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In Worlds of Mirrors

Models of Complex Societies and Anthropological Complexity

by Finn Sivert Nielsen

 Table of Contents 

Introduction: In Worlds of Mirrors


"Knowledge... is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness." (Feyerabend 1975, p.30)

"An explanation is the mapping of the pieces of a description onto a tautology." (Bateson 1979, p.93)

In principle, the notion of socio-cultural complexity in anthropology implies a focusing of attention on total systems, rather than on functionally discrete sub-systems with simple, "well-understood" properties. In practice, however, most theories of complexity have originated as theories of more specialized sets of phenomena. Structuralism, originating in linguistics, at first spread only slowly from kinship to myth; later it was widely adopted in the human sciences, and incorporated, in revised form, into French neo-marxism – but we have yet to see a structuralist ecology. Counter to this, it took Fredrik Barth's methodological individualism 25 years to migrate from its origins in economy and ecology, via ethnicity, to a sociology of knowledge. Both of these theories are general theories of socio-cultural complexity; still, both retain, even in their mature permutations, a fundamental bias towards the particular sets of phenomena they originated in. The structuralist continues to see the world as a kind of language; the neo-marxian remains in his heart an economic historian; cybernetic models conjur up a digitized world in the rainforest; theories of economic extraction describe meaning as exchange. This bias of origin, along with the bias of history derived from the new empirical fields to which the theory has by degrees adapted, gives to every theory of complexity a specific and idiosyncratic character (often explicitly denied by the theory itself), which reveals, masks and distorts reality in a complex pattern of shifting lights and shadows: certain kinds of complexity are compellingly highlighted, others blacked out or distorted; certain authorities are deferred to, others rejected; the influence of teachers and colleagues shows through in the style (character, bias) of theoretical inquiry. In anthropology, even theories that operate on fairly high levels of abstraction are by mostly unspoken tradition barred from entire worlds of empirical phenomena: structuralists and marxists tend, in their empirical studies, to remain "at" (or close to) language and economic history, respectively. Such limitations should not be taken to imply that a theory cannot contribute to fields in which it has never seen use. But each new expance requires a major investment of time and creativity, since the theory (e.g. marxism) must be entirely re-operationalized for a new empirical field (e.g. religion), and the operationalization demonstrated by in-depth empirical analysis. As a result, a theory that gives sophisticated insights into one empirical context can be completely blind in other fields: witness the naiveté of physics in psychology; the regionalization of anthropological theory (cf. Appadurai, Fardon); the blindness of Marx to symbolism, or of Durkheim to power.

          Quite aside from its formal claims and empirical self-restrictions, however, a theory such as structuralism cannot avoid projecting an image of its own potential as a true "theory of everything", a theory of complexity in general. This meta-theory, which hovers around the theory itself like an aura, might be described as the theory's myth. The myth is an imaginative vision of what our lives would look and feel like, if God were in fact a structuralist. Structuralist theory projects a structuralist myth, a vision of the world based on tenuous assumptions and intuitive logic, rather than on scientific procedure.

          What kind of total life-world does a given theoretical position construe for us? What would it be like to actually live in such a world? How dissimilar would it be from our everyday experience of existing in a real world?

          In the following I shall approach some questions of this kind, by allowing theories to "spill over" from their traditional domains into unfamiliar spaces, where they encounter other theories with traditional hegemony. Novel syntheses might result from this, but my purpose in this text is not syncretistic, but deconstructive. I am not particularly interested in either promoting or debunking any of the theories I describe or construe. I consider the multiplicity of theories in anthropology a value in itself. By letting the theory expand, however – by letting it express itself as myth – I hope to test its claim of being able to account for the complexity of total systems. And by permitting several "mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable)" theories to expand, one after the other, I hope to stimulate the reader to consider the differences between the world-views, epistemologies, ethics, and esthetics that these theories promote. Such an approach may at times challenge moral boundaries by bridging intellectual domains. It "deconstructs", in the sense that it produces no definite truth, but a chorus of competing voices.

          My task is simplified by the fact that most theories are based on a formalized and often very simple logic; they consist of a limited network of propositions linked by a small number of transformative operations. On this level, no theory can legitimately confine itself to the "purpose for which it was designed"; it does not speak of definite objects, but bespeaks a style of thought, that may be applied on any object. Much creative thinking is arrived at by this means. When a theory is reduced to its constituent style, and the style projects itself as myth into foreign worlds, the theory can no longer be utilized mechanically according to established procedures, but must be used imaginatively for purposes it was not designed for. Thus, most "great" anthropological theories, that have brought new perspectives into the discipline, are not native to anthropology, but were at some point imported from such diverse subjects as biology, linguistics, cybernetics, psychology, poetics, economics, law, drama, or history – and adapted to the needs of a science of culture (an experiment with such a cross-over is found in Chapter 6 below). In its expansiveness lies the opportunity for "mythologizing" a theory. But in its underlying simplicity lies the complementary opportunity for deconstructing the myth and revealing the style of thought through which it is expressed – revealing the innocence of its approach to a complex world.

          The following chapters are an attempt to grapple with such meta-theoretical problems. Each chapter focuses on a group of theoretical approaches that have certain simple formal traits in common; but no attempt is made to arrive at a synthesis that would bring the perspectives of the various chapters together into one. Though this presentational style has few precedents, it seems attractive for at least two important reasons. First, it enables a grouping together of authors that are usually kept apart (Marx and Bateson; Habermas and Foucault; Sahlins and Lévi-Strauss), since the same formal structures may underly theoretical orientations with widely differing biases of origin and history. In this way, blind spots are often conspicuously revealed: Bateson's ignorance of power is brought out by a formal similarity of cybernetics and marxism. Secondly, the fact that each chapter argues a viewpoint that cannot easily be subsumed by any of the others, highlights the essential limitations of even the most sophisticated and subtle theoretical description of socio-cultural complexity. This is an important point. In theoretical debates it is almost always implied that certain viewpoints are more "correct" or "realistic" than others; while is generally undercommunicated that all theories attend to a lot less than than they ignore. Social complexity is far more complex than is generally assumed, and however we choose to think of it, we will never grasp more of it than a vague and incomplete outline. From this perspective it becomes a truism that all theoretical propositions, even the most glaringly contradictory, are in fact complementary: each illuminates a pitifully small segment of reality, and is quickly reduced to absurdity when it is applied to areas outside its field. But perhaps precisely in this lies our greatest hope of understanding. The wide variety of theoretical positions that anthropologists have assumed, and the strange permutations that arise out of their divergences and mergings, constitute a library of possible points of view on the social world. By switching between many points of view, we cross-examine this world, and while each viewpoint is perhaps unable to say very much by itself, we may, by flexibly shifting stance and position, generate a stereoscopic image of experienced reality, that allows us to discern, perhaps wordlessly, some of its depth.


Since a theoretical perspective implies a focusing of our attention on certain parts of reality at the expense of others, there would seem to be nothing to be gained from adhering at all times strictly to only one point of view. If intellectual purism is avoided, attention may learn to "move with the world", expanding and contracting, approaching and receding, scanning, sampling, and experimenting with it. A diversity of theoretical styles, and the ability to alternate flexibly between them, thus yields a richer understanding of reality than any single theory in isolation. Bateson was particularly coignizant of the advantages of such 'polyphonic' (Bakhtin) explanation. One of the items that "Every Schoolboy Knows" in Mind and Nature is that "Two Descriptions are better than One". Flexibility and "uncommitted potentiality for change", Bateson always insisted, are more adaptive traits in biological and social systems than linear consistency, with its inherent propensity for climactic, schismogenetic escalation. Bateson's theoretical interest in these themes is widely recognized and often discussed; less obvious, however, is his long-standing preoccupation with explanatory form as a subject in its own right. In Naven, three alternative explanatory schemes are applied consecutively to the same empirical phenomena; a fourth, overarching possibility was added in a first epilogue; and fifth, revised, synthesis appended twenty years later. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind the articles, themselves highly diverse in both content and form, are preceded by a collection of playful "metalogues" on theoretical subjects between father and daughter. A large part of Mind and Nature is a loose collage of facts and observations; and Angel's Fear, posthumously edited by and interspersed with the comments of his daughter, carries on this multistranded mode of presentation. Bateson's explanatory style is more 'flexible' than that of many other authors, because it is less consistent: it constantly shifts perspectives, constantly experiments with its own medium, conserves its potentiality for change.

          The present volume attempts a theoretical polyphony of a somewhat similar kind. Each essay argues its case independently of the others. Each attempts to build up a consistent and self-contained perspective on reality that is uniquely its own. The possibility is always there for constructing a single, overarching meta-theory that would assimilate and unify all or some of these view-points into itself. The argument in Chapter Six, for example, is may be reduced to a subsidiary theme of Chapter Four, if the terms "non-scalarity" and "flexibility" are equated. But the book's intention is to let each perspective speak for itself; for although it is true that Chapter Six might be subsumed under Chapter Four, an opposite assimilation is also easy to envision; indeed, any set of chapters may be combined into a meta-theory in a number of different ways, and it seems a fruitless task to suggest to the reader which of these alternatives, if any, is preferable, or "true", in the sense that it eliminates the need for other perspectives. No matter how an assimilation is carried out, what we are left with, in the last instance, is nothing but another theoretical orientation, a new explanatory style that may be added to the repertoire of anthropology. Any such addition is valuable in itself, but the present text is a limited experiment with a small number of theories or models, that demonstrate part of the breadth of potential implicit in anthropological theoretical discourse as a whole. The thrust of my argument is that if we utilize our theoretical multiplicity systematically and freely, we will enrich our understanding of the world.


The guiding assumptions underlying each of the essays in the following will now be briefly outlined. Chapter One is a two-part empirical presentation: the theme, in both parts, is the "moral space" occupied by the individual in society, as this is revealed in two samples of modern, "mythical quest" narrative. The first focuses on a specific aspect of Western European (British) morality, in which the individual is seen as the focal point and raison d'être of society; the second typifies a Russian reaction to the same moral nexus, which explictly represents the individual as peripheral to society, as a seeker intruding from the outside rather than an established denizen protecting the status quo. The explanatory style exemplified in both cases is holistic and unifying; in both examples, 'culture' is considered as a total experience, an emotional and intellectual "phenomenon" or "web of meaning" within which the individual is suspended. The essay sees both narratives from the subjective perspective of the individual who enters the myth, assimilates its 'ethos' as a living totality, and must find a way back to ordinary life without loss of self.

          The empirical discussion of classical European culture and its outliers in Russia and the United States is a subsidiary theme of this book, which I have returned to in various ways in the following texts, most explictly in Chapters Five and Seven. Implicit in these treatments is extensive fieldwork experience in Russia and America that I have presented in ethnographic detail elsewhere (Nielsen 1987 and forthcoming). In the present context, however, ethnography is subservient to an overarching epistomological goal. This is most obvious in Chapters Two, Three, Four, and Six, all which are concerned mainly with abstract issues. In Chapter Two, the underlying model derives from formal logic and information theory. While Chapter One sees culture as a total experience, a moral and existential singularity, Chapter Two explores the idea of culture as a product of duality: of contrast, difference, opposition. Lévi-Straussian structuralism, Marxian dialectics, and Bateson's idea of meaning as "transforms of difference" elucidate different aspects of this more general theme. In Chapter Three, this deeply relativistic and unfocused conception of the world returns to a new form of centricity: as in Chapter One, meaning is thought of as clustering around an autonomous, self-sufficient content rather than as a derivative of formal, structural characteristics. The relational element that emerged in Chapter Two, however, is retained. Meaning is seen as "text" within "context", or, in the terminology of the essay itself, as "figure" upon "ground", and it is the nature of this relationship (which, as Gestalt theory has emphasized, must not be confused with the relationship of part to whole), and the implications of its potential for inversion (and thus for relativization) that this chapter explores.

          Chapter Four returns to relativity again, but the digital simplicity of Chapter Two is now replaced with a more complex conception of two intersecting bi-polar axes of analogue variation. If the inversion of a Gestalt in Chapter Three allows us to derive relativity from self-contained centricity, the opposite movement is made possible in Chapter Four. The two axes of variation in this model: 'flexibility' (as defined by Bateson) and 'power' (as used by Marx) form the warp and woof of a variagated 'social texture', that may congeal, under appropriate circumstances, into densely woven Figures (or 'institutions') with an autonomous reality of their own. In Chapter Five the relationship of center to periphery is again reinstated, but this time within a context of historical power relations, which exclude the potentiality for Figure-Ground inversion, except as the result of long-term, macro-level socio-cultural change. The underlying model, in this case, is derived, on the one hand, from theories of social evolution, modernization, and imperialism; and, on the other, from ideas of 'liminality' and 'anomaly' proposed by Victor Turner (1964) and Mary Douglas (1966). This unstable theoretical amalgam is applied to the historical expansion of classical European paradigms of order and their ultimate deconstruction and relativization during the Twentieth Century.

          Chapter Six again examines a model derived from formal, logico-mathematical language, but the source of this formalism is now no longer classical logic (e.g. dialectics), but the mathematical theories of "complexity" ('fractals', 'chaos') that have gained increasing prominence in many of the natural sciences during the post-Second World War decades, as a direct result of the increasing power and sophistication of computer modelling, and (indirectly) as a spin-off of the wider social transformations described in Chapter Five. As in the preceding Chapters, a distinction is here made between closed and open systems, absolute and relative distinctions, meaning as content and as form. But where relativity, in Chapter Three, emerged in the act of inversion, i.e. as a result of transitional, and hence transient, states, Chapter Six postulates that a constant alternation between 'scalarity' and 'non-scalarity', between absolute and relative values, lies at the heart of human action and choice. The final Chapter returns to centricity in yet another form, and again addresses the empirical issues of the classical European center versus its Russian and American 'primary peripheries'. In Chapter One, the gravitational center of meaning was a product of the holistic character of the social experience itself; in Chapter Three, centricity emerged from the focused nature of human attention; and in Chapter Five, from the unequal historical distribution of power. In Chapter Seven, culture is considered as 'grounded' in nature, more specifically, in the inborn biological capabilities and limitations of the human body and nervous system. I have experimented here rather tentatively, along lines suggested by Turner (1987), with a free-form adaptation of Jung's concept of 'archetypes', which I interpret as abstract, cross-cultural universals, that are concretized in widely differing ways in different cultural traditions. Centricity is in this case in one sense a more absolute quality of meaning than in any of the preceding chapters: the primacy of the body as a precondition for any form of culture at all cannot be neutralized by any form of inversion, whether cognitive (as in Chapter Three) or historical (as in Chapter Five). On the other hand, the highly abstract nature of archetypes, as the concept is here utilized, forces us to acknowledge a complex, "secondary" process of cultural relativization, that is attendant upon any concretization ('objectification') of these universals in terms of real, cultural praxis.

          There is thus a certain progression implicit in the sequence of perspectives presented in the essays that follow. Each, in a sense, subsumes and transcends its predecessor, adding yet another axis of complexity to its theoretical scheme. But in another respect, this cumulative sequence is an illusion. Every second essay thus investigates a form of relativity or centricity. Chapters Two, Four, and Six may be seen as three variations over a dualistic theme, where the opposed entitites are increasingly complex composites. But neither increasing nor decreasing complexity must be taken to imply explanatory primacy. Each model, each 'language game', may be reduced to the terms of any of the others, but for this very reason, as Wittgenstein, Gödel, and the entire empirical corpus of social anthropology suggest, there exist no independent criteria for deciding the superiority of any one explanation of social complexity over another.