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The nature of power and influence

The nature of power and influence

Please note that this text is followed by a comment that explores a large number of review papers on the origins of conflict.

Our group has also been thinking about the nature of power and influence. Societies which leave a mark on history generally develop from a state of simplicity to complexity. As they progress, they go through characteristic phases. Arrangements of families, small communities and tribes usually give way to stratified, hierarchical and often urbanised societies. These, in their turn, become too complex to manage top-down - as demonstrated by the totalitarian experiments of the early Twentieth century - and successful societies move on to market mechanisms, whereby resource allocation and choice are delegated solely to the agents making those choices.

This, in turn, seems to be leading us into a fourth stage: organisation through networks. This has two characteristics. These are:

The nature of these networks vary with the problem and its perceived solution, Some, like supply chains, are highly pragmatic, whilst others, such as political or lobby interests, operate in less tangible ways. They are usually tightly linked in further networks with other interests, and people spread their membership amongst these, by no means confining themselves to any one community.

This progression has been called the TIMN model (Tribe, Institutional, Market, Network.) It has been developed and proven by RAND social scientist David Ronfeldt.


Democracy, in whatever of its many forms, does not match innately to any of these stages. It is a particular way of operating, not a style that is intrinsically limited to a given stage. You can have more or less democratic tribal systems and more or less democratic market-based ones. What defines democracy is the social filtration that is applied to two separate elements of government: that is, to policy formation and to executive competence.

In respect of policy formation, democracies allow more voices to be heard. Policies have to be marketed to the electorate, who "buy" them when they elect a government. That generally prevents one set of interests from imposing themselves. It also generates a flight to the middle, insofar as the aim is to placate, or anyway sufficiently please, the broadest polity whilst minimising offence to any important interest. Democracy also allows tired or ineffective administrations to be dismissed.

Networks and democracy

It is clear, however, that the Network stage of organisation interacts with democracy in ways that are significantly different from the other three stages. The networked style arises chiefly from the mass education of the public and their exposure to information in general and from the rise of mass media in particular. Additionally, the Internet 2.0 model of user-created content and social networking permits communities of interest to arise, often linked together by values and related intangibles.

The consequences of this are the lessening of a national consciousness and the substitution of belonging to a range of often disconnected values and opinion. It is possible to live in a number of disconnected domains - work, various interest groups, ethnicity or religion - without having significant contact with the supposed national centre of weight. Networked societies may lack such a centre, or be set on a path to its loss. We do not know, as the social experiment has yet to come to a stable outcome.

The professionalisation of politics

Set in contrast to this fragmentation, politics at the national level has undergone a century of of professionalisation. The resulting monolith matches very poorly to and is frequently at odds with the Network state of social organisation.

The following is a somewhat Pollyanna view of history, but it helps us to get a grip on this topic. Let us therefore assert that politics was once restricted to a class who acted from a sense of national duty, and subscribed to the notion that the best argument should win. Policy formation was essentially driven by amateur opinions, and what insight there was into - for example - economics to offset this was both patchy and without authority. Parties arose to reflect divisions around the great issues of the time. However, parties were soon found to offer major attractions: as a career path, as a means to simplify communications with the public, a mechanism to generate both a voting monolith that delivered legislation and an electoral engine. It is no accident that this professionalisation proceeded most quickly in those countries with a universal franchise and a mass electorate to address.

The professionalisation of politics began to be felt in the early Twentieth century and, by its close, this had completely swept away any earlier innocence or amateurism. Parties were machines for winning elections and, subsequently, for protecting the executive; legislatures were machines for winning votes. Previously-inconceivable sums are now spent on elections, on publicity and on media presentation. Arguably, considerably more thought goes into how a policy can be translated into law - lining up the votes, placating waverers, holding the bill's proponents to ransom, harnessing voter enthusiasm - than is spent on its content, on what that policy itself should be.

Over this same period, the state has grown from a few percent of GDP to somewhere between a half and a third of it, and the reach, scale and remit of the state is such that it is expected to deliver the majority of services and social support, whilst permitting no mistakes or natural disasters to occur. State employees may comprise half or more of the national workforce. They manage colossal sums and titanic projects that, impersonally and coldly, touch upon the lives of everyone.

The clash between networks and professional politics

The scale of this impersonal mechanism and the icy professionalism of its public face presents a hard, shiny carapace to the electorate. The media have found that it is economically advantageous to them if that shell can be pierced. Of course, there are also many public spirited journalists who seek to understand and expose bad practise within the state; but there are many more who want a quick story, a celebrity scandal. Politicians are built up as heroes so that they can be later demolished for media circulation. In addition to the media, however, special interests have formed bodies that lobby, offer criticism and try to trip up the machine of state. There are many of these and some command substantial sums. In 2011, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) represented about a tenth of US GDP.

There are 1.5 million NGOs registered in the US. The state is surrounded by, occasionally assisted by by chiefly lobbied, blocked and chided by this immense network. There are far more technical experts on many important elements of policy outside of the state than in it - for example academic or applied economists, or professional bodies such as those representing doctors or transport engineers - and the network harnesses this knowledge to sharpen its critique. Many state workers also belong to networked entities - for example environmental or peace groups, trades unions and the like - and they are able to add inside knowledge to critique. State workers may have partners in the media or affiliated with an interest group, and significant leaks also occur though these channels. In general, therefore, little that the state does which remains secret for very long; and significant information escapes will almost invariably trigger short and long term activism.

Some NGOs are a part of what is usually referred to as "civil society", comprising community organisations, charities and so forth. Others are lobby organisations and campaigning groups, some with considerable and lasting political impact. Indeed, people increasing buy their representation from an NGO - representing a particular policy issue - rather than from the bland generality of political parties.

In addition, to focused pressure groups and informed external opinion, the state faces the consequences of the Internet 2.0 social media. These allow pools of opinion to form and to percolate to normally disinterested parts of society. The full strength of this has yet to form, as the current mechanisms for debate are clumsy and easily dominated by loud voices and the prolix. Wat is striking is that individuals tend to belong to social networks with which they agree, Relevant sites tend to express strong bias and polarise around agreed positions - for and against drug legalisation, for example. Dissenting voices get shouted down, and leave. In parallel, the formal media find that they retain customers best if they play to their preconceptions, and so TV channels and newspapers tend to express views of which their client base will approve. The upshot is that it is possible for an individual to live in one of many "parallel universes", meeting and speaking with people much like themselves, acquiring information that filters out unwelcome points of view. Psychologists call this "homophily", a liking for and loyalty to a community as similar as possible to yourself. People often exist in two or three such communities, switching values unconsciously as they move from work to religion to political discussion.

The state handles complex, slow moving and often highly technical tasks. Decisions have to be taken in a time frame that goes across the life span of many legislatures. Many projects have complex ramifications into other branches of the state. There is intense pressure for resources. The public have been raised to expect a very wide range of services from the state, benefits provided as a backdrop to life which "just happen", much as nature supplies the hunter-gatherer with wild animals to hunt and a forest to hunt them in. Changes are therefore regarded as nearly 'against nature', and the implied, default public expectation is to keep life familiar and comfortable.

Wrapped around this, however, we have the complex, noisy claque of media and other interests. Their wants are clearly articulated and seemingly free of ramifications, their time frame is short and their patience with the complex ways of the state is limited. These groups are generally more susceptible to emotional than rational issues, and a fine image or a telling phrase can set of a fire storm amongst them. The media, too, need exciting and engaging stories that relate directly to what the public know and, more usually, feel.

Routes out of incompatibility

These structures are not easily compatible. The carapace-like nature of professional politics cannot operate well with the external network. People are rained upon by commercial messages from early childhood, and we have become exceptionally good at screening these out, at detecting falsehood and dissonance. The attempts by politicians to manage information flows, to present themselves always in a favourable light, fires up these screens. Worse, is a politician is honest the media can be sure to raise this out of context in order to damn him or her. The result is that the political dimension of the state has - according to opinion polls - never been further divorced from the electorate and seldom been less trusted. The political class are viewed as venal, untrustworthy, self-interested and essentially a class apart, alien.

Both of these structures - those in the carapace and the network beyond - appeal to the general public, The carapace seeks for votes at elections and tacit approval between them. The network looks for resources and emotional commitment, often to projects that are destined to erode stable political management and force change and crisis upon it. The public fix on topics that change policy and waste state time, but to which politicians feel bound to respond. Indeed, they are bound to respond if they are fulfilling one model of their democratic duty. The other model, fo course, says that the executive is there to prioritise the dull, complicated things which states need to do, acting under the general values and principles that they espoused during their election. Governments have probably more frequently gone to war because some element of the public demanded it more than they did for cold calculations of state: from the war of Jenkin's Ear to the still-rationally incomprehensible origins of World War I, the zeitgeist believed that war was inevitable, cleansing, required by the times.

This opposition of forces suggests two ways in which representation can develop. In the one, current trends continue, and political debate becomes less and less something that occurs in legislatures and rather more and more in networks. This is the last stage in the TIMN model: popular voices in their myriads in - if not conflict, then heated dialogue - with those trying to keep the state on course. It will be extremely hard for clear quiet voices to win if this model develops. Crowds may possess wisdom in respect fo things which they understand and have experienced - although frequently they do not - but crowds are no good at all in handling novelty and the complex, technical or abstract issue.

In the second, the "carapace" reforms itself so as to once again reflect civil society. The only feasible method for doing this is a multi-layered, subsidiary model, such that those interested in the grander, slower activities in which the state has to engage can find their own level, and with them, their corresponding external partners. This may be a fond hope, as - for example - banking regulation of monetary policy, once the home of the technical specialist and the quiet committee, are now dumped centre stage, shading their eyes from the lights and calling haplessly for order.

It is a general rule in public affairs that there are groups that always will hate you and groups that will always be your friends. The people with whom to deal are those in the middle, and the media that they access. If you have a relatively minor accident, this group will consult their model of you - sound people, or a bunch of lucky risk takers - and how the event will be reported will depend on that perception. (Major accidents, however, escape this rule.)

Much the same may be true of policy formation: that much of it is dull and specialist, but if the people with the relevant knowledge have had a part in the work, they will tend to propagate good messages about what has been done when things are not quite as expected. We may, in fact, be entering an era in which policy is made more slowly, in conjunction with many more experts, perhaps with transnational experience and influence. The alternative is a period in which policy goes to the loudest voice, to the slickest presentation and in which any decision can be reversed, and reversed again, by external forces.

Comment 1

AAAS Science has a special edition (18 May 2012 ) dedicated to the scientific understanding of conflict. Here is the title page:

Adapting to a Multicultural Future

Evolutionary pressures to support the group may explain social resistance to multiculturalism. Concept offers an important model for policy-makers dealing with prejudice.

Richard J. Crisp and Rose Meleady
Ancestral Hierarchy and Conflict

Attempt to understand human ancestors' transition from troop dominant alpha male to conflict management in collaborative hunter gatherer community.

Christopher Boehm
Are We Winning the War Against Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

7.6% off combat deployed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan developed PTSD. Interventions can reduce this.

Richard J. McNally
Climate Change and Violent Conflict

Current debates over the relation between climate change and conflict originate in a lack of data, as well as the complexity of pathways connecting the two phenomena. Gosh.

Jürgen Scheffran, Michael Brzoska, Jasmin Kominek, P. Michael Link, and Janpeter Schilling
Drone Wars

U.S. Department of Defense plans to spend $30.8 billion on developing and acquiring remotely piloted aircraft between 2011 and 2015. Dozens of other countries have or are pursuing drones of their own. Thanks to improvements in artificial intelligence, these machines will become more capable of making decisions, including, perhaps, whether to kill humans. As the technology zooms forward, experts are scrambling to catch up with the psychological, ethical, legal, and policy implications for 21st century conflict.

Greg Miller
Ethnicity and Conflict: Theory and Facts

One-third of all countries experienced civil conflict during the second half of the 20th century, and conflicts within national boundaries became dominant. Many (if not most) such conflicts involved violence along ethnic lines. Data suggest that preexisting ethnic divisions generateconflict. Our analysis also points to particular channels of influence. Specifically, we show that two different measures of ethnic division—polarization and fractionalization—jointly influence conflict, the former more so when the winners enjoy a "public" prize (such as political power or religious hegemony), the latter more so when the prize is "private" (such as looted resources, government subsidies, or infrastructures).

Joan Esteban, Laura Mayoral, and Debraj Ray
Fighting Rituals

Reviews ritual conflict in animals, suggests evolutionary component of non-violent but potentially explosive face offs.

Elizabeth Pennisi
From War to Peace

Enthonolgy: peace making and negotiation amongst the primates,

Elizabeth Pennisi
Gender and Violence

National gender inequality as an important security barometer

Mara Hvistendahl
Life Without War

Six requirements for societies to live in peace with each other. (i) An overarching social identity, (ii) Interconnections among subgroups, (iii) Interdependence, (iv) Nonwarring values, (v) Symbolism and ceremonies that reinforce peace, and (vi) Superordinate institutions for conflict management.

Douglas P. Fry
Modeling Armed Conflicts

Do models work? Maybe.

Moshe Kress
Parochialism as a Central Challenge in Counterinsurgency

America's power preponderancehas not translated into an ability to manage insurgency. The U.S. military fights insurgents wearing flip-flops and using improvised explosives. Clear victories in counter insurgency are rare, and these wars are costly and long-lasting. Peace after civil wars, of which insurgencies are a subtype, is tenuous.

Nicholas Sambanis, Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, and Moses Shayo
Parsing Terrorism

The study of suicide terrorism has challenged some long-accepted notions — for example, that terrorists are pathological, driven by religious fanaticism, or spurred by poverty. It's now clear that many terrorists are well-educated and seemingly rational. Economists have explored a disturbing notion, probing terrorism as a form of "altruism" and comparing it to exclusive churches and social aid groups

Eliot Marshall
Preening the Troops

Dominant brds recruit supporter claques to "shout" for them when they about to do battle. Why does this help fighting performance - role of morale, etc?

Elizabeth Pennisi
Preventing Mass Violence

Editorial: Science can help to clarify the major factors that affect the risk of mass violence

David Hamburg
Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict

Sacred values signal group identity and inspire non-rational behaviour which is independent of likely outcomes. In conflict, otherwise mundane preferences may become sacred values. Sacred values sustain intractable conflicts that defy "business-like" negotiation.

Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges
Roots of Racism

Ethnic prejudice is a universal tendency, yet what makes a "group" is mercurial. In experiments, people easily form coalitions based on meaningless traits. Researchers have begun to ask why such biases exist. Several avenues of research are probing the origins of what psychologists call in-group love and out-group hate. Researchers are testing the implicit biases of young children and even primates, and devising experiments to ratchet bias up and down.

Elizabeth Culotta
Schooling Violence?

Challenging claims that education promotes tolerance and peace, this argues that especially in settings with ethnic divisions, limited resources, and ineffective political institutions, schooling actually contributes to violence.

Claire L. Adida
The Antiquity of Empathy

Probably as old as primate social behaviour, Predates organised conflict.

Frans B. M. de Waal
The Battle Over Violence

The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. World War II alone left some 60 million dead — 2.5% of the world's population, or the total number of people who lived in Europe during the Middle Ages. Yet complex industrialized societies, even Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia, are far safer places to live than among smaller groups of hunter-gatherers or farmers, in which tribal feuds and homicide typically felled more than 10% of the population.

Andrew Lawler
The Group Self

Understanding when and why the group self becomes more important than the individual self, and how this affects people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, can help to prevent and redirect unwelcome aspects of human behavior .

Naomi Ellemers
The Ultimate Sacrifice

Human sacrifice took place at one time or another in just about every ancient civilization in which someone had the rank and power to decide who died. Researchers reconstruct last hours of victims of human sacrifice, and sometimes the victims' identities. Most cases shared twin motivations: to please the gods, and to assert rulers' power. Ritual sacrifice discouraged internal revolt by sowing fear.

Ann Gibbons
Tribal Roots in South Sudan

Descriptiveof century-old conflict

Eliot Marshall
Tweeting the London Riots

An automated review of the 200 million tweets sent in the London area during the 2010 riots. Results show that social media can organise events, but that they serve to pol;arise comunities intothose who condemn and those who support. That said, most calls for violence were played down or contradicted by those who passed themon. Images were extremely important invgenerating group responses.

John Bohannon
Violence Tamed

European brutality and homicide have declined from the 13th century to the present. Violence was controlled by : first, public sanctions; and second, the emergence of a social norm proscribing the use of violence to uphold honor, signal virility, and settle disputes.

Michael Hechter
Warriors, Levelers, and the Role of Conflict in Human Social Evolution

Incomprehensible. What I think he is trying to say is that technical innovations adopted by small groups and individuals, social institutions by the bulk of society. So change in social institutions requires more priming to get going, and involve conflict insofar as one group has to crush or change the views of another. Well, yes?

Samuel Bowles


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