Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Culture Pinned Down

Strauss and Quinn do a good job of “demystifying” the concept of culture. Their explanation is so thorough, in fact, that it almost seems a little disheartening. I remember as an undergrad thinking there was almost something “magical” about culture, that somehow this social perspective “sprang up” over time, and it could only be understood through examining symbols, artifacts, and stories. Oh, those were the days.

Now, it’s clear that even culture is situational and experience-bound. The connectionist theory seems complex in its inclusion of so many different variables, but it also seems to simplify discussions around culture, especially that of institutional culture. When institutional culture is seen as a collection of meaning that is illusively formed, it is difficult to address it. However, when we understand institutional culture to be “the typical interpretation of some type of object or event evoked in people as a result of their similar life experiences,” we can address culture by analyzing experiences and then changing environments and situations so that different experiences occur and are supported. I mean, it’s not that easy, but it’s sure a lot easier than when culture is considered almost ethereal.

To what extent do you think it’s possible to sit down with a group of people and recognize shared schemas and their origins? I guess you’d pick up on shared schemas as those things that you “had in common,” but would it be possible to discuss the formation of those schemas?

a woefully unstructured reading response

I was interested if others were struck by S&W's inclusiveness, and also by their recurring insistence that they're not going to "revolutionize" the world by shooting down other theories. It's interesting, because they are actually claiming to mend some pretty significant rifts that exist in several fields, but instead of discrediting the ongoing debate, they try to demonstrate how their contribution sheds some light on myriad theoretical problems (well, sorry Judith, not for you). In discussions of feminist theorizing, there is much talk about feminist inclusiveness and pluralism versus more confrontational opposition, and this seems to be a nice example (of-course, people point out that a requirement that argumentation must be inclusive can be pretty tyrannical too). I liked this balance they strike between internalized schemas and enduring knowledge and socially constructed knowledge, and I especially appreciated them positioning themselves in relation to Lave, Wenger, Huchins, et. al. Also, their description of connectionism was surprisingly clear (I'm thinking of pages 51 through 53). I personally don't find the centrifugal/centripetal metaphor for cultural understanding that enlightening--which concerns me because this is a central concept in anthropology? Perhaps the problem is that I haven't gotten my brain around it quite yet (as L&Q write...the "aha!" moment takes a little bit of preparation).

So, this is an unstructured reading response. I am still working through the text and hopefully will have better questions to bring to class.

One more thing: I am suspecting that S&Q's framework might be an excellent place to introduce feminist theory into this general area (socially situated learning and thinking, distributed cognition, and middle road approaches between externalized and internalized forms of cognition). I've been reading most of our class texts with this goal in mind for a final research project. S&Q convinced me that their particular approach offers some possibly very interesting parallels or synergies (eww, sorry. flashback to years of corporate-speak) with standpoint epistemology. Standpoint epistemology (for those who aren't familiar with it, or for me to have to articulate this) is a feminist response to the "god trick" of technical and scientific discourse--the everywhere and nowhere of objectivity. We know about ten different ways to criticize "objectivity" as a rhetorical construct, but what's distinctive about standpoint theory is that it gives epistemological priviledge to those in an oppressive situation--the thinking is that when you are within this position, you see more about what the ruling class is up to, that you have a different perspective on both their workings and your own experiences (you can see this is informed with marxist/structuralist stuff). Perhaps by the time class comes around, I'll have something marvelous to say about this. of-course, maybe not.

back to the individual mind

Reading Strauss and Quinn was a soothing experience to my mind because in the past readings I had been „tortured“ by the assertions that what is going on in the individual mind does not matter much. I can very well relate Strauss’ and Quinn’s central arguments both to my background in psychology and my personal experiences - meanings have a psychological dimension, motivation and emotions are part of and influence the individual’s schemas and interpretation plays a key role in cultural understanding.

When I first came to the United States in 1998, I certainly developed in idea of “what America is like” by interacting with my host family, teachers, friends and by watching TV and participating in a variety of activities from athletics to church. In Strauss’ and Quinn’s term one might say that my schemas were structured by the extrapersonal culture I was encountering. But my mind was not completely empty when I arrived in the United States. I compared (consciously or unconsciously) these experiences with the image I had of this country and also with life in my home country. By the end of the year, I had developed a rich picture of what I thought “America is like” and also, my interpretations of some behaviors observable in my country had changed. Seven years later and finally being back to live here, the situation is very different for me. My image of the United States has changed over the past six years and I also have different views about my own country. What I experience now is that the schemas I have in my mind impact my experiences. When e.g. I visited my host family two weeks ago and we went to my high school’s football game and the national anthem was played, I experienced this very differently from what I had experienced it six years ago – although the external culture in this case was to some extent the same. These and similar experiences make Strauss’ and Quinn’s theory so intuitively plausible to me: The meaning of culture I make is an individual one. At the football field, I did not share everybody’s experience as I had years ago, but also I did not communicate this difference. It seems to me that this existed in me only, shaped by my past experiences, my exposure to different cultural schemas, my values, goals and momentary thoughts.

The approach stimulated me to think about culturally responsive teaching (an issue that we will discuss in the class I have later on today). Assuming Strauss’ and Quinn’s position it would be very important to address these issues in multicultural classrooms. Students from different countries or different cultural backgrounds, even if born in the United States, might not have the same understanding of certain behaviors, objects or even beliefs and goals (although this is often assumed). This can lead to dysfunctional styles of communication in the classroom and might explain some of the tensions between students and between students and the teacher. Addressing this issue and sharing the different meanings students and teachers make, might create a more integrating classroom environment that fosters motivation and thus learning.

What very much irritated me about the book, however, was the emphasis that was placed on rewards and punishment in chapter 4. This to me seemed a step back to the age of behaviorism, but leaving out cognitivism in between. I have a very hard time to match these assertions with the more modern ideas of connectionism and the to me intuitively clear (as I wrote above) assumption that meaning exists in the individual mind. Was anybody else also irritated by this?

framing the frames

I found S&Q's book extremely stimulating; their account of previous cultural/anthropological theory is an excellent foundational chapter - though some of the works they criticize I do not know well enough to fully comment on (I'm thinking of Jim's and Anthony's comments on Geertz here).

What I like about their approach is that they attempt to synthesize theories rather than reject them outright: this, I applaud. They move on from the situated theory that we discussed last week by introducing their schema and connectionism ideas. Very interesting overall, but their own application of the theories, is to my mind, illustrative at best. they admit as much in their final remarks, and what this provocative book offers is a template to build on rather than a ready-to-go theory.

Another aspect that I like about this book is that it has more than an anthropological audience in mind: it offers critiques of theories that we are all familiar with from different disciplines and it warns about the limits of their application.

Eventhough I am still formulating my ideas on the strength of S&Q's theory, I would without doubt recommend this as a pedagogical text. It is broad-ranging, inclusive of major critical movements, and it offers varied approaches to evaluating and applying theory. It is a book that I will certainly keep at hand.

I will be interested to see what everyone has to make of the vailidity of their schema theory tomorrow...

Again with the Relationships

This time the focus on relationships is manifested in Strauss & Quinn’s definition of culture as: the interplay between intrapersonal, mental structures (schemas) and extrapersonal, world structures.
This cognitive theory of cultural meaning comes closer to my understanding of Bahktin’s learning theory, i.e., that all learning occurs twice, first sociologically and then psychologically, than we’ve come to this point. S&Q describe the mechanisms, schemas, by which learning is internalized. Additionally, S&Q state that cognition cannot be considered apart from emotion and motivation. Suddenly it seems as though we’ve moved almost completely back into Educational Psychology!
Although the terms centripetal and centrifugal didn’t resonate with me personally, I did appreciate how they were used to describe the complex balance of factors pulling apart and pushing together cultural meanings.
I was particularly taken with Strauss & Quinn’s attachment theory example (p. 92) explaining why cultural meanings are durable.
I also thought it was important that these schemas can be shared owing to people having the same developmental experiences. It seems as though one would have difficulty making the case that an individual’s schema was an important component of cultural meaning; however, when Strauss & Quinn explain that these schemas are widely shared due to shared experiences, then it begins to make sense that these widely held schemas, interacting with social structures, would create widely held cultural meanings.
I can’t help but think the concluding chapter, Beyond Old Oppositions (p. 252-256), could not have been well received by other anthropologists. Admittedly, I know next to nothing about the field of anthropology, but Strauss & Quinn’s tone in the last chapter made me glad I was not in the Geertzian, cultural studies, interpretivist, postmodernist, or historical materialist camps. The voice in that last chapter seemed to be speaking from some superior height, giving friendly advice to poor, misguided or not-so-bright acquaintainces. Maybe it was just me: did anyone else have a similar reaction?

where is meaning?

I think Anthony might have dealt with this issue already, but to reiterate:

"But meanings cannot be abstract structures that are nowhere in particular...if they are nowhere in particular, how can they ever come to motivate action?" (19).

S and Q go on to state that "Geertz probably understood this too."

Now, I guess I should just quote anthony(below):

"I am beginning to sort of understand the need for them to reassert the "individual" in the context of the debates they are a part of. I just think that they are making the same mistake they previously criticized; instead of "culture," thought, they reify "meaning," saying that meaning has to "Really" "be" some-'where.'"

Yes, in a response to Geertz, S and Q are taking a hardline stance here. What's interesting to me is that their reading of Geertz is (and Butler) don't seem to be very fair (or just). Geertz's idea of "thick description" got some real traction in the field of cultural studies, and I'm wondering if that's why this book takes Geertz on. To quote my good friend Anthony again, maybe cultural studies/cultural theory isn't "sciency" enough for them?

This gets me to another point:

"by giving a wide-ranging set of practices a single label (e.g., 'sexual harasment') one is not so much making it possible to say what could not be said but rather creating a set of links among previously disconnected memories and assumptions" (41).

S and Q want to make the study of culture(s)/anthropology more of an "exact science" (bad pun intended). It seems to me that, for S and Q, the heuristics of Butler and Geertz are way too reliant on an idea of language that's ambigious.

Motivation and Standardized Testing

Strauss and Quinn do a wonderful job of situating their text and theory within their own field of anthropology and related fields. I appreciated (and may use in the future!) their review of literature / history.

I wonder how they would connect the durability of learning, self-evaluations and our current proliferation of standardized testing? Strauss and Quinn explain that one way socializers motivate learning is by strengthening self-evaluations that drive learners' behavior (p. 104). This seems reasonable, but I have to question their claim that teachings and motivation are fortified because "...wanting to be good and not bad not only makes learners learn well what it takes to be good and not bad, but also makes them want very much to do what they have learned it takes" (p. 105).

In our public schools, children are socialized from at least third grade that performing well on standardized tests is highly valued by their teachers/schools, while performing poorly can result in feeling isolation, shame and other painful emotions that Strauss and Quinn attach to motivation. Clearly, there is a culture of achievement that models "good" behavior.

How would Strauss and Quinn address the astronomical drop out rates of students who perform poorly on standardized tests? Learners may want very much to do what it takes, but I question whether they have learned what exactly "it" is.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Cultural Meaning

The Strauss and Quinn approach to cultural meaning was enlightening to me as I have never been exposed to this kind of approach before regarding thinking and learning. I have taken some anthropology courses but they have focused more on methodologies and research practices versus theories. I found that their theoretical chapters 1-5 made a much stronger argument for their connectionism framework to cultural meaning than the research studies in chapters 6-8. I got lost at various points in chapters 6-8 in all the examples they were giving and some of the circular logic. Plus, I did not understand why the authors kept saying in US marriage...but yet the authors never brought up any examples of how marriage is culturally understood in other countries/regions of the world. I was really hoping that they would bring this up as a point of comparison/argument... Did anyone find this to be a problem?

Overall, I thought their idea of how cultural meaning cannot be isolated and bounded made the connectionism approach more effective in my opinion. I found that the Strauss and Quinn book builds well on our previous texts in how we have come to realize how our minds work and I think this book helped me to understand how cognition is impacted by cultural meanings. They are internal as well as external from the schemas we create internally based on previous experiences we have had to the external environment in which cultural meanings are passed on from generation to generation. I found this approach has helped me have a more well-rounded view of cognition and learning.

One question that keeps coming to my mind with each text we read is how it relates to technology. I wonder how much our cultural meanings are now being transformed (or not?) through the software applications we use on a daily basis from the word processing tools we use to learn and create to the communication tools we use such as instant messenger and email. How does this impact our intrapersonal and extrapersonal realms as it relates to the cultural meanings we have or create?

metaphor in Strauss/Quinn

First, an apologia for this post, on which my full mental powers have not been brought to bear (I am busy thinking through a paper due tomorrow for another class).

I was especially drawn to Naomi Quinn's chapter on culturally shared metaphors; she critiques the prevailing model, which "understates the variability in the use of metaphors while overstating their role in constructing understanding" (141). Rather than assigning value to the metaphors themselves, she is interested in metaphors as "clues to the cultural schemas that underlie them" (144). I was wondering how, if at all, her approach might be relevant to the prominent role that metaphor plays in a lot of "literature and science" criticism, as an example of the shared culture that serves as a "feedback loop" between literature and science (e.g., Laura Otis looks at shared metaphors of webs and networks in 19th century neuroscience and in novels such as MIDDLEMARCH, as reflective of technological innovations that linked communities, such as the railroad and the telegraph).

Does anyone have thoughts on Quinn's case study on metaphor, either as it relates to literature-science criticism or more generally? (Perhaps I'll respond to my own post when I have more time to think about it.)

Schemas and Enthymemes

I enjoyed the introduction to Strauss and Quinn because it gave such a clear (though long) description of the situation out of which their book arose. I also enjoyed the section on connectionism, which seemed very familiar to me (especially the discussion of how the brain works) though I don’t know where I have encountered those ideas before. Their ideas do a good job tying together all the different theories of the books we have read so far, accounting not only for the societal influences that impact learning and learning’s public characteristics, but it also accounts for how the individual is able to learn in relation to those societal factors.

In addition, connectionism supplies an additional way to study context as it impacts the individual learner. Perhaps it was the fact that the book was only preventing a single viewpoint that made its impact more clear to me, but I felt Strauss and Quinn gave a better description of how to study context than I found in Understanding Practice. Perhaps this opinion is based on a misreading on my part, but at the very least the different views provide more than one way to look at context besides the container model.

Theoretically, I was fascinated by the idea of schemas. Strauss and Quinn point out that schemas are the knowledge or structures that we keep in mind (or, in a connectionist model, the various weights of neural pathways that connect to each other) that help us to compensate for situations with missing info. They give the example of the beer ad, described not seen, and point out the way in which we tend to fill in—or flesh out—missing details. This seems to me to be an enthymematic process. Like an enthymeme, it leaves out part of the argument that is assumed to be shared or uncontestable. This seems to indicate to me that confusion in communication comes from assuming that schemas are shared, when they are not. I’m not sure that Strauss and Quinn have a method for making sure that schemas are communicated more clearly, but the connection would certainly be helpful for rhetorical studies, since it would give a cognitive basis for good and bad communication.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Having a BA in Anthropology, I have a natural affinity to the stance being taken in this book. Some of the ideas are not new to me but the words usage and vivid examples are new. Isn’t it a cultural thought style to think in the “container” metaphor hence, we have “the culture of X” as if it were something that can be captured, analyzed, and objectified. It’s brilliant to see such a paradigm shift to thinking outside the box (to use the metaphor of one of my thought collectives). Now about that shift to schema theory and connectionism….

Are they saying that learning is a whole bunch of situations from which the individual learns through exposure? I understand the idea that “learning” occurs from +/- situations (either supervised or unsupervised) but it does leave out other possible feedback situations like elaboration that a child might get as to why something is right or wrong (good or bad). I guess the whole plus/minus thing just seems too simplistic. I can see how it would allow the potential for a computer system to “learn” though. I’m also still sort of wondering about how the connectionist model includes innate knowledge/ability or those natural tendencies people have…gut instinct, being gifted, or talented? Then again, maybe it’s just a heuristic for general learning patterns and not those exceptions. Why is it we want our models and theories to explain everything?

I’ve always thought of the push and pull on culture not centripetal and centrifugal – these words make me dizzy, but I do think they more dynamically (less linearly) explain how culture changes while at the same time maintains itself and does so at the macro and micro level!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

More about individuals

I hope we can discuss how the conception of learning that results from their theory is different from Lave and Wenger's LPP. I can't quite sort it out in my mind....

This book seems like such a significant departure from the last three. I can still see it as within the field of complex systems theory (if there is such a field), but it applies this kind of thinking directly to individuals (as embodied minds???), which maybe are not common in this field. The book basically claims that the human mind is a complex system that can be relatively accurately mapped by connectionist models....

Part of S and Q's contribution to anthropology, I guess, is that you can't understand have a complete picture of culture without an understanding of people/individuals/minds. But I sort of think that you could use a theory like Butler's or Lave's to describe various reiterations and resistances to cultural meanings and behaviors at the level of individuals. To keep consistent with a post-structuralist/constructivist approach and you would probably talk about 'the competing discourses in/by/through which the subject is constituted.' If you wanted to use Lave and Wenger’s LPP approach, you might talk about 'the great variety of groups in which any given individual is simultaneously a legitimate peripheral participant.' It’s possible that the language of either of these approaches might get clumsy when you get too close to an individual, and a theory like S and Q’s might make the description smoother.... I don’t know.

This is all sort of vague, perhaps, so, shifting gears....

Strauss and Quinn agree with Roy D'Andrade that culture is not a thing, that "We could keep the term 'culture' … if we stopped thinking of cultures as independent entities" (6-7). I like this. That is, I agree. It’s a mistake to reify the concept "culture." But I would have to say the same thing about "meaning." It seems to make even less sense to imagine "meaning" to be some-"thing", that "lives" or "is" "out there" "somewhere." But S and Q seem to imply that they think this is the case when, in the course of their critique of Geertz and his followers, they ask where meanings rest (18). Their critique leads them to claim that meaning "rests" or "is" in the individual person, in his/her "thoughts, feelings, and motivations" (20). Ok, I follow their critique here, and I am beginning to sort of understand the need for them to reassert the "individual" in the context of the debates they are a part of. I just think that they are making the same mistake they previously criticized; instead of "culture," thought, they reify "meaning," saying that meaning has to "Really" "be" some-"where." Is "meaning" anymore of an actual entity than "culture"? I might concede a claim similar to theirs but more upfront about its theoretical-ness. That is, I might not mind admitting that (at least in certain cases or for particular purposes) the concept of "meaning" cannot stand, does not make sense, or is (ha) meaningless, if it is not related to some conception of the "individual." This is different than saying meaning must live somewhere and that somewhere is the individual mind.
I guess I would be more inclined to accept the former (convoluted, I suppose) statement because I think science is (or should be or should recognize it self as) what Fleck argued it was. Scientists (those who study humans as well as those who study elementary particle) should always remember that what they actually do is offer various descriptions of things in the world; that they never show the world as it Really is. It may be tough to remember that scientific "facts" in the social and human sciences (e.g. meaning or the individual) are just as constructed and "untrue" as "facts" of a physical, chemical, and biological nature (e.g. the atom). This brings us back to Fleck. It may be quite easy for people in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and related fields to accept that a "fact" like the disease syphilis or a "fact" like this disease's relationship to the Wasserman reaction.

I hope I didn't get vague again....

Thursday, September 22, 2005

practically understanding Understanding Practice

Understanding Practice is the first text on this course that I have managed to get my hands on and read. Since I am new to the class, I want to use this posting to formulate my initial ideas about the kind of theories that we will be exploring this semester by explaining my evolving relationship with this collection of essays.

I read the book in a roughly sequential manner, reading some chapters in depth, others with an overview of content and methodology in mind. Lave’s opening chapter on “The Practice of Learning” provoked responses that would frequently recurred as my reading deepened. I found the thesis that “theories of situated everyday practice insist that persons acting and the social world of activity cannot be separated” (4-5) generally stimulating. Yet, it was difficult to parse the different elements of the argument by the end of the chapter; the theories seemed to collapse into one another, and a trajectory of the field’s development remained unclear. Simply put, I felt that the same point was being made again and again. I felt that I either don’t grasp the subtleties of the arguments presented, or that I do not fully understand the applicability of this interdisciplinary movement.

My experience of the other chapters reflected my initial reaction. I found many of them stimulating (Hutchins and Keller & Keller in particular), but I also found them lacking. As descriptions of detailed social practice, they were well researched and presented with a high degree of nuance and sophistication. But the ultimate goal of some pieces remained unclear: are these researchers attempting to use theories to develop more integrated knowledge sharing and production, or are they merely applying theories to highly particularized situations? I was baffled by some conclusions. Engestrom’s use of interviews in a medical practice was interesting, and his placement of the situation within the historical context of changing medical practices enlightening. Yet, his conclusions about the corporatization of medicine and the breakdown of communication between practitioner and patient were simply, well, common sense. How the theories elucidated actually could work to either clarify the situation or change it remained opaque.

It was not until I reached Chaiklin’s conclusions that I could contextualize the preceding chapters. As Jim rightly pointed out in his posting, Chaiklin’s piece is an important piece because of it reflectiveness: he situates how these disparate pieces work toward a common theoretical goal; the development of this interdisciplinary movement and its growth out of previous theoretical traditions is clearly mapped; how it does (or does not) contribute to social change is honestly and provocatively presented.

It is one of the best theoretical pieces I have read in a long while and I am already beginning to “situate” these readings differently because of it. The relative infancy of the field (if you can call it such) makes sense of the provisional nature of some of the conclusions. To this novice reader, how important this theorizing may actually be is beginning to sink in: the synthesis of different disciplines that engage with an idea as complex and protean as shifting contexts is, I now realize, a massive undertaking.

Finally, I would like to applaud all the bloggers. All are stimulating in their own fashion; some made me feel comfortable in my own confusion (!) while others made me rethink what I was reading. I apologize for the length and lateness of this posting, but I would just like to say that I look forward to working with you all this semester.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The nonlinearity of development

I appreciated the variety of topics, authors and approaches in this book. Among the chapters, I found several that illustrated two particular themes of interest to me:
1) the influence of non-physical elements of context (social dynamics, relationships, sense of self in community); and
2) the nonlinearity of development (of mechanical skills, intellect, social personality)

Reading Hutchins' chapter, I thought about the different ways in which organizations respond to employee turnover. Many organizations resent it when employees move to other positions or leave the system; they try to create dependency by restricting knowledge or information sharing. In contrast, the Navy seems to accept high turnover of the quartermasters as natural and even desireable since their training system (developmental trajectory) couples with turnover to effectively distribute knowledge and skills among "employees." I was surprised at the transparency of the system and the apparant support given by more senior quartermasters to the novices; I had assumed all military training was like Top Gun--lots of yelling and strong emphasis on the individual's impact on the system.

Hutchins' description seems to fit with Engestrom's statement that a context is an activity system and "an activity system integrates the subject, the object and the instruments (material tools as well as signs and symbols) into a unified whole" (p. 67). Engstrom's descriptions of the nonlinearity of intelletual development and the complexity of activity systems are further illustrated by McDermott's reports about Adam's different attitudes and levels of performance depending on the task and social complexity surrounding him.

I agree with McDermott's assertion that "learning is not in heads, but in relations, conditions that lead to a point of contact which leads to assignment of relevance to pieces of information" (p. 292). Even at the highest level of graduate study, we look to our professors, professional organizations and journal editors to help us assign relevance to pieces of information, (and sometimes to our own instincts). This is appropriate when the social context of academia is new to us and known to our professors, but it seems to me that finding a sense of self in the midst of any activity system is very important--it's what enables us to most fully enjoy and contribute our own voices.

A framework for analysis?

I must confess that I had a hard time managing all the content in this book. Because much of the writing is very dense, many of the concepts unfamiliar, and the book long, I’m only about half-way through at the time of this posting. (I said *most* of the writing was dense, because not all was, for example, Hutchins was delightfully clear to read. Maybe I lent him a more favorable ear because I’m from Point Loma!) This seems to me to be a book that I could spend a semester on, and as I think much of this will be important to my own research, I believe I’ll be coming back to it.

I think that there is a wonderful recurring problem in the book of how to think about context that we can use to create a spectrum and place each theorist on it. They all pretty much dispense with the “bowl” theory of context, that is, it is not useful to consider context as a fixed entity that gives shape to action. However, there is still more work to be done and more conversation needed about the subject. There are those who think that context is something that needs to be theorized in some fashion. For example, Lave writes on page 17, that this camp “argues that the central theoretical relation is historically constituted between persons engaged in socioculturally constructed activity and the world in which they are engaged.” In plainer language, when we talk about context, we are talking about relationships between constructed activity and some “world,” this thing in quotes that has a dialogue with activity, this thing in quotes that we need to theorize. The other “camp,” or other way of thinking about context is that there is no such thing, it's a "fetish," and we should look for “the construction of the world [only]in social interaction...activity is its own context.”

This question is not “resolved,” but is the framework for scrutiny...or the leitmotiv. To try to get at this reading, my strategy was to try to place the theorists on a spectrum between these two camps (i know this is linear and all that. but i had to work with something!). They all agree on the socially situated nature of learning, and that it is possible to view most human activity under the umbrella of “learning.” (12) However, each theorist comes at the central problem of how to theorize context from a different perspective. For example, Hutchins is interested in exploring what he describes as the traditional anthropological binary of internal and external activity. I think I would place him closer to the first “camp” because when he talks about new quartermasters inheriting a “history,” he seems to be saying that there is historical knowledge and there are artifacts that are isolatable outside of activity? That when we look at situated cognition, we consider the relationship between the seamen and the artifacts and the seaman and each other, and it these relationships that we should consider as the “context” of activity. (yes? No? might be wrong) On the other hand, Engestrom is closer to the opposite “camp,” as he asserts that “for activity theory, contexts are neither containers nor situationally created experiential spaces.” (I have to admit that I found Engestrom extremely hard to comprehend.) I think Keller and Keller argue for a tension between these two camps that represents, for them, itself a valid way of theorizing context (they use very different terms, however). They write, “there is a tension....between knowledge and the unfolding experience. Knowledge as organized for a particular task can never be sufficiently detailed” (127). On the same page, they describe knowledge as “simultaneously representational and emergent.”

I don’t really have a question to post for discussion. Possibly, just, did you read these the same way?

about not understanding practice...

With Perspectives on activity and context, Chaiklin and Lave clearly overstrained my mind mapping capabilities. Too manifold where the examples of learning given in the chapters for me to keep a clear picture of where each author could be positioned in terms of Lave’s distinction between phenomenological and activity theory given in Part I.

I found the chapter on artificial intelligence especially interesting. From reading the title, my impression was that Suchman and Trigg wanted to describe the social (thus including learning) processes taking place in a community of researchers in the development of artificial intelligence, but I found that within the same chapter they also commented in terms of situated learning why it is so difficult to design programs showing artificial intelligence. The persons named C and M work together on a whiteboard and gradually work toward the solution of a problem through activities, observing the other’s activities and communication (Fleck came to my mind again at this point). But even if they manage to implement their solution to a program, the program will not be able to learn in terms of situated learning because it has no means of observing the world it is located in or to participate in the multitude of interactions constituting the social world. So with describing the process of the development of artificial intelligence, Suchman and Trigg to me actually showed that it is not possible to make such a program function like a human being because artificial intelligence will always lack access to certain aspects of situated learning (observation, social interactions and so on). Another question I tried to answer to myself, but did not find a satisfying answer, was: Where can the concept of legitimate peripheral participation be applied in this example? Is there supposed to be any relation at all?

The next chapter I found worth commenting is the Säljö and Wyndhamn chapter on solving the everyday problem of determining the correct postage for letters. This idea did not seem very new to me. I remember a study (although I cannot recall the author or the exact year) in which children from a South American country were tested on their math skills. The children worked in the informal sector selling certain products. It was shown that the children were able to perform all basic mathematical operations when calculating the total of a customer’s purchase but were less capable of solving math tasks in the format usually given in school. Thus it was shown that learning and performance are influenced by the context in which they occur. So, what is new about this idea in Understanding Practice?
Another question that occurred to me when reading this chapter was: How did Vygotsky influence all this? I have some trouble in drawing a line between Vygotsky’s theories and the ideas of those who were inspired by his theories (e.g. Rogoff) and Lave’s theory of situated learning. Vygotsky was (as far as I know) the first to point out that learning and development to not occur in a vacuum but instead take place in an environment influenced by history and constituted of social interactions. Learning in his terms requires social interactions and the use of language and other artifacts developed in the history of that particular culture. If anybody is familiar with Vygotsky’s theory, I would be very thankful for some explanations or ideas that could help me solve the confusion.

Describing the elephant

Without first looking at what everyone else says about the Chaiklin & Lave book, I’m wondering if our comments won’t look similar to the group of blind people describing an elephant.
The first thing I was struck by was the variety of activities looked at and the ability of Chaiklin & Lave as the editors to synthesize this range of research into meaningful discussions in the Introduction and Conclusion. I appreciated Lave’s setting out the positivist worldview (p. 24) in order to describe what situated research is conducted in opposition to. I also appreciated Chaiklin’s discussion of the relationship between scientific knowledge and ethical values (p. 396). It seems that many of the authors are conducting their research in response to situations where practice and ethics have become separated, particularly in the schools.
Attempting to think of this volume as a unit gives one a new appreciation of just how complex the world is and how limited is the view of that world one can ever hope to achieve. In the field of educational psychology there is currently a debate over how best to study the complexity that is educational practice. The government funding agency has decided that only experimental intervention research will be funded. On the one hand, because this type of research supports causal claims, the government’s position is understandable. On the other hand, when one begins to appreciate the incredible complexity of real life, and the major part of that complexity which is context, one begins to wonder what infinitesimal part of that complexity can come to be known by attempting to isolate and measure a couple of variables in an experimental intervention. One begins to despair of even knowing what one is looking at.
The Kvale section is a case in point: when one begins to examine the process of examinations, it turns out that while students are being examined, at the same time, the accepted knowledge of the field is also being examined and certified. And in this knowledge certification, the students are no more than pawns. At which point the relationship of ethics to scientific knowledge once again rears it’s head.

refleciveness in Understanding Practice

I found the conlusion of Understanding Practice extremely interesting, especially in terms of our previous discussions of thought collectives. Chaiklin's final section aims to "formulate some ideas about future directions for developing a social scientific study of individual practice" (377). Because all the people collaborating on this conference/book are from disparate fields, they have to find some common ground on which to stand. They have to lay out some criteria for their thought colletive. Whereas we could find this problematic - since thought collectives do create certain mechanisms of constraint - I think it's more useful to see this as a way of reflecting on practice. More fields might want to step back and think more carefully about what makes it a "field." Rhetoric might be one of those fields.

Then again...

There's no way to get away from the idea that communities/thought collectives/fields define themselves against that which they are not. There's no getting away from it - community is exclusive. Now matter how often the researchers in Understanding Practice position themselves on the margins of their own fields, they still participate in multiple communities that create ranges of "what can be thought." The ethos of this book is interesting to me, and Chaiklin's conclusion is the most explicit statement of it - we are marginal, but we have important things to say.

With all of this being said, the most significant (and useful) part of this conclusion by Chaiklin is it's reflectiveness. If we can't get away from the exclusiveness of community, we can at least acknowledge the boundaries (fuzzy or otherwise) we are working within.

Okay, so socially situated learning research is valid.

My head hurts. I almost feel like Chaiklin and Lave crammed so many different perspectives on learning and socially situated activity into the book in order to overwhelm dominant paradigm critics—they’d never get their heads around all of it and therefore wouldn’t be able to really discount the research tradition of these societally significant practices (p. 386). As I read the conclusion, it became apparent that the purpose of the book was less to explore different ways of viewing situated learning and more to lend credibility to non-dominant research approaches. There weren’t enough common threads carried through the different chapters to form a coherent development of thought or perspective, except for the five commonalities pointed out by Chaiklin having to do with research characteristics (the use of a concrete, direct object of study; interest in theoretical frameworks; studied contexts related to societal institutions; situations studied held significant consequences for participants; and the discussion of the idea that not all knowledge belongs to the individual (p. 384-5)). The last commonality mentioned—the idea of social cognition—comes close to acting us a cohesive foundation for the different chapters, but even this concept is very general.

If the purpose was to convince me to take research of societally significant practices seriously, it worked. I’m a believer. But if it was to get me to think in any depth about different perspectives on situated learning, I’m afraid it was too much for me without some tool or platform to frame an overlapping, ongoing dialogue. Is there some framework—like a mindmap, maybe—that provides the situation in which all of the relationships between these approaches makes sense?

Is There Life (Artificial or Otherwise) in Suchman Trigg?

I flipped with eagerness to the Suchman/Trigg article “Artificial intelligence as craftwork” in UNDERSTANDING PRACTICE. Their project seemed clever, almost (dare I write it?) cheeky: to look at the ways in which AI research is a situated, embodied practice, undermining the predominant view in the AI community of knowledge as decontextualized/disembodied. Although the introduction to their project was fascinating and insightful, the details of the case itself didn’t seem to lead us anywhere new. Leaving aside the seemingly computer-generated prose, did anyone else find this case study particularly difficult to follow? Given the linear constraints of the page, it was difficult to connect transcripts of the researchers' conversation with what was happening in the diagrams of the whiteboard work. I almost thought the case could be better served if presented in some sort of multimedia format, in which we could see and hear the interaction between the researchers, and temporally follow the progress of aligning “the social world to the world of machines” via the whiteboard. Coming from a literary studies perspective, I’m not used to reading case studies: to those of you who are more practiced at this type of reading, am I mistaken in reading S/T as a cautionary tale of a case study that is too technical/specific/confusing to be illustrative?

On the subject of AI/AL: although it’s premature, I am excited to be reading Varela’s EMBODIED MIND in a few weeks (I encountered V. for the first time in Katherine Hayles’s HOW WE BECAME POSTHUMAN). Does anyone have suggestions for other good readings on AI from a science studies approach?

Understanding Practice

In reading Chaiklin and Lave this week, I found it to be a nice transition from the previous text we read on knowledge communities with Fleck to the situated learning concept with Wenger. I thought the authors compiled several interesting cases to show exactly how we can understand how learning can occur in real-life situations based on the units of analysis being the combination of the person, activity and situation and how learning occurred. I found the blacksmiths and the college career center to be the most effective cases in helping me understand the overall concept of the book. However, other cases the authors provided left me more confused or wanting more these were the examples of the psychotherapists and the chapter on artificial intelligence researchers – did anyone else run into the same issue? I felt they lacked a deeper and clearer explanation that other cases accomplished.

One aspect that had an impression on me was in the last chapter in which the authors stated, “not all knowledge belongs to the individual” (385). This reminded me of the knowledge communities that we were discussing with Fleck a few weeks ago in that knowledge cannot be attributed to only one member of the group but based on the contribution from all the members in the group over a period of time. I found the quartermasters and college career center examples to be the most effective in showing how learning is not attributable to one individual but several people who are immediately part of and/or external to the situation, how dependent the learning is on the artifacts and technology on hand that define and give further meaning to the practice, and the activity itself that contributes to the knowledge gain. It’s a combination of all of these that allows the quartermasters to learn how to steer the ship and how the students learn how to navigate through the computer system and the college career center.

I am wondering how Chaiklin and Lave’s book can relate to the communities of volunteers and individuals that helped those during the Katrina disaster? Is it possible to analyze this as a learning situation? Over the weeks we have seen and heard many stories about the contributions of multiple members of specific communities from medical practitioners to volunteer organizations to neighborhoods that came together from all over the country and the world to help in rescue efforts and disaster relief. It seems that the knowledge of just one individual in this case could not be applicable. But in what each member could contribute, what the current situation entailed and how the activities were carried out that were apt for those who needed help from Katrina.

From a technology standpoint, I am wondering how the large number of websites and blogs that were set up as virtual communities after Katrina to help people locate each other, give information on disaster relief or serve as a forum for people to share their experiences, could represent communities of learning that vary in context and perhaps practice, but ultimately achieve a common purpose of sharing and providing a growing body of virtual knowledge to everyone involved?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Open Technology and the Writing Center

I enjoyed the connection between Chaiklin and Lave’s book and the previous two we’ve read. The anthropological examples, especially, gave me not only a sense of the theories the authors were trying to examine, but also of the methodologies for research in a field I’m not very familiar with. The chapters that interested me most were Hutchins’s on Navy quartermasters, Mehan and McDermott’s looks at the ways in which learning disabilities are diagnosed, and Minick’s study of the ways children learn to think in representational language.

Because of my interest in the way technology aids thought, Hutchins’s study of the quartermasters intrigued me, especially his comment on the openness of the technology used by the sailors allowed for mistakes, but allowed for them in a framework that corrected them and thus allowed the mistake-maker to learn on the job. I was particularly interested in how his view of open technology can be applied to composition studies. It is odd, I think, that most people who write on the computer, edit on paper. Where I work at the Undergraduate Writing Center, we require the students to bring in a print copy of their papers for us to go over with them. This practice has the benefit, seen by Hutchins, of making the document accessible to us both, but I wonder why computer files could not serve the same purpose and eliminate the paper. Besides, it seems a retrograde activity in light of the fact that all the papers are created on the computer. Perhaps we work on hard copies to eliminate concerns that are beyond the scope of the UWC but vital on the computer, like setting margins and picking font sizes and styles. Or perhaps it is that our current software (Word) does not quite allow us the easy of notation that is available with pen or pencil, but tablet computers could change this fact. Would peer editing on a computer change the way the students write, or think about writing?

I was drawn as well to the role that language plays in the final three chapters I mentioned. I found McDermott’s description of the disability acquiring a child to be extremely plausible, and it connected nicely to the surrounding chapters, all of which focused on the role social settings play in creating learning disabilities. Whether existing just as a convenient label or as a way of responding to a person that hinders their intellectual growth, all of the views of learning disability are created by the community, not just in the heads of the children in question. The lessons learned by Minick in studying how school children learn their tasks through abstract and representational language could apply to these studies, helping teachers to respond to students in a way that would not be detrimental to their development.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

back to Fleck

I never got around to posting last week, so...

I like the part in of his primer for understanding the Wasserman reaction where he talked about antibodies. Antibodies cannot be made to exist “independently”; “antibodies” names an effect of a serum (a mixture of cells?)…: “To establish better understanding of the nature of antibodies, attempts have been make to prepare them in a chemically pure state. All these attempts, however, have thus far failed. The chemical nature of antibodies is unknown. We do not even know whether what we call antibodies consitute independent chemical structures at all. All we know is the serum effects. Thus antibodies represent only the mentally accomplished materialization of these serum effects” (58). If nothing else, I think this is a rather clear and very concise example of the imaginary nature of 'facts'.
I'm also wondering if this concept of “antibodies,” which apparently had been present in biomedical thought collctive for some time before Fleck's writing, could be understood as what Fleck calls a “pre-idea” for what he says is an issue for he future of biology, namely, the reconceptualization of the “individual organism.” The organism was, at his time, understood as a closed, self-sustaining entity, that could do what ever it could do without any significant dependence on other organisms. Fleck argues that this is a limited understanding that will become obsolete. The reconceptualiztion of the "organism" that he sketches has it radically contingent, open, with unstable, barely definable boundaries. The antibody is "an entity" that was currently understood in a way that corresponded to the not-yet-accepted understanding of organisms generally. Would the study of antibodies lead toward the acceptance of the new definition of organisms?

I also think Fleck's theory does allow for fundamentally new things (facts and/or thinking): “Knowledge, after all, does not repose upon some [finite, limited] substratum. Only through action can that drive be maintained which yields ideas and truths” (51). I also like that he links truth not only to actions, but to a drive.



What a stimulating topic – what is learning and how does it occur? I love L&W’s concept of legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) although the phrase is rather cumbersome. LPP is the interaction between individual, activity, and the social world. It is so simple, yet incredibly complex and completely in alignment with socio-constructivist thought. L & W push our unit of analysis to a grand scale in understanding how learning occurs.

It’s interesting that little “teaching” is observable in apprenticeships. I would argue that it is because “teaching” is typically defined as explicit instruction. When newcomers “absorb” and “be absorbed,” they are learning implicitly. I think this idea is repeated in how productive activity and understanding are not separate. The idea, to me, draws on the conceptualization that declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge are not separate. It’s the age old question of the difference between know about versus knowing how to do something. To me the problem with traditional views on learning was not only the unit of analysis but also the emphasis that “knowledge” was equivalent to declarative knowledge. The apprenticeship model seems promotes and validate procedural knowledge learned implicitly. This is appealing because implicit learning is more resistant to psychological stress, less prone to forgetting, and non-attention demanding which are great is you are say, delivering a baby, sewing a suit or any other skill you truly want to master!

L&W write that “engagement” is the condition for effective learning (p. 93). Carmean & Haefner (2002) argue that learning needs to be engaged, social, active, student owned, and contextual in order for “deep learning” to occur. I think L&W would argue that social, active, student owned and contextual are inherent when engagement occurs in a community of practice. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Learning as Identity Reconstruction

Interesting way to look at learning; not at cognitive processes and conceptual structures, but rather at what kinds of social engagements provide the proper context for learning to take place. I feel like Lave & Wenger are trying to pull the rug out from under my feet. I’ve been leaning more and more toward social constructivism over the past couple of years; but, reading Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Practice it feels like Lave & Wenger want to push me over a cliff, never to return to the safe, comfortable nest of cognitivism. This discomfort I’m feeling may be a result of reading the book as an argument for using social constructivism exclusively to analyze what have been historically thought of as “individual” processes. Although I don’t recall the authors calling explicitly for the abandonment of cognitivism, I also don’t recall a single nod toward the continuing usefulness of cognitivism.
I don’t disagree that this is a valuable perspective from which to analyze learning; or, that a detailed analysis of context is surely necessary for any real understanding of learning. And so, Sociology does seem to be a more fruitful field than Psychology for understanding the complex that is learning.
The idea of learning as constructing a new identity modeled in the apprenticeship example of nondrinking alcoholics really struck me. I would previously have described that process as a change in behavior rather than as constructing a new identity. But as Lave & Wenger describe the process, it seems evident that the apprentice is impacting the context as well as vice versa, and the end result cannot help but be everyone and everything has changed.
I was particularly interested in the comparison of verbal instruction to legitimate peripheral participation. The authors state:
“Verbal instruction has been assumed to have special, and especially effective properties with respect to the generality and scope of the understanding that learners come away with, while instruction by demonstration – learning by observation and imitation – is supposed to produce the opposite, a literal and narrow effect.”
They go on to describe becoming a legitimate participant in a community as learning how to talk in the manner of full participants. This sounded exactly like what a professor told me was going on in the prospectus-writing process/comprehensives in the Educational Psychology graduate school: the faculty want to know if the students can talk like them. I initially resisted that idea but eventually came to believe it was a fairly accurate description.

Can lpp explain autodidactic learning?

The first question that struck me was: Can all examples of human learning be described in terms of legitimate peripheral participation? What about autodidactic learning? There are many examples. The well-recognized Russian mathematician Sonja Kovalevskaja, being born in the 19th century, did not have access to an oldtimer and other novices in her field that she could observe or communicate with, nor did she have opportunities to gain hands-on practice. However, before she was finally given schooling, she had already become a miniature expert from autodidactic studying. Eventually she became part of a “community of practice” (in terms of legitimate peripheral participation), but my question remains. If tomorrow I decide to learn how to play the piano without an instructor, I might never become as good as if I had the chance to observe an oldtimer, but I might still learn how to play decently. Can one person pursuing autodidactic studies be a community of practice himself? Can books and exploration at least in the first stages of task acquisition substitute the community of practice?

Leve and Wenger explicitely state that they did not want to make prescriptions for instruction and teaching curricula. But from my understanding of their concept of legitimate peripheral participation, there are some connections to Vygotskian theories of learning and in the decades to follow his work, their have been a number of interventions that were developed to improve instruction and learning. Brown and Palinscar’s Reciprocal teaching and Procedural Facilitation of Writing (I cannot remember the author) immediately jumped to my mind. In the latter form of intervention, there are a master (the teacher), newcomers (the students), observation (the teacher gives a life-example of developing ideas for and structuring an essay while thinking aloud) and there is practice (the students have the opportunity to apply the method that the teacher has used.) So, can this be regarded as an example where legitimate peripheral participation can be applied to inspire teaching? (Although the term had not existed when these interventions were first published.)
From a psychologist’s perspective Situated Learning was very interesting to me because it brought to my mind all the theories of learning that I have studied. Although being familiar with constructivist and socio-constructivist theories of learning, I had not come across the term legitimate peripheral participation and I have to admit that I once had a notion of what situated learning means, but while reading the book, the meaning of legitimate peripheral participation became clearer to me and at the same time my notion of situated learning began to blur. So is situated learning simply a new term that Lave and Wenger assign to their definition of situated learning or does situated learning describe a different concept?

Situated Learning definitely made me aware that sometimes I believe too strongly that instruction and teaching strategies have exactly the effects that we intend them to have, but still I do not completely agree with Lave and Wenger that teaching curricula hinder learning.

LPP and pedagogy

Lave and Wenger take a pretty firm stance against prescriptive modes of pedagogy. I think this is a fair critique, but I would be interested to see if there are pedagogical theories out there that explicitly emprace legitimate peripheral participation. Is talk of a "decentered" classroom based on these ideas? Lave and Wenger seem to avoid the classroom in this book because many pedagogical theories are too abstract to be useful. I would agree that we can never "plug in" a given theory regardless of the situation; however, I would imagine there are "communities of practice" in the field of education that already implicitly embrace LPP and situated learning. A study of these communities/classrooms would be interesting. Unfortunately, I get the sense that such a study would end up showing the disconnect between how students learn and how teachers teach.

The book talks a lot about "community", a concept I've been thinking about lately. Has anyone read Against the Romance of Community by Miranda Joseph? I've been wanting to read this book for a while (mostly because arguing "against" community is pretty intriguing to me), and I wonder what she'd have to say about Lave and Wenger's use of community.

One final observation/question: Did anyone else find certain sections of this book to be opaque? I am always wary of saying that prose is "bad", but it seemed like I could almost notice places where different people were writing. There were sections that seemed to make a whole lot of sense to me, and there were other sections that seemed to trip me up (maybe the writing shifted to some kind of "technical mode?) Anyone else experience this?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Lave/Wenger as Chicken Soup for This Graduate Student’s Soul

Apologies in advance for (a) invoking such trite self-help pap as the CHICKEN SOUP series and (b) being overly gushy and personal.

While Fleck was a captivating read, full of fresh, even startling ideas, it ultimately left me cold; Lave/Wenger, in contrast, somehow managed, despite the severe disadvantage of its terminology-packed sentences, to provide succor to this “overwhelmed, overawed, and overworked” learner (116). While others noted in last week’s posts that they identified themselves as members of a “thought community” after reading Fleck, now Lave/Wegner’s “legitimate peripheral participation” comes along to explain my situation as a 1st-year graduate student.

Perhaps this is an obvious point to make, but: I found the case studies of situated learning in Lave/Wenger to parallel my experience (all of three weeks’) of graduate school. In essence, we’re being initiated into a community of practice--our profession is being modeled for us, but, as newcomers, we learn through observation and imitation, rather than through explicit instruction in the Art of Professing/Theorizing. Yes, it is also a site of "intentional instruction" (40) but essentially, we are experiencing a different way of learning, in which the techniques that brought us success from elementary school through college are no longer applicable. In particular, ”learning to become a legitimate participant in a community involves learning how to talk (and be silent) in the manner of full participants” (104); certainly, learning how to read/write/speak theory is essential to our participation in this community.

Perhaps I attributed a certain touchy-feely-ness to Lave/Wenger because the focus, unlike in Fleck, is on the individual, even while acknowledging that the individual is situated in (rather, his/her situation is constantly changing but always in relation to) a community of practice. Most resonant for me was the claim that “learning and a sense of identity are inseparable. They are aspects of the same phenomenon” (115). Having been, if not a full participant, then a journeyman of sorts in textbook publishing for the past four years, it’s disorienting to suddenly find myself a newcomer in a different community of practice, to the point where it seems that my very sense of self has suddenly become elusive.

Lave and Wenger are careful to delineate the boundaries of their research to exclude the study of schooling. However, I’m curious to know, particularly from those members of the class w/ a background in ed. psych., whether there have been studies comparing graduate learning to an apprenticeship model (if not directly connected to the ideas advanced here, perhaps in the same spirit?) Where I’ve seen the comparison made (for instance, in David Damrosch’s WE SCHOLARS), it has been used in a dismissive way to suggest a feudal/outmoded system and a simple master-apprentice relationship, stereotypes Lave and Wenger attempt to move beyond.

Did anyone else strongly associate Lave/Wenger’s model of “legitimate peripheral participation” with the way we learn in graduate school? Have I failed to pick up on fundamental differences?

situated learning in virtual communities?

This week I found to be an interesting coincidence, as I had to read Situated Learning for this course and then Communities of Practice, another book by Wenger for my Group Communication course in the same week. I thought the timing of reading both was a distinct advantage for me in understanding how the two books tie closely together how we learn from a societal and participatory perspective.

One of the main points I garnered from Lave and Wenger in Situated Learning is how much learning is not an individual-activity and that it does not occur in a vacuum. The learning involves several aspects - the resources nearby, the interactions that occur in the community surrounding you and inside your learning group, the experiences undertaken during the learning and artifacts that help to solidify the knowledge versus what the apprentice master may be teaching. Lave and Wenger’s examples of apprentice situations I thought demonstrated to me how the structure of the apprenticeship shaped more of the learning than did the teaching by the master of the skill. I thought the clearest examples that they used to communicate this were the Yucatec midwives and the meat cutters. In both cases, they were given little instruction for their work but learned the skills and knowledge from participation in this group of practice with others over any other technique.

Of all the chapters, I found Chapter 4 the most useful in helping me to understand exactly how legitimate peripheral participation operates particularly in the areas of the place of knowledge to the problems of access as a newcomer. I found that this chapter really connected for me what defines legitimate peripheral participation as a constant transformation and development of meanings derived from persons, activities, and knowledge in communities of similar focus, purpose or practice.

I was thinking how much does the situated learning that Lave and Wenger propose for understanding and reviving apprenticeship can be applied to the world of technology today in creating new forms of learning communities that are virtual in nature. I don’t mean distance education or online courses but more a matter of chat rooms where people gather to discuss/debate any sort of topic (health chats on WebMD or women’s issues via chat on iVillage as examples) to the multiple online player video games that are now so popular with the younger folks – how much do these virtual communities support an environment that allows for situated learning? Is it possible that learning can be achieved where the individuals that participate in these chats or video games help each other out in finding a solution to a vexing problem or confusing game play? Can apprentices be located in these virtual communities? Can these virtual communities count as places for legitimate peripheral participation and how does this transform the concept of learning in a social world?

Is there any illegitimate peripheral participation?

This book was a challenge for me for several reasons:

1. The writing seemed to go in circles, as soon as I had a handle on what Lave & Wenger were expressing, they would contradict the focus and say what they really meant. However, I did appreciate their efforts toward building an historical context for their terminology.

2. Why is it necessary to include the qualifier "Legitimate" to their theory of peripheral participation? I was continually looking for what might be considered illegitimate peripheral participation, and I didn't find anything. If they do discuss this, would someone please advise?

3. Throughout the book, they repeatedly state that apprenticeships should not be viewed as the only--or even the best--source for analyzing learning through peripheral participation, yet the only examples they offer are of apprenticeships! As with the term "legitimate" I was distracted by a nagging expectation that they would offer a non-apprenticeship example.

I hate to say it, but I really don't see what is new about this work except the terminology.

One big butcher shop

This book got me very excited about my proposed research interests, which, phrased in terms of this article, is to consider how high tech corporate America can be one big butcher shop. I am interested in exploring how certain organizational structures coax employees into very specific "subject positions" (pardon the theory speak--I am still looking for my theoretical framework and research methods), complete with stratified, often gendered stances toward technical content (expert/developer/innovator versus uninitiate/supporter/implementer), means of envisioning agency and advancement, and formation of workplace identities, etc. I can't get away from the notion of gender performance being important to all this, although don't ask me to articulate why in any coherent way (yet). So, I'm really excited about Lave & Weger's description of learning as the "historical production, transformation, and change of persons" (51). In the margin of my copy, I kept scribbling impatient notes wanting to hear more about the stop-gaps--the things that impede legitimate peripheral participation. I thought it was interesting how they described the strategic components of ineffectual apprenticeships, i.e., entry-level butchers are made to merely wrap the meat to speed production along (strategic, even a little malicious), and their workspace is also placed where they can't view what the experts are up to (this may have been incidental? maybe not).

Speaking of which, I have a question. Would someone like to talk to me about what the authors are doing with the concepts of invisibility and visibility on pages 102-3: "In focusing on the epistemological role of artifacts in the context of the social organization of knowledge, this notion of transparency constitutes, as it were, the cultural organization of access...thus, the term transparency when used here in connection with technology refers to the way in which using artifacts and understanding their significance interact to become one learning process...there is an interesting duality inherent in the concept of transparency. It combines the two characteristics of invisibility and visibility: invisibility in the form of unproblematic interpretation and integration into activity, and visibility in the form of extended access to information." Okay, no need to type out the whole book here, but maybe we can talk about this passage, if others find it a little confusing too. I understand the definition of transparency (at the top of 102), but further on, the discussion confuses me. I still have about 20 pages of reading left to do, and the clarification I seek may be waiting there.

Can legitimate peripheral participation occur in formalized education?

“There is no activity that is not situated” (p. 33). Since all things only have meaning within a given context, knowledge is context-bound, and learning must take into account these parameters in order to occur. I can see how this is more than “learning by doing;” it’s not enough to accommodate tactile senses or to mimic processes. Participatory learning activities situated in a state removed from their original context are ineffective. In order to learn, one must become a “full participant in a sociocultural practice” (p. 29).

I’m interning for an organization in my department that works off the premise that the greatest indicator of learning is student engagement, or “the amount of time and energy that students invest in meaningful educational practices.” In my mind, this premise echoes Lave’s and Wenger’s notion of learners being “full participants;” that “learning, thinking, and knowing are relations among people in activity in, with, and arising from the socially and culturally structured world” (p. 51). It’s this idea that learning “is an evolving form of membership” (p. 53). The problem is, the efforts of this organization are set within the framework of formal higher education, and students are being pushed to engage in a structure disengaged from the context in which the knowledge they present is situated.

Lave and Wenger provide wonderful examples of legitimate peripheral participation within natural settings, emphasizing the commitment of “learner” and “master” to the cause, “learner” involvement in productive activity, and social relations within a community. Can these characteristics be brought into our formalized educational structure?

stumbling toward performance

Here, as in Fleck’s book, a main issue is the relationship of knowledge to social groups or “communities”. In Fleck, however, a more central issue was the knowledge itself and its production (i.e. Fleck was doing epistemology), so a full account of the individual’s role was not treated very directly or in great depth, though the issue was present in some degree. This time, however, the main issue is learning (which _sort_ of makes this pedagogy- it’s funny that I can’t immediately think of a Latin-/Greek-derived word that means the study of “learning”), so the role of the individual is central. This book is more explicit about the individual person and his/her role in thought communities and knowledge production.

L and W make the point that individuals are crucial to a knowledge-producing community since “the larger community of practitioners reproduced itself through the formation of apprentices,” (16 this is unfortunately from the foreword). However, the actions of the individuals, their agency within the group, are constrained by the established knowledge and practices of the group. An individual becomes a member of a group only by learning to perform certain actions that are already established within the group. In other words, in order to be taken seriously by and get anything done within the group, s/he can’t do “whatever s/he wants,” but must learn to imitate what is normal within the group. Two things here:

1) For L and W, knowledge is, as it was for Fleck, the “property” of the group. An individual member, then, does not “possess” that knowledge (because what exactly does it mean to “possess”, “have”, or “own” knowledge?) but “demonstrates” or “applies” that knowledge by performing certain activities. This challenges the distinctions between “abstract knowledge” and “real-life application” (33-4) and between the “inside” (of the mind where knowledge is collected) and the “outside” (of the world where things happen and objects are used).

2) Because there is “no such simple thing as ‘central participation,’” but only a variety of ways to participate peripherally, L and W’s understanding of social practices leaves much room for change (though it is gradual, as it was in Fleck’s description). Group membership depends on gradually imitating expert activities, but since there is no single true expert, i.e. no center to the group, these “imitations” are always approximate. Changes in group knowledge and definition occur as a result of these approximate imitations.

The close relationship of group identity, performance of actions, and the illusoriness of “internalized” knowledge reminds me of Judith Butler's notion of gender performance in Gender Trouble.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Fleck and 'Situated Learning'

I read Lave and Wenger almost immediately after I read Fleck, and the juxtaposition of the two was interesting. First, as the class pointed out last Thursday, the sense that Fleck was far ahead of his time is only reinforced by ‘Situated Learning’. The ideas about cognition and what “learning” is in the two books are remarkably identical for works separated so far apart in time.

The chief difference between the two, I think, is that Lave and Wenger place more of their theoretical focus on the individual as a part of a community and the way in which learning takes place as part of the individual psyche. For them, knowledge is created in Fleck’s thought communities (someone could probably help me out here; I’m almost certain L&W did not use Fleck’s terminology, but I do not remember what term they did use for this concept). Learning, however, occurs in the individual; it is legitimate peripheral participation that explains how learning occurs.

The focus on the individual is an important addition to the concepts of Fleck. Not only does it begin to explain one possible process by which learning and progress can occur (Fleck merely indicates how a particular advancement occurs; the closest thing to an idea of reproducing that kind of success is his suggestion that the early mistakes of scientists are not purely accidental, but the process of directed thought aimed at a particular problem), it also, as Lave and Wenger indicate, can serve as a checkup for learning situations, whereby the achievement/accomplishment of individual participants can be monitored. I do not see how a similar focus on individual progress can be possible in Fleck’s theory, mainly because he places almost all of his emphasis on the social/historical aspects of knowledge making. By closing this gap in the theory, Lave and Wenger make a major step forward in allowing the ideas of social cognition to be put to practical uses.

I’ve always thought of myself as kind of a theory-head, that I am interested in ideas and their relationships to each other more than their execution, but in reading these books, I’ve noticed that the more abstract the theory, the more I am both excited by it and interested in practical applications. In regard to the latter, Lave and Wenger are a little maddening. Though they provide the examples of five apprentice-like situations and give a fairly complete explanation of what they think constitutes legitimate peripheral participation in each, they leave a lot of ground uncovered. I will be interested to read everyone else’s comments to see how L&W’s ideas are worked out in relation to the many different fields represented in our class.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Irreproducibility, undecidability....shades of Derrida?

This is an extraordinary book. I’m glad I read in the introduction that Thomas Kuhn was familiar with it; otherwise, I’d have been wondering as I read how Fleck and Kuhn both managed to produce such similar works.

One reason this work is so remarkable to me is that it is written from within the science “thought collective.” “Hard” science has always seemed to me to be solid, fixed, constructed of facts. I’ve been guilty of what Fleck describes as “exhibit(ing) an excessive respect, bordering on pious reverence, for scientific facts.” So when I read Fleck describing the science thought collective as a two–tier social structure (esoteric and exoteric) depending on popular support, it makes me stop and realize I’ve made some faulty assumptions. The idea that the science elite need popular support of their ideas for them to become accepted as “truth” completely turns around how I assumed that worked. I thought scientists discovered facts through research and shared them with the masses.

I also liked Fleck’s characterization of the discovery of the Wassermann reaction as accidental. This debunks, or at least calls into question, the whole scientific method, i.e., that one formulates a hypothesis, conducts and experiment, thereby confirming or rejecting the hypothesis. But Fleck says Wassermann failed to find support for his hypotheses and just kind of stumbled onto the discovery, not really knowing what he had found until much later.

Speaking of debunking, I was reminded of Derrida when Fleck talked about questions which must remain “undecided” and when he described the early experiments as being irreproducible. That is just such a powerful tool, the introduction of uncertainty, and reminds me how important it is in research to be able to reproduce experiments.

I had another thought while reading Fleck’s account of the research leading to the Wassermann reaction becoming scientific fact. It sounded like (p. 77-78) a usable justification for NASA today. NASA seems to me to be a colossal waste of public resources for very little gain. But according to Fleck’s description, the milieu established around the idea, the concentration of thinking on this one idea, set the stage for who knows what “discoveries.” Although I’ve not heard this argument made for NASA, it seems like it could be with the support of Fleck.

One last idea I’d like to remark on is Fleck’s analogy comparing how a “true” finding can arise out of errors to how all rivers happen to reach the sea. Fleck says that by naming the lowest spot of elevation the sea, gravity ensures that all rivers run to the sea. Likewise, by the larger community agreeing after the fact on what is “truth,” whatever meandering path led us there seems pre-ordained!

Fleck is a clever writer. His description of the Wassermann reaction to syphilis is technical enough to persuade me of his scientific knowledge so I become much more susceptible to his sociological arguments.

“Only through organized cooperative research, supported by popular knowledge and continuing over several generations, might a unified picture emerge, for the development of the disease phenomena requires decades.”

“Whatever is known has always seemed systematic, proven, applicable, and evident to the knower.”

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Outside my thought collective...

I find Fleck’s presentation of thought collectives fascinating. It reminds me a lot of the study of organizational culture, in which the accepted set of norms, beliefs, and ideas structure how individuals in an organization react and interact with internal and external forces. In any given culture, possibilities are only considered possible in they fall within the parameters of thought held by the organization. This makes sense to me, and the comparison validates Fleck’s argument in my mind.
There are a few components of Fleck’s argument, though, that I don’t entirely get. First, if cognition is the product of a social collective, how does one influence change? Can the individual do it? Trenn and Merton note that “Fleck lays stress upon the collective that even the individual can be understood only in collective terms” (p. 160), and Petersen complains that Fleck “underrates individual creativity” (p. 164). Fleck does use the comparison of a soccer team, and that a game couldn’t be understood based on only the kicks of one individual (p. 46), but one player can change the whole disposition of a team. Second, I can agree that not all change in a thought collective will be progressive, but it seems really post-modern to assert that there is no progression and only equally viable thought styles. Connecting syphilis to blood as a fact fits the framework of social cognition, but has the change produced improvement in the way the disease is treated?
I’m sure these questions show that I didn’t understand Fleck as well as I’d like to think I did. Maybe I struggled because his assertions are impossible in my current thought collectives….

Thought styles, Galileo Galilei & psychotherapy

Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact struck me because I had never thought in depth about my use and understanding of the terms fact and truth. I was particularly astonished that Fleck manages to demonstrate the historical, social and psychological processes underlying knowledge and cognition without positioning himself absolutely with one of the epistemological trends prevailing at his time - the side of the positivists, namely the members of the Vienna Circle who believed in an ideal science and the existence of an objective, neutral observation of reality, nor on the side of philosophers preceding the Vienna Circle who stated the existence of an absolute truth and believed in the restriction of the cognition of this truth to human perception. Fleck states that both facts and cognition are subject to change. The way I understood Fleck is that he thinks of neither an absolute scientific truth nor of absolutely objective, neutral human perception.

The explanations of the terms thought style and thought collective reminded me of the medieval Galileo Galilei case which can serve as another example of the socio-psychological processes underlying scientific discoveries and the character of human perception. Galilei discovered by accident the satellites of Jupiter and later on the rings of Saturn and spots on the sun’s surface. At the time of his discoveries, several (now historic) conditions were given: The telescope had just been invented in the Netherlands and was not recognized as an instrument of scientific value. In addition the prevailing thought style permitted the approval of the facts discovered by Galilei because they did at that time not fit into the doctrines that had persisted for decades. Thus the scholars of his time simply refused to have a look through the telescope and even those who did, stated that they did not see the phenomena that Galilei had discovered. This historic case is in line with Fleck’s explanation of the role of visual perception and thought style in scientific discoveries.

Another example is the different academies of psychotherapy as they have emerged within the past approximately 120 years, e.g. psychoanalysis, behaviour therapy or cognitive therapy. Depending on which academy a therapist belongs to he will focus on different aspects of the patient’s mental health problems, their etiology and their treatment. Although it is the same patient, the facts which are stated about this patient differ. In a way, Freud was also bound to a thought style prevailing at his time which restricted him to specific methods and perceptions. At his time, the disorder then called hysteria was thought to occur in women only and thus only women were examined and treated. This corresponds to Fleck’s statement that “Every fact must be in line with the intellectual interests of its thought collective, …” (Fleck, p. 101). In addition Freud himself was attacked at first, because he introduced the concept of subconsciousness and stated that mental health disorders do not necessarily have to have a medical cause.

The British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington (1882 – 1944) once compared science to a fishing net with a certain mesh size. Only fish larger than the mash size are caught. I think that this quote expresses some of what Fleck says in Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact: Thought styles and the restrictions of human perception are the mesh size. After one catch a certain fact as assumed. If changes in thought style occur, meaning that the mesh size is changed, facts will also be altered. On the other hand, if by chance a fish smaller than the mesh size is caught, the net will be altered which means that facts can also change thought styles like vice versa.

I like his "trivial" analogy...but

As someone who is interested in rhetoric, I think it would be enlightening to discuss what Fleck means by one of the characteristics of a “closed system of opinion”—style. He writes, “only a classical theory with associated ideas which are plausible (rooted in the given era), closed (limited), and suitable for publication (stylistically relevant) has the strength to advance” (30). (These characteristics are presented as distinct here, but are assuredly interconnected?) On the next page: “A closed, stylized system…is not immediately receptive to new ideas” (31). Elsewhere, (could not locate passsage) Fleck asserts that proto-ideas that contain kernels of an emergent scientific truth will not be accepted “mainstream” until they are expressed in the preferred language and style of the discipline. And also (and here’s a cool precursor of social construction of technology theory to come in the decade or so after this work’s publication), an emergent scientific truth won’t be broadly accepted until the conditions in the thought community are ripe. It would be interesting to track how induction into the thinking and writing conventions of a particular thought collective works, in other words, the cognitive molding of the scientific thinker/rhetorician. But, importantly, to look at this process as a sociological one—using the framework of the individual’s gradual entrance and successful interaction in a thought collective. Also, in what ways is this process necessarily normative, i.e., what modes of thinking/writing are naturally discouraged as a condition of entry?

I like his “trivial” analogy--the individual is the soccer player, the thought collective, the soccer team, and cognition, the game itself (47). He uses this analogy to reinstate his claim that, in order to create any “firm ground for epistemology,” it’s necessary to always “investigate the thought community” (46). It’s interesting that he resorts finally to figurative language to get at this concept, which for me begs the question: It seems there are two ways to read the concept of the thought community: as admittedly metaphorical or as striving toward being empirical. In other words, in the “metaphoric” reading, yes, knowledge is socially constructed, context-specific, and contingent upon the means of knowledge-making and expression in a culture. But, this is widely discussed “metaphorically” in other disciplines, in rhetoric, for example, in the theme of a “discourse community,” or James Berlin’s “social epistemic rhetoric,” or Lester Faigley’s “social view,” etc. In the metaphorical treatments, thinking still happens inside someone’s head, but it is inherently shaped and even constrained by environing social factors. I know Fleck is making a case for something different (as we are in this class): something more empirical, or tangible (not finding the right word), perhaps a material rather than merely textual way of tracing the social construction of knowledge (still not saying it right, perhaps I mean direct versus indirect?). This shifting of focus from inside the head to the collective—I guess I am conceptualizing it in terms of theory I am already familiar with, which may be a little counterproductive—but it’s a new switch for me from a focus on “knowledge” or “truth” to “cognition” as socially-constructed. While I am having trouble expressing exactly how this is different (it seems at first a difference of mere emphasis), I am interested to learn how this switch could impact my personal research questions, and open up new research methods as well (new to me anyhow).

Minimizing caprice, maximizing constraint

What interests me most about Fleck's analysis is his discussion of active and passive elements of knowledge. Fleck shifts the site of agency from the mind, the subject, the individual to a thought collective. Agency lies in the collaboration, in the exchange of ideas rather than the simple utterance of that idea (by the person "in charge"). This idea itself sits in opposition to the scientific field of the human sciences at Fleck's moment in history, and it might be the reason this book wasn’t translated to English and was largely ignored for so long.

In his own historical moment, Fleck was dealing with the an expansion in the idea of the “solitary genius.” It’s helpful for me to think of Pasteur and Wassermann alongside literary modernism, a time in which it became imperative to attach names and individuals (“the subject”) to innovation and creation. In associating innovation with the genius, we imply that all knowledge development heads in a very specific direction. Wassermann insisted that his experiment “proceeded from the idea, and with the clear intention, of finding a diagnostically usable amboceptor” (75). Fleck refutes this claim. In fact, he denies that anyone could ever support such a claim – his analysis shows us that the discovery of the Wassermann reaction involved a great deal of synthesis and “play” of ideas. This play doesn’t mean flitting willy-nilly, rather it means that cognition is much more complicated than a model of “intention” could ever account for. It also means that Wassermann was one of many cogs in the process.

This gets me to the larger question I’d like to address: In Fleck’s discussion of active/passive and caprice/constraint, is he at all interested in agency? Is it a question he finds particularly important, or is he merely trying to give us a method of analysis that avoids the trap of locating agency? I think I’d lean toward the latter. While I don’t think Fleck attributes anything to mere chance (ideas don’t just appear, they are parts of a specific thought collective – a specific historical moment), I see him trying get us past the idea that the results of experimentation could ever be known. The “solitary genius” (Wassermann, Pasteur, Wolff, Hemingway) can’t possibly claim complete mastery of their experiment; if they could, it would cease to be an experiment.

Thought styles, collectives and non-verbal cues

To put it simply, Fleck was my kind of thinker! During my own journey through observation and reflection, I had already come to the conclusion that there could be many "correct" theories for the same problem. Fleck added to my understanding by asserting that there is no "complete" truth or error. For some reason, reading "complete" as opposed to "correct" or "perfect" prompted me in a new way. Applying this to self involves both humility and mercy--if there is no complete truth, then I must always keep searching and reflecting; if there is no complete error, then there must always be room for hope.

Something I'm still chewing on is the idea of thought styles and thought collectives. I'm wondering about how those shape and are conveyed through non-verbal cues. Texas is the sixth US state and only southern US state I've lived in; after five years, I still find it difficult to develop deep connections with my friends who are from here. By now, I know that 9 times out of 10, if I feel a pull to talk to someone, they're going to be from a northern state. My 2 newest friends are from Michigan and California; the ease and intimacy between us already exceeds that between me and friends from Texas I've known for five years.

With each move, I've paid attention to the local culture/assumptions that are commonly expressed in conversation, which I think Fleck would consider expressions of the thought collective (for example, in Texas it's common to hear someone say "That's not right" whereas in California it' s common to hear someone say something akin to "Do what you feel is right for you").

Now that I'm approaching the end of my coursework, I'm considering where I want to live. No matter where I've lived in the past, whenever I was home (in Montana), I always felt that the people were exceptionally nice, but I couldn't identify why I felt that way. Now, I think it's because the thought collective there is second nature to me; the non-verbal cues that invite conversation are easy for me to understand. I don't mean to suggest that everyone agrees on every point; rather, I understand the context out of which the agreement or disagreement developed. After living on each border of the US and in several countries, I feel certain that my learning will always continue in any setting, and, I'm ready to give myself the gift of place (and, I suppose, of a chosen thought collective).

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Thought Collectives & London Bombing

The Fleck book was interesting to me as I had never read anything of this sort before that was written so well in that it could communicate the medical aspects of an illness and at the same time communicate the process of how scientific fact developed over time through collective thought. At times I admit, I was lost in some of the medical jargon and German translations, but I thought Fleck was able to get his ideas across and balance between laymen and medical concepts.

There were a few aspects in the Fleck book that really resonated with me and have changed my perspective on what constitutes a thought, idea, and contribution into a fact. On page 40 Fleck states that there are three factors involved in cognition – the individual, the collective and the objective reality. However, Fleck effectively argues in this book how much the collective plays a bigger role in the cognition process. I liked the playful analogy of soccer he used to help get this point across on page 46 where the individual is the soccer player, the thought collective is the soccer team and the progress of the game is cognition. I started to think about his analogy and how he was able to demonstrate that scientific fact is not a contribution of one’s thoughts but by several individual’s thoughts over a period of time in a particular context.

I have been thinking about Fleck’s thought collective and how this could tie into technology and for me as it relates to journalism, how much the thought collective of story ideas and breaking news nowadays is heavily contributed by technology. Nowadays, journalists have access to information through discussion groups, chats, instant messenger, cell phones and email to communicate with larger groups of people when it comes to telling a story – from sources to the public witnessing the news. I begin to think about the early reports of the London bombing this summer and how the information and facts were formulated by a thought collective of individuals in the subway and surrounding areas that had access through their cell phones to text message or send recordings or visual images of what was happening. Through the combination of these messages from the public and the reporters on the scene, the facts began to form of what occurred in the subway stations and surrounding areas in London. I think this could tie into what Fleck was mentioning in Chapter 4 about how much facts are so interrelated and connected on page 102, “Facts are never completely independent of each other...As a result, every fact reacts upon many others. Every change and every discovery has an effect on a terrain is virtually limitless...A universally interconnected system of facts is thus formed, maintaining its balance through continuous interaction.”

I think its’ the constant interaction that we have to others (friends and strangers) through today’s technologies such as instant messenger, cell phones, email, synchronous chats and such that really push Fleck’s concept of thought collectives that take bits of information to another level among groups of individuals to make a concept or idea become a fact over time at a faster rate.