Monday, October 8, 2012

Q’s & A’s about “TIMN in 20 minutes” (2nd of 7): nature of the forms and their relationships

As I explained in the introduction to the first post in this series, it is about comments on my video about TIMN. The introduction also explains how the posts are arranged, and how I’ve approached using commenters’ remarks.

This particular post assembles remarks by commenters who raised issues regarding the number and nature of the forms, and relations among them. The post is quite theory-oriented.

But before continuing, I’d reiterate some caveats I noted in the series’ introduction: In some instances, my replies at the time are reprinted verbatim here, but in other instances I’ve modified my reply a bit, usually to cut excess verbiage, or to expand and clarify further. In all instances, the comments and my replies should be regarded as rough drafts. Indeed, some of the commenters might have written their comments differently if they’d known in advance that I’d be putting them in a blog post. I might have done so with my initial replies as well.

As for identifying the commenters, I will have to feel my way as this blog posting progresses. I will clear in advance whether they are willing to be identified by name, or prefer anonymity. If the latter, I will hope they at least approve my including the content of their comments here. While most comments are from personal emails, a few were made anonymously at a Highlands Forum conference I could not attend, but I heard about them afterwards and am able to reference their content here (h/t Dick O’Neill).

Finally, here’s another caveat: In some instances I do not make a full effort to reply to a question or comment. But I do make a full effort to display the question or comment. That’s partly because I think it is more important to show the questions than to assert my answers about TIMN. Over the long run, TIMN’s vitality and prospects may well depend more on the nature of the questions it prompts than on the lucidity of my answers at this time.

Questions about TIMN’s development as theory

An information-age strategist wrote me to point out that, despite his general interest in my efforts, TIMN still needs a lot of work to become a theory:
“To develop the theory, it would help to define more clearly what the nature of the links are between the nodes. Are they transactions? Trust relationships? Communication lines? Agreement on mutual support? It seems important, because these links go on to define the nature of the social organization. Defining them more precisely would offer greater insight as you go along, and facilitate testable hypotheses.
“You refer to “bad guys” and “good guys” employing each form of organization, and that bad guys tend to be early adopters. What do you mean by “good” and “bad”? Is this a normative or an empirical definition? It’s worth dwelling on, because it begs the question of why “bad” guys would be early adopters. (Perhaps it’s because they are seeking an advantage by playing outside the rules of the existing dominant form of organization, which the good guys are trying to preserve or maintain.) ...
“It would help to make clear whether you are trying to predict which form of organization will prevail, or trying to prescribe which form works better. The two approaches are related, but if you addressed this more precisely, we would, again, be better able to test the model (e.g., Do we expect one form of organization or another to be more efficient, which can be empirically evaluated? Or do we expect one form or another to predominate over others because it represents an equilibrium, that is, a state toward which events move?)
“Finally, if you were to be more precise about the nature of the links between the nodes, it might be possible that one would find that the first three forms (tribes, institutions, markets) are really sub-sets of networks, where a particular kind of transaction, or a particular kind of equilibrium, has become predominant. For example, tribes may reflect a state in which inherited trust relationships predominate, which hierarchical institutions reflect a state in which a single actor or set of actors have been able to impose a set of relationships on others, or one in which actors accept this for the sake of efficiency. One trend seems to be that, as society and technology evolve, the range of possible relationships expands, but then the question is whether these relationships settle into one configuration or another, and why.”
That’s an impressive thoughtful set of points and questions — all oriented to helping with theory-building, and far larger than I can address in this blog post. The email about it arrived at a time when I was ailing, so I’ve postponed replying until now. And I’m limiting my reply to the following for now:

I agree with most all those points. TIMN would benefit from further clarifications about the nature of the forms and their relationships, about what “good” and “bad” mean in different settings, and about what may determine which (if any) form prevails under what circumstances and to what effect. Yet, these are not new concerns for me; I’ve had them all in mind as I’ve gone along. The video may be sketchy, but it’s based on fuller written elaborations (notably here, but also here in this precursor analysis which I should update someday). If all goes well, I will gradually continue to clarify all of them as matters progress, perhaps as follows:
  • As to the first point, what may be the best way to theorize about each form — use transaction analysis, which appears to be a default mode these days? try to revive structural-functional analysis, though it has a bad reputation these days? emphasize that all the forms are based on some kind of trust, though nowadays many analysts identify only the network form with trust? stick with emphasizing topology? — is still up in the air for me.
  • As for the point about “good” and “bad” actors using the forms, my definitions (or lack thereof) may well remain fuzzy for a while; but my sense remains that further inquiry will keep showing what you suggest: that “bad” actors are keen and flexible about finding organizational as well as technological innovations that provide asymmetrical advantages.
  • As to the point about whether TIMN is meant to be predictive or prescriptive, I view it as having the potential to be both — and I’d thought I’d been explicit or at least clearly implicit about that. It would help if I got around to applying TIMN to the analysis of specific societies. For example, TIMN would seem to make it predictable that societies across the MENA region will continue to revolve largely around the tribal form — yet TIMN also means that that their long-term evolution would benefit, prescriptively, from finding ways to disentangle tribal dynamics in those areas where TIMN claims that professional institutional and/or market systems are better. Of course, that sentence contains loaded notions — e.g., evolution, better — but I hope it makes my point okay for now. Each form has attractive efficiency aspects, and balanced equilibrium of some kind does seem advisable according to TIMN — but TIMN may also be used to identify, and expect, disequilibria in societies that are highly tribalized to begin with, not to mention in societies that are further along in TIMN evolution but then suffer crises that lead to a retribaliization of their politics or other affairs.
But I must disagree with the final point about the forms being sub-sets of networks, if that means there are really only three forms, not four. I’ve already written about this (esp. 2006, pp. 22-26) — not enough to settle the matter, yet enough to stake out my position: I started on this track about social evolution by sensing that the network form was on the rise, in a general sense and relative to two other forms: hierarchies and markets — resulting in what I initially called the IMN framework. It did not seem adequate, so I did more research and learned about the earlier tribal form — resulting in the expansion of IMN into the TIMN framework. And despite similarities between the tribal and network forms, I still see them as different enough to be viewed as distinct forms.

Of course, experts in the growing fields of network science and social network analysis have increasingly insisted that all forms of organization — tribes, hierarchies, markets, my bounded notion of networks, whatever — are just sub-sets or variants of those fields’ rather unbounded notion of networks. Perhaps that is what your point reflects; and I’m not saying those fields are wrong, only that I am using “networks” in a much more bounded organizational sense. The contrast may well take a long time to shake out. Odds are, what I am calling networks will end up needing — and eventually breeding — a distinctive new name as their parameters and functions become clear in the decades ahead. Assuming of course that TIMN is valid.

Even so, I shall remain open to a possibility — expressed mainly in episodic footnotes — that the +N form is some kind of upgraded futurized version of the T form, and thus that there really are only three cardinal forms of organization. I’ll discuss that and some implications later in this very post; but it’s not my favorite possibility. I’d rather keep theorizing in the directions laid out above.

More about numbers, levels, and interactions

A futurist best known for his science-fiction novels — David Brin — referred me to a briefing he’d done about future threat potentials. Then, in what led to a somewhat confusing exchange, I reacted to a slide (#14 here) that depicted information flows “among society’s three levels” — said to be “Formal / hierarchical institutions”, “Arena-Markets for creative competition”, and “The People” — that appeared to be somewhat TIMNish in design:
Me: “Yes, there is some overlap between your three-part and my four-part scheme. Actually, I’ve seen a lot more three-part than four-part schemes in my wanderings. You refer to “the people” while others tend to refer to “civil society” as the third part. And whether the parts are “levels” or something else also varies from analyst to analyst. In any case, there is still a lot to be wondered about in these regards.”
Brin: “David, the distinction is not between 3 and 4 [forms]. It is between linear and parallel. You seem to be saying that these structures evolve into each other as a progression, leaving the old structure behind. I see them all co-existing, with the new ones layering OVER the older ones... in much the same way that the mammalian cortex laid upon the fish-reptile lower brain, and the primate cortex on top of that and our prefrontals on top... Emergent properties do not always eliminate the old. Hence, 4 becomes 3 when you realize that both tribal and networked interactions involve the People. Networks do not emerge easily out of hierarchies or lateral competition arenas, but they do emerge when tribal beings are unleashed to associate at will.”
Me: “But my writings about TIMN have never said that the old structures are left behind or eliminated, or that older forms evolve just into the newer. That should be evident even in the briefing-style video. Co-existent layering is an aspect of my view, and I regard “layering” as a better term than “levels” if that term implies levels of analysis.”
He agreed that “your slides did say that”, and thus ended our minor differences. Yet, I value the exchange for reasons that are not so minor. It speaks to the continuing challenge of whether to opt for a three- or four-fold design — and the related challenge of distinguishing between tribes and networks. It also speaks to the significance of regarding TIMN as being more about layers than levels — and his metaphor about layering in the human brain seems quite apt to me.

Today, I’d add an afterthought. Why not say that all the TIMN forms arise out of “the people” — the tribal form included. That way “the people” are not necessarily defined in terms of any particular form of organization.

Yet another trifold distinction — and even Bismarck comes up

Another commenter who is generally supportive of TIMN — blogfriend L.C. Rees — tried to expand my historical horizons by bringing up the trifold nature of “classical republicanism” in ancient Greece, and then by noting Bismarck’s dedication to having a strong central state:
“Your discussion of balancing the forms reminded me of classical republicanism (res publica can be translated “the public thing” or “common wealth”) and the idea of the mixed constitution as advanced by Plato and popularized by Polybius where the orders or estates (generally the monarch, aristocracy, (upper end) commoners, with the priests sometimes having their own body) were ideally kept in balance. Some have wildly speculated that this three (or four) part division of society echoes the “primordial” structure of proto-Indo-European society:
“I’m reminded on the sharp divide between Otto von Bismarck and his advisors over the design of the first welfare state. Many of Bismarck’s advisors wanted to strengthen local charities and associations that already provided a proto-safety net in some parts of the newly reunified Germany. Bismarck wanted to create loyalty to the Second Reich by establishing a direct payment mechanism that linked worker to state. Bismarck won that debate.”
My reply: I’m leaving open a possibility that TIMN could yet turn out to be a three-fold system, if the +N part turns out to be a recasting of the ancient T part to suit our times. I gather some people on the Left would prefer that. But if so, then the +I and +M parts will get recast in the distant future too, in a kind of spiral, which those same people on the Left would not appreciate. But for now, I’m sticking with the four-part view I have, and shoving the above possibility into occasional footnotes.

The point about Bismarck is interesting. But it also reminds me that I’m remiss, and may always be, at bringing historical examples into play in the elaboration of TIMN — much as I appreciate having the examples pointed out.

After this exchange, he sent some clarifications that were further in support of TIMN, but also showed how complicated its application to history might become:
"Just to clarify, my remarks are not an endorsement of the triform form of the theory (TIM?). I find the quadriform version a better balance ...
"Networks may have features that they strongly share with tribes but each of the four forms share characteristics with the others and in reality are hopelessly intermixed. But examining networks as a distinct manifestation of human society seems to me to be a more promising approach.
"... classical republicanism and the "trifunctional hypothesis" (the latter being psuedoscience), were examples of overall societal balancing in general but not specifically of TIMNish balancing since most of the balancing bodies would be institutions (and their constituent tribes) balancing against other institutions (and their constituent tribes).
"The last example, that of Bismarck, was cited because it is clearly TIMNish in that Bismarck was explicitly trying to loosen local ties to other forms in favor of tightening the ties between individuals and a larger, less localized institution. It's not cleanly TIMNish though since the local ties Bismarck was trying to weaken could simultaneously be ties to local German tribes, institutions, markets, and even networks left over from before German unification."
He is not the only one who commented about the intermixing of forms, and about leaders trying to balance institutional actors that depend on embedded tribal actors.

Penetrations of one form by another

Another information-age strategist figured, in keeping with a newspaper report, that efforts at nation-building in the Palestinian city Jenin provided “an interesting example of how the TIMN forms interact; and in this case, I think the best word to characterize the interaction is "interpenetration." ... Notice that clan/criminal relationships operated inside of the formal hierarchical “I” structure of the Palestinian Authority; I think this is quite a different relationship than the types of “I” - “T” interactions we discussed at the Forum.”

My response: What’s reported in the article looks like standard TIMN dynamics to me, as I understand them. This case is about the persistence of the tribal/clan form and its dynamics in ways that hinder the proper professional construction and performance of state (and other hierarchical) institutions. It’s going on all over the place still. (And Washington is reverting too.)

Though I may misread, “interpenetration” is mentioned as though it might be a difficulty for TIMN. Not at all. Some interpenetration is bound to occur; it should be manageable, and may even be helpful (e.g., old-boy networks, when positive). The Jenin case looks like it amounts to excessive penetration (not really interpenetration?) by clan actors into the efforts to build a modern institutional field. It used to be the case in Europe too, centuries ago. Getting the institutional form right is hard work and takes ages.

On a broader note, this kind of situation helps explain why I remain cautious and dubious about so many U.S. efforts to advance liberal democracy around the world. Our narrative, if not our strategy, is designed around modern notions about economic development and related matters, but we seem to lack clear emphatic ways to grasp and address the persistence of tribal / clan actors in settings where their power is embedded. Moreover, we often call them criminals (and many indeed are), but in their view they are not at all criminals — they’re just doing things in their customary patrimonial corporatist ways.

TIMN as implying various types of leadership

Elsewhere, I heard that participants at a Highlands Forum session where the TIMN video was shown raised issues about its implications for leadership. One participant wondered whether different kinds of leadership might correspond to the different TIMN forms, adding that, even though leaders may prefer a networked type of leadership in some contexts, it may still be necessary to use an old-fashioned hierarchical form, if only so people know leadership is occurring. Another participant proposed that all leaders — perhaps especially in Asia with its heterogeneous peoples — may have to dig back into tribal leadership styles in many situations. Yet another participant questioned how leaders are chosen under each of the TIMN forms.

Again, while I was not there, I think these are all worthy points that cut across all four TIMN forms. Yes, each form does imply a different kind of leadership. (And in light of comments above, I can sense new questions about how tribal and network styles of leadership — not to mention followership — may differ.) Such points often arise in regard to modern management models and schemes, some of which I have discussed in a prior blog post (here). That such points arise in connection with TIMN too is, in my view, to its credit. I’ve even mused at times that TIMN could be turned into a kind of management consulting device that’d be just as sound as some established schemes. But going in that direction is not for me; I’d rather stick with trying to be a theorist.

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