Acephalous groups and their dynamics from a complex systems perspective

Victor Ronald David MacGill



Human dominance-based hierarchies perceiving the world as separate parts open for exploitation have led to crises in areas such as ecology, economics, and politics. One response by many activist and other groups is the growing use of distributed, loosely structured groupings I will call “acephalous”. While they may have nested levels just like a dominance hierarchy, group members have equal power and responsibility, giving members a stronger sense of ownership within the group. This also shifts the focus from goal seeking to maintaining group relationships.


A variety of acephalous groups at differing scales are investigated from a complex systems perspective. From small support groups we look at larger worker co-operatives, alternative spirituality groups and terrorist networks.


Digital technologies have opened new possibilities for social activist groups. Groups such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement have found that combining the power of the internet with a loose acephalous structure has been very effective at breaking down old dominance-based hierarchies, but they have not yet developed the ability to create and maintain effective alternatives. We explore acephalous groups to assess their strengths and weaknesses and seek ways for them to become more effective. 



Acephalous, complex adaptive system, distributed leadership, adaptive cycle, viable systems model

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