Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Reading :: Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

This book is a classic collection of Bateson's work across decades. I've read it before, but haven't attempted to blog it. And rereading it, I remember why. It's a lot.

My review, alas, is short. Even though watching Bateson's development was fascinating—and he offers retrospective comments in each section, pointing out where he was struggling to develop concepts in each period—not all of this work is of direct interest to me and some of it is of interest primarily due to how it's been picked up elsewhere. In addition, I don't think I am adequately equipped to review parts in detail.

With that in mind, let's hit some highlights.

Bateson is well known for the concept of the double bind, in which someone faces two unsatisfactory and mutually reinforcing alternatives. In "Toward a theory of schizophrenia" (1956, authored by Bateson and colleagues), they theorize the double bind ("a situation in which no matter what a person does, he 'can't win,'" p.201) as a way to explain how schizophrenia develops. In "The group dynamics of schizophrenia" (1960, with colleagues), they add that the double blind is "a paradigm for human relations. Indeed, this sort of dilemma is not rare and it is not confined to the contexts of schizophrenia" (p.238). And in "Double bind" (1969, at a symposium on the double bind), he clarifies that "Double bind theory asserts that there is an experiential component in the determination or etiology of schizophrenic symptoms and related behavioral patterns, such as humor, art, poetry, etc. Notably the theory does not distinguish between these subspecialties" (p.272). (Here Bateson emphasizes the role of feedback loops, trial-and-error, and comparison in understanding systemic change (p.274), elements that John Boyd would later pick up for his OODA framework.) Bateson concludes that "if this pathology can be warded off or resisted, the total experience may promote creativity" (p.278).

The themes of feedback loops and trial-and-error also run through other chapters. For instance, in "The logical categories of learning and communication" (1964), Bateson argues that "all learning ... is to some degree stochastic (i.e., contains components of 'trial and error')" and develops "an hierarchic classification of the types of error which are to be corrected in the various learning processes" (p.287):

Zero learning: "the immediate base of all these acts ... not subject to correction by trial and error"
Learning I: "the revision of choice within an unchanged set of alternatives"

Learning II: "the revision of the set from which the choice is to be made" (p.287)

"...and so on," Bateson adds, emphasizing that the classifications can become more meta. Learning II is "learning to learn" (p.294) and "a way of punctuating events" (p.300). 

Learning III "is likely to be difficult and rare even in human beings" but, Bateson says, "something of the sort does from time to time occur in psychotherapy, religious conversion, and in other sequences in which there is profound reorganization of character" (p.301). "If Learning II is a learning of the contexts of Learning I, then Learning III should be a learning of the contexts of those contexts" (p.304). 

This insight leads us to Part III of the book, in which Bateson becomes interested in developing a theory of context—one in which a given utterance or action is part of a context, not a product or effect. Here is where Bateson draws on the concept of "ecology" in the book's title, in which relationships come to the fore and the phenomena with which Bateson has been concerned "become part of the ecology of ideas in systems of 'minds' whose boundaries no longer coincide with the skins of the participant individuals" (p.339). It is in this section, in "Form, substance, and difference," that Bateson gives us the illustration of the blind man and the stick (see my review of A Thousand Plateaus for an extended quote, which I won't reproduce here). Bateson also argues here that separating intellect from emotion, and mind from body, is "monstrous" (p.470). 

This book really is a must-read for those of us who are thinking through thought, cognition, and social systems. It's a lot to assimilate, as any book that summarizes an entire life's worth of thought should be. But it's still (generally) accessible and rewarding. Pick it up.

Reading :: The Knowledge Economy and Lifelong Learning

The Knowledge Economy and Lifelong Learning: A Critical Reader

This book is from the same publisher as Guile's monograph The Learning Challenge of the Knowledge Economy and covers some of the same ground: How do educators deal with changes in the economy?

In their introduction, the editors argue that all human economies are knowledge-based (p.xvi) and ask: what, if anything, is new about the knowledge economy? (p.8). The pieces in the collection wrestle with this question in one way or another. I'll just pull out a couple of those pieces for discussion.

Beth A. Beckhy. "Object Lessons: Workplace Artifacts as Representations of Occupational Jurisdiction" (pp.229-256)
In this chapter, Beckhy notes that occupations are interdependent and examines how they compete for control in task areas, specifically in the case of "the work of engineers, technicians, and assemblers at a manufacturer of semiconductor equipment" (p.229). She focuses on artifacts, which "embed the knowledge of their creators" and which "symbolize social categories and influence and constrain social action" (p.232). Thus "examining artifacts provides a window into the social dynamics of occupational groups, because as artifacts cross occupational boundaries, they highlight the social interaction coalescing around them" (p.232). 

After some discussion of the case, Beckhy presents a table showing the impact of occupational artifacts on workplace jurisdiction (p.237). The columns: 
  • Knowledge
  • Authority
  • Legitimacy
The rows:
  • Drawings 
  • Machines
And the results: These artifacts functioned as representations of knowledge (pp.237-w38), but also as "boundary objects" that "were used to mediate across occupational boundaries during episodes of problem solving" (p.238). She found that drawings allowed engineers to deflect blame and place blame because "they were open-ended and in a state of flux"—engineers could blame others' poor interpretation of the drawings (p.245). Meanwhile, technicians had physical control of their machines, so they could "challenge the authority of engineers" in that domain (p.246; cf. Dorothy Winsor's work at "AgriCorp"). I saw a lot of resonance with genre theory here.

Peter H. Sawchuk. "Divergent Working and Learning Trajectories in Social Services: Insights from a Use-Value Perspective." (pp.277-300)

Here, Sawchuk argues that to understand a knowledge-based economy, we must understand "the details of everyday economic life and learning" as an "arena of political economic struggle" (p.277). He argues that two things have not changed:
  • knowledge, which "continues to be central to production and control"
  • use-values, "the direct satisfaction of individual and collective need" (p.277)
However, "in the course of the intensification of learning and change ... the contradictions that emerge may provide an important point of departure for analysis of occupational change" (p.277). This analysis is guided by the use-value thesis (UVT), the result of a "dialogic interaction" between cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and labour process theory (LPT) (p.278). He contrasts this approach with that of Engestrom, which (he charges) leaves to one side "the broader purpose and political economic dimensions" (p.282), including primary contradictions, which Engestrom and Sannino name-check (pp.282-283) but don't empirically investigate in a consistent way (p.283). He quotes Avis' critique of Engestrom's approach, in which Avis charges that "contradictions" actually secure the interests of capital (p.283). Sawchuk develops UVT as an alternative approach.

David Guile. "Working and Learning in the 'Knowledge-Based' Creative and Cultural Sector: Vocational Practice, Social Capital, and Entrepreneurability." (pp.301-316)

Guile discusses the rise of the creative and cultural (C&C) sector over "the last 20 years" (p.301; n.b., the collection was published in 2012). The knowledge economy has captured the imagination of policy makers, leading to educational policies that encourage developing C&C education and jobs. However, "the link policy makers and transnational agencies assume exist between  qualifications and access to employment does not apply in the ways they imagine in this sector" (p.301). (This argument sums up and extends the one that Guile made in his 2010 book.) Specifically, the C&C sector offers a tangible and intangible contribution to the economy," and policy is not well equipped to deal with the intangible (p.304). In the UK C&C sector, common features include:
  • "external labour markets and hence freelance work"
  • "individualized rather than unionized work practices"
  • "multi-faceted conceptions of expertise" (p.308)
Guile overviews developments, then concludes that they "are likely in the current financial climate to exercise a suppression effect on the aspirations of people who lack financial and emotional forms of support and to position those who do have access to such support to take advantage of the port-of-entry positions that are either advertised in the C&C sector or uncovered from participating in C&C networks" (p.314). 

Overall, I found a lot to like in this collection. If you're interested in the knowledge economy (you can put scare quotes around the phrase if you like), take a look.

Reading :: Collaborative Projects

Collaborative Projects: An Interdisciplinary Study

This book has been on my shelf for maybe six months as I've been clearing out other books to be blogged (I usually do the library books first), or working on research, or sometimes simply procrastinating due to the high number of sticky notes protruding from the book's edges. I took a lot of notes. But I looked through those notes last night and I think this might end up to be a quicker review than I had anticipated. In any case, it's time.

This edited collection follows after Blunden's An Interdisciplinary Theory of Activity, which proposed rethinking the activity system as a collaborative project. In this collection, Blunden presents the works of several researchers who (more or less) take this tack with activity theory. Like most collections, this one is a bit lumpy, with people taking up the core idea in different ways. Rather than reviewing each contribution, I'll just discuss Blunden's introduction.

Andy Blunden. "Introduction: 'Collaborative Project' as a Concept for Interdisciplinary Human Science Research"
Like many collections, this one is most on-point in the introduction. Blunden notes that the human sciences are fragmented in various ways but a "chasm" exists between disciplines that study individuals vs. those that study humans en masse. He asserts that these two types of disciplines lack a mutual concept, and asks, "Could Activity Theory with 'project' as a unit of activity, [sic] provide a way to overcome this gap by using a shared conceptual language across both domains?" (p.1). He adds the adjective "collaborative" to "project," which "is meant to distinguish 'project' as a social formation in contradistinction to an individualistic conception of projects, but projects are always collaborative, and collaboration is always for a project" (p.1). In this chapter, he outlines the concept of the collaborative project.

Blunden tours thought from Marx to Vygotsky to Leontiev and Luria, comparing it with somewhat similar work that traces from Husserl to Schutz and Heidegger as well as Sartre. But he asserts that activity theory (AT) originates in the social world, while in phenomenology and existentialism "the psyche projects itself on to the world" (p.7). He notes how, in being taken up in Europe and the Nordic countries, the activity system developed as an elaboration of Leontiev's "activity" (p.7). 

Blunden argues, borrowing from Hegel, that "projects can be seen as passing through four stages of development," stages that are "ideal-typical, not proscriptive":
  1. a group of people are subject to some problem or constraint on their freedom
  2. they will attempt and fail projects due to misunderstanding the problem
  3. they will formulate an adequate concept of the situation and launch a social movement to change social practices
  4. the new form of practice is "mainstreamed" or institutionalized (p.8)
In their development, projects objectify themselves in three aspects: symbolic, instrumental, and practical (p.8). 
  • Symbolic: Through being communicated or represented
  • Instrumental: Through the construction of instruments or artifacts to facilitate/constrain project actions and integration with the community
  • Practical: Once it has been relatively permanently (?) integrated into a community, it becomes an institution (p.9)
Importantly, Blunden argues, the object of the project is immanent within the project itself; it is "not some objective need existing independently of the project, which determines the project from the outside. It might even be quite illusory. But it emerges from the activity of the project itself, as its immanent goal and self-concept" (p.10). Notice that Leontiev would probably disagree, but Leontiev was working within an objectivist (Stalinist) framework. Notice also that conceiving the object as immanent allows the project to be conceived as a dialectical unity.

Blunden further argues that as a unit of analysis, a collaborative project also functions as an ethic (p.11). 

Skipping a bit: Blunden argues that "Every science has for its foundation one concept" — a unit of analysis, system concept, or molar unit (p.13). For many social sciences, he says, the UoA is an individual. For others, it is the social group (usually an aggregate of individuals). But both of these UoAs have been unsatisfactory, leading to proliferating system concepts in the 20th century: "discourse, activity, genre, language game, frame, tradition, figured world, activity system, idioculture, social formation, network, ideology, ideological apparatus, field, habitus and so on" (p.13). And objects of study included "nation, state, market, community, economy, culture, people, social class, and so on" (p.13). Blunden advocates for the collaborative project as a concept that 
  • can represent social life at the individual, meso, and cultural-historical level
  • can embody movement and change (not structural equilibrium)
  • can capture the dynamic between how individual psyches are determined by social situation and how individuals participate in social change
  • can express both an "ethical conception of modern life" and "a unit of scientific analysis for the formation of modern life and its conduct" (p.14)
Among other things, "the project is a concept of both psychology and sociology"; it is also humanist because it "gives realistic expression to the agency of individuals in societal affairs and concrete content to social relations" (p.15). 

Blunden thus sees the project as extending and strengthening AT for disciplines dealing with humans en masse (p.16). (Put another way, AT began as a psychology but has extended into a sociology.) 

Unlike psychology, the collaborative project treats emotion and reason under the same heading because we begin with actions (p.16). 

Unlike sociology, the collaborative project does not start with the social group: "Activity Theory sees a social group as but the product of a project, as the appearance of a project at one stage in its development" (pp.17-18). An institution is also a project—one that has become mainstreamed.

Around here, Blunden equates the collaborative project with the activity system (p.20). He adds that "there are three basic modes of collaboration which constitute labor activity as projects":
  • command
  • exchange
  • collaboration (p.21).
(These roughly correspond to hierarchy, market, and network or collaborative community.)

In sum, the project is 
  • genuinely interdisciplinary
  • a theorization of the connection between human actions and the societal context
  • a "further development" of Leontiev's "activity" and Engestrom's "activity system" (p.23)
Blunden adds that Leontiev's concept of activity was "defined by a universal, societal concept of its object"; people might have different perceptions of the object and the activity, and they might have different motives, but due to the social division of labor and societally produced supervision of labor, the social and individual needs are harmonized (p.24). This concept originated in the Soviet planned economy, and thus did not extend well to the capitalist world, nor to "any really existing 'planned economy'" (pp.24-25). Engestrom dealt with this issue via his expanding model. But the question remains: who or what determines the object of the activity/project? The Central Committee? Or does it just emerge from past activity? Blunden argues that it is "immanent within the project itself" (p.25, his emphasis). It's not just a solution (many solutions can be formulated for the same problem). The project continues to develop according to its own logic, so to speak" (p.25). 

This introduction is a lot to digest. And, as with many collections, the other pieces do not entirely share the vision of the introduction: they draw on varying theorists in varying ways, following the concept of the collaborative project in broad strokes but not entirely in specifics. Still, they are well worth reading. 

If you're interested in how AT is developing, and especially how to reconcile the concept of activity with other types of practice theory, definitely pick this collection up.