The Rhizome as a Learning Model for Risk

I have written before about the semiotic/metaphor of the rhizome ( ), introduced by Deleuze as a model for understanding learning and knowing. Deleuze was interested in ‘becoming’ and in the ‘hidden third’, a common concept in transdisciplinarity. Deleuze ( understood the metaphor of the rhizome as way of understanding ecological complexity, whilst the ‘tree of knowledge’ metaphor represents order, linear and visual thinking.

The rhizome describes the matted and hidden roots of the plant that tangle about obstacles and each other in search of being. The rhizome serves as a sign for the nature of wicked problems and also for what Luhmann, Varela and Maturana called ‘autopoetic social ecologies’ ( ). An ecology is ‘autopoetic’ (self-sustaining) as a social networks that self-sustains mysteriously as if automatically driven by a life force and the will to live and be. We see aspects of this life force in the theory of evolution, adaptation and survival of the fittest theories.

The rhizome captures the idea of a multi-tangled web of being that does not follow a single path or linear trajectory as is common in many safety models (eg. swiss cheese, bow tie etc). I discussed this in my book (for free download Fallibility and Risk, Living With Uncertainty pp. 92, 96, 98, 99, 101, 111 and 132. If one was to use the metaphor of swiss cheese to represent the nature of reality it would have to look something like Figure One. Rhizome Swiss Cheese.

Figure One. Rhizome Swiss Cheese

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This is why many models of incident investigation on the market don’t work because, they impose a linear, mechanistic assumption worldview on to an incident and then investigate to find the match to indoctrinated assumption. This is not what SEEK ( ) does. Life is far more messy and ‘wicked’ that Safety supposes.

The beauty of the rhizome metaphor is that as a semiotic it subverts the idea that objectivity can be found in text in a binary way. By stepping outside of the binary argumentative model of logic, the semiotic creates and third way of understanding knowing. Delueze rejected the idea of linear progressive knowledge building up to a desired goal. He also rejected the idea that learning could involve resemblance and repetition, so common to models of training in safety.

Deleuze understands meanings and new concepts as artistic musical creations and uses the language of music, cinema and art to better capture the nature of learning and becoming. Why does this matter for risk?

Risk is so often about the uncertain, unknown and unseen. As fallible humans we can’t see the connections between events neither the hidden trade-offs in the systems we create. Rhizomatics is a strategy of thinking and learning differently about interconnectedness and autopoesis. It is a strategy of trying to make the unconscious conscious, like a performing art that seeks to make the feeling and emotion of the artists visible. Rhizomatics is not just a theory but a way of seeing the world, a way of envisioning the nature of risk ( Because we know from the Social Psychology of Visual Perception that humans tend to see what they want to see. They impose order on disorder as in Figure Two. Disorder; Figure 3, Order on Disorder.

Figure Two. Disorder

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Figure 3, Order on Disorder

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This is how a worldview of Safety shapes everything from notions of causality, complexity and anthropology. Each school of thought in risk and safety ( ) carries such an ontology that shapes everything from zero to human factors, including SPoR. There is no neutral objective theory of risk and safety. This is how a transdisciplinary approach, that brings together and reaches across theories, can develop more holistic solutions to risk as a wicked problem ( ).

The rhizome semiotic as a mediatory third, disturbs the binary opposition between signifiers and signified or, between words and objects. This is why all models offered in SPoR are triarchic, including covers of books, tools in risk assessment and models like One Brain Three Minds (;  As with Deleuze, stepping out of the binary discourse enables a dialectic and new way of learning that is experiential, visual and somatic. Meaning is never ‘given’ but rather interpreted ontologically and often in the convergence of paradoxical differance (Derrida) (

When we see the nature of being and the unconscious more as a rhizome we ask different questions of events, we SEEK different avenues in by-products and trade-offs and, we take on a different relational understanding about what drives people, purpose, meaning, self-sustaining ecologies and why people do things. In rhizomatics the burden of behaviourism sinks into the background and we begin to better support and manage events, systems of work and human adaptation.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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