Don’t impose your model on my narrative, man! or why hierarchies and networks are complementary

This is a comment I posted to Alexis Madrigal’s column in the Atlantic on Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on twitter revolutions. A bit late in internet time (four days!), but whatever:

I often encounter a confusion in the understanding of hierarchies and networks. The former is assumed to have clear lines of leadership or oversight and the latter none. These are merely models for analyses of conditions, though, and not statements of material fact.

Sure, network models lack clear notions of center and authority, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Rather, they occur but are not inherent or permanent. The claiming of ground or foundation that runs parallel with authority happens, it just happens in a continually contestable form. Centering become a matter of who is able to form a hub that allows for more localized or direct dissemination of information.

Complementarily, hierarchical models focus on behavior relative to those centralizations, but have a tendency to hold authority or other versions of hierarchical stature as inherent, implicit, or permanent. They aren’t and never have been. The lines of authority are only clear because we’ve simplified conditions relative to a question or problem that interests us in order to gain particular insight. Top/bottom of hierarchies are never true, though. They’re only conveniences.

Networks and hierarchies are decidedly not opposites. They are different, but they are only models, modes of attempting to understand and predict phenomenon. They are not real things. Gladwell is absolutely wrong on this. He is far from alone, though. By treating them as parallel, far from becoming less capable we become more. The hierarchies, or local arrangements for getting action done, can be constructed in a fashion that is much more relevant to any given problem.

The fact that we tend to hold these things as implicitly different is itself a significant problem. As comments here and elsewhere point out, the difference between seemingly loosely formed networks around political action and efforts to enter into those structures for tangible engagement is difficult. By holding these structural models apart, though, we falsely assume that their action is unencroachable. There is a scalar relation at hand where large, seemingly centrally sedimented organizations are the sites of power and influence, but they only gain that by our decisions, conscious or otherwise. We may not be able to enter into those hierarchies directly since pathways of entry can be hard to find, but we can just as easily construct our own organization for advocacy and through that gain better traction for engagement with other organizations.

Why are existing organizations seen as the only way of engagement? Why do we assume that for our action to be useful it needs to be within their frameworks? The point is strategic thinking and organizing, or the branching and reorganization of new networks and structures. The assignment of power into apparent hierarchical structures or organizations conditions our own disempowerment. That, however, is an effect in our belief in the material reality of our models as opposed to their analytic usefulness.

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