The Rhizomatic Potential
in/for/of Community Psychology

Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD

Borg, Jr., M. B. (2010). The Rhizomatic Potential In/Of/For Community Psychology. In N. Lange and M. Wagner (Eds.) Community Psychology: New Directions (pp. 229-233). Happague, NY: Nova Science Publishers.


A rhizome is a root-like subterranean stem, commonly horizontal in position, which tends to produce roots below and send up shoots progressively to the upper surface. The term rhizomatic describes an approach to/perspective on theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation — as opposed to an arborescent conception of knowledge, which works with dualist categories and binary choices. In this chapter, the author suggests that through its emphasis on collaboration, empowerment praxis can — and does — operate as a rhizome, forming and maintaining a multitude of productive connections, at bare minimum, between community stakeholders and community practitioners. Rhizomatic functioning confronts the notion of community as a hierarchic whole, and puts into circulation the sense of community as a complex, open network of networks which create/enable the potential for multitudinous — often unthought-of, alien, and super-molecular — connections.

EMPOWERMENT AS A CONCEPT, theory and a framework for intervention has been evolving — and becoming increasingly complex — since the inception of Community Psychology as a field of research, study and practice. Since the relatively recent birth of community psychology as a formal field of study and practice at the Swampscott Conference in 1965 (cf. Revenson & Seidman, 2002), community psychology and its various concepts, interventions and theoretical constructs has certainly had time to develop theories, interventions, research procedures, and new frontiers of academia. However, it has also had time to develop calcifications — developing its own ideologies and ideologues, its own set of star-struck fans and harsh critics. It is even the case that certain elements of community psychology itself could be analyzed for their — against its explicit bedrock foundation of collaboration and social justice — hegemonic underpinnings (if not actual applications). Of this process, applied more generally, Slavoj Zizek (2008) writes,

Although the ideological scene is fragmented into a panopoly of positions which struggle for hegemony, there is an underlying consensus: the era of big explanations is over, we need … thought [that is] opposed to foundationalism, a thought attentive to the rhizomatic texture of reality; in politics too, we should no longer aim at all-explaining systems and global emancipatory projects; the violent imposition of grand solutions should leave room for forms of specific resistance and intervention (p. 1, emphasis added).

A rhizome is a root-like subterranean stem, commonly horizontal in position, which tends to produce roots below and send up shoots progressively to the upper surface. What Zizek refers to through the use of the term rhizomatic is how Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari use the term rhizome to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation. Deleuze and Guattari opposed it to an arborescent conception of knowledge, which worked with dualist categories and binary choices. A rhizome works with horizontal and trans-species connections, while an arborescent model works with vertical and linear connections. Their use of the "orchid and the wasp" was taken from the biological concept of mutualism, in which two different species interact together to form a multiplicity (i.e. a unity that is multiple in itself). Horizontal gene transfer would also be a good illustration. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) say that "The rhizome is an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a general and without an organizing memory or central automation, defined solely by a circulation of states" (p. 23). The rhizome is characterized by six principles (approximate characteristics) — that are all active simultaneously:

  1. Connectivity: the capacity to aggregate by making connections at any point on and within itself
  2. Heterogeneity: the capacity to connect anything with anything other, the linking of unlike elements
  3. Multiplicity: consisting of multiple singularities synthesized into a "whole" by relations of exteriority
  4. Asignifying rupture: not becoming any less of a rhizome when being severely ruptured, the ability to allow a system to function and even flourish despite local "breakdowns," thanks to deterritorializing and reterritorializing processes
  5. Cartography: described by the method of mapping for orientation from any point of entry within a "whole," rather than by the method of tracing that re-presents an a priori path, base structure or genetic axis
  6. Decalcomania: forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction (ibid, p. 7).

Deleuze and Guattari (1983) also describe the mechanistic nature of connection (to anything, everything, all at once) as a kind of desiring-machine that functions as a circuit breaker in a larger "circuit" of various other machines to which it is connected. For Deleuze and Guattari, every machine is a machine connected to another machine. Every machine functions as a break in the flow in relation to the machine to which it is connected, but is at the same time also a flow itself, or the production of a flow. The flow is non-personal, although investments by desiring-machines produce subjectivity alongside its components. Essentially, the term desiring-machine is synonymous with the philosophical process of conjunctive synthesis — meaning that everything can be connected to everything else - and is represented by: And & And & And …

And, the application of this rhizomatic model provides an intervention against the progression/regression to more hegemonic practices that can occur once a particular field of study — including community psychology — and its cherished principles becomes reified. For instance, the pet theory/practice par excellence of community psychology — empowerment theory — has been strongly challenged. While critics commend those who seek to increase their own efficacy by gaining new skills (e.g., job training) or abstaining from self-defeating behaviors (e.g., substance abuse and crime), they lament the ubiquitous application of the much ballyhooed, yet often vaguely defined, empowerment nostrum to every problem imaginable (Ellsworth, 1989; Fetterman, 1994). Such critics claim that empowerment work at its worst may foster dependency by training people how to coerce or cajole benefits from governing bodies (Weissberg, 1999). Also, there is always a fine line between practitioners facilitating community revitalization programs in a framework of collaboration, and the possibility that these same "experts" might impose external or infantilizing measures. Therefore, the pragmatic focus on problems in living, mutuality, and pluralism that are highlighted in the rhizome/desiring-machine model may provide an additional framework for community practitioners as they negotiate the potential pitfalls of empowerment practices. It is possible, as critics suggest, that the term has been expropriated beyond its intended use. It is the distinction between spontaneous empowerment activities occurring everywhere and its pragmatic use in dealing with real life problems that is fundamental (Riger, 1993).

However, empowerment, when theoretically and practically applied as a framework for community intervention — especially with its strong and consistent emphasis on collaboration — can itself operate in a rhizomatic manner. The top priority of community psychology since its inception has been on how to describe and define to context, the settings and conditions under which people live and relate to one another, and to develop solutions to problems with the collaboration of such people — with an emphasis on their descriptions and their definitions of what constitutes a problem (Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974). To do so, any practitioner will require a general sense of what constitutes a social problem, how to develop a means of analyzing the impact of this problem, and, most importantly, what assumptions underlie the definition of what constitutes a social problem.

In a rhizomatic model, the ultimate goal of the community practitioner is to promote community members' ability to define their community's unmet needs and advocate for themselves and their community in the world at large. The hallmark of empowerment is the functioning of collaborative processes (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977; Zimmerman, 2000). Empowerment processes have a way of shifting, multiplying, dissolving, and reappearing; most especially, they have a way of looking different to different residents and practitioners at different times throughout the course of the work (Speer & Hughey, 1995). This is so because such processes reflect so many different facets of community life.

It is my experience that communities, like individuals, develop and enact character structures — to maintain security and decrease anxiety — that are unique to each particular community (see Borg, this volume, and Borg et al., 2009). Rhizomatic empowerment then becomes associated with what Zizek (2008) refers to as an "act proper" — not just a strategic intervention into a dysfunctional or malfunctioning situation or system, that is bound by its own conditions, but an act that "retroactively creates its own conditions" (p. 311) - and intervenes in the very character structure (the unconsciously mandated and maintained set of rules and regulations that underlie social functioning) of a community.

In this case, connection (desiring-machines in action, set in motion, repeating the very set of empowering processes which have been activated in the interactive processes implicit in the community members themselves as well as in the ways in which individual members relate/connect to the outside world) creates new networks that have the potential to rearrange the coordinates of social interaction and resets the entire balance of a particular community-system interconnection-ing. The process of collaboration becomes a new foundational act for an empowered community and not only creates a revived sense of community, but retroactively changes the very underlying conditions (characterology) of the community.

Ultimately, rhizomatic functioning pits an ongoing process of Becoming against rigidified and reified (one might even go so far as to suggest fetishized — setting up micro-fascisms that sustain utopian delusions/visions from within the self-reflecting confines of our own theoretical edifice) states of zero-level Being — where the creation of new states for a productive multitude of experience replaces the stale repetition of the familiar (that which supports a general, albeit often delusional, sense of safety regardless of how high the price: oppression, marginalization, etc.). Through its emphasis on collaboration, empowerment praxis can — and does — operate as a desiring-machine, forming and maintaining a multitude of productive connections, at bare minimum, between community stakeholders and community practitioners. From this perspective, we might also observe that desiring-machines can arise between fields as disparate and seemingly antithetical as community psychology and psychoanalysis - creating new models that then take on a life of their own. Such models then connect with other models/networks — becoming enigmatic machines that can break repetitive patterns (coagulations of flow) cycling infinitely within the confines of each particularized theory and the totalizing practices that, without intervention, can regress toward hegemony.

Rhizomatic functioning confronts the notion of community as a hierarchic whole, and puts into circulation the sense of community as a complex, open network of networks. Such a sense of community can serve to foster fully functioning connections between and among community psychology's own cherished theories and practices — for instance, empowerment and primary prevention — as well as between and among all individuals and systems, both inside and outside, operating in, for, and around a particular community: community residents and practitioners and academics and researchers and service providers and political representatives and … and … and …


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