Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Reading :: On Justification

On Justification: Economies of Worth
By Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot

This book was published in French in 1991 and in English in 2006. Here, a sociologist (Boltanski) and an economist (Thevenot) examine the question: What frameworks do people use to understand the social world? Where do these frameworks conflict, and when they do, how do these conflicts manifest (p.9)? And they approach it with an interestingly rhetorical tool: How do people justify things (p.9)? That is, when someone addresses a dispute, what arguments do they use, and what assumed frameworks—specifically, political philosophies—do those arguments rest upon (p.13)? What sense of injustice do people feel when forms of justification impinge on inapplicable situations? What problems arise when arguments are based on "illegitimate" (i.e., incompatible) values (p.15)?

To borrow a metaphor from Vygotsky, the authors propose to go fishing. The phenomenon in question—the frameworks on which people draw—is not directly observable. But the justifications they provide allow us to identify the contours of these frameworks. Importantly, these frameworks are not attached to collectives (e.g., discourse communities) but to situations (p.16). People confront uncertainty by using objects to establish orders, and they consolidate objects by attaching them to these orders (p.17). The approach allows us to examine these objects and orders, and it also allows us to understand organizations as composite assemblages from different worlds, ones that can tolerate situations of different natures and that can deploy a plurality of mechanisms from different worlds (p.18). By examining a bilevel construction between people and generality (pp.18-19), the authors examine how the two relate. As the authors succinctly tell us, the book's "primary aim is to build a framework within which a single set of theoretical instruments and methods can be used to analyze the critical operations that people carry out when they want to show their disagreement without resorting to violence, and the ways they construct, display, and conclude more or less lasting agreements" (p.25).

This setup is exciting. The project opens up a way for us to talk about heterogenous logics in organizations, something that is also discussed in places such as Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013), Heckscher & Adler's The Firm as a Collaborative Community (2006), and my own book All Edge (2015). Beyond these books, my reading of this book suggests a methodology for getting at these logics through carefully structured empirical work. At this point in the book, I expected some clever fine-grained empirical research, perhaps along the lines of psychological experiments or focus groups in which participants encountered a carefully constructed (and conflicted) scenario that would prompt different and contrasting justifications. Or, perhaps, some closely structured fieldwork.

Alas, although the authors hint at that sort of work, they mainly stay at the theoretical level. When they look at specific cases, these are mainly through Boltanski's close reading of management books (the same approach he took elsewhere)—an approach that I think is inadequate for understanding the relationship between individual justifications and larger frameworks, especially since management books are not the product of a single author but rather a collaboration among authors, editors, editorial boards, marketers, distributors and others.

The authors also reduce the frameworks—perhaps a priori, though that is not clear to me—by identifying political orders and characterizing them through the earliest proponents to have presented the polity in systematic form (p.71). Thus we get a "critical matrix" (Ch.8, although, alas, not presented as a matrix but rather in blocks of text) consisting of the following worlds:

  • inspired
  • domestic
  • fame
  • civic
  • market
  • industrial (p.237)
Obviously members of a society must be able to navigate situations from different worlds; for instance, artists (inspired) must be able to stand in line like anyone else (industrial) (p.216). And obviously people who argue from different premises can compromise (i.e., agree to suspend a clash between worlds without recourse to a one-world test; p.277). Such compromises are always composites, and therefore can always unravel via a recourse to a one-world test; but they can solidify with objects composed of elements from different worlds, making them more resistant to critiques (p.278; you can see the relationship with actor-network theory, on which the authors draw). 

But, the authors argue, when multiple worlds are in play, the critique is inconsistent (p.282). I wondered: is this inconsistency perhaps because their a priori framework is so confining? Compare it to, say, Bakhtin, who takes a much more open approach to different logics and worlds. 

Nevertheless, the authors have my thanks for explicitly tying their project to rhetoric (p.73) and for deeply thinking through the issues inherent in justifications across different frameworks/views/political orders. Their work is more fine-grained than I've been able to represent here, and I expect that I'll return to this book again as I think about these issues. 

Reading :: Human-Machine Reconfigurations

Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions, 2nd Edition
By Lucy A. Suchman

Lucy Suchman's Plans and Situated Actions (1987) was a huge influence on the fields of human-computer interaction and computer-supported cooperative work. It currently has 11586 citations, according to Google Scholar, and for good reason: This book changed HCI by demonstrating that the then-dominant view—the view embraced by information-processing cognitive psychology, in which an abstract mind engaged in cognition-as-computation—could not adequately account for how people engaged with machines. That is, when working with machines, humans did not use plans (in the sense of stepwise series of abstract actions) so much as situated actions (in the sense of local, sensed alternatives at each moment). Based on her ethnomethodological studies at Xerox PARC, conducted for her PhD in anthropology, Suchman demonstrated that photocopiers' help systems were built for plans, but their users worked through situated actions, resulting in mismatches and rendering the help systems unhelpful.

I discovered this book early in my PhD program (1994 or 1995) and spent a while with it and similar books, as well as the PDFs of technical reports supplied by Xerox PARC and EuroPARC. (The WWW was relatively new then, and the idea of downloading research papers directly from the research institution seemed magical.) Suchman, who was a PhD student at the time, wasn't alone—others with interests in ethnography, ethnomethodology, and action research also worked or interned at these institutions, including ethnomethodologist Graham Button, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, and computer scientist Susanne Bodker, whose 1991 Through the Interface (a foundational text for activity theory in HCI) was based on her 1987 dissertation. In fact, the late 1980s and early 1990s yielded many texts that questioned the then-dominant information-processing cognitive psychology in HCI and introduced constructivist perspectives. But Suchman, deservedly, became perhaps the best known.

What's the relation of that 1987 book to this 2007 book, Human-Machine Reconfigurations? It's complicated. On one hand, Plans and Situated Actions is in here as Ch.2-10, nearly untouched (some of the footnotes have been updated). On the other hand, the new book has a new Ch.1, "Readings and Responses," and a new Ch.11-15. That's an additional six chapters, more than one would expect from a second edition, but less than one might expect from a new book. The new title and subtitle reflect the mixed message.

To be honest, the core of the original book holds up, and Chapter 1 works to situate it as a historical document, but I did not think that the new chapters at the end were of the same quality. Since I haven't reviewed the original Plans and Situated Actions on this blog, I'll spend most of my time in this review on it.

In Ch.1 (a new chapter), Suchman gives us the background of the original study from her viewpoint 20 years later. That study began "in 1979, when I arrived at PARC as a doctoral student interested in critical anthropology of contemporary American institutions and with a background as well in ethnomethodology and interaction analysis" (p.8). She became interested in interactivity when her colleagues attempted to design the interface for a new photocopier. The copier had been advertised as so simple that one had only to press a green button (p.8)—but customers complained that it was too complicated (p.9). To investigate, she videotaped her colleagues attempting to work with the machine, and on that basis, concluded that "the machine's complexity was tied less to its esoteric technical characteristics than to mundane difficulties of interpretation characteristic of any unfamiliar artifact" (p.9). Based on this study, and on her understanding via ethnomethodology that contra AI assumptions "human conversation does not follow the kind of message-passing or exchange model that formal, mathematical theories of communication posit" (p.10), she essentially applied conversation analysis to "people's encounters with the machine" (p.10). She noted that when she was in the room, she could see how she "might have intervened," but "the machine appeared quite oblivious"—so "what resources was I ... a full-fledged intelligent observer, making use of in my analyses" compared to those of the machine? "The machine had access only to a very small subset of the observable actions of its users" (p.11). "My analysis, in sum, located the problem of human-machine communication in continued and deep asymmetries between person and machine" (p.11).

This problem is more complicated than her colleagues assumed, she says, because "I take the boundaries between persons and machines to be discursively and materially enacted rather than naturally effected and to be available ... for refiguring" (p.12).

Suchman then gets to her distinction between plans and situated actions. "My position then and now has been that plans are conceptual and rhetorical devices (often materialized in various ways, as texts, diagrams and the like) that are deeply consequential for the lived activities of those of us who organize our actions in their terms" (p.20), but they do not constitute a stepwise program. Here, she addresses some of the pushback that she received after the book's initial publication, regretting a word choice that caused some readers to misinterpret her argument.

From here, we get into the original book. In Ch.4, Suchman overviews interactive artifacts as they have been historically treated in computer science, noting that in the early 20th century, in the name of turning the study of cognition into a science, "the study of cognition as something apart from overt behavior was effectively abandoned" (p.36); the strategy in cognitive science in 1987, and especially in AI research, was to reduce cognition to computation (p.37).

In Ch.5, "Plans," Suchman discusses AI's consequent understanding of plans: "plans are prerequisite to and prescribe action, at every level of detail," and "mutual intelligibility is a matter of the reciprocal recognizability of our plans, enabled by common conventions for the expression of intent and shared knowledge about typical situations and appropriate actions" (p.51). That is, they are programs: "The planning model in cognitive science treats a plan as a sequence of actions designed to accomplish some preconceived end," where "action is a form of problem-solving" (p.52) and "actions are described, at whatever level of detail, by their preconditions and their consequences" (p.53). "Goals define the actor's relationship to the situation" and "the plan is prerequisite to the action" (p.53). Notice that this understanding of planning assumes an individual actor. In interaction, the model is extended to 2+ actors, and others' actions must be seen as expressions of their underlying plans (p.56). As Suchman notes, the literature equivocates "between plans as a conceptual framework for analysis and simulation of action and plans as a psychological mechanism for its actual production" (p.58). Yet the relationship between intent and the actual course of action is "enormously contingent" (p.60). This situation is not helped by AI's uptake of speech acts, which takes Austin's claim that "language is a form of action" to mean that communication can be subsumed to the planning model (p.61). Here, the problem of inferences is handled through "scripts" (p.64).

In contrast, Suchman embraces Garfinkel's view: "a background assumption ... is generated by the activity of accounting for an action when the premise of the action is called into question" (i.e., post hoc) (p.67). Thus "plans and goals do not provide the solution" for the problem of interaction; "they just restate it" (p.67).

In Ch.6, Suchman overviews the contrasting notion of situated actions, drawn from anthropology and sociology (p.69). In this view, plans are "resources for people's practical deliberations about action" that are "located in the larger context of some ongoing practical activity" (p.69). (In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was popular to characterize the larger context as a way to get past cognitive science's stepwise focus.) Suchman asserts that "every course of action depends ... on its material and social circumstances" and her aim is "to investigate how people produce and find evidence for plans in the course of situated actions" (p.70). To do so, she turns to ethnomethodology, which she overviews in the remainder of the chapter.

Let's skip a bit here, since the actual study data are not that interesting for us here in 2018. Suffice it to say that Suchman demonstrates that the cognitive science understanding of plans is not adequate for explaining the frustrating encounters with the copy machine that her users encountered, and that those of us who have used copy machines recognize.

Now we get into the new areas of the book, Ch.11-15.

In Ch.11, "Plans, Scripts, and Other Ordering Devices," Suchman surveys literature on ordering devices that has come out since the original book. This literature survey includes John Law, Liam Bannon, Phil Agre, Steve Woolgar, Madeline Akrich, and others who will be familiar to those who read this blog.

In Ch.12, "Agencies at the Interface," Suchman surveys literature on the so-called "smart machine," starting with ALICE and ELIZA.

In Ch.13, "Figuring the Human in AI and Robotics," Suchman surveys the literature on humanlike machines.

Chapter 14, "Demystifications and Reenchantments of the Humanlike Machine," surveys encounters with humanlike machines.

Finally, in Chapter 15, "Reconfigurations," Suchman says "In this chapter I consider some new resources for thinking about, and acting within, the interface of persons and things" (p.259).

As you can tell from my characterizations of the new chapters, I didn't find much to write about in these chapters. I'm not sure why the author and publisher decided to release the second edition in this form, but the contrast between the two parts of the book is profound. In Plans and Situated Actions, Suchman is white-hot, incisively identifying fundamental problems in AI and HCI and deftly illustrating them with data that we can all recognize from our own interactions. In contrast, the expanded chapters are bland literature reviews that do not clearly relate back to the original argument, do not seem to advance the ball, and do not appear to make a contribution other than the survey.  In terms of argument, they don't seem to connect. In terms of genre, the literature reviews come at the wrong end of the book. And in terms of story, Suchman goes from being an MVP to a spectator.

None of this takes away from Plans and Situated Actions, which remains vital reading and is perhaps enhanced by Suchman's new context-setting chapter (Ch.1). For that reason, I still highly recommend the book (or its first edition, which is still on my shelf). But I wish that Suchman and the publisher had kept the original title and replaced the last five chapters with a brief afterword.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Reading :: Decision Making in Action

Decision Making in Action: Models and Methods
Edited by Gary A. Klein, Judith Orasanu, Roberta Calderwood, and Caronline E. Zsambok

Recently I reviewed an edited collection on naturalistic decision making (NDM) that resulted from the Second Naturalistic Decision Making Conference in 1994. This edited collection similarly comes from a 1989 workshop and is edited by some of the same people. Its goal was "to describe naturalistic decision making" and its four key features: "dynamic and continually changing conditions, real-time reactions to these changes, ill-defined goals and ill-structured tasks, and knowledgeable people"; the collection presents "models and methods pertaining to these four features" (p.vii). Importantly, NDM emphasizes ecological research (p.vii).

The book has five sections: overview/background, NDM paradigms, methodology, applications, and evaluations. I will just overview a few chapters in the first section.

In Section A, Chapter 1, Judith Orasanu and Terry Connolly discuss the fact that traditional decision making research has focused on the "decision event," in which one decision maker chooses among known, fixed alternatives (p.5). In contrast, the authors argue that "decision performance in everyday situations is a joint function of two factors: (1) features of the task and (2) the subject's knowledge and experience relevant to that task" (p.7). They list 8 factors of NDM:

  1. "Ill-structured problems"
  2. "Uncertain, dynamic environments"
  3. "Shifting, ill-defined, or competing goals"
  4. "Action/feedback loops"
  5. "Time stress"
  6. "High stakes"
  7. "Multiple players"
  8. "Organizational goals and norms" (p.7)
The authors emphasize that NDM happens within a "decision cycle," which "reflects the incomplete knowledge, dynamically changing conditions, and competing goal structures that characterize NDM situations" (p.19).

In Chapter 3, Marvin Cohen describes three paradigms on decision making: formal-empiricist, rationalist, and naturalistic. He compares these based on criteria of normative evaluation, style of psychological modeling, and style of empirical observation (p.43). In comparing these, Cohen ends up leveling some sharp critiques of Kahneman-type decision bias claims (e.g., p.82). 

In Chapter 5, Raanan Lipshitz overviews decision making models, including Klein's Recognition-Primed Decisions (RPD) model. She compares these in detail—a very useful chapter, since most of these make appearances in the same order in later chapters.

As someone who is new to NDM, I appreciated the overviews and broad strokes. NDM went on to be popularized in Klein's later books, but here we see some early work contrasting with the then-dominant views of decision making. If you're interested in NDM, yes, check this collection out.

Reading :: The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind, and Culture

The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind, and Culture
By Robert K. Logan

My friends, I use this blog to process my readings, evaluate them, and understand how they fit in with various scholarly conversations. Usually this approach works well for me. But every once in a while, I run into a reading that I have a hard time drawing a bead on. And this book is most certainly one of them.

The author is a professor emeritus in the Department of Physics at U-Toronto. But, long ago, he became interested in questions of mind, language, and culture—"I am not a linguist or a cognitive scientist but rather a physicist who morphed into a media ecologist" (p.7) and "as far as the field of linguistics goes, I am autodidactic and not an expert" (p.10). Here, he seeks to (a) advance the Extended Mind Model to explain the emergence of language, (b) supplement that model with others in the literature, and (c) "develop the notion of Universal Culture, which is to culture what Chomsky's Universal Grammar is to language" (p.4).

He summarizes the sweep of his argument at the beginning of the book: argues that "the origins of speech and the human mind are shown [in this book] to have emerged simultaneously as the bifurcation from precepts to concepts and a response to the chaos associated with the information overload that resulted from the increased complexity of hominid life." That is, information overload necessitated a new way to handle it, speech. "Rather than regarding thought as silent speech, one may just as well regard speech as vocalized thought" (p.5). Essentially, he argues, language extended the human brain, creating the human mind (p.6).

He extends this argument in the next chapter, overviewing the "six modes of language" (p.30): speech; writing and numbers; "the language of science," which is "a form of knowledge management" (p.31); computing; and the internet. (He does not appear to offer a definition of language.) Each form of language, he argues, arises from information overload, requiring a new way to deal with the resulting abstractions (p.33). "Consequently, each new mode of language is informatically more powerful than its predecessors, but at the same time a little less poetic, with the exception of the Net" (p.33). Each arises from a "crisis" in which information overload led to chaos, leading to "a new abstract level of order" (p.42). This idea is interesting and highly appealing—if it can be substantiated.

The author claims that he is "influenced" by Vygotsky (and quotes the 1962 edition of Thought and Language; see pp.43-44).

Like Logan, I'm not a linguist, and I certainly haven't put in the time reading Chomsky that he has. But I do see problems with the overall thesis. For instance, Logan does not discuss what happens if the crisis is not dealt with—if a new abstract order does not emerge. Does the social group reach a steady state of low-boil crisis? Does it collapse? These questions seem crucial, since to the best of our knowledge, writing was invented only three times in world history. (For that matter, does he mean "crisis" the way Vygotsky used the term, as a dialectical contradiction?) He also characterizes science as a "language," which seems to be at odds with what we know about science as a social practice.

Beyond these questions, I began seeing argumentation patterns that seem foreign to the social sciences with which I am familiar—although perhaps my linguist friends can tell me whether they are common in linguistics. For instance,

  • Logan argues that "language speeds up thought processes" and, as proof, notes that he had formulated this idea independently of Marshall McLuhan, who he later discovered said the same thing (p.47). (He offers no empirical proof that language speeds up thought processes, which would be a momentous claim. One can safely argue that language changes the task, allowing someone to do the same work in less time.) 
  • Similarly, in discussing how tools emerged from trial-and-error, he asserts: "A scientific analysis of these tools would reveal that they had achieved an optimum design long before the advent of modern engineering" (p.59)—but provides neither a proposed analysis nor other proof. 
  • Later, he asserts without explanation: "Dance is basically a form of body language set to music" (p.61). 
  • Although Chomsky's Universal Grammar and Logan's own Extended Mind Model are not falsifiable, he concedes, "the one hope I have, however, that I might be on the right track is that, I believe, Christiansen (1994), Deacon (1997), Donald (1991, 1998), Tomasello (1999), and I have come to similar conclusions from completely different starting points" (p.82; see a similar argument on p.223).
  • Although two approaches might explain known facts about grammar acquisition, "the one trump card that I would play now ... is Occam's razor..." (p.141).

He dismisses arguments the same way: "In numerous cases, however, I felt that the conflicts in the literature were artificial and were more a case of academic turf wars than anything substantive" (p.71). Well, okay then.

Many other examples show up across the book, and as I read through them, I wondered whether they had to do with a different style of argument—or with Logan's autodidacticism. For instance, Logan argues confidently that oral speech is changed by writing in that "orally composed sentences rarely contain more than seven to nine words" because "short-term memory can only deal with seven plus or minus two items at a time," and thus "it is only sentences that are written out that will contain large numbers of words with the exception of certain erudite lecturers who compose written prose in their head or read them from a prepared text. Such a speaking style often puts its listeners to sleep because they are unable to keep track of such long sentences" (p.125). Put aside the fact that Logan offers no evidence for these claims—a bigger problem is that words and sentences are not natural units of speech, they are analytical units that were invented in written speech. (Also, Logan doesn't seem to have conversations with the same people I do.)

In fact, as the examples above suggest, Logan rarely refers to empirical research when constructing his theory, although that research is both plentiful and produced by some of the same people he cites. He is, however, comfortable citing occasional simulations—"The results of the computational simulations and artificial language learning show that it is possible that languages evolved to match hominid cognitive abilities rather than the other way around" (p.144).

Beyond these issues, Logan doesn't seem to be consistent with the theorists that he cites. Although I don't know Chomsky well, I do know Vygotsky, and Vygotsky would not agree with the following assertions that Logan makes:

  • Speech is vocalized thought (p.5).
  • Speech is a biological process and thus governed by Darwinism (p.17; cf. Understanding Vygotsky Ch.9 among other places).
  • "mind = brain + language" (p.63) — later changed to "mind = brain + language + culture" (p.250).
  • Words encode concepts and allow for more efficient processing (p.67).
  • "Word meanings are personal, belonging to the individual producing them or interpreting them" (p.232)
  • The mind is best explained as dualist (p.235).
Logan ends with a chapter in which he asks whether culture is an organism, then suggests that an individual's culture is an organism while a society's culture is a species (pp.264-266). I really couldn't tell whether Logan was using "organism" as a metaphor here or whether he meant this assertion literally. But whatever it is, he extends it by arguing that if individual culture is an organism, then memes are its genes (p.277). 

As I mentioned above, I use this blog to process what I think of books. Most of the time, I have a good idea of what I think before I begin writing the review. This time, I didn't, and the relatively unedited text you see in this review chronicles my thinking through of the book. As you'll intuit, I think the book is deeply flawed. It doesn't engage deeply with at least some of the literature; it makes some superficial arguments at crucial places; it asserts as undisputed facts claims that need empirical grounding; it makes claims that are in fact disproved by empirical language and literacy research. That is, it reads like the work of an autodidact from another field who has not put in the time to test his arguments. 

I make this evaluation with some hesitation. After all, the author does make a point of saying that he has worked with luminaries such as Schmandt-Besserat and McLuhan, and he has published about media since at least 1977, long before I even thought about such matters. Yet, at least in this book, he does not effectively make his case. I can't recommend it.

Reading :: Culture and Thought

Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction
By Michael Cole and Sylvia Scribner

Cole and Scribner published this book in 1974 for "the beginning student" who was interested in culture and cognition as well as "the advanced student and the professional" who have been suspicious about cultural psychology (p.v). To orient ourselves, this book was published two years before Luria's Cognitive Development (1976) and four years before the coauthors coedited Vygotsky's Mind in Society (1978). So the matters discussed here, though Vygotskian in orientation, were discussed without much of the published work that would underpin later efforts by the authors.

Side note: As sometimes happens, I had an unwelcome companion while reading the book: a previous reader, who left singularly unhelpful comments penciled in the margins. When Cole and Scribner describe Bartlett's (1932) characterization of South Africans (p.2), the comments read: "Holy shit what blind ignorance & eurocentrism!" And when Cole and Scribner criticize Bartlett's characterization on methodological grounds (p.3), the comments read: "Thank you." I was reminded of why I no longer go to movie theaters. Please don't leave comments in library books, everyone.

Back to the text. The authors note that anthropologists, philologists, and psychologists have developed separate definitions of "thinking" (p.2) and discuss these, concluding that their concern will be "to get beneath the performance shown in a particular situation to the psychological processes responsible for it" (p.5). "As yet there is no general theory or conceptual framework in psychology that would generate specific hypotheses about how culturally patterned experiences influence the development of cognitive processes in the individual" (pp.6-7). They propose to "discover a strategy of research that will help us to uncover how individual and cultural processes interweave with each other as the child develops and becomes integrated into society" (p.8).

The authors provide a brief history of this line of inquiry, ending with the Vygotsky-Luria line of inquiry (p.30). From there, they provide chapters on culture as it applies to language, perception,  conceptual processes, learning and memory, and problem solving. (The latter discusses Luria's Uzbek expedition, which at the time was discussed in only one 1971 article; p.161).

In a concluding chapter on culture and cognition, the authors use the language of higher mental functions and functional systems (via Luria 1966) to characterize the relationship between the two (p.192). They argue, "we are unlikely to find cultural differences in basic component cognitive processes" or what Vygotsky would call lower mental functions (p.193, their emphasis).

Overall, although this book was interesting, I did not find it as valuable as some of the later work by these authors. Partly that is due to the fact that I'm not especially interested in aspects such as perception (I similarly hit this wall when reading Soviet psychology last spring and summer). But partly it's due to the dearth of grounding for some of the more complex arguments: most of Vygotsky's work had not been translated yet, and Luria's book hadn't been published either. So, as a historical document, the book is valuable, but if I were to build arguments on cultural psychology, I'd reach for later work.

Nevertheless, if you're interested in cultural psychology's development, this book is a must. Pick it up—but please don't write marginal comments unless it's yours.

Reading :: The Psychology of Literacy

The Psychology of Literacy
By Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole

This book was published in 1981, shortly after Cole helped Luria publish Cognitive Development (1976) and after Cole, Scribner and colleagues coedited the Vygotsky collection Mind in Society (1978). It describes part of five years' worth of fieldwork in Liberia conducted by the authors (1973-1978), specifically work with the Vai, a minority population with the distinction of having developed and sustained their own written language. This phenomenon intrigued the authors, who had Luria's Uzbek expedition and Vygotsky's understanding of thought and language in mind as they developed a study of Vai literacy.

The authors clearly ground the study in Vygotsky, who provided grounding in psychology for "testing speculations about written language and thought"—grounding that was otherwise lacking (p.8). Based largely on Vygotsky's discussion of signs and tools and of lower and higher mental functions (pp.8-9), and drawing on Luria's Uzbek expedition for methodology (p.10), the authors hoped to conduct studies that could separate schooling from literacy (p.15).

The authors note, "we failed to find a discrete dimension of Vai life that could be labeled 'literacy'" (p.107): beyond family status in Vai society and sex, no other factors seemed to be common to literacy. They compared Vai literates, English literates (English was taught in schools), and Arabic literates (who were taught in religious schooling) (p.107), recognizing that these groups sometimes overlapped.

Like Luria, they tested the three groups of literates in terms of taxonomic classification: "in our population of informants, the only factor consistently associated with taxonomic choices was urban living" (p.122). In terms of logic, non-schooled literacy did not produce general cognitive effects—that is, there was no general "literacy" phenomenon, and therefore non-school literacies did not function as surrogates for schooling (p.132).

In terms of literacy and metalinguistic knowledge, they found that the adult Vai they studied did not perform like US/European children, with the exception of grammar: studies "had produced consistent results indicating that Vai script literates are better conversationalists about formal features of sentences than their nonliterate neighbors," probably because Vai literates often conversed about what makes good or correct Vai (p.159). In fact, the Vai practice of criticism required well-developed expository skills (p.219).

Literacy, the authors argue based on these studies, produces localized rather than generalized changes in cognitive skills. Yet "we have identified skills that are associated with literacy learning and that are not byproducts of general learning experiences in the classroom" (p.234). They explain these skills with the concept of practice, which "consists of three components: technology, knowledge, and skills" (p.236). Practice is

  • recurrent
  • goal-directed
  • using a particular technology
  • using particular systems of knowledge (p.236)
And "practice always refers to socially developed and patterned ways of using technology and knowledge to accomplish tasks" (p.236).

"This notion of practice guides the way we seek to understand literacy," they add: "We approach literacy as a set of socially organized practices which make use of a symbol system and a technology for producing and disseminating it" (p.236). They conclude, "our evidence justifies the position that literacy, as well as schooling, has identifiable cognitive consequences" (p.251).

This book is slow going in places—the authors really show their work in terms of methodology and data analysis—and sometimes the conclusions seem like they are small in proportion to the work put into the study. But in part that's because so much work has been done in Vygotskian studies of literacy since then. Overall, this book is a strong example of a painstakingly constructed methodology yielding specific results. If you're interested in literacy, cross-cultural studies, or Vygotskian theories of language, check it out.