Thursday, April 28, 2016

(Free article: "Toward a Typology of Activities")

My article "Toward a Typology of Activities: Understanding Internal Contradictions in Multiperspectival Activities" was recently named 2016 Best Article on Philosophy or Theory of Technical or Scientific Communication. That's the old news.

The new news: To celebrate, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication has made it a free download for the next six months.

Grab it!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Reading: Contemporary Field Research

Contemporary Field Research: A Collection of Readings
By Robert M. Emerson

Just a quick review of this book, which is an older edition. The editor presents a series of classic readings on fieldwork, grouped in these sections:

  • "Ethnography and understanding members' worlds"
  • "Theory and evidence in field research"
  • "Relational and personal processes in fieldwork"
  • "Ethical and political issues in field research"
The authors are the usual suspects. The first chapter is that same piece by Geertz that you have undoubtedly read; Kathy Charmaz, Michael Bloor, Rosalie Wax, and John Van Maanen also make appearances. But the book deftly puts their pieces into dialogue, thanks especially to the editor's introductions to each section. The result is a valuable set of meditations on different aspects of fieldwork. 

Although my review of this book is pretty thin, if you are interested in the details and complications of fieldwork, check it out. 

Reading :: The Mind of a Mnemonist

The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory
By A.R. Luria

As mentioned in the previous review, A.R. Luria began publishing quite a bit after Stalin's death. Beyond his scholarly work, he also wrote two popular books that became internationally known: The Man with a Shattered World and this one, The Mind of a Mnemonist.

A mnemonist, of course, is someone who remembers things—and the subject of this book becomes well known as a performer who is asked to memorize tables of numbers, details, and nonsense syllables. But we meet him when he is a humble journalist whose editor sends him to see Vygotsky and Luria. The editor noticed that this journalist would never write down the details of his assignments, but always seemed to remember them. And the journalist was puzzled that this should be so remarkable.

Luria recounts testing the man's memory with tables of numbers, growing more astonished as he repeated the numbers back effortlessly—not just right to left, but also left to right, down to up, and diagonally. What's even more remarkable is that decades later the man could call back the same tables from those initial tests; his memories did not seem to decay.

What made this man's memory so different? Based on extended testing and interviews, Luria surmises that it's partly due to the man's pronounced synesthesia and partly to the fact that he processes memories as detailed visual images. He also developed techniques that leveraged these unique natural abilities.

But, Luria adds, this ability also shaped the man's life and personality. He was "disheveled," often "disorganized," and had trouble relating to other people.

Like The Man with a Shattered World, this book provides a sympathetic portrait of an extraordinary person and allows us to better understand the individual as a developed personality. It's a fun, fast read that will make you think differently about memory and thought.

Reading: The Man with a Shattered World

The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound
By A.R. Luria

A.R. Luria led an interesting life: he was an early member of the Vygotsky Circle, conducted an early cross-cultural psychology study, invented an early version of the lie detector, and became a leader in neuropsychology. Like many in psychology, he published relatively little during the Stalin years, then became prolific once Stalin died. Among his works is this one, written for an international lay audience.

I won't go deeply into this story, which is of a Russian army officer who sustained a gunshot to his head while fighting the Nazis. The resulting wound to the posterior parieto-occipital regions of the brain meant that he had extreme trouble combining his sensory impressions into a coherent whole: "He is aware of his own body and senses both his arms and his legs, though he cannot tell his right from his left" (p.31). He loses the ability to read, to write, to locate parts of his own body, to recognize his own hometown.

Much of the book details his struggle to rehabilitate—in his own words. One day, the officer discovered that if he looked away from the paper and just attempted to write a word—rather than spell it out—he often could. As Luria says, "For adults, writing is an automatic skill, a series of built-in movements which I call 'kinetic melodies'"—that is, operations in the parlance of activity theory (p.72). The officer still had those "kinetic melodies" and could invoke them. And over the rest of his life, the officer wrote over a thousand pages: rarely more than a page a day, and in a script that he himself was almost unable to read.

Luria expresses admiration for this officer and his attempts at self-rehabilitiation, which paid off enough for him to tell his story. But he also uses the case to lucidly explain the effects of such a brain injury. If you're interested in neuropsychology, or if you're just interested in how complex our perception is and how easily it can be shattered, take a look.

Reading :: Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child

Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child
By L.S. Vygotsky and A.R. Luria

I first picked this book up at Iowa State as a graduate student, but I quickly put it down: although I had been fascinated by Vygotsky's other books, this book's focus on apes did not appeal to me much. But twenty years makes a big difference: now, with a better grounding in the work of the Vygotsky Circle, I see great value in the book.

To be sure, that value overlaps with those of Vygotsky's and Luria's other writings. But in some ways, this book is more clearly written and more concisely argued than those more widely-read sources. In fact, the book's structure helps us to better understand the essential Vygotskian argument that human cognition is essentially social; it explains the cultural-historical approach in terms of a progression. At the same time, for 21st-century readers, this claimed progression has blind spots that suggest an important critique of Vygotskian thought.

First, the progression. The book consists of a thin author's introduction and three thick chapters:

  • Chapter 1: Behavior of the Anthropoid Ape
  • Chapter 2: Primitive and His Behavior
  • Chapter 3: The Child and Its Behavior
The first two chapters are based respectively on the works of the primatologist Kohler and the "ethnic psychology" of Levy-Bruhl and others. The third is based on the authors' own work.

As the authors state in the introduction,
All three essays are united by one idea, that is, the idea of development. Their aim is to schematically present the path of psychological evolution from the ape to the cultural man. (p.36, their emphasis)
Each essay deals with
only one dominating feature or aspect of behavior, namely the one that, like a compass arrow, points from a certain starting point to a new direction and path in the development of behavior. Our task was to portray three main lines in the development of behavior—evolutionary, historical, and ontogenetic—and to show that the behavior of cultural man is the product of the three lines of development and may be understood and explained only by analyzing the three different paths that make up the history of human behavior. (p.36, their emphasis)
The authors argue that behavioral development was initially evolutionary—in the sense of the physical evolution of an organism—but when anthropoid apes invented tools, they took a new path, "creating thereby the main psychological prerequisite of historical development of behavior" (p.37, their emphasis). This historical development was labor, which involved "the development of human speech and other psychological signs used by primitive man to gain control over behavior" (p.37, my bold emphasis). And in child development, they saw a third line of development: "the cultural development of behavior based on the acquisition of skills and modes of cultural behavior and thinking" (p.37). "Thus we have concentrated on the turning points, the critical stages in the development of behavior," the authors add: first tools, then "labor and the use of psychological signs," then the child's cultural-psychological development as opposed to natural development (p.37). Each "process of development dialectically prepares for the next one, transforming and changing into a new type of development" (p.38).

Readers will note that the account of labor is linked to Engels' account of evolution in Dialectics of Nature, which later became the cornerstone of Leontyev's activity theory. This account became an article of faith in the USSR. But Vygotsky and Luria handle this basic account with perhaps more nuance than Engels does.

In Chapter 1, the authors review Kohler's work in detail, then interpret it from the view of Marx and Engels. First, they claim that although apes can use tools, they have not yet developed labor: "Use of tools in the absence of labor is what draws the behavior of man and ape closer and at the same time separates them" (p.74; as a side note, compare Gen. 3:17-19, which also portrays labor as a uniquely human pursuit, but with a more negative valence). The authors, as good Marxists, argue that "quantitative differences may transform into qualitative ones," and tools thus change the very nature of man—although they don't do this for apes or other animals (p.74).  Here, the authors cite Engels' account of human development through labor, adding that labor is an "adaption to nature, foreign to apes" (p.75).

Apes use tools to manipulate conditions, the authors say, but man uses signs to control his own behavior—and "this constitutes the essence of the cultural development of man's behavior" (p.77).

This brings us to the second chapter, in which the authors draw on what we might consider sketchy anthropology to argue that (a) current "primitive" people can serve as a proxy for the people in our past development and (b) these "primitives" are at a lower level of development (p.82). They appeal to the aforementioned work by Levy-Bruhl for these points. But they also treat "primitives" more sympathetically than one might expect, understanding these people as fully equal agents, but whose cultural tools have not provided the structure to perform certain actions. Specifically, the authors claim that nonliterate peoples tend to develop better eidetic memory (e.g., p.99), while literate peoples tend to rely more heavily on artificial signs to do this work and thus allow their eidetic abilities to atrophy (p.101). They argue that in the absence of artificial signs, nonliterate peoples' "language loads thought down with endless details and particulars and does not process the data of experiences"; the examples from Wertheimer and Thurnwald (p.111) sound quite similar to those Luria later reported from his Uzbekistan trip. Some of the later work in this chapter deals with the development of word usage in associations and complexes, similar to the discussion in Vygotsky's Thought and Language.

As interesting is the discussion of numeric operations: the authors claim (sensibly, I think) that "our system of calculation counts for us" (p.130)—that is, our cultural tools provide a system that changes the task and shares the load, an idea that has been developed considerably. Similarly, the authors quote Bucher's description of Borneo digging sticks, which are composed of a big stick (for digging) and a little stick (which clicks with each stroke): the authors say, "This sound, being something like a work cry or a command, has the purpose of rhythmically organizing work" (p.138).

And this brings us to the third chapter and the authors' own work. The authors revisit Engels' story of evolution through labor (p.170), then move to the question of memory—mediated and unmediated. In their experiments, children past a certain age were first tested in terms of natural memory, then given mediators and tested again. They tended to do better in mediated tasks, not because their natural memory improved, but because they could substitute the mediator for their own memory (p.180). "Developing culturally, a child gains the opportunity to create himself those stimuli that in the future will influence him, organize his behavior, and attract his attention" (p.189).

Yet, as the authors demonstrate with a discussion of the famous forbidden colors experiment (pp.190-192), these mediators can be internalized—an analogue to the numeric system that "counts for us" in Chapter 2. "Upon closer examination we are convined that the process of attention still remained indirect; although instead of externally indirect, it became internally indirect" (p.192). That is, children's natural memory did not improve; instead, they internalized psychological tools that changed and systematized the task.

The authors also discuss the so-called Vygotsky blocks (pp.193-199) as a way to explore how children developed abstraction.

Ultimately, the authors conclude that the difference between natural and cultural ability was crucial. They argue for a better understanding of cultural giftedness:
Cultural giftedness means first of all to rationally use one's endowed capabilities, be they average or poor, to achieve the kind of results that a culturally undeveloped person can achieve only with the help of considerably stronger natural abilities.
Cultural giftedness, in essence, means the ability to control one's own natural resources; it means the creation and application of the best devices for using these resources. (p.230)
This advice would be right at home at Lifehacker.

In conclusion, the book is fascinating and valuable. It is in some ways not as developed as other work by the authors, and the discussion of primitives did not endear it to me, but it explains some of the Vygostky Circle's work more clearly than other texts I have read. If you're interested in cultural-historical psychology, definitely pick it up.