Sunday, April 06, 2014

Social structure and group identity: cliques, hierarchies, and open networks

A little spat over group identity (and stereotypes and prejudice) in my family inspired a semi-formalization of some ideas that I have about how we organize our society.

My impression is that people commonly think in terms of three organizational ideals: cliques, hierarchies, and open networks.

Clique: This is probably most common among traditionalists -- our social position is defined by membership in a few closely knit groups: family, religious congregation, fraternal organizations, neighborhood, school, etc. To the "cliqueists" These groups are the basic organization of society, and the higher levels of organization could themselves be cliques (e.g. religious communions, cities), but not necessarily.

The cliquists often criticize other forms of organization as "atomistic"

Hierarchies: Our role is defined by dominance/subordinate relationships (e.g. employer/employee). All other relationships are secondary and readily broken in response to changes in that primary relationship (e.g. when we move to new cities due to job assignments). I think that this is the primary target of the "atomistic" criticism.

Open network: Our role is defined by a large number of one-to-one relationships, which are typically in flux. The realities of life introduce some structure onto this network (e.g. neighborhoods, families), but we tend not to think of the relationships in terms of these structures. This is closer to being the cosmopolitian/individualistic ideal. The risk is that this structure may not be stable and devolve into hierarchy if a single relationship (e.g. the job) develops excessive importance and other relationships ore not organized in a way to provide alternatives to that dominant relationship.