Equity and Power in Network Structures

April 4, 2018 6 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:

To the extent that networks are creating value in your work, who is creating and getting that value? Who is not?

How are the patterns and nature of connection and flow in your network and/or networked activities addressing inequities of opportunity and outcome? How might they be exacerbating them?

What might be done intentionally to ensure that there are more equitable opportunities and benefits?


  • Bruce Hoppe says:

    Great post, Curtis. I would add to the rich-get-richer dynamic that, at least when studied in a social psychological setting, those who “get rich” are not “better” in some way that makes the outcome “well-deserved.” Rather it’s a feedback loop of influence producing more influence regardless of other notions of quality. To the provocative quote about more freedom leading to more inequality, I would say that inequality is tied to freedom from limits. For example, how many real-life friends can one person have? That is limited in a way that the number of followers a person can have on Twitter is not. In a network context, another limit we might observe is how many resources can pool at a node without being released into continued flow to the rest of the network. In the information age, some interesting limits are those governing information storage and ownership. The technical limits are increasingly far beyond our natural historical limits/abilities. The “freedom” quote is onto something but some freedoms, like freedom from limits, are a lot more culpable than others in driving inequality of outcomes.

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Nice extensions, Bruce. You’re touching on unearned privilege, I think, in your initial comments, that can rapidly create and exacerbate inequities and get mythically chalked up to effort or merit. And later you seem to be touching on hoarding, of information and other kinds of resources, which cheats others and the whole system of opportunities and health. That’s why regenerative flows are so crucial, not just connections.

  • Ben Roberts says:

    Nice piece, Curtis! A few months back, as part of a training I participated in with Sociocracy for All, I explored the idea of using Sociocracy to address some of the needs and concerns you allude to. This video was the result: https://youtu.be/mu-uAU8sk7k

  • Valdis Krebs says:

    I would go further than just “in part” — your opportunities ARE present(often lying dormant) in the networks you are embedded in! Opportunities play on top of my old mantra — “Connect on your similarities and benefit from your differences”

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