Tribes and networks coexist

So the social networking utopia is not coming, writes Mashable’s Chris Taylor on CNN. He cites one Dunbar number (now all the rage) and concludes:

Turns out we’re hardwired to get along best in tight groups of no more than 150, and have been since we were living on the African savannah. Armies take advantage of this hardwiring, as do the smartest corporations, not to mention wedding planners.

Dunbar’s research looked at relationships among primates and didn’t take into account loose ties or electronically mediated & enhanced communications. It is not a fair comparison. But Taylor’s words on Tribalism triggered an old connection for me:

A study released this month shows that digital tribalism is alive and well in the social network era. The tribes I’m talking about aren’t nations, corporations or sports teams, though clearly these brands all matter as much as they ever did.

I’m talking literally about tribes — as in the kind of village-sized small groups most of us lived among for nearly all of human history, right up until the 20th century. Small groups that we now seem to be organizing ourselves into again — virtually.

A few years ago I came across a framework of our four primary historical modes of organizing – Tribal; Institutional; Markets; Networks. The TIMN framework shows how we have evolved as a society. It has not been a clean progression from one mode to the next but rather the new form built-upon and changed the previous mode.

A key point of this framework is that Tribes exist within Institutions, Markets AND Networks. We never lose our affinity for community groups or family, but each mode brings new factors that influence our previous modes. So yes, tribalism is alive and well in online social networks. It’s just not the same tribalism of several hundred years ago.

We are in a transition from a market to network-dominated society, and according to David Ronfeldt, each transition has its hazards. While tribal societies may result in nepotism, networked societies can lead to deception, as Mashable itself has reported. It’s interesting that tribes of hackers are a potential counter to network deception.

Ronfeldt states that the initial tribal form informs the other modes and can have a profound influence as they evolve.

Balanced combination is apparently imperative: Each form (and its realm) builds on its predecessor(s). In the progression from T through T+I+M+N, the rise of a new form depends on the successes (and failures) achieved through the earlier forms. For a society to progress optimally through the addition of new forms, no single form should be allowed to dominate any other, and none should be suppressed or eliminated. A society’s potential to function well at a given stage, and to evolve to a higher level of complexity, depends on its ability to integrate these inherently contradictory forms into a well-functioning whole. A society can constrain its prospects for evolutionary growth by elevating a single form to primacy — as appears to be a tendency at times in market-mad America.

So tribes are not dead, and neither are institutions and markets, in a networked society. We need to understand all four modes as we make the current transition. Saying that tribes render social networks useless after 150 connections is a bit trite. The real work is in figuring out how best to create organizations, and societies, that balance combinations of all four modes, emphasize their bright sides and remain in perpetual Beta [what Ronfeldt calls incomplete adaptation].

The TIMN framework is very useful for having deeper conversations and increasing our understanding of what we’re going through as a society. It should be required reading for organizational leaders and politicians as well.

6 Responses to “Tribes and networks coexist”

  1. Tom Haskins

    Harold: it’s great to see you exploring the TIMN model. In my blogging about it, I’ve realized that lots of so-called markets are functioning as institutions bent on self preservation, rather than serving their customers with innovations. I’ve also distilled one essence of the Network / Quadriform society development as “serving others’ interests reciprocally”. Thus those anti-social deceptions spawned by networks are tribal functions, not network functionality. When I overlap TIMN and Cynefin models, those tribal disruptions of networked trust levels, value exchanges and collaborations are Simple — in views of the world and using Simple approaches to making changes. The deceptive maneuvers resemble nepotism to me, where the ruler is beautifying the palace instead of building roads or keeping an airport open. Institutions are Complicated, Markets are Complex and Networks immerse us in Chaos.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Tom. Your term “serving others’ interests reciprocally” sounds like cooperation, which is quite different from collaboration (aka teamwork). We cooperate with no specific or direct return on our actions expected. The more people who cooperate or “do the right thing” make networks stronger & resilient.

      As for networks being chaotic, I think they straddle both complexity & chaos.

  2. Don Edward Beck, Ph. D.

    There is a 5th model that needs to be added to the list: meshworks. The 4th model responds to the problems created by the 3rd Model — like the Russian dolls with a doll within a doll etc. as each responds to the Life Conditions and Problems of Existence. While M emerges from excessive forms of I, N rises to counter negative (greed) in M — thus a circles of equals — but it does not end there. a Meshworks ( X)
    creates both horizontal and vertical connections around functional codes — so, there is Stratified Democracy and evolutionary connections. All of this is based on the seminal work of Professor Clare W. Graves and our applications in Spiral Dynamics. ( and This grows out of our work in South Africa (63 trips); Palestine and many other places around the planet. See the movie INVICTUS for a manifestation of this concept in South Africa.

    Don Edward Beck, Ph. D.

  3. Don Edward Beck, Ph. D.

    I will forward the entire INVICTUS story but to which email?
    I was a sports psychologist for the l995 Springbok in the World cup — and planned this strategy when Nelson was still in Prison. All contained in my book The Crucible: Forging South Africa’s Future that I co-authored in l991, 4 years before the l995 World Cup. We developed Meshworks Solutions as an emerging model beyond collaboration. It is called, also, Natural Design.


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