The Importance of Multilevel Networks in Society

iStock-1174818020networks20cmEmmanuel Lazega uses multilevel networks to explore the combination between two logics of organization: bureaucracy and collegiality

The newly published Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Social Change explores the usefulness of the analysis of multilevel social networks to understand organizations, the organizational society, its political regimes, its political economy, its social stratification, and the consequences of its current digitalization. Figure 1 crudely represents a multilevel network as we define it.

Lazega fig 1

As suggested by this Figure, patterns of relationships at the upper level can be different from patterns at the lower level. To understand how the analysis of multilevel networks is useful to the social sciences, it is important to revisit the definition of organizations. Organizations are stratified collective actors not just because they are usually hierarchical, but because each level is a self-contained form of collective agency. Each level is a sub-organization. We know that each level can be predominantly bureaucratic or collegial depending on whether tasks are routine or innovative, on whether controls are centralized or distributed, on whether members use impersonal hierarchical interactions or personalized peer relationships to manage cooperation dilemmas (Lazega, 2001). Each complex organization combines the two logics of organization – bureaucracy and collegiality, each with its own formality and vicious cycles – by superposing and combining them as levels in specific and idiosyncratic ways. In particular, after two centuries of bureaucratization of our organizations and organizational societies, many types of ‘collegial pockets’ – in addition to the executive suites – show important resilience, innovation capacity with respect to task performance, but also various forms of oppositional solidarity in the defence of their regulatory interests and promotion of social change. This is the case, for example, with professional departments or workers’ union sections in wider organizations.

When looking at organizations as superposed levels of intertwined sub-organizations a special kind of stratigraphy helps understand how such levels coordinate. In this book, concepts such as “bottom up collegiality” and “top down collegiality”, the latter echoing Selznick’s (1949) co-optation, begin to account for this coordination, which is also a form of co-constitution of levels. In our empirical case studies of such stratigraphies in science, business and public institutions, we show that such combinations of bureaucracy and collegiality work thanks to multilevel relational infrastructures. Multilevel network analyses help identify and characterize such relational infrastructures and the ways in which they make coordination across levels work. By introducing a multilevel approach to the superposition and articulation of these strata, we discover, for example, a vertical relational infrastructure, called vertical linchpins, characterizing the relational profile of actors who operate at two levels simultaneously, both inter-individual levels and inter-organizational levels. When they are big fish in big ponds, they play a decisive role in joint regulatory processes within and between organizations because they activate and synchronize activities between organizational strata driving each other’s evolution. Vertical linchpin maintain a form of socio-organizational status that helps them punch above their weight in political processes.

The existence of such multilevel relational infrastructures adds overlooked sources of advantage or disadvantage when the social sciences explain individual achievements and social inequalities. As an example, Figure 2 represents the complexity of a member’s position in a multilevel structure. It shows a three-level personal network composed of a personal collaboration network at the bottom (first, intra-organizational level), a professional network in her field of professional practice (second, inter-organizational level) and an extended network that helps her reach out to “dual alters”, i.e. alters who can be reached by closing a multilevel three-path. Having identified these such dual alters for each organizational member, we show that, when they can provide needed complementary resources, they also provide “network lift” in terms of performance. The patterns of these superposed networks can thus be beneficial (or detrimental) thanks to these “extended opportunity structures”. A new model of how achievement and performances vary in this relational and structural space shows that it depends on the three networks together and the synchronization of their temporalities.

Lazega fig 2

Such multilevel, extended opportunity structures can have effects not just in terms of individual achievements. Indeed individuals build relationships across organizational boundaries; but organizations also build inter-organizational networks in their field (industry, policy domain, etc.). We show that identifying such multilevel relational infrastructures helps revisit the relationship between the organization and its environment. It helps better understand markets and their regulation by new forms of coopetition and new public/private institutions in the political economy. For example, we show that vertical linchpins with multilevel and inconsistent dimensions of status punch above their weight in new institution building. It also helps re-explore the relationship between organization and social stratification, for example by identifying collegial oligarchies that become ratchets for other processes: elite self-segregation, opportunity hoarding using top down collegiality, institutional capture, and dumping of synchronization costs in coordination of temporalities across levels.

Finally, multilevel relational infrastructures help make sense of current development of a new and phenomenal kind of bureaucratization of society based on massive digitalization. Contemporary technological changes redefine the classical Weberian link between efficiency and social control by extending the scope of routinization to activities previously considered innovative. This produces a new stratigraphic organizational combination – which we call “inside out collegiality” – illustrated here with the use of the multilayer “swarm template” by the contemporary military. This digitalization allows, for example, hegemonic Big Relational Tech platforms to concentrate new capacities to steer changes in the organizational society, powers that are based, in particular, on very precise knowledge of the multilevel relational infrastructures of society.

Without any claim to exhaustivity, this book thus helps revisit some of the issues that have been at the core of contemporary sociology of organizations, economic sociology and political sociology. At least four general areas of urgent further research are identified from the formalism and from the approach of social and institutional change presented here. The first is the redefinition of the commons and collective responsibility, for example in cooperatives or in more distributed uses of bottom up platforms. The second is in the use of organizations as ratchets of social stratification and social inequalities. The third is the struggle for open science and against social engineering that is based on privatized and monopolized knowledge of multilevel relational infrastructures in society. And the fourth is a better understanding of dynamics of multilevel networks in joint regulation and the political process. Further exploitation and expansion of this framework is a task that open science and public sociology should not leave to the growing privatized and closed social sciences.

Emmanuel Lazega is Professor at Sciences Po, CSO-CNRS, IUF, France

Lazega Bureacracy


Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Social Change is out now

Read chapter 1 free on Elgaronline


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