Tag Archives: intersecting_processes

Three angles from which to view the practice of researchers II

My book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (Taylor 2005), considers three angles—like facets of a crystal—from which to view the practice of researchers (as introduced in the previous post).
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Taxonomy of heterogeneities

Contention motivating this taxonomizing: Research as well as the application of knowledge resulting from research are untroubled by heterogeneity to the extent that populations are well controlled. Such control can only be established and maintained with considerable effort or social infrastructure, which invites attention to possibilities for participation instead of control of human subjects.

The taxonomizing is an incomplete work in progress; comments welcome.

Kinds of heterogeneity

Static 1. There is an assortment, each a separate type (“cabinet of curiosities”)
or 2. Mixture of types (e.g., allelic heterogeneity & locus heterogeneity in genetics)
Variational 3. Trait = composite of types (analogy: the 3 components of a triathalon)
4. There is variation, not types
5. Variation in a set of traits involves a composite of variance/covariance structures (statistical heterogeneity)
6. When similar responses of different individual (e.g., genetic) types are observed, it is not necessarily the case that similar conjunctions of risk or protective factors have been involved in producing those responses (=possibility of “underlying heterogeneity”)
Dynamic 7. Variation produces qualitative changes in results from standard theory based on uniform units (e.g., theory about Malthusian population growth, tragedy of the commons, prisoner’s dilemma)
8. “Unruly complexity,” which arises whenever there is ongoing change in the structure of situations that have built up over time from heterogeneous components and are embedded or situated within wider dynamics. (Synonym: “intersecting processes”)
8a. In heterogeneous construction researchers establish knowledge and technological reliability through practices that are developed through diverse and often modest practical choices. This is the same as saying they are involved in contingent and on-going mobilizing of diverse materials, tools, people, and other resources into webs of interconnected resources.
Dynamic-participatory 9. Multiple points of engagement allow for participatory restructuring of unruly complexity or heterogeneous construction
10. Participatory restructuring, which occurs in tension with deployment or withholding of trans-local knowledge and resources.

Actions corresponding to each kind of heterogeneity

including the control (C) that allows one not to be troubled by the heterogeneity and possibilities for participation (P)

1. Question [P] (or suppress the question [C]) about why this assortment has been collected into one list.
2. In medical sociology Brown & Harris find common meaning despite different types of experience (through coding of sameness despite surface heterogeneity).
3. Disaggregate/decompose into separate phenomena
4. C: Make people fit types (stereotyping, panopticon, screening & surveillance, public health measures, diagnostic manuals, reassignment surgery…) Control/ignore non-conformers.
6. C: Look for subclasses in which underlying factors are uniform. If found, use to probe or extrapolate (perhaps unsuccessfully) back to other subclasses.
8. Diagramming of intersecting processes, which exposes multiple points of engagement->8a
8a. Mapping by researchers of situations and situatedness [P]
9. Well-facilitated participatory processes


Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2009). “Infrastructure and Scaffolding: Interpretation and Change of Research Involving Human Genetic Information.” Science as Culture, 18(4):435-459.
Taylor, P. J. (2010). “Three puzzles and eight gaps: What heritability studies and critical commentaries have not paid enough attention to.” Biology & Philosophy, 25:1-31. (DOI 10.1007/s10539-009-9174-x).

2. Taylor 2009
6. Taylor 2010
7. Taylor 2005
8. Taylor 2005
9. Taylor 2005
10. Taylor 2009

Agency and structuredness

There has been a long history in social theory of discussion of how to relate social structure and human agency (Dawe 1976; Giddens 1981; Sewell 1992; Vogt 1960; see Taylor 1996 for bibliography in context of interpretation of science).  Concepts introduced in Unruly Complexity provide the basis of a framework for moving beyond the structure-agency dualism. Continue reading

Intersecting processes combined with Historical scan to generate enactable, group-specific praxis

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.
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Diagramming of Intersecting Processes (a teaching activity)

I want more people to think in terms of intersecting processes, which means being able to read the diagrams I present, appreciate the theoretical implications of the concept, start to make their own accounts and diagrammatic depictions, and teach others to do the same.  Thus this teaching activity.

Goals for students
1. to understand the development of biomedical and social phenomena in terms of linkages among processes of different kinds and scales that build up over time—genetics, treatment, family and immediate social context, social welfare systems and economics, wider cultural shifts, ….
2. to use graphic organizers to help them visualize such “intersecting processes” and to identify places where detail is missing and where further inquiry is needed.
3. [depending on level of students and prior preparation] to contrast the implications of thinking in terms of direct causation (like spokes going to a hub) with “heterogeneous construction.”

Pre-session reading:
Paul, D. (1997). Appendix 5. The history of newborn phenylketonuria screening in the U.S. Promoting Safe and Effective Genetic Testing in the United States. N. A. Holtzman and M. S. Watson. Washington, DC, NIH-DOE Working Group on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Human Genome Research: 137-159. http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/research/fed/tfgt/appendix5.htm

Excerpt from Taylor, P. J. (2001). Distributed agency within intersecting ecological, social, and scientific processes. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. S. Oyama, P. Griffiths and R. Gray. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press: 313-332 on The development of severe depression in a sample of working class women.

Phase A: Mini-lecture to introduce the ideas under goals 1 and 2 and the use of diagrams to identify missing detail (goal 2). Followed by Question & Answer.

Phase B: Following the procedure below, diagram Paul (1997) article with respect to either a) the life-course of a female with PKU detected by neo-natal screening for PKU; or b) the routinization of neo-natal screening for PKU in the United States. Followed by discussion of potential and limitations of the diagramming activity (for discussion among colleagues or for teaching).

a) the life-course of a female with PKU detected by neo-natal screening:
1. Identify important connections mentioned in the article (from p. 7ff) between things in the following categories or strands (open to adaptation): Condition of person with PKU; Diagnosis and care; Social support; and Wider social context.
2. Arrange the things as well as you can given the information available on parallel strands according to age of the person.

b) the routinization of neo-natal screening for PKU in the United States:
1. Identify important connections mentioned in the article between things in the following categories or strands (open to adaptation): Experience of persons with PKU (condition, care, social support); Advocacy (pro + con); State mandates & regulation; Research; and Wider social context.
2. Arrange the things as well as you can given the information available on parallel strands according to year (from 1930s to 1990s allowing more space for 1960 through 1980).

For both a) and b):
3. Draw dotted lines to show connections between things.
4. Identify connections about which you want to know more. Use the ideas under goal 3 as a checklist.
5. Note where these instructions were hard to put into practice.

Example of connection for a): mandated test (social support) and neo-natal initiation of special diet (diagnosis & care)
Example of connection for b): enthusiasm for biomedical prevention of mental retardation over education/social support/rehabilitation of retarded persons (wider social context) and promotion of PKU screening in advance of research on effects of diet (state mandates & regulation/ research)

Acknowledgement: This unit draws inspiration and some ideas from Matthew Puma’s adaptation of my teaching about intersecting processes in CrCrTh 640 during Spring 2002.

Draft 8 Feb 2004; revised 17 April 2005

Reflections on teaching activity

This activity is still under development. Some issues that have arisen:
1. What do arrows mean? Mechanisms, material connections; Increase in probability; Makes possible; or Makes significant
2. Some participants wanted to focus on explaining a specific outcome.
3. Technologies of representation, e.g., colors for countervailing processes
4. Are we representing an individual or a population or a generic individual + variation

Life events and difficulties research: Bio-social science that allows for heterogeneity of pathways and meanings

A line of research from England, initiated by the sociologists Brown and Harris in the late 1960s, has investigated how severe events and difficulties during people’s life course influence the onset of mental and physical illnesses (Harris 2000).  This work illustrates the idea of intersecting processes in relation to development over a person’s life-course.  In contrast to the dominant emphasis on genetic bases for disease, this work shows that  longituidinal environmental or social exposures can be brought into the analytic picture—provided there is the will and enough effort.

Brown and Harris use wide-ranging interviews, ratings of transcripts for the significance of past events in their context (with the rating done blind, that is, without knowledge of whether the person became ill), and statistical analyses.  Because what might be recorded as the same event, e.g, death of a spouse, might have very different meanings and significance for different subjects according to the context, Brown and Harris’s methods accommodate events with diverse meanings.  At the same time, apparently heterogeneous events can be subsumed under one factor, such as, in explanation of depression, a severe, adverse event in the year prior to onset.  In sum, the Life Events and Difficulties methodology integrates ‘the quantitative analyses of epidemiology and the [in] depth understanding of the case history approach’ (Brown and Harris 1989a, x).

The most sustained research in this tradition involves explaining depression in working-class women.  For a district of London in the early 1970s, Brown and Harris identified four factors as disproportionately the case for women with severe depression: a severe, adverse event in the year prior to the onset of depression; the lack of a supportive partner; persistently difficult living conditions; and the loss of, or prolonged separation from, the mother when the woman was a child under the age of eleven (Brown and Harris 1978; 1989b).  (Subsequent work has added to this picture, but that will not be taken up here; see Harris 2000.)  A reconstruction of Brown and Harris’s work as it stood in the 1980s by the developmental psychologist (Bowlby 1988) suggests how the different aspects of class, family, and psychology can build on each other in the life course of the individual (Figure; see also Taylor 1995).

Figure: Life development pathways to severe depression identified in Brown and Harris’s study of working class women and reconstructed by Bowlby (1988).  The dashed lines indicate that each strand tends to build on what has happened earlier in the different strands.  See text for discussion and sources.

Let me give some simplified and over-generalized examples of such cross-connections: In a society in which women are expected to be the primary caregivers for children, the loss of a mother increases the chances of, or is linked to, the child lacking consistent, reliable support for at least some period.  (Bowlby added his own speculation about early childhood attachment problems.)  An adolescent girl in such a disrupted family or sent from such a family to a custodial institution is likely to see a marriage or partnership with a man as a positive alternative, yet such early marriages tend to break up more easily.  Working-class origins tend to lead to working-class adulthood, in which living conditions are more difficult, especially if a woman has children to look after and provide for on her own.  And, in these circumstances, accidents and other severe events are more likely.  The consequence of a severe event is often, unless there is a supportive partner, the onset of depression (see also Brown and Moran 1997).   Notice, however, that each connection in the Figure should be interpreted as one contributing causal link in the construction of the behavior.  The lines are dashed to moderate any determinism implied in presenting a smoothed out or averaged schema; the links, while common, do not apply to all women at all times, and are contingent on background conditions not shown in the diagram.

In sum, longituidinal environmental or social exposures are brought into the picture, and the picture helps us think about multiple pathways to the focal endpoint of clinical depression.

Extracted from P. Taylor, “Infrastructure and Scaffolding: Interpretation and Change of Research Involving Human Genetic Information,” Science as Culture, 18(4):435-459, 2009


Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base. (New York: Basic Books).

Brown, G. W. and T. Harris (1978). Social Origins of Depression. (New York: The Free Press).

Brown, G. W. and T. O. Harris (1989a).  Depression in Life Events and Illness. (New York: Guilford Press).

Brown, G. W. and T. O. Harris, Eds. (1989b). Life Events and Illness. (New York: Guilford Press).

Brown, G. W. and P. M. Moran (1997). Single mothers, poverty and depression. Psychological Medicine 27: 21-33.

Harris, T., Ed. (2000). Where Inner and Outer Worlds Meet. (London: Routledge).

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