Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lite overview of space-time-action analysis

Imagine all kinds of people who have all kinds of beliefs. Next, imagine stripping away their high-level ideologies, values, and norms, until you get down to their most basic notions that still amount to thoughtful cognition about how the world looks and works. Stop there, before descending into a quivering mess of raw emotions, impulses, and instincts.

What's there, I contend, is a layer or module in the mind that consists of people's basic orientations — basic assumptions — about space, time, and action. Briefly, by space I refer to how people see their identity in relation to others, and how they perceive objects as being structured, arrayed, and linked. By time, I refer to how people discern past, present, and future. By action, I mean whether and how people think they can affect matters by means of action.

All three orientations — toward space, time, and action — are essential for the mind to work in ways that represent social consciousness. A module consisting of the three takes shape during childhood. It's permanently there from then on. No mind can work without this module, and most everything people think and do gets processed in it. It amounts to requisite cognitive knowledge, because space-time-action orientations lie at the core of much — all? — human awareness and deliberation.

Here is a bit more elaboration about each orientation. More points will be added in future elaborations.

Social Space Orientations

Again, this refers to basic beliefs about the identity and significance of actors and other objects in one’s environment, their size and distribution, and their connections and relations. Some spatial orientations, the earliest to form in a child, may concern what lies concentrically outward from the individual, near and far. This includes making distinctions about one’s self, one’s environment, what lies beyond that one can project into, all the way outward to what is recognized as the world at large. Other orientations may entail distinctions about zones, sectors, domains, and realms that different peoples and societies establish — e.g., between mine and yours, us and them, personal and collective, public and private, sacred and secular, state and market, local and global — and about the boundaries, barriers, paths, connections, flows, and influences that exist within and among them. Space orientations may also be about the structure of a system or organization. For example, social space may assume a different shape and significance in a tribal setting where kinship ties and patronage are of paramount concern, compared to an institutional setting where impersonal values and norms and a sense of hierarchy are supposed to prevail.

Social Time Orientations

This refers to basic assumptions and beliefs about the nature of time, especially relations among the past, the present, and the future. They too take shape in childhood, as one acquires a sense of how fast (the tempo) and how long (the duration) time seems to flow, and how to distinguish and relate past memories and future expectations. As people develop goals and visions, they express orientations about the past, present, and especially the future. How (even whether) people break time into past, present, and future; whether they live mainly in terms of the past, present, or future; and what they see as the horizons and connections, the continuities and discontinuities, among them — these are some basic questions about time orientations. Whether time’s flow seems cyclical, spelling an eternal return, or linear, allowing for open-ended change and progress, are ideas that have shaped entire eras and cultures. Extreme ideas that a new millennium will emerge if the present order is annihilated have defined the perspectives of apocalyptic groups. Also, views may develop that different spaces (e.g., sacred and secular, or home and office) entail different time orientations, not to mention different action orientations.

Social Action Orientations

Many studies of space and/or time orientations lead to implications for action. But the action orientation is not simply a consequence of the other two; it is an equal and separate dimension that, like the other two, emerges and takes its own course during childhood. It refers to the basic beliefs that people hold about whether and how they can affect and perhaps alter their (space-time) environment, what instruments and alternatives they have for doing so, and what are deemed proper actions — in short, this orientation reflects people's notions about cause-effect and ends-means relations. Perhaps, in particular situations, they cannot be fully abstracted from space and time orientations. Yet, this is a distinct realm of cognition about the abilities and prospects — the power, efficacy, free will, capacity for choice — that an actor thinks he or she has for affecting a situation, independently of one’s space and time orientations. For example, the action orientation may get at differences between two actors who share similar hopes about the future and critiques of the present, but differ over whether and how a system can be changed and their hopes attained, perhaps because they differ as to what actions are legitimate, or because one feels a sense of power and the other does not. Social action orientations are thus about a concern that often arises in philosophy and anthropology: whether people can master and guide their destiny, or whether they are subject to an inevitable, even preordained place and fate about which they can do little to nothing — indeed, whether one's life is the stuff of lawful or random forces.

Space-Time-Action As a Cognitive Triplex

Vast literatures exist on each orientation; there is nothing novel about urging inquiry into any one of them or into space and time together. My point is that all three are essential, indeed elemental. Together, they form a foundational bundle in the mind — a triad, trinity, or triplex. Consciousness and awareness do not function without cognition along all three. Deliberate, purposeful behavior requires the existence of explicit space-time-action orientations. That is how minds works. And the three should be analyzed together.

The three orientations exist separately, but they also coexist in some kind of balance and relation to each other. Many, varied combinations are possible, but there appear to be some general dynamics.

For example, minds that are orderly, and intent on being orderly, in one dimension may also tend to be orderly in the others. And such minds may focus on restoring such order if a cognitive disturbance occurs. Thus, a mind that prefers to focus far more on the future than on the past or present, or far more on the self than on the world at large, may prove difficult to shift away from that focus, even if something extraordinary occurs.

However, if orientations along one dimension do shift sharply, this may induce a shift in one or both of other dimensions. For example, a rising sense of powerlessness may have adverse effects on one's future aspirations. Or a sudden expansion of spatial horizons, as may occur when a teenager moves from a small-town high school to a big-city university, may wow one’s sense of possibilities along all three dimensions, inducing a kind of radicalization. Indeed, major shifts across all three may be required for conversion to an entirely new mindset or ideology. But this is not an everyday experience; many mindsets seem able to endure a sharp shift in one dimension — e.g., from optimism to pessimism about the future — without being fundamentally dislodged along the other two dimensions.

Calling It Mindframe Analysis

For lack of a better term, I shall call the analysis of this cognitive triplex “mindframe analysis” or “mindfield analysis.” I first used the former term in 1994, preferring it over latter. The latter is a sensible term too, but there are precedents for “mindframe analysis.”

It echoes the practice of referring to a person’s “frame of mind.” It harmonizes with Erving Goffman’s (1974) notion of “frame analysis” for looking into how people mentally organize their sense of experience (though his unclear notion says little about space-time-action orientations). And it resonates with the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) researchers sometimes speak about resolving “the frame problem” so that robots can acquire the “common sense” to sort one item from another, or one situation from another. (In my view, AIs cannot acquire consciousness unless space-time-action cognitions are embedded in them.)

Another alternative is the established term “mindset analysis” — but it has such broad usage that it seems less susceptible to being pinned down, methodologically. Analyses of people’s “cosmologies,” “worldviews,” and “operational codes” often have details about their space, time, and/or action orientations, but it’s usually in a partial kind of way mixed up with other attributes. So those terms are not quite appropriate either.

Thus, for purposes of abbreviation, I’ll refer to the analysis of space-time-action orientations as mindframe or mindfield analysis, and what I’m trying to build as the “STA framework.”

Mindframe analysis should aim both to dissect the trifold bundle and to assess the whole. By discerning what is going on in the bundle — its parts and as a whole — an analyst may better understand and anticipate what a person is likely to think and do. Analysts often use standard ideological or psychological approaches for this — e.g., by claiming that a subject corresponds ideologically to a liberal, conservative, anarchist, or fundamentalist, or psychologically to a narcissist, paranoiac, avenger, or thrill-seeker. A systematic effort at mindframe analysis should enable analysts to improve upon those standard approaches.

Beyond Individual Minds

The STA module is rarely analyzed as such. Yet it lies behind not only how individual minds think, but also how cultures work and historical eras differ. Some major ideas — like the epochal shift from believing in fate to believing in progress — owe to shifts in the underlying beliefs that end up in this module. Entire cultures and civilizations are defined in part by how they mold people’s minds in these three domains of cognitive knowledge.

To be continued …

"[N]o two cultures live conceptually in the same kind of time and space.... [E]ach culture believes that every other kind of space and time is an approximation to or perversion of the real space and time in which it lives." (Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 1932)
"[Man's] image of the future is his propelling power … [T]he rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures." (Fred Polak, The Image of the Future, 1973 [1955])

1 comment:

Jay Taber said...

You might enjoy listening to my colleague Dr. Richard Atleo.