Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why I'm interested in space-time-action orientations

A powerful idea about how people think hit me like an epiphany during a pensive nap four decades ago in graduate school, after I had fretted for weeks at my inability to understand a professor’s impressive lectures about the nature of time and its roles in political philosophy. What struck me was that, for a person to function in society, the mind requires notions about space as well as time — and that space and time orientations alone are not sufficient. The mind also revolves around a sense of what people can and cannot affect in the world; and this sense is relatively separate from the space and time senses.

In short, how people think and behave depends on the kinds of social space-time-action orientations they have. A simple reduction, I thought, and quite compelling. I wasn’t sure whether it was a new idea (it wasn’t). And it arrived too late to help me with that professor’s class. But it gave me a conceptual grip on … well, on something.

At the time, I was interested in why people rebel — hey, it was the late 1960s — and I thought that analyzing space-time-action perceptions might be a revealing way to analyze this. It might even work better than a leading explanation, “relative deprivation,” which focused on future expectations, a time orientation. So I proposed to develop the idea through dissertation research on peasant unrest in Mexico. However, the peasants I interviewed for my case study did not like being asked structured questions about their space-time-action orientations. They just wanted to tell me their stories, without interruptions. Thus I had to put the idea aside, in favor of doing a more historical, much less theoretical dissertation.

Since then, I have kept up my hopes for the idea. I have persistently collected writings that bear on it. I made a few wayward efforts to field it in RAND research projects on terrorism. I wrote a few pages outlining it in a study about a dangerous mindset that exhibits a uniique set of space-time-action orientations: The Hubris-Nemesis Complex (Ronfeldt, 1994). And I occasionally made notes and drafted sections for an eventual full write-up. This posting and ensuing ones represent my first effort at a partial article-length write-up.

I make this effort with relief, but also trepidation, for a lot has happened around the idea these past four decades. No one has laid it out quite the way I saw it: as a trifold module. Yet space and time have become prominent concepts in parts of academia — not only for a new generation of postmodernists who seem to have their own odd idioms for analyzing spatiality and temporality, but also for seasoned social theorists who better reflect social-science traditions (such as Anthony Giddens and Manuel Castells), and for cognitive scientists and linguists who examine how our minds work (such as Steven Pinker and George Lakoff). There are even journals and blogs now about Society and Space, Space and Culture, and Time & Society.

Moreover, globalization and the information revolution — above all, the spread of the Internet — have prompted endless commentary from business, government, military, media, and civil-society leaders about how people’s orientations to social time, space, and action are being altered. Terrorism in particular has jarred people’s space-time-action perceptions.

All this provides new grist for the idea. The literatures about it, and the audiences for it, have grown immensely. Yet, as a result of this burgeoning, some theorists may now regard it as ordinary, even belatedly trite, for someone like me to call for new attention to space-time-action orientations. Or they may have such strong stakes in their evolved viewpoints that, by now, my musings, if noticed, will encounter little more than resistance and criticism.

Nonetheless, I must persist, if only to release myself from the lingering spell of that long-ago nap. Besides, I believe my offering can add value, for it insists on the trifold nature of this module in the mind. Many theorists have focused on the social significance of people’s space or time concepts. Some have also emphasized their dual importance. But only a small number — beginning mainly with Immanuel Kant, and lately including Bruno Latour and Steven Pinker — have given the action (or some would say, causal) orientation an equivalent status.

I shall elaborate in future postings, in keeping with my efforts to produce a full draft paper.

1 comment:

eddie/shiqin said...

Steward Brand's The Clock of the Long Now was interesting. On p. 37, there's a diagram of how different social phenomena move at different rates, with nature and geological time scales at one end.

Also, Chronos and Kairos are interesting ways to think about time.