By Joern Fischer
I warmly recommend the following article, which just appeared in Trends in Ecology & Evolution:
Cumming, G.S. (2016). Heterarchies: Reconciling Networks and Hierarchies. Trends Ecol Evol. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2016.04.009
This paper proposes that the concept of “heterarchies” be used more widely in ecology, and in social-ecological systems research. The key point is that systems can behave in complex ways (e.g. self-organisation) for at least two reasons: being organised through (i) a networked system architecture versus (ii) a hierarchical system architecture. The idea of heterarchy suggests that these two types of system structure are not mutually exclusive. Rather, ecologists may gain from considering both aspects of hierarchical organisation, and aspects of networked organisation — and, importantly, their interaction.
This relatively simple conceptual framework, in my opinion, offers a fresh perspective to thinking about complex systems. Cumming demonstrates that this perspective can be applied to many different contexts. What kind of architecture characterises a particular system of interest (How networked is it? How hierarchical is it?) — and how this architecture may result in certain types of system behaviour — can be meaningfully studied in many different contexts. This, in turn, means that a comparative study of the heterarchy of different systems could be helpful to generate new, generalisable insights on the behaviour of complex (human-environment) systems.
As Cumming acknowledges, the concept of heterarchies is not new. However, it will be new to many ecologists, and is likely to stimulate a wide range of interesting new research.