Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Cognition, Context, and Learning by Lemke

Today I would like to share with you an interesting and definitely stimulating chapter I read recently.
Lemke, J. L. (1997). Cognition, context, and learning: A social semiotic perspective. In D. Kirshner & J. A. Whitson (Eds.), Situated cognition: Social, semiotic, and psychological perspectives (pp. 37-56). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. 
Some thoughts on the chapter

The beginning of the chapter was quite interesting. It was pretty much like a manifesto and reminded me of the most famous one, the Communist Manifesto. I liked the way he puts his ideas into words. I have to say I have a liking for literary language in academic articles. Those are usually the ones I remember even years after reading them.

Overall, I like the ideas stated here. In SLA many people discuss many dichotomies prevalent in the field but culture and nature distinction is not one of them. I think this distinction is just as important and perhaps more fundamental. Although Lemke does not make an explicit reference to ecological view and blurring the distinction between nature and culture, I think there is a close relationship. I think the assumption in traditional distinction is that we are above nature not part of it. Nature is thought of as a wild beast to be caught and tamed and exploited. Culture, on the other hand, is generally perceived as something unique to our species, our pride, an indication that we managed to distinguish ourselves from animals. If you think about it this arrogance, and blindness, is quite an odd thing. We live on this planet, the nature feeds us, takes care of us, provides shelter and everything in abundance, and we think we are better and above this. We are interesting creatures indeed.

On page 38, Lemke writes, “How we play our parts in these microecologies depends not just on what the other parts do to us, and us to them, but on what these doings mean for us. The characteristic meanings of things and happenings vary from person to person, from context to context, even from one run-through of an oft-repeated routine to another, but they do not vary so much, or in such capricious ways, that two-person ecologies cannot function, activities in different contexts become interdependent, or distinct instances of the same activity type be usefully compared. There are communities of practice. There are networks of interdependent practices and activities. There are continuities and trajectories of practice, development, and learning. Or, at least we can usefully make sense with such notions. (p. 38).
Again, I like this ecological view, which reminded me of Complexity theory and Gibson's views on perception. 

I think this is my favorite part in the chapter, especially the first sentence. I love it. I wonder what you think. On page 39, he writes, “learning now becomes an aspect of this developmental process, it is as universal, persistent, and inevitable as change itself.” I thought this interpretation of learning comes very close to sociocognitive approach. It seems to be that Lemke had already asked the questions that have been nagging me. The questions he asks throughout the article are excellent questions even if you do not have the answers to them. I think my favorite question is this one “How can systems and networks of activities be simultaneously material ecologies and semiotic makers of meaning?”One can spend his or her life trying to find an answer to this question.

On page 40, Lemke states that he sees ecosystems as a complex, self-organizing system. It gets pretty close to Complexity Systems Theory, which I like. However, I do not understand the term ecosocial. I’m concerned that this term implies that we are beyond nature and matter and energy since ecology and social are seen as two different things. I mean a rainforest has its own dynamics and networks that you do not see in other systems but we do not treat it as if it is completely different. My question is why ecology does not include the social? To me at least, ecology encompasses both the social and the material world.

On the next page Lemke writes “these systems [self organizing] are individuals, they have histories, in some cases even histories that matter to their present reactions, and sometimes histories that can matter to new systems of their kind not yet born.” I like this a lot because this quote emphasizes the importance of history, one of the strengths I find in Neo-Vygotskyan approaches as well—though I know that it is central in the theory I do not know if it is as central in research studies conducted within this theoretical framework. I need to read more. Coming back to the chapter, Lemke ends the paragraph by saying that ecosocial systems are very special and writes “The most specified kinds of systems, those with the most properties that matter, the most kinds of differences that make a difference are ecosocial systems (not individual organisms)” (p. 41). I understand he wants to shift the focus from the individual to the system, I get it and I agree but I really feel uncomfortable ecosocial systems being perceived as this special and I want to say they are those with the most properties that matter to us, the most kinds of differences that make a difference to us. Every knowledge is knowledge from somewhere, including the assertion above. Perhaps I’m overreacting and he is just trying to make a point—a point by the way, I agree with.

On page 47, Lemke writes that the unit of analysis for an ecosocial model is “not things or people, but processes and practices.”As you may guess, I like this statement.

Lemke writes “The organism not only interacts with the environment, not only self-organizes only insofar as it is coupled into a larger system than itself but it also requires some criteria of preferential salience of features to pick out a pattern” (p. 48). For Lemke this preferential salience is provided by a community of practice. When I was reading Damasio I was totally carried away by the idea that emotions provide the basis for that preferential salience. However, now thinking about it, I realize that the relationship between emotions and larger systems of preferences has to be developed more. For example Lee et al take a step toward that direction.  It is not enough to say that emotions provide the basis for preferences and decisions; we need to think about how they come about.

I have to admit that I have difficulty understanding the section on dimensionality of ecosocial systems and the networks associated with them (p 51).

I found this quote from Lemke quite Foucauldian. “Individual trajectories that move between these networks also knit them together, also open them up to change due to one another’s influence” (p. 52). Actually most of the ideas expressed in the chapter are Foucauldian. I liked that.

Overall, I very much liked the ideas expressed in this chapter. I especially liked the emphasis on meaning making, emotion, embodied and extended cognition, and history. There were many ideas in line with sociocognitive and complex systems theory in this chapter. It was definitely a great read.

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