Psychological Panarchy: Steps to an Ecology of Thought

Will Varey


Since its origination, researchers in the field of ecology have been faced with complex questions of considerable complexity. To consider an entity within its habitat involves recurring problems of definition; of the entity, the boundary of the inquiry and the criterion for observation. The increasing sophistication of systems theory in the construction of ecosystem models provided new ways of studying ecologies as processes, independent of the botanical organisms they contain. Extensions of hierarchy theory allowed multiple scalar levels of systemic interactions to be observed. The development of panarchy theory has now provided a cyclical perspective on complex ecologies in multiple spatio-temporal spans. Yet in all the advancements of our observations of complex ecological systems, we have advanced only slightly in our observation of the observer.

Recent research into developmental psychology suggests that psychosystems, like ecosystems, are not unimodal and continuously distributed. Patterns of thought may also form complex hierarchies appropriate to the environments of existence. Panarchy principles have proven useful in providing metaphors for the complexity of socio-political and socio-cultural dynamics. The governing dynamics of human thought are now being seen as crucial for the resilience, sustainability and liveability of our future societies. The potential exists for a more detailed construction of a theory of panarchy for human psychology to provide an explanation of the role of thought in understanding human and ecological systems.

This paper considers parallels between recent findings in developmental psychology and developments in the panarchy research into complex ecologies to assess the viability of the application of panarchy theory to the ecology of human thought. Five distinctive features of a panarchy inquiry are considered with reference to the viability of their application to the psychological dynamics operating in evolutionary human social systems. The paper concludes that a theory of psychological panarchy is viable, and necessary, if roles of the observer and the observed are to be understood so as to progress the study of the resiliency of complex human societies.


ecosystems, ecology, systems theory, psychosystems, panarchy

Full Text: