Networks, Organizations and Movements
The forces of social change “institutionalized” over the last several decades, and now we are seeing a move in the opposite direction with loose networks like Occupy Wall Street playing an increasingly important role. How do we change our understanding of social movements to reconcile these very different approaches to social change?
We live in a society that’s become intractably resistant to the large-scale changes necessary for its own survival.
How do we overcome this resistance? Where are the levers? Theories abound on the left, right and in the center, many pivoting off different notions of “agency” and how influence actually moves through society. Are the levers of social change with the individual or the institution? If it’s with institutions, is it government, business, or the non-profit sector?
Network theory is a science of connection, and a useful frame for understanding the relationships that channel flows of influence in social change movements. To see a social movement with the eyes of network theory is to see the movement as a network.
To apply network theory to social movements, we need to agree on the fundamental unit of connection; the ultimate entity that actually connects a social movement. Institutions matter, but putting individual human beings at the center of our analysis makes for a far richer, far more dynamic understanding of social movements. In short, social movements are, first and foremost, networks of connections between people.
After the large-scale social unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s, much of the energy behind social change efforts shifted to more formal institutions, many of which reside in the larger nonprofit sector, which includes some 1.6 million organizations in the United States alone. This sector contributes over $750 billion a year to the United States’ economy (roughly 5.4% of the United States’ GDP) and has become an important source of jobs and economic stability to nearly nine million people.
Though social change organizations are just a subset of the larger nonprofit sector, they too, represent a move toward increased institutionalization. Institutions formalize relationships. They create structure, process and order to augment human connections. In this way, they helped transform the free-flowing social change movements of the 60s and 70s, crystalizing them into a social change sector.