History of the Field

Hierarchy theory has its roots in economics and business administration of the 1960s, suggesting that the world appears nearly decomposable. We can decompose wholes into parts, but only to a degree, in that parts communicate and leak onto each other. Complete decomposability would deny upper-level structures' existence. Completely decomposed, the parts would not to be able to communicate with each other in making the larger whole. Parts have strong connections within, but weak connections between, and those weak connections may be precisely what links hierarchical levels (Figure 3).

While some practitioners in subsequent studies have sought real hierarchies in an external world, much of the early literature of business administration hierarchies is agnostic about the ultimate reality of hierarchical structure. In this spirit, hierarchy theory in social organizations operates largely in the realm of epistemology, as a theory of observation and analysis. The discourse generally takes the position that hierarchies appear somewhere between the material world and human understanding. If there are complex material systems that are not hierarchic, we might expect to have great difficulty in observing or understanding them. There appear to be points of passage of information up hierarchies, where details are explicitly lost. A military command is a favorite hierarchic example of a human organization. There, details of how an individual soldier observed local enemy concentrations fall away as the intelligence passes up the command. Setting the detail

Levels and strength of connection

Levels and strength of connection

Figure 3 In nested hierarchies, the bonds that unite members of the lowest level N are strong, as they make entities of level N +1. The bonds that create level N + 2 are weaker. Nevertheless, these weaker bonds appear as the strong bonds making the entities at level N + 2 when seen from level N + 3. If the two largest units in the figure are molecules, then the entities at N +1 are atoms. Breaking their atomic bonds releases huge amounts of atomic energy as subatomic particles, N, are freed. Atomic bonds are stronger and release more energy when broken, compared to breaking the chemical bonds that make molecules, the N + 2 entities.

Figure 3 In nested hierarchies, the bonds that unite members of the lowest level N are strong, as they make entities of level N +1. The bonds that create level N + 2 are weaker. Nevertheless, these weaker bonds appear as the strong bonds making the entities at level N + 2 when seen from level N + 3. If the two largest units in the figure are molecules, then the entities at N +1 are atoms. Breaking their atomic bonds releases huge amounts of atomic energy as subatomic particles, N, are freed. Atomic bonds are stronger and release more energy when broken, compared to breaking the chemical bonds that make molecules, the N + 2 entities.

aside allows the top brass to make sweeping decisions, without being encumbered by a blizzard of local happenings. Not only must the general in command let go of details of grains so as to get a handle on the wide extent, but so too must the observers of hierarchical structure. To understand what a general is doing, the observer of a command structure needs to integrate away the details inside the army. By the late 1960s, the notion of hierarchy had moved beyond administration systems, and was being taken up across a range of disciplines.

In the following decade, hierarchy theorists from physics addressed hierarchical complexity after Heisenberg, invoking dualities, uncertainty, and complementarity between dynamics versus structure. Important developments have turned on the tension across the dilemmas presented by dual structures, as in the holon, a generalized entity in a hierarchy. Holons have been equated with the concept of system, with the advantage that holon does not appear in common parlance. The holon can therefore escape the reification and slovenly usage in the vernacular where the model is mistaken for the materiality. Conceptual developments suggest that what is inside a given holon is chosen by an observer. This emphasizes that holons are abstractions more than material objects; a point forgotten when 'system' is used for 'holon'. In the holon, the tension is between system and subsystem. But the subsystem is a system in its own right, thus offering some sort of dual existence that invites contradiction.

The concept of the holon takes the whole to be a surface that integrates the parts to give a unified signal to the rest of the universe. At the same time, the holon is the surface that integrates the external environment for the parts to experience. In ecology, the environment falls away at the level of the holon when viewed from the perspective of the parts. A forest raises humidity and lowers temperature, thus allowing survival of some of its parts, tree seedlings that are its future. The parts are protected. Conversely, viewed from the context of the hot, dry environment surrounding the forest, the contributions of each tree to the water vapor inside the forest are lost in a more general flux of water from the canopy. Thus, loss of information occurs with movement both up and down the hierarchy. While the environment is too large to catch the details of the working of the parts, the parts themselves cannot span wide enough to see large, slow differences in the larger context. In all this, we see again the tension embodied in hierarchical discussions between scale, organization, and uncertainty in observation.

Earlier, five general principles for ordering ecological hierarchies were recognized:

(1) As to frequency of behavior, higher-level holons operate at a lower frequency, taking longer to exhibit returns in behavior than holons at lower levels.

(2) Higher levels in a hierarchy constrain lower levels by displaying intransigent constancy. Deans constrain faculty by not changing the budget, except once a year.

(3) Higher levels in a hierarchy will be contextual to lower levels. The environment would be seen as operating at a higher level.

(4) With regard to bond strength, higher-level holons are held together by weaker forces than those that integrate lower-level holons (e.g., chemical vs. nuclear bonds) (Figure 3).

(5) As to containment, if higher-level holons consist of lower holons, which they contain, then the hierarchy is said to be nested. Not all the criteria apply to all hierarchies, but all five principles may apply simultaneously.

The distinction between nested and non-nested hierarchies matters (Figure 3). In nested systems, upper-level entities contain and consist of lower-level entities. In nonnested hierarchies, containment is not a criterion, but principles (1)—(3) can still apply. In nested hierarchies, containment applies even if aggregation criteria between levels change type. Western medicine generally uses nested hierarchies for the human condition. Thus organelles may be aggregated into cells by biochemical interaction. Meanwhile, nesting of organs inside the whole body may invoke fluid mechanics as a principal on which parts make the whole person. When whole humans nest inside groups, relationships may be in epi-demiological terms. In Western medicine, there are regular changes in aggregation criteria from biochemical, through fluid dynamic, to epidemiological. Despite inconstant criteria for linking levels, the nesting keeps such hierarchies straight. But in non-nested hierarchies, such as food chains or pecking orders, the top dog neither contains nor consists of the subordinate individuals. Because there is no nesting to maintain order, non-nested hierarchies embody only one specific rule for moving between levels. As a result, the criteria for moving up a food chain must be consistently 'is eaten by', or conversely going down it is 'eats'. In this way, the hierarchy is consistent top to bottom. Because of their robustness to changes in aggregation criteria, nested hierarchies are particularly useful for exploration before firm criteria connecting levels have been established. Concomitantly, non-nested hierarchies are for mature ideas, where focused sets of relationships are organized and abstracted in a control system.

In thermodynamic studies of ecological emergence, nested hierarchies are essential, because otherwise the bookkeeping of energy flow between the system and its environment would not sum. In complexity theory, self-organized emergence is a matter of thermodynamic gradients being applied to material systems that are pushed away from equilibrium. Thus, nested hierarchies apply when self-organization is invoked, when holons emerge at a new level without any plan. Planned systems often yield to a non-nested conception. A surprising and important new turn in applied ecology of human management systems links nonnested human socioeconomic hierarchies to nested thermodynamic hierarchies. The whole system is embodied in energy flow and control through the twinned social and biogeochemical hierarchies.

These thermodynamic approaches develop self-organizing holarchic open systems (SOHOs), using the term holarchy for nested hierarchies. The word holarchy appears in part to sidestep the political unacceptability of hegemonic hierarchical control. Using the SOHO approach, the full power of hierarchy theory in solving real time problems has been developed by Waltner Toews and colleagues at NESH, a Canadian centered, complex systems group. They solved some critical problems in Peru, Kenya, and Nepal. For instance, a Kathmandu sewer had children playing around slaughterhouse waste. By linking the social hierarchy to the ecological process hierarchy, NESH identified that a street cleaner caste was being blamed for things out of their control. Blaming scapegoats had led to inaction and paralysis, but once the street cleaners were no longer held responsible, the SOHO thermodynamic methodology achieved significant rehabilitation as the social and ecological hierarchies began to function in concert.

The earliest explicit introduction of hierarchy theory into ecology in the 1970s spoke of decomposability as an issue in some of the biomes studied in the International Biological Program (IBP). At that time, terms, such as 'environ', 'creaon', and 'genon' were coined as extensions of the concept of holon. Environ addresses the environment acting as an integrated whole for its residents (see Ecological Network Analysis, Environ Analysis). The inward direction toward the holon pertains to the creaon, whereas the outward direction pertains to the genon generating new things and experiences for the environment and its residents. Holon remains the central concept. The first fully integrated treatments of hierarchies in ecology turned on epistemological implications of scale and dynamics. Following shortly, evolutionary ideas focused on the structural elements in hierarchies, in a more ontological spirit. The structural elements were cast as a triadic view of holons, where the level above and the level below, as well as the level of the holon in between, are all required for an adequate treatment. Recently, two more crucial levels were added: the level above the context keeps the context of the holon stable, while the level below the parts provides stability for the material of which the parts are made.

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