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Complex systems science is the study of dynamic nonlinear systems that are not in equilibrium and do not act in a predictable manner. Key features (integration, communication, history/initial conditions) in complex biophysical systems correspond with key features of social systems: the holistic nature of culture, knowledge sharing through the senses, and the formative power of traditions, structures and materials, strategies, and habits of mind.

While several areas of complex systems research have potential for the social sciences, one of the most promising is the concept of heterarchy, which treats the diversity of relationships among system elements and offers a way to think about systemic change in spatial, temporal, and cognitive dimensions. Definitions of heterarchy are remarkably consistent across disciplines, while the work they do is extraordinarily diverse. The earliest definition describes the minds ability to hold conflicting values as a heterarchy of values determined by the topology of nervous nets (McCulloch 1945, p. 89). In artificial intelligence and computer design, the organization of computer sub-routines that can call one another is heterarchical (Minsky and Papert 1972, p. 2). A mathematician defines heterarchy as a program in which there is no highest level (Hofstadter 1979, p. 134). A sociologist who studies corporations defines heterarchy as an emergent organizational form with distinctive network properties and multiple organizing principles (Stark 2001, p. 71). A general purpose definition contrasts hierarchies, the elements of which are ranked relative to one another, with heterarchies, the elements of which are unranked, or possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways, depending on systemic requirements (Crumley 1979, p. 144).

Heterarchy does not stand apart from hierarchy; rather, the two forms are in a dialectical relationship. From a mathematical standpoint heterarchy is the more general category and subsumes hierarchy as a special case. The concepts versatility permits its use as a physical structure, as an abstract model, or in an historical narrative. Heterarchy meets requirements for robust social theory inasmuch as the concept can relate the micro (individual) level to the macro (social) level, the agency of social actors to the social structure in which they operate, and provide an explanation for discontinuous and fundamental changes in the social system as a whole.

Heterarchy is a corrective to the naturalized characterization of power relations, which conflates hierarchy with order (Crumley 1987, 2005; Ehrenreich 1995). Since archaeologys founding as a discipline, most interpretation has assumed a linear progression from small, early, simple societies to those that were more populous, later in time, and complex. Such a definition of complex (having more administrative levels) is in contrast to the definition of complexity in nonlinear systems (more richly networked). Political systems were assumed to have greater stability the more they tended toward tiered hierarchies of power. Yet powerful forces can manifest entirely outside the framework of state hierarchies and beyond their control. In non-linear systems, this is chaos or surprise, and reflects the characteristic brittleness of very hierarchical societies rendered vulnerable by systemic barriers to information transfer and limited recognition of other dimensions of power.

Archaeological and ethnographic evidence indicates that hierarchies and heterarchies of power coexist in all human societies, including states. Thus biological diversity has a correlate in human societies: the toleration of difference in individuals and groups offers a reserve of knowledge for use in problem solving, just as genetic and biological diversity increases ecosystemic resilience. Similarly, organizational flexibility (economic, social, and political) enables societies to adjust to changed circumstances. As in ecology, researchers must remain aware of intensity, periodicity, and duration of relations; in human societies this might be thought of as the range of powers an individual, a group, or an institution has, and the regularity and duration of particular roles. Heterarchy is a fundamental principle of social organization.

SEE ALSO Archaeology; Chaos Theory; Ethnography; Hierarchy; Networks; Political Economy; Power; Systems Theory


Crumley, Carole L. 1979. Three Locational Models: An Epistemological Assessment for Anthropology and Archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, vol. 2, 141173.

Crumley, Carole L. 1987. A Dialectical Critique of Hierarchy. In Power Relations and State Formation, eds. Thomas C. Patterson and Christine Ward Gailey, 155168. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Crumley, Carole L. 2005. Remember How to Organize: Heterarchy Across Disciplines. In Nonlinear Models for Archaeology and Anthropology, eds. Christopher S. Beekman and William S. Baden, 3550. Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Press.

Ehrenreich, Robert M., Carole L. Crumley, and Janet E. Levy, eds. 1995. Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association no. 6. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Hofstadter, Douglas. 1979. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books.

McCulloch, Warren S. 1945. A Heterarchy of Values Determined by the Topology of Nervous Nets. Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 7: 8993.

Minsky, M., and S. Papert. 1972. Artificial Intelligence Progress Report (AI Memo 252). Cambridge, MA: MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Stark, David. 2001. Ambiguous Assets for Uncertain Environments: Heterarchy in Postsocialist Firms. In The Twenty-First-Century Firm: Changing Economic Organization in International Perspective, ed. Paul DiMaggio, 69104. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Carole L. Crumley