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More options Nov 6 2007, 5:33 am
From: Allison <>
Date: Tue, 06 Nov 2007 01:33:00 -0800
Subject: Re: $40M Sprawl Magnet?

Picking up on ideas sprinkled throughout the posts to “$40M sprawl
magnet” –
At the Plexus Conference I attended this past week in Baltimore,
focused on Complexity, Communities and Health, one of the speakers was
Hathaway Ferebee, Executive Director of the Safe & Sound Campaign in
Baltimore. This is an amazing 10+ year effort funded by the Annie E.
Casey Foundation that addresses issues relating to how the city of
Baltimore allocates its resources to promote child health & well-
being, relative to other efforts such as the building of stadiums and
prisons. Definitely worth checking out:
Has implications for the communiplexity work in Sarasota and
Hillsborough counties. I am hoping we might be able to recruit
Hathaway to Tampa for our Communities as CAS conference too…
Baltimore also has a neato blog that seems to bring to life many ideas
relating to communities as complex systems:
I am hoping CBHC and SCOPE might consider creating similar blogs…
My sense in hearing Hathaway speak was that these efforts are
generating hope and engaging citizens in Baltimore…might offer clues
as to how similar engagement could be facilitated here in Hillsborough
and Sarasota…
She also introduced a concept that was new to me: “affirmative
opportunity” – here is an article by William Julius Wilson on the
Seems to me there are implications here for understanding communities
as CAS, with regard to the importance of diversity, agency and energy…
Getting back to the posts ... I agree that actually going to a
community meeting – or another intentionally designated gathering spot
for the purposes of civic engagement – requires and provides a level
of whole-person engagement that virtual forums such as blogs do not.
And unless a broad range of community members, as well as those who
are elected and hired to contribute to the community as civil
servants, come together and interact face-to-face, then distrust such
as has been expressed in posts to this google-group will be
Conceptualizing civic engagement as an emergent property of a complex
community makes a lot of sense to me. Noticing who in the community
is “lighting up” with civic engagement, at a particular time, in a
given place, might help us to track local patterns as they form and
Seems to me that we all are speaking from positions of privilege in
this discussion – in keeping with Cooper & Green’s article titled,
“Privilege Revisited.” Seems important to recognize that others might
not be privileged in similar ways, and as such may experience barriers
to civic engagement, while also perhaps experiencing “enabling
constraints” that we are unfamiliar with.
Information overload…that is a popular topic these days. A popular
catchphrase is “information is not the same as knowledge.” Also,
knowledge is not the same as actionable knowledge—Gretl Pelto
emphasizes this distinction in her work with the World Health
Organization. Snowden talks a lot about this too, in terms of the
third wave of knowledge management. This is something we discussed
right from the start of the seminar…the challenge of navigating such a
tremendously huge and continually developing body of knowledge
regarding communities & complexity…keeping our goal of knowledge
generation (which goes beyond the learning of the individuals involved
in the seminar) in mind as our goal. So far we’ve learned a lot about
navigating, seems to me.
As much as I see value in the contrarian stance, I can’t get with the
approach of “intentionally being derogatory simply to create debate.”
As I see it, disrespect in the guise of scholarly discourse is ugly.
Passion, okay. Anger, okay. Challenge, okay. But to be derogatory –
to diminish – to belittle – to be hurtful – I see no need for this in
the sharing of ideas among intelligent people. I know it is a
relatively common practice in academia, and in various professional
circles, but do we see a true need for it in our efforts to generate
knowledge about communities as complex systems? (That is not a
rhetorical question.)
I was once in a group where the simple rule was “no devil’s advocate
just for the sake of devil’s advocate…only challenge if you actually
do not understand or you disagree with the position that is being
presented.” The discussion was no less lively, yet the degree of
authenticity and rigorous thinking was noticeably greater than in
similar groups I’d participated in where this simple rule was not in
Regarding the technology we have used to date to support our efforts:
I like the way the discussion posts reveal the development of our
thinking over the course of the semester. They reveal the generation
of knowledge as a flowing, emergent property of the group in ways that
a pre-fab structure such as one-thread-per-reading would not have
allowed. The google-group has provided us with an opportunity to
experientially figure out which tech constraints are enabling and
which are excessive, relative to our intentions and development. We
can think of this as a Bayesian approach to developing web-tech
infrastructure for a continually evolving Initiative…
I am really looking forward to reading each person’s “communiplexity
position statement,” as well as the case examples of communities as
complex systems. I anticipate that when we share these with one
another, the ways in which our ideas are both distinct and mutually
informing will become much more apparent.
Finally, I can’t help but mention Agar’s concept of “IRA Logic” here.
He writes about it in his typically engaging way in the article, “An
Ethnography by Any Other Name…” which can be found on his website: Here is the particular section on IRA logic, in
case you’d rather just keep reading than hop to another site. I
include it because it seems to me that what we are doing, as a group,
is trying to pay attention to the “what in the world is going on?”
moments that pique our curiosity in the development and sustainability
of communities…in this case, the learning community that is this
seminar, within the broader Communiplexity Initiative. By coming to
make sense of these “rich points,” we are likely to discover what it
is that we are learning as we go…
So here’s some more classic Agar:
4. A Peculiar Kind of Logic
The logic is an old story, one I've written about in other places,
starting in the 1980s and most recently described in The Professional
Stranger (1996). I won't show the old slides I used in the original
book, or in the lecture on which this article is based. Instead, I'll
begin by saying that, more and more as time goes on, I think of
ethnography as a kind of logic rather than any specific method or any
particular unit of study. Ethnography names an epistemology—a way of
knowing and a kind of knowledge that results—rather than a recipe or a
particular focus. [57]
I want to argue that the endless debates around real ethnography miss
the point, in part, because examples of what is and what isn't both
use the logic. If you want to ask if a trajectory is inside that
ethnographic attractor, first ask if it displays the logic. The logic
is constitutive of the space of acceptable ethnographic work. [58]
So what is ethnographic logic? It is first of all abductive, from the
Latin for "lead away." The term is often used in the sense of
"kidnap." Charles PEIRCE (1906) the logician and semiotician among the
founders of American pragmatism developed the logical meaning of the
term. [59]
As he looked at the logic of his day, PEIRCE wondered, where do the
new concepts come from? Deductive logic was the way to get new
conclusions from old premises. Inductive logic was the way to see how
well new material fit the available concepts. But both those kinds of
logic were closed with reference to the concepts in play. Was logic
limited to figuring out consequences of what we already knew, or
fitting new experiences to what we already knew? Didn't we learn
something from experience that took us to new places, that "led us
away" in the old Latin sense of the term? [60]
Of course we did. Whatever else ethnography does, it has to produce
new concepts. In fact, I often joke with my traditional research
colleagues: If they wind up with a new concept at the end of their
study that they didn't have at the beginning, their career is over. If
I don't wind up with a new concept at the end, my career is over. The
joke summarizes one of the core contradictions between ethnography and
the mainstream tradition of social science. [61]
In fact, ethnography is usually in demand, outside the university,
when new concepts are desperately needed. The inelegant question,
"what in the hell is going on out there," motivates organizations to
seek ethnographic help. They can't deduce or induce because old
knowledge clearly doesn't work. It's how I make a living since I left
the university. Abduction for bewildered organizations is my market.
Hardly a snappy TV ad, but there it is. [62]
PEIRCE's abductive logic formalizes this critical part of any
ethnographic trajectory. Let me borrow from an unpublished paper by
Michael HOFFMAN (1997), a trained philosopher currently at Georgia
State University. Here, in PEIRCE's own words, as quoted by HOFFMAN,
is abductive logic:
The surprising fact, F, is observed.
If H were true, F would be a matter of course.
Hence, there is reason to suspect that H is true. [63]
The "surprising fact F" echoes what I call "rich points." Rich points
are the raw material of ethnographic research. They run the gamut from
incomprehensible surprise to departure from expectations to glitches
in an aggregate data set. As PEIRCE would have advocated, the purpose
of ethnography is to go forth into the world, find and experience rich
points, and then take them seriously as a signal of a difference
between what you know and what you need to learn to understand and
explain what just happened. People are said to be creatures of habit
and seekers of certainty. Abduction turns them into the opposite.
How do we make sense of all these big and little "F's?" We don't just
box them in with old concepts in the style of inductive logic.
Instead, we imagine "H's" that might explain them. We imagine. The
surprise F, the rich point, calls on us to create, to think, to make
up an antecedent H that does indeed imply the consequent. Where did
that F come from? Well, what if … H? Rather than reaching into the box
and pulling out a concept ready at hand, we make up some new ones.
Any trajectory in the ethnographic space will run on the fuel of
abduction. You'll read or see how surprises came up, how they were
taken seriously, and how they were explained using concepts not
anticipated when the story started. [66]
We need to reign in our enthusiasm a bit. PEIRCE wants some
plausibility. Stephen KING just wrote a new thriller where, the review
said, a pulse transmitted through cell phones turns users who happen
to be calling at the time into monsters. The plot appeals to me, but
the likelihood that the story will turn into an actual news item is
pretty slim. It's probably an entertaining read, but a plausible
scenario? [67]
PEIRCE also wants us to follow up the abductive epiphany with some
tedious work. And the tedious work looks a lot like old-fashioned
science. We need to systematically collect, compare and contrast, try
to prove the new H → P link wrong, all that systematic drudgery,
whether we're in the lab or in the field. It reminds me of one of my
favorite Einstein quotes, that he never made a significant scientific
discovery using rational analytic thought. But he did a lot of work
after the discovery to test it out. And it reminds me of Edison's
famous quote, since I mentioned his museum a while back—Genius is 1%
inspiration and 99% perspiration. And it reminds me of why I like the
first days of ethnographic work the best, because they are the most
creative part where the learning curve accelerates exponentially.
Hoffman also emphasizes that the range of imagination in play is
bounded by history. We can only stretch so far is the sad moral of the
story. VYGOTSKY's (1978) "zone of proximal development," about which I
learned much from education colleagues during my visit, is a case in
point. But still, some stretching is better than no stretching at all.
That's the message that abduction conveys. [69]
Abduction is a key feature of the difference between acceptable and
unacceptable ethnography. But the logic is more than that. Abduction
is static. H implies F and we're done. Ethnography is not. It is
dynamic. [70]
Finding surprises and pursuing them—This goes on and on until the
money runs out or you drop dead. Years ago, a group of anthropologists
wrote of the surprises they encountered even after twenty years of
work. What they wrote is not a surprise. Since the point of it all is
to construct new understandings based on new concepts, abduction is
the motor that drives the lumbering machine, however long the tires
hold out. [71]
The technical term is iterative, from the Latin "to repeat." Iterative
abduction can turn into a clinical condition if you're not careful,
not to mention exhaust you even in the course of an ordinary
ethnography. Imagine that you're always on alert for surprises, always
skeptical towards whatever ready explanations are at hand, always
trying to imagine a new and previously unimagined alternative. No one
could live like that all the time and, in fact, no one does. [72]
Iterative also foregrounds the dynamic nature of ethnography and helps
understand how conclusions can eventually be reached, even without
self-medication, however partial those conclusions might be. Remember
that abduction occurs in a historical context that limits its range of
possibilities? Iteration means that the early applications of
abduction in fact change the historical context and create a new one
within which the next abduction will occur. And the change narrows the
focus. [73]
I used the metaphor of a "funnel" to describe ethnographic research a
long time ago. At first you cast the net wide, but with time the focus
narrows, within what you learned in those early wide-open days.
Iterative abduction explains why the funnel metaphor wasn't a bad
choice. Those early abductive moves constrain what comes next by
moving history away from its old constraints while at the same time
adding new ones that the encounter itself has produced. [74]
Michael MOERMAN (1969) wrote an article called "A Little Knowledge."
After he'd worked in a Thai village for a while, he forgot what he
used to know because he took those first new concepts for granted as
he moved further along the ethnographic trajectory. A film crew
visited and asked questions that refreshed his memory, since they were
newcomers, and the experience inspired him to write the article. What
an ethnographer learns early might be the most important to report to
an outsider, but that early abduction fades with time as new rich
points come up that were invisible until the earlier work was
finished. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as his
title suggested. [75]
Iterative abduction shows yet another major difference between this
logic and old-fashioned social science. The old guard wants an
interview guide. The iterative abductors do a couple of interviews,
then obsess about them, then change the interview guide, then do a
couple of more, and on and on it goes. It makes those who worship
standardization break out in a rash. [76]
Iterative abduction already sounds a little awkward, but I need to
make it even worse with one more adjective—recursive. A famous example
of recursion is linguistics since Noam CHOMSKY. To make a sentence,
you might put another sentence inside it. Say you've got a rule that
says a Sentence consists of a Noun Phrase plus a Verb Phrase. "The dog
sits on my foot." (Actually one just did in the coffee shop where I'm
drafting this.) But then it turns out the next rule is, one way to
make a Noun Phrase is to rewrite it as a Noun Phrase plus a Sentence.
"The dog who has a ball in its mouth sits on my foot." NP = "The dog"
and S = "The dog has a ball in its mouth." (Actually the one sitting
on my foot does. He wants to play.) So in the process of making a
Sentence, according to Chomsky, we reach back up to the top of the
rules and make a sentence again inside the sentence we are making.
This is recursion, from the Latin for "run again," or "run back."
Abduction in ethnography is also recursive. Sometimes we use abduction
right in the middle of abducting. A surprise happens and we pursue it
on the way to constructing a new H that explains it. But as we pursue
it, another surprise comes up, so now we need to pursue that. An
embedded sequence of abduction occurs as we explain one surprise after
another before we return to the original surprise. It's not of course
so mechanical as that, but it is recursive in the sense of abducting
in the process of abducting. [78]
Examples could go on and on. Often an ethnography begins with a giant
surprise that shapes hundreds of abductions to come. When I first
arrived at the treatment center for heroin addicts, for example, I was
surprised at how all the experts and all the literature said addicts
were social-psychological failures. As I got to know some, I learned
that they were also social-psychological successes. When I first met
independent truckers as I started that research in the early 1980s, I
was surprised at how different they were from their late 1970s cowboy
image and, in fact, how much they disliked that image. In cases like
the addicts and the independents, an entire ethnography turned into
recursive abduction off those initial surprises. [79]
Here's a more focused example: As a newcomer to South India, I was
surprised when a villager put a lump of charcoal on my lunch before I
left to walk to another village. I've used this example ad nauseum in
other writings. Here I'll just say, in the course of figuring out that
surprise, I came across another—the local sense of spirits—and that
led me into new abductive work. In the course of figuring out spirits,
I came across another surprise—people who were possessed by spirits
were usually new brides and absent villagers living in the city. And
so it went, one abduction calling up another calling up another until
the study ended. [80]
Recursion helps understand when you are "done" with a particular rich
point, and why some rich points are richer than others. You are done
when abductive work yields no more abduction. And you are dealing with
a truly spectacular rich point when the abduction seems like it will
never stop, one abduction calling up another calling up another until
you run out of time. Those kinds of rich points lead to book topics or
even a life's work. [81]
Speaking of recursion, it's now time to return to the top layer of
this section and finish it up, the top layer being the importance of
logic as a characteristic of the trajectories inside the space of
acceptable ethnographies. Do we have a better sense now of what this
logic looks like? I hope so. It is first of all abductive logic,
taking surprises seriously and creating new explanations for them. It
is also iterative, something that is applied over and over again in
the course of a piece of work. And it is recursive, calling on itself
to solve a problem that comes up even as it is solving a problem.
In the lust for acronyms that infects anyone who lives in Washington
DC for too many years, how can I summarize this logic in an
abbreviated way? It is an iterative, recursive, abductive logic. The
initials give us IRA logic, which is pretty amusing, since the
initials also abbreviate Individual Retirement Accounts and the Irish
Republican Army, not to mention—as education colleagues pointed out
during the lecture—the International Reading Association. But then
perhaps that just means the acronym will stick more readily in that
many more minds. Besides, the person suggested by all the acronyms at
once is interesting to contemplate. A militant Catholic Northern Irish
schoolteacher worried about retirement? [83]
IRA logic is constitutive of the ethnographic attractor. If a
trajectory is ethnographic, it contains IRA logic. The eight
parameters described earlier can be set in any number of ways. If the
process that follows uses IRA logic, it is in the space of acceptable
ethnographies. [84]
Even the Edison museum example mentioned earlier is in the space. The
surprise? The hostility towards the Edison museum on the part of
former employees and townspeople. The new H that explained it? The
museum had been a factory, a going concern that another company bought
and moved to Florida where they could dump the unions and get a better
tax deal. Local jobs and the economic center of the town vanished.
Even the Texas clinic example is in the space. The surprise? People
didn't take advantage of a more convenient clinic. The new H that
explained it? Public transportation made the old clinic "closer," the
availability of busses not being something the doctors had considered.
IRA logic isn't the only thing that matters, though. Earlier I said
the space was defined by a logic and a key question. That question has
to do with context and meaning, and it's time now to talk about them.