Themes of Practice (2019–2021)

Oliver Ding
CALL4
Published in
13 min readAug 7, 2021

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The historical development of an idea about Theme and Practice.

I started developing the concept of Themes of Practice in 2019 for Curativity Theory. I have mentioned the concept in my previous articles many times. The purpose of the concept is to connect “life themes” and “cultural themes”.

Anthropologist Morris Opler (1945) developed a theoretical concept called “themes” for studying culture. Career counseling therapists and psychologists also developed a theoretical concept called “life themes.” If we put cultural themes and life themes together, we see a great debate of social science: “individual — collective”.

This article reviews the historical development of the concept of Themes of Practice and a possible book.

Contents

1. The Concept of Themes of Practice
2. When Culture Meets Experience
3. The Hierarchy of Culture Themes
4. Creative Actions in Context
5. Concept v.s. Theme
6. A New Diagram of Themes of Practice
7. Career Theme Case Study: UX (User Experience)
8. The Method of Theme Analysis
9. A Possible Book

1. The Concept of “Themes of Practice”

In 2017, I wrote a series of articles about personal epistemology in order to discuss the relationship between Knowledge, Action, and Person. At the end of the series, I use Life Container and Life Themes to discuss the personal life journey of knowing. Since the series is about personal knowing, the perspective is individual person.

Career counseling therapists and psychologists also developed a theoretical concept called “life theme.” For example, Peter Mcllveen pointed out, “Over recent decades there has been a steady progression of career counselling frameworks informed by constructivism and social constructionism. The constructivist approach attends to how individuals make meaningful sense of their personally-experienced subjective careers, and how observers — researchers and practitioners — attempt to understand their socially-expressed objective careers. This chapter is centred upon the notion of life themes. Life themes may be understood subjectively and objectively as major dimensions of career, and they may be brought forward in career counselling as a significant source for generating meaning and understanding.”

I have read many books about the concept of Themes. I realized that this is an important interdisciplinary topic. The concept of Themes connects to Mind, Creativity, Action, and Practice.

In 2019, I developed the idea “Themes of Practice” in order to discuss the “meaning” of the meaningful whole for my book Curativity: The Ecological Approach to Curatorial Practice. I realized the notion of “Theme” is a great tool for curating experiences and actions.

As an application of Curativity Theory, the above General Curation Framework represents the structure and dynamics of curatorial practice. The activity of curatorial practice aims to collect pieces of things into a meaningful whole in order to present a theme to a group of audience.

There are three immanent contradictions within the activity of curating:

  • Pieces — Whole
  • Things — Themes
  • Curator — Audience

For the first dichotomy, I use the concept of “Container” to balance the pieces and whole. For the last dichotomy, I use the notion of “Everyone A Curator” to deconstruct the concept of “Curator” because I want to claim that the activity of curating is a general social practice.

The dichotomy of “things — themes” refers to two classical great debates of social science: “mind — matter” and “individual — collective”. After reviewing the concept of “theme” in various disciplines such as Cultural Anthropology, Counseling Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, and the Philosophy of Science, I developed a new concept “Themes of Practice” to propose a process view of “Theme”.

Anthropologist Morris Opler (1945) developed a theoretical concept called “themes” for studying culture. Career counseling therapists and psychologists also developed a theoretical concept called “life themes.” If we put cultural themes and life themes together, we see a “great debate” of social science: “individual — collective.” The above diagram visualizes the “concept network” or “idea ecology” of “Themes of Practice”.

2. When Culture Meets Experience

In 2019, I proposed a framework for understanding Cultural Curation which means the mechanism of transformation between Collective Culture and Personal Experience in the book Curativity.

I identified six levels between Collective Culture and Personal Experience:

  • Theme
  • Protocol
  • Program
  • Project
  • Participation
  • Process

This framework is inspired by my real-life experience, especially in the case of “Try Something New for 30 Days”.

The theme of “Try Something New for 30 Days” was initiated by Matt Cutts. Many people followed this theme and took real action. Matt didn’t point to a particular type of action, instead suggesting a theme.

I adopted this theme several times in past years. I even designed some social media campaigns around this theme. By reflecting on my actions of the practice of the theme, I realized that it is possible to identify six levels between culture and experience.

3. The Hierarchy of Cultural Themes

Anthropologist Morris Opler (1945) developed a theoretical concept called “themes” for studying culture. He claimed, “In every culture, are found a limited number of dynamic affurnatuins, called themes, which control behavior or stimulate activity. The activities, prohibitions of activities, or references which result from the acceptance of a theme are its expressions…The expressions of a theme, of course, aid us in discovering it. (pp.198–99)” (Cited in Ryan & Bernard, 2003)

According to Ryan & Bernard (2003), “Opler (1945) established three principles for thematic analysis. First, he observed that themes are only visible (and thus discoverable) through the manifestation of expressions in data. And conversely, expressions are meaningless without some reference to themes. Second, Opler (1945) noted that some expressions of a theme are obvious and culturally agreed on, while others are subtler, symbolic, and even Idiosyncratic. Third, Opler (1945) observed that cultural systems comprise sets of interrelated themes. The importance of any theme, he said, is related to (1) how often it appears, (2) how pervasive it is across different types of cultural ideas and practices, (3) how people react when the theme is violated, and (4) the degree to which the number, force, and variety of a theme’s expression is controlled by specific contexts.”

Opler (1946) applied his theory of themes to study the culture of the Lipan Apache. He found there are twenty themes in all for the Lipan Apache. For example:

  • Theme 1: The elements of the universe are actually or potentially animate and personified.
  • Theme 2: The universe is pervaded by diffuse supernatural power, which may become specific for those psychologically prepared to receive it.
  • Theme 4: Security and harmony are attained largely through the conquest of fear and danger and through self-discipline.
  • Theme 13: Childhood is a period of preparation for adulthood rather than an important phase of life in itself.
  • Theme 17: Industry, generosity, and bravery are the cardinal moral-social virtues.
  • Theme 19: Long life (old age) is an important goal for the individual to reach.

In a 1947 article, Thomas Gladwin shared some insights from Opler. Gladwin pointed out that the expressions given by Opler, for example, of Theme 4 above, include the following:

  • in the mythology the culture hero, Enemy Slayer, had to do battle with or outwit an array of monsters to make the world safe;
  • awesome and frightening ceremonies are most effective for those who show no fear or doubt; children submit to pain ordeals in order to show their worth;
  • fearless men are remembered in a large number of tales of their exploits;
  • and, contrary to his own desires, a good man kills his faithless wife as well as her lover.

Gladwin also noticed that “Several instances are adduced for each of these types of expression except the last.”

Source: Thomas Gladwin (1947), designed by Oliver Ding (2020)

From the above descriptions, we can generate a hierarchy of cultural themes. See the above diagram. It’s worth comparing the hierarchy of cultural themes with Leontiev’s hierarchy of human activity and Schatzki’s hierarchy of social practice. It seems Opler’s “theme” is a more abstract concept than Leontiev’s “activity” and Schatzki’s “practice”.

Leontiev’s “activity” and Schatzki’s “practice” correspond roughly to “expression” within Opler’s framework.

Perspectives on Hierarchy of Activity and Practice (Oliver Ding, 2020)

In 2020, I reviewed the hierarchy of Activity and Practice in a previous article Activity U (VI): The Hierarchy of Human Activity and Social Practice. The outcome is the above chart. This explains my problem of applying Activity Theory to the case of “Try Something New for 30 Days.” It is better to claim that “Try Something New for 30 Days” is a Theme and a concrete project of “Try Something New for 30 Days” is an Activity.

For example, I adopted the theme to create a project: Meet Muse for 30 Days in 2020. I asked people to find a free academic chapter or book on the Project MUSE website for 30 days (1, 2).

In other words, Theme is at a higher level of abstraction than Activity.

4. Creative Actions in Context

In Feb 2020, I started studying Action-based Creativity. I made a new diagram about Themes of Practice and Creativity.

I consider 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 above diagram is based on the WXMY diagram because it is great for visualizing cross-boundary connections. However, it is a highly abstract model for explaining the concept of Themes of Practice.

5. Concept v.s. Theme

In August 2020, I read Andy Blunden’s 2012 book Concepts: A Critical Approach which presents a “Hegel-Marx-Vygotsky” account of “Concept”, I realized this is an essential theoretical resource that can support my idea of “Themes of Practice”.

According to Blunden, “Dualism has been around for a long time, and not only in the form of mind/matter dualism. One of the most persistent and debilitating forms of dualism today is the dualism of the individual and society, supported by sciences devoted exclusively to one or the other domain. Since concepts are units both of cultural formations and individuals minds, a theory of concepts confronts this head on…The development of the human sciences along two parallel paths, one concerned with human consciousness, the other concerned with social and political phenomena, can only serve to place barriers in front of people’s efforts to intervene in the affairs determining their own life. By understanding concepts as units of both consciousness and the social formation, I aim to create a counter to this disempowering dogma.” (2012, p.9)

Blunden’s argument on Concept echoes my consideration of the concept of Theme. Since Theme is a particular concept, I can adopt Blunden’s proposal — the “Hegel-Marx-Vygotsky” account of “Concept” — as a theoretical foundation to support the concept of “Themes of Practice.” Furthermore, I can also adopt the Project-oriented Activity Theory to upgrade the General Curation Framework to Cultural Curation Framework.

From the perspective of Project-oriented Activity Theory, each curation program can be considered as a Project. Each “Theme of Practice” of a curation program can be considered as a Concept of a Project. Thus, the whole process of a curation program can be considered as “Initialization”, “Objectification” and “Institutionalization” of a “Theme of Practice”.

6. A New Diagram of Themes of Practice

In April 2021, I started learning Genre Theory. I designed a new diagram for Themes of Practice and shared it on Twitter for discussing Genre Theory. At that time, I didn’t realize that the new diagram offers me a concrete framework for analysis.

Two months ago, I started the Career Curation project. I applied the idea of Themes of Practice to generate a new concept: Career Themes. It means that I move from an abstract level to a concrete level. Thus, I realized I can use the new diagram for career theme case studies because it offers a structure for observing and evaluating the “Practice” part of “Themes of Practice”.

7. Career Theme Case Study: UX (User Experience)

For example, I chose UX (User Experience) as an example of Career Themes and made a simple case study with the new diagram. See the diagram below.

UX (User Experience) is not a job title, but a concept. UX designer and UX researcher are two related job titles.

As a concept, UX (User Experience) can be seen as a career theme of UX designers and UX researchers. However, job titles are not the primary factor for discussing career themes. The concept of Career Themes pays attention to real-world practice. It’s reasonable to claim that UX is shared by Product Designers, Usability Testing Experts, Human Factor Researchers, Brand Managers, and Community Managers as a career theme.

The new diagram of Themes of Practice uses the following ten dimensions for case studies:

  • Concept: What are the related concepts for this career theme?
  • Project: What are related projects for this career theme?
  • Genre: What are related Genres for this career theme?
  • Media: What are related media for this career theme?
  • Activity: What are related activities for this career theme?
  • Artifact: What are related artifacts for this career theme?
  • Community: What are related communities for this career theme?
  • Who: who is the person behind this case study?
  • When: when is the career duration behind this case study?
  • Where: Where did these career events of this case study happen?

The above diagram only presents the general information for UX. It doesn’t offer information on “who/when/where”.

For real case studies, we need to collect personal information from the above ten dimensions.

I consider Career Theme Case Study as a component of the Career-fit framework because it offers deep information for each career theme. By understanding this deep information, we can make reasonable Career-fits.

8. The Method of Theme Analysis

A major progress in the project happened three months ago. On May 25, 2021. I wrote an article titled Personal Innovation as Career-fit.

The article made three impacts on the development of Themes of Practice.

First, it introduces several new concepts: Career Themes, Pairs of Opposite Themes, Meta-themes, and Development of Themes.

  • The idea of “Pairs of Opposite Themes” refers to significant differences between career themes.
  • The idea of “Meta-themes” refers to using one high-level theme to curate similar career themes.
  • The idea of “Development of Themes” refers to the transformation of career themes.

I emphasized the significance of Pairs of Opposite Themes in the article, “If we want to explore personal innovation, the great starting point is Pairs of Opposite Themes because they could lead to Structural Tensions such as boundary, distance, difference, heterogeneity, contradiction, and complementation. If we can turn one or more structural tensions into creative opportunities, then we could find the way of personal innovation.”

Second, it connected the concept of Themes of Practice with the Theme U diagram and my other meta-diagrams. For example, I used the Theme U diagram for my own career themes analysis.

A case study of Theme U

The above diagram shows three Pairs of Opposite Themes of my career experience: China v.s. America, Theory v.s. Practice, and Concept v.s. Diagram.

  • The first Pair of Opposite Themes “China v.s. America” refers to cross-cultural work & life experience. There are significant differences between China and America.
  • The second Pair of Opposite Themes “Theory v.s. Practice” refers to cross-discipline knowledge experience. There is a huge gap between academic knowledge and practical work activities.
  • The third Pair of Opposite Themes “Concept v.s. Diagram” refers to cross-domain cognitive experience. According to Cognitive scientist and psychologist Barbara Tversky, Concept is about linguistic thought while Diagram is about spatial thought.

You can find more details from the original article: Personal Innovation as Concept-fit.

Third, I shared the article with some friends and we had discussions about career development and Themes of Practice. The feedback from friends inspired me to write more articles. For example, I wrote an 89-page file titled The Method of Theme Analysis in June. I listed a list of ideas for discussing Themes of Practice:

  • Hierarchy
  • Naming
  • Lifecycle
  • Comparison
  • Emergency
  • Connection
  • Tension
  • Competition
  • Perception

I also developed a set of sub-concepts for deep discussions. For example, I conducted an empirical study titled Themes of Practice, Social Media, and Interpersonal Communication with a 56-page report in July 2021. I introduced the following new sub-concepts:

  • Self-perceived Themes
  • Other-perceived Themes
  • Shared Themes
  • Authorship of Themes
  • Mentionship of Themes
  • Followship of Themes
  • Pervasive Mentionship
  • Proximal Mentioship

These sub-concepts only make sense within their context.

9. A Possible Book

The recent works on Career Themes focus on the “Practice” part of “Themes of Practice.” This experience inspired me to review the historical development of the idea of “Themes of Practice”.

I collected all my writings about Themes of Practice in past years and edited a Table of Content for a possible book. To my surprise, I have written over 440 pages about the idea of “Themes of Practice”.

On June 28, 2021, I designed the above picture for a possible book and used “The Information Architecture of Social Life” as its subtitle. In fact, “The Information Architecture of Social Life” is the title of the first epilogue of Curativity.

Now I have a theoretical concept, a practical framework, a method of analysis, a set of sub-concepts, and several empirical studies. I should put them together to produce the v1.0 book for further development.

I am an information architect. Finally, I could write a book about information architecture : )

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Oliver Ding
CALL4

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