Friday, February 2, 2018

TIMN's “forms” vs. their “fields” and “logics” (Part 1 of maybe 4) — TIMN and Darwin’s reliance on”forms”

When I first started thinking about TIMN in the late 1980s, I settled on “forms of organization” as its central concept —over time, becoming just “forms”. While no one has criticized me for using “forms”, I have noticed, and others have pointed out, that social theorists have lately produced prominent alternative concepts that are much preferred in academia. The ones that have caught my eye are “strategic action fields” (à la Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam) and “institutional logics” (à la Patricia Thornton and William Ocasio), and to a lesser extent “stacks” (à la Benjamin Bratton).

Forms, fields, logics — not to mention concepts I’ve already discussed elsewhere: Alan Page Fiske’s “relational models” and Kojin Karatani’s “modes of exchange” — comprise quite a set of alternatives. I’m sticking with “forms”, and this series of posts addresses why. The main reason why is that my usage of “forms” seems on track to do everything that other theorists would rather do with “fields” and “logics”.

So let’s start with some clarifications about “forms”, then move in subsequent posts to “fields” and “logics” in order to illuminate conceptual overlaps and differences.

My clarifications about “forms” in TIMN

While my focus started out being about “forms of organization”, I’ve tried to clarify that each of the four TIMN forms — tribes, (hierarchical) institutions, markets, and networks — is about much more than organization in a narrow sense. Here’s the longest clarification I’ve written so far:
“The development of each form has a long history. Early versions of all four were present in ancient times. But as deliberate, formal systems with philosophical portent, each has gained strength at a different rate and matured in a different epoch over the past 10,000 years. Tribes developed first (in the Neolithic era), hierarchical institutions next (notably, with the Roman Empire and then the absolutist states of the 16th century), and competitive markets later (as in England and the United States in the 18th century). Now, collaborative networks are on the rise as the next great form. Its cutting edge currently lies among activist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) associated with civil society. …
“Each of the four forms, writ large, embodies a distinctive set of structures, processes, beliefs, and dynamics about how society should be organized — about who gets to achieve what, why, and how. Each involves different codes and standards about how people should treat each other. Each enables people to do something — to address some social problem — better than they could by using another form. Each attracts and energizes different kinds of actors and adherents. Each has different ideational and material bases. Each has both bright and dark sides, both strengths and weaknesses. And each can be gotten “right” or “wrong” in various ways, depending on circumstances.
“Once a form is subscribed to by many actors, it becomes more than a mere form: It develops into a realm, even a system, of thought and behavior. Indeed, the rise of each form spells an ideational and structural revolution. Each is a generator of order, because each defines a set of interactions (or, transactions) that are attractive, powerful, and useful enough to create a distinct realm of activity, or at least its core. Each becomes the basis for a governance system that is self-regulating and, ultimately, self-limiting. And each tends to foster a different kind of worldview, for each orients people differently toward social space, time, and action. What is deemed rational — how a “rational actor” should behave — is different for each form; no single “utility function” suits them all.
“Each form becomes associated with high ideals as well as new capabilities. Yet, all the forms are ethically neutral — as neutral as technologies — in that they have both bright and dark sides and can be used for good or ill. The tribal form, which should foster communal solidarity and mutual caring, may also breed a narrow, bitter clannishness that can justify anything from nepotism to murder in order to shield and strengthen a clan and its leaders. The hierarchical institutional form, which should lead to professional rule and regulation, may also be used to uphold corrupt, arbitrary dictators. The market form, which should bring free, fair, open exchanges, may also be distorted and rigged to allow unbridled piracy, speculation, and profiteering. And the network form, which can empower civil society actors to serve public interests, may also be used to strengthen “uncivil society” — say, by enabling terrorist groups and crime syndicates. So, it is not just the bright sides of each form that foster new values and actors; their dark sides may do so as well.” (Source)
That still looks pretty good to me.

I forget why I first chose “forms of organization” instead of “types” or “kinds” or “modes”. Maybe I sensed it was a potentially grander concept. Yet my choice has proven fortuitous, since the ensuing reduction to “forms” enabled me to write the preceding. I could not have done so as sensibly if I’d used “types” or “kinds” or even “modes”. The best alternative for TIMN might be “formations” — a word favored, along with “forms”, by Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s usage of “forms”

I take heart from learning that Charles Darwin treats the biological evolution of living “forms” and “formations” as central concepts in his theory of evolution. This is particularly evident in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), where Darwinian principles of inheritance, variability, adaptation, and selection may produce a “new and modified form”, and “parent forms”, and “elaborately constructed forms”, and “less-improved forms”, and “endless forms” — as attested in the following three quotes (my underlining):
“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.” (p. 5)
“Looking not to any one time, but to all time, if my theory be true, numberless intermediate varieties, linking most closely all the species of the same group together, must assuredly have existed; but the very process of natural selection constantly tends, as has been so often remarked, to exterminate the parent forms and the intermediate links. Consequently evidence of their former existence could be found only amongst fossil remains[.]” (p. 179)
The third of these quotes is from the book’s closing paragraph, with its famous final sentence. I’m quoting it in its entirety, for it pretty much summarizes Darwin’s theory of evolution, and makes reference to “forms” up front as well as in that famous final sentence:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (pp. 426–427)
So “forms” is a key concept for Darwin. He also often refers to “formations”, “varieties”, and “species”. But it’s not clear to me what the differences are. He uses these terms in ways that are not exactly distinguished from each other — they often seem interchangeable. Yet “forms” appears to be the highest broadest concept, encompassing “species” and “varieties”.

Darwinian treatments of “forms”

Oddly, I’ve not yet found a full discussion by a Darwinian about the meaning of “forms” and its relation to other concepts. The closest I’ve come is Sean Carroll’s article on “The Origins of Forms” (2005). It implies that “forms” is a grand concept, and his early passages indicate that “forms” has to do with “shape” and “patterning”, also with “plans” and “architectures”, as well as “structures” and “contrivances”. The strongest usage is in the following passages near the end of his article:
“ … Evo-devo shows how complex forms and structures evolve, not only in ways that lead from one species to the next, but also in ways, such as the making of body plans, that have shaped the major differences in the higher taxonomic ranks.
“The major tenet of the modern evolutionary synthesis is that the evolution of forms above the species level (“macroevolution”) can be extrapolated from processes operating at the level of populations, within species (“microevolution”).”
Even so, Carroll’s is not the full conceptual discussion I’m looking for (though maybe there’s more in his book Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, 2005). I’m told I should look into the writing of D'Arcy Thompson, John Tyler Bonner, and Ernst Mayr, among others. But that looks to be a daunting task at this point. I did peruse Thompson’s lauded On Growth and Form (1917), only to find it relies far more on physical forces (e.g., gravity) than on biological evolution to explain why living entities take the shapes (forms) they do — not very relevant or helpful to my cause. My halting efforts to find extended discussions in writings by Bonner and/or Mayr have not proven fruitful, so far. (I’m open to suggestions!?)

What I gather, in a general sense, is that Darwinians, like Darwin himself, treat “forms” in ways that I deem consistent with TIMN. They distinguish among early and later, primitive and modern, lower and higher, simple and complex kinds of forms. So does TIMN. They seek to explain transformations of forms in terms of processes that are common to, and operate across, all living forms — e.g., differentiation. So does TIMN. In particular, they emphasize Darwin’s seminal theoretical principles, notably variation, adaptation, and selection. TIMN could be written up that way, showing parallels between biological and social evolution.

Indeed, I offered some preliminary remarks to that effect in an old blog post (here). With Darwin and TIMN in mind, I’ve proposed at some length that “Imperfect adaptation to a form may be optimal for continued evolution”, and that “Successful combination depends on the development of regulatory interfaces”. I’ve also indicated that TIMN can easily accommodate Darwinian ideas about an “iron law of multilevel selection” (à la David Sloan Wilson) and about “a massive diversification of species of organizations” (à la Daniel Dennett and Deb Roy).

Meanwhile, the one theorist I’ve found who deliberately examines Darwin’s usage of “forms” is a literary theorist: Ian Duncan, specifically his article “Aesthetics and Form in Charles Darwin’s Writings” (2017). According to how he reads the Origin of Species book, “Darwin’s theory emerges as a theory of form”. He also says that “Crucially for Darwin, the diversity of living forms will be the ineluctable condition for apprehending nature as “one great whole.””

That helps; it’s further confirmation of how central and systematic the concept of “forms” is for Darwin. But it still doesn’t fully tell me what “forms” means, so that I may draw inferences for TIMN. For my Part 2 post, however, I’ve found another literary theorist who offers an incisive detailed analysis of “forms”, without ever mentioning Darwin.


Sean B. Carroll, “The Origins of Form,” Natural History, September 2005, pp. 58-63, online at /the-origins-of-form

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).

Charles Darwin — WikiQuote, online at

Ian Duncan, “Aesthetics and Form in Charles Darwin’s Writings,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature (2017), online at

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form (1917), online at

No comments: