Wednesday 26 October 2011

Indexing Conviviality in Learning and Society

Is it possible to determine the extent to which a learning activity, institution, or maybe even a society is 'convivial'? I've been thinking about this having just returned from Istanbul where I witnessed what struck me as a different way of life where individuals were more inter-dependent and tended to live in close proximity to different properties, moving frequently between them with tools, products, artefacts, etc. There seemed to be an observable pattern of communication which, I wonder, could index a 'degree' of conviviality in the situation.

But to do this, we would have to be more precise about what 'conviviality' means. "Living together without killing each other", which is the definition contained in Alain Caillé's book "De la convivialité: dialogues sur la société conviviale à venir". In that formulation, I think there is something to be looked at with regard to those situations where people live together and do start killing (or at least fighting) each other. In those situations, the emergence of TINA (There Is No Alternative) formations at a social level and the feeling of being trapped or locked-in to particular actions which run counter to the needs of individual identities is something that perhaps we might get a handle on. Certainly, communications data can reveal patterns of co-evolution and lock-in (this is the sort of analysis that Leydesdorff has done).

The follow-on from this is that in a convivial situation people have options because either potential co-evolutionary (lock-in) dynamics are mitigated by a further dynamic which prevents lock-in, or there is no co-evolution. This might be revealed from the data too.

But what might this look like in practice?

Maybe this gives an insight into activities which we might typically consider 'convivial'. For example, in a choir or an orchestra, there is a co-evolutionary and potentially locked-in dynamic established between a conductor and individuals in the choir, but this co-evolutionary dynamic is off-set by a third dynamic where the feedback from collective agency generates rich communications between the participants. Without this feedback dynamic, the experience of singing in choir would feel rather like slavery (Indeed, it is possible that with certain types of poor positioning by conductors, and in particular with heavy attenuation of social communication, this could be induced)

In a very boring lecture in a coercive environment, this lock-in is most evident - again if the social dynamic in the room is attenuated. But sometimes well-meaning attempts at group work can have the same effect. For example, a group is given an ill-defined task, and the members of the group disagree on the nature of the task, the lock-in works at a number of levels: group members cannot leave the group, individuals assert their understanding and attenuate opposition away from the eyes of the teacher, the teacher acts as arbiter of worth, but may ignore the contribution made by each individual in preference to "making their life easier" by just observing the group performance (I've been guilty of this one!). Inquiry-based learning can similarly suffer from this sort of situation.

Text-mediated communications in online forums can develop their own form of lock-in, owing partly to the already attenuated nature of text. In online environments like this, it is hard to establish a third dynamic to offset this lock-in, and for participants in this situation, the easiest way to avoid lock-in is not to participate (which is often what happens).

In the streets of Istanbul there are a rich range of communication dynamics going on. Amongst them are co-evolutionary forces: for example (although I'm not sure if the specifics of this are right, but you get the idea) the cobbler who requires part-finished shoes to be healed where the part-finished shoes are carried up the street to the place where the heals are attached. The rich range of individuals involved in this allow for the lock-in to be off-set with other social dynamics.

If we measured co-occurrence, knowledge transfer and the development of locked-in communication dynamics, it might be possible to put some sort of figure on conviviality.

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