If History is Useful for Anything – 3 ‘Networks’

“You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family,” Anonymous

Having attempted to give some definition to the four various types of Networks for this inquiry, we can now see if Toynbee’s arguments are applicable to people groups (Networks) smaller than and less formal than organizations.

Family, Clans, Tribes, and Other Social ‘Networks’ – Do Toynbee’s Arguments Fit?

The Affiliation Argument

It is easy to see that the two Related Networks (Immediate Family; Extended Family) are affiliated as they have historical roots in their ancestors. It also appears that some early Relational Networks (Close Friends; Extended Contacts) also developed within Related Networks, as some family/clan members just got along better with each other than with others.

As survival began to depend more upon barter and trade, conditions also became fertile for Relational Networks to develop outside of the Related Networks of immediate family, clan, and tribe (guilds, political parties, etc., affiliated through common interests). There are marvelous studies on the relational economic foundations for the development of Western civilization, most notably Henri Pirenne’s easily readable Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade.

The Challenges Argument

Consider The Response to Challenges argument first for the two Related Networks. External challenges not only arose from the variable availability of food due to climate, but families and clans certainly also had internal issues as well as competing clans and cultures. The normal cycles for these Related Networks often followed the Toynbee sequence of universal state/time of troubles/interregnum (& migration)/recovery or disintegration.

The smaller family Network unit also experienced internally and externally generated challenges (very often with cyclic similarity, with results that would be strengthening or disintegrating). Looking at these Related Networks from the smaller families to clans to tribes, it is interesting to observe that our own experiences and a large number of historical studies support the idea that families experience Toynbee’s cycles and greater challenges to survival more often than do clans, and clans more often than do tribes. There is indeed greater safety in numbers. (And history books often tend to ignore smaller events affecting smaller groups as statistically insignificant. Emigration to North America in the 1600s was driven by climatic changes, famine, war, and persecution, and we read about the macro effects rather than individual families or even clans.)

Our experience and observations then support Toynbee’s main thesis (Successful Response to Challenges) for our two Related Networks.

For Relational Networks with smaller size (the social ones), however, The Response to Challenges argument appears less applicable, as there is typically no defined hierarchical structure in these smaller Networks. We alone determine whether or not our ‘social network’ is meeting our needs, which primarily include the affirmation of our person and values. If the Network does not, then we leave it and/or people are dropped. Our Network can potentially grow to a maximum of the Dunbar Number, about 150 individuals whose relationships we are able to constructively ‘maintain’ (that is, influence and affirm, and who do the same for us). The Dunbar Number and these ‘adjustments’ appear to be generally applicable throughout history, except for adolescents, who can add/drop with unbelievable frequency at a very small Network size. Our need for affirmation is rather strong.

However, if one considers an example of a larger Faith based Relational Network (a church denomination), historically Toynbee’s argument appears to apply very well, primarily as there is an organizational hierarchical structure involving a ‘dominant minority’ in each one.

Our experience and observations indicate that Toynbee’s main thesis is not quite fully applicable for our two Relational Networks, as there is a new response available (migration here now including the meaning: leave the group or change it).

In most cases, successfully overcoming a challenge strengthens each of the four Networks. But thinking about this leads to an interesting observation: while in larger groups (organizations, clans, tribes, civilizations) where the ‘dominant minority’ often changes when new challenges arise, in the smaller Related Network family unit the position of ‘dominant minority’ remains with the parents or parent. For a parent(s), raising a family is not easy, especially when life always finds a way to confront us with ample challenges in the form of cycles of routs and rallies. Life happens, and is not always fair. (On one hand, remaining a ‘dominant minority’ as a parent could be considered a contributing factor as to why adolescents hunger to get out on their own sooner rather than later. On the other hand, this could also be a good thing, as in the adolescent’s development the parent could be considered their first real ‘challenge.’)

Relational networks also experience challenges and cycles, and I am thinking here of professional associations, churches, social groups and networks (or political parties: Are they ‘professional’ networks?). Internally generated leadership issues and externally driven image issues can arise if/when larger external or more global economic circumstances lead to challenges to the perception of the Network in the larger society. Consider here the ebb and flow of the relative strength of various political parties (and their leadership) over the last 40 years, and to changes in various church denominations.

What about challenges with respect to or within your personal ‘social network’? Toynbee proposes that ‘General challenges arise from a ‘dominant minority’ or previously ruling class that has become oppressive.’ Perhaps if we consider the ‘ruling class’ in a social network as the ‘dominant minority’ that was providing an unusually large proportion of your needed affirmation, who then realized this fact and began to withhold it to obtain an advantage, we could then consider this as a shift to oppression which demanded your Response to a Challenge (see above).

This calls to mind the examples of many adolescent social interactions and ‘social crises.’ In some cases there may even be a potential shift over to the ‘values enforcing mode for the culture of the Relational Network or group. While it may seem that I am picking on adolescence a bit much, recall that this is a critical time of human development where this type of interaction plays out and we must learn to deal with it. Later in life we just call it ‘politics.’

The System of Relations Argument

All four of our Network types meet Toynbee’s view as a System of Relations among individuals, as this is our fundamental definition and criteria of a Network. And certainly our Networks are the ‘fields of action’ common to their members, and the ‘sources of the action’ are these very same individual Network members.

The Network Growth Argument

For Toynbee, ‘growth’ originates from creative individuals who either solve a problem or achieve their inspiration or discovery, and transfer acceptance of this new behavior or solution to the group. This interpersonal influence contributes to the growth in size, values, and the Networks’ ability to resolve issues.

A critical assumption, however, is that ‘creativity’ is one of the Network’s recognized values. The ground here is perhaps a bit fuzzy because while solving a problem related to survival would be considered a good (creative) thing, would introducing (creating) a ‘new way of doing something’ be regarded as good or threatening? Consider using fire to cook meat, using a log as a lever, or proposing that the Earth revolves around the Sun just as Jupiter’s moons revolve around Jupiter. It took 400 years to correct that ‘values enforcement.’ All ‘creativity’ has not been considered equal, historically.

The Network Breakdown Argument

How many Networks have we seen become irrelevant because leadership became too mechanical (boringly repetitive in meeting needs of affirmation) or became domineering (a ‘dominant minority’ seeking purely to meet their own need for affirmation)? The remaining Network members can feel alienated and depart, and the Network suffers. Consider the recent change in the influence of trade unions. For Related Networks (families, clans), while the blood relationship continues, the social relationship is often broken.

If one observes closely, both passive and active Nemeses of Creativity can be seen to affect the growth and health of these four Network types:

-Idolization of Self (‘we solved the last issue, we will solve the next one’);
-Idolization of Traditions (‘this is the way we think’);
-Idolization of Techniques (‘this is the way we do things’); and possibly
-Material surfeit and/or excessive recognition (esteem) resulting from success.

In breakdown, Networks can also be seen to fracture into Toynbee’s three groups:

-A ‘dominant minority’ or controlling leadership;
-An ‘internal proletariat,’ those ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the Network (shunned or left out);
-‘External Proletariats,’ outsiders who work against the health of the Network.
How many family squabbles can fit that description, or church splits?

Internal Network responses during breakdown often include ‘Archaism’ (‘let’s go back to the way we did it before’) as well as ‘Futurism’ (‘we should now do things a completely different way’), as Toynbee points out.

The Cycles Argument

Cycles clearly affect Networks, but while civilizations may meet Toynbee’s three and a half cycles of routs and rallies, this number of cycles does not seem to hold for Networks. Some Networks appear not to be able to survive a first challenge (consider a ‘play group’ where some children just don’t ‘click’), while others appear to be able to survive long repeated confrontations with different challenges (consider the history of a number of political parties).


What appears to me to surface as a common thread in looking at all four of these Network groups is one component: Self. What I mean here is, when we ask, ‘What is the Purpose of this Network?’ we invariably respond with another question, ‘What does it provide for me?’

For Related Networks (Immediate or Extended Family), survival is the primary purpose and is executed through the preparation of individuals to carry on the family name, values, and culture. Each member can (and invariably does) view him/herself at the center (or pretty close to it) to benefit from the Family’s Purpose. It takes very good leadership (parenting) to maintain a balance between individual and family, and in some cultures this is not achieved nor even valued.

For Relational Networks (Close Friends and Extended Contacts), it is easy to consider a significant (but perhaps unintentional) component of the Network’s Purpose as serving our individual need for affirmation and support. We may invest time and effort in furthering the stated Network Purpose or Mission, but through that we can receive a fair amount of affirmation.

Overall, I see Toynbee’s arguments readily applicable to these four Networks, although there are some minor weaknesses. In counting up satisfactory subjective matches of Networks to Toynbee’s Argument, I come to 19 out of 23 of the summary argument bullet points. Still reasonably compelling.

On a final note, it is probable that if our highest focus is selfishly on our own individual long-term survival and affirmation, then we are simply playing a –∑ game in whichever Network we are operating. In that case, then we’re all just part of the ‘internal proletariat,’ just hockey players so focused on the puck at our feet that we, as part of our ‘Networks,’ will eventually end up pinned under the Zamboni under the bleachers.

On the other hand, if our focus is on the Network’s Mission and our role in helping others to contribute to that, then we are engaged in a +∑ game as part of a ‘creative minority’ that can make long lasting, value added contributions. And probably leave a ‘legacy’ as well.

And that thought brings me to consider the next smallest available unit of study to see if we can apply Toynbee’s arguments there: to you and me, as Individuals. The outcome of this could be very interesting.


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 02: Value Added, A Definition, 04: Games People Play, Lessons from History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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