Power in Community Networks

By David M. Greenberg, Stephen Nuñez, M. Victoria Quiroz Becerra, Aurelia De La Rosa Aceves, Sarah Schell, Edith Yang, Audrey Yu

Power in

How community organizations
collaborate to improve schools
and mobilize for change

Social network analysis allows researchers to explore how power is distributed among communities of people, groups, or organizations.

A local organization can be influential because its relationships can call upon many other local agencies to help implement a project, or because it may have formed exclusive connections to other powerful entities that can attract funding or help change public policy in a way that may benefit the neighborhood.

This feature explores different ways to consider power in social networks of neighborhood organizations, and how power is configured differently across Chicago neighborhoods. It also demonstrates how these local patterns can help communities respond to local challenges.


What Is Power
in a Network?

The Chicago Community Networks study approaches the notion of power in a network in two ways:

  • At the level of the organization: the study considers how central (or important) an organization is in the network. This concept of power is known as the “centrality” of a group, with greater centrality being potentially associated with more power.
  • At the network level: the study considers the distribution of power throughout a network of organizations as a whole. For example: is there only one organization that is central to the network, with the rest being relatively peripheral? Just a few at the center? Or is power more evenly distributed throughout the network? This systems-focused approach to understanding power is known as “centralization.”

To illustrate how network-level power can be distributed in different ways, consider the two Chicago neighborhoods of Little Village and Austin. In the area of public policy and organizing, Austin is a community where power and influence is concentrated among very few organizations. In Little Village, power and influence is more evenly distributed among different groups.


Why Study Power
in Networks?

Researchers have found that the concentration of power in a network can influence the ways that community collaborations operate.

Community initiatives often require collaborations among multiple groups. But who makes decisions within the collective? How is the need for efficiency balanced against the need for consensus? What builds trust, especially when conflict or disagreement emerges?

Related to these questions, policymakers have considered whether there is greater value in having a single group coordinate local efforts or in a more collaborative approach where a formal or informal “board” makes decisions more collectively. The former approach may promote efficiency, but can also concentrate power into a single entity. The latter may promote consensus, but may be less efficient, potentially leading to frustration and mistrust down the road.

Public management research has found that networks with a single (or limited number) of “brokers” who coordinate work may be more effective than networks with multiple “brokers.” This greater effectiveness may arise because a “hub-and-spoke” arrangement, where the “hub” coordinates activities of the “spokes,” is more efficient.

In contrast, MDRC’s work in the Chicago Community Networks study has found that some “hub-and-spoke” network dynamics may not always serve community collaborations as well as other kinds of configurations, as described in Section 4.


Distributions of Power

The Chicago Community Networks study has found that power is concentrated differently across the nine study neighborhoods. These differences appear to be associated with differences in neighborhood political and organizational cultures.

The figures below describe the different overall levels of power concentration in neighborhoods as a whole, as revealed in network-level centralization scores.


How Do Structures
of Power Influence
Local Collaboration?


The previous section described the concentration of power in community networks, focusing on one particular type of power: the predominance of brokers, or entities that act as a bridge between actors that would otherwise be disconnected.

This section introduces another kind of power in community network structures.

Defining Key Terms in Social Network Analysis


The sections above have focused on the concentration of brokering power. (This concentration is known to researchers as “betweenness centralization”). Brokering power reflects the predominance of actors that have the only connections to more peripheral groups. In this figure, these brokers are represented in blue while relatively peripheral groups are represented in gray.


One can also measure whether a well-connected group of actors are also closely connected to each other. In technical terms, this type of network is known as “eigenvector centralization.” The network graph below shows such a relatively tight network of well-connected organizations (a “tightly-networked core,” represented in blue) surrounded by more peripheral organizations that are not well connected (represented in gray).

These more nuanced characterizations of power can lead to a deeper understanding of community dynamics, as revealed in the case studies that follow.

Community-School Ties in Chicago

The last several years have been turbulent for Chicago schools and often for community-school relations. Recent issues include a brief teacher’s strike in 2012, the board of education’s vote to close 47 schools in 2013, disputes about the expansion of charter schools, and a nearly half-billion-dollar school budget deficit in 2017.

The actions of groups in Chicago Southwest provide an example of one neighborhood's response to these challenges.


Findings from the Chicago Community Networks study show how the concentration of power in networks can influence how well neighborhoods come together to implement community projects and mobilize for policy change. In particular, this feature has noted:

  • How well-knit ties among well-connected groups can help execute effective community partnerships. In Chicago Southwest, a high concentration of ties appeared to be associated with the successful implementation of many kinds of school improvement projects.
  • How the inclusive actions of well-positioned brokers can foster broad-based community engagement with public policy. These brokers are able to connect otherwise disparate elements of the community to each other and to powerful elected officials and public partners.

A print report to be published in late 2017 will explore these themes in more detail. In the meantime, the next feature in this web series will explore the comprehensiveness of community ties.

Authors: David M. Greenberg, Stephen Nuñez, M. Victoria Quiroz-Becerra, Aurelia De La Rosa Aceves, Sarah Schell, Edith Yang, Audrey Yu
August, 2017
Design and Development: Audrey Yu, Stamen, Beth Sullivan, Litza Stark
Photos: Richie Diesterheft, Always Shooting, NASA (CC BY 3.0)

Document Details

Publication Type
August 2017
Greenberg, David M., Stephen Nuñez, M. Victoria Quiroz Becerra, Aurelia De La Rosa Aceves, Sarah Schell, Edith Yang, and Audrey Yu. 2017. “Power in Community Networks.” New York: MDRC.