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[Xmca-l] Re: Unit of Analysis


The example of H20 is not original to Vygotsky: it goes back to John Stuart
Mill on ethics and probably much further. But here's something that
Vygotsky DOES say about it that I think IS original and much more useful,
not least because it shows (to me) the point that Andy was making about not
using an example as a definition.

Vygotsky says that analysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen is the
opposite of analysis. That is, it is not analysis but
GENERALIZATION--because the truths which are revealed are absolutely
general to water at any scale and wherever it is found: in a raindrop and
in the Pacific Ocean. Instead, says Vygotsky, we require analysis that is
specific to particular properties that we wish to investigate. So for
example if we are interested in the ability of water to put out fire, we
need to study molecular bonds, and if we are interested in the laws of
buoyancy we need to study molecular motion (note that a MOTION can be a
unit of analysis).

Andy, in his gruff way, was upbraiding me for taking a bunch of examples of
units which Vygotsky indubitably considers units of analysis (in French,
"unite/s de base", as distinct from "unite/s" which just means
"wholenesses") and then extracting three "laws" from them: minimal
complexity, maximal simplicity, and non-molarity (that is, a distinction
between the smaller scale unit and the larger phenonmenon that makes
possible a distinction between explanans and  explanandum, or as Bakhurst
and Kozulin have both said, a distinction between the unit of analysis and
the principle of explanation).

Andy was particularly objecting to the last of these three, because he
believes that action is a molar unit in exactly the same way as commodity
in political economy, cell in biology, and word meaning (or "wording" for
short!) in thinking and speech: activity is made up of nothing but actions,
capital is made up of nothing but commodities, the body is made of nothing
but cells and verbal interaction is nothing but wording. In other words,
looking at human behavior as activity and looking at it as action does not
constitute looking at two different things but rather looking at one thing
from two different standpoints. Looking at capitalism as capital and
looking at it as the production of circulation of commodities does not mean
looking at two different things, but only at one thing at two different
levels of granularity. Looking at the human body as organs, tissues, and
cells is simply using a different power of microscope, and if you take away
wording from verbal interaction you are at a loss for words.

I accept all of this, and in general I accept and profit from Andy's
criticisms even at their grouchiest and gruffest. Halliday makes a similar
point about weather and climate, about text and language, and (more to the
point) about Malinowski's context of situation and his context of culture.
They are not two things: only one thing viewed from two different
distances, two different perspectives, two different standpoints.

The problem is that a particular factor that appears to be a mountain at
one distance is only a molehill at another. So for example the amount of
CO2 in the atmosphere, which influences the retention of solar radiation,
may be a perfectly negligible factor in today's weather but still play a
key role at the level of climate (you can see this clearly by comparing
geographical climate, which depends on the angle of solar radiation, to
weather: geological climate is more like the former than the latter).

In political economy, price variations have a big influence at one scale
but are just static at another. Although cells do have metabolism,
digestion, reproduction--these functions are carried out by entirely
different means when we look at the body as a whole. And when Vygotsky uses
the term "phoneme", he does not mean "phoneme" as it is used by Chomsky and
Halle (or even by Sweet and Palmer) but rather the way "phoneme" was used
by Jakobson and Trubetskoy (respectively his classmate and his teacher at
Moscow University). That is, he means the morpho-phoneme, not the phoneme.
But--as Andy would point out--I am simply taking examples and generalizing

David Kellogg

On Thu, Sep 7, 2017 at 7:15 AM, Greg Thompson <greg.a.thompson@gmail.com>

> Not sure if others might feel this is an oversimplification of unit of
> analysis, but I just came across this in Wortham and Kim's Introduction to
> the volume Discourse and Education and found it useful. The short of it is
> that the unit of analysis is the unit that "preserves the
> essential features of the whole".
> Here is their longer explanation:
> "Marx (1867/1986) and Vygotsky (1934/1987) apply the concept "unit of
> analysis" to social scientific problems. In their account, an adequate
> approach to any phenomenon must find the right unit of analysis - one that
> preserves the essential features of the whole. In order to study water, a
> scientist must not break the substance down below the level of an
> individual H20 molecule. Water is made up of nothing but hydrogen and
> oxygen, but studying hydrogen and oxygen separately will not illuminate the
> essential properties of water. Similarly, meaningful language use requires
> a unit of analysis that includes aspects beyond phonology,
> grammar, semantics, and mental representations. All of these linguistic and
> psychological factors play a role in linguistic communication, but natural
> language use also involves social action in a context that includes other
> actors and socially significant regularities."
> (entire chapter can be found on Research Gate at:
> https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319322253_
> Introduction_to_Discourse_and_Education
> )
> ​I thought that the water/H20 metaphor was a useful one for thinking about
> unit of analysis.​
> ​-greg​
> --
> Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
> Assistant Professor
> Department of Anthropology
> 880 Spencer W. Kimball Tower
> Brigham Young University
> Provo, UT 84602
> WEBSITE: greg.a.thompson.byu.edu
> http://byu.academia.edu/GregoryThompson