Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Establishment is a Network of Networks

I want to develop a point I made briefly in response to yesterday's post (Modcast). The Establishment, whether Presbyterian or some other kind, is not a tight organic network of strong ties. For one thing, as a national body, it is too dispersed to have the regular contact that a strong network requires. For another, it links together people from different, sometimes competing, institutions.

Within each institution the members of the Establishment are elite individuals, often the top of the local pyramid. As a result, they are well connected in their institution, and to others in their local area. As members of the Establishment, these elite individuals are connected to many other elite individuals by weak ties. Thus, the many strong local networks that these elite individuals are central to are loosely tied to many other strong local networks. The whole Establishment is powerful because the information in any one of these local networks can be mobilized and spread through the national network of weak ties to other places in the Establishment network.

On the other hand, the difference between an Establishment and an aggregation of elite individuals is that the Establishment people are tied in many parallel ways not related to work. In the social Establishment of the nation that E. Digby Baltzell wrote about, family ties assimilated elite individuals into an enduring and socializing national class. This familial class Nelson Aldrich happily called the "cousinage." In the Presbyterian Establishment, the family ties may be weaker -- though by no means absent. Instead, Establishment individuals will have shared experiences from colleges, seminaries, retreat centers, missions, and worship services of all kinds to bind them together in the green wood. These are the ties that help the church function with authority, especially in times of crisis.


halifax said...

By the way (and apropo of both yesterday's comments and Monty Python's Australian philosopher skit), do you mind if I call you Bruce?

Clay Allard said...

Why do you think that sociological ties are the strongest ties that bind the PC(USA) together?
I agree that some new centripetal force needs to form if the PC(USA) is to hold together, but I think Christ's presence and His hold on each of us is the only glue that will work in a pagan polyglot world.
It is the content of the experiences that we hold in common that binds us, not the experiences themselves.
Thanks for the paper-- it is thought-provoking history, but the page has turned, and the world we confront looks a lot more like 2nd century Rome than 20th century America.

Gruntled said...


I agree with you, of course, that what ultimately holds the church together is the Holy Spirit and the content of our faith and practice. In the podcast I put the Great Commission front and center, before talking about organizational matters.

That said, I think the "post-Christendom" theme is overdrawn in the church. That should be the subject of a longer Sunday post (after I answer Witherspoon's critique).

Halifax, the Australian philosophers have been on my mind, as I take my class and my son to Melbourne in a few weeks. I propose that we all be called Bruce. But not in front of the natives.

Clay Allard said...

If the centripetal force is confessional or spiritual, how do you justify the assumption that tall steeple pastors are the folks who have it?
Tall steeples are filled predominantly with F.I.P.'s (first initial pastors), folks who sociologially fit with their upper class W.A.S.P. surroundings. This is where the critique on historicity gains traction-- those tall steeples mostly became tall steeples in an era when the tribe of Anglo well-off people needed a church "mascot." That era is gone, especially in that particular tribe. Of all the people to lead the PC(USA) out of its current situation, tall steeples may be the LEAST qualified, not the most.
If spiritual strength is the measure, then there's going to have to be another way to identify those who are ready to lead.