Confronting Economic Profit with Hierarchy Theory: The Concept of Gain in Ecology


  • Tim Allen


Contemporary problems are often complicated by values intruding into the arena of physical systems. Economic notions of profit have values embedded in them in a way that generally does not occur in ecology and the other natural sciences. We generalize profit as gain in settings beyond strict economics in a way that encourages placing values properly in biological and historical social systems. Complications of elaborate control quickly enter the scene at this point and in this paper we invoke hierarchy theory to keep levels of analysis straight. Hierarchy theory often invokes dualities and a mix of process and structure that are fluid under changes in level of analysis. Notions of gain and profit are recursive as the system uses resources and must change strategies to deal with scarcity, which forces increases in efficiency in yet a new round of change. The transition from abundant resources used carelessly to scarce resources used efficiently changes controls in systems. Such changes over time amount to hierarchical restructuring, which in turn requires of the observer meticulous application of new levels of analysis as the system is redefined. The system bounded at a new hierarchical level encounters dualities embedded in the hierarchical concept of the holon, which offers a precision of definition of the new system as it exists as an autonomous whole while still being part of some larger system. We introduce these shifts and dualities using examples from nuclear energy, colonial insects and changes in complex societies such as Rome and the EU. In the end both ideas of profit and hierarchy theory are clarified in a two-way exchange.



How to Cite

Allen, T. (2008). Confronting Economic Profit with Hierarchy Theory: The Concept of Gain in Ecology. Proceedings of the 52nd Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2008, Madison, Wisconsin, 3(1). Retrieved from