J.L.Lemke On-line Office


Index to 'Across the Scales of  Time'


‘It takes a village …’


I want to conclude with some observations about the research process itself. 

I began with two key questions: How do moments add up to lives? How do our shared moments together add up to social life as such? I’ve said a fair bit about the first one now, but the focus on identity development, while clearly situating it in larger-scale social activity and process, has left less said about the timescales relevant to the formation and maintenance of community as such. 

Just as we have mainly studied social development over relatively short timescales (generally the first few years or first decade or two of life), and so know far too little about what human projects are sustained over many decades or a lifetime, so also we know a great deal more about short-term social processes: conversation, negotiation, ‘service encounters’, classroom lessons -- events that last on the order of the time you can record on a videotape -- than we do about activities and processes that last days or months or years, much less multiple lifetimes. The classic model of Activity Theory (Leontiev 1978) distinguished three timescales: operations, actions, and activities, rather similar to the levels exemplified in Table 1 by vocal articulations, utterances, and lessons. But can we lump together all the timescales of ‘activities’ that last from minutes to lifetimes? Are the principles of integration across events just the same whether we are taking out the garbage or building a business empire? At some very high level of abstraction perhaps they are, but we should now become more interested in the potential differences. Following on in this intellectual tradition, cultural psychologist Michael Cole (1996) proposes including a much wider range of scales of analysis, from the microgenetic (event scale), meso-genetic (extended activity or project scale), and ontogenetic (developmental-biographical scale), to the historical and evolutionary scales. He has a particular interest in the emergence of sustainable institutions that persist over times longer than the participation of any one individual in them. 

But how do we study ecosocial processes on timescales longer than a few hours? While educational researchers have done extended videotaping of the same classroom over a whole term or year (e.g. Christie 19..), or even followed the same student through all classes for a few days (e.g. Wyatt-Smith & Cumming, in press), we do not follow students home through all 24 hours of their lives for extended periods, nor do we follow even classroom communities over their whole (short) lifespans by looking not just at what happens in the classroom, but what happens among the same participants outside it as well. When the timescale expands, either with its focus on an individual (cf. the social science fantasy depicted in the film The Truman Show (Weir 1998), or on a group or small community, so usually does the spatial scale as well. People move around. How many settings do the members of a community collectively inhabit in the course of a day, much less a year? How many additional, peripheral participants become involved? Even if we had the resources and the persuasive powers to record data on these scales, how could we ever analyze it all? Or even view it all? Imagine the task for detailed records of daily life for even fifteen people over just a year? 

Ethnographic studies of small village societies of a few to several dozen members normally collect data over a yearly seasonal cycle. It is highly selective data and is supplemented by the ethnographer’s direct participation with a subset of the members -- and some response to the inevitable identity shift as the ethnographer begins to becomes another social person in a very different social system, even on a one-year timescale. 

Biographers take the human lifetime as their timescale unit, and otherwise historians and archivists are about the only scholars who concern themselves with social projects or activities that occur on timescales from decades to longer than a single human lifetime.

We can no doubt learn a great deal from each of these fields about the kinds of projects and activities that occupy the longer timescale spaces on our chart, from those that extend through significant portions of the life of an individual, to those which are undertaken by the members of an institution or of a smaller or larger community. What are the longest timescale projects ever sustained by a human community? How should we define the continuity of such projects? What are the means by which integration across timescales is defined in long-range institutional and community projects? 

The original logic of Leontiev’s Activity Theory defined the continuity or unity of extended activity by the maintenance of a goal or object-of activity. One can argue that in many forms of social activity, goals are emergent; they change during the development of the project (cf. Lemke 1996). They are also, in collective activity, not necessarily common or shared among participants; different goals are just successfully enough articulated to permit collective activity to proceed for the most part coherently. When the timescale of a project or activity exceeds a single human lifetime, we clearly should be seeking for alternative principles to define their unity and continuity. Indeed we also have to recognize that many social processes are simply emergent in communities on these timescales: they just happen without anyone or any group intending them. This, too, is characteristic of self-organizing systems on all scales. 

How, finally, do we study society? Or more properly, a whole ecosocial system? And study it moreover from the inside, which is contrary to the externalist tradition of modern science (cf. Matsuno & Salthe 1995) which looks at all systems from a ‘God’s eye’ view. Traditional macrosociology has resorted, after the manner of Latour’s ‘centers of calculation’ to assembling statistical data and recognizing that it does so in a positioned way. The kinds of data we seek to collect are usually the ones that seem important from where we sit within the system. It is highly unlikely that any social system looks the same from the viewpoint of all the component groups or roles within it. Ethnographers long ago recognized that men’s and women’s views of even small ‘homogeneous’ societies are very different. We can say the same in many cases for the views from different age-groups, social classes, or minority cultures. 

There is still a strong individualist bias in our modernist traditions of research. Whether we favor individualist or communitarian politics, agent-centered or collective-process models, we still tend to define our objects of study in such a way that a single researcher could in principle come to understand them. This appears to be a contradiction in the case of ecosocial systems. The longest timescale processes that characterize such systems are almost certainly longer than a human lifetime. We cannot study such a system from more than a few of the many viewpoints within it, and we honestly do not expect all these views to fit consistently together. We need at least a team to conduct such a study, one as diverse or nearly so as the system under study, and along the same dimensions of difference. And we need a self-sustaining institution that will last long enough to observe major historical change in the system. ‘It takes a village’ to study a village. 

Is this possible? There is perhaps some hope insofar as distributed communities of researchers, linked by new communication networks and technologies, may grow to become such ‘villages’ and continue their work over the timescales needed. If we are really optimistic, we might even imagine that before too long all the various viewpoints in our increasingly global society might come to be represented in one way or another in such a research community. But that will mean that the nature of the research project itself will have to change quite radically from how we conceive it today. Our views of social research – its goals, methods, and objects of study – are inevitably still masculinized, still middle-class, still eurocultural, still specific to the interests of a particular age-range within our own social system, in ways we can just barely begin to perceive. And what of the additional viewpoints of the ‘nonhumans’ as Latour calls them – the other participants without which there would be no system? What new roles should they play in an ecosocial community that is able to understand itself across the scales of time?


Index to 'Across the Scales of  Time'