Power network

Power network

In social network theory, a power network collects many social networks to exercise common influence and "power over" others. Usually it describes the kind of group entity defined in political science or military science, which has a command hierarchy that carries out orders of a well-established, recognized authority.

Structural view

A network is a looser and more general model than a single command hierarchy. It evolves in a predictable way by making divisions or distinctions but continuing to require co-operation among and between the decision making "silos" that each specialty requires to keep the integrity of its own distinct terminology, skills and moral priorities. Max Weber thought this led to a "bureaucracy".

Jane Jacobs characterized the most basic distinction as that between the Guardian and Trader Syndromes. The separation of church and state further distinguishes between two types of guardianship. And, within the state, a checks and balances system, as advocated by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, one can differentiate executive, legislative and judicial functions (the judicial might come to approximate a church).

Accordingly, a for-profit ("trader") entity can be seen as held in check by "guardians": a military power figures, a deliberative legislature, and either an independent judiciary or a powerful church. Power is something negotiated within those constraints.

Social view

A power network will necessarily involve representatives of or to each of these specialized entities. For instance, a political party will require donors, a leader, candidates for the legislature and appointees to judicial posts (or at least a few friendly judges so that the party's appeals will be heard and laws will be enforced).

Beyond that, the specific nature and constraints on power in each situation probably prevents any deeper analysis of power networks in general. Some issues that affect the structure of the network are:
*precedents - prior history of making some ethical decisions
*depth of moral reasoning that typical members of the network can exercise on their own - if they can be more trusted, they can have more autonomy
*degree to which supporters equal power relationships, e.g. a vote on a political party's final platform, separate from the leader

Some theorists hold that individuals are inherently individual, hierarchical, or egalitarian. If so, then a balance of these traits would be required to hold any power network together: leaders might have to be individuals, managers hierarchical, and the supporters egalitarian. In microcosm this is similar to Marx's theory in that the economic class of an individual determines how they see power or work relationships: leaders coerce, managers exploit, supporters are led to believe that they will do better as a group by supporting both.

Biological view

In biology, Haldane's principle establishes that organisms must get more complex as they get larger. Civilizations, Jane Jacoobs says, similarly require the cooperation of more specialists simply to continue to operate as they get more complex. Ronald Wright considers the capacity of power networks to adapt to climate and other ecological challenge, and ignore their internal pressures in favour of hard reality, to be the ultimate test of any society - his "History of Progress" includes examples of societies that passed, and societies that failed, this critical test of fitness.

There is also evidence from biology that animal power networks are much more complex than previously thought. An ant hill for instance operates on complex pheromone signals that are laid down by every ant, not simply by "lead" individuals the others "follow" - the tendency to take a certain path is set by many others trodding it, not by a single special individual doing so. The insect queen being alone in the hill or hive, immobile, suggests that it is not mobility that defines importance, in any "urban" species such as ants or humans (those that build their own habitations and homes).

Communications view

An historical perspective on the evolution of a non-hierarchical political and religious authority reveals that doctrines have often done no more than slightly moderate the behaviour of power figures. As the power to communicate displeasure or threats to disobey has increased, so, too, power has been moderated more easily. There seems to be no society that did not have doctrines of individual freedom, nor any society that consistently practiced them:

Amartya Sen, in "Development as Freedom", 1999, argued strongly that so-called "liberal" traditions and power sharing based on values and principles were part of all known ethical traditions in Asia. Edward Said's "Orientalism" argued similarly, that Islam and other religions had become demonized as reinforcing arbitrary power without accountability.

Classical view

Classical thought about authority, ethics and deference to a power figure emphasized willingness to obey orders "from the top" in order to gain relief from responsibility for executing them.

This doctrine was nearly universally accepted in Western philosophy though classical Greek and Roman doctrines back to Socrates and Cicero had emphasized that power was not derived from mere force.

While early Muslim philosophy had experimented with various means of distributing power, these experiments were effectively over by the 15th century partly because of the Ottoman Empire's domination of most Muslim lands.

Enlightenment view

Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson

Indigenous views

Marxist view

The two classes in society, proletariat and bourgeosie, are separated by their relations to the means of production.

Syndicalist view

Postwar power figures

Despite the many examples of successfully distributed power, politics and law until the disastrous 20th century discredited a great many such doctrines of centralized power and uniform authority:

The Nuremberg Principles, for instance, required soldiers who were receiving orders, even in military situations, to establish to their own satisfaction that the actions were militarily necessary - and within established limits of international law. They could be charged with war crimes otherwise. There had previously been Christian doctrines of "just war" and Muslim "jihad" but Nuremberg provided specific excuses to disobey a nation's laws or leaders.

Similarly, the Cold War and the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine relied on a refusal to take even such "necessary" actions, or to refuse orders for fear of the comprehensive outcome of an action: World War III.

Simultaneously in India, Gandhi's satyagraha methods were organizing large numbers of people into power networks with support networks (housing, food, transport) that were expensive to maintain. However, his position was more inspirational than any conventional leadership, and his doctrine often demanded that he give up explicit power. Most famously, he offered that the entire government of India could be made up of Muslims, if only Pakistan would not separate.

In China at about the same time, Mao Zedong developed his "mass line" theory, which emphasized decentralization. In practice, however, Mao monopolized power himself in a very explicit way.

Influence of systems theory

By the 1960s doctrines of democratic structuring, systems theory and participatory democracy all recommended that power of decision making not be isolated "at the top" but employ all of the group's cognitive resources. Early collective intelligence theory focused on combining perception of many people into a single fused statement, though one with a serious subject-object problem.

Perhaps as a result of this confused non-perspective, computer-supported collaboration theorists tended to believe that power was actually conveyed by knowledge, a view which persists to this day:

*"Knowledge is Power"

However, in addition to knowledge, one requires commitment to use, and accountability to be granted, any significant power. A power network can be viewed as a set of feedback loops, but this is not the same as saying that the feedback motivates the activities.

Modern management theory

Modern management science and practitioners like Dee Hock and Ricardo Semler emphasize the need for workplace democracy and a degree of direct control by workers over the work they know best - a key aspect of syndicalist thinking, and also of Gandhi's view.

Theories of human capital usually emphasize that people, rather than being human resources to a controlling commanding process, are actually themselves constantly engaged in improving perception, cognition, and execution skills. Their social capital grows not just on the infrastructural capital (tools or means of production) they work with, nor simply on familiarity with each other, but also on the instructional capital (terms or means of persuasion) that they employ when actually cooperating with each other. Much as religious, ethical and customary instruction once provided solidarity in a community, trades or professions achieve this by operant conditioning and even classical conditioning - providing positive reinforcement as B. F. Skinner explored in his "Walden Two" utopia.

In this view, moral cognition is not just the judgement of a single leader with an exemplary moral instinct and reasoning, nor is it the emulation of many followers of a good moral example (living or dead). It is everyone's problem - the first Western theorist to take this stance was Baruch Spinoza.

In practice

Perhaps not surprisingly, some modern power networks claim some of their practices originate in the above principles and doctrines. An early Green Party of Ontario constitution established Gandhi and Spinoza as the two figures which had most influenced it.

In actual practice, however, politics as usual will dominate any and all doctrines. Power networks tend to become more like their own closest competitors, and, to a degree, emulate the networks that win.

And, since a single command hieararchy is the simplest structure, it is difficult to imagine it will lose its dominance any time soon.


Generally research into power is part of sociology.

Other research into power networks sometimes goes under the names Open Source Society, open politics] , or even just "blogosphere."

An early blogger analysis distinguished small creative networks from larger village-like social networks and the much larger and more capable power networks described in sociology proper.

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