Networks and Power: Why Networks are Hierarchical Not Flat and What Can Be Done About It

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Many scholars, policy makers and practitioners associate new, networked forms of collaboration and governance with positive attributes such as speed, flexibility, adaptability and ‘flatness’. This article contrasts the assumptions that networks essentially moderate external asymmetries of power with the network theoretical view that networks may amplify existing hierarchies. The case study network explored supports the network theoretical view that existing power relations may be increased when a multistakeholder partnership network is established. The use of Social Network Analysis facilitates the comparison of the structures and relationships into which global policy actors are organised (the formal network) with the relationships and relational structures into which they choose to organise themselves (informal network). In the conclusions, I introduce the practice of network rewiring that could overcome the network mechanisms that amplify existing power relations. Further research is required that adds more case study evidence in order to raise (and begin to answer) questions that will give a wider view of the social structuring of power in partnership networks in international development, such as those referred to in the recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Policy recommendations 

Establishing a formal network does not necessarily moderate existing asymmetries of power. Networks may amplify disparities of power that existed prior to their establishment.
In this case of global development aid, discursively reframing relationships between ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ as partnerships may be necessary to transform aid relations, but it is not sufficient.
To overcome the network mechanisms that maintain hierarchy, network actors who are perceived to be more powerful need to rewire their networks.
Network analyses such as this can support the implementation of systems approaches to researching complex social policy issues.