Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks

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Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks. By David Ronfeldt. Rand.

Original at

Excerpts at


David Ronfeldt:

"The idea I've pursued for TIMN is that the rise of each major form — tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, info-age networks — is associated with a different information and communications technology revolution. In brief, the rise of the tribal form depended on a symbolic revolution: the emergence of language and early writing (runes, glyphs), enabling the storytelling that is central to tribal cultures. The rise of the hierarchical institutional form — as in the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the absolutist states, and their vast administrative structures — reflected a mechanical revolution: the development of formal writing and printing, first penned script and later the printing press. This was important not only for keeping records and issuing commands, but also for inscribing laws that chiefdoms and states could apply to growing populations who were not kinfolk and often not well-known to each other. Next, the rise of the market form and its far-flung business enterprises was sped by the electrical technologies of the 19th century: the telegraph, telephone, and radio. Today’s spread of the network form extends from the digital revolution and its technologies, notably the Internet, fax machines, and cellular telephones, which are especially empowering for civil-society associations around the world and across political spectrums." (


David Ronfeldt:

"Power and influence appear to be migrating to actors who are skilled at developing multiorganizational networks, and at operating in environments where networks are an appropriate, spreading form of organization. In many realms of society, they are gaining strength relative to other, especially hierarchical forms. Indeed, another key proposition about the information revolution is that it erodes and makes life difficult for traditional hierarchies.

This trend ”the rise of network forms of organization” is so strong that, projected into the future, it augurs major transformations in how societies are organized.

What forms account for the organization of societies? How have people organized their societies across the ages?

The answer may be reduced to four basic forms of organization:

1. the kinship-based tribe, as denoted by the structure of extended families, clans, and other lineage systems.

2. the hierarchical institution, as exemplified by the army, the (Catholic) church, and ultimately the bureaucratic state.

3. competitive-exchange market, as symbolized by merchants and traders responding to forces of supply and demand.

4. and the collaborative network, as found today in the web-like ties among some NGOs devoted to social advocacy."


The four major forms of organization

David Ronfeldt:

"According to my review of history and theory, four forms of organization — and evidently only four — lie behind the governance and evolution of all societies across the ages:

The tribal form was the first to emerge and mature, beginning thousands of years ago. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging — the basic elements of culture, as manifested still today in matters ranging from nationalism to fan clubs.

The institutional form was the second to emerge. Emphasizing hierarchy, it led to the development of the state and the military, as epitomized initially by the Roman Empire, not to mention the Catholic papacy and other corporate enterprises.

The market form, the third form of organization to take hold, enables people to excel at openly competitive, free, and fair economic exchanges. Although present in ancient times, it did not gain sway until the 19th century, at first mainly in England.

The network form, the fourth to mature, serves to connect dispersed groups and individuals so that they may coordinate and act conjointly. Enabled by the digital information-technology revolution, this form is only now coming into its own, so far strengthening civil society more than other realms.

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." (

Four types of societies representing four stages of social evolution

David Ronfeldt:

"The main story is that societies advance by learning to use and combine all four forms, in a preferred progression. What ultimately matters is how the forms are added and how well they function together. They are not substitutes for each other; they are complements. Historically, a society’s progress depends on its ability to use all four forms and combine them (and their realms) into a coherent, well-balanced, well-functioning whole.

To put it notationally, over the ages monoform societies organized in tribal (T) terms — many of which still exist today — are eventually surpassed by societies that also develop institutional (I) systems to become biform T+I societies, normally with strong, professional states. In turn, these biform societies are superseded by triform societies that allow space for the market (M) form and become T+I+M societies, normally with a propensity for democracy. The network (N) form, which is now on the rise, appears to have civil society as its home realm, the realm that is being strengthened more than any other. But it is possible, even likely, that a new, yet-to-be-named realm will emerge from it. Thus, a new phase of social evolution is now dawning in which quadriform T+I+M+N societies will emerge to take the lead and a vast rebalancing of relations among state, market, and civil-society actors will occur around the world. To do well in the 21st century and beyond, an advanced, democratic, information-age society will have to incorporate all four forms and make them and their realms function well together, despite their inherent contradictions.

There are many reasons for this long progression, partly because each form requires a different set of conditions in order to take hold, including a revolution in the information and communications technologies of the time. Yet, the progression occurs mainly because the attractiveness of each form lies in its capacity to enable people to address a core problem that a society is bound to face as it develops. In brief, the tribal form excelled — and continues to excel today — at addressing the early problem of social identity and belonging; the hierarchical institutional form, the problem of power and administration; and the market form, the problem of complex exchanges. The paradigmatic strength of the collaborative network form is still unclear; however, it seems best suited to addressing the still-far-from-resolved, ever-sharpening problem of social equity.

In historical terms, it is often difficult — and it may take decades or longer — for a society to adapt to a new form and relate it to those forms that have already taken root. Success is not inevitable. Every society, every culture, must move at its own pace and develop its own approach to each form and each combination of forms. There are many ways to get a form wrong, but there is no single way to get a form or combination right. What is “right” and “wrong” may vary from culture to culture.

Part of the difficulty is that each form has attributes that are contradictory to those of the other forms — for example, hierarchical institutions provide a different setting from atomized markets. Thus, people who prefer one form culturally or philosophically may not be comfortable with another form; they may have to learn how to accept and cope with the coexistence of various TIMN forms in their own society.

A society may get stuck, go astray, regress, or even be torn apart as it tries to adapt to a new form. Thus, the great social revolutions of the 20th century — in Mexico, Russia, China, and Cuba — occurred in mostly agrarian T+I societies in which old clannish and hierarchical structures came under enormous internal and external stresses that stemmed partly from inadequate or flawed infusions of capitalist market practices. Failing to make the +M transition, they reverted to hard-line T+I regimes that, except for Mexico, remolded absolutism into modern totalitarianism. Today, to varying degrees, these societies are trying anew to make the +M transition. Again except for Mexico, none is yet amenable to the presence of networked NGOs, which represent +N dynamics. Meanhile, the potential shift to a +N society explains some of the stressful turbulence that the United States has been experiencing at home and abroad.

The United States and Canada, along with countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia, long ago developed triform T+I+M societies and are now on the cutting edge for creating quadriform T+I+M+N societies. In the long term, +N dynamics should enable government, business, and civil-society leaders to create new mechanisms for mutual consultation, coordination, and cooperation spanning all levels of governance. Aging contentions that “the government” or “the market” is the solution to particular public-policy issues will eventually give way to new ideas that “the network” is the optimal solution." (