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Re: [xmca] concepts

Thanks for that Peter. As an aside I can confirm your assertion about "trajectories", one of the most illustrious Australian writers (now resident in NYC of course) Peter Carey, earnt his living for many years as a copywriter with my father, and a good proportion of the communist inteligentsia of the 30s and 40s were to be found in advertising in the 60s, too. :)

Your article is really about another topic, so we can't demand too much on concepts. Let me draw your attention, though, to one minor point in the midst of what is generally fine. You say:

   "Concepts are fundamentally cultural as part of the frameworks for
   thinking that people appropriate through their social experiences,
   suggesting that bringing them to bear when crossing cultural borders
   requires modification of their principles and thus of the concept."

This carries the implication of "cultures" with borders and unitary "frameworks." Knowing you, Peter, I am sure this was not your intention. You use "frameworks" in plural, so perhaps you had this point in mind. But I think if we are not going to ascribe this unitary, bounded framework to a society, even in the plural, then we are challenged to dig a bit deeper into what creates, constrains and sustains concepts.

Interesting article though, and good for you for standing up for the pursuit of happiness (when properly understood)


Peter Smagorinsky wrote:
In case anyone's interested, I'm posting some revisions I've made over the
weekend on the section on concepts I'm working on. Some of what appears was
included in a prior post, but revisions have been written around the
original. Sorry, no plankton. p

One aspect of concept development that tends to be overlooked is that
concepts enhance people's ability to anticipate how future action will
unfold. A generalization that is structured with formal, abstractable
principles and grounded in extensive worldly experience enables, to a
reasonable degree, one to infer what will happen next, given sufficient
information about the present and how it has come into being. A concept is
not simply a generalization, but one that is moved into action by an
ideology or theory about how its principles function in relation to nature
or social relationships and practices (Barrett, Abdi, Murphy, & Gallagher,
1993; cf. Gelman, 1999). Concepts are thus more than taxonomic structures.
Rather, they serve as the basis for the planning of rule-governed,
culturally-channeled worldly action. . . .

In the sense that concepts contribute to one's ability to anticipate how the
future will unfold, they can help lead to feelings of order and security,
and thus happiness, a term I use in the manner of Csikszentmihalyi and
Larson (1984), who view happiness as a state of deep-seated contentedness
and satisfaction with one's place in the world, rather than as a superficial
condition of pleasure. The more formally grounded (i.e., scientific or
academic) and abstractable a conception is to new settings and situations,
the fewer disruptive surprises one will encounter and the more one will
experience stability when engaging with the world. This is not to say that
surprises and detours are necessarily unhappy occasions, for they often lead
to happy outcomes, as I illustrate in Chapter 7 with student writer Doug,
who deliberately creates unanticipated moments in his writing in order to
build excitement in his own composing process. Rather, it is to say that a
concept enables an orderly engagement with life such that unanticipated
events are less likely to cause unwanted disruptions and decisions that
produce negative outcomes. Indeed, one could infer that Doug's conscious
creation of suspense for himself as a writer is a concept-driven decision
based on his experiences and understanding of how to structure his own
reality to produce outcomes that he found stimulating.

By linking concepts to happiness, I also link it to the affective dimension
of Vygotsky's view of human development (see Chapter 2) as comprehensive and
integrated. In this view, cognition and affect are synergistic processes
with a dialectic relation. As I illustrate in Chapter 7, student writer
Susan Bynum's positive sense of herself as a writer enabled her to overcome
obstacles during her composition of an analytic essay that required her to
explicate the relationships within a labrynthian Shakespearean plot in the
play Much Ado About Nothing. She was able to envision a positive outcome to
her writing that enabled such strategies as not laboring over word choices
because she understood that she could skip some decisions and return
eventually to make improvements. This affective framework in turn helped her
to produce an essay that contributed both to immediate feelings of
satisfaction and to her overall feeling of confidence as a writer. Future
action that helps one reach goals and experience the experience-what I refer
to as a meta-experience in discussing the construct of perezhivanie in
Chapter 2-as  satisfying, engaging, fulfilling, or other affectively
positive feeling can in turn lead to a happier and more affectively balanced
and satisfying experience of life.
Concepts are fundamentally cultural as part of the frameworks for thinking
that people appropriate through their social experiences, suggesting that
bringing them to bear when crossing cultural borders requires modification
of their principles and thus of the concept. This adjustment contributes to
one's development of a more complex understanding, and development toward a
modified life trajectory capable of adaptation to new problems. A young
person might identify as "a writer" over a period of decades, yet have that
identity and understanding of it as an identity mediated and modified by
different settings, levels of maturation, goals, and other factors. He or
she might say that "I want to be a writer" in high school. Subsequently, he
or she might engage in a variety of disciplinary writing experiences in
college that suggest the need for rhetorical differentiation, learn
especially the conventions of literary criticism as an English major, take a
job in an advertising agency writing copy that requires an adjustment from
the expansive and belletristic conventions of literary criticism to the
economical and functional limitations of producing snappy slogans, advance
to writing jingles that fit the parameters of music and include memorable
rhymes that must be coordinated with images, and ultimately gravitate to
writing and performing songs on stage that are more expansive and cover any
conceivable topic[1]. This trajectory is always socially mediated, with the
constraints and affordances available in one of these writing cultures not
necessarily providing developmental channels in another.

As these examples suggest, concepts do not simply comprise empty theories,
as Vygotsky's (1987) attention to the need for the interplay of spontaneous
and scientific conceptual fields would indicate. Rather, concepts must have
experientially- or empirically-grounded utility to guide worldly action and
engagement. Concepts thus provide the means through which action takes on
function, form, meaning, and purpose. This action may be social, as in
having a robust understanding of the conventions of the genres through which
one hopes to communicate, or in relation to the natural world, as in
understanding meteorological conditions and how they suggest what awaits one
in engaging with the geological world.

[1] This trajectory is made up from a composite of real examples. The
differences in disciplinary writing conventions have been well-documented in
studies of rhetoric (e.g., Bazerman & Paradis, 1991); the qualities of
literary criticism draw selectively on the broader conventions that govern
argumentation and thus require highly specialized disciplinary knowledge
(Fahnestock & Secor, 1991); English majors often have great difficulty
adapting their writing from their college discipline to business
environments in such areas as writing concise memos (Anson & Forsberg,
1990); and for the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds-widely ranked as among the
most influential rock albums ever released-Brian Wilson employed a writer of
commercial jingles, Tony Asher, as his co-composer.

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