This 15-slide briefing-style post supersedes an earlier incomplete version I posted in 2017 (here). Because this newly expanded revised updated post is rather long for a blog post and way too long for a simultaneous Facebook page post, I’m issuing it in three separate sections: Part I, Part II, plus an Addendum.
This new post assumes a passing familiarity with the STA:C framework. If you are unfamiliar but interested, see prior posts throughout this blog, starting with a background story (here) and a preliminary overview (here).
After brief opening points about why people’s space-time-action beliefs are so interesting to know, Part I surveys how experts have usually studied them. I provide detailed depictions of renowned writings by Henri Lefebvre, Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd, and Albert Bandura. Part II then proceeds to argue how and why STA:C offers a better way to go, once the framework is fully developed.
Myriad anthropology, psychology, sociology, cognitive science, history, and other studies — in my case, starting with anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s The Silent Language (1959) and The Hidden Dimension (1966) — have shown that people’s space, time, and action beliefs are powerful pervasive shapers of cognition and culture.
Consider, for example, the following observation about time: “[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, 1955). That’s a keen observation, not only in general, but also for wondering about current trends here in America, as well as Europe.
And that’s just a single quote from many about the significance of people’s time orientations. In addition, there are numerous equally powerful observations about the import of people’s space and action perspectives. For further quotes see the Addendum that accompanies this post.
What all this means is that the better we can ascertain people’s space-time-action perceptions, the better we can figure out why people think and behave as they do, and why societies and cultures evolve as they do. Motivated by this understanding of why to study space-time-action orientations, this post seeks to improve our understanding of how to study them.
The idea that people’s space, time, and action orientations — all three together — are key elements of cognition and culture first struck me in 1966 or 1967. Back then, lots of studies dwelled on each orientation by itself, but never as a triplex. Wherever I looked, space, time, or action perspectives were mostly studied singularly — still the case today. Thus most studies have resembled the diagrams on the left, where each element is treated separately, though one or both of the other two might be raised tangentially, marginally.
Most of these single-element studies were about space or time orientations, and were mostly done by psychologists, sociologists, or anthropologists. Handy examples include Nigel Thrift’s “Space” (2006) and Margaret Wertheim’s The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet (1999), along with Jean Piaget’s The Child’s Conception of Time (1969 ) and John Hassard’s edited collection on The Sociology of Time (1990). Studies that focused on people’s action (agency, efficacy) orientations were less common, and were mostly by psychologists — e.g., Albert Bandura’s Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (1997). Or they appeared in histories about the idea of “progress” that studied shifts ages ago from ancient beliefs that supernatural forces determined one’s fate, to modern beliefs that a person could make changes and control one’s destiny by means of one’s own efforts.
Dual-element studies, as depicted in the upper-right diagram, are infrequent by comparison. A handful or so of theorists (e.g., Jean Piaget, Georges Gurvitch, Edward T. Hall, David Harvey) have studied both space and time orientations, though not always integratedly. Very unusual, thus not depicted here, are instances where space and action (as in Steven Pinker, 1997) or time and action (à la Karl Friston, 2017) are deemed the key dual cognitions. Meanwhile, I’ve rarely seen methodological or theoretical exhortations that a dual- should be preferred to a single-element approach.
Since my initial epiphany in 1966, I’ve dithered at focusing on the idea that people’s space-time-action orientations should be studied as a bundled triplex. But what I’ve read over the years indicates, to my surprise, that no one else has yet gone on to do so. So I’ve remained resolute that my initial idea is still fairly original and worth pursuing. Hence, the depiction on the bottom-right shows what STA:C looks like to me. All three cognitive domains — space, time, and action — exist as independent but interactive variables, roughly equal in importance.
Thus I contend that the singular and dual approaches represented by these diagrams, though not entirely wrong, are incomplete and thus inherently self-limiting and misleading. The STA:C diagram points to a more accurate productive way to study these three cardinal elements of consciousness, cognition, and culture.
In trying to analyze how theorists have studied people’s space, time, and action orientations, I’ve been unable to do original research to verify and advance STA:C. But what I can do, as a partial substitute, is review expert studies on each of the three cognitive elements, in order to see whether they ultimately turn to attend to all three to some degree. So I chose to review three renowned studies: 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).
My goal was to ascertain whether, and to what degree, these experts on one STA:C element inevitably include some attention to all three. STA:C says to attend to all three; it also implies that, to be analytically sound, an expert on any one element is bound to bring up the other two, if only marginally, for there is no way to avoid doing so. But do these scholars do so? To what extent? In what terms?
Along the way, I came up with a comparative diagramming method for depicting each expert’s effort. As will be evident in subsequent slides, I found their efforts be incomplete — grist for validating STA:C and arguing it can do better.
As a way to represent an analyst’s view, I’ve settled on drawing diagrams that use a circle to represent each STA:C element — space, time, and action — and then I’ve drawn and arranged these circles so that:
- Circle sizes — large to small — represent the relative importance attributed to a STA:C element.
- Circle locations — overlaps, separations — indicate the degree of interaction an analyst notices among the three STA:C elements.
- Circle line densities — from solid and thick, to dotted and thin — indicate my sense of the relative clarity of each element in an analyst’s treatment.
Besides enabling a display of how any one analyst approaches space-time-action analysis, this kind of diagraming also offers a way to compare different analysts’ approaches. To this end, the diagrams in the next slides display what I found in reading Lefebvre on space, Zimbardo & Boyd on time, and Bandura on action. All diagrams are preliminary and impressionistic on my part. Your view may differ — in which case, draw your own version, or suggest I redraw.
French philosopher/sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1974 [translation, 1991]) remains a favorite landmark text among postmodern, mostly Marxist theorists who are caught up in the “spatial turn” in sociology that began a few decades ago. I like the book too.
Lefebvre proposed that space is a cardinal mental and social concept that merits far more attention from theorists and strategists. Indeed, he says, “the production of space” — all kinds of spaces, by all kinds of actors — has become a paramount activity in advanced societies. Producing spaces is now a defining activity of capitalism, more 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 will be increasingly viewed as a key strategic purpose.
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”, even “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. But his treatment of action in terms of “strategy” figures less strongly and less clearly — so I’ve rendered it with a small circle, sketchy line density, and little overlap.
Source: my three blog posts reviewing his book, beginning here.
This slide depicts what I conclude from reading psychologists Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd’s book 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.
Here, 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 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.
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., a person’s perceptions about self-worth, family, 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 potentially useful notion; but it makes only limited sense, for they play down crucial space and agency perceptions that are embedded in their write-up (and widely written about by experts elsewhere).
Source: my four posts reviewing their book, beginning here.
For psychologist Albert Bandura, agency — the ability “to influence intentionally one’s functioning and life circumstances” — is crucial to cognition, 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 thus the “foundation of human agency”.
His article “Toward a Psychology of Human Agency” (2006) analyzes psychological agency and efficacy in ways that match what 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.
Bandura does not name time as a factor that affects agency and efficacy. But he does attend to 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 that is not clearly defined but has a strong interaction with the action element. To my puzzlement, he regards forethought as “the temporal extension of agency” — 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. As a result, 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 says that agency is being amplified in all sorts of ways around the world, for positive as well as “hazardous” purposes. 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”. Maybe so, but while Bandura emphasizes how people’s agency is being amplified nowadays, many people also sense, to the contrary, that globalization has deprived them of agency — just look at recent shifts in public opinion in the United States and Europe. Also, his reference to a “foreshortened perspective” means he is again obliquely inserting a time element in his theorizing about agency — another reason for preferring STA:C.
(Source: my two posts reviewing his paper, beginning here — they explain why I chose to rely on his 2006 article instead of his renowned but very long book Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (1997)).
Here’s what I conclude from this small survey of writings by Lefebvre on space, Zimbardo & Boyd on time, and Bandura on action:
• Each expert emphasizes his singular specialty — space, time, or action/agency — but each eventually turns to incorporate some aspects of all three elements, more-or-less. Indeed, from a STA:C perspective there is no way to avoid doing so. These specialists are actually studying a cognitive and cultural bundle that consists of all three orientations — but they are doing so narrowly, and evidently unknowingly, from their singular angles. Indeed, my three reviews here are less about each writing itself than about an overarching purpose that serves STA:C — to show that each expert, despite dwelling on a single element, must eventually say at least a little something about all three.
• Inspection of these writings thus helps confirm that people’s space-time-action orientations tend to function as a bundle — a requisite set of interlaced cognitive-knowledge elements that no mind or culture can do without, and whose details shape the distinctive nature of all minds and cultures. The more we learn about analyzing people’s space-time-action orientations, the more we shall realize that all three are so deeply interlaced in our minds and cultures that they form an essential cognitive “module”.
• If I’m right about that, then the unfolding of that realization should / will matter not only across academic disciplines, but also to real-world strategists of all stripes. But getting there won’t be quick and easy. Specialized academic fields tend to resist change; thus it may take lots of effort to “prove” that space-time-action orientations exist and function as a triplex, and should be studied as such rather than singly. As for national-security and military strategists, some writings show they are more aware than academics that spatial and temporal factors should be analyzed jointly (as I will document later), but I’ve yet to see an integrated triplex analysis by a strategist even though action/agency is their end concern.
• No matter the current resistance to triplex cognition analysis, my comparison of the three expert writings leads me to reiterate anew the maxim I posited way up front: Figure out people’s space-time-action orientations as a trifold bundle, and you will be able to assess how people will think and act better than ever.
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NOTE: I keep referring to space-time-action orientations as a “module”. But I don’t mean this literally. Neuroscientist Patricia Churchland explains better than I can when she proposes that the term “module” 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)Nonetheless, until a better term comes along, I’m going to keep referring to a STA:C “module”. But I mean it more metaphorically than literally. There is no specific pop-in / pop-out module for a mind’s (or culture’s) space-time-action cognitions. Something distributed yet interwoven is going on. I wish I knew a better term for it. Maybe “nexus”?