Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Strength of Networks

From: “ None but Ourselves: How the left can get organized”
2004. Susan Chacin
The Strength of Networks.

When I stopped thinking the Left should all unite in a single organization around a single platform, I began to realize that we are united through our networks. Valuing our networks is perhaps the most important way that we can appreciate our strengths and grow the movement. This may seem like common sense to many younger people. They are used to a fluid, networked movement. But older activists tend to have been “brought up” in a left culture that paid attention to the organizations that made up the movement. These strong, often centralized organizations tended to draw attention away from the network of relationships that links us with others irrespective of organizational affiliations.

If you have been around the Left even for a little while, you have probably got a political network. There is the woman who dragged you to another anti-war demonstration in 2002. If you wanted to get in touch with environmentalists, you could call an old classmate who is out in the woods working against logging. Your partner’s sister is married to a man who works in a youth organization. He could put you in touch with anti-police abuse groups. People at your kids’ school have been registering neighbors to vote. Your email address book includes acquaintances who are in touch with independent media, labor, and reproductive choice activists.

Right up front I want to emphasize that by left networks I am referring to more than the Internet. The Internet is an important tool that can facilitate networking. But it is person-to-person connections that are the real threads linking us to each other. In the Internet we have a new avenue for these contacts, but it can also obscure the personal relationships that are the fabric of organizing. An important principle that I learned rather late in life is: all organizing is “one-on-one.”

If you have a personal connection with someone, you are much more likely to listen to what they say or return their calls. And this connection lasts through changes in the organizations we are working with or levels of participation. I’m not shocked anymore to hear that someone I have known to be a strong activist in the past is taking a break from political activity. I can catch up if we get a chance to speak in person, keep track of them through mutual connections, or track them down if I really need to.

What is new about networks?

It’s not that social networks themselves are new. However our awareness of networks is growing exponentially, and they are being used to organize in creative, new ways.

Networks are the basis of the information-based mode of production. Marxists among my readers may find it significant that with networks, the technology and form of production is once again affecting social relationships! Al Quaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001 turned many people’s attention to the network as a form of organizing that is extremely flexible and difficult to eradicate. But two RAND researchers had predicted in the 1990s that networks would be the basis of wars in the new millennium.

We have just seen groups like MoveOn and the Howard Dean campaign turn networking into powerful avenues for organizing. By understanding how networks operate, consciously building and nurturing them, and taking every appropriate opportunity to activate them, the Left can increase our effectiveness and reach much further than we could by using a strict, organization-based approach.

I began to become aware of the potential of networks for our movement when I got ready to move. I had been active in Los Angeles for 25 years and I was moving to the Bay Area where I knew only a handful of folks. I found myself with tears in my eyes at an open house held by the Community Coalition in South Central L.A. I knew I would be leaving all these people who had been contacts and friends over the years.

When I got to the Bay Area, I enrolled in a social work program and decided to do some research on networks. I interviewed five political activists in the Bay Area about their political connections. What I found amazed me. My informants’ networks extended much further than I had suspected, and had supported their work in unexpected ways.

One of the people I interviewed, Matt Chapell, a gay AIDS activist then in his 30s, had found a connection with Greenpeace for ACT-UP to learn how to stage direct action protests. Then breast cancer activists had come to him at ACT-UP to learn the same information. With this series of exchanges, I could document movement “know how” traveling from the environmental movement to a predominantly gay setting, and from there being disseminated to a largely women’s constituency. A recovering drug addict, the same activist had built relationships with experts in the National Institute of Health’s AIDS clinical trials unit based on his understanding of the technical scientific jargon gained in researching the drugs he was using. He saw part of his mission as helping activists in the HIV world advocate for changes in government policies around medications.

Another person I interviewed had been active in the past with a group of primarily white lesbians to protest U.S. foreign policy, and she brought these contacts into her volunteer work against rape. Thanks to her and other feminists’ insistence, the rape hotline’s mandatory training for volunteers included extensive discussion about racism and imperialism. This organization believed that women who call for help after an assault are affected by oppression in other aspects of their lives. Her knowledge of U.S. imperial exploits and connections to people who had been protesting U.S. military policy in Central America helped her break into a new job in the independent media movement. Thanks to her connections, she was able to put together coverage leading up to the groundbreaking anti-globalization protests in Seattle that helped both to build and document them.

The second woman I interviewed, Millie Cleveland, had been part of an African American rank and file movement in unions. At the time I interviewed her, she working on violence prevention with Oakland youth. She was still in touch with an attorney who had handled her ex-husband’s union grievances while they were in the plant, and the lawyer had recently been elected to the Oakland school board. Millie was part of his “kitchen cabinet” advising him about policy in the schools. She has subsequently gone on to work as staff for a union, and the knowledge of training and mediation skills she gained working with youth is coming in handy in labor.

Warren Mar was working for the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute when I interviewed him, but he also had a solid background in Chinese American community organizing in San Francisco. He had gone into the hotel and restaurant union after doing radical community-based organizing, and had strong connections to the lively academic world in the Bay Area as well. I worked with him later in the Labor Immigrant Organizing Network (LION) which helped change the AFL-CIO’s official position to oppose employer sanctions for hiring undocumented workers. His connections with Chinese community immigration activists, unions, and radical politics helped bridge these disparate worlds. He later went to work at the University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, where he co-authored a text for teaching English as a second language using workers’ rights as the subject matter. He is currently serving as temporary director of the Labor and Community Studies program at San Francisco Community college.

In terms of the size and breadth of his networks, the star of my research was Tim Sampson. He had strong connections in the United Farmworkers, the Love Canal neighborhood anti-toxics network, health care, homecare, welfare rights, labor, consumers’ rights, community organizing, legal and social work worlds. Tragically, he passed away in 2001, but his memorial service in downtown Oakland brought people together from around the country. Even though he had talked with me at length about all the people he had known over the years, I was surprised by the breadth and depth of his legacy.

My discussions with these fascinating people showed me the danger of trying to classify activists as belonging in a single field of struggle. In addition to their active connections at the time I interviewed them, all five of the participants still had a wealth of contacts reaching back years into the projects they had worked on before we met. Besides learning a great deal about how diverse political networks can be, my research had an additional benefit. By talking to five politically savvy people in the Bay Area about their networks, I began to understand more about my new home. I started to form my own networks here in a more intentional, conscious way, and I did not totally lose the connections I had made in Southern California either.


The idea of applying social network theory to social movements is not new, but I don’t believe this approach has been publicized enough. In the late 60s, Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine started to look at the structure of movements from this perspective. Their analysis confirms many of my observations. They came up with the acronym “SPIN” to describe key characteristics of these movements: “Segmentary: composed of many diverse groups, which grow and die, divide and fuse, proliferate and contract; Polycentric: having multiple, often temporary, and sometimes competing leaders or centers of influence; Networked: forming a loose, reticulate, integrated network with multiple linkages through travelers, overlapping membership, joint activities, common reading matter, and shared ideals and opponents.”

How Networks Work

“Over the last few decades there has been a paradigm shift in scientific understandings of living systems. Scientists are now discovering what indigenous knowledge has long taught – everything is connected. Ecologists, biologists, physicists, and mathematicians have begun to be able to describe vastly complex connected webs of life, which are made up of networks within networks. They have gradually realized that life has the ability to self-organize and mutually adapt, without anyone in control. Their descriptions of living systems are perhaps the best model yet for how the [alternative globalization] movement functions…

“High-speed film reveals that the movement spreads across a flock [of birds] in less than one-seventieth of a second. Yet this should be impossible, as it is much faster than a single bird’s reaction time. The flock is clearly more than the sum of its parts. But how is this possible?

“Observing the movement of affinity groups from police helicopters during many of the mass mobilizations of the past few years, or trying to map the daily flow of information between the forever-transforming activist groups on the internet must create a similar sense of bafflement for the authorities. Even participants in the movements are often confused as to how everything seems to somehow fit together so well…

“Nowadays software designers, urban planners and ecologists all use these concepts in their day-to-day work; the realm of politics has yet [to] catch up.

“For this is truly organizing from below. The process of simple local units generating complicated global or group behaviour, a process not directed by a conscious entity, but rather emerging through the interrelationships of the system’s parts is known in scientific circles as emergence.

“If numbers, neurons, crowds, computer programmes, cells, city dwellers, bird behave like this, why not a networked movement of movements?”

If the Left wants to grow our movement from a networking perspective, we have to learn more about the nuts and bolts, or should I say the warp and woof, of networks. Fortunately, we are in the midst of a period in which networks are receiving a great deal of academic and commercial attention. In addition to the work of the two RAND researchers, Arquilla and Ronfeldt, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s book Linked is a good place for a novice like me to start. It brings science –his discipline is physics– together with highly entertaining stories illustrating properties of networks. He also shows how new the scientific analysis of networks is, and proposes that there are amazing congruencies among networking phenomena in physical, social, and biological sciences.

A few characteristics of networks will be obvious to anyone who is familiar with the Internet. First of all, the whole of a network is difficult, if not impossible, to perceive. When you first connect with the Internet, all you are in contact with is one “page” or node. It takes a few experiences “navigating” from one node to another by means of “links” to understand what you are actually doing. This would explain why so many leftists are missing the essential networked nature of our movement: they see the “page” but not the “links.”

In our movement as on the Internet, large or important nodes can become hubs. A hub can be as simple as an individual’s homepage, or as fancy as Yahoo, but real hubs get huge amounts of traffic. In our movement, hubs can be individuals, organizations, or even web sites that end up transmitting a high volume of useful connections. The relative popularity of web pages is expressed in “hits.” For a social change movement, we could understand a hub’s effectiveness in terms of its links to other hubs, its ability to turn people out, its capacity to raise funds, its influence on a “domain” of struggle, or all of the above.

A key social networking theory shows how this approach can help us organize more effectively. It is a breakthrough by a sociologist named Mark Granovetter. When he got involved with research on social networks in the late 60s, a lot of attention was being paid to small networks with intimate, strong connections, the people we depend on for nurturance, social support, and day-to-day socializing. Members of such close groups tend to agree with each other about many things and feel comfortable in each other’s company.

Granovetter, however, realized that to understand how new information can travel among these strong, primary networks, we have to look further. It is our “weak ties” with people whom we do not know so well that provide us with access to ideas and connections from outside our primary social network. Granovetter’s theory, “the strength of weak ties” has become a basic principle of social network theory. It applies to the Left in several ways.

The “strength of weak ties” principle can explain how important it is to stay in touch with old friends or “hang out” at movement-oriented social events. The real work of the movement moves along just as surely at a party as at a meeting. It’s also important that we not throw away our old address books. When I was doing my research on networking, I told the woman who had been involved with anti-imperialist work about this idea, and she was actually very relieved. “Now I don’t feel so guilty about not being able to be in close touch with people I’ve worked with in the past,” she said. On the other hand, we also commented on how sad it is that the Left has lost the names and addresses of people with whom we have worked for years. Imagine how strong the Left would be if we had maintained contact with all the people who worked on Jesse Jackson’s two campaigns for president in the 1980s! Networking can be the vehicle for the movement to keep connected with people beyond the life of a particular project.

One crucial question that Granovetter’s theory raises for the Left is whether we are good at connecting with people who disagree with us. Too often we are fearful, repulsed, or disdainful of people who support opposing political positions. And there is good reason for our reactions. Our beliefs are anathema to many of our neighbors, and maybe even to relatives and co-workers. We tend to cut ourselves off from meaningful interaction with anyone we fear might treat us with anger or hostility. But according to Granovetter’s principle, these may be the connections that can bring us new information. They are certainly connections that we could use to bring the information we have to a wider audience. How can the Left change people’s minds if we are too angry, fearful, or sure of our own correctness to be willing to talk to them?

Strengths of a Networked Movement

Gerlach acknowledges that movements networked along his and Hines’ “SPIN” model are often “labeled disorganized, poorly organized, loosely organized, or underdeveloped-and thus…(have) been denigrated or criticized not only by opponents or observers but at one time by movement participants.” Instead, these researchers found distinct strengths in these movements. Networked movements are:
• Hard to suppress because there are multiple groups and leaders. If one group is forced out of existence, others come forward;
• Attuned to a variety of social niches, offering every supporter things to do, even though they may have found these spots through factionalism and division;
• Able to divide up the labor by member groups specializing in specific tasks and skills;
• Able to adapt to changing circumstances, with member groups free to innovate and respond quickly to new situations;
• Reliable because the failure of one group does not compromise the whole;
• Good at learning from successes and failures by virtue of having a variety of approaches and experience to synthesize;
• Tactically flexible by including both “hard line” and “moderate” groups, the movement as a whole can roll out a wider range of tactics; and,
• Innovative and energetic as component groups strive to develop new approaches and win support.

Does this mean that there is no need for strong organizations?

None of this networking theory I am proposing negates the need for strong, defined organizations. The National Organization for Women (NOW), for example, is a clearly constituted membership group with local chapters that elect officers and participate in national conventions. They are in the forefront of organizing for a broad agenda of women’s rights.

But even a powerful organization like NOW couldn’t have staged the March for Women’s Lives. In this effort, NOW worked with the Fund for a Feminist Majority, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Planned Parenthood, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Black Women’s Health Imperative. As a result, the event was much stronger and more diverse than any one of the sponsoring organizations could have managed alone.

Such pro-choice coalitions have existed in the past, although maybe not with the conscious emphasis on racial and age diversity of this one. My question for these groups is: Are you continuing to relate to each other and building linkages that last? If not, we will have wasted an important resource for movement building. If so and an ongoing network is being built, how can we help – and how can you provide access to your network for the millions of people who were unable to attend the march?

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