Soft hierarchies, hard communities

July 13, 2012 by
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Watching yesterday the distinguished economist Paul Ormerod, and the RSA’s own rising star Gaia Marcus, discuss the theory and impact of social networks a surprising thought occurred to me.

When we think of two dimensions of social power – hierarchical authority, on the one hand, and solidarity, on the other, we tend to assume that each works through difference transmission mechanisms. One broad way of summarising might be that hierarchy works through expert knowledge and structure while solidarity is driven by shared experience and values.

But, as I have written in various posts the modern world transforms the context and foundations of both hierarchy and solidarity. In relation to the former, many of the problems now faced by leaders of hierarchies – particularly in the public sector – are what some analysts describe as ‘wicked’; not only are they are complex and contested but their resolution requires changes in stakeholders’ norms, expectations and capabilities. Meeting the demands of population ageing and achieving greater social mobility and inclusion are two examples of these problems – things most people want to solve but which feel right now intractable.

Professor Keith Grint has explored the approach needed to address these wicked issues and speaks of the need for leadership which is ‘about questions not answers, ‘about reflection not reaction’ and ‘about relationships not structures’. To that I would add the thought (derived from this book) that leadership in less complex, more deferential times was about push (driving out instructions, messages and products) while now it is about ‘pull’ (finding ways of engaging people, fostering collaboration and attracting talent).

Moving from hierarchies to communities, there is huge and growing interest in social networks. This is leading to innovations in understanding, analysis and application (I am proud to say the RSA is at the forefront of this movement). At the same time we are getting to understand better the power of networks, and the complex and sometimes volatile ways they work, changes in patterns of living and identity formation means the most fruitful foundations for solidarity may be also be shifting. Broadly speaking, the basis for constructive collaboration may be less about our inherited characteristics and more about our lifestyles, less about shared identities more about shared interests.

These developments offer the prospect of more data-driven and technical interventions to promote collective change and collaboration. For example, the mapping of social networks creates the possibility for ‘network weaving’ in which holes between networks – holes which may present barriers to new perspectives or opportunities – can be bridged. A further development may be a mathematical understanding of networks; equations which allow policy makers, organisational analysts or community activists to work towards the point at which a whole network changes character in ways which are beneficial for its members and wider society.

Which takes me back to my starting point and a speculative observation: perhaps in the conditions of the 21st century we will come increasingly to see hierarchy as a domain in which effectiveness depends upon the articulation of values and the development of a culture of shared commitment, while community is increasingly seen as a domain whose outcomes are shaped by knowledge and the use of that knowledge to develop new structures of communication and connection.



  • Robert Burns

    Hello Matthew,

    many of our social problems arise from the fact that different groups inhabit fundamentally incompatible subjective thought spaces.

    This can show forth in a number of ways.

    Groups may acknowledge the existence of the claims and aspirations of other groups and then:

    (a) absolutely deny their right to exist, or

    (b) deny the validity of the basis of others claims and aspirations

    That is where we are now.

    There is no common concensus, or ‘silent majority’ waiting to be led to the ‘promised land’ that can be everything to everybody.

    So-called ‘social networks’ are a problem, not an opportunity.

    Such structures reinforce social, economic and political exclusion.

    ‘Social networks’ all too often subvert the public domain by acting as greenhouses for factually and logically unsound belief systems that wrap themselves around issues in ways that would be impossible under conditions of public challenge.

    Moving on to the idea of ‘mathematical modelling of networks’.

    While it may be possible to retrospectively map out the behaviour of, and interactions between, networks this does not hold out any prospect of creating predictive modelling tools that would help set up constructive interactions.

    The subjective rationality/objective irrationality supported by ‘social networks’ are more likely to make any attempt at manipulating interactions into existence a very destructive exercise indeed.

  • Charles van der Haegen

    Very interesting and impressive thinking, Matthew.

    I do believe innovations in “understanding, analysis and application” is really the way to go, and if RSA is really at the “forefront on this movement” I would love to join you there, from Belgium.

    I know RSA’s awareness of the ideas behind Michael Thompson’s “Theory of Socio-Cultural Viability” (Cultural Theory in short)
    In this vein, and complementary to these ideas, are those of moral psychologist Jonathan Heath, as set forth in his book: “The Rigtheous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. See also

    I do believe Jonathan’s breathtaking intellectual exercice complements Michael’s to respond to the concerns raised in Robert Burns” comment..

  • David Wilcox

    It could be fruitful for RSA to explore a combination of the analysis of Eileen Conn FRSA of the two domains of hierarchy and community – referenced here – with the power of networks to provide for cross-boundary collaborations. As well as Gaia’s excellent work, there are Fellows who are developing network thinking and practice.
    Picking up Robert’s point, network builders have a crucial role in connecting across established networks, both online and face-to-face. Some local community enablers are using network analysis in their work.

  • Matthew Mezey

    My current hypothesis is that the laudable – perhaps even vital – ‘clumsy’ leadership and ‘messy’ institutions that may have the potential to create solutions to ‘wicked’ problems require a foundation in Prof Robert Kegan’s ‘Self-Transforming’ mind (Level 5 in his model of adult development).

    The traditional/socialised mind just won’t cut the mustard for this agile and transformational style of leadership, nor will the ‘Self-authoring’ mind, despite its many benefits (as outlined in the RSA’s Beyond the Big Society report, about the psychology of active citizenship).

    So, if we want to know whether an institution might have a hope of creating credible solutions to ‘wicked’ problems, then we need to know the extent of this Level 5 mindset.

    Do the leaders have that capacity, or at least make a space for it – as Sol Davidson FRSA explained in his leadership report for SOLACE, ‘Flying High’?

    Swindon is one example from local government where a deliberate attempt was made to recruit a Level 5/’Self-transforming’ Chief Executive and senior team – with very positive and progressive results on services.

    Or so I hear…

    (Predictably I’m rather keen for someone to write up a little case study on this – if it’s as transformational as it sounds like it might be. At least a couple of FRSAs were involved).

    I’m also keen for all the proponents of ‘plural rationalities’ (Jonathan Haidt, Cultural Theory (Grint/Thompson/Verweij etc), Robert Kegan, Pat Dade, Bill Torbert, Don Beck, Mark Williams, Patricia King/Karen Kitchener etc) to somehow be brought a bit closer to together, as I suspect that it’ll be a Sisyphean struggle for any of them to make real inroads on their own.

    If this was done via a publication, it could be called something like ‘Difference is beautiful – crafting policies as if plural rationalities mattered’. Though that sounds a wee bit like the usual postmodern relativist dead-end to me… ;-)

    (I’d be tempted to say ‘Policies as if developmental diversity mattered’ – but Cultural Theory and Jonathan Haidt’s plural rationalities either side-step or deny that there’s much in the way of development going on in adults, as far as I can tell. And maybe I shouldn’t just be blatantly ripping of Schumacher’s title…)

    I review Jonathan Haidt’s book here: (or, more accurately, I point out some of the bits – about development etc – that I wish it had included!).

    David, I think we should combine Eileen Conn FRSA’s model with the power of networks *and* the role of development/values/plural rationalities.

    I know Eileen’s intrigued by such a synthesis, but won’t create it herself…

    (Indeed Eileen’s cutting-edge, bottom-up work in community-building – and complexity – for which she received an MBE – is in dire need of some kind of volunteer help. If you know anyone in South London who might give Eileen a hand, let me know!).

    Matthew M

    PS These aren’t ‘official’ RSA views, of course, just my own speculations…

    Matthew Kalman Mezey
    (Online Community Manager)

    A live dashboard webpage showing RSA online activity is here: (online community)
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