Expecting Uncertainty: Approaching security environment complexity with humility and conceptual flexibility

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Robert Lummack

This article discusses the complexity of the Global Security Environment. It argues that uncertainty within the global security environment should be expected. It argues that the concepts of Wicked Problems, Systems Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems provide a useful theoretical framework for evolving understandings of this space, useful for all actors trying to make sense of it and who are called to act within it. Note that these concepts are complex in their own right and their discussion is in no way meant to be exhaustive. The overall logic is that there is value in conceiving of multifaceted problems in diverse forms as ‘Wicked Problems’, that Systems Thinking offers several useful ways to account for complexity and actors within this space can be considered Complex Adaptive Systems; finally, that Design processes offer a wide range of advantages to guide action due. Here, I am referring to Design versions such as US Army Design Methodology (School of Advanced Military Studies, 2012). Calling for the inclusion of these concepts is not new as there is a vast literature within military and government communities in their quest to improve approaches to complex problems (Schmitt, 2006; Lauder, 2009; Scott, 2009; Zweibelson, 2011; Bentley, 2013; School of Advanced Military Studies, 2012). This paper rather seeks to contribute to these discussions and to publicize the relevance of these concepts to a wider audience. Note that examples provided are not meant to represent a comprehensive analysis of an issue using the respective concepts but rather serve to illustrate their potential application and utility. Secondly and crucially, it argues that humility and cognitive flexibility are required qualities within individuals and organizational cultures, due to the urgency of global problems and the difficulty in making sense of security environment complexity.

Defining the Global Security Environment

For the purposes of this essay, the term global security environment will loosely refer to the external environment within which the subject exists and operates. It focuses on identifying all relevant threats to the subject’s survival in physical or ideational forms, including to its worldview and to the political order within which it is enmeshed. What specific factors are identified is certainly dependent upon the subject; it can be seen from the perspective of an individual, a state, private firm, any other type of organization or even of humanity as a whole.

What makes the global security environment complex?

Multifaceted problems and their consequences (conflict, poverty, illicit trade, climate change effects, terrorism, migration, political instability, etc…) are structurally complex; they involve multiple stakeholders whose behaviours are dynamic, stretch across national boundaries and are beyond the control of any single state. These problems are often inter-related and multi-causal and discerning root causes remains a difficult task. Visible, mediatized effects can have emotional public responses and urge governments to take action. New actors then enter ongoing multifaceted crises with a long historical lineage that brought them to this point. In constant evolution, these problems can change rapidly, exhibit non-linear, surprising and unpredictable effects which in turn influence the future, possibly becoming causal to other problems. Complicating factors are pace of technological change and massive production of information.

Information and technology

Human society is producing and capturing enormous volumes of data, resulting from technological and scientific advancement and increases in health, population and education. Thus, there is an unprecedented amount of data about an increasingly wider scope of things. Given this need to pay attention to more and more factors, there remains the problem of curation. How do we decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore? Realistically, there is just too much information to keep up with and the individual or team can be overwhelmed (Lincoln, 2011). The decision maker or team is then confronted with the paradox of choice phenomenon that emerges (Schwartz, 2004). Thus, it is critical to make hard choices to prioritize attention.

Another factor is the complexification of interactions creating new information. For example, the 2013 UNDP Human Development Report notes increased South-South interactions and how the Global South is increasingly important to creation of information and technology, predicting a new multi-polared international system (UNDP, 2013). Data travels rapidly and new phenomenon emerge based on new data and multiple interactions of factors. However, making sense of the information and connecting the dots between warning sign events or possible causal factors in order to predict outcomes remains difficult. Another factors adding complexity is the uniqueness of each situation, where the weight of a variable could be miniscule in one situation but immense in another and knowledge derived from a similar experience could be inadequate in a new situation, thus the necessity of adopting a non-formulaic approach.

However, there is danger in over-focusing upon a singular or seemingly most urgent phenomenon due to selective attention phenomenon. While intently focusing upon some important occurrence, other vital information outside immediate focus is missed (Chabris and Simons, 2010). This can be seen in the US intelligence communities’ focus upon counter-terrorism that led to intelligence oversights, missing Russian actions in Crimea and Syria (Harris, 2015).

Technology allows that we are now able to know about conflicts or warning signs of crisis more quickly, tracking events more closely from multiple perspectives. Additionally, recognition of an expanded definition of security involving more than strictly military factors has increased the number of relevant factors and actors that must be considered. We understand new interlinkages between factors that carry security implications: climate change, the global arms race and trade, food and water security, health, gender dynamics, political stability, global terrorism, and the smuggling of narcotics, weapons and people, to name a few.

In terms of understanding, what is particularly problematic is how polarized versions of events can be. Even if we can verify facts empirically with a high degree of certainty, the interpretation of these events remains a battleground. Here we see sides of conflicts entrenched in their positions interpreting events within their worldview and constructing a narrative of political necessity. Competing understandings compound a genuine understanding of what is actually occurring in a given situation. For example, in any conflict, the parties will each have their own versions of why and how the conflict started and what they are fighting for. There is no longer one reality, but the realities of all actors, simultaneously competing for recognition. Can it be that one version is completely false where the polar opposite is completely correct? It is plausible, but likely not the case. This means that reality must appear within the consideration of multiple perspectives.

In addition to simply prioritizing data, determining and assessing validity is tremendously difficult. Confusion caused by misinformation, disinformation and propaganda are generated by information wars between actors. Snyder (2014) discusses the propaganda dimension in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict explaining occurrences through what he terms “applied postmodernism” including: insinuation of connection, repetition to induce belief, creation of doubt by flooding the information space with multiple competing narratives to generate confusion, employing the truth in various partial ways with the aim of trivializing actual events and grievances, denying responsibility and de-legitimization of the other and their identity (Snyder, 2014, 44:05-52:55). This discernment of what information can be trusted is tremendously important now, given the technological means allowing instantaneous communication and public expectation of a quick response.

Wicked problems

Although several decades old, Rittel and Webber’s concept of ‘Wicked Problems’ which contrast traditional or tame problems has continued utility for understanding multifaceted crises of the security environment (Rittel & Webber, 1973). The concept of Wicked Problems acknowledges the reality in which many diverse stakeholders are involved (Conklin, 2005). This means that Wicked Problems are structurally complex in that they contain a number of inter-connected actors who are simultaneously present within a given space and time (Conklin, 2005). This can be seen within a paraphrase of U.S. Air Force General Hawk Carlisle’s assessment of complexity of the Syrian conflict “too many people with too many agendas” (Tucker, 21 September 2016).

The presence of so many stakeholders with differing agendas and mandates within Wicked Problems means that here are competing versions of events. The problem and its effects are experienced differently by each actor, and the perception of urgency is dependent upon proximity to its effects and various forms of bias. Thus, the problem cannot be boiled down to a universally accepted problem definition (Rittel & Webber, 1973).

Whole of Government and Comprehensive approaches adopted by Western governments and organizations such as the United Nations and NATO have appropriately attempted to action multiple facets of a problem simultaneously. Of course, including more and more actors to address the problem is helpful in bringing expertise to improve the collective effort. However, there are also drawbacks as variance of ideologies, perspectives and agendas can cause friction and in some cases, disunity in the overall collective effort. Understanding the problem slightly differently given different experiences and mandates generates multiple understandings of a problem and can generate negative effects, such as ‘social fragmentation’ (Conklin, 2005).

In addition to being understood with multiple perspectives, Wicked Problems will evolve as new information enters and modifies the situation (Rittel & Webber, 1973).

With wicked problems on the other hand, any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended – virtually an unbounded - period of time. Moreover, the next day’s consequences of the solution may yield utterly undesirable repercussions which outweigh the intended advantages or the advantages accomplished hitherto. (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p.163)

Wicked Problems are also interactively complex in that the actors can interact with any other in an unpredictable manner (Conklin, 2005). With technological advancement, the speed at which effects occur has been increased, thereby increasing speed of change within the problem itself.

Thus within Wicked Problems there are diverse causes and effects occurring simultaneously. The danger in oversimplification or generalizing simple conclusions to Wicked Problems means that the approach taken to deal with them could cause greater harm. Each incursion into a problem space will have consequences which cannot be certainly predicted. For example, when infrastructure is destroyed or one political or ethnic group is empowered over another in nation building, effects may vary over time horizons and prove to be counterproductive. A state’s foreign policy can be criticized from all angles - for action (too much or too little) or inaction. The lack of significant American action within the Syrian conflict between (2011 – 2013) can perhaps be explained using this logic of not wanting to destabilize the situation further, perhaps influenced by effects experienced in post-invasion Iraq and the post-Kaddafi Libya.

Wicked Problems also do not have defined end-states or solutions in contrast to tame or traditional problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Therefore, it is difficult to know when the problem is solved. In fact, there can be no certain stopping point, or mission success endpoint. Recent counter-insurgency experiences, regime change, development, nation building and the stabilization of failed or failing states provide many exemples of this. At what point is the project successful enough?

Wicked Problems also suppose that some problems are simply not solvable (Rittel & Webber, 1973). This does not mean abandoning the intention of helping improve some aspects of the problem. However, removing unrealistic expectations and raising awareness that even significant and sustained effort may not be able to entirely resolve the problem is a recognition that can help reformulate mission success objectives in accordance with what is realisticly possible, with increased awareness that outcomes cannot be predicted.

Systems Theory

Systemic understanding applying the principles of Systems Theory (Bertalanffy, Churchman, Checkland) is useful for several reasons. Firstly, it can recognize multiple causes of multifaceted Wicked Problems. It allows space for each explanatory systemic factor to exist unimpeded by other factors, as they do not need to be conceived within a zero sum game debate. This perspective is holistic, providing a more accurate understanding by reflecting all relevant influences. It can help understand the structure of actors within the security environment, or the structural complexity of Wicked Problems and their sub-systems.

Systems Thinking can help demystify events and phenomenon. The concepts of purposefulness, openness, multidimensionality, emergent property and counter intuitive behaviour are useful (Gharajedaghi, 2011). The concept of purposefulness helps us identify and distinguish different systems as to their purposes, connections and boundaries that can be visually mapped out. Openness recognizes how and where different systems can be exposed to external influences from the environment in which they are situated.

A full appreciation of the security environment requires that positive and negative aspects of all systems be recognized simultaneously. Multidimensionality explains that a system may exist or appear to exist within different ‘dimensions’ or states at the same time. For example, states can be simultaneously in forms of competition, conflict and cooperation. Multi-dimensionality helps identify nuances and helps to avoid cognitive shortcuts of labelling binary conditions to actors or situations that do not accurately reflect reality.

Multidimensionality can thus help explain complex foreign policy of states and their interactions. For example, Turkey (like many states) is pursuing disparate strategies simultaneously, conducting a military campaign against groups within the Syrian conflict who are allied with Turkey’s NATO allies (“Turkey V Syria’s…” 2016). As well, we can think of two antagonistic states (Iran and United States) cooperating in some ways against the Islamic State (IS) (Orton, 2016).

The concept of emergence can help explain unexpected occurrences as being emergent properties of the system itself, or within the interactions between systems. Effects emerge which are not present when the system components themselves are added. Indeed the Syrian refugee crisis could be seen as an emergence of the Syrian conflict and the Brexit vote could be seen in part as the emergent property of the refugee crisis.

As well, new methods within the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, particularly the use of various irregular fighting elements, the use of civilians and a sophisticated and confusing propaganda dimension can be seen as emergent properties (Berzins, 2014). Further, emergent effects can bring counter-intuitive results, where a seemingly logical action can take on consequences that have the opposite or variated effect of the intended action. This is seen within the logic of the relationship between body-counts and the strength of the resistance in certain counter-insurgencies.

Being expansive by nature, Systems Thinking allows for the inclusion of new information into understanding. Linkages between systems can be understood and investigated over time as they evolve. For example: Human Development Indicators, political financing, the broader geo-political power struggles, the historical evolutions of conflicts, the psychological mindset of the people groups and cultures involved, the differential experiences of gender, climate change and water and food security are a few important factors to consider.

Systems Thinking also allows for changes in the nature of warfare to be incorporated into existing understanding. Warfare has become more complex in part because technology affords new military systems and new options for intervention (Yaneer-Bar Yam, 2003). The acceleration of drones and cyber weapons systems allows for minimization of harm and affords incredible surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Further, ethical protections offered by Twentieth Century Human Rights protections are rarely upheld by non-state forces (Coker, 2008). National governments similarly operate in ethical grey zones or within secret areas often skirting legal definitions; here, we see the rise of Private Military Corporations (PMCs) able to accomplish work that is designed to be non-attributable to governments (Smith, 2015).

As well, new actors are being used. Children, in addition to being direct and indirect victims, have become important “weapons systems” using the advantages they engender (Münkler 2003; Dallaire, 2011). In terms of the logic of warfare, sexual violence mainly deployed against women and girls has become a horrible feature of conflict but one that tragically is cheap and immensely effective (Aydelott, 1993; Reid-Cunningham, 2008; Rosga, 2008; Chinkin & Kaldor, 2013). Here the philosophical, political, cultural and religious systems and their behaviours as they evolve in logic or nature can be understood systemically as well as their effects upon other systems.

Systemic understanding also provides space to acknowledge effects that are hard to quantify such as psychological trauma of those affected by war and the opportunity cost of money and time spent on militarization as opposed to elsewhere in society. As well, it can help identify linkages to different issues that are not otherwise readily visible or that are not traditionally understood to be linked. For instance, gender equality indicators in a given society are important to be included in conflict analysis, but have not traditionally been understood to be connected. Up until official recognition by UNSCR 1325 in 2000, this connection has been under-studied and not well understood especially in official military and security discussions.

Systems Thinking importantly does not overlook the individual. The individual as the basest system can be conceived as a rational actor within a system, connected and intertwined with countless other systems in a complex web of human and social institutional interactions (Leading the Institution, 2007). This is important as individuals compose the decision making centers of systems and sub-systems; one solitary individual may make all decisions for the entirety of a system and have enormous influence, or power may be more dispersed between many individuals. Leaders as individuals inspire, motivate and achieve disproportionate effects for simply one person. Here, we can easily see the great leaders who yield immense power and potential, especially financially powerful individuals such as the handful of global billionaires who can finance causes (Oxfam, 2016); and similarly, political actors such as charismatic populists who can transform entire societies or authoritarian leaders who can decide when and where to bring their forces into conflict.

To disrupt shallow thinking, Systems Theory also provides an ability to include historical factors. A snapshot at one place and time is limited in its explanatory capabilities. Conflict must be seen within a historical evolution of factors that have created the conditions for the present day occurrences to manifest themselves. A period of analysis as far back as necessary is needed to fully understand the significance of the historical factors that remain relevant. For example, the rise of IS needs to be looked upon in the immediate past, as an outgrowth of the invasion of Iraq and post-2003 developments, specifically the decision to de-Bathify government institutions. Other factors could include a longer perspective and include a post-Ottoman analysis and the roots of “Wahhabism”. This is particularly important with regard to grievances of people groups and the historical factors that motivate present day psychology of actors. It is about understanding the narratives of the people groups involved that explain why they do what they do.

Complex Adaptive Systems

The Complex Adaptive System as a specific type of system brings useful concepts of evolution and anticipation which can explain the complexities within the behaviours of actors in the security environment (Holland, 1992). Complex Adaptive Systems evolve and change with experience as they “change and reorganize their component parts to adapt themselves to the problems posed by their surroundings” (Holland, 1992, p.18). This is most clearly seen in the adaptation between belligerents at tactical, operational, strategic and political levels. This evolution makes the behaviour of Complex Adaptive Systems hard to predict (Holland, 1992). In aggregate behaviour, there is the emergence of a phenomenon from the interaction of the parts that is more than simply the summation of the system parts (Holland, 1992). Further, Complex Adaptive Systems anticipate future outcomes and can adapt behaviour in consequence.

As Holland notes,

Because the individual parts of a complex adaptive system are continually revising their (“conditioned”) rules for interaction, each part is embedded in perpetually novel surroundings (the changing behaviour of other systems) (Holland, 1992, p.20)

Thus, complex Adaptive Systems are constantly evolving and adapting to changes in the external environment (Couture, 2007). Unpredictability arises from the fact that there are many potential outcomes based upon their actions. The security environment is rife with examples of surprise; the human brain is a marvel of adaptation, and desperation drives creativity; thus human decision making can never be entirely predicted. This can help describe events within the Syrian conflict, Complex Adaptive Systems operating to achieve objectives through cooperation or competition, continually reacting to each other; tactics and strategies are adapted as conditions change. We can think of IS as a Complex Adaptive Systems evolving as it confronts neighboring states, the multinational coalition, the Kurdish organizations and Syrian rebel groups, which can all be conceived of as Complex Adaptive Systems, respectively. Of course actors act rationally within their worldview perspective in order to maximize success. However, to a person outside of the worldview, the logic of actions may appear counterintuitive. Similarly, the effects of actions can be counterintuitive.

Within the interaction of Complex Adaptive Systems, events can occur at any pace as any system or any of its sub-systems can interact with any other system or sub-system. For example, the Arab Spring movements (2011 - ) occurred rapidly and often mutated from humble beginnings of carrying legitimate grievances against authoritarian regimes to being affected by the objectives of non-state actors pursuing their interests in this moment of opportunity. Events can be seen as volatile as conditions can change quickly; they can cause collective surprise as have the Russian incursions into Ukraine (2014 - ) and into the Syrian conflict (2015 - ).

There is no linear flow of events which helps explain why these events avoid prediction. This means that we need to be anticipating the unexpected, or at least not be surprised should an unforeseen outcome occur. This unpredictability applies to all actors as well as their motivations and behaviours as nothing is ever static or fixed. This also applies to the internal stability of power distribution within a political group or ruling faction, within the psychology of a society or group, a theology, or the tactics of a Complex Adaptive Systems. However, conflicts can also descend into dormancy or a slow pace and appear to stagnate. Münkler’s discussion of pace, as to the motivations of actors to accelerate or decelerate within an asymmetric paradigm is an important possibility to be aware of (Münkler, 2003).

Understanding of Complex Adaptive Systems allows discerning how a seemingly counter-intuitive event occurred as a result of specific interaction of events and actions specific to a given time and place for which there were many possible outcomes that could have arisen due to structural and interactive complexity. It allows us not to be surprised by surprise. In fact, we might change our perspective and expect unpredictable events.

The nature of warfare is also evolving towards more complexity. As Yaneer-Bar Yam states:

“In recent years it has become widely recognized in the military that war is a complex encounter between complex systems in complex environments [7-11]. Complex Systems are formed of multiple interacting elements whose collective actions are difficult to infer from those of the individual parts, predictability is severely limited, and response to external forces does not scale linearly with the applied force” (Bar-Yam, 2003, p.1)

Actors within Wicked Problems can be considered systems, specifically, Complex Adaptive Systems. In terms of actors, Nation states can be understood as Complex Adaptive Systems and remain important within international relations as primary actors and drivers of events. They remain integral to the binding framework of how humans are organized and territory is controlled. Further, they are important in being the whole or partial recipient of human allegiance, meaning the nation can be an important motivational factor for human beings alongside religion, culture, ethnicity and class.

An inward focus to try and understand the component parts of the national system and their inter-relationships internally is very useful. For any nation state, its component systems include material and ideational sub-systems to include the military, political parties, government bodies, the bureaucracy, civil-society groups, religious groups, nationally subsidized firms, private firms, transnational firms based in a national territory which all in turn are composed of sub-systems. Of course, each state needs to be examined uniquely and within a specific context.

However, it would be foolish to not recognize that the international system is no longer overwhelmingly state-centric. Transnational corporations are also Complex Adaptive Systems, composed similarly of their respective sub-systems. They can take any degree of linkage with states from none to complete. Commonly private companies are viewed as rational actors profit maximizing actors, but this is less clear where with the presence of state linkage. Corporate power is important because the vast money will be able to act in conflict in different ways. This money will remain out of citizen driven public policy mechanisms and avoid taxation. By virtue of the fact that many corporations are wealthier than most states, these actors need to be accounted for.

It is possible to visually map out actors and behaviours to demonstrate how complex adaptive systems are intertwined leading to paradoxical results. In the example of the Syrian conflict, allies are at times fighting each other (Carpenter, 2016). Different elements of the United States government are also supporting different groups who have common enemies on the ground but separately fight each other, the Free Syrian Army backed by the CIA and the YPG backed by the Department of Defence (Mrie & Flanagin, 2016).

Humility, flexibility and the necessary mindset

We must approach the complexity of the security environment with intentional cognitive flexibility, refusing to confine thinking to narrow frameworks. Any approach needs to be flexible and non-assumptive, developing a continuously growing and deepening understanding. Objectivity and an ‘apolitical understanding’ of complex situations should be the sought after goal - that is understanding not tied to political projects within a particular worldview, acknowledging that any interpretation inevitably carries a certain degree of bias.

The highest degree of objectivity with regard to our understanding is necessary to make the most informed and appropriate decision. In order to do this, humility is the necessary mindset, acknowledging that there is always more to know, being open to receiving new information, even information that is not welcome. The individual or culture needs to adopt a perspective of never being satisfied with an answer or assumption and to continually expand the breadth of its consideration with more information, testing assumptions and conclusions. Because of evolution within the Complex Adaptive Systems and Wicked Problems, the analysis task is never complete; standing unchallengeable conclusions can never be drawn.

Tsoukas (2005) describes how excess information can cause doubt. This doubt, however, is natural and can be healthy as it stimulates critical thinking and curiosity and the challenging of dogmas. In essence it disallows the survival of faulty assumptions which deepens and enriches understanding. However, it can be slow, exhausting, confusing and socially very demanding. People can be disturbed when confronting deeply held beliefs or feelings. This is where humility again comes in, to overcome ego and the painful experience of being exposed to criticism (Senge, 1990). But, it is essential toward the search for the most objective understanding.

There is also a danger in being anti-consultative or limiting consultation only within a safe space where we know our thinking will not be challenged. Humility allows for an analysis product to be red-teamed, oversights and biases caught and allows for the inclusion of novel information. Having diversity of thought and backgrounds within teams and encouraging a culture of consultation is critical. Additionally, there are individual and organizational psychology factors to be aware of. The tendency for people to be unable to admit when they do not know an answer is problematic. This element, discussed in Peter Senge’s 5th Discipline (1990) remains immensely true today. Individual attitudes and cultures that pursue personal over institutional interest, that protect, cloister and silo rather than innovate, share and think deeply are not sufficient to deal with security environment complexity (Senge, 1990). Senge offered the concept of the “learning organization” as a way for organizations to overcome problems they face (Senge, 1990). Within this concept is the concept of self-reflexivity. Practically, this means that the organization is not simply guided by a de-ontological rule list, but that it is a thinking organization at all levels. Becoming self-reflexive requires humility and the institutional culture must embrace, not shame this.


Design is the outgrowth of new developments in military strategy impacted by BGen. (Ret.) Shimon Naveh’s Systemic Operational Design (SOD) and its subsequent idea transfer to the US in the 2000s (Sorrells et al, 2005). The inclusion of Design theory and methodology into military planning offers tremendous advantages for military realms but can be adopted by anyone thinking about complex problems, whether inside government policy or execution levels, academia or elsewhere. It provides a framework in which to learn deeply about the problem, its social consequences and to conceive of possible action. The logic of Design processes being expansive, holistic, iterative, creative, un-restricted, team oriented and which incessantly seek to improve are processes that can be used to guide and coordinate action. As such, it demands an increased inclusion of theoretical models. It is critical to be expansive and inclusive by exploring a great variety of approaches and that processes of acquiring understanding and designing action be iterative to continually account for new information. The concepts of Wicked Problems, Systems Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems can be applied within Design constructs. Recalling that the nature of Wicked Problems will necessitate collective action, Design processes include as many stakeholders within the social conception of the problem space. It ensures mutual comprehension ensuring representation of all stakeholders’ nuanced agendas, encouraging buy-in and thus the potential for influencing the Wicked Problem positively.

This article has argued that multifaceted crises in the global security environment are complex and difficult to understand. It has suggested that the concepts of Wicked Problems, Systems Thinking and Complex Adaptive Systems are useful cognitive tools upon which to guide our approaches. Applied flexibly, their elements can be seen in current manifestations of complexity within the security environment. It allows new information from diverse sources to be continually integrated into a growing understanding and can be used within Design Processes. In our complex era, decision making as you progress upward within a hierarchy of importance, becomes more complex, accounting for more and more information and involving and affecting more and more stakeholders and more impacts. There is urgency in terms of the global Wicked Problems the world faces and humility in applying new concepts flexibly within collective action constructs.


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