In a previous post, we introduced the idea of thinking about intractable conflict as a complex adaptive system. This post uses Kenneth Boulding's "Skeleton of Science" as a framework for thinking about how the nature of systems changes as one moves up the hierarchy from simple, to complicated, to complex systems.  We end by asking the big question, what would a true social ecosystem / complexity oriented conflict paradigm look like?

Discussion Questions



  • Is there anything we can do the push systems thinking further into the thinking and practice of conflict resolution and transformation?  How can we move beyond a level-three understanding of feedback loops to a level seven or eight-level understanding of social systems?
  • Are you aware of successful (or instructive) efforts to promote the more active involvement of a wider array of citizens in efforts to promote more constructive approaches to conflict (utilizing, however unintentionally) an ecosystem model of conflict response?

Full Transcript

This is Guy Burgess. I want to follow up on an earlier distinction that I drew between complicated and complex adaptive systems. As I said before, Heidi and I are convinced that the key to moving beyond intractability and dealing with an awful lot of the world’s really difficult problems, is to start thinking about these conflict problems as complex adaptive systems, not merely simple or even complicated systems. But that requires doing a systems analysis of the conflict problem.

I thought the place to start with this discussion would be to go back to an old article that Kenneth Boulding wrote in 1956 called “The Skeleton of Science.” This was one of his most popular articles ever, which for all of the thousands of things that he wrote, is actually quite an accomplishment. This came out in the early days of general systems theory. In it, he outlined a hierarchy of systems where each level of systems becomes increasingly complex.

Boulding’s lowest level (the simplest system) was a static “framework” system. These are systems in which all of the parts exist in fixed and unchanging relationship to one another. The example he used to use was a chair, not a fancy chair like a recliner, but just a simple chair with a seat, a back, and four legs that don’t move. They always stay in the same relationship to one and other.

The next level of system was a dynamic system, in which a change in one thing would cause a change in another and another—producing a simple causal chain.   Dynamic systems are what he called “clockworks” –clock hands go around and around, where all the components of the system exist in a changing relationship with one another, but those changes are thoroughly predictable. They’re often repetitive.

The next level he introduced was the cybernetic system, where you introduce feedback. You can have a negative feedback loop like a thermostat in the room. If the room gets too hot, the thermostat turns off the furnace, and if it gets too cold, it turns it back on again. That keeps the temperature at a relatively stable level. An awful lot of the systems on our planet work like that—it is what allows the planet to remain hospitable to life.  Basic supply and demand systems in economics work like that.  If the supply of oil gets high, the price goes down.  If oil becomes scarce, the price goes up.  That’s negative feedback—it keeps the supply and the demand in balance.

There also positive feedback systems. You can understand that by simply thinking about rewiring a thermostat so that when things get hot, instead of turning off the furnace, it turns it on.  That would make a house get hotter and hotter still. If you then turn the furnace up more and more, that's obviously an explosive situation. That's the mistake, believe it or not, that the engineers made in their design of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. And that's why it was such a catastrophe. 

Despite their catastrophic nature, there are all sorts of positive feedback, explosive-loop systems in the natural and social systems of planet earth. Escalating conflict is an example.  Someone insults someone else who insults them back.  The response to the second insult results in a physical fight, which results in someone getting a gun…which results, possibly in someone getting killed.  That’s a positive feedback system.  Positive here doesn’t mean “good,” it just means more of something (like anger) creates more and more of that same thing, instead of dampening it down, as occurs in negative feedback systems.

At the next level is open-throughput systems. Boulding talked about things like rivers and flames, where you have a system that exists, but the flow of individuals or elements or materials or matter through the system is ongoing. At this level, you start to get the most primitive forms of life. Cells are organizations of atoms and molecules that process a continuing throughput of food and waste products. Open-throughput systems start out pretty simple, and get more and more complicated. Human organizations, too, exhibit system characteristics of open throughput systems when the individuals in the organization change over time, but the organization itself remains. The president of the U.S. changes every 4-8 years, yet the office of President remains the same. Though human systems are more complex than open-throughput systems, those kinds of relationships can be seen in human systems as well.

At the next level, Boulding introduces the biological world. The botanical system of plants and plant ecosystems are the beginning, and not all that long after that came zoological systems. Animals have the ability to sense their environment, make decisions, and move around. So, too, of course, do people. And all the plants and animals interacting create yet another level of systems—ecosystems. Ecosystem analysis is most often applied to biological systems and humans are generally seen as something different, something higher (or by some, more sinister). But humans are actually part of the natural ecosystem, and we have our own social ecosystems as well, which Boulding recognizes in his top two levels.  One is the level of human psychology. It reflects the ability of humans to learn to organize themselves through language into very large-scale social structures (the top-level system).

Now overlay on this hierarchy of systems, the distinction that we had before between complicated and complex systems.  The first three of Boulding’s levels: static, dynamic, and feedback systems are all complicated systems. This is the way the physical world works and it's also the way in which mechanical systems designed by humans work. Everything is predictable (at least until something breaks).

At the next level, you get throughput systems--botanical and zoological system--where you've gotten into complexity. Here you're talking about the organic metaphors of the biological world and biological evolution. Then at the top levels, you pick up human and social systems, and you add the additional level of societal evolution and societal complexity at the top level.

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999).