Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Sociology of Decentralization

Even though many things have been centralized in modern societies during recent decades and centuries—tax-collecting, census-taking, customs and border patrolling, policing—other things remain decentralized. An anarchist-sociology would note these elements and raise-up their enduring importance. As Mildred Loomis (2005) explains:
Decentralization is not turning back the clock. Through decentralization, independence would replace dependency; honesty and justice would replace delinquency. Health would prevent disease and degeneracy; creative work and folk art would replace decadent and inhuman activities. For these desired ends, Decentralization would organize production, control, ownership, government, communication, education, and population in smaller, more human units. (pp. 23-24)

Thus, decentralization refers to the social relationships and organization lacking a a centralized mechanism, structure, or authority, while not precluding coordination, cooperation, or communication. In fact, many people like smaller things, such as being able to talk with individuals, and tend to identify with their local areas, immediate surroundings, and lived situations. The desire for an immediate connection to others—not one mediated by large, impersonal institutions—is a very real one. Decentralization is not simply a means of facilitating a more thoroughly lived life, but also an avenue to being more democratic and participatory. As Robert Michels (1958) argued, centralization and largesse causes problems of leadership consolidation and elitism within organizations, thus stunting the potential for rank-and-file democracy.

If humans live in scaled-back, local communities, trust is likely to develop in people living elsewhere. Others are apt act in ways roughly similar to one's own community. If larger structures of coordination seem to be required between locales, they can connect via horizontal federation. Thus, it is possible to create a complex society, based around direct democracy, local control, and larger-scale coordination, all without resorting to authoritarian leadership or bureaucracy.

These sorts of phenomena—decentralized groupings and federation structures—exist throughout society, from computer networks like the Internet to collections of friends and neighborhood groups. All sorts of organizations have chosen to federate with each other, as shown by the massive networking between individuals and organizations that compose modern social movements. The study of social networks has been exploding within sociology, hinting at the extraordinary ways in which most people interact with each other in largely—although not completely—horizontal patterns. Decentralization can be witnessed in the protest strategies regularly employed by anarchists at demonstrations: autonomous affinity groups that work separately within the larger protest event, all pursuing their own independent goals and objectives, but often coordinating actions between affinity groups through horizontally-organized spokesperson councils.

To practice a sociology of decentralization would require the placement of sociologists in all sorts of places in society—not just clustering them within universities and government agencies. Social movement organizations, community groups, and neighborhoods ought to have their own sociologists who help people to understand their social environments. Or, more radically, all could learn to think more sociologically and to exercise their anarchist imaginations. The means by which people share such sociological analysis ought to simulate a network-style approach modeled upon principles of horizontalism and decentralization—no one able to tell others what information they may or may not have. In other words, it is important to put knowledge and the power to use that knowledge in the hands of anyone and everyone, regardless of one's ability to pay for or monopolize it.


Loomis, Mildred J. 2005. Decentralization: Where It Came From, Where Is It Going? Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Michels, Robert. 1958. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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