Human interaction dynamics (HID) conceptualizes human organizing and leadership as a complex adaptive system, and studies the complex causality in human interactions and the structures and properties that emerge from these interactions (Hazy & Surie, AOM, 2012; Gell-Mann, 2002). Human interactions at the fine-grained level enable agents to coalesce a diffuse network into synchronous collective actions. Such collective action is discernible as emergent order (Stacey, Griffin & Shaw, 2000) at the coarse-grained level. While previous studies have focussed on collective action, the mechanisms that shape agent interactions and the spaces where interactions emerge as collective action have received less attention. Goldstein (2011) argued that emergent order ‘arises out of, yet transcends’ the lower level interactions, not through ‘self-organization’ as described by Chiles, Meyer and Hench (2004), but rather through ‘self-transcending constructions’ (STCs). From this perspective an overemphasis on the spontaneity of emergence distracts attention away from the ‘containers’ and STCs that enable the spontaneity to arise (Goldstein, 2000, 2004, 2011).

This paper builds on Goldstein’s argument, reporting on an empirical study that identified constructing forces (Goldstein, 2004) at the fine-grained level in diffuse social-action-networks through analysis of three case studies. We focus on the organizing mechanisms and the influencing strategies as constructing forces in social-action-network interaction spaces. We ask how and why these forces affect the emergence of coherent collective action events. Events in social-action spaces are collective mobilizations, decision making outcomes and network strategic intent. Coarse-grained properties transcend individual agents yet are influenced by individuals’ strategic intent and the agent interactions enabled through organizing mechanisms.

To determine ‘how’ we examined critical incidents as collective action events and the type of organizing mechanisms that shaped these at the fine-grained level. At the coarse-grained level we determined collective action properties from publicly stated ‘organizational’ descriptions and collectively agreed principles that contained the social-action-network events. To determine ‘why’ we examined the influencing strategies that gave the rationale for the organizing. These are expressed by the agents themselves as their individual intent for interacting with other agents at the fine-grained level and as the strategic intent of the social-action-network at the coarse-grained level. We found mechanisms that were formalized and ordered and others which permitted disorder. Different influencing strategies enabled collective actions to emerge that varied between those with a clearly defined strategic intent as interpretative dominance ordered the organizing mechanisms, and those with a pluralistic and broad strategic intent as strategic ambiguity emerged and organizing mechanisms were disordered. Some agents were cognizant of their capacity to influence outcomes through the organizing mechanisms and purposefully used ambiguity and disorder to attract diverse agents into the network.

Social-action-network organizing

Propelled by the complexity and global scale of sustainability issues, new social movements have emerged that organized ‘glocally’ (Köhler & Wissen, 2003), through loosely connected pluralistic networks (Scott, 1990; Melucci 1996; Chesters and Welsh, 2006). Chesters and Welsh studied such nested network sets through the lens of complexity theory as “network actors linking together…. within a bottom-up, collectively accountable process of aesthetic expression, interest representation, conflict and collaboration” (2006: 3). Applying the lens of HID we examine how these bottom-up organizing mechanisms influenced emergent order.

Our social-action-networks study focussed on grassroots associations that organized spontaneously around a complex issue without a unified strategic intent. They were locally based, mostly autonomous and volunteer run, but also had a loose affiliation with a global movement. Centered upon “discourses of mutuality, empathy, trust, solidarity and organization oriented to social change” (Kenny, 2002: 290), these nascent networks were issue-based activist organizing. Formed around contested sustainability issues with no clearly defined outcome being readily identifiable (Starik & Rands, 1995), concerned agents were attracted despite holding disparate and even divergent views on how to approach the issue. Agents did not subscribe to an ideology; instead they were engaged in direct action and/or cultural innovation (Melucci & Artiver, 2000).

Generative collective action: (Dis)organizing forces

Urry (2002) stated that social science has not analyzed how “emergent properties develop at the system level that are neither well-ordered nor in a state of perpetual anarchy”. Organizing mechanisms that permit divergence in collective action are neither organized nor anarchic and these organizing mechanisms develop emergent properties. Most systems theorists presume organization is already formed and then proceed to analyze ‘the organization’. Instead, like Cooper (1986), we view the process of “transforming an intrinsically ambiguous condition into one that is ordered so that organization as a process is constantly bound up with its contrary state of (dis)organization” (1986: 305). He concludes that the normalizing function is how ‘disorder is refused as non-form’ for order to be appropriated as organization. From this perspective, organizations are not static institutions.

Conceptualizing organizing mechanisms as permitting both ordered and disordered interactions may reveal ‘generative emergence’ (Lichtenstein, 2011), where ‘intrinsic emergence’ is activated by agents themselves within a system. Baker, Onyx and Edwards (2011) report instances of network hubs where the process of agent interactions could be classified as generative emergence. There, social entrepreneurs intentionally created conditions for emergence and recombinatory bricolage (Goldstein, Hazy, & Silberstang, 2010) without forming ‘organizations’. Agents may intentionally organize within disordered and loosely coupled interactions in ‘far-from-equilibrium’ spaces and take intentional and discernible action to try to benefit from the emergent properties.

While traditional collective social-action was mostly conceptualized as a unified and organized event, new social movement theorists have argued that collective action ‘may present itself as an empirical unity (a ‘we’) [..] but it is a complex system of processes and actions’ (Melucci, 1996). Collective action can emerge from interactions that are disordered in much the same way that Cooper (1986) described (dis)organization. (Dis)organized interactions are characterized by disorder; agent roles that are left undefined, interactions that are sporadic, transient and chaotic; an absence of a unitary or shared intention engendering action; weak and diffuse ties between agents with plural and divergent strategic intents.

Social spaces as containers for generative emergence of collective action

Through analysis of the ‘in-between’ organizing ‘spaces’ where agent interactions construct collective action, Haug (2013) conceptualizes organizing as neither entirely emergent or intended. Complexity theorists have examined such spaces as ‘containers’ (Eoyang, 2011) and network community hubs (Baker et al., 2011) where network agents coalesce. These social spaces may be temporary or permanent; localized in place or virtual; local or global. A space contains diffuse network events as a conscious meeting of minds where agents interact to synthesize divergent meanings and intentionally enact influence to generate collective action, though not necessarily accompanied by a unitary strategic intent. HID in these social spaces reveals the organizing mechanisms that enable collective action despite a complex, contested or ambiguous strategic intent (Hazy & Ashley, 2011). These organizing mechanisms and the intent of the interactions may partially represent the constructing forces signified by Goldstein (2011). Conceptualizing social-action-networks in social spaces rather than as ordered ‘organizations’ may make apparent the constructing forces and collective action events as both ordered and disordered.

Research methodology


HID are explored as interactions between agents participating in social-action-networks who are organizing in social spaces. Using an interpretive qualitative approach (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000), three case studies of social spaces were conducted using triangulation of data sources (Yin, 2003: 97). Purposive sampling (Silverman, 2000) informed case study selection as each social space was located through social network interactions, and were referred to the researcher as typical of the phenomenon of diffuse emerging social-action-networks organizing around complex sustainability issues. Following a grounded theory analytical approach similar to that outlined by Charmaz (2006), organizing mechanisms used by agents in the network to generate collective action and the intent guiding agent interactions were determined. Cases were de-identified due to ethical standards and are referred to as: The Local Forum, The Corridor, and The Climate Community Network (CCN).

Data collection

Data was collected through a combination of participant and direct observation, semi-structured interviews and collation of secondary source materials. The first named investigator engaged in participant observation in two of the cases (The Local Forum and the Community Climate Network) for 12 months, and, due to geographical constraints, through direct observation and interviews in the Corridor case. Participant observation data collection occurred through the use of the following: a reflexive journal, used to capture ‘critical incidents’ (Chell, 1998) for the development of the second-order theoretical concepts (Van Maanen, 1979); visual cues, such as the visual physical environment and the tacit behaviors of the individuals and organizational activities (Silverman, 2000); and, running notes at key meetings. In all cases, secondary source materials were collected, such as meeting minutes, email listservs, websites, campaign and planning documents, media articles and press releases. A total of 24 semi-structured interviews were conducted across the three cases to understand the organizing from the perspective of the agents (Blee & Taylor, 2002). Detailed case findings are reported in Edwards (2010). In this paper we draw on the meta-comparative case analysis that was conducted using thematic analysis and triangulation of data sources (Snow and Trom, 2002; Yin 2003).

Meta-comparative analysis

Meta-comparative case analysis used a critical incident technique equivalent to that developed by Chell (1998). We identified and analyzed events when the organizing coalesced and collective action emerged. Event incidences were identified retrospectively by agents during interviews or by the researcher during participant observation. A standard template was applied to analyze each event. Interviews and secondary source materials were used to validate or challenge the observable ‘facts’ (Van Maanen, 1979) recorded by the researcher. For each critical incident, data sources were analyzed using NVivo 8 to determine key themes regarding ‘how’ and ‘why’ the agent interactions coalesced into discernible STCs. Each case is briefly described before outlining the findings.


In all three cases agents identified pre-existing informal networks between some agents. The Local Forum and the CN were unincorporated, while The Corridor was an incorporated association. The Local Forum was a network coalescing around an internationally nascent World Forum movement with a vaguely defined strategic intent to create resistance to globalization and the neo-liberal agenda. Agents reported this as the first attempt in their locality to intentionally foster interconnections around an innovative means of interaction within an ‘open space’ social-action-network. The Corridor emerged within a regional area where agents intended to develop a proactive environmental planning approach by establishing a specific strategic intent. Uniquely, the Corridor’s organizing mechanisms enabled the unitary coalescence of very disparate groups and the organizing space enabled cross-connectivity between related yet unconnected groups. Participating agents signed-on to a collective purpose statement. The CCN was a nascent network of locally based Climate Action Groups (CAGs). CAGs arose from the self-activated energies of a ‘group of friends’ or ‘ordinary citizens’ that met to discuss shared climate change concerns. The social-action-network coalesced around a unitary strategic intent to raise climate change awareness, but allowed multiple and diverse collective actions to emerge at meeting events and mobilizations.


Comparative case analysis findings form a framework that links the key findings which related to the organizing mechanisms, strategic ambiguity and interpretive dominance. We found common organizing mechanisms across the cases, but different emergent properties of collective actions between the cases. Variation resulted between the cases regarding why agents interacted, the influencing strategies they enacted and the emergence of strategic intent. Table 1 outlines the subtle differences between cases. The influencing strategies resulted in variation in the degree to which outcomes of strategic intent were unified or plural; ranging between interpretive dominance and strategic ambiguity.

Table 1

Tensions between interaction levels for intent as influencing strategy

Coarse-grained Network Intent Fine-grained Agent Intent Illustrative Quotes
The Local Forum Inventing alternative futures“Another world is possible”Pluralistic and prioritizing (dis)organization. Diverse and divergent. “I saw the point to bring what were otherwise ‘silos’ of information and organizing, to make them less ‘siloized’ and make them networks”.“Obviously there has to be some identifying principle that brings people together and it’s the old cliché ‘another world is possible’. I don’t know if we all think about that in the same way… most people would define that in terms of being opposed to the conservative neo-liberal agenda. But then you get many people who are involved who get quite particular about how they define that opposition or concept”.
The Corridor Implementing a tangible conservation policy outcome“Connecting the inter-dependent ecological areas before they are degraded and lost”Unitary, tangible outcome reinforced through dominant interpretative community. Diverse and divergent. “I think the success of The Corridor, is because it has had this really diverse group. It’s not just the ‘traditional conservationists’… all those diverse groups, including diversity of people within those groups”.“A group like this has a lot of extra strength, because you have got a general aim, but then there are lots of other little parts, you know so you can knock one out and the other ones still operate”
CCN Invoking public awareness“A network of concerned individuals who work constructively and candidly with all sectors of the community to make a positive impact on climate change”Collective mobilization unitary and organized.Meetings (dis)organized. Diverse and divergent.“…from all walks of life — from individuals and families, community groups, social development organizations, faith based groups, universities and schools to local councils, sporting teams, green groups, unions and small businesses”.“We are talking about people who don’t need guidance. They need a network and a place to talk, they are intelligent people who understand the issues and they don’t need direction.. that could kill the passion and the drive”.

Collective event interactions: Common organizing mechanisms

Fine-grained interactions were described as ‘structurelessness’ and (dis)organized. Organizing mechanisms permitted disorder. Even in The Corridor, despite it being formally associated at the coarse-grained level, interactions were influenced by a shared informal understanding that agents would avoid the structure and regularities of the roles and strategic intent outlined in the incorporation documents.

Despite common organizing mechanisms that permitted disorder, coarse-grained properties differed between cases. In The Local Forum the mechanisms engendered (dis)organized collective action. Agents avoided formalized collective agreements, meeting agendas and public statements. In this case, the organizing mechanisms that permitted disorder were intentionally directed toward (dis)organization being engendered and toward avoidance of unified collective mobilizations, meeting outcomes or strategic intent. Furthermore, multiple and often divergent strategic intents emerged and were enacted. Conversely in The Corridor, collective actions were organized as meeting decisions and strategic intent events became formalized through agendas, meeting minutes, and consensus and public media statements. In the CCN, disorder was engendered towards disorganization in meeting outcomes and mobilizations, but strategic intent was unified and organized.

Coarse-grained strategic intent: Strategic ambiguity as an attractor

All cases contained diverse and divergent agent intents. The cases varied regarding why strategic intent emerged as organized or (dis)organized. Strategic intent ranged between unitarily defined in The Corridor and the CCN to pluralistic and ambiguous, aimed at divergence, within broad goals such as social change, innovation or creation of other worlds in The Local Forum.

Agents interacted as they were attracted to a strategic intent discerned as an espoused set of principles or a purpose statement. Yet individual agents had diverse and sometimes divergent intentions.

The Local Forum had an ambiguous strategic intent and agents interpreted this in different and often divergent ways due to their specific intents in inventing the ‘other world’. Through consistently disordered interactions and agents enacting influencing strategies to maximize divergence they intentionally avoided the emergence of a unitary strategic intent. In fact, agents questioned if this was desirable, thus prioritizing strategic ambiguity at the coarse-grained level. Organizing mechanisms directed diverse agents’ interactions through the enactment of dialogue in an ‘open space’, without engendering organized collective action. The strategic intent was simply enabling the organizing mechanisms themselves, as one agent surmised it was a ‘training ground for participatory processes’. Agents used influencing strategies to avoid the entrainment of structure, with intent to engender potential for plural emergent actions to emerge.

Conversely, both The Corridor and CCN had unitary strategic intent that attracted diverse agents. In The Corridor, agents maintained their autonomous interactions yet leveraged ‘The Corridor’ symbolically to attain their individual intents that ranged from commercial interests to wilderness preservation. Incorporating broad principles of environmental conservation, the ‘cooperative statement’ was intended to be inclusive to attract extensive support. Agents agreed to this strategic intent despite their conflicting individual intents. Similarly, the CCN had a broad strategic intent that was a product of negotiated consensus between agents. Agents coalesced toward collective actions around a strategic intent to disseminate climate change awareness, yet their individual intentions were widely disparate.

Dynamic tensions between the fine- and coarse-grained levels: Interpretive dominance and preferential attachment.

Contrasting dynamics between emergent properties and the constructing forces became prominent through case comparison. The degree of alignment between diverse agent intents and emergence of unitary strategic intent related to the intentional influencing strategies of individual agents. Furthermore not all agents were equally cognizant of their capacity to exert such influence, either because they did not comprehend how disordered mechanisms could emerge into collective action or they lacked sufficient knowledge to influence the direction of the interactions. An iterative entrainment effect enabled generative emergence as collective actions provided negative or positive feedback loops that shaped subsequent interactions.

In The Corridor, this iterative entrainment effect reinforced and constructed network ‘organization’, such that ambiguity was reduced and collective action reiteratively became more coordinated and unified. In The Local Forum (dis)organization was accepted as a coarse-grained level property, the strategic intent remained ambiguous and organizing mechanisms entrained disorder such that collective actions and meetings were generatively emergent. Collective action in the CCN was planned and agreed through mass consensus around a unitary ‘call to action’, but it was disordered in implementation through organizing mechanisms: agents could enact the campaign ‘autonomously’.

Knowledge regarding how to interact or how to interpret the strategic intent was not integrated. Agents had unequal experience interacting in spaces where organizing mechanisms permitted disorder, and they relied on dissimilar knowledge bases. This resulted in varied agent capacity to influence action within the spaces. Agents without knowledge or experience were disengaged or unable to act, as they required ordered organizing mechanisms, or felt that other agents were controlling the collective action as the following highlights:

The meetings are not presented with material in the form of motions or statements. So it is not clear with what one is in agreement or partial agreement… what I find a strain in that kind of system -that I’m not made aware of a succinct form of words that embody what I am supposed to be agreeing with…..and the effect of that is that a smaller number of individuals than the total group are actually left in control of what is decided.

Other agents were inspired and motivated by their capacity to influence collective action through disordered organizing mechanisms. These agents used influencing strategies to direct strategic intent and strategic ambiguity to activate collective action.


These cases drew our attention to the influencing effects of intent and the entrainment effects of organizing mechanisms at the fine-grained level that led to the emergence of organized or (dis)organized coarse-grained properties. In this section we discuss our empirical findings in relation to complexity theory and recent empirical and conceptual literature in three areas that may be useful for HID researchers: organizing mechanisms, strategic ambiguity, and interpretive dominance.

Constructing forces and entrainment: Cognition and intentionality

Organizing mechanisms that permitted (dis)organization enabled agents to interact in spaces where each was able to pursue their diverse intents. Each was thus empowered to achieve their potential for organized collective action through generative complexity (Lichtenstein, 2011). Agents were uneven in their capability to direct organizing mechanisms towards collective action. Certain agents were cognizant of their capacity to intentionally influence enactment of collective action, entraining regularities in the organizing spaces and thereby limiting the potential for future emergence while other agents resisted these influencing strategies, the latter being ostracized by the former.

Influencing strategies and strategic ambiguity

Some network agents were conscious of their shared intention to activate collective action through intentional (dis)organization, most apparent in the Local Forum. Agents purposely avoided structure and routine and they intentionally enacted (dis)organization (Munro, 2003) prioritizing strategic network ambiguity. Further this strategic ambiguity enabled the organizing mechanisms to loosely coordinate social-action as participatory process in a highly decentralized network with plural intents, maximizing divergence and the potential for future emergence. Yet some agents were challenged in spaces operating in this state of (dis)organization and the network risked losing purpose and outcomes.

Sometimes the strategies that are followed within a group or organization do not lead to unitary outcomes. Using a strategic practice framework, Denis, Dompierre, Langley and Rouleau (2011) examined situations when the result is repeated difficulty in reaching a unitary outcome. These authors suggest the notion of a ‘network of indecision’ for these situations in which agents have become sufficiently attached to a common project to continue working together to move it forward, but their divergent conceptions of what this involves prevent them from materializing it in a tangible form. This does not mean an outcome is not possible, but rather that the process driving that outcome does not rely on a shared consensus. They suggest that the practice of strategic ambiguity is associated with this outcome. We found that this practice was being used within The Local Forum and the CCN case studies, as a technique for bringing more agents into the collective action, and to avoid conflicts that would have been produced if clearer terms and propositions were outlined in the strategic intent. Baker et al. (2011) also noticed that collaborations that were being formed to gain wider support on contentious issues between divergent groups would use strategic ambiguity when framing their proposals.

Denis et al. (2011) also report that this outcome of ‘networks of indecision’ is strongly associated with pluralistic settings characterized by diffuse power and divergent interests. Our findings of The Local Forum support this; however we add that strategic intent is an essential outcome that reiteratively affects network capacity for collective action. In the case of The Local Forum, a ‘network of indecision’ persisted and remained even during collective action, yet participants prioritized this (dis)organization as their strategic intent to enable multiple and even divergent offshoots to occur. Conversely, during network mobilizations the CCN coalesced around a unitary intent. Despite being ‘a network of indecision’ at meeting events where ongoing interactions were disordered and engendered toward (dis)organization, at mobilizations a unitary strategic intent was prioritized.

Interpretive communities and interpretive dominance: Preferential attachment in networks

When engaging in regular social interaction with others, agents may begin to favor certain interpretations over others and their exchanges of experiences lead to the emergence of shared schemes and meanings (Gray, Bougon, & Donnellon,1985; Zelizer, 1993) or regularities (Gell-Mann, 2002). Agents with similar interpretive positions build specific world-views and eventually agents’ actions and interactions lead to the formation of a community (Nikolova & Devinney, 2008). The outcome in this approach is a community, specifically an interpretive community. We suggest that this outcome could be utilized as a measure of the success of the influence attempts made by individuals seeking a unitary outcome. The Corridor case demonstrated how a community can be built through interpretive dominance. “The Corridor” became an overriding strategic intent, agents described how the ‘small wins’ of their collective actions led them to further prioritize the dominance of ‘The Corridor’ over their individual intents. An interpretive community may result in the entrainment of fine-grained interactions, in the form of perceptual and behavioral changes within the agents who have now joined this enlarged community.

Knowledge is created and transferred within socio-culturally constituted interpretive communities or discursive practices via an ongoing process of interaction between individuals (Bechky, 2003). In the Corridor, as successive collective action coalesced agents around the strategic intent, certain agents identified as ‘leaders’ dominated the network, despite claims that they were not leading, nor wanted to lead, the relational ties in the social network entrained these roles. Nikolova and Devinney (2008) argue that knowledge transfer and learning are political processes and therefore it is necessary to take into account the nature of power as well as the organizing mechanisms through which the power of a particular community is developed.

Conclusions and future directions

HID provides an opportunity to explore how constructing forces influence the properties of emergent organization of diffuse social-action-networks. Rather than assume ‘organization’ and that social networks are extant, we drew on empirical cases to understand how emergence occurs that is neither entirely ordered nor disordered. In doing so we identified how agents may intentionally engender strategic ambiguity and use influencing strategies to generate emergence. Future validation of STCs (Goldstein, 2011) in HID will contribute towards the development of a nuanced conceptual model of emergence in diffuse social networks.

Social-action-network organizing is dynamic and entrainment effects reiteratively shape future events. According to Corning (2002), the synergism hypothesis predicts that emergent organizing occurs due to the synergistic unfolding of agent interactions in concert and in relation to their environment. Overlaying this is the fact that HID shape the emergence and entrainment of collective action within networks and that this dynamic is subject to the relationships and other connections between agents (Stacey et al., 2000) as well as the influencing strategies.

Questions about power and the relative power of agents and how this might influence the attachment choices and attraction to interpretive communities are raised by this study. Interpretive dominance examines ‘how the field of force in which power is arranged has been fixed, coupled and constituted in such a way that, intentionally or not, certain “nodal points” of practice are privileged in this unstable and shifting terrain’ (Clegg, 1989: 17). Future research might explore the assertion that the ultimate goal of interactions between interpretive communities is to establish interpretive dominance by one or a combination of communities (Callon, 1986; Meindl et al., 1994), over others, how this might occur, and why this might be the case. Conceptually such research would bring both individual cognitive processes and social power practices together and these could be examined as constructing forces in future studies.