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Re: [xmca] Tiny Publics

All right, Andy -- I'll bite.

Without having read Fine's book, I'm going to take your assessment of it as reliable. Then, I have one main thought and two sub-thoughts.  

The main thought: of course, anyone studying something like "small groups" ought to consider why and how each one happened to get started, how it replicates itself, and where it floats in the life cycle of social  units, from smallest (families, tribes, committees, neighborhoods, teams, classes, cohorts, work units) to largest (social movements, armies, religions, linguistic units, professions (?). Then, if we're talking about Little League baseball, how did it go from families putting their kids out on a local baseball field to the giant industry (technically non-profit) that it is today? Studying an instance of a Little League as a small group without situating it in that life cycle (Andy's word, a good one) seems like letting a great opportunity to understand something slip by. 

On the other hand, there's a limit to what you can cover.

Sub-thought #1: the question of purpose. Drawing from Activity Theory, the purpose of the activity defines the activity system.  If there's one idea I'd take from Activity Theory, it's this, and I don't see how to avoid taking it. Leontiev in "Activity, Consciousness and Personality" (1978): “The sense of the action changes together with a change of its motive. In its objective content, the action may remain almost the same, but if it had acquired a new motive then psychologically it has already become different. . . . (p. 173)  This idea persists and is fundamental to every iteration of Activity Theory that I've seen. The reason why people do something together is what draws the edge around what they are doing (this is not the case for an individual, which is interesting but a different idea). This is how you get interacting activity systems, conflicting activity systems, nested activity systems, etc etc.  This sub-thought supports Andy's point that by leaving out the history of a small group, Fine is going to leave out important issues related to its purpose.

Sub-thought #2: At the bottom of page 4, Andy refers to "the origins of a practice." I would like to pull in the work of Jean Lave here. In that famous little orange book that she wrote with Etienne Wenger (1991), unfortunately titled "Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation" she is asking not just about the origins of a practice, but how it gets replicated - how its origins are continuously reproduced over time so that the community of practice (small group) survives and does wither away when its practitioners get old and retire or die. TO me, this is a more interesting question. Not just how something got started, but how it continues, which implies continual re-starting.  I thought it was also  notable that Andy mentions five qualities that Fine says are " filtering elements help explain the selection, stability, and salience of items in a group’s idioculture. The item must  be perceived as known (K), usable (U), functional (F), appropriate (A) in the light of the group’s status system, and triggered (T) by experience.” (p. 42)"  In Lave and Wenger, three elements are identified as being critical to the openness of a community of practice to replicating itself by developing novices or newcomers into experts or old-timers:  the rules and customs of the whole community of practice must be transparent and public to the community; the path from periphery to center of the community of practice - novice to expert, newcomer to old-timer -- has to be legitimate and recognized as such by the community, and the work that the apprentices/learners are given to do must be real work, not busy-work or make-work.  These three elements (which Lave, by the way, insists are NOT meant as any kind of prescription and do not appear in their book as any kind of list, but are spread around through the book) look to me a lot like Fine's elements.

All of which is to say that to me, what appears to be missing in Fine's book, according to Andy, is the dynamism of change, conflict and transformation, which could certainly be both revealed by a look at the history of any small group and is needed in order to imagine where it might be going.

(side question -- is there such a thing as prolepsis for groups? that would be handy).

I'm responding at length like this because something that always troubles me about works of sociology is that they seem to take social formations as permanent, real things, rather than moments of connection in the flow of history.

Thanks, Andy. What else?


Helena Worthen
21 San Mateo Road
Berkeley, CA 94707
Visiting Scholar, UCB Center for Labor Research and Education

On Jun 7, 2012, at 11:29 PM, Andy Blunden wrote:

> Attached is my review (3,000 words) of Gray Fine's recently published "Tiny Publics."
> My thanks to Mike who first introduced me to the word "idioculture" earlier this year, Greg Thompson, who encouraged me to buy the book, and Deborah Downing-Wilson who has given me invaluable feedback on my first draft.
> Comments of all kinds appreciated.
> Andy
> -- 
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> *Andy Blunden*
> Joint Editor MCA: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hmca20/18/1
> Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/
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