Our Undoing

Michael Metzger

Almost all our models and approaches for cultural change could prove to be our undoing.

[David John Seel, Jr. wrote this morning’s column. I feel his work deserves your consideration. You can learn a bit more about it at the end of this column.]

Christian leaders in the marketplace and in vocational ministry want to make a difference with their lives. However, almost all the models and approaches presented to them for cultural change are premised mostly on individual action. This could be their undoing.

Kevin Belmonte, author of William Wilberforce: Hero for Humanity, notes how the great abolitionist depended on a network. Quoting Historian John Pollack, Belmonte said, “Wilberforce’s life is proof that a man can change his times, though he cannot do it alone.” Likewise, historian Niall Ferguson observes “Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organized groups of people.” This is why individualism can be a stumbling block for lasting cultural influence.

I have long been intrigued by the claims of University of Pennsylvania sociologist Randall Collins and University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter that the main actor on the stage of cultural change is not the lone individual but the dense network. Hunter goes so far as to say, “Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production.”

What is less clear is how dense networks work. I began to do research on this as “network science” is a burgeoning new academic field. However, its insights are scattered across a wide assortment of siloed disciplines such as epidemiology, physics, mathematics, computer science, sociology, and media studies and buried in very academic tomes. My aim was to translate this research, making it useful for leaders of organizations seeking to make a difference. The result is my recent book, Network Power: The Science of Making a Difference. It challenges most of our approaches to making an impact.

For instance, over the past decades there have been numerous groups rallying their fundraising constituents with claims of “winning the world” or “reshaping culture” by such and such a date, usually by mass mobilization or political activism. Academically, this is nonsense. Cultural change is slow, difficult, incremental, and unpredictable. However, it does happen. There are numerous historical examples of dense networks making significant changes in society: the rise of Christianity, the abolition of slavery, the rise of Russian communism, Jewish admission to elite universities, and the Civil Rights Movement, among others. In short, dense networks are the way things get done in society.

In Christian circles, Wilberforce is a celebrated champion of effective cultural change. I know as I was a part of the marketing campaign at Walden Media for the film Amazing Grace. However, when examined more closely it was the dense network in which he participated that was the main source of his effective cultural influence: the Clapham Circle. All biographers mention this in passing but few make it the lead.

Historian Belmonte writes, “Their legacy offers the best model we have for turning around a society and culture.” The Clapham Circle—sometimes referred to as the Clapham Sect or lampooned as “the saints”—was an informal network of aristocratic evangelical Anglicans associated professionally and relationally with Wilberforce, many of whom lived in the village of Clapham about four miles south from the center of London from about 1790 to 1830. Commentators tend to highlight Wilberforce as “the very sun of the Clapham system” because it is a story so much easier to tell in book and film than the story of a dense, overlapping networks. Yes, Wilberforce cast a large shadow over the Clapham community but it was a particular dense network that made a lasting historical cultural difference, namely the abolition of slavery in England in 1833.

In Network Power I demonstrate the lessons we can be learn from the Clapham Circle. What we find is that equal or more important than Wilberforce’s political influence was Hannah More’s cultural influence. It was writers, artists, and businessmen who carried as much social weight in the movement as did the politicians.

We don’t have to agree with every social movement to learn valuable lessons from them. I also unpack lessons from Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ+ equality movement. Culture is contested terrain, but there are cultural dynamics that we cannot ignore. We’d do well to remember our own history.

How did the unorthodox beliefs of a small and disdained Jewish sect come to form the basis of the Western world’s dominant religion? Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark explores this question in his book, The Rise of Christianity. Among his sociological findings, he found both the importance of networks in conversion and also among the social and cultural elites. The latter explains sociologically much of the growth of early Christianity.

It was not only this structural factor that mattered but also the quality of their lives, their compassion during epidemics, and their attitude toward women and discarded female infants. The providence of God also contributed greatly. It should also be recognized that Paul travelled 10,000 miles personally to connect these various hubs. Yet networks played a vital role in the spread of the Christian faith among Hellenized Greeks in the early church. Many faith-based communities need this emphasis on dense networks once again.

If we want to restore our cultural influence, and genuinely make a lasting difference, best to align with the social dynamics of dense networks. Notre Dame physicist Barabási reminds us, “By uncovering the mechanism that governs network evolution we have grasped the universality of the arsenal of tools nature uses to create the complex world around us.”

This is the way the world works. Many organizations fail because they are basing their strategies for engagement on bottom-up individual power. It is now time to develop strategies that are aligned with network power. It’s hard work, but it can be done.


David John Seel, Jr. is a writer, cultural analyst, and cultural impact consultant living in Philadelphia. He is the author of Network Power: The Science of Making a Difference and The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church.


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  1. As you know, I am not unfamiliar with the notion of aligning with dense networks. The problem I see, however, is that the majority of the younger generations do not trust the institutions with which these networks have strong affiliations. In many ways, I find their distrust understandable.

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