Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks

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Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks. By David Ronfeldt. Rand.

Original at

Excerpts at


"Power and influence appear to be migrating to actors who are skilled at developing multiorganizational networks, and at operating in environments where networks are an appropriate, spreading form of organization. In many realms of society, they are gaining strength relative to other, especially hierarchical forms. Indeed, another key proposition about the information revolution is that it erodes and makes life difficult for traditional hierarchies.

This trend ”the rise of network forms of organization” is so strong that, projected into the future, it augurs major transformations in how societies are organized.

What forms account for the organization of societies? How have people organized their societies across the ages?

The answer may be reduced to four basic forms of organization:

1. the kinship-based tribe, as denoted by the structure of extended families, clans, and other lineage systems.

2. the hierarchical institution, as exemplified by the army, the (Catholic) church, and ultimately the bureaucratic state.

3. competitive-exchange market, as symbolized by merchants and traders responding to forces of supply and demand.

4. and the collaborative network, as found today in the web-like ties among some NGOs devoted to social advocacy."


David Ronfeldt:

"The idea I've pursued for TIMN is that the rise of each major form — tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, info-age networks — is associated with a different information and communications technology revolution. In brief, the rise of the tribal form depended on a symbolic revolution: the emergence of language and early writing (runes, glyphs), enabling the storytelling that is central to tribal cultures. The rise of the hierarchical institutional form — as in the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the absolutist states, and their vast administrative structures — reflected a mechanical revolution: the development of formal writing and printing, first penned script and later the printing press. This was important not only for keeping records and issuing commands, but also for inscribing laws that chiefdoms and states could apply to growing populations who were not kinfolk and often not well-known to each other. Next, the rise of the market form and its far-flung business enterprises was sped by the electrical technologies of the 19th century: the telegraph, telephone, and radio. Today’s spread of the network form extends from the digital revolution and its technologies, notably the Internet, fax machines, and cellular telephones, which are especially empowering for civil-society associations around the world and across political spectrums." (