Fractals, mushrooms, rhizomes and scaling up

Fiona Hale, March 25 2021

This is a story of some conversations and reflections within the Making Waves collective in 2020. I wrote it in September 2020, but it’s taken me a while to share it. And although I’m writing it, it’s all about how people relate to each other, and none of the ideas are mine.

Some months ago, MariJo introduced me to the concept of fractals in research. All the word ‘fractal’ conjured up to me was the kind of psychedelic image I had often seen on the walls of rooms in student residences. So I looked it up.

Fractals are a mathematical concept: ‘infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales’ ( They are found in nature, and are ‘purely a wonder, iterative and recursive and seemingly infinite. They turn up in food and germs, plants and animals, mountains and water and sky’ (webecoist).

Fractal patterns also turn up elsewhere in our everyday lives – according to Wikipedia, they can be seen in art, games, trade, and architecture, around the world.

What MariJo was interested in was the application of fractals in research. She shared with me a couple of articles (here and here). These articles compare design research with fractals, remarking on the repetitive pattern of primary and secondary research that is seen in some kinds of research projects – especially ones based on Design Thinking.

The author notes:

  • The first two rows are dedicated to problem space, the next two to solution space
  • The first two columns are dedicated to primary research, the next two to secondary
  • First and third row are dedicated to qualitative research, second and fourth to quantitative
  • First and third columns are dedicated to exploratory research, second and fourth to confirmatory

‘A form is called fractal if upon zooming into any section of the form, you see the same form repeating endlessly. And that is exactly what happens to the plotline of your movement across this table. Outcome of your research activity in one box helps you identify a sub-theme and zoom in on it. As soon as you start exploring that sub-theme, the same table of possible research modes emerges for your research within that sub-theme! Dive in further and you find yourself in yet another similar table. Zoom out, and you are back in a similar table. You get the hang. (Gupta, 2020)

MariJo was interested in exploring how to apply this kind of thinking in our work. She was also keen for Making Waves itself to follow a fractal pattern – not to get too big, but to replicate and seed other conversations and support among women.

Around the same time, Alice Welbourn told me about conversations in 4M Mentor Mothers and CUSP (Community for Understanding Scale-Up), that saw women’s organisations ‘mushrooming’, rather than an individual organisation getting bigger.

And then I came across the mushroom idea again, in the book I was reading. In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit includes an image that captured this idea in relation to uprisings and revolutions.

I still wasn’t sure what this meant for me, or us, or how we work together in the Making Waves collective. But I was intrigued, and fractals and mushrooming became part of my daily life – I was seeing repeating patterns and spore-like mycelial spread everywhere. Then Jane mentioned her interest in rhizomes as a way of thinking about connections and knowledge. Ginger and turmeric are examples of rhizomes, new shoots grow out from the root and if you break bits off they will still grow new shoots – it has no beginning or end, it’s always in the middle. As Lucy pointed out, ‘No real beginning or real end – and that sums up the work of advocacy’. Rhizomatic thinking is an established philosophical model, and it feels as though this is also relevant for Making Waves, and somehow fits with the conversations about fractals and mushrooms.

In August 2020, Salamander Trust started a new collaborative research project with ITPC to explore how COVID-19 has affected women living with HIV in East and Southern Africa. The idea was to go back to 10 women who had been involved in a previous, pre-COVID research collaboration with ITPC – some of whom were now part of the Making Waves collective. Martha was interested in carrying out skype interviews with women across East and Southern Africa who had been interviewed in the previous project, along with Emma and myself (we called these the ‘international interviews’). Diana from South Sudan proposed speaking to women there in a focus group discussion. Joyce, Jacquelyne and Martha would also interview women in their countries (which we started calling the ‘local interviews’).

Emma and I drafted a set of interview questions, and Diana, Joyce, Jacquelyne and Martha reviewed them. There was then an international interview with each of them by skype – with Martha interviewing. At Joyce’s request, we developed a template she and the others could use to guide the local interviews and where they could note women’s responses. Emma, Martha and I then carried on the international interviews with other women, while Diana, Joyce, Jacquelyne and Martha conducted local interviews with women in each of their countries.

What really stood out from the reports of these local interviews was how many of the women were from rural or periurban areas, and how many did not have smartphones or online access (unlike the international interviewees). As we collated the local interview reports, I started to wonder if together we had built up a fractal picture, by starting with international interviewees who then became local interviewers, and that this was much richer than the information we would have produced from international interviews only. And, importantly, when we held a collective debrief with Emma, Fiona, Diana, Joyce, Jacquelyne and Martha, there was a general feeling that doing the local interviews had been an opportunity to build/rebuild connections of solidarity and support among the women. In a small way, these interviews were supporting movement-building, at a time when opportunities for people to come together are extremely limited because of COVID-19 restrictions. Diana and Jacquelyne felt that doing the interviews had been good for their own organisations. I wondered, was this also mushrooming in action?

So while I still haven’t really got my head around fractal research, and how it might relate to mushrooming and rhizomes, I am even more intrigued about the possibilities these concepts have for seeing and explaining what women’s organisations do. ‘Scaling up’ has become a global imperative, which often means organisations getting bigger, and doing more work with a wider geographical or thematic scope. But as CUSP has pointed out, there is a real danger that what is most valuable can be lost in scaling up.

Our recent work is really highlighting the importance of staying small and local, and joining the dots globally across local connections. I’ll be continuing to think about fractals, mushrooming and rhizomes, and how this might add something incredibly useful to current discussions about scaling up the HIV response, particularly in the context of COVID-19 and the limitations this has placed on all of us. And I will look forward to more conversations about these ideas with MariJo, Alice and the Making Waves collective.

Read the report #Confined by Covid.

More about the ITPC, Salamander Trust and Making Waves collaboration is here.

Fractal image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay

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