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The social dynamics of basins of attraction

Sander van der Leeuw, Schools of Complex Adaptive Systems (SCAS) and Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC), Arizona State University; Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Carl Folke, Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University


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In this paper we conceptualize transformations as societal shifts from one basin of attraction to another. Such shifts occur when a society’s information processing system is no longer fit to deal with the dynamics with which the society is involved. To understand when this might be the case, we conceive of a dynamic interaction between two domains, the cognitive one (containing a society’s knowledge, values, language, customs, technology etc. that structure information processing) and the environmental one (consisting of the dynamics of the environment within which a society is embedded), which interact through resonance. The two domains are interdependent and coevolve to shape both the information-processing of a society (its culture) and the environment with which it interacts. Crucial in this dynamic is the process of category formation. We used a model that distinguishes between “closed” and “open” categories, which allows us to dynamically relate, but distinguish, a certainty sphere (closed categories dominate), a possibility sphere (open categories dominate), and a problem sphere (absence of categories). Narratives anchor societies’ values and dynamics and shape the wider culture of society, making phenomena comprehensible. To foster cultural transitions, narratives need to be modified. To do so, one has to search for narratives in which open categories dominate, and then insert new elements in them. This requires an analysis of the narratives to determine their degree of openness. A tentative approach to such an analysis is offered.

Copyright © 2021 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087