Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hornborg, Part 4: Power in Resilience Theory

This is the final post on the work of Alf Hornborg. For the earlier posts, see Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Hornborg's book is titled The Power of the Machine. In the book he uses the word power in two different senses; to reference both political/social power and mechanical power. The underlying claim is that these two forms of power are manifestations of the same thing; that the capacity of machines to do work is a product of power in the social world.

Hornborg's focus on power led to a rather interesting, if ultimately unproductive, series of exchanges between himself and the posters at Resilience Science. Like ships passing in the night, Hornborg critiqued resilience theory for its lack of attention to power while the resilience researchers offered up references to papers done within the resilience tradition that they claimed explicitly incorporated the analysis of power into the work. Ironically, both have a point.

Hornborg appears 1) to ground his critique of the perspective on a reading of the conceptual material describing the resilience framework (e.g. Holling) rather than a familiarity with the empirical studies employing the framework and 2) to mistakenly interpret the resilience framework as sharing a view of systems similar to functionalism and, hence, subject to some of the same critiques. Putting aside Hornborg's misunderstanding of the notion of system embedded in panarchy/resilience approach, the root of the argument turns on the distinction between a theory and a framework.

Holling, in "Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological and Social Systems" develops the concept of panarchy as a means to elegantly account for the empirical behaviour of complex adaptive systems (i.e., by postulating a structure that allows a relatively small number of factors to generate the observed complexities rather than treating complexity as the product of a very large number of interacting factors). The concept of a panarchy involves three essential elements as diagrammed below: 1) a set of adaptive cycles (the sideways figure 8's in the diagram) that are 2) hierarchically ordered (from processes that are small scale and short duration to processes that are large scale and of long duration) and involve 3) processes of cross-scale interaction (the links labeled revolt and remember on the diagram).

Visual Representation of Panarchy as Framework and Metaphor

It is important to recognize the level of abstraction present in this representation. It is meant to apply generically to complex adaptive systems, whether they are social, ecological, economic or whatever. As such, it is a description of structure and processes that explain the general properties of systems, but does not theorize the operation of any specific system. To theorize the operation of particular systems, one must additionally outline the various 'controlling factors' that govern the operation of the various adaptive cycles associated with that specific system (as shown in the diagram below).

Visual Representation of Panarchy as Theory for a Specific System

Controlling factors for Adaptive Cycle A -->

Controlling factors Cycle B -->

Controlling factors Cycle C -->

Seen in this light, Hornborg is correct. The panarchy framework does not theorize power. However, the resilience researchers are also correct. Many empirical studies drawing on the panarchy framework have paid attention to power relations when attempting to 'fill in the blanks' and specify the factors responsible for the operation of the adaptive cycles in particular systems.

But, even if Hornborg read the specific empirical studies, I suspect he would still dispute the claim that the resilience researcher's had incorporated an analysis of power. The reason for this is that Hornborg advocates not just the incorporation of power into the analysis, but the incorporation of power theorized in a specific manner. To the extent that the resilience researchers incorporate power into their research they do it in relation to the specifics of the particular case and the theoretical proclivities of the individual researchers. Thus, viewed across the different empirical studies, the concept of power is not used in a consistent manner. Power means one thing in one study and another thing in a second study. In contrast, following Marx, Hornborg sees power as a very specific phenomena -- there is one dominant type of power (economic) to which all others are subservient. Thus, for example, he would recognize the coercive power held by the military but would argue that it is exercised in accordance with the interests of the ruling economic class.

This is where I part company with Hornborg. Historical analysis has showed that Weber had a better grasp on the concept of power than did Marx. Non-economic forms of power (military, bureaucratic, ideological, etc.) are often, but not always, subservient to the interests of the dominant economic elite. Thus, to preserve their explanatory utility in those situations where economic power does not trump all other forms, it is necessary to conceptualize power as consisting of a variety of independent dimensions rather than, as Marx does, as one dominant dimension that subsumes all other facets. For a concise discussion of this issue, see Chapter 1 of Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power Volume 1.

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