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Tribe Building: Narratives and Social Graphs

I wanted to air two different ideas I’ve been thinking about.

One is a set of archetypes for a recurring kind of story, and another is about representation and rhetorical affordances in a more pragmatic sense.

 

Founding Triumvirates

This set of archetypes probably says more about its user than it does about the structure of organizations. It’s a first-pass for me, but it’s a useful enough pattern. This pattern involves a supposed Founder whose nuanced idea is adopted/co-opted by a zealous early disciple who builds a rigid, scalable canon to propagate some version of the idea. (It should be an uncontroversial hidden premise that nuance doesn’t scale, right?) Finally, scholars/historians mold the idea over time, engaging with the established orthodoxy and reestablishing new nuance through apologetics.

The eccentric Founder has an idea . It’s an idea that has enough distance from the the zeitgeist that it’s not immediately comprehensible/attractive to the public. The Founder’s big idea is probably a few simple, generative beliefs or attitudes that suggest a broader, more complicated ideological concept.

His first followers are touched in some way by whatever they see in the Founder. They play status games with each other to influence the movement or interpret the Founder.

The Champion(s) are the winners of the social games, acquiring status and legitimacy. The Champion attempts to unify and ossify the Founder’s web of sayings into a consistent and spreadable dogma. The Champion becomes an authority on the meaning of the ideal, and in his polemics he denounces the pretenders (would-be Champions of sister schools). Champions canonize and purify. The Ideal becomes more delineated and solid, becoming a creed. The Champion might as well be the ‘real’ founder of the creed; the Founder is often reduced to mythological figure or symbol, divorced in reality from what the ideology becomes.

The Historian is a more conservative, establishment figure in a future where the Champion has already made the creed into a coherent, “legitimate” social force- an orthodoxy. The Historian records things from the perspective of that ideology, often prolifically. The Historian’s conception of the ideal is more malleable or occasionally even heterodox, but he is still starting from or conversing with the new orthodoxy. The Historian interprets and experiences and his less directed, less local apologetics may survive the founding orthodoxy’s lifetime. He may quietly integrate foreign ideas and evolve the orthodoxy.

Take Pragmatism: C. S. Peirce was an eccentric founder who had exciting new ideas, but it was his lifelong friend William James who popularized his philosophy, Pragmatism. William James is the one who effectively coined terms and controlled early discourse about what Pragmatism was and wasn’t (apparently to Peirce’s eventual dismay- Peirce will eventually die in obscurity, anyway). Dewey was a one-time student of Peirce who had plenty of unique ideas and advocacy of his own, but he became the definitive voice of pragmatism while achieving legitimacy through conventional means (prestigious academic appointment, prolific writing). Dewey’s “Instrumentalist” writings have arguably had the most lasting impact of the three standard-bearers of Pragmatism. There were other prominent pragmatists, of course (ex. Schiller was prominent in his time) but they were mostly forgotten. Perhaps we can only handle threes.

Hellenic “Western” Philosophy: Socrates is the eccentric founder of a movement, who apparently wrote nothing. Plato is the prominent source of information about his teacher, although he is mentioned by others. Non-Platonic views of Socrates are sparse. Socrates’ existence is not certain but it doesn’t much matter. Aristotle attended Plato’s Academy with success and eventually went on his own wildly successful career, teaching important historical figures and producing writings deemed important enough to survive for thousands of years through lifetimes of scholarship and careful maintenance. No small feat.

Christianity: Jesus as eccentric founder of a movement. In the canon tradition Simon (Peter) is the Champion (as the alleged First Bishop of Rome) and Paul is an outsider who has a religious event and commits himself to spread the evangelium and become a prolific Historian. However, evidence suggests that the Champion of this system may be Paul after all. The image of Jesus that the Bible portrays is, more than anyone else, Paul’s impression of Jesus. We have good records of Paul’s justifications for his own church and denunciation of his pretenders. Conflict between Paul, Peter, and James (Jesus’ brother) were topics of discussion in the early church. We even have Paul’s account of rebuking Peter over his behavior on one occasion. There are conflicting stories about whether these Apostolic Age giants ever reconciled.

 

In these movements,

  • Founders discuss (and sometimes embody) ‘ideas’: although often ultimately as the Champion’s mouthpeices.
  • Champions discuss ‘people’: the tribe and what defines it. The virtues of the Founder and their ideals (the creed); The vices of the pretenders, if necessary.
  • Scholars discuss ‘events’: Re-contextualizing and reexamining the orthodoxy, molding it steadily over time through application of ideas and dialectic over enshrined values.

 

Social Graph Affordances

A sample social graph, courtesy of Wikipedia

I want to step away from that narrative view of tribe building for a moment.

On various occasions, I’ve harped about different representations and how they make a very evident, pragmatic effect on our thinking about the content being represented.

Affordances are designed potentials for something actionable to happen. Functional affordances are suggestions for use. Rhetorical affordances are suggestions for scenario reading that can be interpreted for use.

 

For example:

Let’s say that you are looking for a terrorist group and what you receive is a hierarchical bullet list of names. You can tell who is the “most important” member of the terrorist network and who is more of a paperboy. The potentials for action mostly lie along the lines of this hierarchy: you can arrest the names at the top of the list or maybe try to turn some of the less-engaged names at the bottom of the list.

Let’s say that instead of a bullet point list, you get a social graph like the one above with names. There are different measures you can consider now: centrality- who is seeing the most interaction? Clustering- are the clusters merely geographical, or is there a functional separation at play (one cluster performs one job and meets often, another cluster performs another job…)? Or an ideological one (some clusters don’t get along for tribal reasons?) Who is the connector between two clusters, and what’s his function? Is he a gatekeeper between two functioning groups? The people out at the periphery, could they perhaps be turned? Perhaps they’re just influential neighborhood people who are legitimizing the network by association. The list of answerable questions and actions is dramatically longer.

What I mean to demonstrate is that a rhetorical affordance does have a pragmatic effect- it suggests a different set of actions and a different understanding of the situation than a different representation. In recent discussions I’ve had to prove it, so I figured I’d put it down somewhere.

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