Birds of a Feather Flock Together …but not how you might think

By Matthew Friesen

Fall migration is in full swing here in Ohio. Glances into the evening sky reveal geese in their customary V-formation as warblers and thrushes busily chirp their way though backyard brush-piles. Gatherings of similar birds traveling together appear so typical that they frequently pass unnoticed. Meanwhile, the appearance of a kettle of raptors (yes, I understand that is what a group of hawks is called) among a gaggle of geese would probably be noticed by even the most amateur birders. Fall migration once again appears to prove that birds of a feather do seem to flock together.

Homophily, the sharing of ideological or value positions among organizations that frequently results in increased interaction or information sharing is a well established theoretical and empirical cornerstone of coalition analysis in social movements. Like geese and warblers, organizations who share similar attributes appear to more frequently connect with others of similar qualities and visa versa. My research into social movement networks asks if there are nuanced ways to understand this principle.

This particular project provides one of the first glimpses into the topology of the U.S. food advocacy network and analyzes the relationship between organizational characteristics and network structures. I began this project by developing a network model of the 70 national-level food and agriculture organizations (e.g. Feeding America and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers). As a variety of reasons prevented me from gathering direct organizational connections with one another, I turned to membership lists from 30 U.S. food and agriculture advocacy coalitions (e.g. Domestic Fair Trade Association and The Rural Coalition), and created an affiliation matrix that I subsequently transformed into a network matrix revealing organizational connections as a function of joint participation in common coalitions.

Friesen - network plot

While a description of network color-coding follows below, it is important to note that the resulting network has a density of 0.298 revealing that approximately 30% of the total possible linkages among food advocacy organizations actually exist. Furthermore, the network illustration reveals a clear core-periphery topology with organizations that are more frequently participating in common coalitions toward the center and conversely, organizations less active in coalition groups toward the periphery. The absence of a relatively stochastic organizational topology begs an explanation for why some organizations are more connected and therefore centrally located than others.

Social movement and food system literature suggests three explanations. First, perhaps the organizations are connected as a result of ideological homophily. Like birds of a feather, perhaps groups concerned about issues such as hunger, farmworkers rights, or pesticide use are more connected to each other than those who work at different issues. After collecting and coding agriculture issue data I analyzed internal and external connections among 12 broad issue attributes. The results suggest that issue homophily does not correlate well with network relationships. In addition to a general absence of organizational clusters (evident in the network illustration), comparisons of internal and external tie scores did not show significant differences. Though some issues (such as concerns related to nutrition, labor, food safety, and racial justice issues) showed somewhat greater internal connection, ideological homophily does not appear to explain coalition relationships in the U.S. food advocacy network.

Second, perhaps organizations are connected because they share some strategies and resource similarities. Social movement scholars suggest that advocacy organizations can be broadly divided into social movement and interest group types based on the number of issues an organization prioritizes, proximity to political power, relative amount of financial support received from members verses government or foundations, and the amount of money dedicated to staff salaries. Theoretically, these variables should correlate with organizational network centrality.

After generating eignvector centrality scores based on network relationships, coding organizational websites for issue areas, and collecting office location, income source, annual revenue, and highest staff salary from IRS 990 tax data filings, I utilized multivariate regression analysis to correlate the variables. Results revealed that although the correlation of the respective variables did indeed move in the direction theoretically proposed (e.g. having an office in Washington D.C. was correlated with a lower centrality score), the results were relatively weak and statistically significant only in the case of the number of organizational issues. Once again the hypothesis that organizational type explains the U.S. food advocacy network’s relational structure was only marginally supported.

Finally, I wondered if organizational perspectives on system change might shed light on the food movement’s network structure. Some food analysts suggest that examining the type of change food movements are working for creates a more accurate picture of the movement. Holt-Gimenez and Shattuck (2011) argue that food movement organizations can be categorized as holding either a food security perspective (shown in green in illustration 1 and generally supportive of the current corporate-industrial-agriculture system with a few minor benevolent improvements related mostly to hunger issues), a food justice perspective (shown in red and prioritizing critical race concerns as a vital component in addressing food and agriculture issues), or a food sovereignty perspective (shown in blue and urging radical agricultural system changes including dismantling corporate food monopolies, redistribution of land, and reestablishment of community rights over food, water and seeds). Analysis of the correlation between centrality scores and system change perspective revealed both a strong and statistically significant relationship (all were significant at the p<0.001 level).  Whereas organizations coded as food sovereignty groups were most central to the network, holding a food justice and food security perspective reduces the groups eigenvector score by 47.56% and 64.59% respectively.  These results suggest that the most robust explanation for the structure of the U.S. food advocacy network is rooted not in the issues a group chooses to prioritize, or its resource or strategic decisions, but on the particular perspective the organization has on how the system needs to be changed.

This research suggests that although birds of a feather do indeed flock together, in the case of the U.S. food advocacy network, it does not occur in the way one might think. Rather than forming coalitions based on similar interest issues, organizations appear to partner more frequently as a result of common views of how the food and agriculture system needs to change. These findings suggest direction for both movement scholars and food advocates. Recognizing the intersecting dimensions of ideology, resources, strategy, and system change perspectives encourages researchers to resist focusing on single variables and examine interlocking organizational dynamics to best understand coalition development. Movement leaders should likewise be reminded of the potential for non-traditional coalition opportunities. Moving beyond food issues, movement leaders might recognize shared system change perspectives with the Occupy or Black Lives Matter movements and seek to nurture coalitions based on broader systematic concerns. While birders might think it odd to see ducks and swallows side-by-side, movement organizers might find some powerful partnerships among those who have not typically flown together.

1 Comment

Filed under Coalition Building, Essay Dialogues

One response to “Birds of a Feather Flock Together …but not how you might think

  1. Interesting findings that do challenge some long held beliefs about organizational behavior. But it makes sense that groups would more often work together at fostering social change if they agree on the kind of change needed. I am still curious as to how “connectedness” is measured. Given that paper coalition membership is common, could there be differences in terms of actual working partnerships as opposed to low-committment endorsements of causes or campaigns that lack actual engagement? Is there any measurement of the depth of coalition involvement or is a dichotomous quantitative measure used to tally up the number of coalitions to which an organizations belongs?

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