Power and Influence Structures

One might describe politics as the art of building power structures. But power structures also exist in society independently of anything people intentionally create.

Amongst the people I know are some who have little or no influence over my activities, and some who can have a great effect on what I think and do, not because of any ex-officio authority but because of the respect I feel for them. Amongst the people who know me, there are many who allow me no influence over them at all, but there is a miniscule number of sadly benighted individuals who let me influence their thoughts and actions. So, like everyone else in our society, I have a place in the informal, unwritten, but very real power structure which is inherent in the human social network.

Sometimes parts of this fundamental inherent power structure are congruent to the official power structure of a corporation or political body. During my years as a software/systems person at a medium-sized Canadian R&D company, I had one very productive period when the person I was working for, officially, was also a person whom I had great respect for. During one sad period I was supposed to report to a person whom I had almost no respect for, and that turned out to be a most unproductive time for me.

From this, and similar experiences reported by other people, I conclude that the fundamental power structure based on personal feelings of loyalty and respect is by far the more important structure, and that the hierarchies that corporate management and political operators build is something of little real consequence. Of course you may have to obey your boss, but if you don’t respect him, you will do it grudgingly and even if you try hard you will probably not be very productive or very happy in that situation.

As I recall it, the software and systems we created very often reflected the views of those we really trusted to guide our work, regardless of their official position in the corporate hierarchy. This illustrates the other side of the coin: not only do you work poorly for a boss you don’t respect, but you actually end up taking some guidance from those you do respect, whether or not it is their job to supervise you.

I think the best system would be one in which the natural structure formed by our feelings and attitudes was completely congruent or isomorphic with the “official” structure recorded in the organization charts of a corporation or a country.

This leads me to suggest that our political machinery of parties, meetings, ballots, nominations, and elections should be replaced or at very least supplemented by a strictly empirical political science which seeks to find out who influences whom, and thus to map out the natural power structure.

I think this could be accomplished with the aid of a bit of modern computer technology, which would help us perform an analysis something like the analysis performed by those who practice sociometrics, who use questionnaires, matrices, and graph theory to construct graphs called sociograms which indicate the social relationships which hold amongst people in some social group.

Rather than simply constructing a sociogram to see who is friends with whom, however, I think we need to investigate and map out strong personal influences. The results of this would be essentially a very large directed graph, and in a well-organized society it would be a connected graph. By analyzing this graph, we could identify “ultimate sources” of political power, i.e. people who influence many others (either directly or indirectly), but are not simply passing on the influences of others, and these sources would be our natural leaders, and may then be ranked by the number of people directly or indirectly influenced by them.

I think if we did this we would get results that are quite strikingly different from what we get with our conventional political machinery. There are (still) many people who respect Bill Clinton, (to choose an example at random), but he is far from an ultimate source, since there are many people he respects and turns to for guidance. He may be a good conduit for the ideas and judgements of others, but he is not an originator of new ideas or thoroughly researched judgements.

Graph theory and sociometry have been around for quite some time, so it is quite possible that somebody else has made similar observations. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has thoughts along the same lines, or knows were similar ideas have appeared in print.

Copyright © 1998 Douglas P. Wilson

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