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D as Diagramming: The Attachance Perspective

How to use a diagram to discover a brand new perspective?

The above diagram was designed in 2020 in order to test a concept called Attachance. This post offers some background information of the diagram.

This post is part of the D as Diagramming project which aims to explore the power of diagrams and diagramming. What I really want to know is about the value of diagrams for turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.

This diagram produced two outcomes. First, I found an epistemological position for the Attachance perspective. Second, I turned the diagram into a meta-diagram.


1. A brief of Attachance
2. A Gibsonion Trick
3. Attach and Detach
4. Network, Container, and Platform
5. A new epistemological position
6. The App Ontology
7. The Hierarchical Loops

1. A brief of Attachance

I coined the term Attachance by combining Attach and Chance in 2018 in order to discuss some ideas related to the concept of Affordance which is a core idea of Ecological Psychology.

Affordance means potential action opportunities offered by environments. I want to highlight the meaning and value of actual action itself, however the term Affordance only refers to potential actions. Thus, I coined the term Attachance to emphasize the potential opportunities offered by actual actions, especially the attaching act and the detaching act.

In 2019, I started working on my own theoretical account of the Ecological Practice approach after finishing a book titled Curativity. The 2019 version of the approach is a curated toolkit version. The concept of Attachance is part of the toolkit. In May 2020, I wrote a book titled After Affordance: The Ecological Approach to Human Action in which I proposed several new theoretical ideas for expanding ecological psychology to the modern digital environment. The primary theme of After Affordance is the concept of Attachance.

The concept of Attachance is planned to develop as 1) an ecological practice concept for practice studies such as interaction design and startup innovation, 2) a philosophical concept for developing a social theory.

The book After Affordance only achieves the first goal and it focuses on the following acts:

  • Attaching to an environment
  • Detaching from an environment
  • Attaching to an object
  • Detaching from an object

I use the Attachance Perspective to refers to its philosophical meaning. The following sections will provide more details about the perspective.

2. A Gibsonion Trick

The term Attachance was inspired by Gibson’s writing about the relationship between people and environment, “When in use, a tool is a sort of extension of the hand, almost an attachment to it or a part of the user’s own body, and thus is no longer a part of the environment, graspable and portable, to be sure, but nevertheless external to the observer. This capacity to attach something to the body suggests that the boundary between the animal and the environment is not fixed at the surface of the skin but can shift. More generally it suggests that the absolute duality of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ is false. When we consider the affordances of things, we escape this philosophical dichotomy (1979, p.35)”

Gibson’s idea is not alone. The classic example of the blind man’s stick (Merleau-Ponty 1962; Polanyi 1962; Bateson 1973) described the same viewpoint. Gregory Bateson asked the below question in 1973: “Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick?” Merleau-Ponty, Bateson, Gibson, seeded a great tree about the human mind. Today we see their ideas are driving the emergent embodied cognitive science.

Gibson didn’t develop a theory about “attach” and “detach.” He used terms such as “attached object” and “detach object.” For Gibson, an attached object refers to a layout of surfaces less than completely surrounded by the medium and a detached object refers to a layout of surfaces completely surrounded by the medium. This piece is complex because Gibson used his own terms such as Medium, Substance and Surfaces to describe the meaningful environment.

Gibson focused on the human body and environment, he considered objects and tools as environments too. His theory is body scale analysis. The Attachance concept I am working on goes beyond the body, I want to expand it to multi-level scales.

3. Attach and Detach

A Germ Cell of a theoretical approach is its smallest entity which can represent the whole of thinking in different levels of analysis. The diagram below shows the germ cell of the Ecological Practice approach.

The Germ Cell of the Ecological Practice approach

The above diagram combines three core concepts of the Ecological Practice approach together: Affordance, Attachance, and Containance. The term “Offers” is an affordance-inspired concept, it refers to opportunities afforded by the Container. The group of “Offer — Act” forms “Event” which changes the status of the Container. The new status of the Container affords new opportunities which guide the new acts and events.

The above diagram also represents the concept Attachance at the level of Container. We can consider Entering the Container as an Attaching act and Exiting the Container as a Detaching act. However, the diagram doesn’t represent the second attachance which is inside the Container. In fact, the Ecological Practice approach considers the “Form of Act” as “Attach” or “Detach”. Any act is either an attaching act or a detaching act.

The above picture is another way of representation of the germ cell of the Ecological Practice approach. The two forms of act are represented by binary numbers. The 0 represents detaching act and the 1 represents attaching act. The parenthesis represents the Container. The right diagram shows an example of complex status which brings out other two concepts: Curativity and Themes of Practice. I also add the concept Emergence from complexity theory to the above diagram.

4. Network, Container, and Platform

Let’s move to the landscape level to view the Ecological Practice Approach.

Based on the concept of Container, I coined two related ideas: Network and Platform. The Network refers to the pre-container status which means pieces loose coupling outside the container. The Platform refers to post-container status which means pieces loose coupling within super large containers. These three ideas from a triad: Network — Container — Platform. I consider the triad as basic forms of collective context.

The Landscape of Ecological Practice Approach

The above diagram represents a large map of ecological practice approach. Here we see three basic types of collective context and attaching/detaching acts inside contexts and between contexts.

5. A new epistemological position

The concept of Affordance has multiple meanings. As a scientific concept, Affordance refers to James J. Gibson’s ecological perception psychology. I consider it as part of the Ecological Physics method. As a philosophical concept, some scholars use Affordance to build an epistemological position for their own domain studies.

In May 2001, Ian Hutchby published a paper titled Technologies, Texts and Affordances in Sociology. According to Ian Hutchby, “On one level, this is an aspect of the long standing debate within the sociology of science and technology between realism (the view that worldly objects have inherent properties that act as constraints on observational accounts) and constructivism (the view that the very ‘reality’ of objects is itself an outcome of discursive practices in relation to the object).”

Inspired by the concept of Affordance, Ian Hutchby suggested a third view, “…I want to propose an approach to the study of technologies and social life which offers a reconciliation between the opposing poles of constructivism and realism. This involves seeing technologies neither in terms of their ‘interpretive textual’ properties nor of their ‘essential technical’ properties, but in terms of their affordances (Gibson 1979). I will argue that affordances are functional and relational aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object. In this way, technologies can be understood as artefacts which may be both shaped by and shaping of the practices humans use in interaction with, around and through them. This ‘third way’ between the (constructivist) emphasis on the shaping power of human agency and the (realist) emphasis on the constraining power of technical capacities opens the way for new analyses of how technological artefacts become important elements in the patterns of ordinary human conduct.”

The “realist — constructivist” debate on the relationship between technology and human practice echoes the “adaptation — construction” debate on the relationship between nature and society. Now, we can consider the concept of Attachance as a philosophical concept.

The above diagram represents four epistemological positions for theoretical debates. The horizontal axis of the diagram represents the Organism-Environment relationship. There are four epistemological accounts on the horizontal spectrum.

  • Left: Adaptation
  • Left-center: Affordance
  • Right-center: Attachance
  • Right: Construction

The adaptation account believes that living organisms are adapted to their environment. This view is also called environmental determinism.

The affordance account argues that organism and environment are complementary and meaning is not constructed via a subjective act but is directly available in the world as opportunities for action. Affordances are properties of the environment that relate to the organism’s capacities.

The construction account believes organisms can modify their own and each other’s niches and alter their own local environment. This view is also called Niche Construction theory.

The attachance account is similar to the affordance account. I want to highlight the agency of actors and the emergent meaning and value of actual actions while an actor is acting with his/her environments.

The difference between the affordance account and the attachance account is the former doesn’t consider the agency of actors while the latter emphasizes the agency of actors.

The difference between the attachance account and the construction account is the former works at the micro level while the latter works at the macro level.

The diagram uses a nested structure to represent micro level analysis and macro level analysis. The micro level is about the loop of “perception — action” while the macro level is about the loop of “nature — environment”.

By using this diagram, I found the fourth position for the Attachance perspective!

6. The App Ontology

Can we consider the Attachance perspective as a social ontology?

Inspired by Theodore R. Schatzki’s Site Ontology, I used the term App Ontology to name the ontological meaning of the Attachance perspective.

According to Theodore R. Schatzki, “Social ontology concerns the nature of the social. It addresses such questions as, What is sociality? In and of what does the social consist? and What are the basic structures of social life? The broad front of individualism has historically played a dominant role in this domain. Not only has a weighty line of theorists defended individualist accounts of social phenomena, but those defending alternatives have had to define themselves against individualism. This dominance allows a division of social ontologies into two camps: individualism and nonindividualism.”

Theodore R. Schatzki suggested a third view which emphasizes the site of the social life, “ To advocate a site ontology is to claim that the character and transformation of social life are inherently tied to the site of the social. Site ontologies represent a distinct approach to social ontology…Site ontologies proceed differently. Addressing the nature of the social involves identifying the type of site where social life exists and develops. Since a site, as noted, is a kind of context, the focus is on a special type of context, not wholes, sui generis realities, or abstract structures.”

Theodore R. Schatzki’s Site is similar to my concept of Container. However, the Site Ontology is a flat ontology. According to Loscher, Spitter and Seidl, “Similar to all theories of social practice, Schatzki’s site ontology is based on the presumption that all social phenomena are rooted in practices (Schatzki, 1996). Yet, in contrast to other practice theorists, such as Bourdieu and Giddens, Schatzki assumes that there is only one single level of social reality: the level of social practices (Seidl & Whittington, 2014). This means that Schatzki‘s practice theory is based on a ‘flat ontology’, which does away with the common idea that there are different levels of reality: micro and macro levels, for example (Schatzki, 2011)”.

The ecological practice approach is not only about Container, it also highlights the hierarchy of human practice. The diagram below is the third version of the ecological practice approach. What I suggested is the three levels of social reality: possible level, actual level, and logical level.

As mentioned in the above basic model of the Ecological Practice approach, the concept of Attachance is a core of the approach. The Attachance perspective emphasizes the agency of actors and the tendency of searching for opportunities.

Inspired by the historical development of Internet, I considered the Site — App switch as a metaphor of paradigm shift. In the age of Web1.0, websites are a significant element. However, the mobile internet relies on mobile apps. The major shift of two paradigms is the relationship of devices and users. The PC paradigm requires people to follow devices while the mobile paradigm allows devices to follow people.

If we apply the Site-App metaphor to the social ontology, then the new paradigm after the Site ontology should be the App ontology which allows actors attaching to a site and detaching from the site. The App ontology gives more possible opportunities to actors while remaining the reality of containers.

7. The Hierarchical Loops

A by-product of the Attachance perspective diagram is a new meta-diagram. In Oct 2020, I used the meta-diagram to design the following diagram which is named Lifesystem.

The above Lifesystem diagram has three pair of concepts:

  • Subject and Object: this is adopted from Activity Theory.
  • Enter and Exit: this echoes the pair of concept “Attach — Detach”.
  • Lifeway and Lifeform: this is adopted from the Ecological Practice too.

I’d like to share the details of the Lifesystem framework in a new post. Here I want to highlight the value of the meta-diagram.

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