Gerunds, Articles, and Network

This post was contributed by Dr. Phil D’Adamo-Damery.

In my recent work with the Appalachian Foodshed Project the concept of network has been popping up. See posts by Garland Mason and Susan Clark. It’s been popping around in my head too. I am optimistic of the opportunities this concept brings, but also aware that “network” means a lot of things to a lot of different people. I’m using this blog post to share a little bit about what this word means to me, what it does not, and the potential for this concept and social and environmental justice oriented food systems work.

I can think of three ways that “network” has been used in recent conversations I’ve been a part of. The first, is the idea of networking—the gerund. This makes me think of my somewhat introverted and awkward self, trading business cards with a new professional acquaintance at a conference or summit somewhere. I’ve never been good at this. I lose cards, spill coffee on them, but mostly, I feel unconnected to my new networking success. The second adds an article, a/the network. I picture, a somewhat organized web, or grid, like a phone system—a singular and pre-determined ordering of relationships.( i.e. if you want to talk to so and so, you go through this person, etc.)

The third use is stripped of –ing or the article. It is network. With this usage, the connections are not organized by some outside force (the phone company, the coordinator of the regional network), they are made in the moment and self-selected. In other words, in this type of network, anybody can enter or leave, anybody can collaborate, and anyone can create solutions. In other words, self-organization is possible. The web of relationships is never the same from one moment–it is self-directed, not pre-ordered by a hierarchical entity. This third usage, network, borrows from the open-source ethos of online spaces, like Wikipedia and AirBnB. How do we create collaborative spaces, where the sky is the limit, anybody can pose an idea, anybody can join a project, anybody can answer, edit, suggest, change, borrow, etc.?

Admittedly, both network and a/the network require quite a bit of energy on the part of a group of leaders, but with a self-organizing network, the effort is different. The leaders of a/the network create structure, provide directives—hierarchical organization. With the third type of network, leaders create spaces for self-organization. Yochai Benkler (2011) observed that, due to digital technology, the cost of collaborating and self-organizing are lower today than ever before. According to Michael Feldstein (2007), when costs of participation are low enough, [any motivation] may be sufficient to lead to a collaborative contribution. As food system activists, how can we make the cost of participation in food system change so low that even the slightest motivation will lead to a contribution? What is necessary to make collaboration the path of least resistance?

Food insecurity is a complex and dynamic issue. It is the kind of problem where one solution often leads to another problem and local context limits the effectiveness of top-down one-size-fits-all approaches. Because of this, the concept of self-organization makes a lot of sense when talking about food system networks. If local individuals and organizations can self-select the work that is effective and link into learning and action at other localities and scales, maybe we can develop approaches to food security that are just as nimble and dynamic as the problem itself. This idea really resonates with me, but I think it requires us to think about networks in a different way.

This post was contributed by Dr. Phil D’Adamo-Damery.  Phil is a research associate for the AFP. Phil received his doctorate in December of 2014 from Virginia Tech. As a graduate student in the department of Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education, Phil worked as a graduate research assistant for the AFP.