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Roger Clarke's 'Elements of Hybridity Theory'

Hybridity - Elements of a Theory

Roger Clarke **

Version of 10 May 2005

Prepared as Background Information for an Invited Presentation to the Ars Electronica 2005 Symposium on Hybrid - Living in Paradox, Linz, Austria, 2-3 September 2005

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The Symposium's theme of 'Hybridity' is concerned with mergers, fusions and crossovers, of our physical selves, between our selves and artefacts, but also among our organisations and artefacts, and at the more abstract level of cultures.

My own background and interests are a combination of business disciplines and professions, information technologies, and the strategic and policy implications of information technologies. I needed to stand back from the theme, and ask myself what it was that I was contributing to. This document represents the notes arising from my reflection and research.


As a literalist, I have to begin with the name that the rose has been given. Dictionaries give the origins of the word as the Latin 'hibrida', which is variously depicted as 'mongrel', and more specifically as 'the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar'. An extended dictionary-style essay on the concept is in the Wikipedia entry.

Biological Application

There are two biological applications of the term, which need to be distinguished. The first is a a cross between populations or cultivars of a single species. In many cases, this is indistinguishable from natural processes. Many of the applications of the notion of 'race within species' have pejorative overtones, such as 'crossbreeds', 'half-breeds', 'mongrel' (particularly in relation to dogs), and 'mulatto' (for negroid with white/Caucasoid' crosses, derived, misleadingly, from the Spanish for mule).

The second biological category is the offspring of two different species, or of two different genera. Examples include loganberry (raspberry x blackberry), London Plane (Oriental Plane x American Sycamore), mule (male donkey x female horse) and liger and tygon (lion x tigers, and tiger x lion). Cross-species hybridisation seems likely to be of greater significance to this discussion than within-species/inter-racial breeding.

Cross-species hybridisation does appear to occur naturally, but very rarely. Most instances result from direct interventions by mankind (e.g. breeding of domesticated and stock-animal), or arise indirectly from interventions by mankind, such as the mating of animals in zoos, whose natural territories do not normally overlap (e.g. lion-tiger crosses).

A chimera can be regarded as a special case of hybridity, in that it has (at least) two different populations of cells, which are genetically distinct. See Ainsworth C. ('The Stranger within' New Scientist, 15 November 2003). A chimera would appear to be potentially unstable. Whether it has correlates beyond the biological realm is open to question.

Broader Applications

The term 'hybrid' has been generalised to refer to any recognisable entity that is made up of elements drawn from multiple sources. A hybrid is of particular interest where its elements are derived from heterogeneous sources, or it is composed of elements of a different or seemingly incongruous kind. The instrumentalist is naturally interested in combinations that are efficacious in some way, whereas the voyeur is interested in the spectacular, irrespective of their whether the combination is functional or viable.

There are active areas of hybridisation in the arts, particularly the media-intensive arts. The concept is also much-used in all forms of art criticism and media studies.

There are yet broader applications, of an intellectual nature. For example, a meme, and especially a memeplex, may be a compound, drawing on multiple sources, and evolving through a process somewhat analogous to natural selection in biological evolutionary theory.

Hybridity in the Humanities and Social Sciences

The concept has been used in a number of schools of thought. In Postcolonial Studies, for example, hybridity has been defined as "the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonisation". It takes many forms including cultural, political and linguistic. Pidgin and Creole are linguistic examples.

A perspective from the discipline of English sees it as "the integration (or, mingling) of cultural signs and practices from the colonizing and the colonized cultures". This approach applies to a newcomer in a strange land, particularly a newcomer with some form of power or dominance over the local culture. Migration differs from colonisation in that the newcomer has less power. In both cases, over time, assimilation occurs, and both the newcomer and the host adapt, resulting in one or more hybrid cultural forms; and in both cases cultural and perhaps authority relationships remain with the newcomer's origins, and perhaps with other outposts, resulting in diaspora, and hence additional sources of cross-and retro-fertilisation (e.g. Kalra V., Kahlon R.K. & Hutnyk J. (2005) 'Diaspora and Hybridity' Sage, September 2005).

In Sociology and Anthropology more generally, hybridity refers to the creation of dynamic mixed cultures. The specialist term 'syncretism' is used for attempts at reconcilion of disparate, even opposing, beliefs and schools of thought.

In Post-Modernist Political Studies, hybridity represents a counter-concept to that of 'stable national identity', "rearticulating and inventing narratives of origin, place, displacement, arrival, culture, transit, and identity". Much of this appears to be associated with Bhabha H. K. 1994. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, which offers a poststructurally vague definition of the term.

Yao S. (in 'Taxonomizing hybridity ' Textual Practice 17, 2, (July 2003) 357-378) offers a taxonomy of hybridization strategies, which "builds upon the inescapably biologistic conceptual foundations of the term 'hybridity' and includes the following categories or modes". These are capable of application in other contexts. The list below is drawn from Yao, but varies the descriptions, and re-sequences the categories so that they commence with that showing the least adaptation, and culminate in the most substantial:

Qualifying Characteristics

There are many variants possible in the processes of hybridisation. This section identifies the characteristics that are definitional, and without which it is inappropriate to talk of hybridisation having occurred. The key characteristic are as follows:

  1. A New Instance. An entity must be recognised, which has existence distinct from its progenitors. Mere inter-connections between people, artefacts and organisations do not represent hybridisation, unless the association between them is such that a new entity comes into being.
  2. Dual (or Multiple) Inheritance. The new entity must exhibit elements from two or more progenitors.
  3. Significant Difference. There must be significant difference between the new entity and its progenitors. The addition of minor features, or the refinement of existing features, does not justify the declaration of a new entity-type (i.e. that's specious rather than a species). For example, there are many contexts in which humans have had artefacts fused with them, without giving rise to the significant change necessary to justify use of the term 'hybridisation'. Orthoses like walking sticks are mere adjuncts to human activity; and prostheses replace body-parts in order to recover lost function. Neither reaches close to creating a hybrid, because the differences between the augmented human and the original human are too limited.
  4. Integration. The entity needs to be more than merely 'eclectic', i.e. it cannot be just a set of elements without inter-relationships. There must be an integration or fusion of some features of one entity with some from at least one other entity, to produce a new entity.

Optional Characteristics

In addition to the definitional aspects of hyribidity, there is a range of characteristics that are at least of interest and potentially of importance. They include the following:

  1. Functionality. The hybrid may or may not have advantageous traits, creating new potentials both individually and socially.
  2. Dysfunctionality. Alternatively, key traits may be missing, or harmful traits may be present.
  3. Flexibility. The new entity may or may not have sufficient flexibility to cope with differences in circumstances.
  4. Adaptability. The new entity may or may not have the capacity to change its elements or behaviour over time, as its environment changes. Any such feature may or may not represent 'learning'.
  5. Viability and Survival of the New Entity. For hybridisation to have taken place, it is implicit that the new entity must come into existence and remain in existence, despite threats present in its environment, for long enough to be recognised. How long it survives is not, however, a factor critical to the question as to whether or not it is a hybrid.
  6. Survival of the Progenitor Entities. Hybridisation does not necessarily imply that the original entities are subsumed, or otherwise cease to exist, e.g. through cannibalisation. The qualifying condition is that a new form arises. The old forms may either be destroyed and cease to exist, or they may continue their independent existences.
  7. Replicability. Whether an entity is or is not a hybrid is independent of the question as to whether or not it is feasible for other entities similar or identical to it to be created.
  8. Procreation. By procreation is meant here the capacity of the entity, alone, or in conjunction with other entities, to self-replicate, i.e. create another entity with the same elements. Hybridisation does not necessarily imply that the new entity has the ability to procreate. Even if there could only ever be one instance of a particular entity-type, it would be reasonably called a hybrid if it satisfied the qualifying conditions expressed in the previous section.
  9. Category of Instances. It is immaterial whether or not the instance is a singular, or is one of a class, category or species.
  10. Entity Dominance. It is not material to the question of hybridity as to whether the instance gains its elements from its progenitors equally or unequally, nor from which progenitor which features are acquired. Despite the gender aspect of the biological origin of 'wild male over domesticated female', there is no necessary dominance relationship between the prior entities.
  11. Purposiveness. It is irrelevant to the question of hybridity as to whether the mix of features results from happenstance, accident, largely blind experimentation, or the purposive behaviour of an instrumentalist (in biological terms, a breeder or eugenicist; or in the context of artefacts an architect, engineer or industrial designer).

Replication of Instances, and Emergence of Category

It was suggested above that a hybrid is a hybrid whether or not there is only ever one such. Nonetheless, there will tend to be a great deal of interest in hybridity that gives rise to multiple instances. This represents, in the abstract, a category, and in biological terms a race or species.

There are several ways in which multiple instances of an entity-type might come into existence. They include the following:

If the entity can procreate, then the offspring of two different instances within the same category might be capable of reproduction or might be sterile (e.g. in biological reproduction, due to chromosome mis-match). Even if reproduction is possible, it might be that the progeny would revert to the form of one of the source-entities, rather than sustaining the form of the new instance. In addition, hybrids may lend themselves to hybridisation with other entities, to produce yet further categories or races.

Some Domains of Potential Application

My interests are instrumentalist, rather than artistic, or merely intellectual. Within my frame of reference, there are many contexts within which the concept and basic principles of hybridity might be fruitfully applied:

A particular application of the notion is the hybridisation of government agencies with corporations, through such mechanisms as outsourcing, public-private partnerships, and corporation-dominated nation-states (in such contexts as mining, logging, and island tourism). In some cases the connections are mediated by artefacts, particularly information technologies.

Paper on Human-Artefact Hybridisation

On the basis of these Notes, a full paper was developed entitled 'Human-Artefact Hybridisation: Forms and Consequences'. It is accessible at

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, Visiting Professor in the Baker & McKenzie Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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