Wednesday, November 16, 2005

a Fleckian case study writ large

The last chapters of Hutchins seemed to function not only as a synthesis of the book, but as a summation of a lot of the earlier work we’d read in the class. I.e., not only did the case study of ship’s navigation illuminate his own ideas, but it also strengthened/supported a lot of the earlier readings—e.g., how organizational systems both produce and reproduce themselves, while accounting for error inherent in learning (Lave and Wegner), a powerful definiton of culture as inherently cognitive and v. versa (Shore), a framework for understanding why the Clark book (though pub’d after Hutchins?), by starting w/ the individual brain as the unit of analysis, didn’t completely put the pieces together (brain and world), etc. Also the most satisfying/convincing blow to date to the cognitivist model: “the physical-symbol-system architecture is not a model of individual cognition. It is a model of the operation of a sociocultural system from which the human actor has been removed.”

Less obviously, when Hutchins discusses adaptation v. design in the evolution of systems, and argues for the utility of a “natural history of cognitive science,” I was also reminded of the Varela chapter on the link between cognitive science and evolutionary theory (Ch. 9). The authors argued there that both representationism in cognitive science and adaptationism in evolution insist on optimizing constraints v. satisficing them (i.e., the difference between “the idea that what is not allowed is forbidden” and “the idea that what is not forbidden is allowed”). Is Hutchins arguing for something similar in social or organizational evolution, or is it wrong to make this link because in cultural systems design comes into play as well? I guess this is all to ask: what did those of you who are interested in studying social/workplace organizations make of Hutchins’s characterization of adaptation at the system level (349-351)?


Blogger mdl said...

hey Eileen--this post comes late (so, I guess, what's the point since it won't add to class discussion? oh well, here goes). I think your question is related to a tension that is developing between "cognition in the wild," and other accounts that seem to look for "cognition in a mess." This other perspective is represented in things like activity theory, which some (rightly or wrongly) are presenting as somehow more open, "broad," and contingent than a focus on functional, organized systems. It seems like your question raises a further dilemma about this problematic split between an "open" versus "functional" systems theory: what about how systems evolved in the first place? A cool link you make here.

8:53 AM  

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