Tuesday, March 13, 2018

TIMN’s “forms” vs. their “fields” and “logics” (Part 3 of 4) — Fligstein & McAdam’s “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields” (2010)

Parts 1 and 2 in this series discussed “forms”, the concept TIMN is based on. Next up are two or three rival concepts, starting here with “strategic action fields”.

The best source for my purposes appears to be Neil Fligstein & Doug McAdam’s “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields” (2010). In it, they outline their “general theory of social change and stability rooted in a view of social life as dominated by a complex web of strategic action fields.” (p. 4)

I construct this Part 3 the way I did Part 2 on Levine: by excerpting numerous points about “fields” from their paper that resonate, more or less, with my usage of “forms”. Then I discuss whether their points overlap with TIMN and help validate it. (N.B.: Many of their sentences are dense with bibliographic references; I omit these from quotes I use.)

• Fligstein & McAdam propose a grand conceptual agenda for organizational studies — the study of “meso-level social orders” and “strategic action fields”. Their “radical view” is that all scholars of organizations, social movements, and institutional actors are “interested in the same underlying phenomenon: collective strategic action.” This term refers to “the efforts of collective actors to vie for strategic advantage in and through interaction with other groups in what can be seen as meso-level social orders. We call these orders “strategic action fields” and use the terms interchangeably.” Thus they present “a view of social life as dominated by a complex web of strategic action fields.” (p. 4) They seek “a generic field approach” (p. 38).

I take this to mean that TIMN’s four forms of organization — tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and information-age networks — are all strategic actions fields (as well as meso-level orders). Thus, what I study as “forms” Fligstein & McAdam study as “fields”, in a framework where TIMN’s “forms” amount to subsumed varieties of “fields”. Well, maybe, but let’s see what else they mean before I start raising objections.

• To define their central concept, Fligstein & McAdam state up front that “strategic action fields (hereafter, SAFs) are the fundamental units of collective action in society.” These fields are
“ … where actors (who can be individual or collective) interact with knowledge of one another under a set of common understandings about the purposes of the field, the relationships in the field (including who has power and why), the rules of the field, and a situation where actors have frames that produce an understanding of what other actors’ moves in the field mean.” (pp. 6-7)
Further clarifying their meaning, the authors state that “field processes are about who gets what” (p. 8). Moreover, in alternate phrasing, they define strategic action as “the attempt by social actors to create and maintain stable social worlds by securing the cooperation of others. Strategic action is about control in a given context.” So, the purpose of creating “identities, political coalitions, and interests is to promote the control of actors vis a vis other actors,” in and between particular fields. (p. 15)

That pretty much fits with TIMN. It’s forms are not exactly “the fundamental units of collective action”, but in their own way they’re pretty close, for they are the four fundamental forms of collective organization and endeavor that societies depend on using. And each form’s actors do indeed require “a set of common understandings about the purposes”, relationships, rules, and moves for assuring that form functions properly. This includes understandings about “who has power and why” as well as “who gets what” for each TIMN form. I’ve written as much.

Those are good ways to think about TIMN’s forms. Yet, as I write this, I sense that Fligstein and McAdam would not agree with me that TIMN’s four forms are the cardinal strategic action fields behind the organization and evolution of all societies. For they never make such a claim regarding any limited set of fields. Instead, they seem close to claiming that societies consist of unlimited plethoras of fields, though some (e.g., “states”) may be more cardinal than others.

And here’s another difference: Fligstein and McAdam repeatedly say that strategic action is about control. I find no mention of de-control. Yet, while each TIMN form is about a different kind of control, the TIMN progression depends on “de-control” — as a society becomes more complex, it’s crucial to let the next form’s actors and entities emerge to take over activities and address problems that the established forms are less suited to resolving. Here’s how I’ve written about this TIMN system dynamic before:
To advance through the TIMN progression, control must give way to decontrol: The evolution of complex societies is often said to involve increases in control (and coordination), partly so that all the differentiated parts work together. But social evolution does not revolve solely around ever-increasing capacities for control. Each transformational step in the TIMN progression requires some kind of decontrol — realizing that a new form and realm are taking hold, letting go of its activities, and allowing self-organization to develop around that form’s own rules. This is essential for the re-simplification and resynthesis process noted above. Over the long run, harmonious decontrol becomes as important as control; in advanced societies, power extends as much from decontrol as control. Thus, to refer back to the preceding proposition, the evolution of social complexity leads to increases in differentiation and control, but it also eventually requires some systemic de-differentiation and decontrol. Societies whose leaders exalt the tribal and hierarchical forms may have the hardest times with this.” (source)
Fligstein and McAdam’s approach involves so much contention and conflict, so much vying for control among strategic actors, that fields and their relations often give way to reorganization (see discussion below). But if I understand their approach correctly, this turmoil is explained solely in terms of shifts in power and control — not as transformative adaptations that may depend partly on deliberate attraction to de-control.

• Matters get complicated when Fligstein & McAdam begin arguing that SAFs are everywhere in society — so myriad that many are nested “like Russian dolls”, while others overlap and intermingle side-by-side, with new ones being created whenever two SAFs interact. Moreover, since they’re all SAFs, they’re all generically similar, despite specific differences from SAF to SAF. Here’s the pertinent quote:
“All collective actors (for example, organizations, extended families, clans, supply chains, social movements, and governmental systems) are themselves made up of SAFs. When they interact in a larger political, social, or economic field, that field also becomes an SAF. In this way, SAFs can look a lot like Russian dolls: open up an SAF and it contains a number of other SAFs. … Each of these SAFs constitutes a meso-level social order in the sense that it can be fruitfully analyzed as containing all of the elements of an order from the perspective we outline here.” (p. 7)
Does that benefit or contradict TIMN? I’m not sure. Their approach to “fields” seems more like Levine’s expansive approach to “forms” (see Part 2) than like TIMN’s delineated approach. It’s four forms do correspond to strategic action fields, or sets of fields. And the entities and actors that embody TIMN’s forms may well intermingle and interact in ways that create smaller (or bigger?) new fields of endeavor.

But so far I don’t find this illuminating for TIMN. Fligstein & McAdam’s “fields” offer a different way of looking at tribes, institutions, markets, and networks — but I don’t see that it’s better than the “forms” approach. Besides, it looks to me as though their approach, as it presently stands, risks descending into a hunt for micro-fields rather than helping identify grand system dynamics that apply across TIMN’s four forms.

• If I understand Fligstein & McAdam correctly, there are so many kinds of “strategic action fields”, in theory and practice, that only some can be mentioned, few can be typologized, and many are creatures unto themselves and unto others as well. Here’s what I mean by that:

> As they lay out their theoretical perspective, much of their paper critiques rival views about organizational theory, notably new institutional theory (including institutional-logics theory), network analysis, and social movement theory, plus Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus theory” and Anthony Giddens’ “structuration theory” (p. 5; p. 37ff). I skip over most of that, but must point out that they all get subsumed as ways to study SAFs.
> Indeed, as noted above, they treat “All collective actors (for example, organizations, extended families, clans, supply chains, social movements, and governmental systems)” as strategic action fields (p. 7). That’s further evidence that their SAF concept encompasses all four TIMN forms — those “extended families” and “clans” pertain to the T/tribal form, and “governmental systems” to the +I/institutional form.
> A little later, still writing in a theoretical sense, they use their “insight that action takes place in meso-level social order” to show that their SAF concept also encompasses what are variously called “sectors, organizational fields, games, fields, networks, or, in the case of the government, policy domains. In the economic realm, markets can be thought of as a specific kind of constructed order” (p. 7). Apropos TIMN, I see no mention of “forms” here, but at least “markets” and “networks” show up.
> Then, more concretely, when they apply their perspective to analyzing the civil rights revolution (1932-68), the five SAFs they highlight are: America’s competitive party politics; the Democratic Party; the cotton economy; the field of U.S. constitutional law; and the international system of nation states (p. 45ff). Wow, those are very very different kinds of “strategic action fields” than the ones mentioned elsewhere.
> Finally, in conclusion, they remark “ … it is clear that action in states, markets, and non state-non-market fields do have different dynamics.” They further note that “the invention of new forms of collective action and their spread has not been well theorized. The modern world has created the “social movement”, the “organization”, and the idea that one can deploy networks to expand one’s power.” (p. 51) Again, apropos TIMN, notice the highlighting of “states” and “markets”, plus a nod to “networks”.
At least all of TIMN’s forms — tribes, institutions, markets, networks — get mentioned by them in some fashion. But I hesitate to say there’s much overlap with TIMN. It looks to me as though TIMN might get buried in their approach.

• Fligstein & McAdam’s aim (stated late in their paper) is “to account for field emergence, stability and transformation” by laying out a theory of strategic action fields “that allows us to understand how new meso-level social orders are produced, sustained, and come unraveled.” (p. 43) Thus they seek to offer “a much broader view of social change and conflict, one that grants attention to a much larger cast of characters and centers on the interplay of a good many state and non-state SAFs.” (p. 44)

This approach leads to several theoretical consequences (laid out earlier in their paper). One is that “fields are constructed on a situational basis, as shifting collections of actors come to define new issues and concerns as salient.” (p. 9) Another is that “All of the meanings in a field can break down including what the purpose of the field is, what positions the actors occupy, what the rules of the game are, and how actors come to understand what others are doing.” If so, then “the whole order of an SAF is up for grabs” — possibly leading to a “whole new order”. (p. 12)

In so saying, Fligstein & McAdam clarify that the key actors in these fields are “comprised of “incumbents, challengers, and sometimes governance units.” The authors also clarify that they view “all fields as embedded in complex webs of other fields” — with relations depending on whether these other fields are distant or proximate, vertical or horizontal, and/or state or non-state. Moreover, states themselves amount to “dense collections of fields, whose relations can be described as either distant or proximate and if proximate, can be characterized by horizontal or vertical links.” (pp. 12, 16-17)

Quite a picture emerges from this analysis. Collective strategic action fields are characterized by so many links and ties, so much “connectedness”, that they become “embedded in one another”. Such high levels of interdependent interaction mean these fields are never really separate and settled — they don’t amount to “self-contained autonomous worlds.” As a result, these fields are open to “exogenous shocks, field ruptures, and the onset of contention”. They’re “in some flux” and “continuously contested” — often afflicted with “round after round of reactive struggle”. (pp. 6, 12, 20) All of which leads the authors to conclude as follows:
“The main theoretical implication of the interdependence of fields is that it is a source of a certain level of rolling turbulence in modern society. A significant change in any given SAF is like a stone thrown in a still pond, sending ripples outward to all proximate fields.” (p. 18)
Wow. All quite understandable from their “fields” perspective. Lots of overlaps with Levine’s “forms” perspective too (see my Part 2 installment). But I see only limited instructiveness for TIMN.

For one thing, “roiling turbulence” can be found somewhere in most societies, not just modern ones. Yet many systems afflicted with turbulence often do not change much for long periods of time, especially in societies that may be culturally too tribal or institutionally too hierarchical (from a TIMN perspective). In such societies, that roiling turbulence may be kept under control by deeply embedded, deliberately concerted rigidities. TIMN seems better suited to explaining this than does Fligstein & McAdam’s approach (though they/I will address that further in the next bulleted sub-section).

More to the point, TIMN is mostly about evolutionary change and stability over long periods of time. Fligstein & McAdam’s view seems directed at analyzing change (and stability) over much shorter periods of time. TIMN could be used to diagnose a society’s evolutionary status and potential at any given time, including short periods. But the picture that would emerge would be about how that society is using and combining TIMN’s four cardinal forms. I don’t see that TIMN could be improved by substituting a fields approach, especially in light of what appears to be its bias toward emphasizing turmoil, instability, even conflict.

• Nonetheless, Fligstein & McAdam turn to analyze “the conditions that make for stability and change in strategic action fields and the potential role of strategic actors in these processes.” Their view is that “SAFs tend toward one of three states: unorganized or emerging, organized and stable but changing, and organized and unstable and open to transformation.” (p. 22) [Hmm: note the presence of some kind of turbulence in each of those three states.]

So they pose a series of propositions about this. The ones that resonate with TIMN are as follows: “Proposition 2: Skilled social actors are pivotal for new fields to emerge. … Proposition 3: Skilled social actors can help produce entirely new cultural frames for fields. … Proposition 8: Emergent fields produce new forms of organizing.” (pp.24-26) I’d say all three apply to the rise of each TIMN form, for each requires “skilled social actors” who fashion “new cultural frames” and “new forms of organizing”. Those are good points — I’ve written as much, though not that way.

But I wonder about their Proposition 4, where they claim that “Initial resource allocations affect whether or not SAFs become organized hierarchically or cooperatively.” They claim that there are only two ways for SAFs to settle “the problem of order”: impose hierarchy, or form political coalitions. (p. 24) What I find unclear is whether Proposition 4 is about people settling the rules for managing a field, or about determining the very nature of the field. If the former, well, maybe so. But if the latter, no way — the hierarchy-coalition dichotomy is insufficient to capture the varied natures of TIMN’s four forms. Fligstein & McAdam’s field theory does not — cannot? — account for how and why the tribal form rises first, the institutional form next, then the market form, and now the network form. Nor can their theory account for why different problems of order lead to the rise of different forms (fields?) of order over the long course of social evolution.

I’d also comment on Proposition 11, which states that “Strategic action fields are generally destabilized by external shock originating from other strategic action fields, invasion by other groups of organizations, actions of the state, or large scale crises such as wars or depressions.” (p. 30) That makes sense, as does their follow-up point that “The more fields involved in these crises, the more likely the state is to become destabilized. To the degree that these crises reach epic proportions, the opportunities for collective action to transform the entire system may be present.” (p. 32) Yet, much as I appreciate these Proposition 11 points, they don’t strike me as unique or unusually insightful — they’re rather traditional points reiterated in SAF language. As I recall, Levine makes virtually identical points from a forms viewpoint (see Part 2 post), and I don’t see that their “fields” approach can outperform her (or my) “forms” approach.

I also think there is something valuable about Proposition 12, which posits that “The more connected an SAF is to other SAFs, the more stable that SAF is likely to be. Similarly, new SAFs or those with few connections will be unstable.” But a page later they also point out that “The "connectedness" of SAFs is a source of both strength and weakness.” (pp. 33-35) I could ask, so which is it? But I think a better point to make is that this disparity helps shows that, because of their fields orientation, they have spotted an important duality about connectivity — sometimes it strengthens and solidifies, and sometimes it weakens and disturbs relations. However, I can’t tell where they want to go with this observation. Yet, according to where I think TIMN is headed, but contrary to their Proposition 12, extreme levels of connectivity between forms is a bad sign. Too much connectivity — connectivity to the point of infestation, say between the tribal and institutional forms, or between the institutional and market forms — is likely to have all sorts of adverse effects that end up distorting and decreasing a society’s potential for next-step evolution.

From my TIMN perspective, then, Fligstein & McAdam have made a start at showing how their “fields” framework may help explain social stability and change, and whether, how, and why a society may become “open to transformation”. But from what I see, their fields approach isn’t designed to explain social evolution. TIMN’s “forms” approach is better designed for that.

• In concluding their overview, Fligstein & McAdam reiterate that they “have tried to sketch … the central animating principles of a theory of SAFs that we think makes sense of strategic collective action across these nominally distinct social realms.” But while their paper mostly treats all “collective strategic action as having similar theoretical underpinnings”, here at the end they finally observe “it is clear that action in states, markets, and non state-non-market fields do have different dynamics.” Which leads them to ask “if the modes of collective action are similar in markets and politics, then what makes them different?” They add that “It is also the case that the invention of new forms of collective action and their spread has not been well theorized” — including “the idea that one can deploy networks to expand one’s power.” (pp. 50-51)

I’m pleased to see their closing recognition that “action in states, markets, and non state-non-market fields do have different dynamics.” That is almost TIMN-ish, even though it comes with a reiteration that all collective strategic action has “similar theoretical underpinnings”. But they leave unresolved how and why different dynamics arise in the fields of “markets and politics”, despite both being “fields” that are supposed to be theoretically similar. Which means they still have quite a research agenda ahead of them. Perhaps, I wonder, they will end up having to go in directions that TIMN is already going.

Also, here in closing, they suddenly note that “the invention of new forms of collective action and their spread has not been well theorized”. Forms!? What do they mean by “forms” — a term they rarely use elsewhere? Don’t they mean “fields”? Or, here at last, is a conflation? I can’t tell. But I’d sure like to know how they see “forms” and “fields” as being different, and what they’d make of the differences they see.

In sum, I see no reason to switch from “forms” to “fields” as a basis for TIMN. Their theory is too filled with whirling swirling interactions in fights for power and control, and too lacking in long-range evolutionary structures and dynamics to warrant my switching. But I’ve benefitted from reading their work, and so may others whose focus is on “forms”.

To read Fligstein & McAdam’s paper for yourself, go here for easy access:
Next up, a look into another alternative for TIMN: “institutional logics”.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Notes about the noosphere and noopolitik — #3: finally getting ahold of The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader (1998)

Further evidence for the growth of interest in the noosphere concept across the decades is the impressive wide-ranging collection by David Pitt & Paul R. Samson (eds.),‎ The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society and Change (1998). As the editors state (on what appears to be the back cover or infold),
“The noosphere concept captures a number of key contemporary issues — social evolution, global ecology, Gaia, deep ecology and global environmental change — contributing to ongoing debates concerning the implications of emerging technologies such as human-created biospheres and the Internet.” 
Their book provides, in excerpts, “the central ideas and key writings of many prominent thinkers”, including Teilhard, Vernadsky, and LeRoy — the original coiners of the term — along with Bergson, Huxley, Toynbee, Lovelock, Margulis, McLuhan, Sagan, Dawkins, Boulding, and many others.

I wish I’d seen it earlier. I also wish it could be updated with a second edition (but I can’t find any recent traces of the two editors).

Online download available here, fortunately:

Monday, February 26, 2018

Notes about the noosphere and noopolitik — #2: Noosphere: origins of a new concept about the world’s future evolution*

For discussing information-based realms, the grandest, most abstract — and so far, least favored — term is the noosphere. This term, from the Greek word noos for “the mind,” was coined — whether separately or collectively is unclear — by French theologian-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, along with his French colleague Edouard LeRoy and visiting Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, in Paris in 1922. They were already familiar with the terms “geosphere” and “biosphere”, which had long been in use, and innovatively decided that the planet would next evolve a noosphere. The idea spread in Europe and America following Teilhard’s posthumous publications in the 1950s-1960s, and in Russia following Vernadsky’s return there in the 1920s-1930s.

Teilhard’s thinking about the noosphere:

In Teilhard’s view — especially as expressed in his books The Phenomenon of Man ([1955] 1965) and The Future of Man ([1959] 1964) — the world first evolved a global “geosphere” and next a “biosphere” (terms already long in use). Now that people are communing on global scales, the world is starting to create a “noosphere” — what he variously describes as a globe-circling realm of “the mind,” a “thinking circuit,” a “stupendous thinking machine,” a “thinking envelope” full of fibers and networks, indeed a planetary “consciousness.” In the Introduction words of Julian Huxley (1964), the noosphere is a “web of living thought.”

According to Teilhard, forces of the mind have been creating pieces of the noosphere for ages. Now, it is finally achieving a global presence, and its varied “compartments” are fusing. Before long, a synthesis will occur in which peoples of different nations, races, and cultures will develop a consciousness that is planetary in scope, without losing their personal identities. Fully realized, the noosphere will raise mankind to a high, new evolutionary plane, one driven by a collective coordination of psychosocial and spiritual energies and by a devotion to moral and juridical principles. However, he warned, the transition may not be smooth; a global tremor and possibly an apocalypse may characterize the final fusion of the noosphere (1964, pp. 175–181; 1965, pp. 287–290).

Although this concept is essentially spiritual, and far less technological than, say, cyberspace or the infosphere, Teilhard identified increased communications as a cause. Nothing like the Internet existed in his time. Yet 1950s-era radio and television systems were fostering the emergence of “a sort of ‘etherized’ universal consciousness,” and he expected “astonishing electronic computers” to give mankind new tools for thinking (1964). Today, he is occasionally credited with anticipating the Internet.

Vernadsky’s thinking about the noosphere:

Vernadsky’s view parallels but is also different from Teilhard’s — it’s more physical, more mystical, and less spiritual. Like Teilhard, he too held that the world first evolved a geosphere, then a biosphere — and a noosphere is next. Indeed, he wrote the first book on The Biosphere (1926), in which he treated the spread of life as an essentially geological force, stating that “Mankind taken as a whole is becoming a powerful geological force. Humanity's mind and work face the problem of reconstructing the biosphere in the interests of a freely thinking mankind as a single entity. The new state of the biosphere that we are approaching without noticing it is “the Noosphere.” (1926, p. ??)

Later Vernadsky wrote his landmark paper, “New Scientific Knowledge and the Transition from the Biosphere to the Noösphere” (1938). In it, he argues that increases and changes in the nature of “biogeophysical energy” — due to a progression of inventions from fire-making, to agriculture, to modern communications technologies, etc. — explain the planetary spread of the biosphere and the coming emergence of a noosphere. In his words, “This new form of biogeochemical energy, which might be called the energy of human culture or cultural biogeochemical energy, is that form of biogeochemical energy, which creates at the present time the noösphere.” (p. 16) This kind of energy lay behind the development of the human mind and then reason itself; and it will lead “ultimately to the transformation of the biosphere into the noösphere, first and foremost, through the creation and growth of the scientific understanding of our surroundings.” (p. 20)

Vernadsky goes on to say that the creation of the noosphere has “proceeded apace, ever increasing in tempo” during the “last five to seven thousand years” despite “interruptions continually diminishing in duration” (p. 29). He evidently expects “the unity of the noosphere” to bring “a planned unified activity for the mastery of nature and a just distribution of wealth associated with a consciousness of the unity and equality of all peoples”. But while it is “not possible to reverse this process”, he expects “the transitional stage” to be accompanied by “ruthless struggle” and “intense struggles” that may span several generations. Nonetheless, he doubts “there will be any protracted interruptions in the ongoing process of the transition from the biosphere to the noösphere.” (p. 30) Finally, as he conveys all this with confidence, he nonetheless seems to wonder whether it all “transcends the bounds of logic” and whether “we are entering into a realm still not fully grasped by science.” He even makes positive passing references to Hindu philosophy (though he was an atheist) and to the role of art in man’s thinking (p. 31).

Teilhard and Vernadsky compared:

Both shared a deep belief in our planet’s evolving first the geosphere, then the biosphere, and next the noosphere. But their views about the causes and consequences differ enough to be worth comparing. Teilhard’s views were more spiritually-grounded than Vernadsky’s. He was more inclined to explain the noosphere’s emergence in terms of geological and technological forces. Yet he, like Teilhard, expected the noosphere to have wonderful ethical consequences for humanity — as he noted, “a just distribution of wealth” and “the unity and equality of all peoples”. Moreover, while both viewed the noosphere as a realm of collective consciousness, neither regarded it as a realm of uniformity — both valued individualism and variety.

Both are quite unclear regarding what the transition to the noosphere will be like for people. They both make the transitional phase seem inevitable — at times, Teilhard even makes it seem alluringly smooth and peaceful as well. Yet, if they’d just offered comparisons (which neither evidently did) to the transitions to the geosphere and biosphere, they’d surely have observed how those evolutions were far from smooth and peaceful; indeed, they were often chaotic, disjointed, and violent. Fortunately, Teilhard and Vernadsky at least allude to this prospect — Teilhard by noting that a global tremor if not an apocalypse may characterize the final fusion of the noosphere, Vernadsky by noting the likelihood of intense ruthless struggles spanning several generations.

Which raises another question about the nature of the transition: Teilhard and Vernadsky both see the noosphere as evolving piecemeal around the planet, much as did the geosphere and biosphere, with some parts arising then spreading here, other parts there and elsewhere, with interconnections and interactions increasing over time, until the entire planet is caught up in the process of creation and eventual fusion. But neither scientist specifies what are the parts and pieces that will matter along the way. Teilhard at least mentions that “compartments” will do the “fusing”. That isn’t much to go on, but it’s a bit helpful for thinking strategically.


These points have implications for thinking about noopolitik in our era, which will be discussed in a future post.

*Somewhere in the new paper we will discuss the origins of the noosphere concept, since the noopolitik concept is based partly on it. This is a preliminary draft section I’ve prepared. Our earlier writings only credited Teilhard. Back then we did not know about Vernadsky (nor LeRoy, who left no writings behind). This draft will surely have to be modified as we go along.

Notes about the noosphere and noopolitik — #1: Introductory comments about a new series of posts

As mentioned elsewhere, former co-author John Arquilla and I have been asked — and we’ve agreed — to update our ten-year-old chapter for a new revised edition of a 2009 handbook on public diplomacy. Our chapter back then was titled “Noopolitik: A New Framework for Public Diplomacy”. Not sure what our new title will be, but I do know we will do a major update and rewrite. I also know it might help keep me motivated if I post some draft pieces here as I go along, especially if comments ensue.

In brief, our argument is as follows: As the information age deepens, a globe–circling realm of the mind is being created — the “noosphere” that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (and others) identified ninety years ago. This will increasingly affect the nature of grand strategy and diplomacy. Traditional realpolitik, which ultimately relies on hard (principally military) power, will give way to the rise of noöpolitik (or noöspolitik), which relies on soft (principally ideational) power. Ultimately, noöpolitik is about whose story wins.

Our original RAND report, titled The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward An American Information Strategy (1999), is available here:
Our follow-up paper, “The promise of noöpolitik” (2007), which summarizes the RAND report and was edited down for the chapter in the public diplomacy handbook, is here:

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Readings on tribes and tribalism in America — #27: Amy Chua on “The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism”

This may be the last post in this series. It has served to make the point, over and over, that, as polarization has deepened, more and more Americans have reverted to tribal forms of organization, belief, and behavior — often in dark malignant ways. When I began the series, few analysts were noticing and writing about tribalism. But now I sense that trend is shifting, for more and more analysts are noticing and writing, showing they understand the systematic nature of the tribal form. For example, see the excellent articles I’ve posted in recent months by David Brooks, Jonathan Haidt, and Andrew Sullivan, not to mention others.

So I’m changing direction — away from harping on the dark-sides, toward looking for readings that try to identify ways to ease our dark-side reversions and restore the bright-sides of the tribal form. So far, I’ve not seen much about remedies and solutions, and what I have seen is slim and slow — e.g., improve civic education. But I’m going to try to refocus anyway, under a new series title. All this dwelling on the dark side is a distressing downer. I’ll still attend to some dark writings about tribalism, but more briefly, and under the “Brief blurts …” series heading .

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A strong-point of Yale professor Amy Chua’s “The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism” (Feb 2018) is that it starts by observing, rather than concluding later, that “America is in the grip of political tribalism.” And she is troubled that we’ve fixated on its symptoms when we should be trying to identify its “root causes.” Then, more than anyone else I’ve posted, she blames capitalism — specifically, the presence of a “market-dominant minority” — for creating the socioeconomic conditions that lead to political tribalism. According to her analysis, political democracy has foundered “in virtually every country where there has been a market-dominant minority” (she names Indonesia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, the former Yugoslavia, and Venezuela).

Today, she argues, America is at risk of succumbing to the same dynamic, with our “coastal elites” acting as that market-dominant minority. Thus, we should worry, not that America will go the way of the developed European nations where right-wing ethno-nationalism is taking hold, but rather that America will go the way of the underdeveloped and developing countries she mentioned where “resentment toward a market-dominant minority” led to demagogues taking power.

Here’s an excerpt from up-front that lays out her argument:
“By now we all understand that America is in the grip of political tribalism. We lament and condemn this phenomenon even as we voraciously engage in it. But by fixating on the symptoms, we remain blind to the root causes. America is being ravaged by predictable, destructive political dynamics that follow from the combination of democracy and a market-dominant minority.
“Most Americans assume that democracy and free markets go hand in hand, naturally working together to generate prosperity and freedom. For the United States, this has largely been true. But by their very nature, markets and democracy coexist in deep tension.
“Capitalism creates a small number of very wealthy people, while democracy potentially empowers a poor majority resentful of that wealth. In the wrong conditions, that tension can set in motion intensely destructive politics. All over the world, one circumstance in particular has invariably had this effect: the presence of a market-dominant minority — a minority group, perceived by the rest of the population as outsiders, who control vastly disproportionate amounts of a nation’s wealth.”
Her research, presented more fully in her new book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, leads to the following insight:
“Seeing coastal elites as a market-dominant minority is sobering. In my research, I’ve found no examples of countries successfully overcoming this problem. On the contrary, all over the world, when this dynamic takes hold of a nation’s politics, a result has been an erosion of trust in institutions and in electoral outcomes. Countries lurch toward authoritarianism, hate- mongering and an elite backlash against the popular side of democracy.”
She doesn’t offer much about remedies and solutions, but she sensibly observes that the “way out” will surely have to be “both economic and cultural”. In particular, “Restoring upward mobility should be viewed as an emergency.” Here’s her conclusion to this effect:
“ … If any way out exists, it will have to be both economic and cultural. Restoring upward mobility should be viewed as an emergency. Upward mobility is what made America different from developing countries that have disintegrated. Research shows that zero-sum political tribalism is worst under conditions of economic insecurity and lack of opportunity.
“But the emergence of coastal elites as an insular minority is also rooted squarely in the breakdown of national unity — in the fracturing of our country into two (or more) Americas in which people from one tribe see others not just as the political opposition, but as immoral, evil and un-American. America desperately needs leaders with the courage to break out of the tribalist cycle, but where are we going to find them?”
That final question is ever so daunting.

To read in whole, go here:

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Readings on cognitive warfare at the societal level — #11: Molly McKew on “How Twitter Bots and Trump Fans Made #ReleaseTheMemo Go Viral” (Feb 2018)

This is the fifth article by Molly McKew I’ve included in this series. Her article’s sub-title sums it up: “Russian bots and their American allies gamed social media to put a flawed intelligence document atop the political agenda. That should alarm us.”

The article focuses on “a targeted, 11-day information operation that was amplified by computational propaganda techniques and aimed to change both public perceptions and the behavior of American lawmakers.” That gripping term “computational propaganda” refers to “the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior”. Or, as an interviewee put it, “Computational propaganda serves to distort the political process and amplify fringe views in ways that no previous communication technology could.”

The article documents, in surprising detail, how the hashtag campaign #ReleaseTheMemo started small on Twitter, gained momentum, and became huge — increasingly amplified by automated bots and semi-automated cyborgs as well as by real people, including targeted pro-Trump lawmakers and media commentators. McKew discerns from her data that “The frenzy of activity spurred lawmakers and the White House to release the Nunes memo” — which, I’d add, is evidently what they aimed to do all along.

Posing the question “What does it all mean?”, McKew answers as follows:
“A year after it should have become an indisputable fact that Russia launched a sophisticated, lucky, daring, aggressive campaign against the American public, we’re as exposed and vulnerable as we ever were—if not more so, because now so many tools we might have sharpened to aid us in this fight seem blunted and discarded by the very people who should be honing their edge. There is no leadership. No one is building awareness of how these automated influence campaigns are being used against us. …
“A recent analysis from DFRLab mapped out how modern Russian propaganda is highly effective because so many diverse messaging elements are so highly integrated. Far-right elements in the United States have learned to emulate this strategy, and have used it effectively with their own computational propaganda tactics — as demonstrated by the “Twitter rooms” and documented alt-right bot-nets pushing a pro-Trump narrative. …
“So what are the lessons of #releasethememo? Regardless of how much of the campaign was American and how much was Russian, it’s clear there was a massive effort to game social media and put the Nunes memo squarely on the national agenda — and it worked to an astonishing degree. The bottom line is that the goals of the two overlapped, so the origin — human, machine or otherwise — doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that someone is trying to manipulate us, tech companies are proving hopelessly unable or unwilling to police the bad actors manipulating their platforms, and politicians are either clueless about what to do about computational propaganda or—in the case of #releasethememo — are using it to achieve their goals. Americans are on their own.”
Yikes! As I’ve noted before, back in the Cold War decades and before, we had to be wary of Soviets trying to be “in cahoots” with elements of the American Left — and vice-versa. Now it’s the reverse: we must be wary of Russians acting “in cahoots” with elements of the American Right — and vice-versa.

To read in full, go here:


Monday, February 5, 2018

TIMN's “forms” vs. their “fields” and “logics” (Part 2 of maybe 4) — an illuminating analysis of “forms” by literary theorist Caroline Elizabeth Levine

Ordinarily, to follow up Part 1, I might have to turn next to Plato and Aristotle as proponents of thinking in terms of “forms”. Fortunately, I need do nothing so philosophical. For a literary and cultural theorist has recently written a book that speaks to my view of TIMN’s reliance on “forms”. It’s by Cornell professor Caroline Elizabeth Levine. And just look at the title — Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015). Thus it’s not only about “forms”, but also touches on two of TIMN’s four forms: hierarchies (institutions) and networks. Still more fortunate for me, her introductory chapter (I’ve not seen the rest of her book yet) is online here:
Levine’s marvelous book is the only writing I’ve found so far that focuses on “forms” much as I do. So I’m going to excerpt numerous quotes from her Introduction that resonate with my usage and draw validation from that for TIMN. (I apologize in advance for the wordiness and repetitiveness of my write-up, but that’s become a side-effect of how I get things done these days.)

• Levine starts by noting that in past usages ““form” always indicates an arrangement of elements — an ordering, patterning, or shaping”. She makes her own definition deliberately broader: “Form … will mean all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference.” (p. 3)

Likewise, TIMN’s forms amount to different arrangements, patterns, shapes, configurations, ordering principles, and/or patterns that get repeated. We coincide on that, even though I don’t use all those terms. But our efforts differ in that TIMN is based on four forms, whereas her approach finds all sorts of forms everywhere.

• Levine clarifies that it is “the work of form to make order.” Which means that “forms are the stuff of politics.” And this means that “forms”, being inherently if not explicitly political, work by “imposing order on space” and by “organizing time” — say, by way of imposing boundaries and hierarchies, and by setting terms and age-requirements. To such an extent, she says, that “there is no politics without form.” (p. 3)

Likewise, TIMN’s four forms represent different approaches to order, including different ways of structuring space and time (as noted here). Levine deems all forms of order more political than I have (or would); but in a broad sense all four TIMN forms, their uses and combinations, are political, for they are subject to politics and become objects of politics.

• Levine collects together and makes explicit five long-standing literary and cultural ideas about “how forms work”. (1) They “constrain”, control, and contain. (2) They “differ” in how they impose order. (3) Many “overlap and intersect” — “sometimes powerfully reinforcing one another”. (4) They are portable, for they can “travel … across culture and time periods”. (5) They “do political work in particular historical contexts”, for “they shape what it is possible to think, say, and do in a given context.” Furthermore, “None of these ideas about form are themselves new, but putting them together will bring us to a new theory of form.” (pp. 4-6)

Levine’s five points apply well to TIMN’s four forms (tribes, institutions, markets, networks). In the order she listed, (1) They all serve to constrain and contain what people do. (2) They all differ in how they do so. (3) They often overlap and interact — in many societies, the tribal form in particular tends to penetrate the other forms. (4) They get applied in societies around the world. And (5) they shape each society’s history throughout the course of its evolution. A point I’d add that is missing from her list is that the four TIMN forms also differ as to the kinds of incentives and opportunities they provide to people.

• Levine’s next step is to “use affordances to think about form” — a concept whose usage is new to me. If I understand it correctly, the previous five points are generalities that apply across all forms, whereas affordances are specifics that attend a particular form. In her words, “affordances” refers to “both the specificity and the generality of forms — both the particular constraints and possibilities that different forms afford”. Particular forms thus differ as to the “constraints and possibilities” they carry — the concept of “affordances” helps express that “Each form can only do so much.” (p. 6) In other words, “each form lays claim to different affordances”; and as forms get moved from situation to situation, “forms bring their limited range of affordances with them.” (p. 7) What Levine wants to do with this concept is assure a discussion of power — for if forms “are the stuff of politics, then attending to the affordances of form opens up a generalizable understanding of political power.” For example, she says, “A panoptic arrangement of space, wherever it takes shape, will always afford a certain kind of disciplinary power; a hierarchy will always afford inequality.” (p. 7)

I don’t cotton yet to Levine’s concept of “affordances”, and I think the foregoing is unclear. Her individual chapters on selected forms — Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network — may make matters clear, but I’ve not read them yet. Even so, the points she makes with “affordances” are much like points I make about TIMN’s four forms, instead using terms like “attributes” or “uses” or “implications” (while, I’ve learned, others use “potentials” or “advantages”). For example, take a look at Table 1 from an old blog post (here) comparing attributes of each TIMN form. If those attributes correspond more or less to affordances — it looks to me they do — then once again Levine’s and my separate usages of “forms” are running parallel, often overlapping.

• Levine’s approach leads her to stress that forms and their affordances not only organize but also disorganize the world. This occurs because forms “often fail to impose their order when they run up against other forms that disrupt their logic and frustrate their organizing ends” — such as when “particular historical situations” make “forms overlap and collide”, creating contradictions (pp. 7-8). Her concept of affordances thus helps illuminate the capabilities and limitations of forms as organizing principles operating “in contexts where other political and aesthetic forms also are operating.” In sum, she says, “Form emerges from this perspective as transhistorical, portable, and abstract, on the one hand, and material, situated, and political, on the other.” (pp. 10-11)

At the same time, Levine is careful not to overemphasize contradictions that may arise among various forms and their affordances. Instead, she muses that her academic “field has been so concerned with breaking forms apart that we have neglected to analyze the major work that forms do in our world.” Since societies cannot be “altogether free of organizing principles”, she advises analysts in her field to move away from placing “too strong an emphasis on forms’ dissolution”, because doing so “has prevented us from attending to the complex ways that power operates in a world dense with functioning forms.” (p. 9)

Much the same applies to TIMN’s four forms. Their purpose is to organize, and TIMN is about how they may be progressively combined in complementary ways to improve the performance of evermore complex societies. Yes, their different organizing principles do tend to contradict one another — e.g., tribes vs. institutions, or hierarchies vs. networks. So the need is to make the forms function together as complementary contradictions. And identify why some societies prove better at doing so than others.

• Against this background, Levine identifies her book’s two major goals: The first is “to show that forms are everywhere structuring and patterning experience, and that this carries serious implications for understanding political communities.” Theoretically, she says, “political forms impose their order on our lives, putting us in our places.” But in actuality, we live in complex environments “composed of multiple and conflicting modes of organization” — with myriad forms “competing and colliding and rerouting one another.” Thus she is out to “make the case that no form, however seemingly powerful, causes, dominates, or organizes all others.” (p. 16)

This too is consistent with TIMN. It focuses only on the four cardinal four forms serving to organize our lives, but people often do use them to try to compete, collide, and reroute others — particularly where the tribal form and its clannish “affordances” (?) remain so pervasive they corrupt the later forms. In any case, in those societies where TIMN forces progress well, the story of societal evolution is about the successful combination of forms, not domination by any single form. One form or another may seem most prominent at times, but a society that gives way to domination or paramountcy by a single TIMN form, or worse yet to its hegemony, is doing something wrong. This amounts to a major parallel between TIMN and Levine’s analysis, in that it is best that “no form, however seemingly powerful, causes, dominates, or organizes all others.” Theorists elsewhere err who have claimed that the TIMN progression from monoform (T-only) through quadriform (T+I+M+N) societies means a sequential domination by the latest form added — a debate for discussion another time.

• Her book’s second major goal is more political and strategic: “to think about the ways that, together, the multiple forms of the world come into conflict and disorganize experience in ways that call for unconventional political strategies.” She objects to “critics and theorists” on the Left who assume that “powerful social institutions” and “coherent ideologies” rule our experiences. Instead, her book stresses the significance of “social disorganization, exploring the many ways in which multiple forms of order, sometimes the results of the same powerful ideological formation, may unsettle one another.” She seeks to clarify “how competing forms can sometimes produce pain and injustice as troubling as any consolidation of power.” (p. 17)

In arguing for her view that we live in societies where “no single form dominates or organizes all of the others,” she goes against “one of the deepest political convictions in the field: that ultimately, it is deep structural forces such as capitalism, nationalism, and racism that are the truly powerful shapers of our lives.” She agrees that “our lives are certainly organized by powerful structuring principles.” But she finds that “an exclusive focus on ultimate causality has not necessarily benefited leftist politics.” Instead, “It has distracted us from thinking strategically about how best to deploy multiple forms for political ends.” (p. 17)

Thus Levine’s work is about both theory and practice, for she aims to show that a multi-form approach to “formalism” has strategic implications for political activism by the Left. Contrary to conventional ideological activists who think and strategize in terms of large central concepts and forces, e.g., capitalism and socialism, she advises activists to “shift attention away from deep causes to a recognition of the many different shapes and patterns that constitute political, cultural, and social experience” — including “a careful, nuanced understanding of the many different and often disconnected arrangements that govern social experience.” In Levine’s view, then,
“ … the primary goal of this formalism is radical social change. All politics, including revolutionary political action, will succeed only if it is canny about deploying multiple forms. … Which forms do we wish to see governing social life, then, and which forms of protest or resistance actually succeed at dismantling unjust, entrenched arrangements?” (pp. 17-18)
Here again TIMN has lots in common with what Levine says. I am interested in TIMN primarily as theory. Yet it has implications for strategy, much like Levine’s, for it too implies “deploying multiple forms”, rectifying or reforming the improper application of established forms, and not letting any single form dominate.

I have not articulated TIMN to be explicitly about values like “dismantling unjust, entrenched arrangements” (her words). But TIMN could easily be moved in value-laden directions. For its system dynamics favor respecting the limits of each form (i.e., what it can and cannot do best), and achieving proper balances among them (e.g., so that tribalized forces are kept from corrupting and distorting the performance of a society’s institutional and market systems). Each TIMN form is loaded with value orientations; it’s up to people how they get enacted, and this has a lot to do with their notions of limits and balances.

Unlike Levine, I don’t urge that TIMN should inform leftists about new ways to pursue radical social change. But because of its +N component, TIMN is inherently a harbinger of radical social change in the coming decades. And with further articulation, TIMN could be turned into a manifesto for radical social change. It needn’t be a leftist or rightist manifesto, but it would have to be a quadriformist manifesto — one very much about “Which forms do we wish to see governing social life” (as she puts it).

As I look ahead with TIMN in mind, it seems more important to try to be a quadriformist than a leftist or rightist. Today’s aging triformist societies are fraught with splits between leftist progressives and rightist conservatives who endlessly argue over whether government (+I) or market (+M) solutions should prevail — they’re stuck in triformist mindsets. Yet, tomorrow’s new quadriform societies will be transformed and remodeled by the rise of +N, completely altering public policy dialoge. These societies will surely have their own Lefts and Rights, but for now I think it’s more important to try to figure out what will be the essence of this next form than claim to be a leftist or rightist proponent of it. In my view, it will probably, hopefully, be a commons sector (as I’ve said in other posts).

• While Levine sees an unlimited variety of forms at work, she identifies four in particular as pervasive “political structures”: namely, bounded wholes, temporal rhythms, hierarchies, and networks. Here she gives more detail regarding what she means by each (before providing a separate chapter on each):
“ … bounded wholes, from domestic walls to national boundaries; temporal rhythms, from the repetitions of industrial labor to the enduring patterns of institutions over time; powerful hierarchies, including gender, race, class, and bureaucracy; and networks that link people and objects, including multinational trade, terrorism, and transportation.” (p. 21)
TIMN is based on four cardinal forms of organization: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and information-age networks. So I’m pleased that two of her four (hierarchies and networks) roughly correspond to two of TIMN’s four forms — hierarchical institutions and information-age networks. But I can tell from the above passage that I’ll find significant discrepancies between her meanings and mine if/when I read her chapters.

For one matter, TIMN’s forms are sweepingly evolutionary in nature — her forms not so much, at least not from what I read in her Introduction. Moreover, reflecting historical analysis, TIMN prescribes a preferred progression in the addition and combination of its cardinal forms — from T-only, to T+I, to T+I+M, and in the decades ahead, to T+I+M+N societies. Her view is not like this, though it may well favor some forms over others. Also, I’m pretty sure TIMN’s forms are much more bounded than her four. Yet, as I said above, I’m pleased at the rough correspondence between the forms we each study — another plus for TIMN, in my view.

• Levine’s chief strategic insight is that “what we are facing is not a single hegemonic system or dominant ideology but many forms, all trying to organize us at once”. Thus she raises a concern that resistance to excesses associated with one form “may not emancipate us” but instead reinforce another form, undesirably. In light of this, achieving social change may be more difficult “in a world of overlapping forms” than theorists and activists have realized. What she asks her readers to wonder is, “Can we set one form against another or introduce a new form that would reroute a racial hierarchy or disturb exclusionary boundaries?” To find an answer, “we need a fine-grained formalist reading practice to address the extraordinary density of forms that is a fact of our most ordinary daily experience.” (p. 22)

Levine’s insightful points are already embedded in TIMN. It too is concerned with system dynamics and strategies for systemic change, particularly in advanced societies where TIMN’s four forms vie for application. Where our approaches may differ is that TIMN is about the presence and performance of four cardinal forms, whereas she finds an “extraordinary density of forms” of many kinds spread throughout society. Despite this difference, her points that people may try to “set one form against another or introduce a new form” resonate with what I’ve written about TIMN — for example where I’ve noted how some politicians push excessively for a government (+I) or a market (+M) solution to a policy problem. By TIMN standards, Ayn-Randian libertarians and anarcho-capitalists in particular uphold unwarranted beliefs in using +M solutions. Elsewhere on the political spectrum, many leftists are so against capitalism they dismiss the necessity for an advanced society to include a proper +M/market system. Neither side seems to understand the limits of their vaunted form and the need for a balance among the four forms.

• Levine’s final paragraph in her Introduction reiterates her goal to “understand the relations among forms — forms aesthetic and social, spatial and temporal, ancient and modern, major and minor, like and unlike, punitive and narrative, material and metrical.” More to the point, she wants to “persuade those who are interested in politics to become formalists”. And she wants this for strategic as well as theoretical purposes — “so that we can begin to intervene in the conflicting formal logics that turn out to organize and disorganize our lives, constantly producing not only painful dispossessions but also surprising opportunities.” (p. 23)

Likewise, I would wish to persuade others to become TIMNistas. However, I would not call myself a “formalist”, nor say that TIMN expresses “formal logics” — that sounds awkward to me, not quite apt, too borrowed from literary studies. Maybe there’s some truth to it, but for now I’d prefer something like “form-oriented” or form-based”. Nonetheless, language aside, her closing remarks resonate with me because it would be good if TIMN were developed to the point where it could be used to help guide the future transformations it implies — in her words. “to intervene in the conflicting formal logics that turn out to organize and disorganize our lives, constantly producing not only painful dispossessions but also surprising opportunities.”

CODA: For trying to understand the meaning and implications of “forms,” Levine’s is an excellent book, better than anything else I’ve come across. I see at Amazon that it received lots of praise, awards too, from academics right after its publication. What I don’t see is whether it received much recognition from leftist social theorists and activists who strategize about social change. My guess is no, but I’d like to know for sure, either way, and why. I’d suggest they (especially pro-commons P2P theorists) should give her approach more attention, as should future-oriented theorists and activists on the Right. I’d also suggest that Darwinian theorists take a look as well (see Part 1 of this multi-part post). From what I’ve read about “strategic action fields” and “institutional logics”, their theorists might benefit as well (see my discussion in Parts 3 and maybe 4, next).