Hierarchy theory is a body of thought that relates chosen levels of analysis to defined levels of organization, all in the context of scaling. It advises the scientist of subtle but crucial distinctions that follow from observing and making analytical decisions. A significant part of hierarchy theory is observation in relation to conceptions of order in complex systems that would otherwise invite confusion. It is a metatheory that guides the generation, fine-tuning and testing of other bodies of thought, themselves more easily recognizable as theories in the conventional sense. Some theories in ecology are associated with answering questions taken as given. Such theory is validated in testing hypotheses. Other ecological theories may
Figure 1 A community conception leads to an expected situating of whole trees in an environment. But a process-functional ecosystem conception of that same forest can lead to a hierarchy where tree boles are separated from the leaves, and then united with soil elements in a carbon storage compartment. Each respective hierarchy takes its form from the purpose for which it is intended.
fine-tune questions, perhaps clarifying what is meant by competition, so that worthwhile hypotheses may be generated. By contrast, hierarchy theory applies in the preanalytical stage, when the questions are being framed rather than when clarified or answered. In the preanaly-tical stage, the boundaries of things are established, and structures are assigned to types or classes. With the discourse laid out unambiguously by hierarchy theory, other theories may come into play, testing explicit hypotheses with measurement and models. Thus hierarchy theory does not have its own hypotheses per se, but rather opens the way for subsequent testing of specific hypotheses. Like multivariate description in ecology, hierarchy theory focuses on hypothesis generation and clarification. From a small number of first principles, it highlights what would be otherwise taken for granted and then forgotten in the muddle that ensues. Hierarchy theory is explicit, as it positions the tacit next to the focal. Its precision is in thought and choosing definitions, more than action in quantitative experimentation.
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