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January 12, 2007

Time vs Matter

Time (change) vs Information (fixed meaningfulness)

I have been witnessing a fascinating discussion in the course on Cultural Codes in Communication which is helping me identify tensions between the transmission and ritual views of communication in interpersonal, communicative action (an element of group dynamics). The events in this class unfolded with the routine assignment of a solid piece of ethnographic research demonstrating one particular way of “culture talking about itself” (Cultural Communication and Intercultural Contact 1990 p. 1). (Find review via JSTOR.) The article is about the problem of recognition - how it is that persons are recognized as being of ‘this identity’ or belonging to ‘that group’ ("On Being a Recognizable Indian Among Indians"). Somehow, some students in the course understood that the authors were positioning themselves as authorities in determining, applying, and bestowing “recognition” of membership. If I had been teaching, I would have been tempted to return to a more careful reading of the text to show this is not the case, but to do so would have been to perpetuate a debate of “my” meaning versus “your” meaning (a style in the form of the transmission model) and done nothing to educate the class about the crucial differences between the transmission model and ritual model.

So, instead of returning to the article and finding the quotes that would counter accusations against the credibility of the authors, such as (I can’t resist!):

“Pratt, who collected most of the data, is an actively participating member of the Osage tribe. In becoming a participant observer of matters that he was already participating in, he did little to alter his usual activity, other than taking notes and becoming somewhat more focused in his attention…his questions were questions that he might well have asked as part of his ordinary pursuits” (47).

What are the matters that Pratt was already participating in? “On frequent occasions, the issues of recognition become a matter of discussion and ‘folk analysis.’ That is, Indians discuss the obvious Indianness, or lack of it, of a candidate Indian” (47).

The teacher, instead, invited a guest speaker to criticize the text and then facilitated a discussion among the students themselves, establishing the roles, identities, and practices necessary for an actual dialogue to take place in the classroom. Here, I’m talking about both the change-over-time occurring in any group as people become familiar with each other and the topic/task at hand, and also about the way the group learns to handle conflict and disagreement. Because difference was invited in, welcomed, and respected, a back-and-forth debate within narrow lines was avoided; instead, a broad-ranging investigation of the problem of recognition was actively engaged. [See here for a Hegelian lens, and here for a work by Paul Ricoeur.] The students are handling significant questions with depth and mutual regard.

I am gleaning some hints for my own research framing and problem-posing. I will gather as much “naturally-occurring speech” as I can, but most of my data will be interview-based. I need to learn to “hear” the transmission and ritual views in operation. I had the flash as I began to write this entry that there is a relationship (a metonymy?) between talk conducted within the epistemology of a transmission view of communication and dialectics, and talk conducted within the epistemology of a ritual view of communication and dialogics. It will take my lifetime to investigate potential ways that the transmission view shapes communication-in-the-present differently than the ritual view, and how tensions between these two views (when they are both present) play out in the process of negotiating meaning. They may contest or complement each other . . .

Posted by Steph at January 12, 2007 10:24 AM


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