Part 3 in a series

Aldo de Moor is a research consultant dedicated to bridging the gap between research and practice in the field of Community Informatics.The founder of CommunitySense, Aldo was previously a Senior Researcher at the STARLab in Brussels, Belgium as well as an Assistant Professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He has worked with a wide range of clients from domains as diverse as education, research, government, public libraries, business, and social innovation.

Aldo is also a Kumu ‘Kumu’. Kumu means roughly ‘Wise one’, ‘Guru’, ‘Sensei’ in Hawaiian. Kumu, the mapping platform, has a list of Kumu wizards available for consulting work using Kumu. These wizards are themselves called ‘Kumus’.

I interviewed Aldo early last summer and our conversation was so rich, I chose to split it up into several parts. Part 1 was about Participatory Community Network Mapping as Collective Sensemaking, Part 2 looked at what Participatory Community Network Mapping makes possible.

In this third post of the series, we’ll consider how power and mapping are intertwined, and the responsibilities that relationship imposes on map-makers.

Maps Represent, Create and Perpetuate Power

Whether from the power of ideas, the power that inheres in a representation, the power of images, the fundamental leveraging capacity of any tool, or the power in simplifying the complex – maps of all kinds are powerful, empowering, and frequently used as tools of dominance.

By Unknown – Pieced together from Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy, Public Domain,

Maps have power. They always have throughout human history. Maps have been very powerful artifacts. Just think of all the geographical maps on the explorer’s journeys or even Spain and Portugal divided the world based on a map, for example.

The Power Inherent in Organizational Network Analysis

I have to confess – when we first started network mapping, I had a strong aversion to doing the kinds of intra-organizational SNA that helped this field take root. I was still cleaning out the toxins of having worked too long in a mal-functioning hierarchy myself, and even though I thought network maps were totally cool, SNA in that context felt horridly extractive to me.

Sure, on the one hand, a network map could be used to build a meritocracy vs. having rewards & authority determined by homophily and brown-nosing. There are potential merits in a corporate context.

But putting myself in the shoes of those being mapped, it could easily feel like yet one more tool by which the market (‘the system’) ekes out yet another ounce of economic value from its human ‘resources’. A new kind of pressurized popularity contest, yet another set of criteria to be judged by (conscripting one’s peers into the judgment and pressure game). An organizational network map could be just another tool to force harder work in order not to be rolled over and plowed under – yet another new implement of unequal economic growth. Something I couldn’t tolerate being complicit in.

Yet, I saw a different kind of potential in network mapping – a potential for transparency, wide-spread agency, feedback loops, self-organizing, more effective resource flow, and system self-awareness. That was what I wanted maps to support, not the extractive model.

One of the key issues is ownership, because maps have meaning.

Legitimizing Distributed Power

Legitimate power to me is the ultimate goal because it is power that is legitimized in a process of sensemaking; legitimacy and community are often very closely related. Nazi Germany had legal power but it was not legitimate. In that sense, legitimacy needs to be earned and it’s grounded in principles of democracy, etc. What have you. We’re far from that, but I can see that is where we are heading when wisely using the transparency and mapping tools enabled by the Internet.

Maps are fundamentally a documented exploration of reality. Then, like money, these representations are useful to the degree that people validate and own them. They become a feedback loop – explore, document, validate, and use. This loop develops and perpetuates power – whether ‘legitimate’ in Aldo’s sense or the opposite.

Imagine any war, as far back as the history of war goes. The archetypal image at the center of our imaginative continuum is bloody bodies and sacked landscapes. At the beginning and end of that imaginative continuum? A cluster of high-powered men in a well-appointed situation-room, hovering over a map, moving little representations of people around. . .

This brings us back to the questions posed in my last post – Whose reality do we map (and why)? Whose boundaries? Whose flows? Whose energy, objectives, language, and values will be or should be represented?

So, rather than having agencies [Top Down authorities or Central Planning] do the mapping of a whole field or organization, ideally you let communities and initiatives map themselves because they best know what they’re about and they are also owners of that part of the collaboration.

This strikes me as largely about dominance.

Regarding my resistance to exploitative mapping I mentioned above: at first I simplistically believed that context made the main relevant difference. If I just mapped in the right contexts and avoided the wrong ones, those concerns of mine would (at least somewhat) take care of themselves. But it’s not that simple. Because, to be honest, dominance exists in all contexts, and those who engage it often can’t see it and won’t stop using it, nor do they have the incentive to do so. And even if that weren’t true, those of us who have been marginalized are understandably (and correctly) vigilant and guarded against that dynamic. We interpret almost any organized approach by those with more privilege and power as yet-another mode of exploitation.

Ok, so maybe I’m mostly speaking for myself there. Still, when marginalized people voice suspicion of a mapping project – I understand it in that context and am sympathetic to their concerns. When that happens, we need to take care not to shut them down in the name of expediency. We need to dig into what they’re concerned they may be losing, what they’re concerned may be being imposed, and how we can make sure their interests are represented and protected.

Think about how maps were used in treaties with North American Native Nations and you can see how even the concept of a map could seem nefarious.

So whether willfully or ignorantly (with good intentions or bad), if map-makers create a representation that doesn’t reflect the reality (both current and desired) within the community, it fails. People will resist. Whatever the purpose of the map is, it will be a constant uphill struggle. That map will at least be a representation of a system of dominance. If used to make decisions, it can even become a tool of dominance.

But when the map reflects – and is owned by – the social system being mapped, in all those ways I suggested above – individuals, boundaries, flows, energies, objectives, language & values – when those are determined by the people within that particular social system, within its own context – it is for sure a representation of a system of connection. And if used to make decisions, it can moreover become a tool of connection.

In the situation-room image above, the real power lies – less in the men themselves, but in their ability to see the whole territory from above, and to make sense of the situation together. With today’s mapping tools, that capacity no longer belongs to the wealthy & powerful – it can & should be used by everyone.

So, you’re building distributed power bases much more than top down power bases. And by aligning different maps and thus the community action of different communities, you’re actually building a power base that’s grounded in reality; that’s grounded in communities that legitimately own part of that reality. So, you’re federating power much more than coercing it from some kind of whatever the power came from. And the power, all the time, has to be reasserted and evolving across the network. But this is an ideal world, we’re not there yet, we just started.


It’s almost like [this distributed power base we’re developing] is the collaborative DNA of a community network and that’s what the maps stand for.

This hearkens back to the idea of what Participatory Community Network Mapping makes possible. I love Aldo’s DNA metaphor and how these maps can become catalysts of change. And that requires an understanding of all the dynamics of power that can show up in the mapping process, and a conscious intent to support more legitimate forms of power.

DNA, of course, has many different ways to express itself. There’s incredible power in DNA, but DNA by itself doesn’t do anything. It needs processes of action and growth to manifest itself. The maps, by making them work, literally, in the realities of these communities, that’s when they become catalysts for change, and also for alliances, and, ultimately, for more legitimate forms of power.

So if you’re considering a community mapping project, do not enter it blind to the power dimension! And if it’s a project with a wide range of stakeholders – consider hiring Aldo to guide and support the process – because the greater the stakes, the more his experience will serve you! See for example this project on global lessons learnt on integrating gender, nutrition, and agricultural extension.

Next Up:

Aldo de Moor

Aldo de Moor

I hope this series is helping you understand why, if you’re serious about collaboration, social innovation and systems change, you should include social system mapping in your change toolkit. And if you’re already mapping, I hope it is helping you leverage that activity to make it even more effective.

In my next posts, we will explore language & story, the mapping process, and special considerations related to participatory mapping.

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