Metapatterns Overview
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This page provides an overview of metapatterns and how they can be used as more detailed descriptors of dynamic biological, physical, social, and psychological systems. Such patterns can be used (a) as frameworks for the analysis of qualitative data; (b) as design frameworks for establishing school, classroom, and professional communities; and (c) as conceptual foci and organizers for science and integrated curricula.

The notion of metapatterns was originally conceived of by Gregory Bateson (1979) as a way of exploring the fundamental connectedness of the phenomenal world. His singular “pattern which connects” was an attempt to find the ultimate underlying theory or metapattern of everything. Since that time, numerous people have worked with Bateson’s ideas, but Tyler Volk’s book, Metapatterns: Across Space, Time, and Mind, was the first work to identify and explore a variety of common metapatterns and their connections across disciplines and the life experiences of individuals and cultural groups.

Metapatterns are not only evident in physical phenomena, but appear and are used as analogical and metaphoric descriptors in many different contexts. Although specific meanings are associated with the appearance of metapatterns in different contexts, more fundamental meanings are shared among contexts. For example, spheres, in the biological sense, are particularly significant as the simplest form of containment and as forms that minimize surface area to the contained volume. In physical forms, such as planets or other spherical objects, the significance may not only include a simplicity of containment, but also omni-directional strength and cohesion. As domes in architecture, the notion of strength is again significant, as well as a “feeling” of containment and spaciousness. In renaissance paintings, halos as spheres indicate a sense of spaciousness, wisdom, and equanimity. In all of these different contexts, sphericity is essentially a sense of optimization or minimization — of surface area to volume, of containment, of strength and durability, of form. From a metaphoric and analogical perspective, the notion of sphere often is used to describe context, such as in “sphere of friends” or “sphere consciousness.” In such uses, there is a sense of containment, durability, and equanimity. It is this metaphoric sense of sphere that is especially significant in describing and representing data in terms of context. These contexts may include a classroom, a school, a conceptual area, a child’s context of meaning (Bloom, 1992), or a particular grouping or cluster of individuals. Although such use may seem fairly obvious, the meanings involved in such an application allow for a common “language” or system for describing and comparing a variety of contexts (i.e., spheres).

The following overview is based on* Metapatterns: Across Space, Time, and Mind by Tyler Volk, which is available in hardback at the paperback price directly from the publisher (Columbia University Press — [http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/]. It also can be found in used bookstores and from a variety of e-companies.

The first set of metapatterns are from Tyler Volk's work. However, additional metapatterns (or at least potential metapatterns) have been added after "cycles."

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Background

Spheres and the tendency towards sphericity are common forms in the sciences, as well as in other disciplines. As physical forms they maximize strength and durability, have a reduced surface area to volume ratio, and minimize environmental contact. In more general terms, the fundamental meanings underlying this form involve equanimity, omni-directionality, simplification, and containment. Spheres and sphericity can be actual physical forms as well as invisible and metaphoric senses of form. In contending with the sense of sphericity, the forms can range from near perfect spheres to partial spheres to squared-off and box-like forms. When nested together, spheres can form holarchic layers.

Examples

  • In science: cells, many fruits (e.g., apples, spheres, cherries, tomatoes), planets, stars, eyes, droplets, heart, skulls, eggs & spores, bubbles, biosphere, ecosystem, inflated puffer, jellyfish, sea urchin, etc.
  • In architecture and design: domes, geodesic domes and spheres, atria, light bulbs and fixtures, etc.
  • In art: halos in Renaissance paintings, spherical forms in paintings and sculpture, etc.
  • In social sciences: spheres as communities, spheres as context, spheres as schemata (as in schema theory), etc.
  • In other senses: sphere of influence, sphere of friends, sphere of consciousness, sphere as neighborhood, etc.
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Background

As physical forms, tubes seem to have three fundamental aspects, which, in some cases, appear as one aspect and, in other cases, are combined in one form. One aspect involves the notion of strength and support along a linear dimension. The second aspect is that of bidirectional or unidirectional transport of energy, materials, or information. The third aspect involves the ability to penetrate, extend, or grow along a linear dimension. In biological forms, they increase the surface area to volume ratio, compared to spheres. In a more general sense, tubes involve the concepts of linear strength, linearity, extension or bridging, transfer or flow of information, and connection or relationship.

Examples

  • In science: nerve cells and fibers, blood vessels, appendage and some other bones, phloemxylem, stemsbranches, hair, cilia, flagella, digestive tract, streams and rivers, lava tubes, pine needles, eels, snakes, worms, spider webs (tubes making sheet), bodies of airplanes, rockets, etc.
  • In architecture and design: hallways, internal support structures, elevator shafts and stairwells, highways, trails, tunnels, bridges, electrical wires, pipes, networking cables, utility poles, suspension bridge (traffic flow, support structures, support cables), etc.
  • In art: shape, brushes, pottery forms, sculpting forms, etc.
  • In social sciences: relationships between people, connecting lines in concept maps, patterns of interaction, lines of communication, patterns of movement, support mechanisms, etc.
  • In other senses: tobacco pipes, cigars, syringes and needles, etc.
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Background

As physical forms, sheets maximize transfer across surface areas, maximize surface area to volume ratio, and extend or grow two-dimensionally. In general terms, sheets represent capture, contact, and movement across a plane. In addition, when put together, they can form layers and can act as borders. Spheres and tubes can be made of sheets.

Examples

  • In science: leaves, surface tension, membranes, individual layers of the Earth and atmosphere, fins, airplane wings, skates and rays, films, snow coverage, etc.
  • In architecture and design: walls, open areas as in large convention centers, fans and windmills, sails, turbines, etc.
  • In art: canvas, shapes, etc.
  • In social sciences: movement within a space, separation, etc.
  • In other senses: clothing, rain coming down in sheets, bed coverings, parking lots, etc.

Layers

Layers point to increasing complexity as sheets, spheres, tubes, and other fundamental patterns combine in linear or nested layers. The process of layering is a building up of order, structure, and stabilization.

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Background

Hierarchies tend to be depicted as pyramidal arrangements of sheets. Hierarchies are identified as the relationships between layers become evident. In most cases, hierarchies are exemplified by power or control moving downward. In other cases, the top layers may indicate greater importance or significance. Information, materials, or energy move upward. They tend to create stratified stability. However, this stability may depend upon the types of binary relationships and other patterns that are created within the overall structure.

Examples

  • In science: trophic layers, phylogenetic trees, animal societies (bees, ants, chimpanzees, wolves), etc.
  • In architecture and design: pyramids, building design and layout, etc.
  • In art: as form, etc.
  • In social sciences: governmental and organizational structures; classrooms, schools, and schooling; some learning theories; etc.
  • In other senses: information trees, branching decision trees, etc.
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Background

A holarchy is a nested system of layers in which the units (wholes) within one layer are parts for the wholes in the next larger, encompassing layer. Holarchic layers can be used to describe certain types of social, political, and institutional organizations, as well as structures in science and other disciplines. In holarchies the wholes at each level have particular kinds of relationships with the other wholes on that same level, and these relationships change as we move up the nested layers from physics to organisms to social systems. The relationships between layers in holarchies tend to be ambiguous and more difficult to describe.

Examples

  • In science: rose flowers, the Earth and atmosphere, atoms, bodies of organisms, holarchic layers of complexity in organisms (from DNA/RNA components to the whole), solar system, galaxies, etc.
  • In architecture and design: some building and community designs, etc.
  • In art: forms as depicted, etc.
  • In social sciences: communities (as described by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger), many tribal societies, democracy in its purest form, etc.
  • In other senses: mandalas, apprenticeships, etc.
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Background

The notion of clonons falls within the scope of holarchies, in that specific objects or ideas are repeated to create layers of embeddedness. As with the process of cloning, a specific object can be replicated. Clonons can build wholes and each whole can be a clonon of larger set.

Examples

  • In science: identical cells in different layers of tissue, protons, neutrons, electrons, worker ants, each fish in a school, identical atoms in a molecule (e.g., two clonons of hydrogen joining a holon of oxygen to form a holon of a water molecule, which in turn become a clonon of water molecules in a cup of water), etc
  • In architecture and design: bricks in a wall, tiles on a floor or ceiling, each light fixture in ceiling, each office or room on a floor, each floor in a building, windows in skyscraper, each house in a subdivision, etc.
  • In art: each brush stroke in a painting, each decorative design unit in a pottery bowl, each point in a pointillism painting, etc.
  • In social sciences: each individual in a community or society, each client in a business, each factory worker at a specific point in an assembly line, etc.
  • In other senses: each tomato on a tomato plant, each tomato plant in a tomato garden, etc.
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Background

Holon, as mentioned previously, refers to a whole, which is often comprised of clonon parts or sets of clonon parts. Holons themselves can become clonons of even greater wholes. The idea of holons (in contrast to indistinguishable clonons) is that holons are functionally and structurally distinct parts on the level of a holarchy. Holons are like organs, on different scales of wholes. Thus the body’s holons are heart, lungs, brain, and so forth, which themselves are composed of many clonons, the relatively indistinguishable heart cells, liver cells, and so forth.

Examples

  • In science: a planet, a solar system (made of holons-planets that become clonons of the solar system), an atom is a holon of three fundamental types of clonon particles, atoms become clonons of larger holon molecules, etc.
  • In architecture and design: buildings, a community, etc.
  • In art: subjects, figures formed from points or strokes, a sculpture, etc
  • In social sciences: a concept, a community or society, an action holon of component clonon actions, a family, a class of students, etc.
  • In other senses: a wall or fence, an archway made of stone clonons, a gang or clique, etc.
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Background

Borders involve the concepts of protection, separation of inside from outside, containment, and barrier or obstacle. With pores, borders regulate the flow and exchange of materials, energy, or information. Small pores heighten regulation and reduce flow, while larger pores decrease regulation and increase flow. Borders can be visible entities, fuzzy, or invisible. Physical borders tend to be built of sheets of repeating parts (clonons).

Examples

  • In science: cell membranes and osmosis, skin and pores, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, stomata, the Earth’s crust and volcanoes, clouds with fuzzy borders, atmosphere, ecotones, edge of a pond, etc.
  • In architecture and design: walls with doors and windows, roof and skylight, etc.
  • In art: depicted forms, frame with canvas as opening pore to another world, pottery bowl or vase with circular pore, etc.
  • In social sciences: personal space, psychological and social obstacles, problem as border with paths to solutions as pores, physical space divisions and openings, social barriers, borders between social strata, racism and other biases as barriers, propaganda as a barrier to truth, borders between countries with border crossings and immigration pores, etc.
  • In other senses: borders and openings in feng shui, borders between properties, airline security, etc.
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Background

Centers act to stabilize the whole, provide resistance to change, and provide for organization of the whole. They can act as attractors for autopoietic (self-generating, self-sustaining) systems. In a more general sense, they can imply importance or significance and a sense of centricity. As such, centers can radiate relations to other centers, information, and so forth.

Examples

  • In science: nucleus, strange attractor, queen ant or bee, fulcrum, dominant male in primate societies, center of gravity, heart within circulatory system, brain within nervous system, etc.
  • In architecture and design: main office, central meeting places, central structural supports (such as elevator shafts in skyscrapers), etc.
  • In art: the central figure or object as subject; the organizing principle or emotional focus of a piece of art, etc.
  • In social sciences: president, governor, major, dictator, leader, teacher, principal, central physical site of specific types of activity, heart as center of individual in many indigenous cultures, organizing principles of societies and other groups, brain as center of individual in most technologically developed cultures, focus of life or activity (e.g., individuals may consider self, family, work, sport, hobby, or spiritual efforts as center), ego or self centric, anthropocentrism, conceptual prototype, conceptual defining

characteristics, etc.

  • In other senses: altar in a church, shrine in a temple, a deity or deities, sacred sites (Mecca, Bodhgaya, Jerusalem), shopping center, etc.

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Background

Binaries are the simplest form of complex relations. More complex relations involve increasing numbers of components (e.g., trinaries, quaternaries, and so forth). Such binary relations are the most economical (in a variety of senses) way to generate complex wholes with significant new properties. Binaries involve senses of separation and/or unity, duality, and tension. They also provide for a synergy between parts and wholes.

Examples

  • In science: bilateral symmetry (including two eyes, nostrils, ears, appendages, etc.); positive and negative particles, ions, electrodes, etc.; male and female; opposing forces; diurnal and nocturnal; dorsal and ventral; space and time; acid and base; DNA with component pairs and paired helices; inhale and exhale; respiration and photosynthesis; mass and volume; high pressure & low pressure; perception as the recognition of difference; form and function; acceleration and deceleration; etc.
  • In architecture and design: inside and outside and the associated dynamicsbetween them in buildings; entrance and exit; up and down passages; etc.
  • In art: light and dark; monotone and multicolored; tensions between parts; attraction and repulsion (emotionally); etc.
  • In social sciences: report talk and rapport talk; leader and follower; positive and negative attitudes; consumer & producer; passive & aggressive; trust and distrust; unity and disunity or separation; etc.
  • In other senses: distal and proximal; all or nothing; night and day; open and closed; on and off; asleep and awake; old and young; love and hate; etc.

Types of Social Relationships (as Binaries)

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Background

Arrows indicate flow, progression, directional links and relationships, and directionality in general. Arrows are often linked to time (as an arrow) and sequences. Arrows of time are equivalent to tubular relations in space. Arrows also depict specific directional relations between binaries.

Examples

  • In science: chemical reactions, acceleration, nerve transmission, vectors, velocity, osmosis, rivers, currents, wind, volcanic flow, bird flight, etc.
  • In architecture and design: traffic flow, sequences in construction, escalators, directionality in lighting and décor; structural strength in supporting weight; etc.
  • In art: as objects, as eye movement in looking at piece of art, choreography, drama, etc.
  • In social sciences: directional relations, movement, flow, stages and sequences, etc.
  • In other senses: journeys and pilgrimages; travel plans; agenda; etc.

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Background

Time can be considered a binary of movement and memory and can be observed by connecting several spaces. Time can be seen as an arrow or cycle. Time also is evident as counting, progression, and sequences.

Examples

  • In science: biological clocks, animal behavior, velocity, acceleration, time-space phenomena, etc.
  • In architecture and design: how time is defined and related to in particular contexts; at Arcosanti (an environmentally situated desert city in Arizona) all buildings are multiuse in order to minimize building use down-time; etc.
  • In art: in drama, music, dance, and other performance arts time is the fundamental organizing pattern, as well as fundamental to the perceptual experience; etc.
  • In social sciences: calendars, clocks, history, sequences and stages in development, etc.
  • In other senses: time to kill; wasting time; time management; timeliness;

etc.

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Background

Transformations; change; leaps; shifts; sequences of stages; dilemmas and decisions.

Examples

  • In science: chemical reactions, metamorphosis, evolutionary change (punctuated equilibrium), energy transformations, phenotypic plasticity, point of change from action to reaction, waterfalls, branching, etc.
  • In architecture and design: divisions of space and activity, vehicle brakes, etc.
  • In art: perceptual shifts, design changes, etc.
  • In social sciences: insights, stages in development, events that change psychosocial states, etc.
  • In other senses: divorce, death, birth, marriage, crashing waves, breakthroughs, etc.
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Background

Cycles are repetitions in space or time, such as, circulations, waves, repetitive routines, etc. Interactions of cycles and arrows create spirals or helices.

Examples

  • In science: Kreb’s cycle, Earth’s rotation and revolution, lunar phases, animal movement, biological rhythms, breathing, water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, seasons, tides, bird songs, light, sound, cybernetic feedback loops, etc.
  • In architecture and design: heating & cooling systems, movement patterns in buildings, etc.
  • In art: perceptual “movement,” musical compositions, choreography, etc.
  • In social sciences: repetitive actions, routines, rituals, helical patterns of themes running through discourse and other psychosocial situations, etc.
  • In other senses: laps in a race, wheel of karma, etc.

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Background

Clusters refer to the accumulation or movement of objects or ideas to positions of proximity to one another. Such clustering may involve one or more center attractors. Clustering seems to involve some sort of attraction that brings objects or ideas together.

Examples

  • In science: plant growth in particular location, clusters of stars, lichen growth on a particular part of a rock, mold and bacterial growth, bird flocks, colonial organisms, etc.
  • In social sciences: town and city development; tribal, community, and nation development; clustering of ideas within a conceptual space; formations of cities and town; family structures; cliques; gangs; etc.
  • In the arts: movement apart and together in drama and dance; pictorial representations of alternating space and clusters; etc.
  • In architecture and design: building plans that provide space for people to gather; office spaces or rooms in a home that come together around a common space; automobile controls and feedback dials on dashboards; placement of plants and objects in landscape design; etc.
  • In other senses: cultural and religious events and gatherings; parties; groupings of people in a variety of settings and contexts; etc.

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Background

Rigidity and flexibility can be binaries of space, time, and relationship. Rigidity implies strength and impenetrability, while flexibility implies adaptability and change. In a spatial sense, a tube, sphere, sheet, border, or layer can be rigid or flexible. Boundaries of time can be rigid sequences of steps or stages or can delimit actions and activities. Binary relationships can be rigidly established or provide for flexibility. Both flexibility and rigidity can serve to protect.

Examples

  • In science: Adaptation, acclimatization, organism tolerance to environmental change and variation, cell walls vs. cell membranes, * class of atoms that are inert *, etc.
  • In social sciences: rules, mores, cultural borders, national borders, social layering, personality typologies, institutional and organization, etc.
  • In the arts: rigid and flexible representations in dance and theater, malleable vs. static sculpture, etc.
  • In architecture and design: flexibility in skyscrapers, rigid vs. flexible interior designs, car crumple zones and uni-body construction, springs, etc.
  • In other senses: athletic protective wear, yoga, martial arts, “letter of the law” vs. “spirit of the law”, rigid vs. flexible writing styles, flexible scheduling, open-mindedness vs. close-mindedness and dogma, etc.

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Background

Gradients refer to continuums and shades of gray rather than rigid binaries of black and white. Both hierarchies and holarchies can be described as clearly defined and fuzzy demarcations along a continuum. Size, color, light, temperature, speed, quantity, amounts, elevations, distances, etc. refer to continuums. Most choices for humans and other animals do not manifest as a clear binary, but as a multiplicity along a continuum with no clear “right” or “wrong.”

Examples

  • In science: speed; acceleration; temperature gradients; slopes; density; solubility; salinity; statistical degrees of freedom; levels of hurricanes, tornado, earthquakes; etc.
  • In social sciences: population densities, public opinion, intelligence (whatever it is), economic trends, from traditional to modern allegiances in tribal and cultural groups, intensity of emotions, etc.
  • In the arts: use of color, light, and shading; pace of action in dance and drama; curvatures in sculpture; tempo in music; etc.
  • In architecture and design: walkway design; handicap ramps; elevators; lighting of spaces; plumbing design; landscape drainage; golf course design; etc.
  • In other senses: “mixed emotions,” degrees of friendship, “closeness” of families, types of lies, etc.
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Background

Emergence refers to beginnings and to the arising of new themes and other patterns. Patterns can emerge out of seeming chaos, from cyclical patterns of self-generation, or from breaks or branching. The notion is a sense of some property or pattern arising at a new level of complexity.

Examples

  • In science: birth, mutation, Big Bang theory, weather pattern formation, new evolutionary lineages, plant growth on bare rock, speciation, star formation, etc.
  • In social sciences: new trends, city formation, new organizational patterns in social groups, argument formation, etc.
  • In the arts: novelty, new techniques & materials, representations of emergence, etc.
  • In architecture and design: new design property, new design leading to unanticipated effect, spatial arrangements to allow for creative gatherings, etc.
  • In other senses: insight, invention, etc.
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Background

Webs are physical, biological, social, psychological, and virtual networks of relationships. Where spheres can represent a context, webs describe complex sets of interrelationships of a particular context. A complex lattice of tubes, like a sheet, can involve capture, support, or multi-directional movement. In sheets, such movement is within a plane, whereas movement in webs can become 3-dimensional. Webs also involve a sense of complex organization.

Examples

  • In science: spider webs, food webs, lattice-like structures in biological and physical forms, retae (network of blood vessels), endoplasmic reticulum, lattice structures of crystals, etc.
  • In social sciences: semantic webs, concept and context maps, hegemony, street layout in cities, social and political contexts, relationships in social and institutional organizations, matrices, etc.
  • In the arts: patterns, sculpture design, etc.
  • In architecture and design: beam structures in buildings, safety nets, etc.
  • In other senses: web of deceit, fishing nets, electric grids, the internet or world wide web, “The Matrix,” etc.
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Background

Triggers are related to centers in that they are a central factor in a particular system. However, triggers involve the notion of stimulating or initiating a particular action or series of actions.

Examples

  • In science: reflex, freezing of certain plant seeds trigger their growth, catalysts, plate tectonic movement triggers volcanic activity and earthquakes, earthquakes can trigger tsunamis, heart beats are triggered by one and several back-up mechanisms, etc.
  • In social sciences: cognitive dissonance can trigger new ideas and questions, memories are triggered by smells and other stimuli, ideas or events that stimulate new connections, etc.
  • In the arts: images that trigger emotions, an idea that triggers a creative representation, compressed conflict in literature, etc.
  • In architecture and design: gas pedals in cars, brakes in cars, elevator buttons, metal scanners in airports, etc.
  • In other senses: gun triggers, “pushing someone’s buttons,” love at first sight, in sports the wind-up (torque) of a golf swing or baseball batter is triggered into a release, clues trigger-point massage, Zen koan, racial profiling, cues, etc.

© 2005 Jeffrey W. Bloom



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