This post describes an activity that addresses the shortcomings and potentialities of i. Intersecting process accounts, ii. Mapping by researchers of “connections” that motivated, facilitated, or constrained their inquiry and action; and iii. Historical Scan to set the scene in which a project is to be undertaken.
Intersecting processes accounts are generally produced by an outside observer and pay attention to developments in the larger political economy, while mapping and historical scans tend to be idiosyncratic, unsystematic with respect to theory, and transient (i.e., differ markedly if the same participant[s] repeated the activity at another time). Mapping is also individual-centric and not detailed at the level of developments in the larger political economy. Yet, accounts of the larger political economy often leave an individual wondering what to do short of joining in building a mass movement for revolutionary change, while mapping and historical scans are rich in—often generative of—meaning for the participant[s] and guidance in what to do next.
The activity—an experiment in collective construction of intersecting processes—that took place at the April 2010 meeting of the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change went (as best I can recollect) as follows:
1. Participants had given 15-minute autobiographical introductions that explained how they came to be someone who wanted to participate in a workshop on “Where social theory meets critical engagement with the production of scientific knowledge.”
2. Drawing on these introductions, participants undertook a Historical scan to synthesize and contextualize autobiographical narratives so as to set the scene for the reminader of the workshop.
“As you consider your involvement in this workshop, let’s paint a picture of the context in which we will be operating. Let’s think about this context having a past and a possible future and operating on three levels: “local,” “regional,” and “global.”
The “global” is the largest view relevant to the project, here, the world. The “local” is the personal perspective gained in the immediate unit of family, workplace,and community. The regional is the specific arena in which the project operates, here, study and engagement in the area of science and its social context.
Take a moment to jot down significant events at each of the levels over the past 10-30 years or a future event that you hope will be in the 5 years ahead.
Now choose 5* of them and write them in on the large post-its in as large block letters as will fit.
Select one from early on in this period. [Put them on the wall, consulting the group to keep them in order]
… from the middle… from the later part of the period…. others [including those covering the whole period]
When were you excited?….discouraged?
What do these events remind you of?
When were there transitions?
If this were a book, what name would you give for the “chapters” between the transitions?
…name for the whole “book”?
What have you learned about a diverse group of people coming together to “read this book”? [Remind participants to be telegraphic — avoid speeches.]
What have you learned about the context in which your planning and action/thinking and learning will take place?
How shall you translate the learning into what you will do?”
3. Thinking of the three levels as strands of an intersecting processes account, identify gaps in each of our understanding of cross-scale linkages.
The activity above did not generate much active involvement of the participants in the synthesis in #2 and I’m not sure we even had time for the forming of questions about cross-sale linkages in #3. Possible modifications to address this shortcoming:
a. Allow for friendly amendments to correct and supplement the post-its on the wall and their placement in time.
b. Make copies of the postits (or photograph and print the wall) and allow each participant to process the items on their own, starting from “When were you excited” and going through to naming for the whole “book.”
c. Follow this with freewriting to allow participants to translate the experience into what they have learned and what they will do on the basis of what they have learned (see the last three questions of the historical scan above).
d. Share something clarified by the process with one partner and then in a whole-group discussion.
The result of such an activity would always be idiosyncratic—or group-specific—and probably time-specific (a year or so later the same group might generate a different picture—just think of December 2008 in the USA versus November 2010!). The cross-scale linkages would not be based on the depth of analysis that some historical political economists are capable of (e.g., Robert Brenner). However, as stated earlier, accounts of the larger political economy often leave an individual wondering what to do short of joining in building a mass movement for revolutionary change. In contrast, this activity, especially if repeated in different groupings, projects, contexts, might be enactable. The idea(l) is to provide meaning for the participants and guidance in what to do next at the same time as developing a deeper understanding of cross-scale linkages.
Post-script: When I prepared the post on the Future Ideal Retrospective, I planned to make the next post on this activity, which I saw as complementary. However, to motivate this activity I ended up having to run through a number of other parts of my thinking and practice, from a critical thinking activity to unruly complexity to heterogeneous construction to mapping, and more. This has been an interesting process of reconstruction.