Formation of Self-organized Units
Self-organized units are formed in two stages. Firstly, a number of people form a small group. Secondly, this small group also needs to have a particular common goal, for which division of work, cooperation and collective actions are carried out. The small group can be called a self-organized unit only after it has entered a phase of self-governance and spontaneously take actions for the same goal. Otherwise, it remains only a small group. Five or six familiar ties, for example, like gathering at their leisure and killing time by playing cards and chatting. By this moment, they have formed nothing but a small group. And this small group can be called a self-organized unit only when these persons have a common goal such as promoting environmental protection, assign tasks in a planned manner, carry out activities such as making open speeches and handing out leaflets in a sustained manner, and set rules for themselves.
The formation of self-organized units typically requires a process, and this process is the very sub-issues of our research on the dynamics of self-organization.
First, a number of people congregate and have a growing number of social network connections among each other, or increasingly strong interrelationships.
Then, a small group comes into being. With a growing number of internal connections, people in this small group become increasingly distant with the others in the larger organization. As for this stage, if we analyze the small group using the social network analysis method, we can see that the relationships among these people begin to become dense, and those between them and the outsiders, sparse. By this moment, they can be regarded as having formed a small group.
Latter, identification appears within the small group, where the people begin to have a clear understanding of the differences between them and the outsiders, and to become aware of their identity as a member.
One of the main reasons why Chinese are good at self-organization is that they know just how to create identification. Particular people without blood relations among each other, for example, may also find their common ancestors who lived several thousand years ago, and they may even jointly build an ancestral temple. Some other people, again for example, may find a common teacher so as to become schoolmates. And people may also become blood brothers, even if they can find no interrelationships, to create identification like that of the Gang of Thirteen Brothers (a guanxi circle in the Taiwanese congress).
Next, the small group defines a common goal and begins to take collective actions to realize this goal.
Finally, the group will also gradually develop internal formal and informal rules and a mechanism for collective supervision to assure that the common goal is smoothly realized.
What are the theoretical explanations for the popularity of self-organization as a governance mode in China? I propose some explanations as follows.
Grouping by Favor Exchanges -- Explanations from the Perspective of Network Dynamics
In Chinese society, favor exchanges constitute an important and special phenomenon. On one hand, favor exchanges are hidden under expressive ties, so neither a clear statement about rewards nor bargaining is allowed. On the other hand, both parties to such exchanges each have a favor account in mind. The favor giver will not talk explicitly about any future reward, while the receiver should not forget the favor and must record it into the favor account so as to return it in the future. Accordingly, the favor giver will first think of the receiver, when he/she needs help, and ask the latter for help; and the receiver will return the favor to show his/her sincerity of gratitude. Moreover, the receiver may return more than what he/she received and make the other party owe him/her a favor to ensure that their favor accounts can never be cleared off. Since both parties seek long-term ties rather than the fairness of every single transaction, the favor receiver will, when he/she needs further help, think of not only those to whom he/she did favors but also those from whom he/she received favors. It doesn't matter that more favors have been owed, because familiar ties can be enhanced as long as the favor debts are returned and the norms for favor returning obeyed on a long-term basis. It is in the process of giving, receiving and returning favors, once and again, that familiar ties are established and strengthened. The evolution and development of such ties will gradually lead to the phenomenon of grouping and, under particular circumstances, to the formation of guanxi circles in organizations.
So the very first step of research on self-organization is to ask: What are the relationships that make a group of people get closer and closer to each other? In my research on the phenomenon of self-organization in the village reconstruction after the Sichuan earthquake, I find that the local networks for mobilizing relationships were mostly built upon schoolmate, old friends, townsmen and pseudo-family relations. But a phenomenon unique to China is that there must be a focal capable man who acts as the leader during mobilization. Chinese call this focal person
The key to the occurrence of self-organization in China as a guanxi society is not only that the community itself has basic social capital available for use, but also that there is one or a number of leading or elite citizens. These elite citizens will take on the leading roles out of consideration for social status, prestige, honor and responsibility for public trust, not only for physical gains.
The phenomenon of capable men demonstrates what Fei Xiaotong referred to as ego-centered social networks with the differential mode of association; and capable men always begin mobilization in their respective social networks. The process of mobilization is often characterized by a capable man mobilizing a group of his followers, who in turn begin mobilization in their respective social networks. This is how a group gradually expands and shapes up in such a snowballing process.
The aforementioned networks built upon favor exchanges will gradually become permanent under certain circumstances and turn into small groups that always carry out exchanges inside. My students and I tried to simulate the process of favor exchanges between Chinese using a dynamic simulation model (Chang and Luo, 2007). It turned out that we reached some very interesting conclusions. Firstly, the phenomenon of grouping by favor exchange is prone to occur in an organization in the model when it is relatively short of, but not in bad need of, resources. When there are abundant resources, all the persons will more likely help each other generously and be less motivated to exchange favors with particular persons, making it more difficult to build a segmented social network. When resources are hardly available, the persons are inclined to do short-term exchanges, making it difficult to develop familiar ties based on long-term exchanges.
Secondly, the stability of resource distribution is a moderate variable for the effects of the amount of resources on the phenomenon of grouping. In other words, it is more likely for guanxi circles to appear if there is huge variance in the amount of distributed resources among individuals at times. By comparison, it is less likely for the phenomenon of grouping to occur if resources are distributed on a relatively even basis.
Thirdly, grouping will more likely occur when there are effects of ―partnering with the rich,‖ which refer to that people typically opt to exchange favors with those who are more popular and that it is easier for a person to establish relationships with more people if he/she has a better-developed social network. It is in this situation that the phenomenon of grouping is more likely to occur.
These are only hypotheses generated from the simulation model and have yet to be proven or disproven by real data. Current social network analysis is able to identify static small groups, but the process of relationships evolving within small groups and that of their becoming permanent have yet to be further researched in the field of network dynamics.