Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Difficulties clarifying the differences between tribes and networks — a continuing challenge for TIMN

One of the challenges for TIMN is clarifying the distinction between the tribal (T) and network (N) forms. I’ve written about this several times (esp. 2006, pp. 22–26). Yet, my efforts remain incomplete, not entirely satisfactory.

The differences seem sharp, easy to draw, if we look at an interesting blog about militant tribalism in South Asia whose motto is “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” — then compare it to an insightful blog whose theme is network-weaving in American government, business, and civil-society circles. The first blog is clearly about pre-modern practices, the second about modern ones — much in line with the evolutionary thrust of TIMN.

But the differences are often not on display so starkly. And besides, the analysts at the second blog may claim that the tribes at the first blog are really just ancient networkers.

The TIMN table I posted a couple posts back summarizes my current view of the attributes of the two forms. And my last post added a new distinction that seems to help, by associating tribes with club goods and networks with collective goods. But even so, the differences between tribes and networks remain fuzzier than, say, between hierarchies (I) and markets (M), or tribes and markets.

Here are some reasons why:

One is simply that the bright sides of the two forms do indeed have much in common. Both tend to be egalitarian and consensual, even democratic. Yet, differences exist amid these commonalities. For example, classic tribes, even when being democratic, do not tolerate minority dissent or minority rights once a decision is taken. Information-age network actors take a more complex approach to problem-solving than do tribally-oriented actors, and there may be endless ways for minority views to remain alive, regroup, and find expression.

A second reason is the very term network. It remains the best I’ve seen for naming this emerging, information-age form. But as I’ve critiqued at length several times elsewhere, it’s also a favorite term of sociologists who view all forms of organization as social networks. And the term has another history of being used by anthropologists to define tribes as kinship networks. These usages may muddle what people presume when they see the word. I continue to hope that a better, more distinctive term will eventually appear for naming the futuristic +N form.

A third reason is that the +N form is still emerging. The network form has received voluminous attention for two decades now; and many analysts act quite sure about its growing significance. But, in my view, it’s not entirely clear yet what the +N form is all about and exactly what kind of realm will take shape around it, though I’ve specified my speculations elsewhere. I’d say its emergence is at about the same stage that the +M form was in the 17th–18th century — a time of growing momentum, but well before it leads to a separate system and has its Adam Smith.

A fourth reason is that every TIMN form seems to have a tribal tone at first. This could go without saying for the T form. It is also obviously true for the +I form; it grew out of clan-based chiefdoms and hereditary claims to rule, before it became a professionalized form of organization. But it also appears to be true for the +M form; many early trading, banking, and craft enterprises were family-based and kin-biased. As for the next form, today’s +N proponents often act as though they belong to special tribes, bound by memes, not genes. Decades may pass before this tribal tone dissipates, and the form’s deep nature and systemic potential become fully evident.

Which leads to a fifth reason why it’s difficult to distinguish sharply between tribes and networks in today’s milieu: I keep seeing that some ideological orientations, particularly on the Left, slide easily between tribe and network notions. This is particularly the case where the rise of networks is portrayed as favoring high ideals, such as collective sharing, that hark back to a golden construct of communal tribalism. The result is a kind of conflation of the tribe and network forms — as though tribes were networks 1.0, or the new networks are tribes 2.0. This clouds trying to identify and discuss in what ways +N should turn out to be a distinctly new form of organization.*

Meanwhile, distinguishing between tribes and networks is not just a concern for TIMN. It appears to be a concern elsewhere too, for example among P2P advocates and Global Guerrillas theorists. Though they represent different schools of thought, both are interested in how tribal and network actors are resisting state and market actors, and how new combinations of tribal and network forces may serve people’s hopes for the future. For P2P theory, this means working for a peer-produced commons and peer governance. For GG theory, it means building resilient communities. Does it make a difference for such analyses whether tribes and networks are conflated, or defined distinctly? It certainly makes a difference for TIMN and its goal of figuring out how best to project the rise of quadriform T+I+M+N societies.

I see no quick easy way to settle all this. Thus, against this background, I scan and grasp for any clarificatory insight that comes along. Such was the case with the distinction between club and collective goods, noted earlier. Now I’ve spotted something else: the idea of “collaborative community” as presented in a paper by Paul Adler and Charles Heckscher. It looks helpful for thinking about +N. I blurbed about a table in it a couple posts ago, and I initially meant for this post to focus entirely on imparting a summary and discussion of its full text. But instead, I’ve rattled on about reasons why it’s been difficult to differentiate between tribes and networks. So the next post will focus on the Adler and Heckscher paper, in an effort to dissect whether it really is about +N, or again about tribes in disguise.

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* I continue to hold in theoretical reserve, to be discussed at another time, the possibility that there are only three cardinal forms of organization, not four. The three would be networks, hierarchical institutions, and markets (NIM). That I keep wondering about this is hinted by noting that the new information-age networks may be tantamount to tribes 2.0, and classical tribes to networks 1.0. At first glance, this might be a welcome formulation for some folks, especially on the Left. But it may have curious implications: What comes later may be a spiral featuring hierarchies 2.0, followed by markets 2.0. Just a thought, worthy of at least a footnote here. Meanwhile, I prefer to stay on track with TIMN; I think it’s more correct than NIM.


Tom Haskins said...

David: From all that I've learned about tribes in the past week, the distinction between tribes and networks seems more viable than ever. Here are some of the key differences between the two that I currently have in mind. The difference between tribes and network is similar to the difference between:

1. feeling the effects of camaraderie/kinship and feeling the effects from visibility/accessibility to strangers
2. dependent relationships based on powerlessness and interdependent relationships based on mutual respect
3. commiseration about unfortunate circumstances and collaboration to create better circumstances
4. protections from a disruptive environment and perturbations via immersion in a disruptive environment
5. perpetuation of a simple tradition at all cost and cost savings realized by evolving breakthroughs emergently
6. practicing time-honored rituals and practicing transparency like never before
7. diverting attention from outside affairs and joining outside affairs with rapt attention
8. defense mechanisms to deter invasions and outreach mechanisms to invite invasions
9. perpetuating injustice with retribution and resolving injustices with forgiveness
10. working exclusively within defined boundaries and connecting inclusively across boundaries

I hope this helps you/us sort out how valuable your TIMN framework is proving to be.

David Ronfeldt said...

many thanks, tom. i appreciate your continuing interest. i finally finished a new post today about "collaborative community" that continues with these matters. onward.