Why Equitable Networks?

October 21, 2014 1 Comment

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Readers of this blog know how much promise we at IISC see in networks to bring about greater depth and breadth of change in our country and communities. At the same time, we do not see networks as a panacea. In fact, there are good reasons to be vigilant about “net work” to ensure that it does not exacerbate the very conditions we are trying to remedy, especially when it comes to social inequities.

We have previously referenced the report from the Aspen Institute, The Power Curve Society, which considers the broad implications of a globally networked economy that allows greater ease of transactions. In this technologically accelerated economy, the report states, wealth increasingly and problematically concentrates in the hands of a few rather than spreading itself out across the larger population. This seems to be a natural emergent phenomenon of not just the unchecked networked economy but of many networks. As Kim Taipale notes, this is a paradoxical result of “network effects,”

“Freedom results in inequality. That is, the more freedom there is in a system, the more unequal the outcomes become.”

This is because of something known as the “power-law distribution” that takes hold on open platforms, as wealth flows to the “super-nodes,” a phenomenon sometimes called “preferential attachment.”

 

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Take this phenomenon and add to it what we already know and are learning about the social dynamics of power and privilege. Jo Freeman, in her seminal 1970 paper “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” wrote about how the softening of formal social (decision-making) structures can often privilege those with existing privilege or those who are most familiar or comfortable with more open processes. As Freeman says:

Structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.

Therefore, “For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit.”

This can be especially important given the pernicious dynamics of power in any structure, as evidenced by research cited by the Greater Good Science Center.  For instance, studies have found that people given power in experiments “are more likely to rely on stereotypes when judging others, and they pay less attention to the characteristics that define those other people as individuals.” They also judge others’ attitudes, interests, and needs less accurately. In addition, research has found that power encourages individuals to act on their own whims, desires, and impulses.

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And when it comes to the psychology of privilege, as Cynthia has noted in a previous post, there is much to give us pause. Paul Piff’s research shows that unearned privilege can lead to feelings of superiority and entitlement, even when the privileged know that things are rigged in their favor. As Cynthia writes in her post, “Acknowledging and dealing with unearned privilege . . . turns out to be an important aspect of understanding structural inequities and facilitating social change.”

In other words, networks are not exempt from the pitfalls of power and privilege “internally,” even as they strive to change power arrangements “out there.” In fact, the threat may be that much more insidious precisely because of some of the hopes and myths thrust upon more open and less rigid structures. The starting point in our book is awareness (and self-awareness) and a commitment to equitable network building. What this means and where we go from here will be the topic of future posts. And readers are encouraged to look at others posts that have appeared on this site, including these from Cynthia:

Got Bias? (on implicit bias and de-biasing strategies)

Empathy + Equity –> Justice

Undoing Racism, By Design (process design tips for equity)

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