Useful Dialectics, Part Three – Hierarchy vs. Network

“The shift from hierarchical organizational structures to networked ones is the dominant theme of the current era.”

– Catherine Bracy

In the first post in this series, I explored the differences between change and transformation. In the last post, I made some claims about design and tradition, and tried to drag some experience design principles into thinking about designing workflows; designing how we design. It was really a call for more reflective practice. In this post, I want to explore the current tension between ways of thinking about power relationships; the established hierarchical model, versus the emergent network model.



The original hierarchy. Detail from “The Assumption of the Virgin” by Francesco Botticini. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.”

– Saint Ignatius

Hierarchy is an interesting word, and oft-maligned, I imagine because of the word’s religious origins. In the overwhelmingly secular West, anything smacking of religiosity is suspect, and “hierarchy”, “the sacred order of things”, originally applied in Catholic doctrine to the heavenly order of angels who oversaw all of God’s creation. Over time, the term has literally been been brought down to Earth to mean any entrenched system where people are ranked according to authority or power or status. The apparatus of control is very clear and explicit, and the relative positions of actors in a hierarchy is apparent to both. That can be a real boon to efficiency, in that it saves time. In the same way that traditions can short circuit the need for negotiation, “Why do we do things this way?”, a hierarchy makes it really clear who’s in charge. In this system, increasing one’s power is tied inextricably to increasing one’s rank in the hierarchy.

The downside of any hierarchy of course, is that the people most often deeply invested in preserving it are also the people who have the most agency and power. Paired with strong traditions, a strong hierarchy can be almost impossible to influence, let alone change, or transform.  James McAnally summed it up nicely in his Hyperallergic essay, “A Call for a Collective Reexamination of Our Art Institutions, “When dismantling a hierarchy, those with real power always want to settle for plucking out a brick when it’s the foundation at fault, something in the water that was mixed in with the cement.”  

So how to tangle productively with hierarchies to effect improvement in our museums?


Detail of a map of the Internet in 2005, by The Opte Project, CC BY 2.5 image, via Wikimedia Commons

The most important thing to bear in mind is how the ground has shifted under us. Traditional hierarchies, like everything else, have been profoundly affected by the advent of the digital era and the transformations it has wrought. We are now connected through networks of networks, and it has changed how we can organize. This was effectively described at MCN 2016 by the keynote speaker, Catherine Bracy, a former Obama campaign official in charge of the massive online efforts to elect and re-elect Barack Obama. It was a galvanizing speech, coming on the cusp of the presidential election and it seems even more prescient now. After bleakly detailing the American public’s waning trust in institutions in the 21st century, she called the root cause a failure of the elites (i.e., us) to manage our institutions effectively and fairly.

Her discussion of how modern political campaigns have evolved from hierarchical models to more distributed, “snowflake” structures that push authority out to edges, both mirrors the modern Internet, and gave hope to many in the audience who work in 20th  (or 19th, or even 18th) century hierarchies. The Obama campaigns ability to use a network organizational model allowed to scale rapidly and effectively, without the need for a strong central hierarchy making all the decisions. Bracy’s description of the online campaigns reminded me of how online communities operate nowadays. Power resides in the density of connections at a given node, not the level of that node in a hierarchy. In “The Wealth of Networks”, Yochai Benkler describes how different power dynamics are in a networked environment, using the example of Linux inventor Linus Torvald’s relationship with the network of developers working on Linux,

“Torvalds’s authority is persuasive, not legal or technical, and certainly not determinative. He can do nothing except persuade others to prevent them from developing anything they want and add it to their kernel, or to distribute that alternative version of the kernel. There is nothing he can do to prevent the entire community of users, or some subsection of it, from rejecting his judgment about what ought to be included in the kernel. Anyone is legally free to do as they please. So these projects are based on a hierarchy of meritocratic respect, on social norms, and, to a great extent, on the mutual recognition by most players in this game that it is to everybody’s advantage to have someone overlay a peer review system with some leadership.” 

It is interesting to note that the distributed community of Linux developers is both a network in some ways, and a hierarchy in others. I imagine the Obama campaigns also had features of hierarchy alongside their networked structure. Maybe the shift is not so much networks supplanting hierarchies. Maybe it’s more a case of networks cohabiting alongside hierarchies.

The idea that museums can (and should) be thinking more like networks is already a decade old.  For me, my understanding of museums as networks rests on two influential papers. The first is Nancy Proctor’s “The Museum as Distributed Network”. Proctor, one of the most relentlessly curious intellects I’ve encountered, has been advocating a network model for years. For her,

“Notions of authority and hierarchy are not very helpful in describing relationships and processes that work together more like mash-ups than pronouncements. Truth, rather than being disseminated outwards from a center point, is discovered in its intersections and interstices, through the (sometimes surprising) juxtapositions that can happen when experiences are assembled collaboratively along the many-branched paths of a rhizome. In the museum as distributed network, content and experience creation resembles atoms coming together and reforming on new platforms to create new molecules, or ‘choose your own ending’ adventure stories.”

Like Bracy, Proctor’s conception of the network model privileges relationships over status, particularly outward relationships.  Note that she refers to the network as a rhizome. This will be important in a little while.

The second essay, “Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture”, by Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo, laid in a lot of theoretical underpinning for understanding how non-hierarchical organizations operate and why. They posit the transition from place to space being a metaphor for understanding the museum-as-network.

“It is undergoing yet another transformation from an early place-based cultural institution to a more dispersed (post)modern space. As sociologist Michel de Certeau argues, the concept of place has been used by the dominant orders to organize and control society through urban planning and architecture. Space, on the other hand, is constructed by people through the practice of living and walking. Place implies stability, “an instantaneous configuration of positions,” while space considers “vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements” (de Certeau,117). As de Certeau asserts: “space is a practiced place” (117).”

Again, going from “places” to “spaces” involves a lot of interpersonal communication. It’s an idea that’s certainly got appeal. Thinking about organizations as networks rather than hierarchies is widespread in the business community and has been making it’s way into museums. Patrick Greene’s discussion of Museum Victoria’s new org structure explicitly describes the museum as “the networked museum” and applies Lipnack’s and Stamps’ idea of a networked organization as one where “independent people and groups act as independent nodes, link across boundaries, to work together for a common purpose; it has multiple leaders, lots of voluntary links and interacting levels.” So the future is here, it’s just been unevenly applied thus far.

I still wasn’t entirely sure I bought the “networks will eat hierarchies” idea, even though I agree with almost everything I’ve read or heard about the power of networks. This blog post titled “Frankenstacks and Rhizomes” by Venkatesh Rao neatly summed up why my network/hierarchy dialectic was unsatisfying to me. It turns out there is a better dialectic; rhizome vs arboresence!

Rhizome vs arboresence


Left, Ginger root. CC BY-SA 3.0 image by Frank C. Müller, via Wikimedia Commons. Right, Onion. CC0 Public Domain image by Rajesh Misra


Here are some of Rao’s points about rhizomes and arboresences:

  1. Consider the difference between an onion and a piece of ginger. The ginger root is the motif for what philosophers call a rhizome. The onion for what they call an arborescence.
  2. With an onion, you can always tell which way is up, and can distinguish horizontal sections apart from vertical sections easily by visual inspection.
    With a piece of ginger, there is no clear absolute orientation around an up, and no clear distinction between horizontal and vertical.
  3. According to the linked Wikipedia entry (worth reading), a rhizome “allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.”
  4. If you tend to use the cliched “hierarchies versus networks” metaphor for talking about old versus new IT, you would do well to shift to the rhizomatic/arborescent distinction.
  5. Both onions and ginger roots show some signs of both hierarchical structure and network-like internal connections.
  6. The difference is that one has no default orientation, direction of change, or defining internal symmetries. Rhizomes are disorderly and messy in architectural terms.

Numbers 4 and 5, of course, leapt out at me. Interestingly, Rao’s example is focused much more on platforms and products that on people. I don’t know if that makes a difference, but it does stand out for me. And he’s far from the only one interested in the rhizome metaphor. Nancy Proctor has been advocating for a rhizomatic mindset for at least 10 years. is also a response to this realization. Maybe I’m just prone to wanting to sidestep either/or situations, but there is a utility to the rhizomatic approach that addresses most of my concerns with “the network will save us” philosophies. I never understood why Nancy was so insistent about the rhizome analogy until now. As Sansa Stark said, “I’m a slow learner, it’s true. But I learn.” 

Next Up: Literacy vs. fluency


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