How do we structure knowledge? … Enter the rhizome

(From the editor-in-chief: A welcome to our newest members of the editorial board of the ICE blog.)

By: Daniel Cabrera and Damian Roland

This is the first post in a short series on rhizomatic philosophy and its applications on knowledge and learning.

The concept of the rhizome as a representation of the structure of knowledge was first proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1980). The ideas described in the book were disruptive at the time of publication, but recently have become post-hoc explanations for several contemporary knowledge phenomenon such as social media.

Rhizomatic philosophy attempts to explain knowledge using the comparison of a rhizome and a tree. While the tree is ruled by hierarchy, linearity and a meaningful pattern; the rhizome is an unbounded, distributed, semiotic  and interconnected scaffold.

Classic western philosophy of knowledge worked on a vast but finite amount of information and relations, idealistically organized following a complex but describable structure. Current perspectives on knowledge describe almost infinite information and relations, where the organized complexity is unable to be explained by a hierarchical system and only a network is able to map it meaningfully. While analogies often have obvious limitations, the rhizome as containing and being the knowledge that develops in a seemingly random way but supports a more structured ‘plant’ better represents the current interplay between technology, knowledge and education.

Tues post_rhizomefig2

The definition of rhizome and rhizomatic knowledge has been elusive and still unfinished as a result of the very nature of the concept.  The six principles of the rhizome enunciated by the authors are not particularly helpful in achieving a clear definition as each of them require the others to be actionable and narrative descriptions appear to be more helpful.

The six principles of a Rhizome by Deleuze & Guattari are:

  • Connection
  • Heterogeneity
  • Multiplicity
  • Asignifying rupture
  • Cartography
  • Decalcomania

We think a rhizome can be outlined as a system:

  • With multiple entry and exit points
  • Distributed, without a center
  • Non-linear and Non-hierarchic
  • All nodes are connected and each node is connected to all other nodes, where the position of the nodes is unimportant
  • Multiplicitous, moving in many directions and levels, connecting with other nodes and networks
  • With no extrinsic organizing authority or memory
  • Existing in multiple planes and geometries of the domain
  • Described by the meaning and attributes (semiotics) of the interconnections with the structure being as important and its content
  • Self-sustained, where a portion can be cut from the rhizome and being able to reconnect and regrow.
  • Nomadic, where the process is as important as the outcome and the program can be changed in the middle of its execution

Rhizomatics is a philosophy trying to understand the organized complexity of knowledge in the current reality of infinite information and interconnections.  Rhizomes are inherently organic in nature, where knowledge may change as connections change and as the network touches other networks. At the end of the day there is no absolute right or wrong, there are only likelihoods based on interconnections and flow between nodes.

As abstract as it looks, rhizomatics appears to explain ecosystems, brain neural networks, the internet and social media quite accurately. Rhizomatics is rapidly becoming a contender for the paradigm of knowledge in an all-connected era.

If rhizomatics can explain knowledge and behavior in networks, some scholars believe that it can also explain, support and become a learning theory. It also seems to explain why the FOAM movement has been so successful. More on that in the next post in the series.

Tues post_rhizomefig1

Edit: The second post in the series will focus in rhizomic learning discussing Dave Cormier’s work, but in the meantime we would like to acknowledge his ideas with a link to his blog:

Further reading

Koh C-F. Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology [Internet] [Dissertation]. [Perth, Australia]: Murdoch University; 1997. Available from:

RSA Animate – The Power of Networks [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2014 Oct 29]. Available from:

Reardon et al. Towards a Rhizomatic Method for Knowledge Management. The International Journal of Knowledge, Culture & Change Management. Volume 5, Number 5. 2005/2006. ISSN: 1447-9524 (print), 1447-9575 (online).


 Photo 1 used under Creative Commons License from Crystal (flickr)

Photo 2 used under Creative Commons License CC2.0 from Tatters (flickr)

Photo 3 used under Creative Commons License CC2.0 from Vanessa Miemis (flickr)