Are you on the Bully watch?

November 25, 2007

Virtual Canuck picks up my posting about crews, teams etc but takes issue with my position, I quote: So I don’t think that Snowden’s use of the term crew to define a subset of groups really moves us forward. It turns out that the author (Terry) along with one Jon Dron has already created a taxonomy of groups, networks and collectives which is more than adequate for the field. interestingly they quote my two statements on the unique features of crews in full. However their failure to take those features into account and their general assumptions about taxonomies indicate that either I did not explain myself well, or they are wedded to their three fold classification and do not want to brook any challenge. On the assumption that the former is the case, I will clarify the statements and deal directly with their comments on crews, after a general discourse on their three fold classification which I find unhelpful (this is not simple retaliation, I really don’t like it).

Now for starters I do not buy the idea that you can classify types of groups/community or whatever. Whenever a group of people come together physically or virtually there will be aspects of community, networks etc etc. These are overlapping sets, and the nature of the overlap will shift depending on context. I argued that all communities (a phrase not used by Terry and Jon) are networks, but not all networks are communities. In saying that I am pointing to the obvious fact that to exist as a community some form of network has to be in place, but that a commercial network or other transaction network, does not have to be a community.

Now some of this is of course tied up in definitions. Terry and Jon (I am resisting the temptation to swap the first letters of their names and change an n to a m) define groups as people who know each other, have expectations for cooperation, know they are members of the group and have some form of acknowledged structure. In contrast networks have membership which changes, leadership and structure are emergent and are dependent on interaction to persist. Collectives seems an obscure concept defined as less personal and are created by aggregation, analysis and exploitation of information generated by us as we engage ion both individual, group and network activities.

Now there are several objections to this, even before we come to the question of crews with which I will finish. Firstly there is massive confusion here between the informal and the formal. T&J seem to be defining groups as formal, networks as informal. If this is the case why not use those words? You could dress it up a bit and use the anthropologists’ distinction between rule based and ideation based cultures. You could talk about emergent authority, but in essence you would be talking about informal and formal system. In any common sense meaning of the words groups and networks can be both formal and informal (I am using groups here generically). So not only do I think this distinction is unhelpful, I think it is confusing given their language, if they changed the language and made it a tension, or dialectic not a categorical distinction then I would support it.

That leads to my second objection to their use of “collective”. Now in my cultural context a collective is a group who come together with a common purpose. The Co-op movement, a farmers collective etc. These have aspects of community, and some aspects of team along with networks. They are not less personal, and they too may be formal and informal.

My substantial objection however is to the categorisation evidenced in their final paragraph. They want to decide the social into three categories (Groups, Networks and Collectives) which could be broken into finer designations or aggregated, but I think they are distinct enough to help us sort out the hundreds of Web 2.0 tools being created and hopefully provide conceptual clarity as we harness these tools to support useful learning activities. So despite earlier weak questioning of the value of taxonomy, at its heart we have a desire to divide the social into three categories and link technology to those categories. Aside from the unusual definitions of common place words to maintain this somewhat artificial separation, there also seems to be an assumption that Web 2.0 tools can be fitted to those categories. Now I can see why they are doing this. The desire to make things neat and tidy seems irresistible to many, although it should be resisted. In general technologies at the level of Web 2,0 are fragmented in nature (unlike ERP systems for example) and their use is likely to be emergent, not structured, with novel and unexpected uses of tools being common place but the nature of which can not be forecasted. All attempts to categorise run the danger of limiting our imagination and T&J’s seem to be heading in that direction.


I referenced two distinct features on crews. Firstly, that people are trained in role, and expectation of role instantiating that role with ritual. Secondly that the crew only exists for a short period of time before it dissolves, and then reassembles with different people occupying the roles but with the same expectations. A crew is clearly a formal community which require investment in training and considerable social reinforcement over time. I suggested that we had neglected crews in organisational work and hold to that suggestion.

Terry likes the nautical reference, even though I talked about planes, and argues that a educational class is a crew as they may wear uniform, goes through rituals and are time bound. This is the only specific argument offered and to be brutal it is a nonsense. Any group of people who have to live together for a period (such as a class, a management course etc) will go through a process of team formation and yes there may be ritual (it is a part of being human). However this is radically different from a crew on a ship, in a plane, among firefighters. No one in the class spends a year or more being trained in their specific roles, they are in the class for a year, not the typical eight hour watch or duty period, the class members do not assemble into different crews during the course of year. The rituals are not formalised into check lists and procedures? Need I go on? If Terry is right in his criticism then I would expect to see formal training courses to allow someone to be a school bully, bullies would rotate on watch periods to make sure they are fresh and concentrate on their tasks. Their confusion of the formal nature of roles, and the informal assumption of roles/archetypes parallels their earlier failure to understand the tension between the formal and the informal.

There are different perspectives and ways of looking at social systems. There are also some useful dialectical statements (informal – formal) which can help provide perspective (note I said dialectic not category). There are some distinct forms (such as crews, transaction networks and others) which partake of general qualities but are also distinct. All of this requires a more open attitude, an avoidance of three fold classification systems and a tolerance of mess.

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