Discover The Networks – Reticular Guerilla Edition

[Yes, the first part of that title is a lame joke that only a few people will recognize. Those who don’t don’t need to know anyway… for their own sake.]

One of the main benefits of blogging is when interesting people show up in the comments and add meaningful stuff to the post and/or the discussion. That’s what happened when Yannick Rumpala, who works at my alma mater, the University of Nice, albeit in a different unit (I was more of an odd duck here where I didn’t really belong), suggested a different line of discussion in this thread on Polanyi’s relevance. Rumpala linked to his post that itself refers to a manuscript available for download. It is this manuscript that I’d like to discuss here (of course, the paper is formatted in A4, so, I had to reformat it in US Letter, which means that page numbers for quotations will not be accurate).

The main idea of the article, as I understand it, is that a great deal of – mostly – sociological analysis has been devoted to what can be called, for short, the network society at multiple levels, from macro to micro. Rumpala’s point is that this analysis of networks (or reticular analysis, as he calls it) should be taken to the next level: the level of political project, form analysis to actions. He details the different levels at which the reticular analysis can be translated into political action and the possible consequences. As he puts it:

"When developed and extended, network analysis can be a tool of emancipation, both for knowledge and action, which could help counteract a feeling of powerlessness that is too widespread in people who have the impression of being subjected to domination without being able to find the root of the problem.

For example, rather than criticizing globalization, a theme that is largely debated, resorting to network analysis can be a way to more precisely understand the hidden forces that are supposedly behind this transformation. A phrase like "made in China" on a product already gives the buyer information, and for the imaginative mind, it can be an opening to a whole network, including manufacturers, carriers, importers, distributers [sic]… The idea is to go beyond mere imagination and trace these networks in a tangible way, generalizing this practice in order to go over and above the quasi-mythological tales that often describe our world and the new powers that are supposed to be running it." (3 in my manuscript)

What Rumpala calls for (and indeed, his paper reads a lot like a manifesto) is a movement of clarification involving reticular analysis, that is, tracing back the network structure to illuminate its nodes and connections and make them visible and expose the social relations they reflect. As I understand it, it is another way of re-embedding economic and market relations into their social structure (in this case, their networks of social relations), albeit a different one than the traditional formulations by Polanyi and Granovetter.

For Rumpala, this movement of clarification involves three steps:

  1. Tracing networks to gain a better understanding
  2. Using this understanding to choose one modality of action
  3. Intervening in networks

The detailing of these three steps constitutes the heart of the article.

The need for reticular understanding and analysis is especially necessary, for Rumpala, following Callon and Latour, when it comes to global capitalism. However, as much as Callon and Latour, as well as Manuel Castells or Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello have analyzed the Network Society, they have not taken the next step, which is to turn analysis into a political project. In other words, they remained at step 1.

Step 1 is not to be dismissed though, for Rumpala, as it is the necessary moment of knowledge generation to make visible the various levels of interdependence created by interconnected networks. Moreover,

"This knowledge is also useful for making the factors of heteronomy apparent, that is, the factors which are likely to have a rather strong effect on regulating individual and collective choices, or even reduce the ability to act. The position in a network or the simple fact of being part of it can indeed represent a source of structural constraints. (…) More broadly speaking, many of the elements that make up everyday life can be reinterpreted through an understanding of the network of choices." (6)

Rumpala gives the example of the Western consumer whose very act of consuming is not entirely under his control but embedded within a reticular structure reflecting social relations of production, distribution and consumption on a global scale, but also a structure that remains opaque in the act of consuming unless clarified. And indeed, reducing opacity of networks is one major goal of the tracing process.

This tracing process that questions the final act in the network structure (the consuming act, for instance) and reconstructs its reticular structure of production. In the process, one can identifies relationships of power between nodes: which nodes are more "central" than others, or more generally who’s in the network and who’s left out. Rumpala also calls this process "opening the black boxes" whether these are networks of global governance, terrorist networks, offshore financial flows or commodity chains.

[A bit of nitpicking on this particular point, I think Rumpala should be more conceptually careful, commodity chains are not exactly the same as networks and maybe should not be treated as such although the mode of analysis he suggests definitely applies to these chains.]

Here, Rumpala refers to David Held’s concept of multilayered and multi-actored global governance where a variety of social actors are involving in the tracing process, from NGOs to academic publications to supra-national agencies and to provide interventions when problematic information is unveiled. At the same time, traceability may require a global regulatory regime, for instance, for food products or pharmaceutical drugs. Such regulatory regime is only partial and unequally developed in different domains. Reticular analysis might reveal where it might be necessary to extend it.

When it comes to moving from analysis to action, Rumpala’s development are reminiscent of Giddens’s concept of reflexive modernity. For instance,

"Familiarizing oneself with how one is part of networks could lead to reflection, resulting in the possibility of being able to choose the networks one participates in. Each person’s life is made up of a sequence of connections that can be examined in a critical manner. The challenge would be to have a better understanding of the range of these connections so each person could clearly see his or her participation, voluntary or not, in certain networks.

Concerning ways of life, making purchases, for example, becomes less of a neutral act. Not choosing certain products when buying is a way to reject certain networks of production." (13)

This greater reflection is visible in the support for fair trade or organic goods as well as other forms of ethical or environmental consumerism (or to use Michele Micheletti’s term, "individualized collective action"). However, taking such ethical stances is only possible once one is in position to see the entire network of production behind the goods and services one purchases. In turn them it becomes possible to redefine the social and economic relationship between producer and consumer, as in the case of solidarity economics (already discussed many times on this blog).

At the same time, the point of social activism in favor of fair trade, local agriculture, organic production, solidarity economic, etc. is to affect the relationships within the networks of production, distribution and consumption. This can be done through labeling that reveals the tracing of products, or through classification that highlight the entire nature of the network (fair trade, no slave labor involved, etc.). This would subvert the logic of opacity that prevails in mass retailing.

And this is indeed the ultimate goal of this clarification movement: increase the possibilities of intervention and subversion of networks through activists networks:

"Being able to identify the production of forms of domination by certain networks is likely to create the conditions for the destabilization of these networks. Opposition becomes more easily imaginable once the restrictive relational structures have been made apparent. Challenging forced participation can contribute to  the undoing of the established networks by loosening the ties that had been formed." (17)

For Rumpala, a good example of this is the voluntary simplicity movement for whom refusal to participate becomes a form of resistance and subversion. This movement also points to the fact that if there is to be subversion of existing networks, then, alternatives have to be available. And one can already see that such alternatives have been proposed, discussed and sometimes implemented through fora such as the World Social Forum and other more local networks. Here again, global activism is multi-layered. It is a Durkheimian social fact in itself that the favored organizational form of such activism is also the network.

The overall goal, though, according to Rumpala, is influence both as means and end:

"Influence as a tactic of collective action has an interesting particularity, in that it can be part of a cumulative process. The interaction of different influences can allow a critical mass to be attained. The boycotting of certain products or certain businesses can be interpreted, from an individual point of view, as a refusal to connect to certain network. But above all, when a boycott is publicized and collective, it increases its power to influence. The boycott can dry up the profits of a market, and if a part of the market is deprived of its resources, there is a good chan[g]e that it will disappear or at least decline." (19)

Influence is central to the idea of citizenship in a democratic context. Insofar as clarification potentially increases reflective participation, it strengthens democratic citizenship. Citizens themselves can be conceptualized as nodes with a variety of connections to various levels of the social structure. The more information circulates through activist networks, making clarification more widely available, the more choices open. At the same time, the increase in networked activism opens the possibility of more and greater connections among citizens within and across borders, making the idea of global citizenship a realistic possibility.

As much as I find a great deal of the paper persuasive, I cannot help but being left with a few comments. First, as I mentioned above, this paper reads not just like a manifesto (nothing wrong with that), but also like a utopian one at that. After all, the possibilities of networks can also be used in the context of the surveillance society, as is already the case, or in the context of the transparent society. There is a definite dark side to the network society. Another dark side is the persistence of gross social inequalities that are the major obstacle to participation. Indeed, for a lot of people, especially in the Global South, opting out is not an option.

That being said, I think there is a very fertile field of conceptualization, research and activism that Rumpala very clearly exposes.

8 thoughts on “Discover The Networks – Reticular Guerilla Edition

    • You’re welcome. This was a really interesting paper on what I think is a centrally important topic.

      Are you going to publish it somewhere?

      • I am trying to find an academic journal to publish a stabilized form of the whole argument. But, as you said, it is often taken as a manifesto. My problem is also that my English is not totally perfect.
        Good luck for your blog.

        • Have you tried Global-E? It’s not as prestigious as Globalizations or Global Networks but they do publish pieces similar to yours in tone on a variety of topics related to globalization.

          Or else, you can always create your own online journals, “Reticulations” or something like that. :-)

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