Communities Vs. Networks: To Which Do You Belong? | The Art of Manliness

I am often surprised at the occasional academic depth, reflectiveness and perspicuity of articles in the Art of Manliness website, which does have a slight tendency to (manly) frivolity much of the time and is as likely to discuss shaving as it is the meaning and value of ritual. This is article is definitely on the academic side and it’s a good read although, as this is an area I am a little familiar with, I do see a few flaws, fuzzy thoughts and shortcuts here and there. The authors Brett & Kate McKay, appear to draw rather heavily on John Taylor Gatto who, in his fine book ‘Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling‘, makes a rather curious distinction between networks, communities and institutions (that are, in his terminology, actually networks). While the book has many strengths and some excellent and powerful points to make, its curious and rather puzzling terminology, that perhaps made a little sense in the early 90s before the study of networks became a significant field, is not one of them. I don’t think this is a great starting point.

The distinction made by the McKays and Gatto between communities and networks is superficially the same as that made by Wenger, Trayner and de Laat, and seems similar to the distinction that Terry Anderson and I (and others, such as Barry Wellman and Stephen Downes) have made between groups and networks. However, the differences appear very early on. For the authors of this post, a community is an organic and autonomous entity made up of families bound together by geography and shared values – in short, they are talking about a community of place, in its traditional village/tribal sense, though they confuse the issue later on by blurring this a little with communities of interest and communities of practice when they exhort us to go and make our own tribes. While a community of this sort is easy to identify, and such communities do tend to share a few common features, the similarities between them are skin deep. Such communities can and do exhibit and encompass a wide variety of social forms, including actual networks, as well as groups and sets, along with clusters of those forms. Empirically, there is no idealized form or pattern that all exhibit – it depends on the context. They can be violent, exclusionary, isolating, and many other things that are far from healthy. While there is value in examining communities of place/practice/interest, they are really a starting point for further investigation, not an endpoint, and certainly not a particular kind of thing to be extolled in its own right.  The McKays (following Gatto to some extent) are using the term ‘community’ as a shorthand for a rose-tinted idealized kind of supportive, nurturing, small-scale society that has probably seldom if ever existed. It’s a thinly veiled ‘good old days’ argument that is based on belief rather than research. Dunbar’s Number doesn’t imply warm cuddly coziness of the sort described here.

Conversely, the McKays’ (and Gatto’s) concept of networks appears much closer to what I would recognize as a hierarchically structured group (in some of its guises) or a group-like set such as a religion or tribe.  The concept is used a bit fuzzily and appears to include sets and nets that result from product marketing as well as more formally organized tribal forms that certainly includes schools and universities, and that I’m guessing should also include religions, cities and nations. For the McKay’s, a network is designed for a purpose, has leaders, is deliberately nurtured, and is to some extent dehumanizing, inasmuch as it is not much concerned with caring and is deliberately divisive along functional/interest lines. The concept is elided with networks of the sort companies try to develop around their products, which is carrying things a bit far and a few miles from what I think Gatto had in mind when he used the term. I think this is a bit of an invented straw man. It is easy to define a kind of social collection that we don’t much like and point to many examples, but I don’t think it helps. It is self-confirming. Moreover, this is not the kind of network most of us mean when we think of networks. A network, for most of us researching in the field, does not have boundaries, nor purposes, nor imposed hierarchies, and is different depending on whose perspective you take: everyone has different networks from everyone else, though we may be share membership of the same groups and sets.  Networks operate through and beyond those idealized communities and, to a large extent, are what drive and bind them. We have strong (very strong) as well as weak ties, and these are as human and personal as they get.  I think that the McKays are actually talking about the difference between intimate bands and designed organizations/institutions here, though it is a bit blurry. Following a little from Dunbar, they are talking about ways that people organize communities when the communities become too large for everyone to know everyone else and so begin to develop organizational strata and foci that are designed (or evolve) to let people live together productively and safely.

While I find the conceptual distinctions fuzzy, the general thinking behind the article is likeable: that we should not exchange our physical communities for a technologized substitute for real human interaction. Such communities of real, supportive people are part of what make us human. As the authors admit, there is great value to be had from larger organizational forms, online communities, and relationships  at a distance, and such things can be a great supplement to, cradle for and sustainer of rich human connections, but that does not mean such things should replace our connections with those around us. Happily, most of the research I have read on the subject suggests that they do not and, if anything, they strengthen traditional bonds of friendship and kinship. 

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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