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Hierarchies and Holarchies

A distinction can be made between hierarchies and holarchies, although in practice there may be a lot of overlap and ambiguity between the terms.

To put things in a very simplistic manner, we could say that basically, hierarchy represents the dominating, centralised, exclusivist, "vertical", "Y axis" "system A" polarity. Whereas holarchy represents the egalitarian, inclusivist, "horizontal" "X-axis" "system B" polarity. But from another perspective, both hierarchy and holarchy are still vertical, in relation to a purely networked relationship, so that both hierarchy and holarchy represent the "vertical" "Y axis" "particle" in relation to the "horizontal" "X-axis" "wave"/"field". So it's all relative

Although there is a tendency in Postmaterialist, Pluralistic, New Age and Wilberian-Integral philosophy to say hierarchy bad, holarchy good, in fact both polarities are authentic aspects of reality, and hence both should be considred equally, without moral judgments.

The following table is based on material in an essay by Andrew Smith, external link How History Repeats Itself. Most of these are variations on the same theme

Form of relationship Hierarchy Holarchy
Structure Hierarchy is frequently shaped like a pyramid, with the number of individual members progressively decreasing at higher stages. The higher, the more inclusive. In holarchy, higher stages contain lower stages, so are necessarily larger.
Interaction/Control Control from the top down. In institutional hierarchies, individuals at higher stages may command or control the behavior of individuals at lower levels. Bidirectional interactions. In natural holarchies, lower holons and higher holons influence each other.
Relationship Linear chain of command. Hierarchical relationships can generally be traced from higher individuals to lower individuals in a sequential order. Networks. Holarchies can exhibit complex relationships. In nature, all networks are formed by the interactions of holons of some kind, and most networks are in turn holarchically combined into higher forms of life.
Role Fixed Roles. Individuals in institutional hierarchies are defined by particular functions they fulfill in the organization. Multiple states. Many natural holarchies feature different kinds of interactions among members.
Power-influence Power rankings. Individuals within a hierarchy can be distinguished according to how much influence they have. Those at one stage are ranked higher than those at a lower stage. Egalitarian. In most natural holarchies, most individual members are equal or nearly equal in their functions and properties. In some holarchies, a few members are better connected to other members, and these better connections may result in enhanced properties.

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page by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 12 January 2009