Top Five Tenacious Concepts

I was digging through an old notebook today, looking for some notes on my book-in-progress, The Medium Picture. Instead I found a list.

I found this Year-End Top-Ten List of ideas from 2003. I’d been thinking about a few core concepts that I always seem to return to, and I thought more of them were on here. I felt like I had a second imprinting between the end of my 20s and my mid-30s, but perhaps it wasn’t as tenacious as I thought.

Old notebook pages from 2003.

Imprinting, which could also be on this list, is the idea that at certain phases of life, we are more impressionable than at others, so the experiences we have during those times imprint us for life. The most common example is sexual imprinting during puberty. That’s when we figure out what we find attractive in others, lovers, or potential mates. It can also happen with all sorts of other interests and tastes.

I went back to graduate school in my late 20s, and recently I thought I’d been returning to the concepts I learned then over and over. It turns out that while a few of those ideas have stuck around, several more have emerged in the meantime. I got sidetracked by these again. They’re all in the book anyway.

Here’s an updated top-five list:

1. The Essential Tension:
I don’t remember when I came across this one, but I use it all the time. Thomas Kuhn, who gave us the idea of paradigm shifts, was a philosopher of science. His essential tension set out to explain the optimal spot for the advancement of scientific theory. That is, a taut spot between tradition and innovation. If your theory is too traditional, then you’re not adding anything to the field. If your theory is too innovative, then no one will know what you’re talking about. I’ve used it to explain everything from creative sampling in hip-hop to what it takes to get good writing done.

2. Boundary Objects:
As posited by Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer in 1989, boundary objects help translate differences between different communities or fields. Boundary objects can be “artifacts, documents, terms, concepts, and other forms of reification around which communities of practice can organize their interconnections” (p. 105). Star (1989) outlined a set of criteria for such objects as follows (the brief descriptions are my own):
1. Modularity: Something for everyone.
2. Abstraction: Limits information to what is useful.
3. Accommodation: Maintains usefulness for all.
4. Standardization: No surprises.

3. Structuration:
The field of sociology has been pretty adept at studying how societies work and how individuals interact. It has been less successful at bridging the two. It’s a problem of things making since at the macro-scale and things making sense at the micro-scale but the two contradicting each other somewhere in between. It’s a problem of the bottom-up and the top-down not quite meeting in the middle. British sociologist Anthony Giddens set out to fix this with his theory of structuration. Structuration is the idea that a system’s parts amount to a whole system, that the trees and their attendant processes add up to a functioning forest. Giddens aimed to apply this idea to sociology thereby bridging the micro- (individuals or “agents”) and the macro- (society or “structure”) scales of his field. Structuration theory states that the actions of individuals culminate into social practices (from the bottom-up) and societal authority enforces rules and mores (from the top-down). The two form a feedback loop in the middle. For example, if someone breaks a rule, they might be reprimanded. If everyone breaks a rule, the rule gets adjusted. Through this ongoing process, society is constituted, a culture emerges.

4. The Strength of Weak Ties:
This was on the 2003 list, and still it persists. In 1973, Mark Granovetter published an article that illuminated the importance of acquaintances (vs. that of close friendships). The loose connections one has (i.e., weak ties) tend to be much more fruitful for information exchange than those of closer connections. Your close friends probably have about the same information that you have, but your more-distant acquaintances are more likely to have something different for you. And, as Jay Ogilvy once said, “If it’s not different, it’s not information.”

5. Affordance Theory:
I know this one is worn down from use, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t worn for a reason. As developed by James J. Gibson, an affordance is a perceived use provided by the environment: chairs and tables support weight, handles are for holding, pulling, or pushing, etc. It’s one of those simple concepts that quickly gets complex as it is applied and is generative of other ideas—as the most interesting ideas are.

Ideas like these often seem like common sense, and though that seems like a bad thing, it’s actually a really good sign. The best theories are the ones that are latent in the everyday. Once we name them, we can better control them. Once they become a part of our vocabulary, we can better define our world.

References:
Gibson, James J. (1966). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. London: Allen and Unwin.
Gibson, James J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt.
Granovetter, Mark. (1973). “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1360-1380.
Kuhn, Thomas. (1977). The Essential Tension. New York: Routledge.
Star, Susan Leigh (1989). The Structure of Ill-structured Solutions: Boundary Objects and Heterogenous Distributed Problem Solving. Working paper, Department of Information and Computer Science, University of California, Irvine.
Star, Susan Leigh & Griesemer, James R. (1989). Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19: 387.

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