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."


David Ronfeldt on Transition Dynamics in the Context of Changes in Dominant Institutional Forms

David Ronfeldt:

"Each time a new form arises, it generates a set of dynamics — and it’s the same set of dynamics each time. No society can escape the TIMN progression or these dynamics.

At first, when a new form arises, it has subversive effects on the old order, before it has additive effects that lead to a new order. Bad actors may prove initially more adept than good actors at using a new form — e.g., ancient warlords, medieval pirates and smugglers, and today’s information-age terrorists being examples that correspond to the +I, +M, and +N transitions, respectively.

As each form takes hold, energizing a distinct set of values and norms for actors operating in that form, it generates a new realm of activity — for example, the state, the market. As a new realm gains legitimacy and expands the space it occupies within a social system, it puts new limits on the scope of existing realms. At the same time, through feedback and other interactions, the rise of a new form/realm also modifies the nature of the existing ones. An example is the evolution of European absolutist regimes into liberal democratic regimes, which occurred as old hierarchical state institutions gave up on mercantilism and were remolded by the rise of the market system and the collateral spread of marketlike electoral politics. If the addition of a new form occurs properly — including through the creation of new regulatory interfaces — the older forms and their realms end up being strengthened, not weakened, even as their scope is newly limited.

Societies that can elevate the bright over the dark side of each form and achieve a new combination become more powerful and capable of complex tasks than societies that do not. Societies that first succeed at making a new combination gain advantages over competitors and attain a paramount influence over the nature of international conflict and cooperation. If a major power finds itself stymied by the effort to achieve a new combination, it risks being superseded. Some society’s leaders may try to deny or skip a form, as have clannish ethnic groups that fail to form a real state or Marxist-Leninist regimes that opposed the market. But any seeming success at such skipping eventually proves temporary and limited.

Balanced combination is apparently imperative: Each form (and its realm) builds on its predecessor(s). In the progression from T through T+I+M+N, the rise of a new form depends on the successes (and failures) achieved through the earlier forms. For a society to progress optimally through the addition of new forms, no single form should be allowed to dominate any other, and none should be suppressed or eliminated. A society’s potential to function well at a given stage, and to evolve to a higher level of complexity, depends on its ability to integrate these inherently contradictory forms into a well-functioning whole. A society can constrain its prospects for evolutionary growth by elevating a single form to primacy — as appears to be a tendency at times in market-mad America.

A people’s adaptability to the rise of a new form appears to depend largely on the local nature of the tribal form. It may have profound effects on what happens as the later forms get added. For example, the tribal form has unfolded differently in China and in America. Whereas the former has long revolved around extended family ties, clans, and dynasties, the latter has relied on the nuclear family, heavy immigration, and a fabric of fraternal organizations that provide quasi-kinship ties (e.g., from the open Rotary Club to the closed Ku Klux Klan). These differences at the tribal level have given unique shapes to each nation’s institutional and market forms, to their ideas about progress, and, now, to their adaptability to the rise of networked NGOs.

Deeply tribal societies often have great difficulty advancing beyond their traditional ways. Indeed, many of the world’s current trouble spots — in the Middle East, South Asia, the Balkans, the Caucuses, and Africa — are in societies so riven by embedded tribal and clan dynamics that the outlook remains bleak for them to build professional states and openly competitive businesses, much less democracies, that are unencumbered by tribal and clan dynamics. Some so-called failed states are really failed tribes."


John Robb's Critique

John Robb:

"If the crisis is too severe, it can force society backwards into tribal or TI (tribal plus institutional) structures. Neo-feudalism and totalitarian states.

This model assumes that countries, defined as discrete bordered geographies, are the only container within which these organizational forms exist. It's possible that the elevation of markets to a global level, beyond the nation-state or country container, has left nation-states vulnerable to predation. In that globalized system, market participants (who define themselves solely within context) prey on organizationally weak nation-states (T plus I).

Global markets are supercharging tribal, institutional (corporate), and networked organizational types. As a result, they are likely to prey upon nation-states too."