Networks and Power

May 22, 2013 3 Comments

I am just coming from a convening of the Northern New England Networks Community of Practice in  Crawford Notch, New Hampshire.  The theme of the gathering was “Power and Networks,” and very timely in that a few network building initiatives with which I am working are reaching a fever pitch in terms of working out issues of power and privilege.  Borrowing from something my IISC colleague Cynthia Silva Parker has said in the past, while power is always at the table, now it’s on the table!  And I wanted to share some of the gleanings from the overall session.

My mental point of departure in the conversations in New Hampshire was that power in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It can be both generative and degenerative.  Another IISC colleague and blogger in this space, Linda Guinee, has posted some very helpful pieces on power (see “What is Power Anyway?” and “Where Does Power Come From?”).  From her, the thinkers upon which she draws, and my own experience, I have come (in an ever-evolving way) to see power basically as both “the capacity to produce change” (Jean Baker Miller) and “the drive of everything to realize itself” (Paul Tillich).  In other words, it is something that emanates from each being and is also socially constructed.  Another operating assumption is that power is not fixed or finite, and that it plays out in different ways (there are different kinds and sources of power).

A big part of the Community of Practice conversation hovered indirectly around the question of how we keep power generative in networks.  This is some of what was offered.

  • Name it (power), up front, and in its different dimensions.
  • Be aware of who is in the core and the periphery of the network (practically and values-wise).
  • Continuously cultivate transparency and trust.
  • Be wary of trying to embrace “structurelessness,” which can simply privilege the privileged in unacknowledged ways.
  • Avoid force-fitting and trying to merge everything and everyone into one (as Mary Parker Follett once wrote, “Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed.”
  • Understand the difference between diversity, inclusion, and equity (see page 2 of this D5 Coalition report for some helpful distinctions).
  • Understand that talking about “the grasstops”, “the grassroots” and “the community” is not always helpful.  Sometimes this can mask more nuanced dynamics or be code for talking about things like race and class.  Break it down.
  • Connect, connect, connect.

What else?  Help us to continue the conversation . . .


  • GibranX says:

    So important. Another aspect of power is influence, and it is the form of power that is most salient in networks. I have seen people of good will try to make things more equal by developing structures that can constrain the power of influencers, and they inadvertently stifle an essential currency in a network.

    Networks concerned with justice need to have enough of an analysis of structural oppression and cultural conditioning to actively bring in those individiduals that tend to be excluded, but this bringing in is more than having them show up to a meeting, it is about building strong enough relationships that you are actually influenced by those who had been previously excluded.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Great points, Gibran. What I hear in your second paragraph is that we need to move beyond inclusion to creating equitable opportunities to shape shared destiny.

  • Ton Jörg says:

    This is very interesting, this thinking about generative
    power. Also, the reference to Mary Parker Follett is unexpected and very much in
    place. What I miss however is the model of generative power. Follett was quite
    near to that, but could not finish the job about calculating the effects of
    interaction. We are still in need for a new calculus, to calculate the effects
    of interaction being potential nonlinear effects. With this calculus we may
    dis-cover the “full generative power of interaction” (Bruner, 1996). The model
    of interaction we need is a model with relationships as generative
    relationships. It is the interdependent relationship between the quality of
    interaction and the quality of relationships involved that may become the
    engine for the generative power of interaction. To understand the potential
    nonlinear effects, we need to understand the complexity of the generative
    mechanisms involved. The unit to study is the cyclical-helical unity of
    interaction within reciprocal relationships. The model of this complex unit may
    account for the generativity of the human beings involved in the interaction, to
    be understood as the potential nonlinear way of being: of being generative
    (Senge, 1990). In June, I will present my new model of interaction with
    unexpected nonlinear effects at a conference in Uppsala, at the 41-st World
    Congress of the International Institute of Sociology (10-11 of June).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *