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[Xmca-l] Re: Unit of Analysis

Yes, it is tough discussing these topics by email. All the issues you raise are treated in http://www.ethicalpolitics.org/ablunden/pdfs/Goethe-Hegel-Marx_public.pdf

I am *not* dividing the world into 'immediate, bodily, and sensuous' and 'mediated, disembodied, and a-sensuous'. The whole point is to begin by *not* dividing. By contrast for example, Newton explained natural processes (very successfully!) by describing a number of "forces"; a force is an example of something which is not visceral or sensuous (and also not discrete so it can't be a 'unit'). The "expression" of a force can be visceral (think of the effect of gravity) but gravity itself is an invention needed to make a theory of physics work (like God's Will) but has no content other than its expression. People got by without it for millennia. This is not to say it does not have a sound basis in material reality. But it is abstract, in the sense that it exists only within the framework of a theory, and cannot therefore provide a starting point or foundation for a theory. To claim that a force exists is to reify an abstraction from a form of movement (constant acceleration between two bodies). Goethe called his method "delicate empiricism" but this is something quite different from the kind of empiricism which uncritically accepts theory-laden perceptions, discovers patterns in these perceptions and then reifies these patterns in forces and such abstractions.

If you don't know about climatology then you can't guess the unit of analysis. Marx took from 1843 to about 1858 to determine a unit of analysis for economics. Vygotsky took from about 1924 to 1931 to determine a unit of analysis for intellect. And both these characters studied their field obsessively during that interval. This is why I insist that the unit of analysis is a *visceral concept* unifying a series of phenomena, something which gets to the heart of a process, and which therefore comes only through prolonged study, not something which is generated by some formula with a moment's reflection.

Each unit is the foundation of an entire science. But both Marx's Capital and Vygotsky's T&S identify a micro-unit but quickly move on to the real phenomenon of interest - capital and concepts respectively. But capital (which makes its appearance in chapter 4) cannot be understood without having first identified the real substance of value in the commodity. The rest of the book then proceeds on the basis of this unit, capital (i.e., a unit of capital, a firm). To ignore capital is to depict bourgeois society as a society of simple commodity exchange among equals - a total fiction. Likewise, Vygotsky's real aim it to elucidate the nature and development of concepts. He does not say it, and probably does not himself see it, but "concept" is a macro-unit (or molar unit in ANL's term), an aggregate of actions centred on a symbol or other artefact. The whole point of introducing the cell into biology was to understand the behaviour of *organisms*, not for the sake of creating the science of cell biology, though this was a side benefit of the discovery.


Andy Blunden
On 9/09/2017 5:31 AM, Alfredo Jornet Gil wrote:

Andy, thanks for your clarification on the ​'visceral'. The way you describe it, though, suggests to me an empiricist position that I know you do not ascribe to; and so I'll take it that either I've missed the correct reading, or that we are still developing language to talk about this. In any case, I assume you do not mean that whatever our object of study is, it is divided between the visceral as the 'immediate, bodily, and sensuous' and something else that, by implication, may have been said to be 'mediated, disembodied, and a-sensuous' (you may as well mean precisely this, I am not sure).

I do not know what the climatologist's unit of analysis is when discussing hurricanes either, but I do think that Hurricanes Irma, José, etc, are expressions of a system in a very similar way that ​any psychological fact is a expression of the society as part of which it occurs. I was thinking that, if we assumed for a second that we know what the unit for ​studying of hurricanes is (some concrete relation between climate or environment and hurricane), ​'feeling' the hurricane could be thought of in may ways, only some of which may be helpful to advance our scientific understanding of human praxis. The way you seemed to refer to this 'visceral' aspect, as 'immediate, embodied, and sensous' would make things hard, because, are we 'feeling' the hurricane, or the wind blowing our roofs away? In fact, is it the wind at all, or the many micro particles of soil and other matter that are smashing our skin as the hurricane passes above us, too big, too complex, to be 'felt' in any way that captures it all? And so, if your object of study is to be 'felt', I don't think the definition of 'immediate, embodied, and sensuous' helps unless we mean it WITHOUT it being the opposite to ​​'mediated, disembodied, and a-sensuous'. That is, if we do not oppose the immediate to the mediated in the sense just implied (visceral is immediate vs. ​'not-visceral' is mediated). So, I am arguing in favour of the claim that we need to have this visceral relation that you mention, but I do think that we require a much more sophisticated definition of 'visceral' than the one that the three words already mentioned allow for. I do 'feel' that in most of his later works, Vygotsky was very concerned on emphasising the unity of intellect and affect as the most important problem for psychology for precisely this reason.

I have also my reservations with the distinction that you draw in your e-mail between micro-unit and macro-unit. If the question is the production of awareness, of the 'experience of having a mind' that you are discussing with Michael, then we have to find just one unit, not two, not one micro and one macro. I am of course not saying that one unit addresses all the problems one can pose for psychology. But I do think that the very idea of unit analysis implies that it constitutes your field of inquiry for a particular problem (you've written about this). You ask about Michael's mind, and Michael responds that his mind is but one expression of a society.I would add that whatever society is as a whole, it lives as consciousness in and through each and every single one of our consciousness; if so, the unit Vygotsky was suggesting, the one denoting the unity of person and situation, seems to me well suited; not a micro-unit that is micro with respect to the macro-activity.

If you take the Spinozist position that 'a true idea must agree with that of which it is the idea', and then agree with Vygotsky that ideas are not intellect on the one hand, and affect on the other, but a very special relation (a unity) between the two, then we need a notion of 'visceral and sensous' that is adequate to our 'idea' or field of inquiry. We can then ask questions about the affects of phenomena, of hurricanes, for example, as Latour writes about the 'affects of capitalism'. And we would do so without implying an opposition between the feeling and the felt, but some production process that accounts for both. Perezhivanie then, in my view, is not so much about experience as it is about human situations; historical events, which happen to have some individual people having them as inherent part of their being precisely that: historical events (a mindless or totally unconscious event would not be historical).

I am no fun of frightening away people in the list with too long posts like this one, but I think the issue is complex and requires some elaboration. I hope xmca is also appreciated for allowing going deep into questions that otherwise seem to alway remain elusive.


*From:* Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net>
*Sent:* 08 September 2017 04:11
*To:* Alfredo Jornet Gil; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
*Subject:* Re: [Xmca-l] Re: Unit of Analysis

Alfredo, by "visceral" I mean it is something you know through your immediate, bodily and sensuous interaction with something. In this sense I am with Lakoff and Johnson here (though not being American I don't see guns as quite so fundamental to the human condition). Consider what Marx did when began Capital not from the abstract concept of "value" but from the action of exchanging commodities . Commodity exchange is just one form of value, but it is the most ancient, most visceral, most "real" and most fundamental form of value - as Marx shows in s. 3 of Chapter 1, v. I.

I have never studied climatology, Alfredo, to the extent of grasping what their unit of analysis is.

In any social system, including classroom activity, the micro-unit is an artefact-mediated action and the macro-units are the activities. That is the basic CHAT approach. But that is far from the whole picture isn't it? What chronotope determines classroom activity - are we training people to be productive workers or are we participating in social movements or are we engaged in transforming relations of domination in the classroom or are we part of a centuries-old struggle to understand and change the world? The action/activity just gives us one range of insights, but we might analyse the classroom from different perspectives.


Andy Blunden
On 8/09/2017 7:58 AM, Alfredo Jornet Gil wrote:
I am very curious about what "visceral" means here (Andy), and particularly how that relates to the 'interrelations' that David D. is mentioning, and that on the 'perspective of the researcher'.

I was thinking of the Hurricanes going on now as the expressions of a system, one that sustains category 5 hurricanes in *this* particulars ways that are called Irma, José, etc. How the 'visceral' relation may be like when the object is a physical system (a hurricane and the climate system that sustains it), and when it is a social system (e.g., a classroom conflict and the system that sustains it).

From:xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu  <xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu>  on behalf of David Dirlam<modesofpractice@gmail.com>
Sent: 07 September 2017 19:41
To: Andy Blunden; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [Xmca-l] Re: Unit of Analysis

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>  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<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
the volume Discourse and Education and found it useful. The short of it
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
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
essential properties of water. Similarly, meaningful language use
a unit of analysis that includes aspects beyond phonology,
grammar, semantics, and mental representations. All of these linguistic
psychological factors play a role in linguistic communication, but
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
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