Monday, November 27, 2017

Making a case for STA:C — #1: Why I’m interested in people’s space-time-action perspectives & their significance for cognition and culture

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

What's there, I contend, is an assemblage — metaphorically, a kind of layer or module — in the mind that consists of people's basic orientations (assumptions, perspectives, perceptions, beliefs) about the nature of social space, social time, and social action. Briefly, by space I refer to how people see their identity positioned in relation to others, and how they perceive other subjects and objects, near and far — how they perceive all this as being structured, arrayed, linked. By time, I refer to how people discern and prioritize the past, present, and future, and what content they give to the past, present, and future. By action, I mean a sense of agency, of efficacy — whether and how people think they can affect matters around them.

In short, how people think and behave depends on the kinds of deep-down space-time-action perspectives they have — not just any one but all three, as a kind of requisite triplex. All three orientations — space, time, and action — are essential for the mind to work in ways that represent social consciousness. A kind of “module” consisting of the three takes shape during infancy and childhood. It's permanently there from then on. No mind can work without it, and most everything people think and do gets processed in and through it. It amounts to requisite cognitive knowledge, because space-time-action orientations lie behind much — all? — human awareness and deliberation.


This idea about how people think — about how a bundle of space-time-action cognitions underlies their thinking — seized me like a personal epiphany during a pensive nap fifty years ago (1966 or 1967). I was in graduate school and had fretted for weeks at my inability to understand a professor’s impressive lectures about the nature of time and its place in political philosophy, with references to Henri Bergson, Immanuel Kant, Karl Mannheim, Sheldon Wolin, and others whose names I’ve forgotten. I was gripped with interest, but flummoxed by despair.

What finally unfolded to me during this nap was that, yes, thinking is based on beliefs about time, but it requires beliefs about space as well. Furthermore, space and time orientations alone are not sufficient for full-fledged cognition of the world. The mind also revolves around an action or agency orientation — a sense of whether and what a person can and cannot affect in the world — and this action orientation is separate from the space and time senses. In sum, our space, time, and action senses are the cardinal elements of cognition, and beyond that, of culture and philosophy; and they should be recognized and studied as an interlaced triplex.

What a simple compelling idea. I wasn’t sure whether it was an entirely new idea (it wasn’t). And it arrived too late to help me with that professor’s class. But it gave me an excited initial conceptual grip on … well, on something

Back then, as a graduate student, 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 study that. It might even work better than a then-leading explanation, “relative deprivation,” which focused mostly on future expectations, a time orientation. So I proposed to develop the space-time-action idea through dissertation research on peasant unrest in Mexico. However, the people I found 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, about why there was so much unrest in their area. So I had to put my idea aside, in favor of doing a more historical, conventional, much less theoretical dissertation.


After that, through with school and intent on fashioning a professional research career, I kept up my hopes for developing the idea. I persistently collected writings that related to 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 RAND study about a dangerous leadership mentality that exhibits a unique set of space-time-action orientations — The Hubris-Nemesis Complex (1994). And I kept making notes and drafting sections for an eventual full write-up. But mostly I dithered while I kept my work focused on other interesting ideas at RAND that stemmed more from TIMN than STA:C.

In my view, STA:C is an easier simpler idea and framework to grasp than is TIMN. STA:C may even be a better idea than TIMN. But shifting to focus on it would have to wait until I retired and turned to blogging.


A lot has happened around the idea these past five decades. Space, time, and action (agency) have each become increasingly prominent concepts in different parts of academia. A new generation of postmodernists in sociology made the “turn to space” for theorizing in new (mostly Marxist?) ways about the nature of society. Seasoned social theorists who better reflect social-science traditions (such as Anthony Giddens and Manuel Castells), along with cutting-edge psychologists, cognitive scientists, and linguists who study how our minds work (e.g., Philip Zimbardo, Steven Pinker, George Lakoff) all provided new takes and insights about space, time, and sometimes space-time perspectives. Journals and blogs also appeared about Society and Space, Space and Culture, and Time & Society. Elsewhere, psychologist Alberto Bandura has advanced the study of social agency and efficacy in ways that related to STA:C’s action element. Indeed, if I were to start elaborating about all these developments, adding more names and numerous quotes, this section would go on for pages.

Along the way, globalization and the information revolution — above all, the growth of the Internet and the Web — have prompted endless commentary from business, government, military, media, civil-society, and academic research leaders about how people’s orientations to social space, time, and action are being altered. Terrorism in particular has jarred people’s space, time, and action perceptions, leading to a plethora of new writings.

Yet, despite all this new thinking, no one else has yet turned to study space, time, and action orientations the way I saw them — as a trifold complex. This is both a surprise and a relief. It means I still have an opportunity (stand a chance) to advance the idea. Yet it may also mean there is some strange resistance to the idea — say because of entrenched specialization or credentialist dynamics in academia — or something else I don’t understand. I can’t tell yet. Onward, anyway!


I’d say all this provides new grist for the STA:C idea. The literatures about its three elements, and the potential audiences for it, have burgeoned. Besides, I believe STA:C can add value, for it insists on the trifold nature of this module in the mind. Most theorists keep focusing on the significance of people’s space OR time concepts, a few on the dual significance of space-time (or time-space) perceptions, and fewer still on the action / agency element. I rarely find a writing that starts to engage all three elements as a bundle. Yet it seems obvious to me that is the way to go. So I must persist, if only to release myself from the lingering spell of that long-ago nap.

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[Identical version posted on my Facebook page today, Nov 27.]

For the original, shorter version of this post, go here: 

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