Tag Archives: group theory

Privilege, Power, and Getting Things Done

Sometimes I’ll be sitting in a group discussing our plans and somebody will say, “Hey, I have an idea! What if we do this?” The person looks around to the group for an answer. Some people shrug, some people look interested. Somebody might respond to the idea and somebody might bring up another idea, or the original person might expand on the idea.

Now everybody’s thinking, “Well, let’s see what the group thinks about this idea.”

But does a group think? And if so, how do you know what it thought?

People’s eyes settle on one or two people. There’s a smile and a nod from those people, or a frown. Somebody speaks.

“Well I think this. What does everyone else think?”

One or two people might speak up and discussion might go on from there. If nobody interrupts this train of thought, a decision might get made.

But who made that decision?


Here’s something I’ve seen. Meeting after meeting, somebody brings up an idea. “Here’s something our group do. What do people think?” Nobody’s all that interested, but nobody’s opposed. They’d be perfectly happy to pitch in if somebody else takes the lead.

The person asks the group and nobody answers.


Or there’s this. “Here’s a proposal. What do people think?” Everybody shrugs and then one person speaks up. “What a great idea! Let’s all do it!” Some people frown and look down. They’d rather not do anything, or they think the group shouldn’t do it. A third person says, “Why not?” The first person says, “Do we have consensus on this? Okay, then!”


All in all, people have a muddled understanding of what a group is. We think we can ask a question of a group and get an answer. But it’s people who answer, and the kinds of responses depend on all kinds of factors: communication styles, speed of response, degree of shyness, amount of power within a group.

When you start to think about power, it’s well worth taking a look at the short article “Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman. Written in 1971, it suggests that the apparent structurelessness of groups — specifically, radical feminist groups in the 1960s — masks an actual informal power structure, with unelected elites dominating the process. It proposes seven concrete steps that can be taken to safeguard democratic process.

An enormous argument ensued, and in 1979, Cathy Levine wrote a response called “Tyranny of Tyranny.” Her article suggests that structure doesn’t solve the problem of elites, and that the feminist movement needs small, unstructured groups.

The argument is still going on, and it’s especially relevant in groups that are trying to undo systems of oppression such as sexism, racism, class tyranny — anytime there’s a power imbalance. Groups choose leaders, whether explicitly or informally, and by default those leaders will be the ones at the top of the hierarchy in the system of oppression we’re trying to dismantle. Preventing that means taking specific steps, but what are they?


So maybe you’re in a group, and there’s a leader that got chosen by default, and that leader understands they have a position of privilege and wants to let somebody else have a chance. So they don’t take up the mantle of power that the group is trying to give them and then what happens? Who’s making the decisions? Should we just have a go-round?


Well, here’s the trouble with go-rounds.

The size of the group has an impact on how quickly decisions can be made, and so does the decision-making mechanism. There’s an enormous difference between a group of 5 and a group of 10. Here’s the math, from the essay “Small Group Size Limits and Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops.” 

Imagine a simple scenario where all N people in a group are given the opportunity to speak for 2 minutes, and everyone can respond to others people’s initial point for 1 minute.  The meeting lasts 2N+N(N-1) minutes which is 30 minutes for 5 people, almost 2 hours for 10 people, and 7 hours for 20 people.  The problem is clear here, even with severe limitations on communication.  Allowing fuller interaction would make the meeting of 5 take maybe another hour, but 20 people might take literally years of nonstop 24/7 meetings.



Sometimes I feel like I’ve been in years of nonstop 24/7 meetings. I’m tired of the group conversations that drag on and on, ending with nothing decided. Enough is enough. Here’s my question: “Our group has a mission. How can we just get the dang thing done???”


So here’s the question, and I don’t have the answer: how do you fairly, inclusively, and quickly find out what the group wants to do, individually and collectively, and then do it?

There’s not just one answer. But here are some things to think about:

  1. It’s good to have an agenda, a chair/facilitator, a timekeeper, and somebody to take notes.
  2. Everybody should get a chance to speak. Nobody should take more than their fair share of time.
  3. Somebody’s going to end up being the informal leader. That person has the dual responsibility of making sure things get done and sharing power fairly.
  4. It’s good to train group members up so that everyone can take on that leadership role from time to time.
  5. It’s good to have somebody who’s able to “take the pulse” of the group and help it focus.
  6. Surveys can be our friend! And big butcher paper. Everyone gets to talk at once.
  7. Big groups can break out into small ones.

Well, that’s a start, but . . . what else?

(You tell me.)


Cat Question Mark by Retta Stephensen