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D as Diagramming: An Integrated Framework for Studying Knowledge Diagrams (Part 3A)

Explore the conceptual space “Activity” and the perspective of “Mediating Instrument”.

This post is part of the D as Diagramming project which aims to explore the power of diagrams and diagramming for turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.

In a previous article, I introduced an integrated framework for studying knowledge diagrams and first perspective Cognitive Representation. Part 2 discusses the second perspective Cultural Significance which is generated from the Relevance conceptual space.

This post (3A) will explore the Activity conceptual space and discuss two topics under the Mediating Instrument perspective. The next post (3B) will discuss the other two topics.


7. The Conceptual Space of Activity

7.1 The Landscape of Activity Theory
7.2 The Activity Checklist
7.3 The Mediating Instrument Perspective
7.4 The Means — End Spectrum
7.5 The Past — Present Evolution

7.5.1 Darwin’s Changing World View
7.5.2 Project N: Understanding Mental Processes (2010–2020)
7.5.3 The Development of Ecological Practice Approach (2018–2021)

7. The Conceptual Space of Activity

The integrated framework is formed by four conceptual spaces: Architecture, Relevance, Activity, and Opportunity. Each conceptual space refers to a set of similar theoretical approaches. Each theoretical approach could generate a set of perspectives. You can find more details about the framework in Part 1.

The Activity conceptual space refers to Activity Theory and Practice theories in general.

Since 2001, a group of philosophers, sociologists, and scientists have rediscovered the practice perspective and used it as a lens to explore and examine the role of practices in human activity. Researchers called it The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. As Schatzki pointed out, “there is no unified practice approach”(2001, p.2). Davide Nicolini adopted a way of a toolkit to introduce the following six different ways of theorizing practice in his 2013 book Practice Theory, Work, & Organization:

  • Praxeology and the Work of Giddens and Bourdieu
  • Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991)
  • Activity Theory / Cultural-historical activity theory (the Marxian/Vygotskian/Leont’evian tradition)
  • Ethnomethodology (Harold Garfinkel, 1954)
  • The Site of Social (contemporary developments of the Heideggerian/Wittgensteinian traditions, by Theodore R. Schatzki)
  • Conversation Analysis / Critical Discourse Analysis (the Foucauldian tradition)

Nicolini also pointed out, “Practice theories are fundamentally ontological projects in the sense that they attempt to provide a new vocabulary to describe the world and to populate the world with specific ‘units of analysis’; that is, practice. How these units are defined, however, is internal to each of the theories, and choosing one of them would thus amount to reducing the richness provided by the different approaches.” (2012, p.9)

In 2020, I worked on the Activity U project which focuses on curating the historical development and the landscape of Activity Theory. I used human activity for discussing Activity Theory and social practices for other practice theories. This time, the “Activity” conceptual space refers to both Activity Theory and Practice Theories and I consider the human activity and social practices to be the same thing.

As mentioned above, each conceptual space refers to a set of similar theoretical approaches. Each theoretical approach could generate a set of perspectives. For discussing diagrams, I selected Mediating Instrument as a practical perspective. Though Mediating Instrument is adopted from Activity Theory, other social practice theories also emphasize the importance of Materials in human activity and social practices. Scholars even use the Materiality Turn to describe this trend.

I adopt the Mediating Instrument perspective to discuss the diagramming practice and highlight four essential issues for the present discussion.

  • Mean v.s. End
  • Past v.s. Present
  • Part v.s. Whole
  • Ambiguity v.s. Precision

Some issues are inspired by Activity Theory, other issues are defined by the “Diagram — Thought” curating practice. The following sections will unpack the above basic ideas with some concrete examples.

7.1 The Landscape of Activity Theory

Activity Theory or the “Cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT)” is an interdisciplinary philosophical framework for studying both individual and social aspects of human behavior. According to Kaptelinin & Nardi (2012), “The immediate conceptual origins of activity can be found in Russian/Soviet psychology of the 1920s and 1930s. During that time theoretical explorations in Russian psychology were heavily influenced by Marxist philosophy… Leontiev’s activity theory emerged as an outgrowth of the sociocultural perspective. The theory employs a number of ideas developed by Lev Vygotsky, Leontiev’s mentor and friend. It is also strongly influenced by the work of Sergei Rubinshtein, a major figure in Russian psychology and a long-time colleague of Leontiev.”(p.13–14)

I designed the diagram below to highlight several major important works.

The logical starting point of Activity Theory is Lev Vygotsky’s Mediated Action. Vygotsky claimed that human action and psychological functions are mediated by tools which refer to technical tools that work on objects and psychological tools that mediate the mind and environment. Yrjö Engeström (2010) has mentioned the evolution of Activity Theory, he said “The first generation built on Vygotsky’s notion of mediated action. The second generation built on Leont’ev’s notion of the activity system. The third generation, emerging in the past 15 years or so, built on the idea of multiple interacting activity systems focused on a partially shared object.” I made the diagram below to present diagrams for these three generations of theoretical development.

Some researchers argue that the “three generations” of theoretical development of Activity Theory should be considered as a narrative, not a historical reality. For example, Nikolai Veresov emphasizes the difference between CHT (Cultural-historical theory), AT (Activity Theory), and CHAT (Cultural-historical activity theory). He also points out, “For CHAT this unit is a mediated action; cultural-historical theory emphasizes dialectical and dynamic aspects by introducing the mediating activities of an individual within changing social environments. In other words, the cultural-historical theory is not focused on mediated actions, but on a human being who uses or creates cultural tools in order to reorganize the social situation and overcome existing challenges.” (2020)

I also used a chart to review several accounts of Activity Theory and related theories. You can find more details from a previous article Activity U (II): Unit of Analysis, Niches of Analysis, Levels of Analysis.

This article doesn’t want to discuss the historical development of Activity Theory, I just use “Mediating Instrument” to name a practical perspective that is inspired by Vygotsky’s original idea that human action and psychological functions are mediated by tools. For the present discussion, Diagrams are considered a Mediating Instrument.

7.2 The Activity Checklist

Researchers have been adopting Activity Theory as a descriptional and orientational framework for analysis and evaluation in a variety of empirical studies. Some researchers also developed practical tools for connecting Activity Theory and empirical studies, for example, the Activity Checklist (Kaptelinin, Nardi, and Macaulay 1999).

According to Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006), there are five basic principles of Activity Theory:

  • Object-orientedness
  • Tool mediation
  • Internalization — externalization
  • The hierarchical structure of activity, and
  • Development

The Activity Checklist applies the principle of tool mediation with other principles and develops four sections of a checklist in order to design and evaluate technologies and tools.

  • Means and ends: the extent to which the technology facilitates and constrains attaining users’ goals.
  • Environment: the integration of target technology with other tools and resources.
  • Learning, cognition, and articulation: internal versus external components of activity and support of their mutual transformations.
  • Development: the transformation of components over time.

The Activity Checklist is developed for HCI (Human-computer interaction) researchers and designers. For the present discussion, we don’t have to directly apply it. However, we can learn something from their approach of connecting basic principles and practical tasks.

7.3 The Mediating Instrument Perspective

Inspired by the Activity Checklist, I adopt the Mediating Instrument perspective to discuss the diagramming practice and highlight four essential issues for the present discussion.

The above diagram shows four issues. Some issues are inspired by Activity Theory, other issues are defined by the “Diagram — Thought” curating practice.

  • Means v.s. End: This issue is directly adopted from Activity Theory. However, I am going to discuss a Means-End Spectrum in order to present various instrumental values of diagrams.
  • Past v.s. Present: This issue is inspired by the principle of Development, which is an important principle of Activity Theory. I will focus on the evolution of thoughts and diagrams.
  • Part v.s. Whole: This issue is inspired by the principle of the Hierarchical structure of activity, which considers a three-level hierarchy: operation — action — activity. I will discuss diagram-in-use as a whole and a particular action of using a diagram.
  • Ambiguity v.s. Precision: This issue is inspired by the principle of Object-orientedness, which means any activity has its motive and goals which point to a final outcome. I consider the process of thought to be an activity that aims to transform ambiguous ideas into precise ideas.

The above four issues are discovered from the D as Diagramming project. Since I just conducted a few case studies, these issues are not a complete list for studying knowledge diagrams. I consider them a good starting point.

7.4 The Means-End Spectrum

The Means-End issue is a complicated issue in the literature of Activity Theory and Vygotsky’s Cultural-historical theory of psychology because scholars have different interpretations of Vygotsky’s ideas. As mentioned above, the mediated action v.s. mediating activities debate is an example. A second example might be Newman and Holzman’s ideas v.s. Bruner’s ideas. According to Newman and Holzman, “Vygotsky’s tool-and-result method is purposeful in the Marxian sense, not, contrary to Bruner’s formulation, in the instrumentalist sense. Vygotsky’s rejection of the causal and/or functional methodological notion of tool or instrument for a purpose or result in favor of the dialectical notion of tool-and-result in the study of human psychology is new and revolutionary.” (1993, p.40)

From the perspective of Activity Theory, I consider the Means v.s. End issue within concrete activities. For a particular activity, a diagram might be an end, I call it Thought-to-Diagram. For another particular activity, the same diagram might be a means, I call it Diagram-to-Thought. If we combine these two situations together, we can develop a Means-End Spectrum and use it to present various instrumental values of diagrams.

The above diagram offers a spectrum with six types of diagrams. The left side refers to Means (Diagram-to-Thought) and it stands for a weak ontological position of diagrams. We don’t have to require a perfect form of diagrams if we use them as means for our thinking since we don’t make diagrams as final products. The right side refers to End (Thought-to-Diagram) and it requires a strong ontological position of diagrams. In order to make diagrams as final products for others to use, we have to work hard to produce ideal diagrams.

Based on the spectrum of ontological positions of diagrams, I identify six types of diagrams: Inspiration, Canvas, Map, Skeleton, Notation, and Framework. The weakest position is Inspiration which refers to drafts, sketches, private notes, etc. The most strong position is Framework which refers to formal knowledge models.

  • Framework: I also call this type of diagrams Knowledge diagrams. If you read my articles about diagrams, you probably notice that I used the term Diagrams interchangeably with Knowledge Frameworks. For example, Activity System Model is a framework of Activity Theory, it uses a triangle as the visual layout of its diagram. Growth-Share Matrix is a portfolio management framework that helps companies decide how to prioritize their different businesses by their degree of profitability. The matrix was created in 1968 by BCG’s founder Bruce Henderson. Wheel of Emotions is a model of emotion classification, it was developed by the psychologist Robert Plutchik in 1980.
  • Notation: it means the process of adding notes to a knowledge diagram. Sometimes, the notation will turn a basic model into an expanded model. The term “Diagram Notation” is inspired by Daisy Mwanza’s Activity Notation which is one of four methodological tools of the Activity-Oriented Design Method (AODM). I also made an iART Diagram Notation and expanded the basic model of the iART framework into an expanded model. You can find more details here.
  • Skeleton: this type of diagram doesn’t have a solid framework, but it offers a systematic way of structure for organizing concepts. For example, Concept Mapping is a method developed by Joseph Donald Novak in the 1970s. The Concept Mapping method doesn’t provide a particular knowledge framework, but it guides people to build their own conceptual frameworks. The System Dynamics Mapping refers to a series of system thinking archetypes that were developed by Senge (1990) and Pegasus Communications (1989–1996). One of these archetypes is the Accidental Adversaries archetype.
  • Map: this type of diagram is used as a mapping platform for modeling or sense-making. Sometimes they also offer a specific method of conceptualization. For example, UML/RAD is used for modeling processes in the field of Software Engineering and Information Systems. UML stands for Unified Modelling Language that includes Activity Diagrams as one of its techniques. RAD stands for Role Activity Diagrams which is a method of modeling processes too. Wardley Mapping is a method for sense-making in the field of business strategy. Confluence Mapping was introduced by Cynthia Kurtz in her 2021 book Confluence: Tools for Thinking about How Organized Plans and Self-organized Patterns Flow Together.
  • Canvas: What is the major difference between a framework and a canvas? A simple answer is that the former focuses on expressing the relationship between several concepts while the latter primarily offers spaces for posting notes which can be considered as data about concepts. For example, Business Model Canvas may be the first business knowledge canvas, Product Field Canvas is a sense-making tool for building products, and Meta-SWOT Canvas turns classic SWOT into a dynamic and action-driven strategic tool.
  • Inspiration: drafts, sketches, and private notes, these are used for recording inspirations in the process of creative thinking. They may be the seed of other types of diagrams.

The above discussion offers a rough typology of diagrams. However, the value of the Means-End Spectrum is highlighting the dynamics of ontological positions of diagrams because it matches the dynamics of thoughts.

7.5 The Past — Present Evolution

The Past — Present Evolution is inspired by the principle of Development, which is an important principle of Activity Theory, I will focus on the evolution of thought and diagrams.

For activity theorists, Development means both a research theme and a research method. According to Kaptelinin and Nardi, “…activity theory is not the only psychological theory that considers development as a major research topic. However, in activity theory development is not only an object of study, but also a general research methodology. Activity theory sees all practice as the result of certain historical developments under certain conditions. Development continuously reforms and develops practice. That is why the basic research method in activity theory is not that of traditional laboratory experiments but that of the formative experiment which combines active participation with monitoring of the developmental changes of the study participants.” (2006, p.72)

I am also inspired by Howard E. Gruber’s evolving systems approach to the study of creative work (1974,1989). Gruber focuses on the long-term development of thought and his work is mainly concerned with high-achieving adult individuals such as Charles Darwin. His 1974 book Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity was awarded the Sciences Book of the Year of 1974 by Phi Beta Kappa. According to Gruber, “The evolving systems approach grew out of my case study of Darwin. In one sense it was a byproduct of this long-term effort but it also provided the key to answering the questions which initiated the Darwin project: how long does complex thinking take and how does it develop? The Darwin case study began with little more than the aim of tracing the thinking of a creative person over a long period of time. This in itself, however, provided a fresh perspective on the study of creativity, aiming less at its remote antecedents in the creator’s infancy, childhood, or biological equipment, and focusing instead on the person’s cognitive structures and their changes over time. Thus, the primary underlying question of the approach is how rather than why creative achievements emerge.” (2005, p.35)

The Past — Present Evolution sees diagrams as a mediating instrument for studying the evolution of thought. It considers the human mind and cognition as a dynamic process. I collected cases from others’ work and conducted several case studies by myself. I’d like to share three different cases for our discussion.

7.5.1 Darwin’s Changing World View

Gruber claims that it is useful to think of the creative person’s thought as a set of developing structures, “Thought evolves in structures: The person works with one such structure, elaborates it, recognizes its shortcomings and transforms it.” (2005, p.29) In Darwin on Man, Gruber uses the diagram below to summarize the change in Darwin’s world view.

Source: Darwin on Man (Howard E. Gruber, 1976, p.127)

According to Howard E. Gruber, “To sum up, it took Darwin his adolescent years to assimilate the family Weltanschauung that led him from Edinburgh to Cambridge, where he became ‘the man who walks with Henslow.’ It took him the five years of the Beagle voyage to revise his thinking about nature, assimilate Lyell’s ideas, and develop one highly original theory in which one of these invariant groups, the equilibration schema, played a central role. By the end of that period he was also able to see the dilemma posed by the conception of a changing world populated with well-adapted but unchanging organisms. In the fifteen months from the time he posed this issue sharply to himself, he was able to utilize the combination of the conservation schema and the equilibration schema to generate the main outline of his theory of evolution through natural selection.” (1976, pp.126–127)

The creator of the above diagram is Gruber, not Darwin. Thus, we could consider it as a special case of Self — Diagram — Thought — Other because Thought (Darwin case study) refers to Other (Darwin).

7.5.2 Project N: Understanding Mental Processes (2010–2020)

One of my good friends (Let’s call him Mr. Nicoman, it is not his real name) spent over ten years reading books about psychology and he used diagrams to curate his thoughts about the human mind and psyche. An interesting fact is that Mr. Nicoman is not a psychologist, but a policy researcher at a local government agency. For him, reading psychology and thinking about the human psyche is a Pro–am habit. Three years ago, he wrote a book titled On Autonomy and proposed a theoretical framework for human autonomy.

In July 2021, Mr. Nicoman published an article about a personal self-management system with a diagram. I invited him to join the D as Diagramming project and interviewed him about the diagram. I also collected his old diagrams about the human psyche and reviewed the changes between these diagrams and the changes in his thoughts.

The above two diagrams are shared by Mr. Nicoman. I named it Project N: Understanding Mental Processes. It is a wonderful case because it echoes the above topic, the long-term development of thought. I wrote a 27-page case study report and spent 9 pages discussing the above two diagrams. I noticed that there is a major difference between these two diagrams. The 2020 version has a brand new entity: Mindware.

How did it happen?

From 2014 to 2018, Mr. Nicoman and I were members of a social media group that was founded by my friend Mr. Seldon (not his real name) who is a psychology enthusiast and an entrepreneur in cognitive learning and development. Mr. Seldon is not a normal entrepreneur, he likes reading and writing. The essential activity of his life is embracing “the third culture” by writing scientific articles on his personal blog. His social models are Steven Pinker, James G. March, Richard Dawkins, Vladimir Nabokov, Isaac Asimov, and Paul Graham. The primary theme of the social media group is cognitive science and psychology, Mr. Seldon shared many newest theories, books, and papers about the theme. Both Mr. Nicoman and I knew the term Mindware from Mr. Seldon’s article.

The term Mindware was initially coined by David Perkins in the 1995 book Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence. Later, Keith E. Stanovich adopted the term for his books and his model of cognitive architecture. Both Mr. Nicoman and I also read Stanovich’s books which were introduced by Mr. Seldon’s articles.

Since I shared a learning experience with Mr. Nicoman, I could understand the change in his thoughts on mental processes and the essential difference between the above two diagrams.

7.5.3 The Development of Ecological Practice Approach (2018–2021)

In April, I reviewed the historical development of the Ecological Practice Approach in an article. I introduced three versions of the Ecological Practice Approach with several diagrams. You can find more details in the original article.

In fact, I developed a diagram before the first version of the approach in 2018. However, I believe that the diagram restricts the development of my thoughts in early 2019. So, I detached from the diagram and designed a new one for the first version of the approach. During the past several years, I have always detached and attached many times.

An interesting thing is that the third version of the approach was born from a diagram blending.

On Sep 29, 2020, I published an article titled Activity U (VI): The Hierarchy of Human Activity and Social Practice. The article is part of the Activity U project. A side-product of the article is a universal hierarchy of activity and practice. Human activity and social practice are extremely complex, the hierarchy is a great thinking tool for understanding them. Based on perspectives from activity theorists and other researchers, I found there is an eight-level hierarchy of activity and practice. The six mid-levels are adopted from activity theorists. The top level is adopted from anthropologist Morris Opler (1945). The low level is adopted from ecological psychologist James J. Gibson (1979). I also classify these eight levels into three types: “logical level”, “actual level”, and “possible level”.

On Mar 12, 2021, I published an article to introduce the concept of Supportance. I use the diagram below to discuss the actualization of supportances.

On April 2, 2021, I combined the above two diagrams and made a new diagram for the Ecological Practice approach. This is an example of a diagram blending between two different projects.

Since diagrams are cognitive representations of thought, we can study the long-term development of thought by collecting diagrams.

The next post (3B) will discuss other two topics under the Mediating Instrument perspective:

  • 7.6 The Part — Whole Curativity
  • 7.7 The Ambiguity — Precision Dynamics

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