Integral Manifesto Pt III(2): Integral Politics? / Integral Reality Framework: A Topology of Worldspaces

Books Discussed in this Section

Steve McIntosh (2007) Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution,  Continuum Books.

Neil Brenner (2001)  The limits to scale?  Methodological reflections on scalar structuration, Progress in Human Geography 25, 4 pp. 591-614 / retrieved from

What McIntosh is most proud of in his book, is his three-fold contribution to theory: 1) the contours of the integral reality framework, 2) the importance of the spiral of development, and 3) the evolutionary imperative of global governance.  Taking the best of his ideas together, amounts to an interesting hypothesis of worldspaces and their scalar relations– in other words, a topology of worldspaces. Although he has contributed some variations on original integral ideas, his work remains close to the foundational framework of “mainstream” integral, and so I propose to evaluate some of his tenets and the presmises of “mainstream” integral theory — as the fundamental “topology” of mainstream integral theory. In turn, this topology might be considered a geography of worldspaces derived from two fundamental assumptions about scalar relations: 1) that units are related exclusively in a transcend and include manner with lesser parts giving rise to greater wholes and systems comprised of nested sets or holons; and 2) that these holons (scalar units) scale along an evolutionary trajectory according to a pre-ordinate teleology. The IHDP paper on scalar relatins and human development identifies the relations in this sort of typology as a “constitutively inclusive nested hierarchy.” Indeed, the very concept of  holon  signifies exactly this: a unit in  a constitutively inclusive nested hierarchy. One can easily impose a teleological imperative onto a typology such as this, but doing so offers no proof that our assumptions about the categories, units, and relationships of scale are driven by that teleological imperative. Given some logical analysis, it is easy to see that without the prior assumption of scale, the conclusion is not derivable; but with the prior assumptions, the conclusion seems inevitable. In other words, once we step into the integral reality framework, there is no real debate about the “actual” consequences we “see” from evolution– the premises fall neatly into their conclusions.

However, when we are dealing with a topology of worldspaces, we are dealing with functioning socio-spatial processes that themselves are constructs of the individuals who themselves are responsible for the continual maintenance of as well as transformation of the internal relations of their scalar framework. Integral topology, as McIntosh conceives it, depends solely on an external absolutist framework (transcend and include hierarchies), and therefore relationships internal to that framework are considered to be static, pregiven or fixed. This may or may not be a satisfactory framework for describing “reality”, but with respect to living systems and human action in particular, involving subjects and agents who simltaneously act out, act through, and act on the relations of their inconnections, integral topology as it currently stands lacks the capacity to capture all the richness and depth of sociospatial process which scale internally and qualitatively as well. Re-quoting from Brenner’s IHDP working paper:

Processes of scalar structuration do not produce a single nested scalar hierarchy, an absolute pyramid of neatly interlocking scales, but are better understood as a mosaic of unevenly superimposed and densely interlayered scalar geometries. For, as Allan, Massey and Cochrane indicate, ‘… different kinds of social process have very different geographies and they do not all fit neatly into the same set of nested hierarchies.

A critique as severe as this might suggest that integral geography should be abandoned altogether. However, we can improve on the basic cartography that iSD lays out through a more sensitive and sensible approach. FOrst this requires us to be sensitive to the idea that the new geography is a dynamic sociospatial process, and we must view participants as true actors inside this sociospatial procss that simultaneously constitutes the “units” of the map as well as its morphogenetic field– a field that is always in the process of shaping and mapping. Secondly, our analysis of sociospatial space must include those very values we espouse that must be internal to the syste. This is problematic for McIntosh who espouses the values of non-ethnocentricity, democracy, and natural evolution, but whose analytic method systematically builds up a governance system based on exclusion, autocracy, and programmable approaches to the spiral of development. If our analysis is to be valid according to our values (rather than merely according to onto-theo-logics in service to our rational(ego)-centric cravings), we will derive a governance which enacts those very values we espouse, namely, a governance that is inclusive and open, participatory and representational, and based on a truly non-judgmental interpretation of the course of evolution. Thirdly, an integral geography of sociospatial dynamics, must finally come to terms with the difference between evolutoin based on the Darwinian model, and evolution confused with developmental models (as is the case with spiral dynamic’s base- the work of Clare Graves). Developmental models are predicated on an enduring individual as an entity of being that does not get replaced through successive stages of development. As cultures develop, as the human species develops sociospatially– there is no single enduring entity that pertains over time.  Furthermore, it is a stretch of the imgination to consider that social, technological and cultural development within human groups proceeds through the same dynamics as speciation in the Darwinian sense — since even if one day the reproductive patterns of humans are constrained by sociospatial distance, it is far from clear that “developmentally fixed” discrete structures would result. Even if we presume to conflate the terms — individual development on the one hand, and evolutionary speciation on the other– the dynamics are not the same. In fact, one might argue that the dynamics proceed in opposite directions — toward preservation of form through change in the case of development; and toward emergence of novel forms across system dynamics, in the case of evolution.

One might consider the vMemes of Spiral Dynamics not as structural stages of development nor as evolutionary forms, but as unique constellations– subsystems as it were, within the totality of human action , arising as particular variants of geo-social space, technological innovation, and economic systems.

These subordinate systems are not to be considered part of an evolutionary or developmental trjectory that enfolds prior forms into more recent forms, or that enfolds parts within a greater whole. Rather, they should be considered as co-creative partners, enacting human action — participatory agents in hte larger, ecological whole or holistic generative process of human action, whose essential dynamic is exactly this: to enfold (geo)social, cultural and technological relationships into robust (with respect to coherence and endurance) and resilience (with respect to novelty and change) units in response to internal and external adaptive processes of transformation. These three aspects of an integral sociospatial geography– subjects-as-actors, co-creating values, evolution and enfoldment– are considered in the next sections.

Integral Manifesto Pt I(4): Three Cautionary Tales of Scale / Economies

Books Discussed in this Section

The IHDP working paper at

Elinor Ostrom (2005) Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton University Press


However outdated and irrelevant it may seem, Adam Smith’s metaphor of an “invisible hand” that shapes collective activity has become an embedded assumption in the notion of “individual agens” in the economic arena. These individual agents are assumed to be making decisions on very small scale bases — that of the idividual’s “enlightenend self interest” or perhaps the family group, for example– but in reality, the scope and scale of information that is available to people creates a feedback loop from the larger scale systems that inform and reshape their decision making processes. As the authors of the IHDP working paper write

… economics at its core tires to explain the various pathways through which millions of decisons made by individual human beings can give rise to emergent features of communities and societies. … however, … individual decisions at any given particular time period are affected by these emergent features (which in many instances are the result of individual decisions that happened very recently).

Much of the research sustained around the decisions of individuals with respect to consequences that scale to larger groups concern CPRs– common pool resources. Game theory and their resulting research scenarios associated with CPRs and the “crises of the commons” often fail to include either an actual or potential feedback loop that functions at all the same scales as the shared and unshared consequences. Thus, for example, in the infamous “prisoner’s dilemma”, the individuals in play are artificially sequestered from each other, eliminating the crucial component of feedback information. It may be true, and possible to prove, that individuals do align around common concerns (shared consequences) whenever and wherever it is possible for them to do so. However, when such alignment is restructured such that the “invisible hand” is no longer a metaphor, but a player, such as a corrupt official, a multi-national corporation, a central bank– a player that operates at a scale to whom the individuals have no access, then the very possibility of alignment is defeated by that cut across scales– the individuals are literally “taken out of the loop.” As the IHDP paper argues, individuals need to be able to participate at second level and higher order dilemmas– in order to create sustainable public goods.

Given our current understanding of “economics” — is ther a way to conceptualize an individual emerging at higher level scales? Most of the research that goes into questions of this sort focus on institutional relations at higher order scales, forgoing the individual. In the field of economics, individuals are studied with respect to their collective behavior — and institutions are designed to guide (reward, punish, facilitate, obstruct) momentum of this collective field into preferred directions. Economic strategies are designed in most cases to optimize the function of society around economic goals such as GDP and growth rate. Therefore the intra-intitutional processes are designed to be balancing acts– mitigating the flow of certain behaviors and increasing the flow of others, as deemed  necessary. Because these strategies are designed based on looking past individuals through the lens of the swarm-like behavior of the economic collective, the feedback loops that govern the institutional transfer of resources are unavailable to individuals at any level– they are “decoupled from their own consequences, as it were– and this pertains to those individuals who themselve make decisions at the institutional levels. They are, in the words of the IHDP article, simultaneously affected by the emergent features that result from their higher-order individual as well as collective decisions. In these kinds of scenarios, no one escapes — both winners and losers share the consequences “equally”– when viewed from the higher order (macroeconomic) scale, since from there all we “see” is the relevant behavior of the collective swarm.

According to Elinor Ostrom, such models of human behavior may work well with provate property and therefore map nicely onto the conceptual framework of a privatized market, whose conviction is to capitalize common goods and resources for private gains, but they may be inappropriate models to explain collective behavior in non-market action situations.

Explaining the diversity of outcomes in social dilemma situations is a puzzle that is ripe for further development. … It is also an important question to pursue if one preseumes that humans are capable of developing, transsmitting, and learning norms of trust, trustworthiness, reciprocity, and equity as well as learning how to govern themselves. Without further progress in developing our theories and models of human valuation in social dilemma situations, those convinced that human behavior can be explained using rational egoist models will continue to recommend leviathan-like remedies for overcoming all social dilemmas. Hopefull, mcuh of what we learn from focusing on behavior in social dilemmas will be useful in other puzzling nonmarket situations.

Economists strategize under the assumption that higher-level systems constrain and/or direct lower level systems (the collective swarm) in ways that by-pass the lower-order decisions made bewtween and among individuals. Those lower order processes are irrelevant to economists, since there is no space of appearnace of the individual subject at the scale of their research and analysis.

Since individuals are seen as lower order parts in an optimizable higher-order feeedback and control system, new reserarch has turned to the work of ecologists who are beginning to challenge the notion of optimizability by integrating processes across scales. In addition, while economists, on the other hand, conventionally rely almost exclusively on absolute measures (monetary systems, GDP’s, growth rates and the like) these new researchers suggest thay they have ignored processes that contribute to revolution, transformation, and creative destruction, that the new ecologists see as necessary components of overall sustainability. This is most certainly the case where higher-order systems are deisgned to constrain or control (set rules and boundaries on) lower order levels. However, recent work from ecologists alsoe suggests that even systems that are conceptualized hierarchically must be construed to have discontinuous action levels, where the forces of optimization tend to be top-down, but the forces of revolution and transformation that are crucial to sustainability, tend to be bottom up. As the IHDP paper reports:

The central idea of hierarchy theory is that to understand any complex system depends on understanding the constraints prsent at the higher and lower levels of spatio-temporal resolution. It is assumed that levels lower than -1 [the level of the individual] producechanges that are either too small or too fast to be much more than background noise in measurements of processes at level 0 [the level of the collective swarm]. Similarly, levels above +1 [levels of institutions] are presumed to be too large and too slow to affect measurement and understanding at level 0. The levels immediately above and below the referent level provide … constraints. These constraints produce a constraint “envelope” in which the process or phenomenon must remain.

Within this kind of “constraint envelope” as the authors illustrate, level -1 is thelevel of reductionist compnents– corresponding to the reduction of the individuals to background noise; level 0 is the level of focus, that is the swarm itself; and level +1 are the institutional players that create and maintain constraints. Hierarchy theory of this type is conceptually appealing when the study is predisposed to a framework based on an absolute scale such as the standard economic measures, and the desire toward optmization. But optimization of what?

Again, from the IHDP paper:

While conceptually appealing, hierarchy theory demands a great deal of knowledge in order to be useful To characterize a constraint envelope accurately, the analust must (1) clearly identify the scale and level of the study and their appropriateness for the phenomenon, (2) know the important parameters impacting on the phenomeon at different scales and levels, (2) know when one is translating levels or scales and to recognize issues involved in top-down or bottom-up thinking, and (4) sample and experiment across scales and levels.

What the transdisciplanary analysts discovered is that a key issue related to scale in dynamic systems is the notion of resilience– “the speed in which a system returns to a stable equilibrium or a steady state upon being disturbed.” Furthermore, according to the IHDP paper, when the focus of the inquiry is changed from engineering solutions to maintaining a stable state, such asoptimizing economic goals within existing power structures, to notions of ecological resilience, they begin to “examine thepossibility of multible stable states and how systems transform from one to another of these states.” In these ecological-type systems, resilience entails the ability of the system to redefine its structures “by changing the variables and processes that control behavior.” In other words, the scalar relations conceptualized as robust dynamical systems are bi-directional — upper level structures that upon first anaysis are seen to control behavior at the lower levels are themselves subject to and products of activities at those lower levels that are responsible for them in the first place, and that continually shape, configure and transform them.

When viewed from a top-down analysis, the “controls” of systems are exclusively top-down and external to the system; whereas when viewed from an ecological analysis, the “controls” are internal to the system and are therefore relativized with respect to the system’s “story” — its temporal narrative or history. Quoting Buzz Holland, the IHDP paper suggests that the history of such processes involve four key processes or cycles: exploitation, conservation, release and reorganization:

In an exploitation process, species that are rapid colonizers move into recently disturbed aresas. In a conservation phase, energy is stored and there is a slow accumulation of species and material. When biomass and nutrient have become so tightl connected that they are highly susceptible to external disturbance … one can enter a release phase. Reorganization processes involve new restructuring of capital and elements into a new system. The time spent in each of these processes may vary dramatically. From exploitation to conservation may involve a long period of time with only small changes, but the shift from conservation to relase may be very rapid. Under some conditions, reorganization and exploitation may then take place rapidly.

The authors illustrate these dynamic cycles in ecological systems as follows:


However, if we look at these processes not in terms of ecological categories, but merely in terms of scalar relations, we can draw some general conclusions about complex dynamics involved. First, the direction of “stored capital” is in the direction of the emergence of higher-order organization and consolidation; while the lack of stored capital tends to favor the agentic aspect of the individual “opportunist or disturbance agent.” In other words, as capital increases we tend to “see” higher order systems emerge irrespective of individual agents, and when capital is scarce, we tend to “see” the latent of suppressed potencies of agents emerge. Secondly, this relationship between individual agency and higher-order consolidation, scales along with the perceived “connectedness” of the individuals and other units within the system, such that in the exploitation phase connections increase and therefore, presumably range of influence of individuals give way to collective (connected) outcomes, climaxing in the conservatin phase of consolidation; while connectivity within the system is shattered in the release phase, after which, presumably, entirely new connections arise to accomplish reorgnization.

This model and theory of resilience has important implications for designing governance for human action, and will be addressed in future posts.

Integral Manifesto Part I(3) : Scalar Relations

Books Discussed in this Section

The IHDP working paper at


In the working paper of the IHDP (International Human Development Project)  the term  scale is defined as “the spatial, temporal, quantitative or analytical dimensions used by scientists to measure and study objects and processes,” and likewise I use the term levels to “refer to locations along a scale.” As this paper makes clear, there are many different types of scales and scalar relationships to choose from when doing any sort of study or analysis. Many scales are both conceptually and causally hierarchical, but conceptual hierarchy does not guarantee causal hierarchical relatedness. There are exclusive hierarchies which are not construed to be nested sets; and there are inclusive or nested hierarchies which are construed to be nested either in an inclusive or constitutive manner. Inclusive hierarchies tend to be classification systems, such as the Linnean hierarchy of taxonomic categories. Constitutive nested hierarchies are related to physical systems as well as being a characteristic of complex systems. In a physical systems, such as “cells-tissues-organs-organism,” a constructivist interpretation which is based on physical substances or “building blocks” is not appropriate, rather constitutive “units” have unitary functions as well as emergent properties. As the IHDP paper notes, :these levels are on a conceptual scale based on functional relationships rather than on a [absolute] spatial or temporal scale.”

Critical to the understanding of scales is the understanding of all the conceptual components that go into the act of identifying any given “unit” as a particular pattern—since the identification of such a “unit” is already conceptually contrived by an implicit resolution of scale –extension, duration, agency, class, and etc.—and so the recourse to the appropriate scale of inquiry is always already constrained by the conceptual derivations pre-constituting the objects of inquiry.

Consider, for example, the notion of the “domino effect,” which can be seen to be a series of causal relations that scale beyond the causal capacity of the single domino (its ability to fell one neighbor only) and its causal capacity with respect to the whole shebang. What “scales” the capacity of the unit domino at the start cannot be determined by inquiry into the makeup of the domino itself—not at the level of size, weight, shape, nor at the level of molecules and atoms. The scalar capacity of the domino only appears at the level of the arrangement of all other dominos and their pre-given relatedness. In many instances, then, the way we conceptualize units will pre-determine the way we “see” scalar relations between and among them. This is a crucial cautionary tale.

The second issue with scales is the fallacy of relation between “absolute” scales and “relative” scales. This situation results from the extrapolation of one set of scalar relations as a kind of pre-given grid along which other phenomena are viewed, without relativizing the grid to the nature of the phenomena. For example, if I use my watch as “absolute temporal grid” then it will take 6 more hours for me to fly from San Francisco to New York than from New York to San Francisco. If I use Mean Greenwich time that scale with the phenomenon of flying, then it will take me the same amount of time. If I am studying an organism’s diurnal rhythms on that flight, then it might be the case that is does take more time in one direction than the other. If I relativize time according to Einstein’s theory – I come up with another answer entirely. Spatio-temporal relations are just one example of the kind of entanglements that apply to scales and scalar relations. This too is a crucial cautionary tale.

As the authors of the IHDP working paper point out, there is a temptation to rely on the convenience of absolute scales when the goal is to design (identify) hierarchical scalar relations that require fixed grids (the absolute scales along which the units scale hierarchically). But to reiterate the problem, only with respect to space and time, illustrated in their words as follows:

… when one is dealing with processes and mechanisms, space and time become properties of those processes and mechanisms under investigation. Therefore the study of a process cannot a priori assume certain spatial and temporal scales.

Relative space is important in studies of behavioral geography that focus on individual perception of space … absolute distance rarely corresponds with the relative distance … When this happens it is not easy to “map the processes in terms of absolute scale.” Accessibility of isolation does not always depend on absolute distance, but on the cost in terms of time and resources or mileage through a transportation system. According to the IHDP working paper, the holy grail of scale analysis is the ability to generalize across levels. This would entail a comprehensive understanding of the processes and causal relationships of units that scale within each level, as well as derivative rules of order (such as in complexity theory) that allow understanding at one level to predict outcomes at other levels, through both upward and downward causation. If the rules of order that prove to generalize between levels were to become precise enough, then scalar analysis might predict unforeseen or emerging phenomena by watching the advent , development, and flux and fluctuation of scalar processes. This ability would obviously be of great benefit when having to extrapolate enormous amounts of information to study phenomenon at global or emerging levels—and trying to make current choices towards future outcomes at those levels. If so, one critical question of temporal scale then—“how do we determine what choices available to us now, in the present where these choice fields are different among different parties, move us toward or away from common future goals” —will have been substantially resolved.