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The Thematic Engagement Toolkit (v1.0)

When “Themes of Practice” meets “Project Engagement”

Photo by Helen Cheng on Unsplash

In the past several weeks, I developed a set of new tools for knowledge engagement, thematic controversy, etc. These tools refer to a dialogue between the following two knowledge frameworks:

  • The Themes of Practice Approach (2019, 2021)
  • The Project Engagement Approach (2021, 2022)

This article uses “Thematic Engagement” to name this set of tools. Part One introduces the background of the above two approaches. Part Two introduce the toolkit. Part Three highlights two related ideas.


Part One

1. Themes of Practice
2. Project Engagement
3. When “Themes of Practice” meets “Project Engagement”

Part Two

4. The “Theme U” Diagram
5. The “Themes of Practice” Framework
6. The “Thematic Network” Model
7. The “Thematic Space” Canvas
8. The “Thematic Controversy” Framework
9. The “Project Network” Model
10. The “Thematic Journey” Map
11. The “Thematic Landscape” Map
12. The “Life — History” Complex

Part Three

13. Life = Project = Thematic Space
14. The Attachance of Thematic Engagement

Part One

The Themes of Practice Approach (2019, 2021) is part of Curativity Theory, while the Project Engagement Approach (2021, 2022) is inspired by Activity Theory, especially Andy Blunden’s Project-oriented approach to Activity Theory.

1. Themes of Practice

I started developing the concept of Themes of Practice in 2019 for Curativity Theory. The purpose of the concept is to connect “life theme” and “culture theme”.

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

In June 2021, 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”.

You can find more details in Themes of Practice (2019–2021).

2. Project Engagement

Initially, I used the term “Project Engagement” to name the second part of my 2020/2021 book Project-oriented Activity Theory which introduces Andy Blunden’s “project as a unit of analysis of activity” to Activity Theory. I used “Project Engagement” to refer to the “Person — Project” relationship. Why does a person start or join a project? What does a project look like?

From Jan 2022 to June 2022, I worked on testing Project Engagement (v1.0) and realized that I should expand it to the “Project — Project” relationship. Later, I used the idea of “Genidentity” to discuss the transformation from a theme to a project, then a platform. How does a project keep its uniqueness?

In July 2022, I wrote a 116-page file that introduces the Project Engagement approach (v2.1). You can find more details in Project Engagement (v2.1) as an Innovation Approach.

3. When “Themes of Practice” meets “Project Engagement”

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 idea 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 a Project. Each “Theme of Practice” of a curation program can be viewed 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”.

Part Two

In the past several years, I developed several tools for different purposes. Some tools are developed for knowledge curation. Some tools are about discussing career themes. Some tools are about self-reflection.

In general, all these tools can be understood as “Thematic Engagement” at the abstract level. All original examples for developing these tools are concrete case studies of “Thematic Engagement”.

4. The “Theme U” Diagram

The “Theme U” diagram is a simple meta-diagram that displays six themes in a U shape. The simple way of using the Theme U diagram is 1) defining six themes, and 2) displaying them on the U shape randomly. See the diagram below.

I used it for the Single-theory Curation activity, the ECHO Way, and other purposes.

5. The “Themes of Practice” Framework

In April 2021, I started learning Genre Theory. I designed a new diagram for Themes of Practice. Later 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”.

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.

6. The “Thematic Network” Model

The “Thematic Network” is a simple approach to organizing a network of themes. It makes a distinction between a Primary Theme and several Secondary Themes. See the attached diagram which is the core of my “Curativity” thematic landscape.

Though the “Thematic Network” model is the core of the Thematic Landscape Map, it can be used independently.

7. The “Thematic Space” Canvas

Thematic Space Canvas is a meta-canvas for exploring Subjective Thematic Experience. For example, Developing Tacit Knowledge, Life Discovery, Opportunity Discovery, etc.

You can find more details in Slow Cognition: A Meta-canvas for Developing Tacit Knowledge.

8. The “Thematic Controversy” Framework

In June 2022, I read Controversy Mapping: A Field Guide (Tommaso Venturini & Anders Kristian Munk, 2022) which connects ANT (Actor-network theory) with digital methods for social cartography.

The book inspired me to blend two of my diagrams together and developed a new framework for the Thematic Controversy project.

The first diagram is called Activity Circle which considers the self — other relevance and the thing — think relationship.

The second diagram is called Concept Dynamics. See the diagram below.

You can find more details in Diagram Blending: “Activity Circle” + “Concept Dynamics”.

9. The “Project Network” Model

The Model of “Project Network” is for discussing the idea of a “Knowledge Center”. It’s a multiple-level network, not a one-level network.

  • A Network of Themes
  • A Network of Knowledge Centers
  • A Network of People

Each level refers to one type of Project. The “Themes” level refers to “Concept as Project”. For example, “TEDx” and “Startup Weekend” are Concepts, and the global TEDx community is a large project. The global Startup Weekend community is a large project too.

The “Knowledge Centers” level refers to “Center as Project”. For example, Each local TEDx program and each local Startup Weekend chapter are local projects.

The “People” level refers to “Engagement as Project”. For example, if a person joins a local TEDx team as a volunteer, she can consider her own experiences and actions of participating in the team as a Developmental Project for her.

The diagram below is an example of the “Project Network” model.

The “Project Network” model only claims the three-level structure. It allows users to explore different internal structures and dynamics of their own situations.

You can see more details in Life Strategy: Moving between Thematic Spaces.

10. The “Thematic Journey” Map

The “Thematic Journey” Map is developed for sense-making with multi-project thematic journeys. The diagram below is the main diagram of the Mapping Thamtic Journey method.

The Thematic Journey Map uses the basic model of Activity Theory: Lev Vygotsky’s “Mediating Actions”. It also echoes two basic principles of Activity Theory: Tool mediation and Development.

If we expand the basic model of Activity Theory, the “Subject — Mediation — Object” model, to the Activity System Model, we can have an expansive model of Thematic Journey Map. See the diagram below.

Based on the “Mediating Action” model, I adopted some ideas from other Activity-based theoretical approaches and developed a new diagram for Mapping Thematic Journey.

In this way, we can switch between the “Journey” level and the “Project” level.

For the “Project” level, the method is called “Mapping Developmental Projects”. See the diagram below.

You can find more details in Slow Cognition: Mapping Thematic Journey (Engaging with Activity Theory, 2020–2022).

11. The “Thematic Landscape” Map

In order to discuss the outcome of knowledge production around a particular theme, I coined the term “Thematic Landscape” which refers to a landscape of personal explicit knowledge and related activities.

On Sept 2, 2022, I used my “Curativity” Knowledge Enterprise as an example to develop the “Thematic Landscape” method. The final result is a large diagram. See the screenshot below.

The method uses three nested circles as a basic model.

  • Theme: this inner circle is for displaying Themes and Books.
  • Work: the middle circle refers to Projects and two types of Knowledge Frameworks: Abstract Models and Concrete Models.
  • Play: the outer circle is about Programs that consider two types of things: Tools and Actions.

While the Theme circle and the Work circle are about knowledge makers’ individual work, the Play circle refers to the collaborative space between knowledge makers and knowledge users.

These three circles also have different significant aspects of complexity.

  • Theme: the cognitive aspect of complexity is the primary challenge.
  • Work: the material aspect of complexity is the primary challenge.
  • Play: the social aspect of complexity is the primary challenge.

The above model is inspired by a model of Project-oriented Activity Theory. It represents three types of Objectification of a Concept:

  • Symbolic Objectification: “Verbal” and “Visual
  • Instrumental Objectification: “designed” and “found”
  • Practical Objectification: “Branded” and “Shared”

You can find more details in Slow Cognition: Mapping Thematic Landscape (Curativity, 2019–2022).

12. The “Life — History” Complex

The model of “Life — History” Complex is part of the Project Engagement approach (v2.1).

In April 2022, I used the notion of “synchronic — diachronic” to expand the pair of concepts of “Event — Project”. I used “synchronic mapping” to describe the immediate “Event — Project” match. I also used “diachronic unfolding” to describe the development of a chain of Projects and a chain of Events.

While Life is the outcome of the diachronic unfolding of the chain of projects, history is the outcome of the diachronic unfolding of the chain of events. See the diagram below.

My approach uses “events” and “projects” to present social context and individual biography. The difference between “events” and “projects” is individual involvement. If the person directly gets involved in an activity — it means she is the subject of the activity or part of the community of the activity — then the activity is a project of her biography. If the person doesn’t directly get involved in the activity, then the activity is an event of her biography.

The concept of Life can be understood as Collective Life and Individual Life. We can use the concept of Project to understand both of them. A person’s real life is a set of real actions. The concept of Project is a way of curating these actions. On the other hand, Collective Life can be curated with Projects too.

You can find more details in Project Engagement (v2): Life, History, and Multiverse.

Part Three

The Thematic Engagement toolkit is a collection of diagrams, models, and concepts. Though these tools come from different theoretical approaches, they share the same theme: Concept/Theme/Project/Activity/Practice.

The Themes of Practice Approach (2019, 2021) considers both the social aspects of themes and the cognitive aspect of themes.

The Project Engagement Approach (2021, 2022) sees activities as projects around the formation of concepts.

In the past several months, the major development of the Thematic Engagement toolkit is the notion of “Moving between Thematic Spaces”.

I’d like to highlight two related ideas about this notion.

13. Life = Project = Thematic Space

The concept of “Thematic Space” was developed on Jan 5, 2022.

On May 26, 2022, I wrote the following piece about the notion of “Theme as Space”.

My notion of “Theme” can be understood as “Topic”. Originally, the source of “Topic” is “Topos”. According to the Merriam-webster dictionary, “Latin Topica Topics (work by Aristotle), from Greek Topika, from topika, neuter plural of topikos of a place, of a topos, from topos place, topos”.

According to Aristotle, we need a Topos because we can remember a thing by remembering the Topos in which the thing is placed.

If we use the technique of “Deep Analogy” and use “Etymology” as a perspective, then we can understand “Theme” and “Space” into one thing. Theme (Topos) is Space!

Originally, I read the idea of “Theme (Topos) is Space” from a Chinese scholar‘s book Spatial Narratology. The scholar quoted Christian Norberg-Schulz’s discussion about the topic — topos relationship from Genius Loci: Towards a phenomenology of architecture.

Traditional narratology is about the linear temporal narrative because a story or a text is easy to understand if its structure is organized in a temporal sequence. However, some modern writers use spatial simultaneity as the primary approach to organize their stories. They often use the technique of “Juxtaposition” to create a spatial sense in their writing.

The technique of “Juxtaposition” is a nonlinear spatial narrative approach. I adopt it for Thematic Space Reflection Report. If you read my thematic space reflection reports, you can find there is no linear temporal narrative structure. All notes are just listed without a predefined logic structure.

Though the Structure of Knowledge Discovery Canvas (and Life Discovery Canvas, etc) has its predefined logic structure, it is still a structure of “Juxtaposition”. All 16 blocks are not organized in a linear way.

A person can use Thematic Space Canvas in different ways by perceiving its spatial structure and potential connections between different blocks. The canvas doesn’t control the process of sensemaking but offers a space for sensemaking.

On July 2, 2022, I connected the notion of “Theme as Space”, the concept of “Thematic Space”, and the “Flow — Story — Model” metaphor.

From the perspective of the Slow Cognition project, Life Discovery is a particular type of Knowledge Discovery and the primary theme of Life Discovery is “My Life”.

The objective of the Life Discovery Activity is to Develop Tacit Knowledge about “My Life” and turn Tacit Knowledge into resources for actions.

By connecting the Project-centered Approach and the concept of “Thematic Space” together, we can find the following connection:

Life = Project = Thematic Space

While Life is a chain of projects, it can be understood as a journey of moving between various thematic spaces.

Each project has its primary themes and other secondary themes. By joining projects and leaving projects, we are practicing our significant Life Themes. Thus, these projects are Thematic Spaces too.

This insight also echoes the model “Flow — Story — Model”. We can also find more details in Thematic Space: Project as Story.

In this way, I develop the 7th basic principle of the Life-as-Project approach: “Project as Thematic Space”.

You can find more details in #TalkThree 14: What’s “Thematic Space”?

14. The Attachance of Thematic Engagement

The above notion of “Moving between Thematic Space” emphasizes the spatial cognitive aspect of “Thematic Space”.

This direction echoes the Ecological Practice approach which focuses on the “People — Environment” relationship. In this way, we can adopt some theoretical concepts from the approach to develop the Thematic Engagement toolkit.

For example, the concept of Attachance is a core concept of the Ecological Practice approach.

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.

The diagram below is the Attachance framework.

I used “Far — Near — With — Near — Far” as the spatial structure to develop the framework. The structure also corresponds to three types of experience.

  • Far > There > Non-Experience
  • Near > Here > Quasi-Experience
  • With > There > Real-Experience

The term “Experience” refers to interaction-based experience. If a Subject is far from an Object, the spatial distance between these two determines the experience: there are no action opportunities there. I call this type of experience Non-Experience.

We can consider “Theme” as a specific type of Object and apply the Attachance framework to understand the “Person — Theme” interaction.

Moreover, the Ecological Practice approach encourages people to explore potential opportunities. In this way, we can use the Attachance framework to help us discover opportunities in Thematic Engagement.

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Oliver Ding

Oliver Ding

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