Homans: The Human Group

A conspiracy between a bone-digger and an undertaker caused this rigorous sociological attempt at describing some general features of all human groups to materialize in order for me to abscond with it on my recent family vacation. Robert K. Merton concludes his introduction with

“this considered judgment: not since Simmel‘s pioneering analyses of almost half a century ago has any single work contributed so much to a sociological theory of the structure, processes, and functions of small groups as George Homans‘ The Human Group” (1950, p. xxiii).

Not a bad recommendation – and timely for my purposes, to come across now. I’d only time to glance at the potential relevance of this (old) theory to my upcoming research. One of the tensions I anticipate engaging over the next academic year is that between cognitivists (who root their science in the western psychological bias of individual and independent selves) and communication scholars (who recognize – to varying degrees – the inescapably interactive relationships that generate any and all kinds of meaning). The dual dichotomy may be overly simple but it is useful, at least to start: the often opposed frames of psychological and social, and the human products of selves and meanings.
My reading of Homans begins in earnest after reading a keynote address James suggested, Breaking Mindset, by Allan W. Snyder of the Centre for the Mind (Canberra, Australia). Snyder claims a fundamental question for cognitive science concerning originality: he wonders how do we get ideas in the first place? Snyder’s “we” is of the royal sort – the presumption of common experience extended from a singularly authorized agent; it makes a sharp contrast with Homans deliberately collaborative we, in which “author and reader are learning together” (p. 2). This is one instance of the striking contrast between approaching social science by aggregating up (as it were) from isolated individual cognitions and extrapolating down from complex interactions.
Homans descriptive language is fully interactional. “No one,” he writes, “just ‘sees’ human behavior. The eye is never quite innocent, but comes to its task sensitized. We see what our experience and ideas teach us to see – and this is never the whole story” (p. 13). Snyder provides a cognitive case to prove this point literally, referring to an instance (Hughes 1996) when a particular theory of optics prevented the direct observation of photoreceptors in the human eye. The problem with Snyder’s example is that it does nothing more than provide an instance -the puzzle of attributing a particular meaningfulness remains. Homans continues: “The world and its meaning are always negotiating with one another, with experience as the go-between. Even common-sense language implies a theory of behavior and tells us, for instance, to look for actions and motives” (p. 13).
Homans’ relational framing enables a mode of analysis not restricted by linear causality. Snyder’s concern with the new, first, and original implies – and thus invokes – an ordinal logic. Only the so-called real numbers are made available within this cognitivist frame. As much as it names interaction, in cognitive science the brain is situated prior to thought, the mind before relationship. The metaphors made possible by mathematical breakthroughs of imaginary and complex numbers, which have led to deeper and more sophisticated understandings of the laws of physics and all of the natural world, are cut off by the limited horizon imposed by any individual mind. Homans’ writing does not refer laterally to these breakthroughs occurring contemporaneously in the hard sciences, but he does highlight the work of Mary Parker Follett, quoting her at some length (interspersed with his own thought):

“In her study of administrative control, she argued, as others had done, that in studying any organized social activity we must study the ‘total situation.’ But we must not merely ‘be sure to get all the factors into our problem.’ We must examine ‘not merely the totalness of the situation, but the nature of the totalness. . . . What you have to consider in a situation is not all the factors one by one, but also their relation to one another.’ The relation is such that the parts make a whole, the elements make an organism. And Mary Follett affirmed ‘that the whole determines the parts as well as that the parts determine the whole.’ She recognized that the unity is not a static, finished thing, but an ongoing process: ‘The same activity determines both parts and whole. . . . We are speaking of a unity which is not the result of an interweaving, but is the interweaving. Unity is always a process, not a product . . . . I have been saying that the whole is determined not only by its constituents, but by their relation to one another. I now say that the whole is determined also by the relation of whole and parts . . . . It is the same activity which is making the whole and parts simultaneously.’ Finally, the activity, the process, she spoke of always leads to something new. Something emerges. She summarized her ideas as follows: ‘my first point concerned the total situation; my second, the nature of the interacting which determines the total situation; my third, the evolving situation. we come to see that reciprocal adjustment is more than mere adjustment; that is where we get what the psychologist has called the “something new,” “the critical moment in evolution.”‘ (p. 8-9)

At lunch with Li (!), he spoke of “the tyranny of understanding, of agreement.” The preminent challenge of our time is to alter the typical terms of reciprocal adjustment; to engage the dynamics of difference in ways that lead to new things: new structural institutions and social customs. This can only occur through the active practices of actual human groups. My individual challenge is articulated in one way by Bernard DeVoto (in the forward to Homans’ book) as that between the pedestrian and the intuitive social scientist: “The ‘pedestrian’ does not get through from fact to adequate generalization; the ‘intuitive’ does not get through from generalization to adequate fact” (1950, p. 46).
I must build, carefully and painstakingly, from intuitive perceptions to convincing fact, such that I can achieve “success” according to the (rigid) logic of the academy. Simultaneously, that labor cannot be divorced from the everyday mingling with friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.

adequacy conditions (cognition and morality)

George Lakoff’s important book, Moral Politics, describes the root metaphor at the base of conservative and liberal worldviews. “Cognitive studies,” Lakoff explains, have concluded “that moral thinking is imaginative and that it depends fundamentally on metaphorical thinking” (p. 41). The explanatory metaphor for both conservatives and liberals extends a notion of the family/parent to the nation/government. “The resulting moral systems, put together out of the same elements, but in different order, are radically opposed” (p. 35).
One of the interesting challenges of Lakoff’s book (i.e., another finding of cognitive science) is the myth of being conscious of one’s own worldview, and “that all one has to do to find out about people’s views of the world is to ask them” (36). Lakoff describes realizing the myth of transparent belief as “the most fundamental result of cognitive science” (p. 36).

“What people will tell you about their worldview does not necessarily accurately reflect how they reason, how they categorize, how they speak, and how they act” (p. 36).

Lakoff is careful not to tell us what our politics or our morality should be; he is not preaching or giving a prescription. Instead, he is describing the two logics composing the deep split in political thinking between conservatives and liberals in the United States. This is not philosophy; this is description. It is up to us to understand the descriptions and then figure out how to talk and reason based on the reality of these starkly different moralities.

“Our public discourse about the nature of morality and its relation to politics [is] sadly impoverished. We must find a way to talk about alternative moral systems and how they give rise to alternative forms of politics. Journalists – including the most intelligent and insightful of journalists – have been at a loss. They have to rely on existing forms of public discourse, and since those forms are not adequate to the task, even the most thoughtful and honest journalists need help. Public discourse has to be enriched so that the media can do its job better.” (2nd edition, 2002, p. 32)

Lakoff goes much further and deeper than merely slapping labels on certain brands of politics. “Classification in itself,” writes Lakoff, “is relatively boring” (p. 17). What we need – what Lakoff provides – are models. Models do much more than mere categorization, they

  • analyze modes of reasoning
  • show how modes of reasoning about different issues fit together
  • show how different forms of reasoning are related to each in other in such a way that they are all understood to be instances of the same thing (in this case, politics)
  • show links between forms of political reasoning and forms of moral reasoning
  • show how moral reasoning in politics is ultimately based on models of the family

Lakoff’s hope – and mine in reading his book and trying to understand the basic point – is that by understanding how our minds work, and especially how our words give clues to how our minds work we can address political dilemmas more effectively.

“The same mind that we study for scientific reasons creates moral and political systems of thought and uses them every day. For this reason, the findings of conceptual systems research will eventually come to matter more and more in understanding moral and political life” (p. 17).

arcs of meaning

I was honored to be invited to attend the Distinguished Teacher’s Luncheon yesterday as a guest of one of this year’s Award winners. I do not know how stimulating the conversation was at other tables, but I believe ours was the best because five of us stayed long after the delectable cheesecake (that even the French would love, and Allison thought was actually ok). Rob commented on my expressive eyebrows and Floyd raked in a surprise award for turning out graduate student Distinguished Teachers two years in a row (Jennie joined us too, she’s doing some awesome work now with a project providing computers to schools in Kenya). The other DTA honoree gave an emotion-filled tribute to his students (notably the 18 fourth-graders showing him stringed instrument finger Number Two). Shabnam‘s devotion to Sumo Wrestling (and, may I add, Grand Theft Auto) played equally well: “sometimes you just have to give students a hook.”
(No, she was not nervous.)
I’m not sure how to connect Eduardo’s expertise with my interests, but Murray’s work (in progress) with owls and squirrels seems metaphorically close (although maybe we shouldn’t get too carried away with the food chain part). Human systems are not so linear, but why do I keep suspecting these mathematicians have created some ways with language that might help us address the dynamics of people in groups and societies? Just look at these Willmore surfaces! I know economists have done this somewhat – but everything they do is idealized (isn’t it?), assuming rational actors and fixed variables.
I suppose what I have in mind is a fairly simple regression (to start). We had some fun talking about language and interpretation. For instance, Rob brought up this classic from English to Russian:

“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

Russian (back-translated to English):

“The vodka is strong but the meat is rotten.”

I was intrigued by this example, which seems (to me) as if it could have been appropriately culturally adapted: that’s what makes it funny, isn’t it? I can imagine this as the result of an excellent interpretation among real people in real time in an actual circumstance in which the gist of the message is what matters, rather than dismissing it as a limited literal translation. Of course, in most situations these two versions of a desired way to characterize and/or move through a particular point in spacetime would not align, but the thing that a simultaneous interpreter does that is truly unique is factor in all the variables of the specific instance and generate their best sense of how to convey a preferred endgoal.
Wikipedia backs me up that the original story is an amusing, non factual anecdote – but nonetheless characterizes it, unquestionably, as a mistranslation. Blanket judgments like this still rely on a mechanistic view of language, because the premise remains that there is only one accurate translation that could work for all situations and contexts. Instead, suppose that what matters more than the equivalence of word-for-word is the overall shape of the relational trajectory:
arc of meaning.jpg
In communication theory (in my area, particularly at the interpersonal/intra- and intergroup level in terms of rhetoric, performance, and social interaction) we distinguish between a transmission view of communication and a ritual view of communication. The transmission view can be (loosely) linked with the stability of a particle, while the ritual view focuses more on the energy aspects of communication as a wave. The transmission view is about power (control) “here-and-now” and the ritual view is more concerned with influence and effects over time. These are two aspects of force present in every utterance and also in each pause between utterances. The interesting question then (to ask of your interpreter), is not “did you say what I meant” but “did you say what will accomplish for me the end I seek?” A dicey question, isn’t it? – that cuts both ways: interpreters are not psychic and must rely on all of the same cues perceptible to everyone else in the communication situation. Yet interlocutors often speak without a clear end-in-view, instead speaking in order to figure out what it is they mean and determine where exactly they are trying to go.
Certainly I had a grand time! ­čÖé I am lucky to know such wonderfully bright and articulate people.

visual perceptions

Work on optical illusions show how the distance from which one views a face alters the expression you think you’re seeing. Some constructions are creepy!
I’m intrigued with the function of distance. Part of what me and my committee need to sketch out is the scope of the lens I’ll use in exploring the practice of simultaneous interpretation at the European Parliament. Since each of our relative distances from the object of study differ, establishing a reasonable range might be a challenge.

Grip of the Committee

They did give me exactly what I needed during my prospectus defense, even though a hazing frenzy seemed to build as we spoke. Perhaps I still give off the vibe that being clubbed with a two-by-four is the only way to get my attention.
I had meant to mention my science fiction mind at the beginning of the presentation – not that they aren’t already aware (!), but to highlight the challenge of fitting my perceptions into academic boxes. Science fiction was the first wholistic knowledge system that I encountered, followed by fantasy. The frame of a person being randomly at a juncture in time and space from which things unfold seems, as near as I can tell, to be the deepest level of neuronic organization in my brain: cognition overlays the rhizomic net.
They want me to fix the time/space of the study in accordance with pre-established knowledge. This is the tricky one. The other feedback about clarifying and expanding the details of methodology is useful and productive: although I have confidence that I will successfully navigate whatever happens during the fieldwork process, anticipating the possibilities (a series of “if-then” imaginings) can only help. Most of this nitty-gritty I have intended to do in August anyway; now I just need to organize it sensibly for them as well.
The crux of the matter seems to be a concern that I won’t deliver something that they expect, emphasis on lack of surprise. We are entering into a contract, and my conformity to the terms of the deal is demanded. The conservative bent of academia weighs heavily here, and the question of whose authority is in play is, in fact, the very point of the entire exercise. What else is voice if not the ability to put words into action? I clamber through my own extraordinarily limited exposure to this world, (this lifeworld?), taking in so much: not “feeling” as in mere emotion, but sensory perception. English lacks common vocabulary to distinguish among types of “feeling,” hence I am often in trouble/at risk of conflation.
Not only that, I’m not so keen on reifying institutionalized authority of any kind. So, for instance, in this moment of spacetime, I do a Google search (gasp!) to see if there’s anything out there right now that complements the notions I have in mind. Nice! So what that I can’t translate the text of Blommaert’s rejoinder; or that the “lifeworld” reference I found has to do with computer science – these two references say what I intend:

“The concept of a lifeworld will not appear as a specific mathematical entity in our formalism. The intuition, however, is this: while there is an objective material environment, the agent does not directly deal with all of this environment’s complexity. Instead it deals with a functional environment that is projected from the material environment. That projection is possible because of various conventions and invariants that are stably present in the environment or actively maintained by the agent.”

Such an eclectic, synergistic mode of knowledge construction is anathema to the stable march of paradigmatic knowledge sanctioned by universities. How, why can I trust the authority of these authors? What if they “got it wrong” and I, foolish and naive that I am, perpetuate the error?
Now we’re into morality.
Granted, I have not always understood the nuances or sophistication of certain ideas at particular times. So what? I have understood others. Yes, I am not always as clear as seems desirable – not only to others, to me, too – and (!) clarity is also an interactive accomplishment. The challenges presented by my committee carve edges into the frame of what this study will actually become.
What environment is being actively maintained by discourses about simultaneous interpreting in the European Parliament? What stable conventions and invariants are currently present? Which functional environments are being projected? My role in the projections of Members of Parliament and EP Interpreters matters just as much as their role in mine: this is what makes the proposed research action and process-based. Nonetheless, all that swirl does have a center: a contractually fixed point-of-reference in the practice of simultaneous interpretation.