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[Xmca-l] Re: Unit of Analysis

"Andy added the notion that experts need basically to be able to agree reliably on examples of the unit" ? Researchers need to be clear about the unit of analysis each of them are using and of course, collaboration is much easier if you are all using the same unit of analysis. Exemplars are a way of substantiating a concept while a concept remains unclear or diverse, just like lists of attributes and definitions - all of which still fall short of a concept. To grasp the concept of something, like "unit of analysis," you have to know the narrative in which the concept is situated. Narrative knowledge and conceptual knowledge are mutually interdependent. The first three chapters of the story of "unit of analysis" as I see it are in my paper "Goethe, Hegel & Marx" to be published in "Science & Society" next year: http://www.ethicalpolitics.org/ablunden/pdfs/Goethe-Hegel-Marx_public.pdf - Vygotsky is the 4th chapter.

"What makes water not an element, but a compound, are the relations between the subunits" ? The idea of a water molecule pre-dates he discovery of its composition as H2O and all the chemical properties related to that. As David suggested, it is the much more ancient knowledge of the "water cycle" - rain, snow, hail and fog ... run-off, streams, rivers, lakes ... seas, oceans ... vapour, steam ... - which is expressed in the idea of a "water molecule" - a tiny particle which all these things are made of, but which combines in different forms of movement to give us the various physical forms of what is all water. It is an unfortunate choice for a archetypal example, because it appears to contradict my claim that the concept of the unit must be visceral. The water molecule is so small it can be held in the hand, tossed around and stacked together only in the imagination. Nonetheless, like with metaphors, it is our visceral knowledge of particles (stones, pieces of bread, household objects, etc) which makes the concept of a "water molecule" something real to us, whose manifold physical properties arising from its V-shape, and its electrical stickiness, are meaningful. This contrasts with the 18th/19th century idea of "forces" and "fields" which are intangibles (though of course we find ways of grasping them viscerally nonetheless).

Different phenomena are grasped by the way one and the same units aggregate. The unit relates to the range of phenomena it unifies. Different insights are provided by different units, *not necessarily in a hierarchy*. But a hierarchy of units and in particular the micro/macro pair are a theme which runs right through this narrative, the micro in some way "explaining" the macro which in turn explains the main phenomena: cell/organism, atom/molecule, commodity/capital, word meaning/utterance, artefact-mediated action/activity, etc. I am interested in this micro/macro relation but personally (despite my interest in Hegel) I am not a fan of trying to systematise the world with a "complete set" of units. Just one unit gives us an entire science. Let's not get too carried away. :)

I hold the view, with A N Leontyev, that *Activities are composed of artefact-mediated actions and nothing else*. Any move away from this destroys the ontological foundation and takes us into metaphysics. If it is not an artefact-mediated action or aggregate of such actions, what the hell is it???


Andy Blunden
On 8/09/2017 3:41 AM, David Dirlam wrote:
The issues that have arisen in this discussion clarify the conception of what sort of entity a "unit" is. Both and Andy and Martin stress the importance of the observer. Anyone with some experience should have some sense of it (Martin's point). But Andy added the notion that experts need basically to be able to agree reliably on examples of the unit (worded like the psychological researcher I am, but I'm sure Andy will correct me if I missed his meaning).

We also need to address two other aspects of units--their classifiability and the types of relations between them. What makes water not an element, but a compound, are the relations between the subunits (the chemical bonds between the elements) as well as those with other molecules of water (how fast they travel relative to each other), which was David Kellogg's point. So the analogy to activity is that it is like the molecule, while actions are like the elements. What is new to this discussion is that the activity must contain not only actions, but also relationships between them. If we move up to the biological realm, we find a great increase in the complexity of the analogy. Bodies are made up of more than cells, and I'm not just referring to entities like extracellular fluid. The identifiability, classification, and interrelations between cells and their constituents all help to make the unit so interesting to science. Likewise, the constituents of activities are more than actions. Yrjo's triangles illustrate that. Also, we need to be able to identify an activity, classify activities, and discern the interrelations between them and their constituents.

I think that is getting us close to David Kellogg's aim of characterizing the meaning of unit. But glad, like him, to read corrections.


On Wed, Sep 6, 2017 at 10:08 PM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net <mailto:ablunden@mira.net>> wrote:

    Yes, but I think, Martin, that the unit of analysis we
    need to aspire to is *visceral* and sensuous. There
    are "everyday" concepts which are utterly abstract and
    saturated with ideology and received knowledge. For
    example, Marx's concept of capital is
    buying-in-order-to-sell, which is not the "everyday"
    concept of capital at all, of course.


    Andy Blunden

    On 7/09/2017 8:48 AM, Martin John Packer wrote:

        Isn’t a unit of analysis (a germ cell) a
        preliminary concept, one might say an everyday
        concept, that permits one to grasp the phenomenon
        that is to be studied in such a way that it can be
        elaborated, in the course of investigation, into
        an articulated and explicit scientific concept?

        just wondering


            On Sep 6, 2017, at 5:15 PM, Greg Thompson
            <mailto:greg.a.thompson@gmail.com>> wrote:

            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:

            ​I thought that the water/H20 metaphor was a
            useful one for thinking about
            unit of analysis.​


-- 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