Mapping Thematic Space #5: The “Relevance” Thematic Space

Oliver Ding
Published in
18 min readFeb 16, 2022

When should you update a thematic space?

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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 discussed related ideas in the following articles:

In Mapping Thematic Space #4: The “Center” Thematic Space, I mentioned “Present Focus” and “Future Focus” for Developing Tacit Knowledge with Thematic Spaces.

Today I’d like to continue this topic and share my “Relevance” thematic space. While the “Center” thematic space is a brand new thematic space, my “Relevance” thematic space is not new. However, I just made a new creation for the thematic space.

So, the theme of this article is “Updating” a thematic space.

The above canvas shows three types of dots: red dots, blue dots, and green dots.

  • Red dot: a trigger of the mapping thematic spaces
  • Blue dots: native members of the “Relevance” thematic space.
  • Green dots: a relative member of the “Relevance” thematic space.

Let’s start with the trigger: the Relevance of Zone.

The Relevance of Zone

Last week I published the Life Discovery Toolkit (v1.0) which considers iART Framework and a Typology of Relevance for a module titled Lifezone Perspective.

Today I want to write a short post about the Lifezone Perspective module. During the writing process, I realized that I need to make a new diagram for these two frameworks.

The above diagram is the new idea which is called the Relevance of Zone. It considers four keywords: Self, Other, Thing, and Think. It was inspired by the iART Framework and the Typology of Relevance.

iART Framework

I made the iART Framework for studying an adult development program in August 2021. The name iART stands for i +Activity + Relationship + Themes. The program was initiated by a young girl who is a friend of mine. The program was designed with three components: 1) Life Purpose Awareness, 2) Personal OKR Practice, and 3) Peer Review and Feedback. My friend also adopted the Building In Public approach to sharing her goals, challenges, progress, and discussions with others on social media platforms.

After discussing various themes about the program with her for three weeks, I made the following diagram to reflect her project and our conversation.

The iART Framework highlights the following aspects:

  • i (actor): an actor who wants to make progress toward her goals of an ideal life.
  • A (activity): the actor should take real actions which are curated into projects as life activities.
  • R (relationship): the actor needs others’ support such as feedback, suggestions, recommendations, etc. Thus, this is also about relationship building and development.
  • T (themes): the activity and conversation can be perceived with a set of themes such as Future, Present, Goals, Decisions, Challenges, Solutions, etc.

Thus, the iART framework offers an ecological perspective on personal adult development. The term “ecological perspective” means the following three contexts of personal development:

  • Practice context: the “Know—Act” ecology (Activity).
  • Spatial context: the “Self — Other” ecology (Relationship)
  • Temporal context: the “Present — Future” ecology (Time).

The diagram is very simple. However, the framework presents the complexity of life growth. As a framework, it can be used for various situations such as different types of relationships of “Self — Other”.

Later, I expanded iART Framework into Anticipatory Activity System in September 2021.

Last month, I started attaching the Typology of Relevance to the Anticipatory Activity System framework.

Units of Analysis

I personally like Alfred Schutz’s relevance theory, however, his phenomenological theoretical framework is complicated. Instead of adopting one particular relevance theory, I use multiple units of analysis to explore the conceptual space of Relevance.

The above diagram highlights four units of analysis:

  • Intrapersonal Relevance
  • Interpersonal Relevance
  • Transactional Relevance
  • Collective Relevance

I also highlight a practical perspective for discussion: Cultural Significance.

In fact, this idea was inspired by the iART Framework:

  • Intrapersonal Perspective
  • Interpersonal Perspective
  • Transactional Perspective

Later, I develop a new typology of Relevance to support the above four units of analysis.

A Typology of Relevance

On Nov 19, 2021, I published D as Diagramming: An Integrated Framework for Studying Knowledge Diagrams (Part 2) which discussed my “Relevance” thematic space and a practical perspective “Cultural Significance”.

In order to write the article, I developed the following typology of Relevance.

The above typology uses four units of analysis:

  • Intrapersonal Relevance: the Other is potential, not actual.
  • Interpersonal Relevance: the Other is actual, but the “Self—Other” is not considered as a whole.
  • Transactional Relevance: the Other is actual, and the “Self—Other” is considered as a whole.
  • Collective Relevance: the Other is pervasive, not proximal. The “Self — Other” relationship is understood as “Self — Group”.

The core of the framework is three aspects of Other.

  • Potential v.s. Actual
  • Independent v.s. Dependent
  • Proximal v.s. Pervasive

If a person doesn’t have direct interaction with actual other people, he considers if his work or actions are relevant to predecessors or any other people. Then, this means Intrapersonal Relevance. For example, I am comparing my typology with Schutz’s typology while I am writing this article. Since Schutz is a predecessor to me, he can’t respond to me. I can’t have direct interaction with him. However, the Potential aspect also considers contemporaries. For example, there are many contemporary researchers who study Schutz’s theoretical thoughts. Now I don’t have any direct interaction with them, but I could have direct communication with them in the future.

Interpersonal Relevance refers to direct interactions for getting feedback from others. In this situation, the Other is actual, but the “Self—Other” is not considered as a whole since they don’t share reciprocity of motives. How can a person get good feedback from others? It depends on Relevance from the Other’s perspective. We can adopt Schutz’s typology of Relevance to understand Other’s Relevance. For example, If I want to get good feedback for my work on the D as Diagramming project, I need to consider my writing style for audiences. If I share a particular article on Linkedin and mention some contacts, I need to consider if these contacts are relevant to the article.

Transactional Relevance is about dependent relationships and interactions. The Other is actual, and the “Self—Other” is considered as a whole. and they share reciprocity of motives. In this situation, the person and Others share reciprocity of motives, challenges, and background knowledge. If we adopt Schutz’s typology of Relevance, it has high relevance in both three types: Motivational relevance, Thematic relevance, and Interpretational relevance.

Collective Relevance considers Others as a pervasive group, not a particular person or several people. The “Self — Other” relationship becomes the “Self — Group” relationship. This refers to Schutz’s social domains of relevance.

The above four types of Relevance offer a framework for understanding Cultural Significance which is used for the Diagramming as Practice framework.

The D as Diagramming Project

The Diagramming as Practice framework is an outcome of the D as Diagramming Project.

Diagram is one of my essential three knowledge units. I love to dwell in thought with diagramming. I even wrote a 108-page thesis that develops a theory about diagrams and diagramming in 2018. I consider two groups of ideas for my theory about diagrams. The first group is “meta-diagram, diagram, and diagram system” and the second group is “diagramming as an activity of knowing, theorizing and reflecting”.

On August 10, 2021, I started the D as Diagramming project in order to study Diagramming, Thought, and Tacit Knowledge. What I really want to know is about the value of diagrams for turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Thus, I set this goal as the present objective of the D as Diagramming research project. I use three approaches for the project:

  • Reflect on my own works
  • Interview others
  • Collect examples

In December 2021, I developed a framework to summarize my insights from the D as Diagramming project. In fact, I developed two frameworks:

  • An epistemological integrated framework for understanding mind, meaning, and experience
  • A framework for understanding diagramming as practice

The epistemological integrated framework is formed by the following four thematic spaces.

The above diagram shows four conceptual spaces which are named the “Architecture” space, the “Relevance” space, the “Opportunity” space, and the “Activity” space. Each conceptual space refers to a set of similar theoretical approaches.

For the diagram framework, I selected the following practical perspectives:

  • Cognitive Representation
  • Cultural Significance
  • Ecological Situation
  • Mediating Instrument

My primary interest is in developing knowledge frameworks. Though diagrams are used in various types of social practice and fields, I personally focus on knowledge building, academic creativity, epistemic development, and similar intellectual practices.

I wrote a series of articles to discuss the four perspectives. Finally, I edit these articles as a book-in-draft.

This project is very important for the development of Thematic Spaces. The concept of Thematic Space was born from the project. Originally, I used “Conceptual Spaces” for the Diagramming as Practice framework. Later, I used “Thematic Spaces” to replace “Conceptual Spaces”. This decision made a new creative space for me and it led to the Slow Cognition project.

The Life Strategy Project

Last month, I decided to start a new project: the Life Strategy Project. You can find details from The “Strategy-as-Curation” Weekend (Jan 25, 2022). The decision led to the following two ideas:

There is a framework behind the decision: Anticipatory Activity System.

As mentioned above, the Anticipatory Activity System framework is the expanded version of iART Framework. It was a by-product of the D as Diagramming project.

After closing the D as Diagramming project (phase I), I reviewed its several by-products in Jan 2022. Finally, I found the Anticipatory Activity System framework is perfect for a new project because it matches the theme of Strategy.

On Feb 3, 2022, I reviewed my “Strategy” thematic space and my own integrated framework to curate the landscape of my “Strategy” thematic space.

  • Architecture > Strategic Thinking
  • Relevance > Strategic Discourse
  • Activity > Strategic Acting
  • Opportunity > Strategic Awareness

Scholars and researchers tend to use “Strategic content” and “Strategic process” to define their focuses. My framework is only for my “Strategy” thematic space which is about my own tacit knowledge.

This is a good starting point for the Life Strategy project.

The Concept of Relevance

The concept of Relevance can be understood and used in numerous ways from an interdisciplinary tradition. However, there is an essential notion behind Relevance, it is a relational concept that is about a state between two entities. Moreover, it refers to a particular situation such as time and space too.

Both scholars and consultants have been interested in Relevance which is considered a key idea for researching intersubjectivity, communication, information, marketing, and culture in general. For example, the phenomenological sociological theorist Alfred Schutz developed a systemic theory of Relevance within the phenomenological framework, which focuses on subjective experience and life-world. Schutz’s relevance theory inspired many later works on relevance in information science.

Communication researchers consider Relevance as a key to understanding communication. Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson developed Relevance Theory from the perspective of an inferential model of everyday speech or verbal communication. Their 1986 book Relevance: Communication and Cognition was named one of the most important and influential books of the decade in the Times Higher Educational Supplement. The message from the authors is very simple: we pay attention only to information that seems relevant to us.

The marketing researcher and branding consultant David A. Aaker published Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant in 2011 and suggested that brands can create and manage new categories or subcategories in order to make competitors irrelevant.

Alfred Schutz on Relevance

The problem of relevance is an important issue of Alfred Schutz’s intellectual enterprises. In his early writings, Schutz made a distinction between imposed relevance and volitional relevance (or “intrinsic”). In the very last years of his life, Schutz offered a new typology of relevances with three main categories:

  • Motivational relevance
  • Thematic relevance
  • Interpretational relevance

Motivational relevance refers to the “meaningful ground” of human behavior. It is governed by a person’s interest, prevailing at a particular time in a specific situation. According to Schutz, there are two types of motives: “in-order-to-motives” and “because-from-motives.” While the former is about a person’s future, the latter is about a person’s past experience. Schutz emphasized the difference of the distinction, “Motive may have a subjective and an objective meaning. Subjectively it refers to the experience of the actor who lives in his ongoing process of activity. To him, motive means what he has actually in view as bestowing meaning upon his ongoing action, and this is always the in-order-to motive, the intention to bring about a projected state of affairs, to attain a pre-conceived goal. As long as the actor lives in his ongoing action, he does not have in view its because motives. Only when the action has been accomplished, when in the suggested terminology it has become an act, he may turn back to his past action as an observer of himself and investigate by what circumstances he has been determined to do what he did. ” (1970, p.127) In other words, the “in-order-to motives” highlights the subjective perspective while the “because-from-motives” refers to the objective perspective.

Thematic relevance is about perceiving something that is problematic in a particular situation. A person must define what the problem is and he must turn from a potential actor into a potential problem solver. According to Helmut R. Wagner, “Schutz designated the relevance of the problem as thematic relevance. Of course, what elements in which situation produce a problem for a specific individual, depends on his pre-given interests. The unknown or problematic in a situation becomes relevant only insofar as it blocks the forming of a definition of the situation in accordance with the person’s present intentions and plans.”(1970, p.22)

Interpretational relevance occurs as an extension of thematic relevance. According to Helmut R. Wagner, “The recognition of the problem itself, its formulation as a problem on hand, necessitates further interpretation. A new interpretation, however, can only be accomplished by putting the problem itself in the larger context of the frustrated actor’s knowledge, which, he surmises, has a bearing on the understanding of the problem.”(1970, p.23)

Zones of Relevance

Schutz also developed a framework called Zones of Relevance which is related to a person’s given knowledge for responding to different situations in everyday life.

  • Zone of primary relevance
  • Zone of minor relevance
  • Zone of relatively irrelevant
  • Zone of absolutely irrelevant

So far, we have learned Schutz’s relevance theory from an individual perspective. To understand interpersonal relevance, we should consider both Self and Other and put their relevances together.

Schutz also offered a framework about social domains of relevance and Typification. According to Schutz, “A system of relevances and typifications as it exists at any historical moment, is itself a part of the social heritage and as such is handed down in the educational process to the members of the in-group.” Social domains of relevance have the following functions (1970, p.120–121):

  • It determines which facts or events have to be treated as substantially — that, is, typically — equal (homogeneous) for the purpose of solving in a typical manner typical problems that emerge or might emerge in situations typified as being equal (homogeneous).
  • It transforms unique individual actions of unique human beings into typical functions of typical social roles, originating in typical motives aimed at bringing about typical ends.
  • It functions as both a scheme of interpretation and as a scheme of orientation for each member of the in-group and constitutes therewith a universe of discourse among them.
  • The changes of success of human interaction, that is, the establishment of a congruency between the typified scheme used by the actor as a scheme of orientation and by his fellow men as a scheme of interpretation, is enhanced if the scheme of typification is standardized, and the system of pertinent relevances institutionalized. The various means of social control (mores, morals, laws, rules, rituals) serve this purpose.
  • The socially approved system of typifications and relevances is the common field within which the private typifications and relevance structures of the individual members of the group originate. This is so, because the private situation of the individual as defined by him is always a situation within the group, his private interests are interests with reference to those of the group (whether by way of particularization or antagonism), his private problems are necessarily in a context with the group problems.
  • Again, this private system of domains of relevance might be inconsistent in itself; it might also be incompatible with the socially approved one. (1970, pp.120–122)

There are two keywords for understanding Schutz’s social domains of relevance: scheme of orientation and scheme of interpretation. For discussing social domains of relevance, the concept of orientation means a person is oriented to become a member of a social group while the concept of interpretation refers to how others perceive and interpret the person’s actions.

In other words, we can understand a person’s socialization process as a journey of moving between different Zones of Relevance of Others who are members of particular social groups. This view roughly echoes Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s concept of Legitimate Peripheral Participation from the perspective of Situated Learning and Communities of Practice. It also links to Roger Barker’s concept Zone of Penetration from the perspective of ecological psychology and Behavior Settings theory.

My typology of Relevance is inspired by Schutz’s approach. Though it is different from Schutz’s typology, many ideas behind the typology echo Schutz’s thoughts. For example, the Potential aspect echoes Schutz’s concept of predecessors, the Proximal aspect echoes Schutz’s concept of face-to-face interaction, the Pervasive aspect echoes Schutz’s concept of indirect relationships and the Dependent aspect echoes Schutz’s concept of reciprocity of motive.

Relevance and Diagramming

I also adopted the iART framework to discuss the Diagramming practice. The diagram below shows four core entities:

  • Self
  • Other
  • Diagram
  • Thought

I also add several red words to describe several types of relations between entities. The previous article discussed the “Self — Diagram — Thought” relationship with two ideas: Visualization and Conceptualization. The “Self — Diagram” relation refers to Visualization while the “Self — Thought” relation refers to Conceptualization. I didn’t mention the idea of Curation in the previous article. Now we can use Curation to understand the “Diagram — Thought” relation because the “Visualization — Conceptualization” fit is a process of curation.

The “Self — Other” relation refers to the idea of Relevance. As mentioned above, there are four types of relevances since we have four ways of defining Other.

The “Other — Diagram” relation refers to the idea of Perception. Since diagrams are visual graphics, perception is important for Other to understand the meanings of diagrams.

The “Other — Thought” relation refers to the idea of Interpretation which refers to a dynamic interactive process between Self and Other. Other may not understand the meanings of a diagram, they could ask the author of the diagram. Other also could share a diagram with their friends and other people, they could share their own understanding of the diagram too.

You can find more details in An Integrated Framework for Studying Knowledge Diagrams (Part 2).

The “Self—Other” Relevance

After closing the D as Diagramming project, I started reviewing the above Relevance and Diagramming framework. I asked the following question:

What if I replace “Diagram” with “Thing”?

This question led to a generalization. I realized that there is is a space for developing a new theory of “Self — Other” Relevance with the iART diagram.

In fact, the meta-diagram behind iART was developed in 2017. It was the outcome of my project “Activity as Container” which aims to discuss the Thing-People ecological structure.

The above diagram is the final model of the Thing-People ecological structure. T means Thing while P means People. 1 means Here while 2 means There. The circle means one event.

I also use another version for this diagram: This (T1), That (T2), Self (P1), Other (T2), and Activity (Event). This version is close to the iART framework.

The diagram presents six types of relations. There are four dimensions behind these six types of relations. The table below offers a full configuration. The pair of “Homogeneous — Heterogeneous” refers to Categorical Difference while the pair of “Close — Remote” refers to Spatial Difference.

If you find Categorical Differences and Spatial Differences behind a situation or a phenomenon, then you can adopt this meta-diagram to visualize your thinking. You can make a new framework with it too.

The iART framework uses “Present — Future” to replace “This (T1) — That (T2)”. Now, the Relevance of Zone returns to the original meta-diagram.

The Relevance of Zone is not an ideal name for the new theory of “Self — Other” Relevance. However, I want to use it to connect my other work about Ecological Zone which refers to “two people sharing a theme or an activity”.

Maybe I will merge Relevance of Zone and Ecological Zone as one theory for discussing Ecological Intersubjectivity.

Now, I want to use the Relevance of Zone as a solution for the Lifezone perspective of the Life Discovery Toolkit (v1.0).

Ecological Relevance

The major difference between my framework of Relevance and Schutz’s Relevance Theory is that my framework considers shared themes, shared activity, shared things, etc. These ideas refer to ecological environments of intersubjective actions.

Now I can consider “Ecological Relevance” as a new concept of my work, the Ecological Practice approach. The diagram below is the hierarchy of the approach.

The approach also has an intermediate framework called Infoniche. See the diagram below.

For the Ecological Practice approach, the term “Zone” refers to “two people share a theme or an activity”. I also developed an “Ecological Offer” framework for “Zone”. It originally appeared in my 2020 book-in-draft After Affordance: The Ecological Approach to Human Action in which I used one chapter to develop this idea as a new theoretical concept for discussing intersubjective action possibilities.

The pair of concept “Zone — Offer” represents the structure of “natural environment — affordance” and “social environment — supportance”. We can consider “Zone — Offer” as the intersubjective version of “social environment — supportance”.

The above diagram is a simple model of Zone and Offer. If there are continuous interactions between subject A and subject B over time, then we can claim that there is an Ecological Zone which contains A and B. Unlike Roger’s Behavior Settings, the Ecological Zone doesn’t correspond to one particular place. The interactions inside an Ecological Zone can happen at various Spots.

In the above diagram, The “Offer” means there is a potential action possibility which is offered by Subject B for Subject A. The “Act” means subject A takes this offer and responds to subject B.

So far, it looks pretty ordinary. However, I don’t use the word “Offer” as usual. Indeed, I developed a typology of “Offer”. I defined four categories of “Offer”: Self Offer, Tacit Offer, Explicit Offer, and Shared Offer.

The above diagram is a standard model of the Ecological Offer Framework. The most unique type of offer is Tacit Offer which means this type of potential action possibility is only perceived by Subject A, not directly provided by Subject B with explicit intentions.

Now we can consider the “Relevance of Zone” as a new member of the Ecological Zone framework.


On Nov 19, 2021, I introduced my “Relevance” thematic space without doing Thematic Space Mapping because the Thematic Space Canvas was born on Jan 5, 2022.

Why did I write this article today? Because I have a new spark about “the Relevance of Zone”.

However, I can only share the diagram of “the Relevance of Zone” on Linkedin for the Life Discovery Toolkit (v1.0).

I write this article in order to update my “Relevance” thematic space. In this way, I reviewed the historical development of my thoughts about “Relevance” and “Intersubjectivity” in general.

This reflection highlights the independence of the “Self — Other” Relevance. It was detached from the iART framework and Anticipatory Activity System, then attached to the Ecological Zone framework. Finally, it became Ecological Relevance.

When should you update a thematic space? If you have a big Spark for a thematic space, you should update the thematic space and reconsider the structure of the meaningful whole.

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Oliver Ding
Editor for

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