Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Making a case for STA:C — #2: more about the elements of space-time-action analysis

As I noted in post #1 in this series, cognitive orientations toward space, time, and action — all three — are essential for the mind to work in ways that amount to consciousness. A quasi-“module” — a cognitive nexus — consisting of the three takes shape during childhood and is permanently operative from then on. No mind can work without this module, 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, even shaping the directions in which a society’s culture goes.

What follows is a little more elaboration, though still quite sketchy, about each element than I provided in post #1 in this series. More points will be added in future elaborations. And I shall increasingly wonder and question why key scholars and other specialists on each of these elements — be they anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, cognitive scientists, social theorists, cultural historians, whatever — have not yet seen fit to recognize and study them as an interlaced triplex.


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 to 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.


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 (tempo) and how long (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.


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 element 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.


Vast literatures exist on each orientation; there is nothing novel about urging inquiry into any one of them. My point is that all three are essential, indeed elemental, and that together they form a foundational cognitive bundle in the mind. Deliberate, purposeful behavior requires the existence of explicit space-time-action orientations. That is how our minds work. Thus the three should be studied together, as a triad, or triplex — not singly and separately, as is long the conventional case throughout compartmentalized academia.

While the three orientations exist separately, in some kind of balance, they also appear to coexist and interrelate in ways that have barely been studied. Many varied combinations are possible. But there appear to be some general dynamics.

I’ve barely begun to discern what these may be, but I’d mention noticing the following, tentatively.

Minds that are orderly, and intent on being orderly, in one dimension may tend to be orderly in the others as well. Such minds may work on restoring 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 (or unless) something extraordinary occurs.

However, if orientations along one dimension do shift sharply, this may induce a shift in one or both of the 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 unsettle and wow his or her sense of possibilities along all three dimensions, inducing an availability for radicalization.

Major shifts across all three cognitive elements 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.

Anyway, these are just some preliminary observations about possible general dynamics from a STA:C perspective. There are surely many more and better ones to discern, assuming the STA:C framework is fully developed.


If I’m right about STA:C, then eventually the kind of analysis it implies might benefit from having a distinctive name. There’s no rush on this, but here are some preliminary notions:

I’ve been inclined for years to call the analysis of this cognitive triplex “mindframe analysis” or “mindfield analysis.” I first used the former term in 1994. The latter is a sensible term too, but there are better precedents for “mindframe analysis.”

In particular, the term “mindframe analysis” 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 very 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. (I’d speculate that 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 it seems less susceptible to being pinned down for STA:C. Analyses of people’s “cosmologies,” “worldviews,” and “operational codes” often have details about people’s space, time, and/or action orientations — but usually in a partial kind of way, mixed up with other attributes. So those terms are not quite appropriate either.

Thus, I may refer at times to mindframe analysis (or mindfield analysis) as my approach to studying people’s space-time-action orientations in the context of trying to build the STA:C framework. As such, 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 elements, 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, a conservative, an anarchist, or a fundamentalist, or psychologically to a narcissist, a paranoid, an avenger, or a thrill-seeker. A sound effort at STA:C-based mindframe analysis should enable analysts to improve upon those standard approaches.

[Side comment: Ahem, I wrote most of the above about the term “mindframe analysis” in 2009. It’s still okay. But lately I’ve come up with what may be a better term, “triplex cognition analysis”, as I will elaborate in post #4 in this series. Just letting you know.]


The STA:C module 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 space-time-action beliefs that comprise this module. Entire cultures and civilizations are defined in part by how they mold people’s minds in these three domains of cognitive knowledge. More on that later.

- - - - - - -

For an earlier version of this post, go here:

[I posted an abbreviated version of this post on my Facebook page, on Nov 29.]

No comments: