervention, but today connections between organizations always happen through an underlying human connection.”

    But that is really here nor there, what is though and what I am trying to understand is are you maybe saying that because social change institutions exist in full force unlike their embryonic 60’s that these larger organizations of people which exist as or just in “the social change sector” can be confusing as today’s definition of what a social change movement actually is?  Please don’t answer that, I think I am thinking out loud.

    “Today, when we speak of social change movements, it’s not completely clear what we mean. Are we talking about the social change sector, just those institutions formally dedicated to social change? Are we just talking about the more loosely structured networks like
    Occupy Wall Street? Or are we talking about some hybrid that includes
    both, and if so, how do these two very different approaches to social
    change connect with one another?

    To me social change movements are as dynamic as the collective of humans themselves and in time (from 1 to possibly many) a movement or movements are based upon the needs or wants of certain individuals for very specific, possibly reactionary and as needed for basic survival reasons.  I think a good question is, how many people within a specific society whom wish and act for change does it take to be called a social movement?  I would say we are definitely looking at an advanced hybrid when trying to define such things as what constitutes a social change movement (as perhaps hindsight is needed to accurately define all instances). 

    It only takes a few to begin to seek change which can result in millions following or remain just the few.  With the size and availability of institutions formally dedicated to change coupled with the potential for even the most remote person with an issue to connect to the world via cell phone the correlations between exactly what a social change movement is and when the world becomes aware of a potentiality to classify a problem as one is a difficult question.  But does classifying something as a movement make it so?  When does society consider somebody’s problem to be bad enough to persuade people to fight for change? And is being influenced by social media whether in heart or in mind or in physically fighting for it considered a social movement? 

    Millions might read a story on facebook.  A dozen might do something about it.  Because millions are aware of the problem this has to be pro-active in fighting for change, and because millions or thousands might be aware of it don’t we almost have to classify it as the beginnings of a social change movement?

    I think I might be off topic and redundant as i am obviously out of my league here when it comes to thinking about these things.  Feel free to delete my post if I am not making any sense.

    Just because millions know about a specific problem wherever in the world and social change institutions say condemn the activity going on there but maybe only a few are demonstrating or fighting for some type of change can we call this the beginnings of a social change movement?  Or can the social change movement be defined at its root as simply the thoughts of people who have been only just been informed of potentially one group’s issue?

    How does the institutionalization of the social sector interact with the individuals who truly need and seek the change?  IMO This has to be an ever evolving symbiosis which is constantly in flux depending entirely on the situation and the variables involved specifically for each instance.

    I am looking forward to following you on this idea of viewing movements as a network.  As complicated as the social change issue is to define due to billions of people under millions of rules coupled with technology all ruled by the need to survive, ie get money and resources, and the individualized nature of nations from other nations or societies from other societies or the rich from the poor I am looking forward to see how exactly you re-imagine this living breathing world.  Though my education probably does not allow me to comment any further. I apologize if I am out of place.

     

    • Thanks for your note. Lots of interesting questions and thinking here. I guess I’ll hone in on just one, which seems to be a core piece of what you’re saying: namely, at what point does a group of people become a “movement”?

      It’s a really hard question to answer. To me, movements are big enough to actually shift culture and the belief systems of individuals that help create that culture. We hear some people talking about a “climate movement” but I think it’s debatable still, whether this issue has truly broken ranks from other individual issues, and joined the ranks of other social movements. The issue is not one of importance, for we all know that the climate is critical to the future of civilization as we know it. The issue, it seems to me, is one of culture shift. Are we getting people to change the way they think, the way they feel about their lives and the world around them? And here’s where it gets to the part about the role of passive readers and the role of activists. For leaders to lead, there must be followers. If you haven’t seen this video on followership, I highly recommend it:

      Thanks again for the thoughts.

      • Infinite123Lifer

        Nice video, classic and simple, thank you for your reply and much appreciated.
        —–

        It is such a difficult and complex set of issues you are discussing.  I start to wrap my head around the problem of classifying and in my mind I am just bombarded with questions upon questions and many of them I am forced to answer “there is no definitive answer”.  Interesting how a little math (okay, a lot of math) can clean things up sometimes.  I found the paper CA posted to be quite involved, and I felt it addressed some of my rogue questions quite thoroughly and though I am not equipped with the expertise to edit that paper and there was much that was over my head, I got the feeling from it that it might just be possible to start predicting or at least classifying, moment to moment, what this whole social change business Means! and where it is leading us today, tomorrow and for the next 20 years from now. (given that we give up enough information about ourselves in one way or the other).

        I am beginning to think of social change being something analogous to water waves.  It might require a bit of the good ol’ imagination but in layman’s terms I think it works quite beautifully.

        For instance, perhaps a wind wave is started far off in the sea.  As it rolls towards our shore we might be able to measure its wave height, its wavelength, the period of the wave and its direction, but the wave is still mixed in among countless other waves, which will always account for some of the aforementioned measurements to become slightly less accurate.  It is deeper than that, and in some areas a bit more shallow, but if Ekman Spirals and the Coriolis Effect do not help you to better understand social change movements under the banner of Network Theory, than I implore you…move on ;)

        A bit from wikipedia on waves (off topic but not rocking the boat)

        “When several wave trains are present, as is always the case in nature,
        the waves form groups. In deep water the groups travel at a group velocity which is half of the phase speed.
        Following a single wave in a group one can see the wave appearing at
        the back of the group, growing and finally disappearing at the front of
        the group.” 

        makes me think of that video you posted to me.

        The work behind this stuff is amazing.  All the calculation is pretty overwhelming.  I am happy for humans to become so clever, to come so far.

        —–

        I enjoy your focus.

        “Are we getting people to change the way they think, the way they feel about their lives and the world around them?”

        These are such important questions.  Some people just don’t care to involve themselves with such ponders, however, your asking questions about core mechanics of humanity which will inspire the next generation.  It is difficult to pick a more important topic, for this topic effects all others.

  2. Infinite123Lifer

    Imagination is our most precious and powerful tool.  I suppose then that re-imagination is our 2nd most precious and powerful tool :)

    “To apply network theory to social movements, we need to agree on the
    fundamental unit of connection; the ultimate entity that actually
    connects a social movement.”

    and then

    “This focus on individual agency, on the individual’s
    ability to exert influence and power, isn’t just some philosophical
    stance or convenient approach to applying network theory to social
    movements.”

    I am just taking a shot at this, I am no professional and after seeing the google+ slideshow I guess I am just a consumer of information and since my lifestyle does not involve evaluating social change maybe I should not attempt this but I really need to concentrate on something so here I am..

    I agree (rather obviously) that since social movements cannot exist without people then ultimately the individual is the entity which connects a social movement in the 60’s and even now today, no matter the means of communication, be it fb, twitter etc… or cell phones or even walkie-talkie and dare I say like the “olden’ days” by word of mouth or no matter how institutionalized it gets its still a set of people, like the Tea Party, they are still people.  Which I think is exactly what your saying.

    I am having a hard time thinking outside of the box where the individual May Not Be the ultimate entity behind a social movement, as with the future software comment

    “While we may speak of this organization connecting to that
    organization, this perception is an illusion. There may well be a day
    when software enables organizations to connect directly with one another
    without human intervention, but today connections between organizations always happen through an underlying human connection.”

    But that is really here nor there, what is though and what I am trying to understand is are you maybe saying that because social change institutions exist in full force unlike their embryonic 60’s that these larger organizations of people which exist as or just in “the social change sector” can be confusing as today’s definition of what a social change movement actually is?  Please don’t answer that, I think I am thinking out loud.

    “Today, when we speak of social change movements, it’s not completely clear what we mean. Are we talking about the social change sector, just those institutions formally dedicated to social change? Are we just talking about the more loosely structured networks like
    Occupy Wall Street? Or are we talking about some hybrid that includes
    both, and if so, how do these two very different approaches to social
    change connect with one another?

    To me social change movements are as dynamic as the collective of humans themselves and in time (from 1 to possibly many) a movement or movements are based upon the needs or wants of certain individuals for very specific, possibly reactionary and as needed for basic survival reasons.  I think a good question is, how many people within a specific society whom wish and act for change does it take to be called a social movement?  I would say we are definitely looking at an advanced hybrid when trying to define such things as what constitutes a social change movement (as perhaps hindsight is needed to accurately define all instances). 

    It only takes a few to begin to seek change which can result in millions following or remain just the few.  With the size and availability of institutions formally dedicated to change coupled with the potential for even the most remote person with an issue to connect to the world via cell phone the correlations between exactly what a social change movement is and when the world becomes aware of a potentiality to classify a problem as one is a difficult question.  But does classifying something as a movement make it so?  When does society consider somebody’s problem to be bad enough to persuade people to fight for change? And is being influenced by social media whether in heart or in mind or in physically fighting for it considered a social movement? 

    Millions might read a story on facebook.  A dozen might do something about it.  Because millions are aware of the problem this has to be pro-active in fighting for change, and because millions or thousands might be aware of it don’t we almost have to classify it as the beginnings of a social change movement?

    I think I might be off topic and redundant as i am obviously out of my league here when it comes to thinking about these things.  Feel free to delete my post if I am not making any sense.

    Just because millions know about a specific problem wherever in the world and social change institutions say condemn the activity going on there but maybe only a few are demonstrating or fighting for some type of change can we call this the beginnings of a social change movement?  Or can the social change movement be defined at its root as simply the thoughts of people who have been only just been informed of potentially one group’s issue?

    How does the institutionalization of the social sector interact with the individuals who truly need and seek the change?  IMO This has to be an ever evolving symbiosis which is constantly in flux depending entirely on the situation and the variables involved specifically for each instance.

    I am looking forward to following you on this idea of viewing movements as a network.  As complicated as the social change issue is to define due to billions of people under millions of rules coupled with technology all ruled by the need to survive, ie get money and resources, and the individualized nature of nations from other nations or societies from other societies or the rich from the poor I am looking forward to see how exactly you re-imagine this living breathing world.  Though my education probably does not allow me to comment any further. I apologize if I am out of place.

     

  3. More theoretical and practical arguments in this article:
    Y. Rumpala, “Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project”, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009, http://www.scribd.com/doc/85760369/Rumpala-Knowledge-and-Praxis-of-Networks-as-a-Political-Project-21st-Century-Society1

  4. Michelle Holliday

    This is great, Gideon. What you’re saying reminds me of how Buckminster Fuller talked about “pattern integrity.”  The human hand, he said, appears to be a static thing (like an organization or institution, you might say).  But in fact, it’s a pattern integrity – a pattern of interactions that is maintained over time.  It is an organization – as a verb.  He also said that he didn’t see himself as a noun, but as a verb – as a human becoming, not a human being.  I find your similar observations about organizations very valuable. They help me put governance and organizational infrastructure into perspective. 

  5. Gideon, I am really looking forward to your future writing on the topic. Not to get overly pragmatic, but I think the truth of the matter is, social change as an industry (“systematic labor especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value” Merriam-Webster.com) is ripe for disruption. When you first wrote Movement as Network, you were sort of pointing out that this was coming or even already here. Today, no one can ignore it.  Social change has always depended on the organization (verb) of individuals (few or many). For years, organization of individuals was best accomplished by the focused efforts of organizations (noun). Yet today, thanks in large part to advances in technology, organization is being accomplished with less and less coordination by organizations. Thus, organizations in the social change sector are facing the same choices and pressures every company in every mature industry faces. Some are evolving nicely while others are falling behind. Yet, as is the case in all industries ripe for disruption, there are small groups of audacious individuals out there who are not waiting around for any organization to organize! This fact, that organization will go on with or without any specific organizations, gives me great hope.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Drew, and I think you’re right. Competitive pressure in the nonprofit sector is quite different than the for-profit sector, so I think it just takes a bit longer for these things to shake out. The organizations that step forward by changing some of the key assumptions of the old models will be the next generation of social change leaders. I really believe that. 

  6.  Quick question.

    What if we weren’t talking about linear progressions of organizational development. What if there simply were ebbs and flows through various structures, crystallizations, as it were, to express the state of energy/awareness of any given time. Sometimes convergent, perhaps more often at times, divergent. With networks, like neurons, passing on information and coalescing around certain structural fixtures to meet  present and emerging needs, with generous flexibility for steadily shifting organizational/communal memory into distributed archives through artifacts across the body politic to allow for fresh configurations in the core processing functions.

    So the advance isn’t necessarily in structural evolution but in increased self- and collective consciousness of engaging in the process of creation, whatever the specific structural expression.

    • That’s an interesting perspective, Ken, and in a way that is sort of where this series is going. The idea is to crystalize where you need continued, ongoing focus on an issue, and to flow where you need to coalesce power. We’re thinking along similar lines. Thanks for the comments.

  7. Go man. go! I love that you are picking up movement as networks again.  I also agree that the only useful framework for thinking about networks is to focus on the individuals in the network. 

    Of course, I also disagree with a few things… :)

    Boo…. “We live in a society that’s become intractably resistant to the large-scale changes necessary for its own survival.” 

    We live in a society that is clearly evolving to be able to pull off the revolutions necessary for our own survival.  In social context, network strength grows proportionally to the threat to the network.   Yes, the outcome of the current revolutions are not yet certain but we can easily  observe and document the growing strength of the network as a mechanism. The network connectivity is the key to revolutions.   

    We are facing network scale, global and complex challenges but we are also evolving and inventing our human capacity as a network to adapt and respond to the problems we face.(huge riff material)

     We are scaling our ability to communicate and exert pressure across all kinds of borders to meet the challenges.  I worry more about our ability to wield revolution more so than the stagnation of society. 

    boo.. “technology plays a critical role in maintaining connections and enabling loosely coupled collaboration across large numbers of people. …more networked movements to stay coordinated with minimal organizational overhead. ” 

    I am less “sold” on the idea that the transfiguration role technology plays is about maintaining connections and facilitating coordination. I am more focused on acknowledging that technology is shifting US. We are accelerating our capacity to work and learn. The effect is transforming our perspective and behavior. We are becoming more networked as a global species building tribes and friendships and collaborations that are redefining the norms of relationships (working, personal, production).  

    Redefining what constitutes a “relationship” changes the DNA of how we think about working together.   This shift will follow us online and offline. 

    This network-centric flavor to our personality is shaping activism. Network participation is adding to our personality. We are seeing our networks shape people in many ways as powerfully as their global location, cultural backgrounds, education, up bringing,  or economic plights. (for better and worse.) As more people identify more tightly with the network perspective to identity, then relationships and problem solving we will see a massive shift in behaviors.  

    As a species, we are the the only one that can create “tangible” from symbolic. Think of the idea of a currency. We watched “trade” move from tangible swap of bread for pelts or meat, to shells, to gold, to bill representing gold, to digital. Something very real and very personal became “scalable”. Imagine NYSE working on barter with pelts. 

    Networks and relationships are becoming scaleable. We are literally building and maintaining ties (fame) that are no more real than digital money.  We are going to continue to see networks reshape our solutions.

    In my expereince, sorting out the organization role and state of the sector is almost irrelevant. They are important and will continue to adapt to the people in them but the biggest gap in network theory meets advocacy is sorting out how to build netcentric campaigns and work with emerging networks to manage their capacity for creating useful revolutions.

    • Thanks for the note, Marty. Of course, I’m not surprised at some of the disagreements. Our Venn Diagrams of thinking are mostly overlap, I think, but there are some edges poking out on the sides. 

      As for our ability to adapt – personally, the last eleven years of my life have been a lesson in just how frustratingly hard it is to actually move big ideas. To borrow from complexity theory, we have some powerful attractors that keep sucking us back into the same old behaviors and there are many, many powerful players with huge incentives to keep it that way. 

      That said, I do have faith that there are solutions, but it will take some monumental shifts in the way we think about and structure social change movements – which is the fuel to writing this series. The current system is badly broken in many places. 

      As to technology, it clearly is a connector – and – I take your point that it is also shifting the way our brains work. I also agree that those shifts in the way we think about our connections with others could be extremely important when it comes to even understanding what is possible. I’ve been spending a lot of time on Google+ these days, for example, and see that there is something very interesting happening there in terms of connecting me with others with whom I share interests. It’s different from Facebook in this way since Facebook is more about connecting with people I already know. Google+ is more about connecting us with people we don’t know – yet – and that’s one of the ways our relationships are changing. 

      I’ll be eager to hear your thoughts on the latest installation of this series, which I just posted today. Thanks again for your thoughts, as always. 

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