A botanical term indicating subterranean stems such as bulbs, tubers and couchgrass, with a multiple, lateral, and circular system of ramification, different from roots and radicles which tend to grow by means of binary divisions. The term was given a philosophical twist by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who used it to open the second volume of their influential ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ series, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). For Deleuze and Guattari, the rhizome described what they called ‘substantive multiplicities’—that is, multiplicities that are not simply attributes of an assumed unity (such as ‘multiple identities’ for example).
Deleuze and Guattari start by opposing the rhizome to the root-tree, arguing that Western metaphysics has always manifested a basic preference for roots and trees over stems, flows, and rhizomes. The tree presupposes the notion of a single pivotal tap-root or foundation out of which all structures are produced by way of binary division (or what they call the process by which the One becomes Two and Two becomes Four and so on). Two examples of this mode of thinking are Chomsky's generative grammar which, in their opinion, reduces the radical rhizomaticity of patois, slangs, and specialized languages to a normative universal structure censoring all singular variations; and psychoanalysis, which literally roots a rhizomorphous unconscious capable of creative deterritorializations and connections, to the parents’ bed or to the tap-root of the Oedipal triangle. The rhizome, they claim, can help us to formulate some of the principles which describes all multiplicities as such beyond the botanical realm. As such, the rhizome is not a metaphor for something else (such as modes of social organization), but it is a concept which aims to offer a more radical understanding of ontological processes as dynamic and mutating assemblages.
The most popular sociological use of the rhizome has been as a means to describe the socio-technical structure of the Internet—which according to some authors presents several key rhizomatic principles. However, the notion of the rhizome can in principle offer a useful alternative to hermeneutic understandings of social processes (thus sidestepping the need to search for ‘deep meanings’); to approaches that identify and separate distinct levels of natural/social organization (physical, biological, economic, social, technical, cultural, economic, etc.), which a rhizomatic approach would consider as always operating simultaneously as assemblages; or to post-structuralist perspectives that put signifying linguistic models at the heart of all sociological understanding (to which the notion of the rhizome would oppose a-signifying semiotic chains).