Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Hutchins and the case of Kitty Genovese

My feelings of being thrown overboard by all the navigation terminology and specifics of bearing taking and turn taking were soothed after I had read chapter five. This chapter was so exciting! Hutchins’s description of communities of networks and the influences of communication on these networks seems quite applicable to real communities.

When reading about the example in which no communication between the individual networks takes place and the individuals move toward the interpretation closest to their starting point, I was once again reminded of the phenomenon which social psychologists call by-stander effect or distribution of responsibility. Let us take the sad case of Kitty Genovese which has been intensively studied from a social psychologist point of view. In the 1950s or 1960s (I forgot) this woman was attacked three times outside her New York City apartment complex and died from her injuries. It was reconstructed that more than forty people witnessed the attack from their windows and heard the woman calling for help at some time during the attacks, but only when it was too late one of them decided to intervene and call the police. Since it was late at night, none of the more than forty witnesses communicated with each other from the time of the first attack until the police finally arrived and Kitty Genovese was dead. Could this event be described in terms of Hutchins’ simulations of communities of networks?
I would assume that each witness had the same schema for what was happening to Kitty Genovese. A man attacking a woman with a knife in the middle of the night and the woman calling for help certainly provokes the activation of a shared schema. Also, the forty witnesses had equal access to evidence since the windows from which they were watching were facing the scene of the crime. The predispositions of the individuals might have been different. Some were certainly considering calling the police, others might have been thinking of the dangers of going down to help the woman and some knew the woman better than others. Personal beliefs, emotional responses, personality traits and so on could be regarded as part of the individual predispositions. Let us further assume only two possible interpretations – one being that it is necessary to help the woman and either call the police or go downstairs and help her, and the other one being that it is not necessary or not one’s responsibility to help her. Depending on the individual predispositions, at the time when they first became aware of the crime, the witnesses started off closer to one or the other interpretation. Apparently most of the individuals reached the second interpretation. Could the situation have been different had the witnesses communicated with each other? From reading Hutchins I assume so since he states that the effects of group-level cognitive processes are different from the results of individual cognitive processes.

This is just one example of how Hutchins’ ideas might be applied to social psychology. As far as I know the field is far from these ideas, but it seems to me that they are of great value for studying social processes.


Blogger gfp said...


Good example. It sounds a lot like what Hutchins was talking about in his discussion of confirmation bias. Results are different depending on how cognition is distributed, and this is closely linked to social environments. Would Kitty Genovese have died in a similar neighborhood in Salt Lake City, or Austin? How much of the response is directly linked to the social forces on interaction in New York City?


1:03 PM  

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