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Thematic Space: Project as Story

Cultural Significance, Actual Narrative, and the Percept — Concept Dynamics

This article is part of the Slow Cognition project and its focus is Thematic Space and Developing Tacit Knowledge. I have introduced the concept of Thematic Space and a canvas in the following articles:

Yesterday, I used a metaphor to discuss the context of Developing Tacit Knowledge.

Today I am going to talk about the Film metaphor: Project as Story.

Story 1 v.s. Story 2

The Story layer is inspired by my experience of writing my learning autobiographies and working on learning narrative related projects. I often write reflection notes for each project. I also share my journey with others. For example, I had a 99-minute conversation with a friend of mine on Jan 8, 2022. I briefly introduced my journey of epistemic development from 2019 to 2022. I spent about 60 minutes sharing my story and some core ideas of several major works. You can find more details from here.

In order to make a clear statement, I define two types of stories.

Story 1 emphasizes the Relevance aspect of the Story layer while Story 2 emphasizes the Architecture aspect of the Story layer.

Story 2 refers to the real story which is not told yet. A Story 2 is a set of immediate actions (experience) with a structure. The structure could be a planned project, a real project, and an imagined project. In a previous article The Dynamics of Tacit Knowledge, I described a similar insight with different terms:

I use the term “possible journey” to discuss the “narrative journey” because the four original stories are not part of a real journey. A narrative journey gives us freedom to curate real events into imagined journeys which are different to real journeys in our life.

A possible journey needs a reasonable structure to curate several intermediate purposes into a new meaningful whole. I adopted the structure from the four graphics and I found it matched the four stories I selected.

Story 1 refers to told stories which are framed by Cultural Significance. Once a person starts to share his stories with others, he must consider Relevance in the communicative context. Thus, there is a difference between Story 1 and Story 2. You can find more discussions about Relevance here.

The above discussion is adopted from the last article I wrote yesterday. Today, I’d like to expand these messages with more details.

A Typology of Relevance

The essential notion behind Story 1 and Story 2 is Cultural Significance and Social Relevance. I have discussed the relevance issue in an old article about diagrams and diagramming. In the article I reviewed Alfred Schutz’s relevance theory from an individual perspective and developed a typology of relevance in order to support multiple units of analysis. See the diagram below.

The above typology is based on different types of “Self — Other” relationships.

The core of the framework is three aspects of Other.

The above four types of Relevance offers a framework for understanding Cultural Significance. You can find more details from the original article.

Project 1 v.s. Project 2

Now let’s consider social proximal contexts of “Self — Other” relationships. Since I use “Project as Story” for the Film metaphor. I’d like to adopt some ideas from Project-oriented Activity Theory for present discussion.

The book Project-oriented Activity Theory is a by-product of the Activity U project. Originally, I just wanted to test a framework for Knowledge Curation in 2020. During the process, I found Andy Blunden’s Project-oriented theoretical approach of “ an interdisciplinary theory of activity”. I really like the approach, thus I designed a series of diagrams for the approach and wrote several articles to introduce it and expand it. Eventually, I wrote a 308-page book.

What Blunden suggested are three connected notions: 1) We can use “Project” as a new Unit of Analysis for Activity Theory, 2) Project should be understood as Formulation of Concept, and 3) The archetypal unit of “Project” is two people working together in a common project.

Source: An Interdisciplinary Theory of Activity (2010, p.315)

The term “Project” for Andy Blunden is quite unique because it refers to “a social movement of Formulation of Concept”. Here we face a linguistic challenge because ordinary people don’t use the word “Project” in this way.

Should we remove the term “Project” from Blunden’s approach and find a new word to describe what he wants to describe? I think that it’s not necessary because we need such a theory in the age of Projectification.

The term “projectification” was coined by Christophe Midler who is a management professor in 1995. Midler uses the term to refer to the trend of transformation from hierarchical function-centered organization to cross-functional project-centered organization. According to Spinuzzi, “Projectification is the organizing principle of adhocracies: the organization of work around project teams oriented to defined projects, as opposed to departments oriented to narrow functions (the organizing principle of bureaucracies). The adhocracy is organized around a specific, defined project objective with a specific endpoint.” (2015, p.32)

After reviewing Blunden’s approach and the other approach of Activity Theory, the Activity System model. I found there are two types of notions about “Project”.

We can roughly describe these two notions as Project 1 and Project 2.

In order to curate these two notions of Project together as a whole, I made a distinction between Idea and Concept from the perspective of Project-oriented Activity Theory and used it to connect the two theoretical approaches.

The above diagram represents a path in which the idea defines an object and the object defines the work or regular activity. This path is covered by the statement of “Object-orientedness” which is initiated by Leontiev’s approach and supported by Engeström’s Activity System model. On the other hand, the “Idea” is a pre-concept process which can lead to the “Concept” and the “Project”. This path is the focus of Blunden’s approach.

It is clear that the statement of “Object-orientednessis a sub-statement of the statement of “Formation of Concept” because the “Idea” process which leads to the object-defined regular works or activities is the pre-Concept process.

Thus, Project 1 and Project 2 are two developmental stages of Project and innovation. From the perspective of Project-oriented Activity Theory, a “Radical Innovation” can be definitely defined as a project with a brand new concept while an “Incremental Innovation” can be understood as a project with a good idea which is not ready for proposing as a brand new concept.

If we consider the above discussion for understanding social proximal contexts, then we face two types of attitudes:

Here the Frame refers to rules behind existing activity systems which define Project 1 for people. In a broad sense, existing activity systems are products of social cultural history. Detach from the Frame means moving to the level of Project 2 and open to discover new concepts from normal life situations.

These two types of attitudes are mindsets which guide various actions such as perceiving differences, understanding stories, and discovering patterns.

Cultural Projection Analysis: Theme and Identity

Part 3 of the book Project-oriented Activity Theory expands the notion of Project to a framework called Project Engagement which contains the following three sub-frameworks:

Cultural Projection Analysis considers the development of Theme and Identity during the process of joining Projects.

Inspired by Ecological Psychology, I coined a term called Projectivity which refers to potential action opportunities of forming a project or participating in a project for people to actualize their development with others.

First, there is a social/cultural environment which contains Events. By perceiving and knowing Events, people recognize the Primary Projectivity which is offered by the social/cultural environment and initiate a Project. For Primary Projectivity, its sense-maker is Events.

Once a project is initiated, it offers the Secondary Projectivity for other people to recognize the potential action opportunities of participating in the project. For the Second Projectivity, its sense-maker is the Identity of an established Project.

Third, the participants of a project could perceive and know the Tertiary Projectivity and initiate a new project which is inspired by the project. For the Tertiary Projectivity, its sense-maker is Themes and Identity of an established Project.

The above diagram is one of the diagrams for the Cultural Projection Analysis framework. You can find more details from the original article: Activity U (X): Projecting, Projectivity, and Cultural Projection.

As mentioned above, the core of the Cultural Projection Analysis framework is the development of Theme and Identity. These two words are popular concepts in various theories. The framework uses “Themes of Practice” and “Identity in Practice” to explain its dialectical ideas in order to connect individuals and collective groups.

Anthropologist Morris Opler (1945) developed a theoretical “themes” for studying culture. Career counseling therapists and psychologists also developed a theoretical concept called life theme. If we put culture themes and life themes together, we see a “great debate” of social science: “individual — collective”. In 2009, I coined a new term Themes of Practice and developed it as a new theoretical concept for my book Curativity: The Ecological Approach to Curatorial Practice. In 2020, the concept expanded to a new book (draft).

I consider the notion of Themes of Practice as a “process” type of concept, not a “substance” type of concept. Thus, it is not a new category of themes, but a transformational process between individual life themes and collective culture themes. It refers to both concept and action. It connects mind and practice. It indicates the transformation of both person and society.

The concept of “Identity in Practice” is similar to “Themes of Practice”. I want to claim that there are two types of Identity, the identity of person and the identity of activity (project) and the “Identity in Practice” refers to the dialectic relation between these two types of Identity within practice. A person is attracted by an activity (project) through its Identity and his Identity could be shaped by the activity. On the other side, the actions of the person also could shape the Identity of the Activity. You can find more details from an old article.

Cultural Significance v.s. Actual Narrative

Now we should return to the context of Developing Tacit Knowledge. Yesterday, we discussed the “Project as Story” metaphor from the individual perspective. The above discussion expands the unit of analysis to social contexts level.

By adopting some concepts and frameworks from Project-oriented Activity Theory, we can develop an insightful perspective about Cultural Significance and Actual Narrative. The diagram below roughly summarizes the above discussion.

The Project as Story metaphor also considers imagination and communication. Thus, the mapping between Story 2 and Project 2 has room for more ideas. As mentioned above, “Story 2 refers to the real story which is not told yet. A Story 2 is a set of immediate actions (experience) with a structure. The structure could be a planned project, a real project, and an imagined project. ”

Here I use “a planned project, a real project, and an imagined project” should be understood as “a planned story, a real story, and an imagined story” since we use Project 1 and Project 2. Again, we face a linguistic challenge about the word “Project” too.

Let’s look at the meaning of these ideas with case studies.

Case Study: SEO v.s. Platform Engagement

Project-oriented Activity Theory considers a Concept as a dynamic developing process. The theory understands the process of formation of a concept as three phases: Initialization, Objectification, and Institutionalization. From the perspective of Project-oriented Activity Theory, normal work projects can be seen as actions of objectification of an existing concept if these projects don’t propose brand new concepts.

For example, an independent professional knowledge worker works on a SEO project in order to service a client at a co-work space. Since the concept of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is not coined by the worker, his project should be considered as objectification of the concept of SEO.

However, the worker could invent a new concept such as “Platform Engagement” during the work process of the SEO project. He realizes that there is a need to find a better way than SEO to connect clients and their consumers. Thus, he could coin a new term “Platform Engagement” to highlight the way of clients and their consumers directly engage each other through specially designed programs on social platforms. Then, he could start running a new work project to test the concept of “Platform Engagement”.

If we review this case study in the context of Developing Tacit Knowledge. For the worker, knowledge about SEO is about an existing social practice. However, the notion of Platform Engagement is a brand new idea which could develop into a real concept as a new social practice.

If the worker doesn’t detach from the frame of knowledge about SEO, then he could not pay attention to Differences from the ecological situations. Thus, his story is always about Story 1. His identity is framed by the SEO story.

The most unfortunate thing is that he could have Actual Narrative, but he doesn’t make sense of it with enough awareness of his own life flow. A person’s life experience could be useful resources for his life development if he could turn these experiences into a meaningful story for him and others.

Case Study: The Reborn of Starbuck

The above is not a real story, but a thought experiment. I’d like to borrow a real case from Richard P. Rumelt’s book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. The case is about the reborn of Starbuck:

In 1983, Howard Schultz noticed an anomaly and from that insight a fascinating new business was eventually born. At that time, Schultz was the marketing and retail operations manager for a tiny chain of Seattle stores selling dark-roasted coffee beans.

On his first visit to Italy, Schultz discovered the Italian espresso experience, “It was on that day I discovered the ritual and romance of coffee bars in Italy. I saw how popular they were, and how vibrant. Each one had its own unique character, but there was one common thread: the camaraderie between the customers, who knew each other well, and the barista, who was performing with flair. At that time, there were 200,000 coffee bars in Italy, and 1,500 alone in the city of Milan, a city the size of Philadelphia.” (2011, pp.249–250)

Rumelt uses the word “Anomaly” to describe Schultz’s experience, “For Schultz, the experience in Milan was an anomaly. In Seattle, the market for dark-roasted arabica beans was a niche, populated by a small but growing group of especially discerning buyers. But the vast majority of people in Seattle, and in American — even the well-to-do — drink cheap, bland coffee. In Milan, expensive high-quality coffee was not a niche product but the mass-market product. And there was a further anomaly: in the United States, fast food meant cheap food and plastic surroundings. In Milan he saw ‘fast coffee’ that was expensive and served in a lively social atmosphere, so different from that of an American Main Street diner or coffee shop. Americans, especially those in the Northwest, were at least as wealthy as Italians. Why should they drink ‘bad’ coffee and not enjoy the pleasures of an espresso latte in a social setting?” (2011, pp. 249–250)

How many people visit Milan each year? I found the chart below from Statista. Over nine million international tourists visited Milan on overnight trips in 2018.

Number of international overnight visitors to Milan from 2012 to 2018 (in millions)

We can guess that Schultz was one of millions of visitors in the year when he first visited Milan. Also, we should notice that the Italian espresso experience is not a private thing. It’s open to Schultz and other people.

However, only one person turned his experience into a strategic hypothesis: the Italian espresso experience could be re-created in America and the public would embrace it. The project of Reborn of Starbuck was started with such an idea which grew into a real concept later.

I used the above diagram to explain the concept of “culture” from the perspective of Project-oriented Activity Theory. It zooms out to a large view which connects Individual mind (Idea) and Collective theme (Zeitgeist) through Collective Projects (Concept).

Not all ideas lead to a real concept which means a social practice from the perspective of Project-oriented Activity Theory. Though Blunden’s approach focuses on “the formation of a project with a concept of the problem is an original and creative social act”, I think the non-problem idea could develop into a real concept too.

Cultural Innovations can be driven by problem-solution ideas and play-for-fun ideas too.

The Percept-Concept Dynamics

The final section will move to the transformation between Experience and Story in the context of Developing Tacit Knowledge.

In the last article, I have introduced the concept of Double Selectivity:

I also roughly applied Double Selectivity to connect three layers of Context of Developing Tacit Knowledge:

From the Experience layer to the Story layer, the key is Similarity/Difference. It means we are very sensitive to new things in our immediate experience. Many people can generate insights by perceiving Differences, but a few people can perceive Similarities and find new insights.

If we can find Differences from Similarities, then we can find some new structures of stories. It could lead to innovation. The Reborn of Starbuck is a good example.

From the Story layer to the Model layer, the key is Variant/Invariant. Since a model is an abstraction of an insightful story, the Model maker has to separate invariants and variants from Story 1 and Story 2. While invariants refers to the Architecture aspect of the Story layer, variants refers to the Relevance aspect of the Story layer.

The concept of Double Selectivity is adopted from my work the Ecological Practice approach toolkit which is inspired by William James’ Radical Empiricism. According to Heft, “From the perspective of radical empiricism, the ground of knowing (i.e., the field of pure experience) is a quasi-chaos of latent structure. The selectivity that characterizes the knowing function differentiates this field of experience initially along lines of order intrinsic to the field.”

For James, Percept and Concept work together as a whole. According to Heft, “The system of concepts selected out of the perceptual flow may help the knower to better discern the structure latent in that flow by drawing connections and identifying structure that may be discernible only at a remove from it. Thus, concepts play an important epistemic role, enabling the individual to better comprehend the structure of the environment (although their role is not limited to this). And in doing so, concepts have important potential value for our daily actions: Concepts extracted from the perceptual flow, ‘verbally fixed and coupled together, [let us] know what is in the wind for us and get ready to read in time’ (James, 1912/1976, p.47)” (Heft, 2001, p.40)

Though James’ Concept is different from Blunden’s Concept, they both understand Concept as a dynamic process. Heft emphasized, “But James was emphatic that the truth value of concepts is incomplete if this abstracted and collated order is left free standing without continual, renewed contact with perceptual experience. Allowed to function independently of the structure available through perceiving processes, the relations among concepts can take on a character that is disconnected from experience of the world. This creates possibilities for imagining novel circumstances and arrangements, which is a rich and valued part of everyone’s experience. But because concepts are interwoven into our immediate experience of the world (i.e., they become part of what we immediately experience) when conceptual structural are not recognized as derived structure, and instead are taken to be identical with the world that is the ground of experience, concepts have the potential to mislead. So, although the conceptual order may allow the perceiver to adopt to a wider environment, this outcome is not guaranteed.” (p.40)

James’s view of Concept echoes Blunden’s view of Concept. While James connects Concept with Percept, Blunden connects Concept with Culture and Practice. These connections can support the three-layer of context of Developing Tacit Knowledge.

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Oliver Ding

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.