Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Reading :: The New Rhetoric

The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation
By Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca

Perhaps you read this book, or excerpts of it, in grad school. I didn't, but I've seen it cited enough that I thought I should. So I picked it up a few years ago, and started and abandoned it at least twice before I was able to bear down and get through it.

Not that it's a bad book. It's just the equivalent of Goffman's Frame Analysis. Here's what I said about Goffman in that review:
Here, even more than in Goffman's other books, it becomes clear that Goffman is a cross between Aristotle and Art Linkletter. Like Aristotle, he likes to exhaustively taxonomize the subject he's describing—in this case, frames. And like Art Linkletter, he is an inveterate gossip, pulling examples of frames and frame ruptures from everywhere he can (odd newspaper stories, magazines, television shows, books on cons and magic, and repeatedly from Dear Abby columns) in addition to published research. 
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca run a similar playbook, although their examples come from philosophers and sermons rather than Dear Abby columns. Their goal in this postwar book was to describe non-formal argumentation, specifically examining audiences and shared values, and they reached back to the forgotten Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition to do so. This was fairly radical stuff in 1948, but in 2018 the arguments in The New Rhetoric have become so foundational to contemporary rhetorical theory that they hardly seem radical. As a result, reading the book now is a tedious exercise, at least for me.

The book is divided into three sections:

  1. The framework of argumentation
  2. The starting point of argument
  3. Techniques of argumentation
In this review, we'll spend most of our time on the Introduction. Here, the authors draw a line in the sand with their first two sentences:
The publication of a treatise devoted to argumentation and this subject's connection with the ancient tradition of Greek rhetoric and dialectic constitutes a break with a concept of reason and reasoning due to Descartes which has set its mark on Western philosophy for the last three centuries.
Although it would scarcely occur to anyone to deny that the power of deliberation and argumentation is a distinctive sign of a reasonable being, the study of the methods of proof used to secure adherence has been completely neglected by logicians and epistemologists for the last three centuries. (p.1, their emphasis)
Descartes, they say, "made the self-evident the mark of reason, and considered rational only those demonstrations which ... extended ... the self-evidence of the axioms to the derived theorems" (p.1). Thus deliberation and argumentation were neglected. (They echo Aristotle, who says that rhetoric comes into play when the truth cannot be known.)

What resulted was an understanding of rational science as incompatible with probable opinions—it is "a system of necessary propositions" in which "agreement is inevitable," and thus in rational science, "disagreement is a sign of error" (p.2). Thus "logicians and modern philosophers have become totally disinterested in our subject" (pp.4-5), and the authors instead draw on studies of persuading, convincing, and deliberation from Greek, Latin, and Renaissance authors (p.5). They focus on the proofs that Aristotle termed "dialectical," but since "dialectic" had taken on a different meaning due to Hegel, they lump the original meaning's focus on the probable into "rhetoric." "It is in terms of an audience that an argument develops," they emphasize (p.5). And that is the focus of this book.

Furthermore, the authors primarily examine printed texts, preserving the idea of audience but neglecting "mnemonics and the study of delivery or oratorical effect" (p.6).

They also restrict themselves to incidents in which language is used (excluding silent examples, rewards, and punishments) and specifically used to communicate (excluding blessings and curses) (p.8). They acknowledge the persuasive effects of nonlinguistic elements, but these go beyond their study (pp.8-9). (Note that contemporary rhetorical studies have gone past these boundaries, using and extending the authors' principles.) Within these linguistic bounds, the authors characterize different argument structures (p.9).

In Part I, The Framework of Argumentation, the authors discuss the conditions under which rhetoric applies. "All argumentation aims at gaining the adherence of minds, and, by this very fact, assumes the existence of an intellectual contact" (p.14, their emphasis). And "For argumentation to exist, an effective community of minds must be realized at a given moment" (p.14). That community includes the audience, defined as "the ensemble of those whom the speaker wishes to influence by his argumentation" (p.19, their emphasis). "The audience, as visualized by one undertaking to argue, is always a more or less systematized construction" (p.19). Rhetoric as an academic exercise has been addressed to conventional, stereotyped audiences, and "it is this limited view of audience ... which is responsible for the degeneration of rhetoric" (p.20).

The knowledge of the audience, they say, "cannot be conceived independently of the knowledge of how to influence it" (p.23). At the same time, the speaker must also adapt to the audience (p.23).

The authors draw a distinction between persuasion and argumentation:
We are going to apply the term persuasive to argumentation that only claims validity for a particular audience, and convincing to argumentation that presumes to gain the adherence of any rational being. (p.28)
Audiences can include universal audiences, single interlocutors, and the subject himself (p.30). Some quirks:

  • The universal audience is "often merely the unwarranted generalization of an individual intuition" (p.33). 
  • When engaging with the single hearer, discourse degenerates into dialogue (p.35). 
With this base, the authors get into Part 2, The Starting Point of Argumentation. And here is where the book begins to strongly resemble Frame Analysis: The authors describe a principle, then provide various examples. I won't go through this section in detail—this section is meant to function as a reference.

Let's rejoin the authors for the conclusion:
Instead of basing our philosophy on definitive, unquestionable truths, our starting point is that men and groups of men adhere to opinions of all sorts with a variable intensity, which we can know only by putting it to the test. These beliefs are not always self-evident, and they rarely deal with clear and distinct ideas. The more generally accepted beliefs remain implicit and unformulated for a long time, for more often than not it is only on the occasion of a disagreement as to the consequences resulting from them that the problem of their formulation or more precise definition arises. (p.511)
Should you pick up this book? Yes—eventually. It is a bit of a slog, and a reader with a background in contemporary rhetoric will find parts to be self-evident. But it's still rewarding for contemporary readers and an invaluable foundation for the study of rhetoric. 

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Reading :: Creating the Technopolis

Creating the Technopolis: Linking Technology Commercialization and Economic Development
Edited by Raymond W. Smilor, George Kozmetsky, and David V. Gibson

This 1988 collection developed from a 1987 international conference held at the University of Texas at Austin. I picked it up primarily to understand how the Austin entrepreneurial ecosystem developed and how IC2 figured into it.

In the Preface, the term technopolis "reflects a balance between the public and private sectors. The modern technopolis is one that interactively links technology commercialization with the public and private sectors to spur economic development and promote technology diversification" (p.xiii). The Introduction puts it a little differently: "Sometimes referred to as a technology center or a high-tech corridor or triangle, the technopolis appears to be an emerging worldwide phenomenon" (p.xvii). Technopoleis include Route 128, Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and the Austin-San Antonio corridor. Authors in this collection discuss each of these technopoleis, but also technopoleis in Japan, China, England, and southern Europe as well as US locations such as upstate New York and Phoenix.

For me, the most important chapter was Ch.10, "The Austin/San Antonio Corridor: The Dynamics of a Developing Technopolis." Here, Smilor, Kozmetsky and Gibson discuss the development of this corridor, using the "technopolis wheel" (p.146) to discuss the different factors involved in sustaining it. This wheel includes anchors such as University, Large Corporations, Emerging Companies, Federal Government, State Government, Local Government, and Support Groups. Among other information that was valuable (at least to me) were a bar graph of high tech manufacturing companies in Austin, 1945-1985 (p.155) and a timeline of companies being founded or relocated to Austin, 1955-1985 (p.157). The authors also recapitulate the MCC story, which I'll cover in depth in another book review.

Should you pick up this book? To be honest, it is most useful for (a) historical perspective about perspectives on high-tech regional development in the late 1980s and (b) heuristics for understanding current high-tech regional development. If you're interested in one of those two, yes, grab a copy. Otherwise I don't think it's a crucial collection.

Reading :: The New Spirit of Capitalism

The New Spirit of Capitalism
By Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello

In his influential 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that capitalism works because of an ethos—labor must be performed as a calling, pursued with virtue and proficiency rather than for enjoyment and enrichment. It is this selfless performance of capitalism that makes it work as a system. And Weber laments:
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view the care for external goods should only lie on the "saint like a light cloak which can be thrown aside at any moment." But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage. (p.181)
Writing at the other end of the century, in 1999 (the original, French publication date), Boltanski and Chiapello agree with Weber's basic thesis but argue that capitalism continues to reinvent itself. They argue that the "spirit of capitalism" is the "ideology that justifies engagement in capitalism" (p.8) and that this ideology has periodically had to change in order to address and incorporate critiques (p.19). In fact, the authors identify three "spirits" of capitalism at different periods—familial, bureaucratic, and globalized—each of which were in tune with their time periods (p.19). The third spirit, which is what we are living through today (or at least were in 1999), must restore meaning to the accumulation process, combined with social justice (p.19).

More broadly, they say, critiques function as a motor for capitalism, which must align with other values to survive. Capitalism relies on its enemies' critiques to identify moral supports, which it then incorporates (p.27). (For a quick example, think in terms of social entrepreneurship.) In rhetorical terms, capitalism concedes critiques and adjusts its argument to address them. Paradoxically, this means that capitalism is the most fragile when it is triumphant (p.27)—when it doesn't have a critique to incorporate.

To substantiate this analysis, the authors turn to a corpus of management books read in France in the 1990s. (They limit their claims to the French management context, but acknowledge that these claims may be more broadly applied as well.) These management texts emphasize ideas that may be familiar to readers of this blog: networked organizational structure, distributed leadership, projectification, self-direction, trust (Part I, Ch.I). These lead to workers managing themselves and pursuing personal development, autonomy, freedom, and fulfillment (p.90)—the ethical critiques of bureaucratic capitalism being incorporated into globalist capitalism.

One might object here that the corpus is biased toward growth areas: familial and bureaucratic capitalism have their places and do specific jobs well, but since their principles are more established, we won't see a lot of new management books focused on them. In contrast, new information and communication technologies enable new organizational approaches to emergent objects, and thus we see a glut of new management books addressing them. The authors do not address this objection head-on, but they do acknowledge in the next chapter that successive organizational and technical innovations and managerial modes gradually transformed mechanisms, and that the corpus reflects an attempt to unify these mechanisms into a coherent vision (p. 103). The term "network" is frequently used in the corpus to impose coherence on these highly disparate elements (p.103). They charge that the notion of network absolves us from positing or addressing the idea of justice: in a networked world, low-status people are simply excluded (p.106). The authors do discuss network analysis and Latourean and Deleuzian sociotechnical networks—unfortunately conflating these (p.150; see also p.356).

In a network world, the authors say, our focus is no longer on saving money as in Weberian (familial) capitalism, but rather on saving time: it must be spent on the best connections and reinvested immediately (p.152).

In Part II, the authors examine the history of labor in the second half of the 20th century in France, specifically the negotiations between trade unions and employers. In this telling, the trade unions in 1968 saw compromise as an exit lane from capitalism (p.182), but management addressed critiques by accommodating demands for social justice (p.183), providing profit-sharing in lieu of control/power (p.184), improving working conditions to quell rebellion (p.185), and replacing autonomy with security (p.190).

There is much more to the book, but let's skip to the conclusion, which presents these axioms:

  1. "Capitalism needs a spirit in order to engage the people required for production and the functioning of business." (p.485)
  2. "To be capable of mobilizing people, the spirit of capitalism must include a moral dimension." (p.486)
  3. "If it is to survive, capitalism needs simultaneously to stimulate and to curb instability." (p.487)
  4. "The spirit of capitalism cannot be reduced to an ideology in the sense of an illusion with no impacts on the world." (p.488)
  5. "Capitalism has a constant tendency to transform itself." (p.489)
  6. "The principal operator of creation and transformation of the spirit of capitalism is critique (voice)." (p.489)
  7. "In certain conditions, critique can itself be one of the factors of a change in capitalism (and not merely in its spirit)." (p.490)
  8. "Critique derives its energy from sources of indignation." (p.491)
It would be a little facile to say that capitalism succeeds because it listens to critique and addresses it. Boltanski and Chiapello, I think, rather argue that capitalism identifies damaging critiques and incorporates changes to defang those critiques so that it can retain and legitimize its essential focus on the accumulation process. It is more nimble, more flexible, and more supple in argumentation than its competitors. 

Overall, I think the book is a solid piece of work, although the authors have staked a lot on their reading of the management corpus, and I agree that they may not be able to generalize their conclusions beyond France. I am also not thrilled with how they have conflated different uses of "network," which I think muddies the analysis. Like other books in this vein, this one also endorses a grand narrative in which changes can be traced to a single actor (capitalism) rather than multiple factors in tension (ex: information and communication technologies, changes in transportation, the broadening of infrastructure, etc.). Nevertheless, it provides a much-needed rethinking of Weber's original thesis and provides a smart critique of the management literature. I wish I had read it before writing All Edge, although I think I would have—er—incorporated the critique rather than fundamentally changing my argument. If you're interested in capitalism, the so-called new economy, or Weber, take a look.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Reading :: The Cambridge Handbook of Cultural-Historical Psychology

The Cambridge Handbook of Cultural-Historical Psychology
Edited by Anton Yasnitsky,‎ René van der Veer,‎ and Michel Ferrari

To be honest, I finished this book last summer, but I have been waiting for a substantial block of time to spend on it. My block of time today is no longer than usual, but I want to get this book off my Review shelf and back to my office shelf, so here goes.

In the Introduction, helpfully subtitled "What is this book and what is it about?", Anton Yasnitsky and Rene van der Veer lay out the book's intent: as an edited handbook, intended for higher education, focused on the cultural-historical psychology of the Vygotsky-Luria Circle as well as associated work by Vygotsky's predecessors, contemporaries, and later followers (p.1). They note that "cultural-historical psychology" was coined as a slur on Vygotsky's theory, but was picked up and appropriated by Vygotsky's followers (p.2). Nevertheless, Vygotsky-derived "cultural-historical psychology is firmly grounded in the belief shared by a great many researchers who postulated the necessity and possibility of an integrative psychological science of cultural-historical and bio-social development" (p.2), a belief "in the possibility of a holistic human science of mind, body, and consciousness in their inseparable unity and in cultural and historical development" (p.3).

The book is structured in six parts: theory; method; child; language and culture; brain; and cultural-historical applications beyond psychology. I won't thoroughly explore each, but I will pull out specific chapters for discussion.

Ronald Miller, "Introducing Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology"
This chapter summarizes part of the argument Miller made in his book: the centrality of signs in Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology. In this chapter, Miller discusses some of Vygotsky's thought, including his "law of sociogenesis" (that "every function in the cultural development of the child appears on the stage twice ... at first as social, then as psychological" — Vygotsky 1998, p.169, quoted in Miller p.26) and his law of "transition of a function from outside inward" in which "the social means becomes the means of individual behavior" (Vygotsky 1998, p.170, quoted in Miller p.26). These lead to Vygotsky's self-declared major discovery that "word meaning changes and develops" (Vygotsky 1987, p.245, quoted in Miller p.28)—a discovery that leads Vygotsky to identify the stage of adolescence in which abstract concepts are formed (p.28). After some valuable discussion that I won't summarize here, Miller notes that Vygotsky "puts paid to the view that practical activity and everyday experience provide a sound basis for understanding or explaining the psychological underpinnings of human action, let alone the view that conceptual understanding derives from or is an extension of everyday practical experience" (p.40). This argument is the core of Miller's brief against activity theory, which was developed by Leontiev in part to harmonize with the Stalinist ideological requirement of practicality (see Krementsov on this emphasis on practicality, and see Leont'ev and Zaporozhets for an early example of AT developing to address this emphasis).

Janette Friedrich, "Vygotsky's idea of psychological tools"
This chapter focuses on Vygotsky's use and development of the notion of psychological tools, which the author believes is an essential notion in Vygotsky's writings—although the phrase isn't used in Thought and Language, the concept itself is fundamental (p.48). The author also argues that the idea is shared in the writings of Vygotsky's contemporaries, Kurt Goldstein and Karl Buhler (p.48).

Vygotsky's view was that "all higher psychological functions—such as voluntary attention or logical memory—originate with the help of psychological tools, and thus constitute mediated psychological phenomena," and thus the unit of analysis must include not just stimulus and response but also mediator (p.48).

Such psychological tools differ from physical (work) tools in their directiveness: "this [psychological] tool is a means subjects have of influencing themselves, a means of self-regulation and self-control" (p.50). Psychological tools are signs, but they are not just signs. They have three other characteristics:
A psychological tool (1) is an artificial adaptation that (2) has a non-organic (that is, social) nature, and (3) is destined to control one's psychological behavior and that of others. (p.51)
Friedrich goes on to argue that to understand psychological tools, we must understand the difference between mediated activity and mediating activity that Vygotsky introduced in his book on higher mental functions, based on Hegel. "Work tools and psychological tools both fall under the more general concept of mediating activity" (p.53) in which nature acts on nature (p.54). But when we intervene directly in nature via an instrument, we are involved in mediated activity (p.54).

Friedrich goes on to examine psychological tools in the works of Goldstein, who conducted aphasia research and became interested in detours: strategies "that patients develop to do everyday tasks that their illness prevents them from performing normally" (p.56). She also examines the works of Buhler, specifically his 1934 "masterpiece, Theory of language, in which language is defined as a mediating instrument" (p.58). She argues that a dialogue among the three is possible. Friedrich concludes that "Vygotskian psychological tools do not exist over and above their use by an individual" (p.61).

Ekaterina Zavershneva, "The problem of consciousness in Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology"
Zavershneva has been examining Vygotsky's notebooks. Here, she discusses how Vygotsky understood consciousness, arguing that "we may even assume that [Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory] is the most notable contribution to general psychological theory to date" (p.65). Yet Vygotsky, she says, offered three distinct models of consciousness (p.66):

  1. as a reflex of reflexes (1924-1926) (pp.66-68)
  2. as a system of secondary connections between higher psychological functions (1927-1931) (pp.69-74)
  3. as a dynamic semantic system (1932-1934) (pp.74-78)
She argues that understanding the first two models is important for truly understanding the third (p.66). Nevertheless, here, I'll skip to the second model: the system of secondary connections between higher psychological functions. Zavershneva notes that from 1927-1930, "Vygotsky was studying isolated psychological functions, but not consciousness per se and as a whole" (p.69). "The earliest variant of the idea of a mediated action" and of word meaning is in Vygotsky's papers of 1926 (p.69). But "By the end of the 1920s, Vygotsky gradually came to the conclusion that 'psychological tools' cannot be 'built into' any single 'higher psychological function' because a person is an integral being and in every act of human behavior all psychological processes are manifested" (p.70). This led Vygotsky to attempt to explain consciousness holistically, so he introduced the principle of a system to his psychology in his 1930 paper "On psychological systems" (p.71). From this point on, Vygotsky "repeatedly criticized his previously held views as incomplete and even erroneous" (p.74). "The idea of the sign as the mediator between nature and culture was still used as a heuristically useful abstraction, but it gradually shifted to the notion of the 'system of psychological functions'" (p.74). 

This led to the third model, in which Vygotsky "introduced a theoretical innovation—the notion of consciousness as a dynamic semantic system" —but could not theoretically develop it due to his untimely death in 1934 (p.74). Zavershneva traces Vygotsky's development of this innovation from word meaning to sense to perezhivanie ("intellectual and emotional life experience")—but notes that this "theorizing remained at the level of mere speculation, and Vygotsky's theory of consciousness was not developed any further than a sketch of a promising future theory" (p.78). 

In the latter half of the chapter, Zavershneva discusses Vygotsky's later work on types of concepts, noting a possible interplay with Lewin's work via two former Lewin students who moved to Moscow and worked under Vygotsky (p.84). In a footnote, she argues that "the members of the Vygotsky Circle frequently used the conceptual apparatus of Kurt Lewin's theory and, thus, by doing this they merged Vygotskian theory with Lewin's topological and vector psychology" (p.85). 

In summary, Zavershneva notes that Vygotsky's three models are united by the leading role of speech; systematic and semantic organization; and the origin of consciousness in the acquisition of social norms of behavior (p.92). But as Galperin argued in 1935, this intellectual system remains incomplete: "it did not have a theory of motivation, affect, and volition" or "a well-developed theory to explain the interrelations of the personality with the environment" (p.92). 

Aaro Toomela. "Methodology of cultural-historical psychology"
Toomela has published several pieces critical of activity theory, and this piece is no exception, although AT is not directly in Toomela's sights throughout most of this piece. He argues that in cultural-historical psychology, "science is always about facts and about the way the facts are interpreted" (p.102). 
In sum, in Vygotskian cultural-historical psychology scientific activity is understood as study of the world that is based simultaneously on method and methodology. Method is the procedure of study, the technical aspects performed. ... Methodology, in turn, is the study of the method of scientific cognition that determines why the study is conducted, what is the place of science and its nature; it is a philosophy of scientific cognition. (p.106)
After some discussion of Vygotskian method and methodology, Toomela critiques activity theory, arguing in a footnote that AT "cannot be theoretically defended" and pointing to his previous articles (p.117). He notes that in a previous exchange, Engestrom ignored his methodological arguments and instead noted how broadly cited AT is; Toomela claims that this indicates that "a reason why Activity Theory is doing so well might be that its methodological foundation is underdeveloped. Activity Theory is based on a psychologically implausible theory that environment somehow directly determines the development of mind" (p.117). Toomela complains that "the quality of the theory is not in the arguments, it is in the number of citations" (p.117).

Jaan Valsiner and Rene van der Veer. "Encountering the border: Vygotsky's zona blizhaishego razvita and its implications for theories of development
The zone of proximal development (ZPD in English, ZBR in Russian) is a frequently cited notion that Vygotsky used in the early 1930s. Here, the authors discuss its origin in Bergson (p.153) and Vygotsky's uptake of the concept as he moved into the study of pedology (p.155). They note that Vygotsky was interested in crisis periods in child development: Vygotsky identified crisis periods at ages 0, 1, 3, 7, 13, and 17 (p.156), and "it is during these periods that the emergence of higher levels of psychological organization take place" (p.156). Each crisis has an involution process, then a culmination point "that is the locus at which the dialectical synthesis is accomplished" (p.156). Implicated in this process is the ZBR, which cannot be studied directly in the present; "it refers to the hidden processes of the present that may become explicated in reality only as the present becomes the (nearest) past, while the (nearest) future becomes the present" (p.161).

The authors argue that in its recent uptake, the ZBR/ZPD has lost its original context and has become ontologized—it "is assumed to exist as an entity among other psychological functions," not as a "dynamic process of emergence" but as "a static depiction of some process of teaching and learning" (p.167). It's not the help that is important in the ZBR, they say, it is the horizon (p.167).

Galina Zuckerman. “Developmental Education”
The author discusses education and human development from a Vygotskian perspective, noting two laws of human development that Vygotsky formulated: “The law of the transition from natural to cultural forms of behavior that are mediated by tools, signs, and symbols” and “The law of transition from cooperative, interpsychological to individual, intrapsychological forms of behavior” (p.178).

Under the first law, the author discusses the self-development involved in mediation. The gap between the wish and the action, she says, yields the fruit of civilization (p.179).

Anke Werani. “A review of inner speech in cultural-historical tradition”
Werani examines inner speech in the Vygotskian tradition (p.273), noting that understanding involves words, thoughts, and motivations (p.280). The really valuable thing in this chapter is the table on p.282, which summarizes the functions of inner speech explored by Vygotsky, Luria, Halperin, Ananev, Sokolov, and Achutina (p.282); the author discusses this Soviet tradition of inner speech research as well as its uptake in the West .

Eugene Subbotsky. “Luria and Vygotsky: Challenges to current developmental research”
Here, Subbotsky reviews Vygotsky’s distinction between lower and higher mental functions (LMFs and HMFs). In Vygotsky’s account, LMFs are innate, non mediated, involuntary, and isolated, while HMFs are socially organized, mediated by the social world, voluntarily controlled, and linked (p.297). Vygotsky opposed this view to that of Gestalt, which relies on universally structured laws of perception; Vygotsky objected: how did these develop? (p.297).

From here, Subbotsky moves to recent work on executive function (EF), which is “a complex cognitive construct” consisting of “working memory, inhibitory control, and attention flexibility” (p.300). Yet in contemporary work, EF is studied as exclusively cognitive, not related to social and cultural contexts (p.300). He argues that such contexts are extremely important to development and developmental disorders, and calls for alternative approaches to EF; he nominates Vygotsky’s approach to the development of conscious action (p.301). Subbotsky moves from Vygotsky to Luria, whose foundational EF work was based on Vygotsky’s (p.304). As a side note, Subbotsky claims that Vygotsky-Luria HMFs were “the first primitive version of what late became known as ‘mental models’” (p.308).

Aaro Toomela. “There can be no cultural-historical psychology without neuropsychology. And vice versa.”
Toomela’s second chapter uses the sort of title Toomela enjoys using — a declarative sentence that draws a clear line in the sand. Here, Toomela argues that the Vygotsky-Luria approach to cultural-historical psychology “is pregnant with promises for many new discoveries that may lead to fundamental changes in our understanding of the human mind” (p.315).

Toomela bases this chapter on his own readings of the authors’ works and acknowledges that this reading is different from others (p.316)—by which he means not just Vygotskian scholars, but more directly, scholars in neuropsychology (e.g., p.328). The conventional interpretation, he says, is wrong: “Vygotsky (and Luria) consistently followed not the linear cause -> effect but the differentiated-holistic structural-systemic way of scientific thinking” (p.335).

Vygotsky and Luria argued that semiotically mediated thinking develops hierarchically and therefore “there can be more or less developed cultures depending on the hierarchical forms of word-meaning-structure of development that are available in a particular culture” (p.338). However, contemporary cultural-historical psychologists such as Cole and Wertsch disagree and label this thinking as ethnocentric. Toomela rejects this recent view for at least two reasons. The first is that the recent activity theory-flavored approaches are founded on non-Vygotskian “linear environment->individual relationship thinking” (p.338). The second is that “the conclusions of the activity theory are based on superficial similarities between tasks and task performances. Activity theory rejects a priori the possibility that mental structures underlying external task performance may be different” (p.338). (I guess I have been out of this loop for the past 20 years, since this assertion seems new to me.)

And I think this is where I’ll leave the review. This handbook covers an extraordinary range of viewpoints and draws on a broad set of disciplines to expand our understanding of cultural-historical psychology. Should you read it? If you’re interested in Vygotskian theory, or activity theory as an outgrowth of it — of course.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Topsight 2.0 > From analysis to design

At the end of the first edition of Topsight, I exhorted readers to use their new insights—generated from a field study, processed through analytical models—to design better solutions. But taking that next step, I said, went beyond the scope of the book.

That ending always bothered me for two reasons.

One was that, although I could point to other resources, readers would likely find it difficult to join their Topsight-generated insights with a given design approach.

The other was that I did know how to join these insights with a design approach—participatory design. I had written several articles on PD, one of which is my most broadly cited article, and I had already integrated PD methods into my field methods class. But when I was writing the first edition of Topsight, I hadn't worked out these connections, and I wanted the book to get out there.

In the intervening five years, however, I developed materials for better integrating the Topsight approach with PD. Among other things, I articulated the connection between Topsight-generated insights and design approaches and I emphasized the "fail faster" aspect of design work. The latter was influenced by my recent work with entrepreneurs, who (at the early stages, when their offering is still malleable) must continually reposition their offering to interest stakeholders—a process that encompasses design as well as argument, application, and financial model.

These insights were driven into Topsight 2.0. In this second edition, I add an entire new section—six chapters—discussing how to turn Topsight-generated insights into design decisions. The section covers PD techniques such as prototyping, organizational games, and future workshops, providing step-by-step directions and discussing when each might be brought into play. And, critically, it discusses how to feed the results of these techniques back into the design process so that readers can continue to develop insights and quickly iterate them.

To be honest, there is a ton of information on using prototyping, and much of it goes deeper than I can in Topsight 2.0. But you'll be hard-pressed to find much material on organizational games—an intriguing technique for understanding organizational relationships and routines, one that is a great match for the Topsight approach and that I discuss in detail here. Similarly, future workshops can help stakeholders to understand the deeper contradictions underlying their organizations so they can talk through these contradictions—but this technique also does not have a lot of published material.

Why this dearth of material? I think it's because design research has moved away from organizations and toward consumer software and products, an arena in which organizational games and future workshops don't make as much sense.

But for readers of Topsight 2.0, who want to design new solutions in the context of an organization, organizational games and future workshops are a great fit. If that sounds like you, please pick up a copy and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Topsight 2.0 > Now under Kindle Unlimited

I just announced that Topsight 2.0 is now available on Much more content, but the same price, so that I can get this book in the hands of people who need it.

For the same reason, I'm happy to announce that the Kindle version of Topsight 2.0 is now up, and it's listed under the Kindle Unlimited program. If you're signed up for Kindle Unlimited, you can download and read it for the low price of $0.00 (USD).

If you're not signed up for Kindle Unlimited, you can buy it for the same price as the original Topsight for Kindle — $7.99. That's lower than the $19.99 print price, and you can get it in your hands immediately!

I hope you try out Topsight 2.0 in either format. I'm excited about the book and its additions. Let me know what you think!

Topsight 2.0 > I have an announcement

Five years ago, I decided to try an experiment. What if I published a research methods book—a book that described how I conduct qualitative field methods for workplace studies? What if I made it as simple and accessible as possible? And what if I kept the price low so that people could access it easily?

The response was better than I hoped. Topsight has been used in graduate and undergraduate classes across North America. It has sold globally. It has been used in industry. Right now it's sitting on a perfect five-star rating on Amazon, with comments such as "Topsight is my favorite book. Hands down" and "THE book to buy for conducting research and writing a report." I'm thrilled that the book has been useful.

I'm also gratified that Topsight is being recommended by professors to their Ph.D. and MA students—and surprised that it is increasingly being cited in scholarly research (28 times as of today).


I've been using Topsight for those five years to teach the principles of workplace research to BA and MA students, as well as a reference for my Ph.D. students. And through those activities, I've noted some areas in which Topsight could be made even better.

For instance,

  • the early chapters discuss organizations, but not in as much detail as I would like.
  • the chapter on coding data is critical, but it isn't that easy to follow. 
  • the section on modeling provides several models, but doesn't give advice on how to build one's own customized data models.
  • the interim report isn't well aligned with the advice I give in the instructions.
  • the book ends by suggesting that students go on to engage in design—but doesn't talk about basic approaches to design, such as prototyping, organizational games, or future workshops.
Topsight is good, but it can be even better. 

I'm happy to announce that it now is. 

Topsight 2.0 has just been launched on It's reformatted, it's a lot longer, and it's addressed the points above as well as others. Better yet, it's the same list price—which makes my margins a little thinner, but keeps the book accessible to the people who need it.

As of right now, Topsight 2.0 is available in print; within the next two days, the Kindle version will also be available. It'll have the same content and the same features as the print version—and it'll also be the same price as the original Topsight for Kindle. 

Over the next few days, I'll be blogging more about the new features in Topsight 2.0. I hope you'll pick it up, and please don't hesitate to let me know what you think!

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Reading :: Bodies in Flux

Bodies in Flux: Scientific Methods for Negotiating Medical Uncertainty
By Christa Teston

Christa Teston has been applying the tools of rhetoric to medical practice for a while, authoring a series of articles that specifically focus on how medical professionals use agreed-upon methodological principles to work across fields. In this book, she pulls that work together, using Annemarie Mol's work on multiple ontologies to theorize this cross-field work. Here, Teston focuses squarely on methodology: how it is used to generate authority (p.1) and negotiate uncertainty (p.2).

Specifically, Teston looks at cancer care, and four ways to negotiate uncertainty in this activity: "evidential visualization, evidential assessment, evidential synthesis, and evidential computation" (p.2). Evidence, here, is understood as fundamentally rhetorical, and "backstage methods" (in the Goffman sense) allow medical professionals to "coproduc[e] evidential order from biological chaos" (p.15). Medical professionals use these methods to deal with inevitable flux, creating "evidential attunement," which "necessitates entanglements between human, nonhuman and computational actors" (p.15).

To develop this argument, Teston draws on "the so-called new materialist and nonhuman turn" (p.18). Perhaps Teston dislikes the term "new materialism" as much as I do: after name-checking Latour, Callon, and Bennett, she adds, "Although some have called this brand of materialism new, others (i.e., those who align themselves with materialist feminists) would suggest that there is nothing new about this materialism" (p.18). She goes on to discuss others in this vein, such as Hekman, Pickering, and Deleuze & Guattari, then concludes, "In this book, I locate material-discursive intra-actions between humans and nonhumans at the seat of method" (p.18).

She adds that although medical care strives for certainty, "this book unearths reasons for how and why it is that cancer care is not and can never be an objective science." She is not critiquing the "black boxes" of cancer care, which "are essential" because they "do the hard work of stabilizing, qualifying, and mobilizing 'future use of ideas and facts' while aggregating and mobilizing alliances (Danius 2002, 41-42)" (p.22). Rather, she seeks to examine how this work happens rhetorically, demonstrating rhetorical theory's explanatory power (p.22).

To reach this goal, Teston draws on case studies in which she investigates method attunement in cross-field medical work related to cancer care. She describes these qualitative studies and draws on rhetorical tools and concepts—Toulmin analysis, stasis theory, enthymematic reasoning, kairos, phronesis—to take apart the suasive work happening in each. And I appreciate that she performs these cases with a high degree of methodological explanation, demonstrating the rigor of each case.

On the strength of these cases, Teston concludes that "defining and diagnosing disease is a kind of quixotic empiricism" (p.169). Within these cross-field cases, she says, evidences result from rhetorical attunements—"In medical practice, rhetoric is a material-discursive performance that involves dissecting corporeal differences and similarities into manageable bits and bytes. Rhetoric is a material-discursive act of designing and deploying algorithmic protocols capable of predicting and communicating about possibility" (p.171).

Overall, the book was well done, both methodologically and theoretically. Teston offers a materialist approach to understanding medical rhetoric in particular and methodology in general. If you're interested in medical rhetoric, scientific rhetoric, materialist approaches to rhetoric, or methodology, definitely take a look.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reading :: Exploring Semiotic Remediation as Discourse Practice

Exploring Semiotic Remediation as Discourse Practice
By Paul A. Prior and Julie A. Hengst

In this 2010 collection, the authors discuss semiotic remediation—that is, how symbols can be taken up in an activity and, through that taking up, "produce altered conditions for future action" (p.1). This work is grounded in the dialogic semiotics of Voloshinov and Bakhtin (pp.2-3) and the notion of remediation as discussed in Bolter & Grushin as well as genre theory's taking up of genre assemblages (pp.7-8).

The collection features contributions from rhetoric and writing studies; communication studies; speech and hearing; anthropology; and cognitive sociology. In this review, I'll zero in on two of those contributions.

Julie Hengst's "Semiotic remediation, conversational narratives and aphasia" examines the phenomenon of aphasia, in which acquired brain damage results in lost ability to understand and/or express speech. "Clinical accounts often describe individuals with aphasia as being able to communicate better than they talk, that is, as individuals whose communicative competence is better than, though masked by disruptions in, their language abilities" (p.109). Aphasia, Hengst argues, "disrupts not only the isolated performance of individuals but also the typical communicative practices of all participants in an interaction," and thus "individuals with aphasia and their communication partners must work together to reorchestrate the semiotic resources of communicative interactions and redistribute the burden of meaning-making in interaction" (p.109). That is, because communication is social, aphasia-related communication disruptions are addressed socially. In a social performance,
communicative competence can exceed linguistic performance in interactions of individuals with aphasia. The ability of individuals with aphasia to engage in complex, frame-shifting discourse practices so successfully and yet with sometimes quite limited linguistic signaling also helps us to see beyond the bright lights of language, to recognize how much communicative weight other semiotics can and routinely do bear. (p.110)
Hengst illustrates this point with "narrative tellings" taken from semistructured interviews and observations of pairs that included an individual with aphasia and one without (p.117). Through descriptions and transcriptions, Hengst demonstrates how the participants combined narrative, gestures, and other symbolic resources (such as a map) to jointly tell stories.

Paul Prior's "Remaking IO: Semiotic remediation in the design process" examines how a multimedia design team jointly produced objects (p.207). Specifically, Prior examines this team in terms of situated practice, in which writing is treated as a verb (activity) rather than a noun (artifact) (p.209). By closely examining videos of the team's design interactions—presented here as screen grabs combined with the transcript—Prior gives us a detailed picture of these interactions. In one case, "the drawing/text on the whiteboard ... involved at least 29 different actions that touched the surface of the whiteboard, movements made by two people ... over a period of less than three minutes of interaction" (p.219). And these movements were coordinated with further movements, including a laptop screen and gestures in the air. "Inscription at the whiteboard then emerged in sequential, temporal, co-present interactive acts; it represented writing-as-activity rather than writing as only artifact" (p.219).

Prior connects this empirical work back to the notion of chronotopic lamination that he had developed earlier with some of the other contributors to this book: "the simultaneous management of multiple social frames and footings as laid out by Goffman ... and Goodwin and Duranti..." (p.228). Here, chronotopes are linked or laminated. Chronotopes can be representational (narrative) or embodied (experiental), but they can also be embedded in affordances, such as when the chronotope of the road is embedded in "such sociomaterial forms as roads, signage, maps, and inns for travelers" (p.228). And "in activity all three of these chronotopic dimensions are necessarily fused" (p.229, his emphasis).

Thus "inscription and semiotic production [are] both situated in local interaction and dispersed across time" (p.233). The team Prior studied used multiple mediational means to semiotically remediate their design processes. But, he adds, "this kind of heterogeneous and heterochronic mix of mediational means, this kind of semiotic remediation, is a pervasive feature of human social practice, not an anomalous development of the digital age" (p.233). People demonstrate "semiotic agility" in switching between semiotic worlds; "managing multiplicity is simply part of everyday existence" (p.233).

Overall, this was a really interesting and useful book. I haven't done justice to all of the contributors in this review, but the two chapters I have overviewed should give you an idea of what the rest of the book offers. Pick it up!

Reading :: Assessment and Intervention for Executive Function Difficulties

Assessment and Intervention for Executive Function Difficulties
By George McCloskey, Lisa A. Perkins, and Bob Van Divner

In school, "80 pound boys are not expected to wrestle 120 pound boys"—that is, "students the same age but at varying stages of physical development are not expected to perform comparatively in gym class" (p.70). However, in terms of mental development, it's a different story: students with brain development differences "are expected to perform comparably in terms of executive function-dependent capacities labeled as responsibility, self-organization, self-direction, self-discipline and the like, in order to earn passing grades in most academic classes" (p.70). Such capacities are typically not treated as developmental differences but as "well within the control of the child" (p.71).

And since they are treated this way, "the negative consequences applied to a child not performing up to such standards can be severe, unreasonable, and often uncompromising in nature" (p.71). We wouldn't chastise an 80-pound boy for losing three straight wrestling matches to a 120-pound boy, but parents and teachers do chastise students who don't perform at grade level due to developing executive functions. "School staff does not see the inordinate time and effort the student is placing into completing school work and the strain that this additional effort is placing on the child at home" (p.138). And for many students, "when no specific learning disabilities are identified and ADHD is ruled out ... they are frequently subjected to what amounts to character assassination" (p.138, my emphasis). Poor production is attributed to moral rather than developmental factors: "laziness, apathy, lack of willingness to take responsibility for their own actions, lack of motivation, overt hostility, or lack of respect for authority" (p.138). These attributions may ease the conscience of instructor or parents, the authors note, but they don't solve the problem—they only exacerbate it (p.139), and they become part of the story the child tells herself about herself. Rather than setting the student on the right path, they morally condemn the student for not doing what they literally cannot do.

Executive functions are "mental capacities that direct or cue the use of other mental processes and/or motor responses" and that "have some link to activation of portions of the frontal lobe regions of the cerebral cortex" (p.38). The authors identify 23 of them: perceive, initiate, modulate/effort, gauge, focus/select, sustain, stop/interrupt, inhibit, flexible/shift, hold, manipulate, organize, foresee/plan (short term), generate, associate, balance, store, retrieve, pace, time, execute, monitor, correct (pp.41-43, with definitions). As the authors note, as the cerebral cortex matures, these capacities can develop socioculturally. And when parts of the cerebral cortex mature more slowly than others in the age cohort, these capacities (such as the ability to focus, organize, or plan) do not develop as quickly, and thus "simple" school activities—such as paying attention, extracting information from a complex reading, or keeping up with one's schoolwork—are far more effortful for the student than for her peers. Yet for the casual observer, these difficulties seem to be of the student's own making: if only they would pay attention, apply themselves, or take the time to think ahead!

EFs are often associated with syndromes, even ones that are not founded on the EF deficiency:
For example, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves neural circuits routed through a number of subcortical structures classified as part of the limbic system, with the paths of these circuits also passing through the frontal lobes. While dysfunction of the neural circuit within the limbic system might be the root cause of the person's anxiety disorder, the disruption of the circuit within the subcortical region can impact the frontal lobes. This results in executive function difficulties while the person is in a state of anxiety. Therefore, some of the diagnostic criteria for GAD include difficulty controlling worry, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and sleep disturbance. All of these symptoms represent difficulty with the engagement of various executive function capacities, which are the outcome of experiencing anxiety. (p.77; their italics, but my bold type added)
As this passage implies, EFs such as "focus" are constructs that describe capacities emerging from the interaction of brain structures (in the case of "focus," these structures likely include the anterior cingulate and the dorsilateral prefrontal cortex) (p.83). The authors overview the likely brain structures associated with all 23 EFs (pp.83-85).

The authors discuss assessment as well, overviewing common EF measures and how they are combined to initiate measurable production decrement cascades (pp.120-122) and production increment cascades (pp.124-125). They note that EF difficulties are often not recognized unless they combine both learning difficulties and production difficulties: when the child has only learning difficulties, these are often not recognized, and when the child has only production difficulties, these are typically attributed to character flaws (i.e., the child is learning, but just doesn't want to do her homework) (p.137).

Fortunately, change is possible: "brain function can be altered through intervention" (p.179): Children can be taught how to activate neural networks to achieve positive goals (p.180). Beyond those interventions, the brain will typically mature: "for many children faced with overly aggressive expectations for brain maturation, a little time may be all that is needed to achieve the desired levels of self-direction. For others with more substantial delays, the ultimate solution to the executive difficulties being experienced may simply be much more time" (p.184). How much more? "Children with ADHD typically experience a 30% delay in the development of specific self-regulation capacities"—so if you are waiting for your child to exhibit the self-direction of a 20-year-old, you may have to wait until she is 30 (p.184). That's a long time—but it will happen.

I found this book to be fascinating. It's not uniformly well written, but I found it to be accessible. It helped me to think through some of Vygotsky's work on "self-mastery" and the ideological aspects surrounding his work, which largely focused on using semiotic tools to achieve that self-mastery. But it also helped me to think about the students who enter my classroom, some with documented disabilities, some without. Reading this book has helped me to better understand the challenges that some of these students face as they tackle our complex assignments, as well as the incorrect moral evaluations they may have received as they poured effort into schoolwork that was once beyond their capacities. For understanding both aspects, I recommend this book.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Reading :: Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design

Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design
Edited by Jesper Simonsen and Toni Robertson

This 2013 collection does a nice job of pulling the history, theory, ethics, methods, and applications of participatory design together into a single volume. It draws from PD stalwarts such as Kensing, Greenbaum, Bannon, Ehn, Blomberg, Trigg, and Bratteteig (although, regrettably, not Susanne Bodker!) to provide a PD reference of sweeping scope. Although it won't substitute for the friendly case studies of, say, Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems, it covers the past, present, and future of PD in great detail.

For me, the history chapters were the most helpful. I've studied PD history fairly thoroughly, but still learned many things from Robertson and Simonsen's "Participatory design: An introduction" and Kensing and Greenbaum's "Heritage: Having a Say," both of which emphasize PD's focus on practice's epistemological and ethical roles.

Bannon and Ehn's chapter "Design: Design matters in Participatory Design" was similarly useful, situating PD in relationship to various design traditions and examining the design challenges facing PD, specifically as it refocuses on infrastructuring.

Robertson and Wagner's "Ethics: Engagement, representation, and politics-in-action" clearly states PD's differentiator: "people have a basic right to make decisions about how they do their work and indeed any other activities where they might use technology" (p.65).

I've written a very short review for this thick, detailed book. But if you're interested in PD—either in itself or in relation to design or research ethics—it should be on your shelf or in your hands.

Reading :: Self-Regulation and Autonomy

Self-Regulation and Autonomy: Social and Developmental Dimensions of Human Conduct
Edited by Brian W. Sokol, Frederick M.E. Grouzet, and Ulrich Müller

Although I'm calling this a "book review," I'm really just going to discuss one chapter: Challis J.E. Kinnucan and Janet E. Kubli's "Understanding Explanatory Talk through Vygotsky's Theory of Self-Regulation."

In this chapter, the authors are specifically interested in explanatory talk and "explanatory competence": "Indeed, it has been said that individuals' everyday cognitive functioning might be impossible without explanations," the authors add, citing Keil & Wilson (1998) (p.231). The authors "consider explanatory talk as one aspect of children's developing capacities for self-regulation" (p.231) and "ground our discussion of self-regulation and explanatory skills in a sociocultural perspective" (pp.231-232).

As readers of this blog know, self-regulation—typically termed "self-mastery"—is a major theme in Vygotsky's works, and self-talk is for Vygotsky a critical pathway for achieving it. The authors draw from sociocultural researchers such as Diaz & colleagues and Daniels, Cole & Wertsch to ground their discussion of "the development of self-regulation as an outcome of both social and individual processes" (p.232).

Self-regulatory processes as higher mental functions. The authors first discuss self-regulatory processes as higher mental functions (here, we'll call them HMFs), drawing on Mind in Society (which itself incorporates a part from Vygotsky's History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions) as well as commentary by Meshcheryakov to define HMFs as
guid[ing] and controll[ing] both thought and action and distanc[ing] humans from the control of environmental stimuli. Ultimately, the operation of higher mental processes yielded self-regulated action and adaptation. In Vygotsky's theory, the key process that produces higher mental functioning, or regulatory skill, is internalization. Internalization is both a developmental outcome and the primary mechanism by which interpersonal activity (e.g., dialogue, shared practices and strategies) is transformed into inner, self-regulating thought processes. (p.233)
HMFs contrast with lower mental functions (LMFs), which have developed "along a strong biologically based trajectory and included what cognitive scientists today classify as basic sensory, perceptual, attentional, and memory processes" (p.233). The HMFs, according to Vygotsky, were uniquely human. "Among higher mental processes, Vygotsky included voluntary attention and sustained concentration, concept formation, planning, and problem solving. In Ferryhough's (2010) view, components of executive function and forms of regulatory behavior are contemporary examples of what Vygotsky categorized as higher mental processes" (p.233).

(Note that Vygotsky's work on HMFs, described here, was subsumed by his later work on psychological systems — see chapter 6 in the linked review. Here, Vygotsky argued that the mental functions remain more or less the same, but their relationships change. That is, things that were counted as HMFs are actually effects of relationships or "constellations" of lower mental functions. I see an analogy to how neuropsychologists now regard executive functions as constructs for describing emerging relationships among neurological functions.) 

The authors add that "among Vygotsky's most powerful insights as that sociocultural processes forged new intermental or interfunctional links among higher mental functions" (p.234).

Mediation of self-regulated thinking and behavior. The authors then turn to the question of mediation, drawing on Wertsch (p.235). They add that "Kozulin (2002) warned that the full range of mediational social interactions is still not fully grasped," in part because of "its necessarily context-specific nature" (p.236). Kozulin proposed "distinguishing between type of social mediation and the particular mediating techniques used by adults with children" (pp.236-237): types include scaffolding, approval, and encouragement, while techniques include localized implementation of each type (p.237).

The authors note that for Vygotsky, "self-regulative uses of external speech were ... the earliest manifestations of inner speech" (p.239), and cite Diaz in asserting that "private speech gradually 'takes on a planning and guiding function'" (p.239).

Developing explanatory competence. The authors then review the contemporary research on explanatory competence "with the aim of illustrating Vygotsky's ideas about the gradual shift from externally to internally mediated forms of self-regulated thought" (p.240).

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, I actually only read this one chapter in depth, so I can't review this book as a whole. But this chapter was really useful for me in thinking through how Vygotsky's contributions have been, and can be, taken up. Specifically, it allowed me to better consider how Vygotsky's "self-mastery" relates to contemporary considerations of self-regulation and to the construct of executive functions. And, more broadly, it allowed me once again to consider how Vygotsky's assertions interacted with his political milieu and ideology: self-mastery was, after all, a huge theme for Engelsian dialectics and a hallmark of humanity. In contemporary neuropsychology, self-regulation is understood as important but, I think, not absolutely central.

In any case, if you are interested in how Vygotsky's work can be taken up in contemporary neuropsychological discourse about self-regulation, check out this chapter.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Reading :: The Practical Essence of Man

The Practical Essence of Man: The 'Activity Approach' in Late Soviet Philosophy
Edited by Vesa Oittinen and Andrey Maidansky

As long-time readers of this blog know, activity theory was developed by A.N. Leontiev, a Soviet psychologist, building on acknowledged influences such as Vygotsky as well as unacknowledged or lightly acknowledged influences such as Rubinshtein and Lewin. It was picked up in the West in various manifestations, including by Finnish education researcher Yrjo Engestrom, who extended it to better account for organizational and cross-organizational interactions. Readers of this blog also know that AT was in many ways a product of its time and place — its tenets were, if not entirely based in orthodox Marx-Engels-Leninism, wrapped in that orthodoxy, and Leontiev in particular was sensitive and reactive to the political environment in both Stalinist and post-Stalinist USSR.

But AT was taken up beyond psychology, specifically in philosophy and most famously in Ilyenkov (from whom Engestrom borrows the implementation of “contradiction” that now characterizes Engestromian AT analysis). This collection explores that philosophical tradition.

(A brief aside here: I am generally uninterested in philosophy, which I find to be tedious, low-stakes, and uninteresting. But I am interested in how philosophy impacts other spheres of human activity.)

In the introduction, the editors acknowledge that although the psychological AT is now known globally, “its sibling, the philosophical activity theory, which arose among Soviet philosophers in the 1960s, remains virtually unknown outside Russia” (p.1). Partially, the authors say, that is because people inside and outside Russia have written off the entire 70 years of the Soviet Union as an intellectual loss, a period in which nothing of philosophical value could arise. But, the authors argue, thinkers such as Bakhtin and Ilyenkov have proven differently. The activity theory approach is similarly an “innovative undercurrent” that “is worthy of reception and critical assessment even today” (p.1).

The “scope of the activity approach is wider than that of Marxist philosophy, as it repeatedly contested the received ideas of Soviet Marxism-Leninism” (p.1). Specifically, the authors charge, the vulgarized Diamat (dialectical materialism) understanding of praxis was overly pragmatic, “de facto identified with ‘success’ in action” (pp.1-2). In reaction, the AT approach broke with these ideas, a “Soviet analogy to the Western ‘Praxis’ Marxism” (p.2). The AT approach developed “independently from Western theories of action” such as Weber’s, and consequently had a broader understanding of action: “they understood activity as the fundamental trait of man’s relations with the surrounding world” and thus as “forming the methodological basis of all human and social sciences” (p.2). The AT approach was based on Aristotelian praxis and poesis (p.3), but extended to other non-Soviets such as Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel (p.4).

Ilyenkov wrote “the first manifesto of the activity approach in philosophy” in 1962, in his discussion of the ideal, which in his estimation was not just a “reflection” but “an attribute of human activity; it is the special, cultural-historical dimension of man as an active being” (p.4). (I’ve reviewed Ilyenkov’s books elsewhere.) This concept of the ideal was taken up by other philosophers in the early 1960s, during the “short ‘thaw’ period of Khrushchev’s so-called de-Stalinization” (p.7). The authors provide summaries of some of these philosophers’ ideas.

“In the 1970s, the Soviet state became slack and inactive” and “the activity approach lost its popularity” (p.14). Yet some philosophers continued to develop it.

With that background in mind, let’s get to a selection of chapters.

David Bakhurst. “Activity and the Search for True Materialism.”
In this chapter, Bakhurst recounts how, when he began studying the USSR’s philosophical culture, his mentors told him the key concept was activity. Yet “I gradually began to realise that there was no settled view within the Russian tradition of what the so-called ‘activity approach’ amounted to” (p.17). Everyone agreed that the first of the Theses on Feuerbach was the starting point, but no one seemed to agree on what it meant (p.17). In psychology, Vygotsky’s followers used the concept of activity to insulate themselves from charges of idealism, “and thereby succeeded in saving much of Vygotsky’s legacy, albeit in transmuted form” (pp.17-18). In philosophy, it directed attention to philosophically interesting parts of Marx’s thought (p.18). “In this way the concept served as a conduit for philosophical creativity in a  difficult and repressive philosophical culture” (p.18).

But here, Bakhurst is interested in activity’s general philosophical significance beyond the Soviet milieu. He focuses on Ilyenkov, who argued that a relation between mind and world is only possible through activity (p.19). He summarizes Ilyenkov’s approach through ten theses (pp.19-21), then reviews some friendly objections. For instance, Batishchev characterizes the activity approach as “substantialism”: by elevating object-oriented activity to a supercategory, the approach becomes instrumental and fails to account for fundamental concepts such as communication and community (pp.21-22). He also claims that the approach as radically anthropocentric (p.22).

Bakhurst acknowledges that some activity theorists, such as V.P. Zinchenko, were vulnerable to the criticism, but Ilyenkov is not (p.23). Yet “the ‘environmental’ [anthropocentric] objection is spot on” (p.24). He thinks that this is a repairable problem.

Bakhurst then contemplates the question of normative authority in the activity approach, a “live philosophical issue” (p.27). He concludes with “a radical, even heretical, suggestion”: the activity approach’s problems generally “issue from the idea that activity is a category from which we can deduce the relation between subject and object, thinking and being”—but what if we instead construe our work as attempting “to express the terms in which we must think human activity, the terms in which human activity must understand itself” (p.27)?

Versa Ottinen. “‘Praxis’ as the Criterion of Truth? The Aporias of Soviet Marxism and the Activity Approach”
Here, the author argues that praxis is not the same as activity. Praxis was a cornerstone of Marxism-Leninism, and thus became “ideologically overcharged” (p.29), partially due to Plekhanov, whom Ottinen charges was “the real founder of dialectical materialism” (p.31). Plekhanov indiscriminately conflated the praxis arguments of the young Marx and the old Engels, and the result was that “the idea of praxis became a seemingly omnipotent argument” (p.31). Praxis in Soviet philosophy became “a confused concept” (p.33)

Andrey Maidansky. “Reality as Activity: The Concept of Praxis in Soviet Philosophy”
Maidansky also takes a crack at the concept of praxis. He notes that Marx and Engels considered themselves “practical materialists” and understood world history as built upon labor; “For Marx, every human thing is nothing other than objectified labour—the condensed and hardened lava of Action” (p.42). In contrast, the author argues, Lenin’s Materialism and Empirocriticism defines matter as “an objective reality given to man by sensations” (p.43)—the kind of materialism that Marx had criticized.

Following the Marxist rather than the Leninist understanding, the author further notes that according to Marx, nature is an acting subject. Ilyenkov, along the same lines, says that labor is the subject, thought is the predicate (p.45). And in the same tradition, Batishchev argues that “in the process of practical activity, a human being changes not only an object but himself as well, his own personality, and even human nature itself” (pp.46-47).

Sergei Mareev. “Abstract and Concrete Understanding of Activity: ‘Activity’ and ‘Labour’ in Soviet Philosophy”
Mareev argues that “activity” is too broad a concept to apply methodologically. He advocates replacing the abstract “activity” with the concrete “labour” (p.96):

In any case, we should start with the notion of labour, because only through labour can we explain the origin of all ideal senses and meanings that may be produced later in all fields of scientific and artistic activity. Evald Ilyenkov played an outstanding role here, showing how the ideal, as such, is produced directly within material activity, that is, in the labour-process. This link was missing in the works of A.N. Leontiev, the well-known psychologist, which is why he supported Ilyenkov so warmly. (p.97)

He also notes that “The essence of speech follows from the essence of labour, and it can be deduced from and explained by it only. This is the general idea and general method of the Vygotsky-Leontiev school” (p.99).

Overall, this book was helpful in understanding the uptake of the concept of activity from psychology to philosophy in the late Soviet Union. I found some chapters helpful, especially Bakhurst’s and the Introduction, but overall this book is more geared to those who have a more active interest in philosophy. If that’s you, certainly pick this book up.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Reading :: The Mind on Paper

The Mind on Paper: Reading, Consciousness and Rationality
By David R. Olson

David Olson is a cognitive developmental psychologist who has, according to the back cover of this book, authored or edited 20 books on cognition, language, and literacy. Unfortunately I have only recently become aware of his work (I don't recall seeing it being cited in writing studies or professional communication). I'm going to have to read more of it, because this book is great.

Olson argues in the summary that "to understand the cognitive implications of literacy, it is necessary to see reading and writing as providing access to and consciousness of aspect of language ... that are implicit and unconscious in speech ... Reading and writing create a system of metarepresentational concepts that bring those features of language into consciousness as a subject of discourse" (p.i). To understand reading and writing, Olson presents five sections: introduction; theories of the relation between writing and mind; reading and the invention of language about language; the implications and uses of metarepresentational language; and conclusions. I'll touch on some of these parts below.

In Chapter 2, "Inventing Writing," Olson traces the history of writing: preserving and communicating information; inventing signs for language; inventing the alphabet; and (interestingly) how children reinvent language. I've discussed the invention of writing before, but Olson brings new insights as well. Among them: "Early forms of writing are now seen as directed to creating a functioning system of visual communication and not an attempt to represent language" and "representing language was a slow and largely unintended achievement" (p.23)—specifically
primarily keeping records of business transactions. But business transactions were verbal agreements. Why not represent the actual verbal expressions? One reason ... is that an appropriat set of concepts about the properties of language that could be visually represented was not available to the inventors. In inventing and borrow writing systems, they were discovering the properties of the language they spoke. (p.23)
That is, how do you visually depict a syllable, word, or sentence when you haven't conceptualized what these units are? These units are not necessarily intuitive (a fact that becomes obvious if you have ever tried to transcribe a conversation). In inventing written signs, Olson says, we invented these units: "the visual sign changed from representing things [such as vats of beer] to representing the words of things, thus producing the first logographs or word signs"—signs that "could be combined syntactically with other word signs to convey a meaning" (p.26). Since this system "directs attention to the language used as opposed to the event represented," it produces the "consciousness of language" (p.26), leading to the depiction of words and syllables (pp.26-27), and eventually consonants and vowels (pp.29-30). In representing speech events spatially, writing changed how we thought about (and allowed us to retroactively assign units to) those speech events. As he argues in the Conclusion, "The translation of language from a time-based temporal structure to a spatial one is the occasion for the discovery and consequently the awareness of certain implicit or underlying features of language" (p.219)

In Chapter 4, "Vygotsky and the Vygotskians," Olson examines Vygotsky's thoughts about writing and specifically Vygotsky's thesis that "social practices become psychological ones" (p.53). Olson characterizes Vygotsky as insisting that "language was definitive of thought itseld and that the mind should be seen as an assembly of internalized cultural tools, language primarily among them" (p.54)—a reasonable though not entirely accurate characterization. Olson argues that language "defines thinking, not simply aids it"—and characterizes Vygotsky as saying that "language is less a tool than the very medium of thinking" (p.54). Vygotsky, he says, argued that "writing was not only useful as a practical resource but also brought 'awareness, abstraction and control' to speech and thought" (p.57, quoting Thought and Language). In fact, Olson says that "Vygotsky insisted on the importance of writing in the development of consciousness of language" — and notes that Cole & Cole disagree, insisting that writing is secondary to social processes (p.60). Olson concludes by arguing that the "tool" metaphor of writing is too limited: "the attempt to represent language in a new spatial medium, I argue, may lead one to invent new concepts that make one conscious of the properties implicit in the spoken medium ... the concepts essential to a critical rationality" (p.63).

In Chapter 5, "The Cognitive Science of Metarepresentation," Olson takes this thesis further. Along the way, he critiques Kahneman's focus on System 1 thinking. For Kahneman, logic is normative and unexamined. Olson argues that "logic is metarepresentational; it is less a theory of thinking than a metalanguage for thinking about thinking" (p.69). Kahneman's System 2 ignores mediational means such as writing, Olson says. That's significant because "metarepresentational processes are embedded not only in the minds of educated thinkers but also in institutional structures such as science, government, the school and academy that have responsibility for maintaining the standards of rationality" (p.70). Metarepresentational signs—described by Vygotsky as "self-referring" signs—are important for understanding System 2, but also phenomena such as Theory of Mind (pp.77-80). As he says in the Conclusion, "metalanguages lift a structure from its place in normal discourse to make it an object of thought, something that one may say something about" (pp.220-221).

Overall, this is a tightly argued and thoughtful book building on Olson's decades of research. I found it to be fascinating. If you're interested in the cognition of language, and/or want to rethink Vygotsky in light of later cognitive research, pick it up.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Reading :: Executive Functions and the Frontal Lobes

Executive Functions and the Frontal Lobes: A Lifespan Perspective
Edited by Peter J. Anderson,‎ Vicki Anderson,‎ and Rani Jacobs

In this collection, the authors discuss the fascinating subject of executive functions, something that I have lightly covered on this blog in my recent reviews of books on aphasia. This collection, however, covers the entire lifespan: childhood to old age, healthy development to recoveries from injuries.

"Executive function," Peter J. Anderson explains in Chapter 1 ("Towards a developmental model of executive function"), "is not a unitary cognitive process, but instead is a psychological construct that is composed of multiple interrelated high-level cognitive skills" (p.3). It is
a collection of interrelated functions, or processes, which are responsible for goal-directed or future-oriented behavior, and have been referred to as the 'conductor' which controls, organizes, and directs cognitive activity, emotional responses and behavior (Gioia, Isquith, & Guy, 2001). The key elements of executive function include (a) anticipation and deployment of attention; (b) impulse control and self-regulation; (c) initiation of activity; (d) working memory; (e) mental flexibility and utilization of feedback; (f) planning ability and organization; and (g) selection of efficient problem-solving strategies. (p.4)
Anderson overviews several models of executive function, including the supervisory attentional system (SAS) model (pp.7-9), the working memory model (pp.9-11), the model of executive (self-regulatory) functions (pp.11-13), components of executive functions (pp.13-14), problem-solving framework (pp.14-15), and executive control system (pp.15-18).  He identifies strengths and weaknesses of each. (Note: In Chapter 17, "Models for the rehabilitation of executive impairments," authors Barbara A. Wilson and Jonathan Evans state that the SAS model is closely related to Luria's conception of problem-solving; p.389).

In Chapter 2, Cinzia R. De Luca and Richard J. Leventer discuss "Developmental trajectories of executive functions across the lifespan." They begin by explaining that EF are not just localized to the frontal lobes (and call out Luria 1973 for treating the two as synonymous) (p.24). But the frontal lobes do play a large role in EFs, and the frontal lobes degenerate first—both in aging and in pathological dementias (p.25).

The authors break down development into several stages and provide detailed tables for each stage, allowing us to see how brain development and EF relate by year. For instance, we find that at age 4, children increase both gray and white matter volumes as well as metabolism; they see improved cognitive flexibility at this age (p.34). Between ages 9-12, most EFs demonstrate a spurt, including working memory, strategic thinking, fluency, and goal-directed behavior (p.35). Through adolescence, white matter increases and gray matter volume decreases (p.36). From the mid-20s until the late 30s, "the major change in the PFC [prefrontal cortex] is the continued steady increase in myelination" or the fatty insulation around axions (p.39). Peak EF skills are realized from 20-29. Alas, "brain weight begins to decline from age 30, dropping by 10% to age 90," correlating with a long slow decline in EF skills (p.40).

But there is hope for us above 30. Although older people perform more poorly on clinical planning tasks, they perform as well as a younger cohort on ecologically valid planning tasks (p.41). The discrepancy reflects "the greater opportunity to effectively apply compensatory strategies and knowledge to successfully perform everyday task types" (p.41)—in other words, older people have learned mediatory strategies or picked up mediatory tools to which they can shift some of the cognitive burden.

In Chapter 3, Louise H. Phillips and Julie D. Henry discuss "Adult aging and executive functioning" in more detail. They note that since each EF "involves a complex network of brain areas and multiple cognitive processes," aging does not affect all in the same way (p.58). Interestingly, older adults see more prefrontal activation, and more bilateralized activation, than younger adults when performing the same cognitive tasks—likely because prefrontal decline requires more neural recruitment to compensate (pp.58-59).

The authors examine the evidence of how aging affects various EFs. Interestingly, in older people, planning is slower and involves more moves, but goal conflict handling—which is involved in the most difficult planning tasks—does not appear to decline (pp.68-69). The authors conclude by calling for more research on "well-practiced or socially relevant executive tasks" (p.73).

In Chapter 8, "Assessment of behavioral aspects of executive function," authors Gerald A. Gioia, Peter K. Isquith, and Laura E. Kenealy begin by discussing ecological validity and the assessment of EF. They define ecological validity as "predictive value of functioning in the everyday environment" (p.179) and contrast it with traditional (construct) validity (p.181). Ecological validity has obvious ramifications for "implications and predictions for the individual in his or her everyday milieu" (p.181). The authors overview various assessment methods to get at ecological validity.

In Chapter 18, Mark Ylvisaker and Timothy Feeney's "Helping children without making them helpless: Facilitating development of executive self-regulation in children and adolescents," the authors specifically examine self-regulation in children. Children often have "weak self-regulation" if they have "neurological impairment or immaturity" such as ADHD; "chaotic, unpredictable, disorganized home environments"; "weak emotional attachments" to adults, such as children in the foster care system; "few opportunities for legitimate control over events in their lives"; and developmental immaturity (p.413). The authors embrace a Vygotskian approach and use "a typical developmental template for developing intervention and support strategies" (p.414). One typically Vygotskian approach they use is to provide a script that children can internalize "as automatic SR [self-regulation] self-talk" (p.416). The authors provide several cases to illustrate this approach. They also describe teaching compensatory strategies (p.425). They conclude by advocating the approach of identifying strengths and goals as opposed to "pathology-oriented interventions that focus primarily on identifying deficits for purposes of their amelioration" (p.432).

Overall, the book was fascinating to me. After reading the foundational works of Vygotsky and Luria, I have been thinking about how a Vygotskian approach to workplace/professional writing might involve better understanding the EFs that collectively support writing and information tasks. Reading this collection, in addition to similar work on aphasia, gave me a much better idea of what has been built on that Vygotsky-Luria foundation, as well as how complicated our cognition really is. If you're similarly interested in these themes, I recommend this book.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Reading :: The Power of Intuition

The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work
By Gary Klein

Over ten years ago, I reviewed Klein's Sources of Power, in which he discusses decision-making in high-pressure situations (by firefighters, soldiers, neonatal nurses, etc.). Klein had expected that under pressure, decision-makers would identify two potential courses of action, compare them, then select one. Instead, he discovered that they typically only thought about one course of action, quickly modified it by modeling it mentally based on their previous experiences, then took it. He began discussing this process under the heading of intuition, which he defines as "the way we translate our experience into action" (p.xiv, his emphasis)

This book builds on that notion of insight—and uses many of the same studies for grounding. Here, Klein is addressing professionals (and especially managers) who want to build intuition at work. How is it built? How can you apply it? How do you safeguard it so that your team can act on it? Drawing on his experience in teaching intuition, Klein identifies principles for developing intuition and using it to lead effectively. He does this with plentiful examples from research and consulting, but he also offers several decision-making exercises (DMX) and discusses how to build your own DMXes to help prepare your own teams.

If you're interested in improving your decision-making skills in specific activities—or those of your team—take a look.