Monday, January 30, 2012

Metacognition in the practice of narrating psychological scholarship

* Having just spent most of the past week as a disciplinary outsider at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, I have just had a fascinating chance to observe the workings of the social life of psychological stories as they are produced and shared in their native terrain. This experience has made me appreciate narrative scholarship and science studies, particularly the sociological study of the development of scientific knowledge. In the The Methodology of the Social Sciences, Max Weber identifies social scientists as distinctive amongst scientists for taking into account the self-understanding of the actors they study. As a geographer who studies the way that people understand relationships between society and environment, I was attending this scientific meeting to gain a better understanding of the way that psychologists understand their ways of studying society-environment relations. I learned a great deal about constructs developed by social psychologists that may be very useful for addressing environmental management challenges; as an outsider, I also gleaned some insights about the ways that accounts of scholarship were being constructed and narrated that may be of interest both to those concerned with the way narration works and also to people working in society-environment domains, particularly those that deal with the challenges of building communicative action amongst diverse groups.

Such scientists!
Overwhelmingly, the strongest impression one may take away from a meeting such as this is the degree to which psychologists identify themselves as scientists who use empirical methods--and consequently frame their narrations as legitimate to the degree that they are properly scientific. Not only in the sessions, but also (and perhaps particularly) in the hallways, restaurants, and bars across town, the most common--and emphatic--story I heard went something like this: "Now I respect a lot of different kinds of research, as long as it's empirically supported, but X--- doesn't really respect his data!" Perhaps of particular interest from a social psychology perspective, this invocation of scientific identity was rarely accompanied by acknowledgement of intergroup biases, or "in-group / out-group" effects, that might be particularly helpful for understanding the mechanisms of contest between different modes of knowledge production. Instead, especially as a social scientist from a considerably more post-normal discipline, I glimpsed many performative practices that appear to help mark the presentation of valid research (and that are obviously often lacking in the messier social sciences where neither correlation nor experimentation are most often used to support claims, but instead interpretive analysis).

What warrant!
Emphasizing good science seems to (further) reduce the motivation to explain why a particular approach is a good way to explore a particular question--the "warrant". I know this exposition of alignment between motive and methods is not many people's favorite part of science--for one thing, it often opens up broad arenas for conflict. However, contests over why a particular way to understand a particular question is better than another are also productive, and can be the heart of improvement in the progressive approximation that is the production of science. This explicitness is particularly important in fields that require collaboration or cross-over between different fields (as almost all questions of society-environment do), where multiple expertises have required different and often incommensurate background preparation and knowledge cultures. Disciplinary culture often cultivate implied warrants, since highly coherent disciplines may use similar methods. However, my observations suggest that this culture of implicit warrant encourages over-hasty focus on the calculations and analyses, and less investigation of starting premises and assumptions than is often warranted. It may be that people are discouraged from asking questions about foundational premises by not wanting to appear ignorant of the basics, but it is particularly important to be able to ask when these basics may well exhibit a fundamentally different point of reference (for example, as Michael Burawoy asserts in a recent review of global sociology, "Just as economics takes the standpoint of the economy and the expansion of the market, and politics takes the standpoint of the state and political order, sociology takes the standpoint of civil society and the defense of communicative action." We might add psychology as taking the standpoint of the individual person).

Systemic spillover
How people understand their situation within complex systems is one of the central questions that has compelled me to turn to the behavioral sciences. Given the orders of magnitude in differential impact of behaviors on environments between Euroamericans and others, the question of whether nudging individual consumers to reduce their impacts in minor ways (e.g. through prompting water or energy conservation measures) can scale up to more significant effects has tremendous implications for the future direction of both society-environment policy and scholarship. Although some research on these "spillover" effects--how small improvements might spill over into much more systemic transformations--was presented, it was a tiny proportion of the research dedicated to "sustainability psychology," almost insignificant in comparison to the amount of research dedicated to confirming that specific constructs about environment and society can make measurably changes in people's compliance with social and environmental norms in the laboratory. Although I do not want to downplay the remarkable research expanding our understanding of complicity in and possible change frameworks for the enormous challenges presented by climate change and unequal resource distribution, the contrast between the trivial scale of most interventions and the felt urgency of the challenges may illustrate a few of the significant challenges to addressing social problems from the standpoint of individuals, challenges that I suggest might be made somewhat more approachable by narrating them in somewhat more post-normal science terms:

First, the temporal and spatial scale of thinking about society-environment experience from the perspective of individuals makes it considerably difficult to capture the systemic scale of most socio-environmental dynamics. In almost all of the papers I heard, I felt a palpable urge to ask the scientists involved to take a few steps back in the way they set up their questions--particularly to take critical geographic and historical aspects of socio-environmental dynamics into account.

Second, the impetus to tell adequately scientific stories with authority clearly encourages scholars to tell cleaner rather than messier stories. With all respect to Occam's razor, the cleanest and most parsimonious and flashy stories I heard told were often the most radically problematic (especially, interestingly, when the authors claimed that the conclusions were self-evident, for example in the highly problematic equating of "overpopulation" of short-life, large-family countries with highest environmental impact).

Third, shifting the focus of analysis from the individual to the more systemically entrained individual (and including within the frame of that focus, more metacognitively, the understandings of the researchers involved that shape questions such as those about overpopulation and biophilia), may problematically call into question paradigms of both academic work and also the kind of agentic action in the world that activist scholars would like to encourage.

I am keenly aware in expressing these observations of how easy it is to come across as casting aspersions from the shore as intrepid scholars row themselves about in the shifting currents of a developing field of complex knowledge. I share these observations, however, with the hope that the impressionistic view from shore (or perhaps from another boat sailing by, in this metaphor, encumbered by different currents to row against), helps make visible dynamics that are hard to see from within. For me, so often the voice of setting in this land of character and plot, it was fascinating to step into a storied world where setting was (usually) at best an impressionistic stage set (even in concrete form, sometimes actually limited to a short set of amenity-valenced words such as "butterfly," "mountain," and "tree"). This gave me a much clearer sense of the challenges and implications of focusing on persons as a unit of analysis in socio-environmental work, and I will be interested to see whether inserting explicit awareness of these implications helps address any of the challenges I've noted.

Burawoy, Michael. 2011. The Last Positivist. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews 40: 396.

Weber, Max. 2010 [1949]. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated and edited by Edward Shils and Henry Finch with a new introduction by Robert Antonio and Alan Sica. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

*Thanks to Julian Hermida for the image; searching "metacognition" returned more images of diagrams than anything else I have ever searched. This may explain a lot of my affection for cognitive psychology. Bookmark and Share

Monday, January 23, 2012

Interactive Fiction

At the end of November, I attended the Fourth International Conference on Digital Interactive Storytelling, in Vancouver (ICDIS 2011, click here). My informants tell me that interactivity is the wave of the future. It's not audio-books or the Kindle that publishers should be worrying about, but the new art-form in which one doesn't just listen to, watch, or read a narrative: one participates and helps to create the narrative that unfolds as one interacts with its characters. This is a theme that Janet Murray, who gave a very engaging talk at the conference, foresaw in her lovely book Hamlet on the holodeck (1997).

Where are we with this new genre? The critical instance is Façade, a interactive one-act play which came out in 2005, written by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, based on Edward Albee's Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf. In Façade one is invited into the apartment of a couple, Grace and Trip, who are in the middle of a serious marital quarrel. As with most online games one can walk about in the scene, the perspective of which changes as one moves and—here is the innovative part—in Façade, one can take part in conversations with the characters, and thereby influence what happens. Some of the things one says will result in one's being thrown out of the apartment, others will precipitate one of the apartment's inhabitants leaving, and so on.

Façade took Mateas and Stern three person-years years to write, substantially more than most artistic projects, and it doesn't seem to have been succeeded by anything that builds on it. Yes, the video game industry overtook the movie industry some years ago in its world-wide financial sales. Yes, in video games one can move about, and where one chooses to go affects what one sees and what can happen. That is to say you can go here rather than there. You can face this fierce opponent rather than that one, or find this object you're seeking rather than that one. But, except for engaging in fights, interactivity of person with fictional characters doesn't seem to beckon to the captains of the video game industry. Why not?

Video games engage people in action, often of a violent kind, but also in ways that include problem solving and exploration—you can visit places like virtual Saint Petersburg or virtual Istanbul. Interactivity with fictional characters can be seen as the next big challenge for artificial intelligence. A big accomplishment of artificial intelligence has been to understand how to create visually realistic scenes in which one can move around, scenes that are as detailed and visually convincing as anything one can see in the movies. If you want to see  an example, you can look at trailers of the Tolkien-like world of the video-game SkyRim. But I can't run SkyRim on my computer. It requires too much computing power. One of my informants, who enjoys video games, told me he has at home a very fast computer that he uses specially for such games. Secondly, a great deal of the computing power goes into the visuals, and rather little into understanding language or interpersonal interaction.

In Façade, you converse with the characters, Trip and Grace, by typing on the keyboard, but the program only allows input at certain points. What is understood is picked up from keywords in a way that was demonstrated by Weizenbaum (1966) in his program "Eliza." One of the bases of what happens in Façade derives from Games people play (1964) in which Eric Berne showed how some of people's interpersonal interactions are games of power and dominance. With such game-like interactions together with keywords that the program recognizes, the program calculates indices of affinity between the player and each character, and between characters, which then influence characters' facial expressions, and what they say and do.

Façade seems to me to be full of good ideas. When I played it (after some difficulty downloading it, because it wouldn't run on my fairly new Mac), I found it didn't afford me a very convincing experience of the flow of conversation. Putting this another way, although the ICIDS conference I attended had lots of smart people engaged in various kinds of innovation, it seems that artificial intelligence has some way to go to reach the kind of sophistication in the understanding and generation of language that it has achieved in visual processing, and there seems to be some way to go before a workable theory of story generation is developed, that can generate character interactions in response to player contributions. Hamlet hasn't yet appeared on the holodeck. The next steps may be made by people who are both skilled writers of fiction who are also deeply immersed in artificial intelligence.

Albee, E. (1962). Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf. New York: Signet.

Berne, E. (1964). Games people play. New York: Grove Press.

Mateas, M., & Stern, D. (2005). Façade: a one-act interactive drama. Procedural Arts.

Mateas, M., & Stern, D. (2007). Writing Façade: A case study in procedural authorship. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Second person: Role-playing and story in games and playable media (pp. 183-208). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Murray, J. H. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: Free Press.

Weizenbaum, J. (1966). ELIZA—A computer program for the study of natural language communication between man and machine. Communications of the ACM, 9, 36-45.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Quick Hit

The Guardian Newspaper hosts this interesting article on using the metaphor of friendship to describe our relationship with books and authors. A thought-provoking read.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Short Lines

Here is Helen Vendler, an English Professor from Harvard, discussing an anthology of American poetry in the NYRB:

“Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines.”*

First I chuckled. Then I blushed. After all I have been writing my own short lines for a few years now, calling them the ‘p’ word. It was like playing violin without any instruction in the instrument, trying to paint without knowing the color circle. Yet it felt right, seductive, as if I were actually writing poetry. After all, the motive wasn’t to express an idea, or even a feeling (I can always cry), but to reach across the transparent barrier to the other side, where Keats’s beauty keeps company with truth. I was reaching for it in short lines with little knowledge, and even less discipline.

I wonder whether I resemble the first pre-historic painters, who tried to reach across such a barrier – ignorant of technique, but trying nonetheless. They felt perhaps a similar impulse move them, and tried scratching an awkward-shaped animal on a cold cave wall. How many centuries did it take from one such impulse to what we now know as ‘cave art’? No one will ever know. I, on the other hand, have it easy. If I want to move from short lines to poetry I should crack-open a book, perhaps even one of Vendler’s own. I hope that’s all it takes - muses make no guarantees.

*Vendler, H. (2011). Are these the poems to remember? The New York Review of Books, Vol.LVIII, 18, 19-22.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Patterns in the World and in the Mind

I am trying to understand some more about Chinese poetry of the Tang period. I haven't got very far, but what I have picked up is so interesting that I thought I would pass it on to readers of OnFiction. My source is Stephen Owen (1985) in his book on Chinese poetics. Here—with apologies for misunderstandings which I hope knowledgeable readers will correct—is some of what I have gathered so far.

In the West we tend to think of poetry as an act of the imagination and even, as the Romantics urged, an act of extraordinary imagination, inspired by the gods. Tang poetry isn't imagination, but an interpretive perception by a particular person at a particular historical moment in a particular place. It occurs because of an inner emotional pressure (huai) to make conscious with concern and strong feeling what is on his or her mind, to make a communication to another human being. What is written in a poem is a particular kind of pattern in which aesthetic significance and meaning are conjoined. Such a pattern is called wen, which is also the word for writing, and also for literature. It is the "civilizing force of culture" (p. 18). Rather than being based on metre and rhyme (as in the West) poetic patterns of this kind are usually written in couplets, in each of which the second line parallels the first so that the relationship between them draws on, and clarifies, an inner principle.

Owen's first example (p. 12) is a four-couplet poem by Tu Fu (who lived between 712 and 770). Its title is something like: "The poet writes of what he feels, traveling by night." Here is Owen's translation of the first couplet.
Slender grasses, breeze faint on the shore,
Here, the looming mast, the lone night boat.
In the original, each line is written as five Chinese characters, so that the couplet literally is:
fine/thin                   grass/plants      faint                wind      shore
high/precarious       mast                  alone/lone      night     boat     
Each word is written as a single Chinese character, and there is a parallelism not just between the lines but between the two characters in the first pair, the two in the second pair, and so on, for instance between fine/thin and high/precarious. (The carefully calligraphed Chinese characters, their etymologies, and their specific associations also have relationships with each other.) Not only that, says Owen, but the first and second half of each line need each other: "they act on each other according to the laws of the empirical universe" (p. 17). So in the first line there is a hidden image of the fine grasses swaying in the faint breeze. At the same time, the boat's mast is precarious, seemingly threatening to fall with the rocking of the boat, so that the poet feels anxiety, alone at night, while on the shore people are safe in their houses. I take it that what Owen calls parallelism is what Jakobson (1956) called metonymy: juxtaposition that can be based on similarity, on contrast, on a part suggesting the whole, or on any other kind of mental association.

Just as principles of the world can be perceived in such patterns (wen), so, says Owen, the conscious human mind can manifest itself in these same patterns, and poetry is one such manifestation. There is nothing here of poetry being mimetic, nothing of the Platonic idea of truths existing only in some ideal, other-worldly, realm. Instead, a particular piece of literature emerges naturally from the conjunction of some aspect of the world with an aspect of human consciousness, so that the writing (wen) is the manifestation of that conjunction. A reader of such poems then, works backwards from the words of the poem to the specific mental state of the poet as he/she is writing the poem, and can then engage, like the poet, in a comparable piece of reflective consciousness.

Four-couplet poems such as "The poet writes of what he feels" have turning points, midway through them, of a kind that in the West would later be embodied in the sonnet form. At the turning point in this poem, the poet moves from his perceptions of the outer world to inside himself, to reflect on how he is getting sick and old, and has to give up his post, so that even with his writing he will be unknown, like a single gull on the sands.

This is just a beginning: I am brooding on Owen's book. Apart from marvelling at the beautiful compression of thought in the structures of these Chinese poems, I have already started to look at the world in ways that are new to me, ways that I find engaging. I have read the book only once. I shall read it again, along with some more Tang poetry.
Note. Ezra Pound became interested in Chinese poetry and made translations of it in ways that were influential in the imagist movement. Owen makes it clear that it's not with such translations that he is concerned. Although the early twentieth century movement of imagism drew on some aspects of Chinese poetry, it is also not with imagism or its ideas that Owen is concerned. Instead he invites us to take a leap of imagination into what it might be like to inhabit the minds of these ancient poets. The closest Western parallel I know is in Proust's depictions of things and people in themselves and at the same time in their inner meanings, meant to be passed on to readers.

Roman Jakobson (1956). Two aspects of language and two types of aphasic disturbance. In R. Jakobson & M. Halle (Eds.), Fundamentals of language (pp. 53-83). 'S-Gravenhage: Mouton.

Stephen Owen (1985). Traditional Chinese poetry and poetics. Madison: WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
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Monday, January 2, 2012

Failing or not?

It is day two of the new year and I’m not sure if I’m failing at my resolutions. It’s hard to tell.

Three days ago I told myself a story of another me that I’d approve of more, and likely ways I could become it. You can imagine the list – everyone is tempted by at least one of the following: plans of actions (e.g. exercise, eating vegetables, not yelling at one’s children), deleting unwanted life props (cigarettes, alcohol, debt, belly), and vague feel-good inclinations (trying new things, spending more time with family and friends, enjoying each moment). So, as I was writing this future story of myself and numbering the bullet points, I had a moment of aesthetic disgust. Why should we always be writing the stories of future self in this terrible, pseudo-scientific prose (the hypothesis being that if I exercise, don’t smoke, and enjoy each moment (whatever that means), then I’d be… what? Healthy? Better? Perfect?) Instead, I tried to summon up a feeling, that feeling of perfect that we all sometimes wade into, no matter our smoking, belly, or debt, and then wrote a line to remind me of it. (Do a couplet, if you’d like). Now, the line makes no sense to anyone but me. It is my secret paper-plane that delivers me to the door of that feeling. Sometimes the door is open and sometimes it’s closed. Sometimes I forget I have a line.

I know for some of you this seems unwise. After all, how could you verify whether you are keeping your resolve? How would you know if you failed? You wouldn’t, I’m afraid. If all this makes you itchy for a list, please embrace the bullet points. As for me, I’ll keep my line handy, and do whatever takes me through that door. I’ll see how it goes this year. If it doesn’t work, there’s always next year to fail at being imaginary perfect me.
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