RELATED TERMS: Tangled Hierarchy and Strange Loop; Actantiality; Affordance

A heterarchy, Dekker and Kuchar (2017) state, is a complex adaptive system of governance which is ordered by more than one governing principle. In other words, it is a multi-level structure in which there is no single ‘highest level’. While heterarchies include elements of hierarchies and networks, they are different from both of these systems of governance in a number of important ways. An analogy might be made between heterarchical governance and plate tectonics: they are mutually self-contained orders with unclear hierarchies among them. Unlike a hierarchy, in a heterarchy, there is no fixed top or bottom level: there is not single, simple ‘pecking order’. Nevertheless, this is not anarchic. As the elements of a heterarchy are activated, their inferiority or superiority changes, depending on the circumstances.

“The problem with heterarchy, and the challenge to making it work, is not the lack of hierarchy, but too many competing hierarchies.” (Ogilvy, 2016)

The concept of heterarchy was created by neurophysiologist Warren S. McCulloch (1945) in response to a problem defined by a logical contradiction that is characteristic for any system, whether it be a group of neurons, an individual or an organization, that chooses A instead of B, B instead of C and C instead of A. To make this clearer, Ogilvy (2016) suggests that, “The term ‘heterarchy’ is best defined by its opposition to hierarchy. In a hierarchy, if A is over B, and B is over C, then A is over C … In a heterarchy, though, you can have A over B, B over C, and C over A.” To think of how this works in practice, Ogilvy gives the example of the game of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’, where paper covers rock; rock crushes scissors; and scissors cut paper. This may be said to characterise the world we live in: not the anarchy of no hierarchy, nor the simplistic, rationalist utopia of a single hierarchy, but a heterarchy of many hierarchies (Ogilvy, 2016).

Indeed, Baumann and Dingwerth (2015), discussing the context of the global political system, contend that,

“there is much ground to believe that world politics is in fact characterised by both a concentration and a dispersion of power and authority. While military power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a single actor, authority in a broader sense is increasingly dispersed among a plethora of actors that populate the world of world politics. In short, it is neither global governance nor empire alone that we are witnessing, but rather heterarchy and hierarchy at the same time. If such a description is roughly correct, understanding the structures of world politics and the evolving global order in the 21st century is only possible if we take this dual move from anarchy to heterarchy and hierarchy into account.”

This value anomaly is present in any system that has to make a choice between two or more potential acts that are incompatible (McCulloch 1945, 90; cf. Shackle 1979). Without the logical contradiction, that is, without two or more potential acts that are incompatible, there is no space for a genuine choice based on disparate evaluation criteria (Dekker and Kuchar, 2017).

Heterarchy and the design of narrative environments

Narrative environments are heterarchical in as far as they circulate preferences according to three distinct, but interrelated sets of principles, those of narrativity, humanity and environmentality, each of which may assume the top (determining) level under certain circumstances. Any particular narrative environment design may therefore intervene in a situation to alter the value hierarchies in play. Furthermore, narrative environments may be designed in order specifically to highlight such value anomalies, for example, among rational financial gain (narrativity), social justice (humanity) and environmental sustainability (environmentality). The concept of heterarchy, therefore, may be very useful for working through how contradictory behaviours, which emerge from the series of choices that a system or a person makes in accordance with different evaluation criteria, are managed by the system or the individual so that it does not fall into paralysis through conflict, radical doubt or anomie.

Allan Parsons, May 2021


Baumann, R. and Dingwerth, K. (2015) Global governance vs empire: Why world order moves towards heterarchy and hierarchy, Journal of International Relations and Development, 18(1), pp. 104–128. doi: 10.1057/jird.2014.6

Bruni, L. E. and Giorgi, F. (2015) ‘Towards a heterarchical approach to biology and cognition’, Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, 119(3), pp. 481–492. doi: 10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2015.07.005

Dekker, E. and Kuchar, P. (2017). Heterarchy. In A. Marciano, & G. B. Ramello (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Law and Economics. New York, NY: Springer.

Goldammer, E. von, Paul, J. and Newbury, J. (2003) ‘Heterarchy - Hierarchy’, Vordenker. Available at: [Accessed: 10 May 2021].

McCulloch W. S. (1945) A Heterarchy of values determined by the topology of nervous nets. Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics, 7(2):89–93.

Ogilvy, J. (2016) ‘Heterarchy: an idea finally ripe for its time’, Forbes. Available at: (Accessed: 10 May 2021).

Shackle, G. L. S. (1979) Imagination and the nature of choice. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.