Comparison: a key to archetype discovery

Juan C. Rocha


archetype | ˈɑːkɪtʌɪp |


  1. a very typical example of a certain person or thing: he was the archetype of the old-style football club chairman.
  • an original which has been imitated; a prototype: an instrument which was the archetype of the early flute.
  1. Psychoanalysis (in Jungian theory) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.

  2. a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology: mythological archetypes of good and evil.

The Oxford Dictionary

  • Jay Forrester proposed that generic structures in system dynamics exist: “probably twenty basic structures would span 90% of the policy issues that most managers encounter” (Forrester, 1980).
    • E.g canonical situation models (equations), abstracted micro-structures (stock and flows), counter intuitive system-archetypes (CLDs). Building blocks of more complex systems
  • In 1960-70s: urban dynamics, World3 & The Club of Rome
    • Limits to Growth; Senge, P (1990) Fifth Discipline; Meadows (2008) Systems thinking

Lane, DC. 1998. “Can We Have Confidence in Generic Structures?.” JPORS 49 (9): 936–47.

As equations

# parameters
a <--8/3;b<--10;c<-28  
# Initial conditions
yini <- c(X = 1, Y = 1, Z = 1)  

## Lorenz function:
Lorenz <- function (t, y, parms) { 
    with(as.list(y), {
        dX <- a * X + Y * Z
        dY <- b * (Y - Z)
        dZ <- -X * Y + c * Y - Z 
        list(c(dX, dY, dZ)) })

As diagrams

As diagrams


  • Obscure accumulation processes
  • Delays
  • Hard to infer dynamics
  • Methaphorical thinking
  • Good for communications
  • Non-scientific

Lane, DC. 1998. “Can We Have Confidence in Generic Structures?.” JPORS 49 (9): 936–47.
Wolstenholme, EF. 2003. “Towards the Definition and Use of a Core Set of Archetypal Structures in System Dynamics.”
Richardson, GP. 1986. “Problems with Causal-Loop Diagrams.” System Dynamics Review 2 (2): 158–70.

two sides of the same coin

Islamic sliver coin 'Derham'“Islamic sliver coin ‘Derham’” by alazaat is licensed under CC BY 2.0

From structures to patterns

Toward Understanding the Dynamics of Land Change in Latin America: Potential Utility of a Resilience Approach for Building Archetypes of Land-Systems Change

Rocha et al. 2019. Ecology and Society
Biggs et al. 2018. Ecology and Society

Structural equivalence

  • Comparison: common drivers and causal pathways
  • Deforestation, trade, tech, food demand, commodity prices
  • Unintended consequences of policies
  • Leakage effects
  • Complement existing data-driven approaches
  • Database?

Rocha, et al. 2019. Ecology and Society

From patterns to structures

Mapping Social Ecological Systems Archetypes

Volta river basin

Rocha, et al. 2020. Environmental Research Letters


  • How many clusters?
  • Comparison: what makes SES cluster?
  • Where water reservoirs can have an impact?
  • Scale is limited by data availability and quality
  • Improves replication

Caveats and open problems

Structure to patterns

  • From equations to qual diagrams:
  • Semantic coherence
  • Levels of aggregation
  • Hidden assumptions
  • Ground with data


  1. Leveraging comparison can enable archetype discovery
    Comparing: causal structures | data driven patterns

  2. Causal structures can be compared with structural equivalence
    Rocha, et al. 2019. Ecology and Society

  3. Recurrent patterns can be compared with clustering methods in space and time
    Rocha, et al. 2020. Environmental Research Letters

  4. QCA | causal recipes: What makes Arctic communities resilient?
    Carson & Peterson 2016 Arctic Resilience Report

  5. Be aware of limitations
    Ground your theory with empirical data…and ground your data analysis in theory

Tack | Gracias


twitter: @juanrocha
pre-print: coming soon!

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Subscribe to our newsletter at