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Mark EdwardsMark Edwards has an M.Psych in Developmental Psychology and a PhD in organisation theory from the University of Western Australia. He now works at Jönköping University in Sweden where he teaches and researches in the area of sustainability and ethics. Before becoming an academic he worked with people with disabilities for twenty years. He is the author of Organizational Transformation for Sustainability: An Integral Metatheory (Routledge, 2009) .

Regarding an
Integrally Informed
Analysis of Terror

Mark Edwards

The London bombings are a tragedy. The ongoing mayhem in Iraqi continues to cost many lives and cause immense damage to the civil society of Iraq. Such crucial and challenging events need to be considered and critically analysed with as much sense, deliberation and insight and as we can muster at such times. How are we to view such violence in any way that makes sense; that helps us to understand the issues involved? There is a multitude of ways of understanding and explaining political violence, cultural fanaticism and state terrorism - some of them are valid, some contain a kernel of truth, some are more spin than anything else. The tools we use to analyse such things as terrorism need to able to cope with the complexity and the multi-perspectival nature of this beast. Typically, the tools that most commentators use run far short of the mark for performing this difficult task. Almost all reactions and analyses that I have read and heard on events such as the London bombings are made from only one perspective, or are based on limited knowledge the issues involved, or utilise only a selected and typically small number of explanatory factors. And of course, they can be deliberately misleading. Consequently, the results of such comments and analyses don't bear much sense-making weight and they generate as much confusion as anything else, and sometimes they even compound the problem.

In pointing out the complexity this issue I am not saying that we cannot make firm decisions about how to deal with it. It's simply that our analysis has to be on the mark in the first instance. Our analysis has to take account of multiple factors. The lens of the integral framework offers a comprehensive interpretive base for these complex issues. It can accommodate many of the factors that feed into, maintain and amplify social violence. But the Integral framework is itself a complex thing. It is made up from many theoretical principles and constructs. For example, if we look at a complex social event and simply analyse it in terms of levels of development that does not mean that we have taken an integral perspective on that event. In the case of terrorism, I have read several analyses, viewpoints and essays that purport to be integral in one form or another and yet which apply very limited aspects of the framework. Typically, only developmental levels are used in these essays. In the case of Spiral Dynamics all too often only the emergence of the v-Memes are used as the basis for understanding terrorism. As well as a reliance of levels, there is another characteristic that these analyses have in common. That is the frequent repudiation and condemnation of pluralist and relativist viewpoints on terrorism. These two things - the reliance on the developmental emergence of levels to explain terrorism and the rejection of the pluralist/relativist perspectives are the two aspects of supposedly integrally-informed views that I want to look at here.

As might be gathered from my other writings on integral approaches to terrorism, I view with concern but also some understanding the tendency for integral theorists and practitioners to explain terrorism and its causes in terms of developmental levels (typically performed using the Spiral Dynamics colours). But integral theory has many more tools in its bag than simply levels of development. Apart from developmental levels, the integral framework includes quadrants, perspectives, lines, types, dynamics, states, learning processes, exchange relations and multiple combinations of these explanatory tools. Each of these aspects of the integral framework are not hierarchical, emergent, developmental or evolving. Why then do we so often analyse the issue of terrorism (as well as other complex social issues) simply in terms of the developmental level of individuals (usually the terrorists) and collectives (usually Western nations)? Why do we rely so much on levels when integral theory is about so much more? If we apply just one aspect of Integral framework to the neglect of the others, our analysis is hardly integral. I would argue that if we simply use levels to explain social behaviour we are being reductionistic. In cultural studies circles this is regarded as a kind of developmentalism or evolutionism. I regard such limited analyses as simply a clumsy and unfortunate use of the integral framework.

So why do we so frequently and so readily rely on developmental levels to analyse terrorism? I see two main reasons for this reliance on the simplicity afforded by a “developmental levels” analysis. The first relates to our difficulties in dealing with the complexities of the integral framework. What happens here is that we simply reduce the complex nuances of integral framework down to developmental levels and v-Memes and pretend that we are being “integral”. Because most people associate integral with developmental levels we simply use that aspect of the model when we try to understand something. The second relates to our own capacity for applying integral ideas in our own thinking. Let's take the first reason of reductionism first.

1. Reducing integral to developmental levels
(v-Meme colours, stages, waves, etc)

The integral framework is richly endowed with many interacting subsystems – AQAL is not only about All Quadrants, Levels, Lines, Types, States, but also All Dynamices, All Perpsectives, All Activities. Many of us are simply not familiar with the analytical potentials of the framework and we often reduce the model to the developmental levels of the spiral simply because we regard this as its defining feature. And so our analysis of Islamic terrorism becomes reduced to a discussion about their meme stacks and our meme stacks, their values and our values, the infecting virus of their fundamentalist belief systems and the need for us to defend and honour our modern systems of beliefs and values. When we reduce terrorism to the clash of underlying developmental levels our solutions then focus on how to get them and the cultures and societies that “breed” terrorism (with their ancient anachronistic values systems/levels/v-Memes), to become more like us – modern, democratic and compassionate (with our imperfect but much more developed modern and postmodern values systems). Now these analyses can be somewhat useful, but only when they are set in a context that recognises the complexity of the issues involved. When not set in a rich analytical context, relying on the assessment of relative development levels can, like relying on IQ scores to understand intelligence, be completely misleading and very often harmful.

Such analyses do not recognise that the issue of terrorism is NOT simply about levels of development in values systems, OR levels of development in political systems, OR levels of development in religious systems OR the levels of any other developmental stream. Relying only on analysing the v-Meme system within this or that person, group, culture or nation does NOT constitute an integral approach to terrorism. Take, for example, the issue of developmental lines or streams. By not taking streams into account we can easily miss the fact the “stream” of a country's foreign policy can be at a completely different level of development to that same country's level of internal social policy. That country can act one way to its neighbours (prosecuting pre-emptive war) and in a completely different way to its own citizens (permitting personal freedom). Simply looking at that country's global v-Meme stack does not uncover this complexity.

Another core aspect of integral framework is that of quadrants or developmental domains. If we only look at developmental levels we can miss the fact that a nation's level of agency or governance (agentic quadrants) can have a totally different developmental profile to that of its socio-cultural systems, e.g. civic communities (communal quadrants). This means that it doesn't matter how developed a nation is, if its government (governing agency) takes a decision to initiate war then it's very probable that the whole country will follow. Simply because a nation may seem to be at a particular centre of gravity in its developmental level does not mean that it will always act according to that level of development. National democratic governments sometimes hijack and manipulate their civic populations and carry out state terrorism and commit international acts of violence which in no way reflect the developmental capacities of that country's people or its cultural tradition. Without involving quadrants in our analysis however, we might never entertain such important considerations.

A third example relates to the integral concept of exchange relations. This entails a type of historical approach to environmental interactions and the interplay between entities in terms of their needs and their products, their activities and the impact of those activities on their environments. Defining the developmental level of an individual or collective without reference to these exchange relations results in a misleading and inaccurate picture of the situation or event we wish to understand. That lack of understanding can result in a quite inaccurate assessment of a person's or group's developmental capacity. It is through the historical and situational analysis of events that we uncover the exchange relationships between social entities. Relying simply on levels to explain behaviours does not mean that we understand that behaviour. Without a historical sense of the exchange relations between the West and the Middle East, between Western economies and the oil reserves of the Middle East, between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people, between Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld or between the “national interests” of the American people and the people of Middle East, no analysis of developmental levels or value systems or v-Memes will ever lead to an understanding of global terrorism.

I have provided here some examples of important non-developmental aspects of the integral framework that are essential for an understanding of terrorism. Theories that rely solely on emergence and developmental levels to explain terrorism will always be inadequate because they do not take into consideration these and other definitive features of the integral framework. Often these non-developmental aspects of the integral framework interact with developmental features and a comprehensive understanding of terrorism will only be achieved when these complex interactions are taken into account. Of course we can always take one aspect of this complex situation and look at it from a limited application of Integral model. It is not necessary to apply every analytical tool in the integral tool kit to every situation. But when we do this we should acknowledge the partiality and limitations of the analysis. At present this is simply not done.

There are many examples like this where combining several aspects of Integral framework come up with very different analyses of terrorism to simply applying developmental levels to the issue. When we rely on a developmental-levels analysis it inevitably ends up with the view that the terrorists and their supporting communities are subject to the “ancient” developmental impulses of bygone eras and that they want to eradicated the more highly evolved levels and “modern” developmental values and cultures of the West. Such analyses will always be inadequate because they rely only on levels to explain the cause of terrorism. They are reductionistic to the core and leave out other very important factors that actually define an integral approach.

The application of spiral dynamics is particularly at risk of reducing its explanatory principles simply to that of the developmental emergence of v-Memes. It seems that SDi is still quite new to the many aspects of the AQAL framework and has yet to fully incorporate these in its workings. Because of this some spiral dynamics thinkers misunderstand the emphasis that integral framework people place on the non-developmental aspects of their model such as quadrants. In my opinion this misunderstanding derives from the lack of familiarity of SD theorists with the many non-emergent, non-developmental aspects of the integral framework. For its part, “integrally informed” approaches have used a very simplified version of the SD developmental levels framework. In the SD framework the intermediate phases of exuding and entering each level are crucial to understanding the process of emergence and integrally-informed writers have almost totally neglected to mention these nuances. The SD intermediate phases add considerable depth to explaining the transitional processes involved in moving from one level to anther. Integral approaches have much to gain from a deeper understanding of this aspect of the developmental system outlined in SD (Wilber has outlined a 7-point transition cycle in Chapter 10 of “The Atman project” but this important aspect of the model has yet to be fully utilised). In any event, we all might do well to understand the subtleties of both the AQAL and the SD frameworks a little better before applying them to the analysis of such complex problems as global terrorism.

2. When “entering yellow” we rely on levels

In the following I want to try to explain this in terms that “levels thinkers” might understand. I want to be up front about this, so I will try to explain how this levels-based reductionism works using the SD colours/developmental levels language.

The second reason I believe that we rely too easily on developmental levels in our analyses of terrorism is that we simply lack the capacity to think in integral ways. Thinking only in terms of levels of emergence is NOT integral thinking. Explaining terrorism only through their v-Meme stacks and our v-Meme stacks is NOT an integrally uniformed explanation.

I mentioned above the importance of the entering and exiting phases in the SD framework. When we first enter a stage of development we tend to disassociate strongly from the preceding stage. When we move from GREEN to YELLOW, we disassociate from GREEN and take on what we see as the defining features of the YELLOW stage. This, of course, just happens to be “developmental levels” and the capacity to recognise the hierarchical nature of development. The entering phase in development has a lot of energy attached to it. We enthusiastically take-up “levels” and “emergence” and in our fervour to exercise our newly acquired understandings we see levels, hierarchies, emergence and developmental processes everywhere. In this entering phase into YELLOW thinking (green/YELLOW) we are like carpenters with our hammers of “spiralling emergence” and everywhere we look, we see “levels”. This is why we are relying too much on levels of emergence in analysing complex social events and particularly on the topic of global terrorism. We are only just becoming cognitively adapted to YELLOW thinking (and basically the AQAL framework is a YELLOW cognitive schema) and we are still in the entering phase of using levels to analyses EVERYTHING. This is why integrally informed analyses, opinions and reactions to terrorism are so frequently expressed in terms of the terrorists developmental levels and v-Memes and our developmental levels and v-Memes.

And why are our explanations and essays about terrorism so full of condemnation for GREEN views? As I said when we first enter a developmental stage of thinking we tend to reject and disassociate from the preceding stage. For YELLOW this means that we reject and disassociate from the GREEN concerns of relativism, egalitarianism, consensus, sensitivity to others, and pluralism. Consequently, we see in many “integrally informed” approaches to terrorism a strong rejection of pluralist views. There is often a condemnation of those who espouse GREEN positions such as the relativity of values and who point to our own part in supporting state terrorism, who are critical of our Western values, who point out the “viruses” that we continue to plant in other cultures in securing our own “interests”, and who question our trust in our own Western democratic systems and institutions.

These, then, are the two outstanding features of thinking that is entering into the Flex-Flow logic of the YELLOW v-Meme, i) a simplistic reliance on levels and hierarchical emergence has an explanation for everything including terrorism, and ii) a strong rejection of GREEN qualities such as pluralism and egalitarianism. This is why we see such reliance on levels in our naïve use of the integral and SD frameworks and why such accounts have such a strong rejection of pluralistic sensibilities.

A healthy YELLOW will not only transcend but actually include the healthy views of GREEN pluralism. The pluralistic and multiperspectival qualities that define the GREEN v-Memes are particularly important and useful during times of conflict. This is because they help us to take on and understand the viewpoint of the other. When we put on a GREEN mindset we value other perspectives and this helps us to be more analytical about what we do, and what part we play in initiating and maintaining that conflict. Mature YELLOW thinking values the GREEN capacity to negotiate, to mediate and to appreciate the concerns of others. During time support such capacities are more important than ever.

During the entering phase of YELLOW we dissociate from and reject the GREEN mindset and in so doing we tend to deny the truths of those with whom we are in conflict and we want to proclaim the truth and worthiness of our own values systems and traditions. Such reactions are understandable. However, if we reject the truth in our enemy's position without considering our own part in the process, we merely entering to an unconscious and cyclical process of defending our own by attacking the other. Mature YELLOW does not reject GREEN or its qualities and mindsets, on the contrary it includes them in its broader embrace. It makes GREEN sensibilities and GREEN characteristics its own and uses them consciously to deal with the complexity of life conditions. In understanding terrorism we need to do the same – to accept and value the pluralist viewpoint and to use its insights to move forward – what truths does the position of our enemy have to tell us?

The GREEN pluralist view points out that the terrorist (as agents of the communities that support them) attack us because they believe that we are attacking them. The GREEN pluralist looks at information such as this:

From the “Dossier of Civilian Casualties in Iraq 2003–2005” we see that 24,865 civilians were reported killed in the two years following the start of the war in Iraq. Who did the killing? US-led forces killed 37% of civilian victims. Anti-occupation forces/insurgents killed 9% of civilian victims. Post-invasion criminal violence accounted for 36% of all deaths. There were also at least 42,500 civilians reported wounded. So the US-led forces have killed four times as many civilian Iraqis as the terrorists.

One of the authors of the report Professor John Sloboda said:

"The ever-mounting Iraqi death toll is the forgotten cost of the decision to go to war in Iraq. On average, 34 ordinary Iraqis have met violent deaths every day since the invasion of March 2003. Our data show that no sector of Iraqi society has escaped. We sincerely hope that this research will help to inform decision-makers around the world about the real needs of the Iraqi people as they struggle to rebuild their country. It remains a matter of the gravest concern that, nearly two and half years on, neither the US nor the UK governments have begun to systematically measure the impact of their actions in terms of human lives destroyed."

And, in the light of such information, the GREEN pluralist seeks to understand and acknowledge the diversity of, and equality among, cultural values systems – ours and “the others” – rather than simply proclaim our own Western values out of our fear. Might not the bombings in London be seen as violent acts of war directed against the populations of countries who have invaded a sovereign nation? What truth about our own behaviour towards the Middle East might we see in the attitudes of those individuals and communities who see terrorists as freedom fighters? Might we, through our governments and military forces, be exacerbating and amplifying the collective pathologies that give rise to suicide bombings? Might not the actual cause of terrorism have little to do with the relative developmental levels of any of the parties involved?

The immature YELLOW (green/YELLOW) rejects such views and sees them as merely threatening the developmental emergence of higher or more embracing values. Rather than acknowledging and incorporating the truths that the GREEN pluralist gives voice to, the green/YELLOW sides with the patriotic BLUE and corporate ORANGE to condemn the relativism of the healthy GREEN. On the other hand, a mature YELLOW acts to incorporate and integrate GREEN sensibilities because it knows that higher embrace comes only with the recognition of diversity, complexity and respect for the marginalised. In attempting to understand terrorism YELLOW must first to listen to and include the sensitivities of healthy GREEN and only then go on to make its own systemic explanations and propose its own solutions.


My intention in writing this has been to bring some awareness onto the naïve and reductionist ways in which we apply our integrally informed frameworks to complex social problems such as terrorism. I see two reasons for this reductive impulse. The first relates to the technical and intellectual difficulties involved in providing explanations of terrorism that utilise all the relevant aspects of an integral framework. The second concerns our own developmental journey in understanding how we make use of integrally informed approaches. There are many issues at play whenever we interpret and explain complexity. And, when we are fearful or angry or affronted, our capacity to think and understand in ways that embrace and make sense of the plurality of truths involved is diminished and made even more difficult. We should all be mindful of that.

© Mark Edwards, August 2005

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