Friday, December 16, 2016

Reading :: Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs

Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change
By Wiebe Bijker

I've seen Bijker's work cited frequently in the science, technology, and society (STS) literature, so when I saw this 1995 book at the used bookstore, I scooped it up. Bijker uses three case studies—the development of the bicycle, the invention of Bakelite, and the marketing of fluorescent lights—to develop his theory of sociotechnical change. This theory draws heavily from others in STS, including Latour, Woolgar, Callon, Star, and Bowker.

Unfortunately, the book itself did not leave much of an impression on me. Bijker does an able job of developing the three cases, but the theory he develops does not seem markedly different from other readings in STS—it seems more like a summation of STS theory. Perhaps I missed a crucial theoretical distinction that others didn't? Or perhaps the book seems middle-of-the-road now only because it influenced STS so strongly? But looking at STS books from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, I don't think that's the case.

In any case, the book is a relatively quick read and I learned a lot of things about the three cases themselves. If you are interested in one of these three things, or in a mid-1990s look at STS theory, pick it up.

Reading :: The Qualitative Manifesto

The Qualitative Manifesto: A Call to Arms
By Norman K. Denzin

I typically don't like manifestos. They tend to present highly contentious claims as, well, manifest. They signal an end to discussion and a call to action: it's time to stop debating and start acting (on my direction, the author implies). Denzin's manifesto is certainly that:
This book is an invitation and a call to arms. It is directed to all scholars who believe in the connection between critical inquiry and social justice. Our tent is large. There is room for everyone. Yet our international community of qualitative researchers is under attack from many different sides... (p.10).
As with most manifestos, the question is portrayed as a conflict and the addressees are cast as potentially powerful actors:
Postmodern democracy cannot succeed unless critical qualitative scholars are able to transcend the limitations and constraints of a lingering, politically conservative postpositivism. (p.14)
Denzin opposes the distinction between fiction and nonfiction texts (p.30), seeing truth in both. His latter chapters present his arguments, not in essay form, but in the form of one-act plays—dialogues between two speakers. (These speakers tend to affirm each other.) It's an unsettling device, at least for me—I prefer more disagreement and more wrestling with conflicts and tradeoffs. But then again, I don't like manifestos.

Most disturbing for me is Denzin's extended discussion of how to circumvent IRB regulations (Ch.5). He argues, sensibly, that the existing regulatory apparatus is flawed (p.73) and that they protect institutions rather than persons (p.74). So he exploited a hole in the system by characterizing his research as oral history, which is exempt (p.75). Unfortunately for him, oral histories were later excluded from exemption (p.77). "Townsend and Jones feel that the only solution is the one offered by the AAUP—full exemption, no provisos, no requirement of IRB approval of exemption! Clearly scholarly societies in the United States must organize around the AAUP recommendations" (p.78). This absolutist solution seems like a recipe for participant harm in the absence of some other well-promulgated and policed set of standards.

Overall, I thought this manifesto made for interesting reading. But the solutions seem too broad-brush for me to get behind it. If you're interested in manifestos, qualitative research, or the IRB, though, certainly pick this book up.

Reading :: Mass Authorship

Mass Authorship and the Rise of Self-Publishing
By Timothy Laquintano

Disclaimer: Laquintano courteously sent me a copy of this book earlier this fall. I'm glad he did. The phenomenon of self-publishing is really interesting to me (and not just for academic reasons), and it's been begging for a systematic study. Laquintano provides that study—actually qualitative "studies of four groups of writers" based in grounded theory (p.191). (His appendix on methods provides great detail on how he conducted the study, which included interviews as well as an internet-based corpus.)

Taking an activity-based approach, Laquintano examines how people are self-publishing, especially on sites such as WattPad and platforms such as Amazon's Kindle. Along the way, he thoroughly examines questions such as what it means to be an author, why people self-publish, how people market and promote their own books, how they police (or fail to police) their intellectual property, and the shifting meaning of authorship.

Most interesting to me were two propositions. One is that "self-publishing is entailed in shifting systems of mediation" rather than disintermediation (p.9). The other is that "networked participants (as opposed to 'readers') [have] the capacity to publish and induce networked  effects that shape the trajectories and circulation patterns of both traditionally published and self-published books and create mediated book cultures" (p.9).

Laquintano examines these propositions, and others, in detail. The result is a nuanced examination of the shifting ground of publishing. If you're interested in publishing, self-publishing, and the future of publishing, take a look.

Reading :: The Cherokee Kid

The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon
By Amy Ware

Just a quick review. I didn't know much about Will Rogers before reading this book, but Amy Ware's lucid prose and careful discussion taught me a lot. Specifically, Ware discusses how Rogers not only embraced his tribal identity as a Cherokee, he emphasized it in his films, appearances, and radio shows. His outreach meant that broad audiences thought about Cherokee differently—specifically, as a contemporary people, not just a historical one.

Ware organizes the book chronologically, essentially as a biography, so we can see how Rogers' self-presentation and rhetoric develop over the course of his life. She contextualizes this discussion well, allowing us to understand the biography in the context of historical and cultural changes. And the discussion is engaging; I didn't get bored, even though this subject matter is far afield from the subjects I usually read about.

If you're interested in Will Rogers, tribal identity, or the turn-of-the-century US, definitely pick it up!

Reading :: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow
By Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for some of his foundational work in how people make decisions. In this book, he overviews his research on the psychological aspects of decision-making, laying the principles out clearly enough that a casual reader can understand how they work. (Kahneman's work is referenced heavily in Michael Lewis' new book The Undoing Project).

To help us understand decision-making, Kahneman distinguishes "fast" and "slow" thinking by describing "System 1" and "System 2" (not actually distinct systems, but analytic categories). "System 1" is fast, intuitive, and automatic, while "System 2" is slow, deliberate, and controlled (p.13). "System 2" is a "lazy controller" (Ch.3), so most of the time we make decisions based on "System 1." And it turns out that "System 1" is not very good at math (which makes sense, since we as a species have not had math for very long). It instead relies on heuristic decision-making, which tends toward systematic biases, and is vulnerable to priming, in which framing a problem a specific way leads to bias toward a specific decision.

He illustrates these points with several studies, typically experimental studies in which he and his collaborators ask people to solve problems like this one:
A bat and ball cost $1.10. 
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost? (p.44)
(The answer is not "ten cents.")

Kahneman contends that the result is that we often think we are making reasoned decisions when the results are actually suboptimal. For instance, stockbrokers tend to overestimate their performances, which according to Kahenman are no better than random.

It's a good book, and Kahneman explains the different concepts well. But I can pinpoint the page where I realized that I just didn't like him.

It's p.244, at the end of Ch.22, in which he discusses his collaboration with Gary Klein. Klein studies how experts such as firefighters make intuitive decisions, and people in his school "adamantly reject the focus on biases in the heuristics and biases approach. They criticize this model as overly concerned with failures and driven by artificial experiments rather than the study of real people doing things that matter" (p.235). Kahneman (decently) reached out to Klein to "join in an effort to map the boundary that separates the marvels of intuition from its flaws" (p.235). The two disentangled one important point of disagreement:
we had different experts in mind. Klein had spent much time with fireground commanders, clinical nurses, and other professionals who have real expertise. I had spent more time thinking about clinicians, stock pickers, and political scientists trying to make unsupportable long-term forecasts. Nor surprisingly, his default attitude was trust and respect; mine was skepticism. He was more willing to trust experts who claim an intuition because, as he told me, true experts know the limits of their knowledge. I argued that there are many pseudo-experts who have no idea that they do not know what they are doing (the illusion of validity), and that as a general proposition subjective confidence is commonly too high and often uninformative. (p.239, my emphasis)
The two conclude that, to develop true intuitive expertise rather than the illusion of validity, experts need:

  • "an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable"
  • "an opportunity to learn those regularities through prolonged practice" (p.240)
Rapid feedback allows people the ability to develop intuitive skills—short-term feedback such as the kind that anesthesiologists get in the emergency room, as opposed to the slower, long-term feedback that is received by psychotherapists or financial experts (p.240). Kahneman and Klein thus concluded that some experts really could develop intuition, and they delimited the conditions under which this could happen.

Kahneman concludes by reaffirming something he mentioned in passing on p.239:
we also found that our early differences were more than an intellectual disagreement. We had different attitudes, emotions, and tastes, and those changed remarkably little over the years. This is most obvious in the facts that we find amusing and interesting. Klein still winces when the word bias is mentioned, and he still enjoys stories in which algorithms or formal procedures lead to obviously absurd decisions. I tend to view the occasional failures of algorithms as opportunities to improve them. On the other hand, I find more pleasure than Klein does in the comeuppance of arrogant experts who claim intuitive powers in zero-validity situations. (p.244)
Put me firmly in the Klein camp—if the occasional failures of algorithms are opportunities to improve them, why not see the failures of experts as an opportunity to improve them? But Kahneman seems much more interested in shaming experts. Earlier in the book, he recounts telling investment advisors that, based on his analysis, the correlation between their picks and outcomes was zero:
When we were done, one of the executives I had dined with the previous evening drove me to the airport. He told me, with a trace of defensiveness, "I have done very well for the firm and no one can take that away from me." I smiled and said nothing. But I thought, "Well, I took it away from you this morning. If your success was due mostly to chance, how much credit are you entitled to take for it?" (p.216)
Telling a man that his life is a lie and his expertise is meaningless? NBD, just a bit of fun. 

This incident gives a new perspective on a distinction that Kahneman discusses in Ch.25. He notes that economists and psychologists "seemed to be studying different species," denoted "Econs" and "Humans." Economists characterize Econs as rational and selfish; psychologists characterize Humans as neither fully rational nor fully selfish (p.269). Kahneman makes the case for Humans throughout the rest of the book. But I think he would have profited by talking to people in other disciplines—such as sociology or anthropology—who could shed light on other aspects of human behavior. For instance, in Ch.32, he discusses how framing risk leads to irrational decisions. One example is a survey of parents:
The respondents were told to imagine that they used an insecticide where the risk of inhalation and child poisoning was 15 per 10,000 bottles. A less expensive insecticide was available, for which the risk rose from 15 to 16 per 10,000 bottles. The parents were asked for the discount that would induce them to switch to the less expensive (and less safe) product. More than two thirds of the parents in the survey responded that they would not purchase the new product at any price! ...
 Anyone can understand and sympathize with the reluctance of parents to trade even a minute increase of risk to their child for money. It is worth noting, however, that this attitude is incoherent and potentially damaging to the safety of those we wish to protect. ... The taboo tradeoff against accepting any increase in risk is not an efficient way to use the safety budget. In fact, the resistance may be motivated by a selfish fear of regret more than a wish to optimize the child's safety. (pp.350-351)
A sociologist or anthropologist might counter that (a) people say things in surveys that they don't actually do, so it's unclear whether people actually make decisions this way—why not look at actual market data to increase ecological validity? and (b) self-image and social standing are also goods. People find some risks more socially acceptable than others, and the social aspects can outweigh others. To pick one example, many would agree with Emiliano Zapata that "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees"—a claim that seems to have no place in Kahneman's discussion of rational risk.

I'll end this review with one more anecdote. Kahneman recounts "a family debate about moving from California to Princeton, in which my wife claimed that people are happier in California than on the East Coast. I argued that climate is demonstrably not an important determinant of well-being ... and tried in vain to convince my wife that her intuitions about the happiness of Californians were an error of affective forecasting" (pp.402-403). So he decided to test the proposition by studying the question of whether Californians were actually happier—part of a funded study of global warming effects. "As we analyzed the data, it became obvious that I had won the family argument" (p.403). This validated his decision to accept the position at Princeton.

Wikipedia's page on Kahneman tells us: "Kahneman is married to the award-winning cognitive psychologist Anne Treisman. They live part-time in Berkeley, California."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Workshop :: Pitching: Strategies for Structuring, Engaging, and Winning Over Audiences

Pitching: Strategies for Structuring, Engaging, and Winning Over Audiences
Monday Oct 3
1:30 – 2:45 pm
AT&T Center, Amphitheater 204

For an entrepreneur, there’s no better feeling than when a pitch soars—and no worse feeling than when it crashes and burns. How do you make sure it soars? What are common pitch pitfalls, and how do you avoid them?

In this workshop, we’re bringing together pitch experts with decades of experience to provide their wisdom and advice. You’ll try your hand at identifying a value proposition, get feedback from experts, and learn strategies for making your pitch soar.

Pitch experts include:

The workshop will be moderated by

Registration is $245. Buy a Monday day pass for the Procomm Conference online or on-site.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reading :: An Interdisciplinary Theory of Activity

An Interdisciplinary Theory of Activity
By Andy Blunden

Andy Blunden has been involved in activity theory circles for a long time. He has been a frequent contributor on xmca and has transcribed innumerable important works on (such as Vygotsky's Thinking and Speaking) as well as posting his own work.

This deep familiarity has given Blunden a familiarity of activity theory that is hard to match. But that means that he sees its drawbacks as well as its advantages. In this book, he traces its development, then critiques it, then proposes some changes to activity theory to make it truly interdisciplinary. This proposal is intriguing, and to my mind persuasive—in part.

Blunden lays out the book and its proposal in the introduction. "This work is a friendly critique of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)," he says in the first sentence (p.3). CHAT should be interdisciplinary: "It was the difficult conditions in the Stalinist USSR which restricted the scope of CHAT to psychology, and it is the aim of this work to resolve those features of CHAT which have prevented it from fulfilling its potential as an interdisciplinary approach to the human sciences in general" (p.3). To resolve those features, Blunden attempts an "immanent critique" (p.4), one that is conducted solely through the voice of the subject matter—that is, one that offers a critique solely on the terms of the subject matter being critiqued. Based on this critique, Blunden promises, he will offer a proposal for iterating CHAT. The proposal offers these changes:

First, replace the ambiguous term activity with the concept of project:
something projected ... by the subject, rather than an object to which the subject is drawn; the subject may be an individual or many people who are united precisely in that they are pursuing the same project. A project is an on-going collection of actions and is both the aim of the actions and the process of attaining that object. A project is a concept, but every individual has a different concept of the project, these constituting the various shades of meaning and connotations to be found in representations of the project. (p.9)
Second, add the concept of collaboration:
The notion of collaboration is to give definite conceptual form to the notion of 'joint' when CHAT theorists talk about 'joint activity'. Collaboration is always and essentially working together in a common project. (pp.9-10)
Collaboration includes two limiting cases: management and cooperation (p.10).

Together, project and collaboration (which are "mutually constitutive") form "project collaboration as a new unit of analysis for activity. ... Nothing is changed here; only the conception of the whole, that is, the context of action" (p.10).

So this is Blunden's proposal for CHAT: replace the unit of analysis (activity) with a similar one, one that is grounded in the coincidental but not identical concepts of an ongoing shared project undertaken by different participants. It's a relatively modest proposal, but one that redirects CHAT from a Stalinist concept of a shared objective world to a more intersubjectivist stance.

As Blunden reminds us in Chapter 2, CHAT's gestation during the Stalinist period led it to suppress its "revolutionary Marxist character" (it was too revolutionary for the Stalinist milieu):
After 30 years in hiding, it escaped only to take root in the bastion of capitalism and anti-communism, where in order to survive it had to keep its Marxism under wraps. But in a double irony, the crisis which befell Marxism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union left CHAT largely unscathed, because of the non-political shape it had adopted for the purposes of survival in the past. (p.21)
To get us to his proposal, Blunden must review this history. He reviews the intellectual foundations of CHAT in Goethe (Ch.3), Hegel (Ch.4-9), and Marx (Ch.10-12), then turns to the contributions of Vygotsky (Ch.14-18). From there, he reviews the development of activity theory in the USSR (Ch.19-24) and the development in the West under Engestrom and Cole (Ch.25-26). That's a lot to cover—it's a long book, and the above is just the history review, not the later part of the book where Blunden makes his proposal—so I'll just hit the highlights here.

In Ch.7, Blunden reviews the Hegelian contrast between the abstract and the concrete. "By 'abstract' Hegel means undeveloped, lacking in connections with other things, thin in content, formal; as opposed to 'concrete', which means mature, developed, having many nuances and connections with other concepts, rich in content. He does not use the words abstract and concrete to indicate anything like the difference between mental and material" (p.62). (This passage helped me to better understand the notion of ascending from the abstract to the concrete.)

In Ch.11, Blunden notes that Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach" was "surely the founding document of Activity Theory, even though it remained unknown until after the author's death" (p.94). Later in the chapter, Blunden notes that according to Marx, "Social activity is possible only thanks to the use of artifacts of some kind (including words and images, but also land, etc.) with which people identify themselves and each other. Symbols and icons are invariably used in this way to constitute social groups; there is no 'natural' form of political association. All these symbols are meaningful because of their connection with certain concrete concepts, associated with certain modes of life. Just as Feuerbach demonstrated in relation to Christian imagery, all social formations represent themselves symbolically" (p.101).

In Ch.12, Blunden gets to Marx's critique of political economy. Marx notes that, in Blunden's words, "Abstraction is not just a process of thought reflecting upon activity, but a product of activity itself" (p.107). As Blunden says, this insight went relatively unnoticed until Ilyenkov picked it up and developed it within CHAT. Another, more well known insight supplied in Marx's Capital was that "All interactions between people are mediated by artifacts" (p.111, Blunden's italics). So those artifacts become vested with meaning and value. And value is not subjective, it is "embedded in real social relations sustained by the market. Value adheres to products, while at the same time, value expresses nothing more than the relation between the consumer and producer of the commodity" (p.112).

In Ch.13, Blunden asserts that "Marx was able to appropriate Hegel's Spirit through the notion of activity" (p.113). He also notes that Marx, like Goethe, developed tools to support holistic analysis. Goethe uses the figure in which "'the light of the Sun is reflected in every droplet of water'" (qtd. in Blunden p.115), a figure that Vygotsky later used when arguing that word meaning should be the unit of analysis.

Vygotsky, at long last, is discussed in Ch.14, which focuses on his critique of behavioralism. As Blunden notes, Vygotsky's 1924 speech to the Congress of Psychoneurology—the speech that brought him to Luria's attention, resulting in his job in Moscow—was an immanent critique of reflexology: "Without disturbing the universal claim that 'everything is a reflex', Vygotsky had turned the concepts and methods of reflexology against themselves and proved that reflexology, that is to say, the study of the physiology of the nervous system, must merge itself with the methods and concepts of subjective psychology, its opposite" (p.122). Moreover, he demonstrated that the characteristics of behaviorism are incompatible with emancipatory human science, which was Marx's aim (p.127). Vygotsky pointed to alternatives to physiological behaviorism, including social behaviorism in the works of William James (p.128).

In Ch.15, Blunden elaborates on the "romantic science" of Vygotsky and Luria, which heavily involved collaboration "at three levels: amongst the research team, between researcher and experimental subject, and in relation to other researchers in the field. As we shall see, collaboration was not only central to their way of working, but also to the content of the theory of psychology that they developed" (pp.137-138). (I am skeptical of this point, given the fact that Luria repeatedly used subjects who were unable to decline their participation, who participated under what could be construed as implicit cultural threat, or who were too young to give informed consent. Similarly, Vygotsky primarily wrote about children in classrooms, who by definition had unequal power relations with teachers and researchers.)

In Ch.16, we read about Vygotsky's thoughts about units. This was one of the most rewarding parts of the book for me: Blunden carefully discusses what Vygotsky meant when he proposed word meaning as a unit of analysis. First, Blunden separates "unit of analysis" from "microcosm."

  • Microcosm. Vygotsky says that word meaning is a "microcosm of human consciousness," that is, a phenomenon that if studied to the end (just as Pavlov did for the salivary reflex) can "unlock the entire domain of human consciousness for analysis" (pp.144-145).
  • Unit of analysis. Vygotsky says that word meaning is also a "unit of verbal thinking"—not a unit of analysis for consciousness in general (p.145). Blunden quotes Vygotsky: "Word meaning is nothing other than a generalization, that is, a concept" (quoted on p.145; Vygotsky's italics). Blunden notes that here Vygotsky is in agreement with Hegel (p.145). Vygotsky's "claim is that verbal thinking, the highest development of human consciousness cannot be understood through phonetics and semantics, the 'elements' of verbal thinking" (p.146), but instead is "a unique conjunction of two distinct psychological functions" (p.146; cf. my review of Thought and Language 2ed). 
Chapter 17 discusses Vygotsky's views on Gestalt. In 1933, Hitler enjoyed his victory in Germany and crushed the German Communist Party; also crushed was the early optimism of Soviet foreign policy, and political repression in the USSR rose (p.149). Blunden characterizes this time in Vygotsky's life as a race against time, as "by the early '30s, the dark clouds of Stalinist repression threatened to make scientific work impossible" (p.149). Nevertheless, Vygotsky accomplished a lot. In particular, Blunden says, Vygotsky identified a "'unit of analysis' for behavior, in general—an 'instrumental act'" (p.151). This unit of analysis is, of course, represented in the stimulus-response relationship with a mediator that can optionally come between the two: the first triangle (which you can see here, in Slide 12). The mediator in this triangle can be a physical or psychological tool, but in any case, it will be a cultural tool. And one of the most basic and protean tools we have is "Speech—the use of a word-tool," which "mediates between the child's existing practical intelligence and the object, and in the process her own practical intelligence is being restructured" (p.153). 

Why does the child want to develop? Blunden says that in an unpublished book on which Vygotsky was working at the time of his death, he argued for the key concept of "the social situation of development": 
At any given moment, the social situation in which the child finds themself [sic] constitutes a predicament, a predicament from which the child can only emancipate themself by making a development, that is to say, by a qualitative transformation of their own psychological structure and the structure of their relationship with those who are providing for their needs, a transformation that frees them from the constraints in which they were trapped. ... (p.154)
This is the basic concept of the social situation of development: a predicament from which the child emancipates itself by making a development. Note that this concept is radically different from the conception of social advantage/disadvantage used in positivist social science, made up of a list of factors to be added up for and against development. Rather than a list of attributes, Vygotsky gives us the concept of the social situation. (pp.154-155)
In Ch.18, "The Significance of Vygotsky's Legacy," Blunden argues that "Vygotsky's greatest methodological virtue was that he always posed very specific problems entailing quite specific functions of individual human beings; he never operated with abstract generalizations. His is a cultural psychology, but he used no abstractions to represent culture; we hear nothing of 'social norms', 'social class', or 'the dominant ideology'; he just deals with two people using an artifact together" (p.164). This parsimony intrigues Blunden—and me as well. But it has drawbacks: "Without further qualification, the picture of society that Vygotsky leaves us with is that of a mass of dyads or small family groups, using a common resource of artifacts, but we have no way of conceptualizing how those dyads and groups interact with one another to form a social formation. Nor actually do we have any idea of the source of motivation for the actions individuals carry out, and this is the most serious problem" (p.164). With this insight, Blunden takes us to the discussion of activity theory.

In Ch.19, he begins the section on activity theory by arguing along with Davydov that activity should be an interdisciplinary area of study, not confined to psychology (by historical accident) (p.171). Beginning with AN Leontyev, Blunden discusses the basics of activity theory, including a discussion of Leontyev's take on Engels' origin story (p.175). After some discussion, Blunden concludes, "Human life is thus conceived as a system of needs and the means of their satisfaction. But it is striking that in this view, the human being is seen in continuity with the natural world, as just another organism pursuing the objects of its needs" (p.176).

Skipping to Ch.21: Here, Blunden discusses criticisms of Vygotsky's concept of activity. Summarizing the earlier discussion, Blunden says that a unit of analysis

  • is a conception of a singular, individual thing
  • exhibits properties of a class of more developed phenomena
  • is itself an existent phenomenon (p.190). 
Vygotsky's unit of analysis for consciousness is "word meaning," but Blunden argues that this is a "concept-in-action" (p.194) and a "special case of joint artifact-mediated action" (p.195, his italics). Blunden notes that Engestrom splits tools and signs (p.196) and argues that this split is not actually true to Vygotsky's psychology. He also notes that Engestrom, following Leontyev, criticizes Vygotsky for seeing actions as "inherently individual" (p.197); Blunden thinks that this critique misses Vygotsky's actual intent (although I note that Vygotsky's actual methodology focused on individual behavior). Blunden goes on to note that Leontyev criticizes Vygotsky for failing to see the difference between action (with its social goals) and activity (with its social motivation) (p.198). 

Toward the end of this chapter, Blunden notes the work of Bakhtin, "a contemporary of Vygotsky's with whom we see a number of similarities, although Bakhtin was no Marxist" (p.202). Blunden notes that Bakhtin's unit of analysis was the utterance, "a more pragmatic unit than Vygotsky's" (p.202). 

In Ch.22, Blunden discusses Leontyev's anatomy of activity. I won't belabor the details (you can find my reviews of Leontyev's/Leontiev's/Leont'ev's works on this blog), but I'll note some interesting points. First, Blunden notes that for Wertsch and Davydov, there are types of activity (e.g., play, instruction, labor); this moves the notion of activity closer to Goffman's frames or Bakhtin's genre (p.208). Second, Blunden strongly argues that Leontyev's functional view of society is the view of a "bureaucrat or administrator" (p.209); in this view, "what constitutes 'an activity' can only be determined from the standpoint of those who manage society" (p.210). Such a view, he says, is inconsistent with an emancipatory science (p.210). 

Blunden goes on to critique Leontyev's unit of analysis as undefined: it has not been developed from the concept of a unit (pp.211-212). According to Blunden, Vygotsky's unit of analysis "fails to capture the narrative context of an action," and activity theory attempted to resolve that failing—but "no-one can provide a viable suggestion for a unit of analysis for activity, i.e., what constitutes an activity" (p.213). Furthermore, Blunden levels two other critiques. First, "a science cannot be based on origins stories [sic]" (p.214). Second, activity theory lacks a theory of identity (p.214). 

Ch.23 discusses activity theory in relation to Marx's political economy. Blunden says that AT's strength is the notion that the structure of activity is essentially identical to the structure of the psyche (p.217). But the specific avenue for this insight—Leontyev's appropriation of Engels' origin story—Blunden derides as "a fairy tale about cultural evolution from animal life through primitive communism and capitalism to socialism" (p.217). He continues:
The core idea here makes abundant sense, but its use without a realistic sense of social life in any epoch undermines its value. All that is required here is to detach this key idea from the Stalinist fairy tale. (p.218)
(From a rhetorical perspective, I would argue that the fairy tale was what allowed AT to survive. Now its further survival hinges on how easily that fairy tale can be detached. And in another milieu, what other baggage will AT have to take on or shed? But that's a Latourean analysis, not an AT one.)

Blunden further argues that Leontyev's notion of the object is either tautological—"the object of activity is the outcome toward which it tends"—or "devoid of meaning," just a reification of the activity itself (p.219). Blunden wraps up by noting that "what is needed is a psychology which recognizes the diversity of real relations to be found in bourgeois society here and now"; "So as a theory of psychology Leontyev's activity theory still works, just so long as the content of 'activity' is not taken too seriously. But in that case, what does activity theory add to Vygotsky's original formulation?" (p.221).

Chapter 22 tackles the question of groups. Blunden argues that identity is central to the formation of social subjects, yet the problem of identity seems to have escaped Leontyev's attention; it is presumed rather than explained (p.223). Drawing on Lektorsky, Blunden argues that "identity is always contested, multiple, and conditional, but never individual" (p.225). Yet Leontyev's only mode of identity is group membership (p.226).

Chapter 23 gets to Engestrom's model, the famous triangle, which Blunden says "tackled a lot of the problems in Leontyev's model": specifically a "three-way relationship of mutual mediation" (p.229). Blunden notes that Engestrom presents the activity system as a "root model," but not a unit of analysis—and Blunden adds that it really can't be one, even though it is deployed as one (p.230). The triangle is a "handy pocket manual of social analysis," but not a concept per se (p.232).

Skipping ahead a bit, let's get to Blunden's wrap-up of his immanent critique. He argues that one cannot include context (open-ended totality) in a unit of analysis—doing so wrecks the unit of analysis (p.251). And this brings us to Blunden's proposal, mentioned in Chapter 1 and elaborated in Ch. 28-on.

In Ch.28, he proposes a new unit of activity: project collaboration (p.255). The rest of the chapter elaborates on the constituent elements, collaboration and project. (cf. my own All Edge, which discusses project collaboration but does not elaborate it theoretically to nearly the same degree). Here, artifacts are also projects; actions may belong to multiple projects (p.257). Collaboration in a project is active in contrast to object-oriented activity, which implies a passive response (p.257).

Blunden also discusses some limiting cases of collaboration: management (hierarchical cooperation) vs. division of labor, which itself can be subdivided into cooperation (divided labor, no mutual critique) and exchange of commodities (that is, a market) (pp.259-260).

In any case, the collaborative project is the unit of analysis for activity (p.260). (Here, Blunden is interested in bounding the context of the activity. For some parallel thinking on this problem, see my "Losing by Expanding.") Such projects can nest in each other. To identify such a project, Blunden says, we must start not with societal needs but with people's motivations (p.262).

In Ch.30, Blunden boldly argues that Leontyev's activity theory is incompatible with Marx's critique of political economy, since Leontyev insists that "each system of activity is objectively motivated by an object, which is a need of the whole society" and thus satisfies a definite social need (p.275).

Let's skip to the last chapter. Blunden ends by essentially saying that he has settled the unit of analysis: "This work has now been done, and the meaning and significance of the idea of unit of analysis has been settled. ... the proposal has to be responded to" (p.317). You have no choice, reader!

We always have a choice. But I am intrigued by this proposal—intrigued enough to spend three hours (!) writing this review. And as you may have noticed by my links to my own works, this book gets at some things that I have been trying to think through (although not nearly to the extent Blunden has). If you're also thinking through activity theory and its implications, I urge you to pick up this book. Even if you are not convinced of Blunden's critiques and proposal, you will find some valuable and thought-provoking work here.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Presentations :: What's Wrong with CHAT?

In early August, I was thrilled to be involved with an interdisciplinary, international set of scholars who discussed writing research at Dartmouth University. The format included a weeklong discussion of six working papers followed by a three-day conference.

My working paper was entitled "What's Wrong with CHAT?"—an extension of the presentation by the same name from CCCC 2016.

And since the working paper discussion involved three hours of response, I put together a second slide deck to guide that discussion, entitled "What's wrong with 'What's Wrong with CHAT?'?"

If you didn't make it to Dartmouth, no worries: I've linked to both presentations below.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Reading :: The New Man in Soviet Psychology

The New Man in Soviet Psychology (Russian Research Center Studies, No. 7)
By Raymond A. Bauer

Alex Kozulin cites this book a couple of times in his own writings on psychology in the Soviet Union. It was published in 1952 and is no longer in print, but fortunately Amazon had a used copy at a very reasonable price. I found it to be surprisingly insightful and relevant.

A few notes. Bauer studied under Jerome Bruner, who also wrote the Foreword. Writing at the height of the Cold War, Bauer examined the state of psychology in the USSR, which was at that point still under Stalin (who would die the year after this book was published). Once Stalin died, the leading psychologists in the USSR would find their voices, publishing their major books; but at the point Bauer was writing, Soviet psychological publications were essentially dormant. Bauer even notes in his preface that "The major psychological journals ceased publication in the period 1932-1934, and after these years, publication facilities for psychological research were very sparse until 1946" (p.xii).

Given this situation, it's a bit of a shock to see how Bauer discusses the Vygotsky Circle—who are more or less seen as a marginal group with some odd, jury-rigged ideas. Back to that in a moment.

Bauer notes that at this point in the Cold War, Soviet leaders proclaimed that the social and political work in the USSR was scientific, in contrast to that of the rest of the world. At the same time—paradoxically, he says—"the Soviet leaders subject Soviet science to active and explicitly political interference to an extent unheard of in any other modern state." As one consequence, "In range of activity, Soviet psychology has narrowed from an extremely broad discipline which studied animal and human, normal and abnormal, child and adult subjects to one which focuses most of its attention on the study of normal, healthy children" (p.4).

Intriguingly—and this is the core of Bauer's analysis—
Viewed in the light of psychological theories of the twenties, man was a machine, an adaptive machine which did not initiate action but merely re-acted to stimuli from its environment. Concepts like "consciousness" and "will" were suspect; they smacked of subjectivism, voluntarism, idealism. After all, man and his behavior were determined by antecedent social and biological conditions. Man as depicted in present day Soviet psychology is not passive in the face of the environment. He takes the initiative away from the environment. Rather than being determined by his environment, he determines it. Furthermore, he shapes his own character by training and by "self-training." Whereas the proper subject of psychological behavior in the twenties was objective behavior—the correlation of external stimuli with externally observable responses—today psychology is the study of consciousness, "the highest form of organized matter" and the instrument whereby man shapes himself in his environment. (p.5).
Bauer claims that "developments in psychology have reflected the resolution of the conflict between two doctrinal trends in Marxism" (p.5).

What are these trends? Later in the book, Bauer explains that
The development of Stalinism involved essentially the conflict between two alternate sets of assumptions embedded in Marxism, one focused on the understanding of causal relationships, the other focused on the achievement for some purpose. The first corresponds to what has become known as "mechanistic Marxism," the latter as "dialectical Marxism." Seeing these positions in direct opposition to one another is an unwarrantedly abstract and schematic distinction. These systems of thought were not the exclusive property of any individual or group of individuals; they were alternate assumptions which any person might use in a given situation. (p.14)
Both aspects were latent in the works of Marx and Engels. The first gives Marxism-Leninism its teleological aspects—and convinced the Mensheviks that they could work incrementally, since Socialism was always and inevitably fated to take over the world. The second was picked up by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who believed that man must ultimately make his own history (p.17).

Bauer says that "extreme mechanistic Marxism" has these postulates:
(1) Man is a product of his inheritance and his environment; therefore society is responsible for man's character and behavior, rather than man's being responsible for society. (2) All social events are determinately related; therefore the trend of future events can be predicted. (3) Essentially, the course of events is determined by abstract forces external to man himself, and there is little that he could or should do to direct them. (4) Since all oppressive and repressive institutions are a function of conflict in class society, a classless society will speedily do away with repression. (5) Class society is a result of a particular form of economic relations, and a change in the economic base of society will eliminate class divisions, which in turn will result in the withering away of the state and bring about ideal social conditions. (6) Man is inherently rational and inherently good; and once he is freed from the institutions of a class society, he will revert spontaneously to rationality and goodness. In addition to these premises, mechanistic Marxism posits the desirability of a freely developed and fully expressed personality, of freeing man from excessive burdens and of respecting his dignity. (pp.18-19)
"However, as the history of the Soviet Union unfolded, it became evident that these postulates were untenable in various areas of society," Bauer adds (p.19). The USSR (nominally) achieved a classless society, but problems persisted, the State did not wither away, and the predicted worldwide Revolution did not come. The early 1920s saw a crisis in economic planning, leading Stalinists to claim that "mechanists had no place for chance (accident) in their thinking" (p.23). The Stalinist victory led to many changes. "It made official the view that man is the master of his own fate" (p.24); the dialectical view became seen as the correct one; dialectical, not mechanistic materialism became "the accepted methodology of science" (p.24). At the same time, the crisis meant that the State had to ask more of its individual citizens (p.24).

In philosophy, Bukharin and his followers took the mechanistic view, while Deborin and his followers took the dialectical. The latter were supported in 1925 by the Russian publication of Engels' Dialectics of Nature as well as parts of Lenin's notebooks (p.25). By 1929, the dialecticians had won, imposing the dialectical view in science (p.26).

Interestingly, the dialectical view insistent that contradictions were not external but internal to a given system (see Ilyenkov); "the dynamics of the system were derived from forces within it and not from forces impinging on it" (pp.27-28). (Note: Depending on how you read Engestrom, he either disregards or supplements this claim with his modeling of quaternary contradictions in activity networks.) The dialectical view also led to studying systems—and that led to studying what was qualitatively different in man vs animals, since the laws of the human system could be qualitatively different from the laws of animal systems (p.29). It also led to the rediscovery and relegitimization of the human psyche (p.29). And it introduced the notion of levels of development as opposed to a continuous process (p.30).

This shift had other far-reaching consequences. For instance, the notion that the State would wither away is a quintessentially mechanistic one (p.35); it led educators to claim that education should be based on spontaneous processes within beneficial environments—there would be a "withering away" of school. This notion dominated until 1931! (p.44). But by that point, efforts began to restore the teacher to his/her traditional position. The notion of carrying out education by focusing on the environment was finally killed in 1936—by the infamous pedology ban (p.45).

This is key: The pedologists, in Bauer's account, were founded on mechanistic Marxism's claim that environment determines behavior. Thus they tended to deny consciousness as an idealistic notion (as noted in other books I've reviewed) and focus on improving school environments. This outlook was colorable in the early 1920s, when problems in education could be laid at the feet of the capitalist status quo ante. But by the 1930s, this viewpoint was politically unwise. The Soviets had run the schools for a decade and a half, so if educational problems were the result of the environment, the Soviets had to own that problem!

Bauer briefly reviews the behaviorally oriented work of the 1920s, including the replacement of Chelpanov by Kornilov, noting Luria's early work as an innovative bright spot (p.58). But mechanism dominates; the notion of the unconscious falls into disfavor by 1925 due to charges of idealism, and the very notion of consciousness also becomes unpopular.

"The only clear reversal of trend during this period was the work of L.S. Vygotskii and his associates, mainly Luria and Leonti'ev," he adds (p.73). Bauer is clearly bemused by this work and the "curiously oblique approach they took to consciousness and man's control over his own behavior. Consciousness, said Vygotskii, is 'the capacity of the organism to be its own stimulus.' Their general approach to the problem of the control of man's behavior is that man does this by learning certain instrumental techniques—such as mnemonic devices to improve memory—and that he uses these devices as external stimuli to direct his own behavior. ... Thus, even the most deviant trend of the period accorded to consciousness only a mediated role in the control of man's behavior" (p.74).

Most other pedologists, Bauer says, fixated on the idea that environment determines development and intelligence (p.84). Their conception of man's nature was passive (p.86), a view that suggested that the individual wanted to simply maintain equilibrium with the environment (p.89). This view, as noted above, became politically radioactive in the mid-1930s. With the victory of the dialecticians, the mechanistic model was accused of being capitalist (p.98) and psychology turned to the task of educating the new Soviet man, one who would assert his own agency in service of the State. "Of the reigning premises of the twenties only that of the plasticity of man's organism remained" (p.102).

In Chapter 8, Bauer takes a closer look at the Pedology Decree. He notes that even though Vygotsky bucked the mechanistic trend by studying consciousness, his theory was not in step with the new program to train the new Soviet man: Not only did Vygotsky give too little weight on training, "He maintained that learning proceeded from the unconscious to the conscious; that is, general principles could be understood only after one had learned how to do something" (p.117).

By 1935, Stalin proclaimed that "cadres decide everything," that is, Soviet society now demanded trained people rather than just material, mechanical, and organizational changes (p.123). Changes were introduced to stabilize social relationships, increase social controls, and make workers more effective at serving the needs of the State (p.123).

Consequently, "'Conscious, purposive action' has become not only the norm of conduct of the Soviet citizen, but the central focus of psychology, and the principle of 'conscious understanding' is the fundamental tenet of Soviet pedagogy" (p.132). And "The Soviet conception of consciousness is above all tied to action" (something that should sound familiar to activity theorists) (p.132). Soviet psychologists, Bauer says, claim "that conscious goals play an essential role in voluntary action, but these goals are themselves determined by previous experience. The stimuli of the immediate situation are mediated through the conscious goal determined by previous events" (p.133). Thus man is responsible for his own immediate behavior; he is nonetheless rightfully subjugated to the demands of society; and he can consciously achieve freedom through voluntary service to the state (pp.133-134). "Consciousness is the concept whereby the Soviet citizen is, in fact, liberated from determinism and tied to the service of the state. It is also the pivotal concept of modern Soviet psychology" (p.134).

Bauer goes on to discuss some tenets of modern (circa 1953) Soviet psychology. Among them:

  • operations are automatized actions
  • consciousness allows man to focus on goals beyond the immediate situation
  • the study of psychic functions is always related to man's motives and goals
  • consciousness must always be studied in concrete action (p.136)
These are, of course, premises that should be familiar to anyone who has studied activity theory. 

Skipping a bit, here's something I hadn't realized:
It is no coincidence that the 1936 decree against pedology occurred in the same year as the inauguration of the new Soviet constitution and the declaration that socialism had been achieved. ... If a person is imperfect, then the responsibility lies in his earlier environment—or in him personally. (p.147)
Let's stop there. Bauer's book is a fascinating time capsule, the view of Soviet psychology from the US in the last years of the Stalin era. It arguably misunderstands some things about Vygotsky's work, but then again, it portrays the political and rhetorical situation of Soviet psychology in clear, insightful, and illuminating ways. Most importantly, it provides a big-picture view of the shifts in Soviet warrants, shifts that had large implications for the shaping and legitimacy of different strands of Soviet psychology.

If you're interested in Soviet psychology, Vygotsky, activity theory, or just the Soviet Union, of course you should get this book—if you can find a copy.

Reading :: Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky (Bloomsbury Library of Educational Thought)
By Rene Van Der Veer

The Bloomsbury Library of Educational Thought has a series on different influential thinkers. This one is written by Rene van der Veer, who is certainly qualified. If you're interested in a slim Vygotsky bio, this book might fit the bill; if you've been reading works by and about Vygotsky, as I have, the book will not be a game-changer, but it will fill in some gaps.

For instance, I discovered that

  • Vygotsky wrote most of his unpublished book on the crisis in psychology during a hospital stay in 1926 (p.23).
  • According to van der Veer, Vygotsky's likely fate if he had survived tuberculosis would have been the Gulag. "The disease killed him; otherwise he might have been murdered" (p.29).
  • His textbook Educational Psychology was written at Gomel, but published in 1926, years after he had moved to Moscow University (p.43).
  • Vygotsky was strenuously anti-racist—but he was demonstrably ethnocentric (p.57).  He assumed that cultural differences were developmental differences (p.100). Nevertheless, he insisted that intelligence tests be based on the subject's own cultural tools, a principle that underpinned the Uzbek expedition (p.98).
  • Vygotsky is known for the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), but he claimed not to have invented it; unfortunately, he did not make its origin clear (p.79).
  • The ZPD might have been posited to explain the "leveling effect," which we now believe to be an artifact rather than an actual phenomenon (p.86).
In the last chapter, van der Veer overviews contemporary educational research based on different strands and interpretations of Vygotskian thought. 

Should you read this book? If you know very little about Vygotsky, it's a good introduction. If you're familiar with his work, I don't think it adds a lot to your understanding, but it does fill in some minor gaps. 

Reading :: The Nature of Human Conflicts

The Nature of Human Conflicts
By A.R. Luria

The link above goes to a current printing of the book, but I'm reviewing a 1960 copy. If you prefer to read on screen, you can get the same edition I read as a free PDF on

Luria, of course, was a member of Vygotsky's circle—but he pursued ingenious research even before Vygotsky. As a student at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow, he had access to a "dynamoscope," a device that measured pressure when the subject squeezed a pneumatic bulb, then recorded cyclograms on a photographic plate. (These experiments are discussed in Luria's biography.) What could one do with such a device in an institute dominated by Kornilov's reactology?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Luria wrote three books in the 1920s; this book was not published in the Soviet Union (it was published for the first time in Russian in 2002), but it was published in the US in 1932 and served as Luria's dissertation in 1937.

The book was written before (or at least based on Luria's work before) he met Vygotsky in 1924, leading to his engagement in cultural-historical research. But the work here has some clear continuity in the work of the Vygotsky Circle as well as Luria's later works. It's also rather troubling from an ethical point of view, but that's par for the course in Luria's earlier works.

First, let's discuss the basis for this book: the combined motor method (Ch.1). As mentioned, Luria had access to a dynamoscope. He had also studied the works of Freud and Jung, and was interested in word associations. And he was interested in how human behavior was organized and disorganized:
The chief problem of this investigation is to explain the laws of the disorganisation of human behaviour, the conditions under which they arise, and the way in which they are overcome. Therefore, we should study the structure of the disappearance and origin of this behaviour in those reactions entering into its real composition. (p.19)
How to put these together? Luria noted that strong affect often involved motor responses. (Think about, for instance, when people tremble in fear or anger.)
Certainly, the affect causes great fluctuations in the motor activity; if the affect is not accidentally related to the section of the human behaviour we are studying, if we consider the given disorganisation of behaviour to consist in the particularities of the systems of behaviour under investigation, then the disturbance will be involuntarily and definitely expressed in the sections of activity which we will record. We shall study the involuntary destruction of the voluntary movements; we consider this a more adequate path to a better understanding of the disorganisation of behaviour. (p.20)
So if "we desire to trace the structure of the internal changes which are inaccessible to direct observations, we can follow their reflection in the voluntary motor functions" (p.22). Luria's combined motor method involved having a subject create word associations while squeezing the bulb, therefore combining central and motor activities—allowing the concealed function to be reflected in the unconscious one (p.23).

Need an example? Suppose you have someone who is accused of murder. He has been brought in by the police, but he hasn't yet been told what he has been charged with. At this point, one might subject him to the experiment, reading a set of words that is mostly random, but including a few words related to the murder scene. Does the subject unconsciously squeeze the bulb more tightly when he hears those particular words? Yes, it turns out that he does (pp.29-30). Luria had essentially created a lie detector.

From our viewpoint in the US of the early 21st century, this experiment has severe ethical problems and would be impossible to conduct or publish. For one thing, when someone is arrested, they must (now) be told why they are being arrested. But in the Russia of the early 20th century, such considerations were not important. So I found this book to be alternately fascinating and horrifying. Luria's research subjects, who largely had no choice about their participation, included different groups who were experiencing high levels of affect:

  • people accused of murder (see above)
  • students who were about to discover whether they had been politically purged from the university
  • people who had been given complexes during hypnotism
Whereas the first two groups were experiencing stress already, the third group were artificially introduced to stress. The experimenter would hypnotize a subject, provide a scenario in which the subject acted in a shameful way, then bring the subject out of hypnosis and ask questions while having the subject squeeze the bulb. Here's one scenario:
The following situation is suggested (Situation B) : "You are sitting in your room and are studying. A child of your neighbour's, a boy of about six, comes into your room. He shouts and disturbs your studies. You ask him to stop; he does not listen to you. . . .You get angry, and forgetting yourself, take a stick and beat the boy, first on his back and then on his head. There are some wounds on his head and he cries. You feel very much ashamed and you do not understand how such a thing could have happened to you, how you could beat up a child, and you try to forget it." (p.144)
Luria matter-of-factly reports that this scenario sometimes failed to produce an internal conflict:
The situation is suggested to the subject. She reacts very vividly to the suggestion, shown by her facial expression. The suggestion is followed by these questions:
Experimenter: Why did you beat him?
Subject: He was bothering me.
Experimenter: Is it right to beat a child?
Subject: But if he annoys me.
At once it is seen that we succeeded in suggesting to the subject a certain situation. However, that situation did not appear to be conflicting. (p.144)
My reaction was that not only has Luria built a lie detector, he has built a sociopath detector. But Luria simply notes that some subjects don't have an internal conflict; let's move on to the others who do. He eagerly reports the more normal results, in which people indicate shame and horror over what they have been induced to think.

Moving on. In the third part of the book, Luria synthesizes his results.
One may think, however, that morphological conditions the connection of different motor systems with dissimilar parts of the nerve apparatus do not play a decided role here. During the affect, as a matter of fact, the gait may be changed as well as the movement of the hands in lighting a cigarette, and it can be shown that only the great differentiation of the motor systems of the hand or of the face is the cause of their unusual expressiveness. 
We take a different point of view; we believe that the degree of expressiveness of that or another system depends not so much on its anatomical position as upon its inclusion in one or another complicated psychological structure. Therefore one and the same motor system can be either expressive or unexpressive, depending upon what function it is fulfilling at the given moment and to what psychological structure it belongs. (p.172)
Here, Luria seems to gesture to the notion of functional systems that he would later develop.

At the end of the book, Luria cites his book with Vygotsky as well as work by others in the Vygotsky Circle (recall that this book was based on pre-Vygotsky experiments but published over a decade later). On the last page, he connects the book with the overall agenda of cultural-historical psychology:
The behaviour of the human adult is primarily a product of complex growth, which cannot be comprehended as an accumulation of experiences. Human psychology differs from the zoological point of view in that it sees specific laws absent in the phenomena of nature and characteristic of history. The development of the human as a historical subject occurs as the elaboration of special forms of historical, cultural behaviour. This development evokes new specific mechanisms, the peaks of historical evolution. Speech and the use of signs, the permutation of activity by the use of cultural means make the human a new biological series in history. These new functions do not remain isolated in the psychological processes, but permeate the whole activity and structure of behaviour so that we find them literally in every movement of the fingers. (p.428)
Overall, a fascinating, sometimes disturbing, but historically illuminating book.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Reading :: IGNITE

IGNITE: Setting your Organization's Culture on Fire with Innovation
By Randal C. Moss and David J. Neff

I just posted this review on this book's Amazon page (where I gave the book five stars). I'm crossposting it here:

In 2011, Neff and Moss published The Future of Nonprofits, a terrific book that explained how to innovate—and set up an innovation culture—within a nonprofit environment. But for-profit companies need innovation cultures too. So in this follow-up book, Moss and Neff discuss how to understand, diagnose, and improve an organization's innovation culture.

Neff and Moss provide lucid definitions of innovation and entrepreneurship, along with clear examples. Based on these, they discuss how to diagnose your organization's internal culture. They describe how to keep innovative employees, assemble an innovation team, and bring in external insights via crowdsourcing. Building on these insights, they lead us through updating the organizational design to better support innovation; farming and improving ideas; articulating value; launching a proof-of-concept; and using both internal and external motivation.

In the process, they cover a wide range of ideas, from organizational culture to organizational design; from internal team dynamics to external crowdsourcing and cocreation; from change management to the business model canvas; from prototyping to gamifying. That's a lot of ground to cover, but the authors tie these topics together well, using lots of illustrations and pointing to appropriate books for more information.

If you are wondering how to turn your organization's culture into an innovation culture, pick up this book.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Reading :: Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments

Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments
By Stefanie Di Russo

I became aware of Stefanie Di Russo’s dissertation project through a Twitter conversation with some UX professionals. When the dissertation finally became available in early 2016, I downloaded it and read it when I had a chance—and now it’s the middle of 2016 and I’m finally able to review it.

The dissertation asks: how effective is Design Thinking for complex environments? As a design approach, DT has been portrayed as a way to approach wicked problems. Di Russo sought to (a) examine the history and development of DT, (b) conduct empirical work on DT in complex environments in order to generate new evidence; and (c) “explain the underlying mechanisms that enable emergent behaviors to occur in the design process, contributing knowledge and understanding on how to apply design thinking in complex environments.”

The result is really interesting.

Di Russo examines DT from the perspective of critical realism, which “accepts a view of reality that is stratified, generating knowledge through causal analysis”; generates knowledge “by stratifying levels of reality, to ‘dig’ through observable and unobservable events in order to uncover underlying causal mechanisms that influence and affect the object of phenomena”; and “uncover[s] causal mechanisms that allow for explanatory analysis.” This work is done through grounded theory methodology (p.6).

That work begins with the literature review, in which Di Russo traces key moments in design theory as well as the development of DT. This literature review itself is a significant accomplishment, laying out generations of design theory from the 1960s on—and exploring the disagreements and tensions in this field. Participatory design, service design, and human-centered design are briefly discussed as precursors to DT. DT is broken down into commonly discussed characteristics, along with cites to precursors for each characteristic (pp.39-40). Di Russo then synthesizes a typology of DT, striated into large-scale systems, systems and behavior, artifact and experience, and artifact (p.42).

Di Russo notes that DT’s definition has been ambiguous: “Ironically, when attempting to describe the designerly approach, the definition of design thinking becomes a wicked problem in itself, where answers seeking to describe the process, mindset and practice can only ‘satisfy’ rather than definitively resolve” (p.44). But “Design thinking and its core characteristics; multidisciplinary, iterative, rapid prototyping, human-centered, collaborative, visual and divergent thinking, are now seen as suitable for working with problems where the future is tangled and uncertain” (p.50).

But is it? Di Russo notes: “One of the fundamental weaknesses in the publicity that surrounds design thinking today is the lack of evidence supporting claims of its effectiveness” (p.55). Now that she has described DT’s characteristics through the literature review, she can undertake generating such evidence. Her main research question is: “What is the behavior of design thinking in complex environments?” (p.57).

In Chapter 3, Di Russo discusses her research framework, critical realism. I’ll briefly note that it is focused on relationships and (here) explored through grounded theory. Specifically, Di Russo conducted three case studies of DT in complex environments, including participant observation, semistructured interviews, and archival evidence. These data were then coded in Nvivo and clustered in Data were then explored through constant comparison and triangulated.

Each case study is addressed in a separate chapter: a service design agency doing pro bono work (Chapter 4); the Australian Taxation Office (Chapter 5); and a decentralized open source platform, OpenIDEO (Chapter 6). Di Russo conducts a cross-comparison analysis across the three cases (Chapter 7), finding commonalities: ambiguity and uncertainty; large stakeholder and community networks; and a focus on intangible solutions. Yet themes from Case 3 (the open source platform) were inconsistent with those of the other two cases. Using Case 3 as a benchmark, then, Di Russo compares Case 1 and 2, generating several other commonalities (illustrated throughout with data from the cases). She notes pros and cons of DT for these cases, and adds:
this chapter concludes that design thinking operating externally to the project ecosystem and remotely in an open-source online environment has significant negative effects on the design thinking process. Thus, design thinking may be not readily or successfully translated to a remote online environment in order to design in and for complex environments. (p.253)

Chapter 8 reviews the characteristics of DT and the evidence that Di Russo has collected to support them. She then focuses on the question of implementation: “Many of the most common design thinking models have no implementation phase included as part of the process” (p.269).

Finally, Chapter 9 concludes in a very dissertationly way:
This dissertation is useful for design researchers, practitioners and students of design thinking for it solidifies a clear history and definition of design thinking, highlights potential behaviours unique to third and fourth order design practice, and guides knowledge on how to manage, research and apply design thinking in complex environments.

The dissertation is a solid piece of work, providing DT a more solid, systematic foundation than I’ve seen in other DT literature. And it methodically describes how to advance DT further. If you’re interested in DT or other design methodologies, check it out.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reading :: Vygotsky's Psychology

Vygotsky's Psychology: A Biography of Ideas
By Alex Kozulin

Another day, another Kozulin book on Russian psychology. This one is, as the title suggests, a biography of Vygotsky. Although I had read many of these details elsewhere, this biography did a nice job of pulling them together.

Kozulin begins, as is customary, with the birth and youth of his subject. Vygotsky was "born in 1896 to a middle-class Jewish family." Kozulin uses the story to discuss pre-Revolutionary Russia, its censorship, and its pogroms against Jews (Vygotsky was Jewish). The year that Vygotsky graduated from high school, the minister of education declared that Jewish students would be selected for Moscow University, not by merit, but by lot; Vygotsky, who had the grades to get in by merit, was convinced that he would not be able to attend, but luck was with him and he was selected by the draw. "One may well wonder whether Vygotsky, like many other young Jewish intellectuals, embraced the new Soviet regime primarily because it promised to end all forms of ethnic discrimination" (p.14).

Young Vygotsky was an avid reader of Hegel, with his dialectical understanding of historical development (p.16), focus on mediation and concepts (pp.16-17), and examination of objectivization, in which "any process is crystallized in certain structures or objects" and can be seen as "moments of self-realization of the process" (p.17). But Vygotsky was also deeply affected by linguist Alexander Potebnya's book Thought and Language (pp.18-19), which sketched out the relationships between the two: "(a) thought coincides with language, (b) language serves as an external envelope of thought, and (c) thought achieves its becoming in language" (p.19). Potebnya championed the third interpretation. (In Vygotsky's own book of the same name, he did as well.)

Skipping a bit, we get to post-Revolutionary Russia, in which the young Vygotsky, teaching at Gomel, writes his textbook Educational Psychology. Kozulin says: "The textbook leaves one with an uneasy feeling that it is a 'chimeric' work. One part of it is hardly compatible with another, and the author seems to be speaking in a number of different voices" (p.67).

But in the next chapter, Kozulin turns to the paper Vygotsky delivered at the 1924 Second Psychoneurological Conference, the one that resulted in his move to Moscow. In this paper, Vygotsky argued that reflexology was not up to addressing more complex forms of behavior; he argued that thought, consciousness, and language should be the focus of psychological study, not introspectively, but empirically, by provoking observable manifestations of mental processes (pp.74-75). This argument made a deep impression on A.R. Luria, who arranged for Vygotsky to join the Institute of Pscyhology in Moscow (p.75).

The Institute, like so many Soviet institutions, was in crisis. As Kozulin explains, many were attempting to transform different sciences into "Marxist" sciences. "The recipe in most cases was very similar: some existing experimental methods were combined with a number of quotes from Marx, Engels or Lenin, and the resultant text was presented as an example of a new science" (p.79). The Institute's new head, Konstantin Kornilov, followed this formula: He took Engels' dialectical laws as the fundamental laws of the new Marxist philosophy, then "used psychological examples to underscore the validity of these laws" (p.79). This approach "resulted in the abandonment of the terminology of mental states and processes" (p.80).

In contrast, Vygotsky wanted to understand what was unique about human behavior, and he proposed doing this by examining "the historical character of human behavior and learning"; "the social nature of human experience"; and human behavior's "twofold nature as a mental activity and as an external action" (pp.81-82). Vygotsky noted that human beings, unlike animals, adapt their environment to themselves, following a changing mental design (p.82; cf. Marx). Although Vygotsky did not cite Mead, their ideas were close (p.83).

Moving along. Vygotsky further explored the issues of a Marxist psychology in his unpublished 1927 book The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology. Among other things, Kozulin argues that if we look at Vygotsky's writings as a whole, he did distinguish between (a) purposive tool mediation and (b) cultural cognition depending on intersubjective communication, investigable through changes in word meanings. "Practice then becomes divided into material production and human cultural production" (p.105). And "the fact that Vygotsky's theoretical program was interpreted differently by various groups of his followers reflects the dissimilarities in their philosophies of practice." One is Leontiev's activity theory, which is "rooted in the classical Marxist interpretation of practice as material production" (p.105). A second reading "—which has been undertaken only recently—focuses on the role of language and other symbolic mediators," mediators that can "become independent of the system" and "create their own symbolic construction of reality" (p.105). More about this later.

In Chapter 4, Kozulin recounts the expansion of the Vygotsky Circle, first the three (Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev), then eight (adding Bozhovich, Levina, Morozova, Slavina, and Zaprozhets) (pp.110-111). "All of the members accepted Vygotsky's theoretical leadership and each was free to use Vygotsky's ideas in his or her own research" (p.111). Similarly, Vygotsky based some of his works on the studies of others in his Circle (p.111).

Kozulin summarizes Vygotsky's theory in this way:
Vygotsky's theory was based on a number of interlocking concepts, such as the notion of higher mental processes, the notion of mediated activity, and the notion of psychological tools. Human higher mental processes, according to Vygotsky, are functions of mediated activity. (p.112)
Kozulin then examines the "constitutent elements of this theoretical 'formula'" (p.112):

  • "Higher mental processes": These are mediated, not simply continuations of lower functions. (p.112)
  • "From action to thought": "the higher mental process is a function of socially meaningful activity," illustrated by the infant's attempt to grasp something, which eventually turns into pointing. (pp.113-114)
  • "Mediation": Mediation can be through tools, symbols, or the behavior of another. Vygotsky's mediation links "Vygotsky's theory of higher mental functions with the Marxist theory of material praxis." (p.115)
  • "Internalization": "What first appears as an external sign-mediator or an interpersonal communication later becomes an internal psychological process" (p.116). 
  • "'Primitive' processes": Some intermediate processes can be detected "between" natural functions and higher mental processes. (p.117). 
Kozulin then goes into the problem of mediation. He notes that in Hegel, and later in Marx, work is seen as "a source of universal mediation"; the concept "eventually became a central category in Marxist philosophical anthropology. Work is what creates a universal system of 'communication' based on the exchange of commodities" (p.120). Kozulin warns: 
But whoever accepts material production as a paradigmatic form of human activity must also accept the consequences of such a paradigm. Specifically, it may lead to the identification of human existence as "reified." The phenomenon of reification points to such a mode of human activity when products of this activity are perceived as independent natural "things" rather than as the result of human effort. Moreover, human activity itself becomes reified and perceived as a commodity. The issue of Marxist social theory in general and reification in particular is raised here because Vygotsky's emphasis on tools as mediators creates a possibility for interpreting material production as an explanatory principle of his theory. This very position has ben adopted by some modern students ...
 Moreover, Vygotsky's followers, particularly Leontiev, did develop a theory of psychological activity based on the paradigm of material production as it is interpreted in traditional Marxism. In Leontiev's psychological theory human motives and objects of activity are determined by the division of labor in society, while more concrete actions are related to practical goals. What is problematic in Leontiev's attempt to link the study of psychological activity with Marxist social theory was his reluctance to elaborate on the applicability of the material production paradigm and to face up to the phenomenon of reification. (pp.120-121)
Kozulin notes that Vygotsky's "claim that human mental functions are social in origin and in content," although seemingly grounded in Marxist theory, only had one actual precedent: Durkheim (p.122). Later, after Luria's cross-cultural psychology study of the Uzbeks, Luria and Vygotsky were accused of being a follower of Durkheim, who was regarded as too bourgeois (p.132). Kozulin notes that the political failure of the Uzbek study meant that Vygotsky and his followers were curtailed from using "primitive" people as proxies for understanding changes based in historical changes in social and cultural organization of societies (p.132; Kozulin does not mention that this notion of historical stages of development has been abandoned by current anthropology).

Chapter 5 discusses Vygotsky's Thought and Language, referenced earlier. Like Potebnya, Vygotsky argued that intellect and speech had different genetic roots, developing along different lines, but "at a certain moment these two developmental lines become intertwined, whereupon thought becomes verbal, and speech intellectual. This moment signifies a switch from a natural track of development to a cultural one" (p.153). Egocentric speech develops into (a) inner speech-for-oneself and (b) communicative speech-for-others (p.174).

Along these lines, Kozulin notes that although there is no evidence that Vygotsky and Bakhtin influenced each other, "their positions in the realm of twentieth-century thought bear intriguing signs of similarity": overlap in their sources; overlap in their personal networks (Vygotsky's cousin David and Bakhtin belonged to the same intellectual circle in Leningrad); and their rediscovery in the West at about the same time (p.180). Yet Vygotsky believed that monological thought was superior to dialogical (p.184).

Chapter 7 examines Vygotsky's work with defectology and pedology. In fact, after Vygotsky's death and the banning of pedology, Vygotsky's theory "managed to survive in a subliminal form at the Institute of Defectology," where some of Vygotsky's Circle rode out the stormy 1930s and 1940s (p.207).

Chapter 8 examines what happened to Vygotsky's ideas after his death. Kozulin notes that Leontiev and the Kharkovites refocused away from symbolic psychological tools and toward activities (centered on labor) (p.247). Consequently, symbolic psychological tools and culture were underrepresented in the 1930s-1960s (p.247). Kozulin specifically examines Leontiev's activity theory, noting that the levels of activity involve "two different conceptual languages: one used on the level of activities and the other on the level of actions and operations" (p.251). The level of activities used categories of Marxist social philosophy; "the subject presumed by the use of these categories was the social-historical, and therefore psychologically rather abstractive subject." But "actions and operations were studied with the psychological paradigm," which was roughly Piagetan and did not link firmly to the social categories. As Kozulin notes, Rubinshtein noticed and critiqued this gap. Kozulin concludes: "One may suggest that what was missing from Leontiev's model was precisely the stratum of culture—emphasized by Vygotsky, and neglected by his followers—that could provide a link between individual action and the social systems from which it derives its meaning" (p.251).

(One might also suggest that third-generation activity theory's synthesis with Bakhtinian dialogism is an attempt to retrofit activity theory with this missing component of semiotic mediation.)

Leontiev was in a box here, Kozulin argues:
The Marxists were remarkably unsuccessful at depicting the positive, creative aspects of human action as conditioned by a social system. This lack of success had been explained as a reflection of the true condition prevalent in capitalist society, the condition of alienation. Unalienated, free action was reserved for future socialist life. But Leontiev could not use this line of defense because he was studying people in what was called a "state of accomplished socialism." He chose to avoid the psychological discussion of these issues, delivering instead the standard ideological verbiage about the alienation of the human mind under capitalism vs. its free development under socialism. (p.252)
Critics also noted that "although Leontiev had declared that human psychology should be understood in terms of practical activity, he actually identified it as a system of social meanings. But in Marxist parlance, social meanings belong to the sphere of social consciousness," rather than that of social practice on which Leontiev promised to build his theory" (p.252).

Nevertheless, activity theory prospered from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Leontiev became (for a time) Vygotsky's official interpreter, even claiming in a 1956 forward to a Vygotsky collection that "the emphasis on semiotic mediation was transitory for Vygotsky and that the activity theory furthered the development of what was authentic in the cultural-historical school" (p.253). But Leontiev's theory began to be scrutinized in the late 1970s. Kozulin notes several possible reasons (omitting one good reason, which is that Leontiev died in 1979). One is that Vygotsky's Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology was circulating in manuscript form and was finally published in 1982; it noted the same trap that AT had fallen into, which was that the same notion was being used as both an explanatory principle and a phenomenon to investigate (p.253). At a 1979 symposium on Vygotsky's theoretical legacy, G.P. Schedrovitsky argued that "the activity theory substantially deviated from Vygotsky's original program" and that "the principle of semiotic mediation is the cornerstone of cultural-historical theory" (p.254).

This book is 272 pages, not including footnotes. But as you can tell, it's full of details that will be interesting to those who want to know more about Vygotsky and his legacy. I highly recommend it.