Thursday, August 4, 2016

People’s space-time-action orientations: How they’ve been studied. How they should be studied.

Note to readers interested in STA:C : I regard this post as one of my most important efforts to explain and elaborate STA:C — this time by casting a net over all my reviews these past few years about writings by Henri Lefebvre (on space), Peter Zimbardo & John Boyd (on time), and Albert Bandura (on agency). I hope the post helps…

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Slide 1: This briefing-style post offers a way to depict a prospective theoretical framework (currently acronymed STA:C) about people’s space-time-action orientations and their roles in cognition and culture. The post shows how several renowned experts have already gone about analyzing people’s space, time, and/or action orientations. It then claims that STA:C could do better.

Hopefully, my depiction can serve as an evolving visual aid for conveying STA:C at a glance. The genesis of my depiction dates from a briefing I began drafting in 2009, but never finished. I offered a preliminary incomplete version of this post two years ago — “A sketchy depiction of space-time-action analysis (STA) in seven slides” (2014). Today’s post supersedes that earlier effort. [Click on a slide to enlarge the view.]

My slides and write-up presume a passing familiarity with the STA:C framework. Otherwise, read a background story (here) and a preliminary overview (here).

Slide 2: The idea that space, time, and action orientations — all three combined — are fundamental elements of cognition and culture struck me in 1966 or 1967, a time when there was plenty of literature about each orientation by itself, but not as a triplex. Since then, I’ve dithered at focusing on the idea. But what I’ve read over the years indicates that no one has yet approached people’s space, time, and/or action orientations as a triplex.

Many (most?) discussions I’ve seen are reflected in the diagram on the left, where space and time perceptions — or just one or the other alone — are discussed for their effects on people’s activities, or action, broadly defined to cover all sorts of thinking and doing. However, though not entirely wrong, that kind of approach is self-limited and ultimately misleads, for it makes action (or agency) too much of a dependent variable.

Occasionally I’d come across a different approach, not depicted on this slide, that focuses on people’s beliefs about action or agency — their sense of having an ability to change matters around them through their own efforts. Ages ago, people were sure that supernatural forces determined one’s fate. The idea did not really develop until the Middle Ages (or later?) that one could control one’s destiny through one’s own capacity for action. Histories of the idea of “progress” were where I’d usually (but not always) come across approaches that treated action orientations as the key independent variable or cause.

Wherever I looked, with few exceptions, people’s space, time, or action perspectives were studied pretty much in singular fashion, with one or the other of the three emphasized in a study, and the others brought in almost tangentially, sometimes as additional independent variables, sometimes more as effects than causes. So I have remained resolute that my initial idea was/is still fairly original and worth pursuing.

The depiction on the right shows roughly what STA:C looks like to me. All three cognitive domains — space, time, and action — are treated as independent but interactive variables, roughly equal in importance, with overlaps. It’s basically a Venn diagram. It makes “thinking and doing” the dependent variable. I propose that it is a more accurate and productive way to depict and assess these cardinal elements of consciousness, cognition, and culture. This kind of diagram also offers a basis for comparative analyses, as in the subsequent slides.

Slide 3: I’ve been unable to do original research from scratch to verify and advance STA:C. As a partial substitute, it occurred to me that what I could do is review experts on each of the three cognitive elements — space, time, and action — in order to see, and show, whether they eventually had to recognize all three to some degree, as STA:C implies should be the case.

So I chose to read Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1974), Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd’s The Paradox of Time (2008), and Albert Bandura’s Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (1997). Each writing is renowned in its field. And I reviewed each in earlier posts here (but Bandura’s book was so long, I used his article “Toward a Psychology of Human Agency” (2006) instead).

My goal was to ascertain whether, and how much, these experts on individual STA:C elements ultimately attended to all three. STA:C argues that such experts should, indeed must attend to all three. But do they? To what extent? In what terms? And do such comparisons help validate STA:C?

This post conveys what I found. All diagrams are preliminary and impressionistic on my part. Your view may differ — in which case, draw your own version, and/or suggest that I redraw.

In my depictions, circle sizes — from large to small — represent the relative importance given to each STA:C element. Circle locations — overlaps, separations — indicate the degree of their interactions, according to the author(s). Circle line densities — from solid and thick, to dotted and thin — indicate my sense of the relative conceptual clarity of each STA:C element. (This approach to depiction improves, I hope, on my 2014 effort, which just used circle sizes and overlaps to represent each expert’s emphasis.)

Diagraming with these 2-D circles must suffice for now. But, for a future iteration, 3-D shapes might convey even better that the three STA:C elements work together rather like a molecular bundle. Perhaps “word clouds” could also be inserted to indicate content.

Slide 4: French philosopher/sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1974 [translation, 1991]) remains a landmark text among postmodern, mostly Marxist theorists who are caught up in the “spatial turn” in sociology that began a few decades ago.

Lefebvre proposed that space is a cardinal mental and social concept that merits far more attention from theorists and strategists. Accordingly, “the production of space” — all kinds of spaces, by all kinds of actors, even by isms — has become a paramount activity in advanced societies. Producing spaces is now a more defining activity of capitalism than producing commodities. Thus he not only advocates space as a grand analytical concept; he forecasts that societies are moving into an era when producing and controlling space is a key strategic purpose. (Source: three blog posts, beginning here)

While he does not offer a typology, he identifies innumerable categories and distinctions about physical, mental, and social spaces. Accordingly, “social space” first took form ages ago as a mostly “natural space”; then as modern forces took hold, it evolved into “absolute space” and “abstract space”. What’s important analytically is to figure out how to “decode” space and identify “spatial codes” that powerful actors use. In particular, he observes, “The ideologically dominant tendency divides space up into parts and parcels” — it works to separate all sorts of spaces from each other (e.g., public and private) and treat each as a “passive receptacle”.

While Lefebvre focuses on space, he devotes great attention to time as well. Indeed, he views time as a co-equal concept in terms of nature, physics, and philosophy. But much as he would like for space and time to operate in “unity” in the social world, he finds that one or the other has tended to prevail in different historical periods. In the current period, he argues, time has been “confined” and “murdered” by the modern state and capitalism — hence the growing significance of space, especially “abstract space”.

Lefebvre doesn’t write explicitly about the action element, but his treatment of “strategy” is somewhat cognate. In places, his treatment seems to be about people having an independent capacity for agency; but in other places, his treatment seems to treat strategy as a dependent implication of his space-time analysis. His forecast that societies are moving into an era when producing and controlling space is a key strategic purpose presumes, I would say, an action perspective, as does his view that the powers-that-be operate to split spaces up into parts and pieces they can dominate. But he also pushes two strategy points that read like dependent implications about what people should do: reunite disassociated spaces and generate bottom-up pluralism, including to create local self-managed autonomous zones outside the control of the state and its attendant networks

Hence, in my depiction of Lefebvre, the largest circle is about space. Time merits a large circle too. And the space and time circles deserve a strong overlap. His treatment of action in terms of “strategy” figures less in comparison, and less clearly — so I’ve rendered it with a small circle, sketchy line density, and little overlap.

Slide 5: This slide depicts what I conclude from reading psychologists Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd’s The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life (2008) — a significant psychological study in the guise of a self-help therapy book.

The largest circle by far goes to time, for, in their view, “time perspective” is “one of the most powerful influences on human thought, feeling, and action”. At the core of their study is a typology that identifies “six time perspectives: two past, two present, and two future” that are “the six most common time perspectives in the Western world”. These six are: past-negative; past-positive, present-fatalistic, present-hedonistic, future, and transcendental-future — lately modified to distinguish between future-positive and future-negative. This typology organizes their analysis about the significance of people’s time perspectives for their individual lives and for societies as a whole. (Source: four posts, beginning here)

As for action, Zimbardo & Boyd recognize the importance of “control” and “efficacy”. But their discussion tends to suborn and embed “control” within their treatment of time. Thus, in my depiction, action merits a medium-size circle, with a sketchy line density, that ends up almost entirely engulfed within the time circle.

There is no discussion of space as a distinct perceptual domain — only scattered disparate references to various spatial elements (e.g., one’s perceptions about self-worth, family, and government). Hence, I’ve drawn the space circle quite small, with the sketchiest line density, and placed it almost entirely outside (though maybe it too belongs inside) the time circle..

Their approach and its limitations is most evident when they try to explain why somebody may become a terrorist. The authors emphasize having “a “transcendental-future time perspective” as a condition. And they propose that U.S. policy and strategy should deal with this and other matters by focusing on changing people’s time perspectives. It’s a useful notion, but makes limited sense, for they play down crucial space and agency perceptions that are embedded in their write-up — reflecting the slide here.

Slide 6: For psychologist Alberto Bandura, agency — the ability “to influence intentionally one’s functioning and life circumstances” — is important because “malleability and agentic capability are the hallmark of human nature.” Developing an “agentic self” is one of life’s most meaningful endeavors, for it means a person “can generate a wider array of options”. Personal efficacy beliefs are the “foundation of human agency”.

His article “Toward a Psychology of Human Agency” (2006) analyzes psychological agency and efficacy in ways that match what I think action means in the STA:C framework. Thus, in my depiction, action receives the largest, boldest circle. Since he and other experts in his field prefer the terms agency and efficacy, maybe I should do so too. But for now I am sticking with action as the A in STA:C. Readers who prefer agency to action should just go ahead and do so. (Source: two posts, beginning here — they explain why I used his 2006 article instead of his renowned book Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (1997))

Bandura does not name time as a factor that affects or otherwise accompanies agency and efficacy. But his analysis does identify the importance of “forethought” and other aspects of people’s future orientations — e.g., anticipation, expectation, optimism, pessimism. So my depiction renders time as a medium-sized circle, not so clearly defined, but having a strong interaction with the action element. To my puzzlement, he views forethought as “the temporal extension of agency” — thus suborning time to action, rather than treating time as a separate cognitive domain.

Bandura affords space no explicit theoretical attention. But spatial qualities do appear, at least implicitly, in what he writes about the formation of individual identities and the perception of other actors in one’s environment. Indeed, spatial cognitions lie behind the “three modes of agency” he identifies: personal, proxy, and collective agency. From a STA:C standpoint, these modes are more spatial than agentic in nature, for they presume that one’s environment — or space — contains other actors who can connect to each other. So, space receives the smallest, vaguest circle in my depiction.

Finally, like Lefebvre and Zimbardo & Boyd, Bandura draws some implications for policy and strategy. As a result of the information revolution, other technological advances, and economic globalization, he sees that agency is being amplified in all sorts of ways, for beneficial as well as hazardous purposes around the world. And he warns that “Through collective practices driven by a foreshortened perspective, humans may be well on the road to outsmarting themselves into irreversible ecological crises”.

Note that this quote contains both time and action elements. I’d say that’s another plus for STA:C. I’d also note that while Bandura emphasizes the many ways whereby people’s agency is being amplified nowadays, it is also evident — just look at recent shifts in popular opinion in the United States and Europe regarding one newsworthy matter or another — that many people today also feel that globalization has deprived them of agency.

Slide 7: My three reviews here are less about the writings themselves than about a purpose that serves STA:C: to show that each expert writing, besides dwelling on its singular focus — space, time, or action — eventually turns to use and say something about all three. Indeed, there is no way for major writings to avoid doing so. The unrecognized reason for this is that these specialists are actually studying a systematic mental and cultural triplex that consist of all three orientations — but they’re doing it narrowly and unknowingly from their singular angle.

Inspection of such writings helps confirm that people’s space-time-action orientations function as a bundle, like a module — a set of inter-laced cognitive-knowledge elements that no mind or culture can do without, and which shape the distinctive nature of that mind or culture. The more we learn about analyzing people’s space-time-action orientations, the more we shall realize that all three orientations are so thoroughly interlaced in our minds and cultures that they form an essential cognitive “module”. And if I’m right about that, then the unfolding of that realization will matter not only across academic disciplines, but also to real-world analysts and strategists of all stripes. Figure out people’s space-time-action orientations as a three-fold bundle and you can assess how people think and act better than ever before.

But, assuming I am right about all this, getting there won’t be easy. I gather that specialized academic fields tend to resist change. Besides, it would take a lot of effort to “prove” that space-time-action orientations exist and function in combination, as a triad, and that the three orientations should be studied as such rather than singularly — in other words, that something like STA:C is for-real.

BTW, I sometimes refer to space-time-action orientations as a “module” — that’s how I depict them here. But I don’t mean this literally. Patricia Churchland explains better than I can when she goes so far as to propose that the term “module” should be retired from neuroscience:
“The concept of ‘module’ in neuroscience (meaning sufficient for a function, given gas-in-the-tank background conditions) invariably causes more confusion than clarity. The problem is that any neuronal business of any significant complexity is underpinned by spatially distributed networks, and not just incidentally but essentially — and not just cortically, but between cortical and subcortical networks.” (source)
Until a better term comes along, I’m going to keep referring to a “module”. But I mean it more metaphorically than literally. There is no specific pop-in pop-out module for a mind’s (or a culture’s) space-time-action cognitions. But something distributed yet integrated is going on, and I wish I knew a good conceptual term for it. Maybe “nexus”?

Slide 8: This slide recapitulates my sense of what STA:C analysis looks like, ideally. All three cognitive domains — space, time, action — are clearly recognized and weighted equally, as are their overlaps (i.e., fusions, interactions). What may be a cogni-cultural “sweet spot” lies at the core. I’ve added a feedback arrow to indicate that reciprocal adjustments and adaptations are bound to occur as an actor applies his or her cognitions to real-world thinking and doing, presumably.

This depiction is about what an idealized STA:C analysis would look like, inquiring into all areas equally and comprehensively. The depiction represents what an actual mind (or culture) should look like, at its best: developed, balanced, knowledgeable, and attentive in all three cognitive domains.

Of course, in reality, many minds and cultures may not conform fully to this ideal. They may be more emphatic and defined in one area, less so in another. If so, the diagram would have to be adjusted to display that particular mind or culture. Moreover, the diagram implies that there is full of content, but the diagram itself is devoid of specific content. That would have to be identified, and a display methodology determined, for the kind of person or culture being studied. I doubt there is an ideal content for each cognitive domain; instead, what may be “ideal” is that it vary somewhat from individual to individual and from culture to culture (in accordance with Darwinian principles?). For example, as noted in other posts here, there is a large scholarly literature about differences between Western and Asian modes of perception, and much of it comes down to differences in space, time, and action perspectives. Which I’d say further confirms that STA:C offers a sound way to approach comparisons.

Slide 9: As a result of the above (plus other considerations not covered here), I’d hypothesize that space, time, and action (or agency) are people’s cardinal or prime social cognitions. They emerge and develop during childhood and are sine qua non for the rest of a life — as a triad. Related to this, each culture around the world develops its own distinctive nature in large part because of the dispositions it instills about social space, social time, and social action. STA:C — or whatever the framework for cognitive cultural theory — would benefit if this hypothesis were recognized and verified.

There is plenty of literature about the importance of each of the three cognitive domains. But from what I’ve seen so far, there is no literature that the three combined are as important, encompassing, and cardinal as I am hypothesizing. I cannot do much more than offer the hypothesis, but I’d also offer a little more insistence, as follows: Space, time, and action may be the cardinal cognitions, much as red, blue, and yellow are the primary colors, and space, time, and energy (or something akin) are the fundaments of physics. Isaac Newton posited that physics rested on observations about space, time, and momentum. Emmanuel Kant posited that the mind rests on conceptions of space, time, and causality. Sheldon Wolin argued that political metaphysics rest on ideas about space, time, and energy in the form of power. STA:C is an extension of all this.

Claims that space and time orientations are important as a pair is a common sight in the social sciences, partly borrowed from the physical sciences. Yet, consider this: without the addition of the action-orientation component to the cognitive module, the object or subject would just sit there — inert — and his or her space-time orientations would mean nothing for cause or consequence. It may be a leap from showing that experts studying any one of the three cognitive-cultural elements inevitably recognizes all three, to showing that the three combined are the primary or cardinal cognitions and should be conceived and studied as such. But I am suggesting that it can and will be shown, even if I am not the one to do it.

If space, time, and action are not sufficient as the prime cognitions, I keep wondering and looking for what else there may be that is prime — what I may be missing. So far, I don’t see what else. For example, some studies treat cognition of “the self” as a crucial cognition. But then the ensuing discussion is about the self as an entity that senses differentiation from and connection to others — which is a spatial orientation. Or that one’s sense of self is expressed through expectations and aspirations — a time orientation. Or that the self evolves as one learns to use tools and see cause-effect relations — an action or agency orientation. In other words, the ensuing discussion is about the self as some kind of bundle of space-time-action orientations. I take this to mean that “the self” is not a separate cognition — it fits fine under or into STA:C’s triad.

Of course, there are many other kinds of cognitions that don’t fit with STA:C — e.g., cognition of “beauty”. But I don’t see that as a problem that invalidates STA:C.

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I’m out of steam on this post. But at least I got this far. It’s a good-enough ending point for now, since what I’ve managed to finish above expresses most of my key points for this post. So I’m placing the remaining three slides in the Appendix below. They still lack text, but they are fairly self-explanatory anyway. I shall hope to add their texts someday. But right now I should move on to other matters.

(I have deleted my July 30 initial partial post and its incremental updates on this topic. This August 4 post replaces that one. My apologies to its few readers for my odd method, which seemed reasonable at the time.)

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Appendix:  Slides 10, 11, and 12

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Addendum: Scholarly quotes about the importance of people’s STA orientations

[My 2014 precursor post included this Addendum. I’m leaving it in this 2016 post, verbatim. At the time, the acronym was STA; now it's the more pronounceable STA:C.]

While I was refining the foregoing slides and text, I noticed various scholarly quotes I’d kept for old drafts about STA. These quotes might clutter the trim briefing-style post above. But they speak pointedly to the ideas behind STA. And they may help convey and clarify STA for some readers. So I’m providing a selection here, eleven in number. I’ve used a few in prior posts, but they’re worth repeating.

On space: These two quotes — the first from Michel Foucault, the next from Manuel Castells — speak to the importance of space orientations.
• “The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. … when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersections with its own skein.” (From Michel Foucault, “Of Other Space,” in Diacritics, Spring 1986, p. 24)
• “I shall then synthesize the observed tendencies under a new spatial logic that I label space of flows. I shall oppose to such logic the historically rooted spatial organization of our common experience: the space of places.” (From Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 1996, p. 378)

On time: Here are three quotes about the significance of time orientations — one each from Karl Mannheim, Florence Kluckhon, and Fred Polak. The statements by Kluckhon and Polak represent the kind of background that I’d wish Zimbardo & Boyd’s book had included.
• “[T]he innermost structure of the mentality of a group can never be as clearly grasped as when we attempt to understand its conception of time in the light of its hopes, yearning, and purposes. On the basis of these purposes and expectations, a given mentality orders not merely future events, but also the past.” (From Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, 1936, p. 209)
• “Obviously all societies at all times must cope with all three time problems; all must have their conceptions of the Past, the Present, and the Future. Where societies differ is in the rank-order emphasis they give to each, and a very great deal can be told about the particular society being studied, much about the direction of change within it can be predicted, if one knows what that rank order is. Spengler, greatly impressed by the significance of the time orientation, made this statement in his Decline of the West: ‘It is by the meaning that it intuitively attaches to time that one culture is differentiated from another.’” (From Florence Kluckhohn, “Some Reflections on the nature of cultural integration and change,” in Tiryakian, ed., 1963, p. 224)
• “[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. As long as a society's image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.” (From Fred Polak, The Image of the Future, [1955] 1973, p. 5, 19)

On action: That man has power to affect things, that progress is feasible, that social action can work — that human agency and efficacy matter — is a separate belief, not derived from space-time beliefs. This point shines in the following two quotes — one from Leonard Doob, the other from Alberto Bandura:
• “Basic to all such thinking …. must also be the belief that men themselves — not their ancestors, not fate, not nature, not other men — are able to control their own destinies. … for men everywhere are not likely to seek change unless they believe that change is possible.” (From Leonard Doob, Becoming More Civilized, 1960, p. ??)
• “This change in human self-conception and the view of life from supernatural control to personal control ushered in a major shift in causal thinking, and the new enlightenment rapidly expanded the exercise of human power over more and more domains.” (From Alberto Bandura, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, 1997, p. 1)

On space and time together: Of the three STA orientations, space and time are the two that usually get combined and discussed together. The following quotes — one from Lewis Mumford, the next from Daniel Boorstin — illustrate this:
• “[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, p. 18)
• “[T]he compass provided a worldwide absolute for space comparable to that which the mechanical clock and the uniform hour provided for time. … When you moved any great distance from your home out into the uncharted great oceans, you could not know precisely where you were unless you had a way of finding precisely when you were.” (From Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers, 1983, pp. 219-220)

On space, time, and action as a set: Finally, as intimations of STA, here are revelatory quotes — one from Sheldon Wolin, the next from Bruno Latour — that urge treating space-time-action as a triad.
• “Every political theory that has aimed at a measure of comprehensiveness has adopted some implicit or explicit proposition about “time,” “space,” “reality,” or “energy.” Although most of these are the traditional categories of metaphysicians, the political theorist does not state his propositions or formulate his concepts in the same manner as a metaphysician. … Rather, the political theorist has used synonyms; instead of political space he may have written about the city, the state, or the nation; instead of time, he may have referred to history or tradition; instead of energy, he may have spoken about power. The complex of these categories we can call a political metaphysic.” (From Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision, 1960, pp. 15-16)
• “Fourth, to talk like the semioticians, there is always simultaneously at work in each account, a shift in space, a shift in time, and a shift in actor or actant, the last of these always forgotten in philosophical or psychological discussions. … We should not speak of time, space, and actant but rather of temporalization, spatialization, actantialization (the words are horrible) or, more elegantly of timing, spacing, acting.” (From Bruno Latour, “Trains of Thought: Piaget, Formalism, and The Fifth Dimension,” in Common Knowledge, Winter 1997, pp. 178–9)

Bruno Latour!? I normally find his writing incomprehensible. Evidently I must reconsider.


UPDATE — August 11, 2016: I edited text for Slide 7, in order to eliminate remarks that may seem snippy.