Historical scans and Situational Analysis

Here are some quick reflections and questions about Situational Analysis (SA), a qualitative research approach based on grounded theory (Clarke 2005).

Central to SA are maps of the complexity of considerations, social worlds, relationships, and positions. The goal is to capture the situation as it is experienced and relevant to the people working and living in it. A key tension is how much theory informs the way the researcher identifies and conceptualizes what goes into the maps in contrast to how much theory and concepts emerge from the analysis.

When I look at SA maps, I think the researchers could benefit from undertaking historical scans (see also posts). Historical scans have many virtues: 1. they array the complexity of considerations against a time axis—an axis typically missing or difficult to represent in SA maps; 2. they organize the complexity of considerations in layers, ranging from the personal to the community to the global, that is, what is idiosyncratic to the individual, what is common to those who the individual interacts with, and what is in the wider context.

Some more virtues: 3. Historical scans can be prepared quickly, and thus repeatedly; 4. they can be prepared participatorily, thus allowing contradictions and differences among people to be represented and then grappled with. The participatory approach does not necessarily take away from the straight social science aspect of SA. It can be mobilized by researchers to stir up their thinking about what is going on, to get beyond the problem of seeing the world only through the categories they had already developed.

This said, the participatory approach could enable SA to make good on the progressive or critical spirit often professed by its practitioners. Instead of exposing, with laudable solidarity, problems that people have working and living in their situations, the participatory approach can include the researcher and the subjects together in forming action to be taken.  (On Action Research and Participatory Action Research.)

Whether as a participatory approach or as part of more conventional social science research, historical scans and allied approaches developed by ICA over many decades (Stanfield 2002) help form concepts and generalizations less in terms of nouns—names of parts of the social worlds for example—and more in terms of movement, phrases with verbs that capture where something is headed towards. An example from my a former student is, instead of “Holistic Artistic Survival Project,” an active name would be “Moving Holistically from Surviving to Thriving as Artists.”  The inclusion of the time axis also helps in this regard.

The inclusion of the time axis also makes the post-humanist or actor-network move unnecessary. As human agents attempt to build upon the layers given by their individual, group, and global past, as captured by historical scan, they often have to confront the challenges of mobilizing nonhuman and nonliving elements. Doing this is not a matter, in practice, of nonhuman agency, but of intense delving into the language, tools, work organization, a wider context of human agents—delving that clarifies what is or is not possible in this time and this situation (Taylor 1995) and is a much richer process than accounts, typically behaviorist, of non-humans as agents (Taylor 2011; post).

One tension in SA that is also present in participatory approaches is giving enough attention to the wider context, to movements that are not necessarily obvious to someone working and living in a local situation. What informants or nonlocal participants need to be brought into the research or participatory activity?  Someone researching, for example, a local situation in the early 1970s might not have known that there would be a marked increase in oil prices with an attendant shock to the US economy, but well-informed analysts of international developments could see the formation of OPEC and discuss its possible impact.

On the other hand, SA, perhaps tooled with historical scans, can quickly draw on and gain perspective about the changing situation – that’s changing because of trans-local development such as the oil price shock.   Then it can get things right not by producing the slam-dunk map of what is going on, but by being able to work with subjects as they revise their accounts of what is going on in real time. SA emphasizes a perspectivalism, in which researchers do not claim to be free of their own biases, but to make productive use of them. The capacity to revise accounts as participants and researchers revise their perspectives is enhanced, I would suggest, by tools such as historical scans that can can be undertaken quickly, repeatedly, and with movement more than structures as the focus of concept formation.  (Indeed, the same tools can be used by the individual researcher to clarify their aspirations and priorities given limited time and resources in our working lives; see strategic personal planning from Taylor and Szteiter 2012.)

The attention to the situation and the perspectives of participants does not mean there is no theory to be drawn on an developed here.  As the post excerpted below indicates, SA has strong affinities with the framework of the historian Atsushi Akera (2005) whose

cases studies of Cold War research show that “[t]ensions and differences often produced redundant, over-ambitious, and incoherent research programs” (p. 10).  History of technology, he contends, needs to value the study of failure and to “make the notion of failure relative if one’s goal is to document the less linear paths of innovation” (p. 338).  In the spirit of symbolic interactionist sociology, Akera draws “attention to the contingent and indeterminate nature of institutional change” (p. 339), thus counterbalancing the functionalist emphasis he sees in some broader-brush historical sociology of technology.  Formation of new professions and forms of organizing technology “often occurred at the intersection of multiple institutions and disciplines,” and involved “recombining prior knowledge and preexisting institutional forms,” and various actors “letting go” of some commitments in order to forge new associations (p. 343).

In a more sketchy contribution, what informs the reflections on SA is a “triple triad” theory (Taylor 2005, 249-250):

In brief: Envisage agents operating within intersecting processes (IPs) that are interlinked in the production of any outcome and in their own on-going transformation. Let these IPs be teased out into three sets of three IPs: the Personal, which connect the IPs of cogitation, body, and unconscious; the Local, which connect discursive themes, materials at hand, and local rules; and the Social, which connect Discourse, Materiality, and Rules. Agents heterogeneously construct a variety of projects at any time. In doing so, they imaginatively mobilize discursive themes, materials at hand, and local rules. Their cogitation involves some thematic framework that simplifies their actual and possible heterogeneous construction as it is constrained and facilitated by their unconscious and body. The Local IPs evolve as an outcome of what different agents are able to do in response to each other is doing. The Social IPs evolve as the linkage of many Local IPs, and are, in turn, drawn on or invoked through discursive themes by interacting agents in Local IPs.

It may well be that Discourse in the Social IPs invokes Big Trends, such as geneticization of medicine, but this should never stand on its own as a summary of or even cause for what is going on in the situations studied by SA.  Similarly, although agents in the local IPs might invoke “power” as a discursive theme as they face local rules, materials at hand, and other discursive themes concerning the Social, power reifies causality and should be unpacked by researchers into the intersecting processes of the triple triad.


Akera, A. (2007). Calculating a natural world:
scientists, engineers, and computers during the rise of U.S. cold war research.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clarke, A. (2005). Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory after the Postmodern Turn. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.

Stanfield, R. B. (2002). The Workshop Book: From Individual Creativity to Group Action. (Toronto: Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs).

Taylor, Peter J. (1995)”Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modelling” Perspectives on Science, 3(1), 66-98.

——(2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chiacgo: University of Chicago Press.

——(2011) “Agency, structuredness, and the production of knowledge within intersecting processes,” pp. 81-98 in M. Goldman, P. Nadasdy, and M. Turner (eds.), Knowing Nature: Conversations between Political Ecology and Science Studies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, P. J., & Szteiter, J. (2012). Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement. Arlington, MA: The Pumping Station.


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