Equity and Power in Network StructuresApril 4, 2018 3 Comments
The following is an excerpt from the third in a series of posts on networks, education and learning. The full post and series are published on the Education Week website. This post builds on two previous ones – Connection is Fundamental and Why Linking Matters – and looks at the importance of structure in supporting network effects while considering equity and power dynamics.
Networks are not necessarily easy to control in terms of their overall structure, especially when they are large and complex (diverse and widely distributed). And it is important to note that there are network phenomena that may tend to pull a networked endeavor in a certain structural direction.
For example, homophily is a phenomenon where social networks tend to form clusters of nodes with similar properties or attributes. This is captured by the adages, “Birds of a feather flock together,” and “Those close by form tight ties.” The result can be self-segregation along various lines of difference, for example racial, cultural, or class divisions in schools. Or consider the current pronounced political polarization in our country. The key to confronting homophily is to be both aware of the tendency and diligent about creating structures and incentives for bridging across boundaries.
“Opportunity … depends, at least in part, on our inherited networks.”
-Julia Freeland Fisher, from “Disrupting Opportunity Gaps Will Hinge on Networks”
One of the great hopes and marvels of networks is that they can be liberating, especially in the face of bureaucracy and various barriers (see more about “network effects” in the previous post in this series). While this is worthy of celebration, another important phenomenon to be aware of is that networks can be deeply inequitable.
For example, sociological research shows how larger networks can be marked by larger hubs with disproportionate influence, which contributes to a familiar dynamic of the rich getting richer. In addition, there is evidence that inequities, if unchecked, can accelerate, especially in the digital age. In a recent report entitled “Power-Curve Society,” Kim Taipale of the Stilwell Center for Advanced Studies observes, perhaps somewhat provocatively given the apparent trajectory of our increasingly hyper-connected economy and society: “The more freedom there is in a system, the more unequal the outcomes become.”
Especially given the current pace of change and disruption, there is a more recognized need to mitigate some of the widening structural divides in organizations and society with cultural and political/policy interventions.
“What is needed is culture, shared knowledge and education to allow systems to metabolize change and to efficiently manage the out-of-control phases that accompany the accelerations imposed by technology, which – it must not be forgotten – is always a product of culture and never something ‘external.'”
-Piero Dominici, “Rethinking Education … Beyond the ‘False Dichotomies'”
So another important feature of attending to network structure is looking at power dynamics and inequities, and how these can be reinforced in detrimental ways.
A few questions for you to consider: