One the of the things that most hooks me when exploring complexity is that it uses pretty cutting edge science and learning on how humans, society, and culture actually work and goes from there. In particular, I’m drawing on the field of complexity known as anthro-complexity and which has strong crossover with the world of cultural evolution. Crucially, this epistemological approach move it out of being just another ‘next big thing’ conceptual fad and instead draws on the rigour and knowledge of the natural sciences to underpin it.
Anthro-complexity, largely pioneered by Dave Snowden, argues that complexity in human systems isn’t quite the same as with ants or flocking birds as humans have intention, identity and intelligence. In recognising what it means to be human it draws insights from linguistics and neuroscience, as well as, anthropology and evolutionary science to develop its theories of how change actually happens which then informs the practice and action. Of course, this cuts across a huge range of very specialised subject areas but some of the insights that are currently yielded, for me, feel like they have the potential to be quite significant in pursuing radical social change should we be able to engage with the knowledge and figure out how to leverage it. Fundamentally, I am asking myself what would our change work - from culture change to activism - look like if we could we really harness the understanding of what it means to be human in a complex adaptative system?
One insight that I’ve been reflecting on relates to identity. We are multiple identities - parallel and serial – these range from the deeply personal (parent, sister, partner), to the collective formal (work group, organisation) and informal (sports club, peer group) (see Ghoh, Ritualisation & Game-Playing) - and, critically, our identities shape our actions in context. The identities we inhabit can be managed and shaped by aligning them with roles and one of the key ways of doing this is through ritual - a prescribed routine that we follow every time we do something. So, for example, changing what you wear can actually shape how you see the world. In this way, changing into a uniform can be seen as a ritual that will align the identity of say, a firefighter, with the role expected of her in that context. In Art of Hosting we check-in, it’s a ritual, and I often think about how important that is to bringing to the centre that part of me that hosts, thinks about process and containers, and some of the behaviours and mindsets that go with it.
So, if the science is telling us that people sense and see the world differently depending on the identity they are in within a specific context or group, how might we or what is the potential to use this insight for those interested in social change? I think about the identities, often unhelpful, we encounter in our institutions and how might they be shifted. What would a genuine public service identity look like? I wonder about the creation or re-shaping of identity connected to community and place and the behaviours that could encourage among residents. I hold curiosity about about our identity as citizens - what are the rituals attached to it? How is it currently activated or how could it be activated? At a time when the efficacy of marching and protesting is being questioned I think about their key role in identity formation for activists and how important they are for that and, therefore, why we need to continue to convene spaces which help shape identities centred on taking action on things we believe in.
Of course, I’m pushing this insight quite far to illustrate why understanding what it means to be human is so important. For now, perhaps, we might want to start working with this at a slightly smaller level...maybe, think about the communities and groupings you are part of and the identities that you play, or that are played within that place? What behaviours go with that? What are the little routines or habits that you can recognise as rituals? What do you notice about how identity plays out in your contexts?