[From Kent McClelland (2012.11.07.1445 CST)]
I’ve been working my way through responses to the accumulated posts in this thread, but I’m going to jump immediately to Bill’s most recent post, because it offers a chance to make a point that I’ve been wanting to make about feedback paths.
I agree with what Bill is saying about affordances in the post below. He’s absolutely right, in my view, that the term is unhelpful, and, like him, I would prefer to not use that terminology. But I agree only up to a point with the rest of his post. I think
that to communicate our message effectively to social scientists we will need a far more sophisticated view of feedback than has usually been case in PCT discussions, as I will explain below. First, here is what Bill says:
[From Bill Powers (2012.11.06.0330 MST)]
In place of the concept of affordance, I would simply use the term “properties.” The properties of something are a description of how it acts when acted upon. A hammer has mass and moment of inertia; grasping it in a certain way and swinging it so its head
contacts a nail at a certain speed or above will result in the nail being driven into a piece of wood. Other ways of swinging it will break a window or a cup, or bruise a thumb. Still other ways of wielding it will send it flying through the air to land some
distance away, either destructively or nondestructively.
So far there is no discussion of purpose, just a description of actions and consequences.
Affordance includes purposes as well as consequences in general. But what the hammer does and how it is wielded depend on what the intended effect is, and that intention does not exist in the hammer. It is in the brain of the wielder of the hammer. The affordances
in the hammer do not make the person use that hammer for any particular purpose. But now that I’ve written that, it occurs to me to wonder if Gibson was asserting the opposite: that it is something about the hammer that results in our using it in a certain
way. There is a strong flavor of causality in the way Gibson described affordances: the affordances tell us what to do with the object.
But isn’t that the main message of classical behaviorism? In behaviorism, it is not an inner purpose that guides behavior toward achievement of a preselected result; the behavior is shaped by the effects it has on the world outside and thus on the occurrance
of reinforcements. In behaviorism, behavior is shaped by the affordances in the environment.
If we remove affordances from the environment, and instead speak of properties of the environment and purposes of the organism, we are back to the PCT view of behavior. The organism learns what it has to do to the environment in order to get some intended result
back from it. The intention comes first. There are generally many ways to act that will have the same desired result, some ways requiring less effort than others or having more reliable effects. As the organism learns it may try many different ways. A child
may hold a hammer by its head and try bumping the head against a nail, probably in vain. It takes a while to acquire the lower-order control systems that will make the best use of a tool’s properties. The designer of a tool may shape it to make one way of
using it particularly effective, but the user of the tool must still discover or otherwise learn what that way is and how to carry it out. And of course the user must have a result in mind to use the tool at all, and that result may not be the one the designer
of the tool was thinking of. A claw hammer, I have found, is an excellent tool for propping a basement window open, but that use doesn’t require holding the handle near its end and swinging the head against something.
Affordance conflates intention and consequence. I suiggest that we would be better off to keep those ideas separate.
KM: The hammer that you’re talking about, Bill, is not just an object with physical properties. It is a manufactured artifact that has been designed with socially standardized physical properties. There are, no doubt, millions of claw hammers sitting in
people’s basements and toolboxes all over America and around the world, and I would guess that 99 percent of them look pretty much the same, with a standard length of handle, a standard shape of head, and a standard weight (usually 16 ounces in the USA). Of
course, the hammers will have been produced by various manufacturers, and the material composition of the hammers may also vary, with some having metal handles covered with rubber, for instance, while others have wooden handles. In almost every case the head
of the hammer will be made of metal, typically steel. But any variations in the fundamental design of the hammer–its length, distribution of weight, and heft–will occur only within extremely narrow parameters. There’s no law that says that hammers must be
constructed with a given shape and weight, but a complex history of the traditional shaping of the tool to match its customary uses by craftsmen, followed by market competition between manufacturers of hammers to produce tools matching that customary design,
has ultimately led to a product that is largely standardized.
This standardization of products like hammers has some important consequences from a PCT perspective. First, the person who has learned how to use a hammer (in precisely the trial-and-error-and-reorganization way that Bill describes in his post) can pick
up another hammer and immediately be able to use it in much the same way as previously used hammers. Of course, the feel of the new hammer might be slightly different, but the muscular reorganization process necessary to use the hammer efficiently (to hammer
in nails, of course) can proceed very rapidly, because the new hammer is so much like previous ones.
Second, while some users of hammers will find creative and unusual uses for the tool, as in the window-propping example Bill gives, a social scientific observer studying the uses of hammers would be likely to observe that most users most of the time use
hammers in the conventionally expected way to pound in nails to fasten pieces of wood together. And because imitation is an important part of the human learning process, neophytes learning to use hammers are likely to imitate experienced users of hammer by
using the tool (most of the time) in a way that is similar, if not precisely identical, to the way that the great majority of other users have traditionally used it. In other words, there is a lot of cultural predictability (if not total uniformity) in the
ways that hammers are used. Thus, relative uniformity in the physical environment–the standardized design of the hammer as an artifact–goes hand in hand (or hammer in hand?) with relative uniformities in behavioral patterns.
Third, and most importantly, the hammer exemplifies an important fact about the living environments of people in economically developed countries. We are surrounded by manufactured artifacts that have been designed, produced, and marketed with culturally
conventional uses in mind. Virtually everything that we see or touch in our homes and workplaces is some kind of manufactured artifact that has been carefully designed to help us control one perception or another. Purposes, in the form of the intended uses
of manufactured objects, have in some sense been built into the myriad objects that surround us.
Objects like hammers can be seen as controlled environmental variables that result from an extremely complex collective control process in which “a multitude of people,” to use Bob Hintz’s words, (the miners, mine owners, foremen, transport workers, transport
company owners and executives, manufacturing executives and owners and stockholders, factory workers, engineers, designers, sales workers, accountants, OSHA regulators, more transport workers, wholesale distributors, yet more transport workers, advertisers,
retail store sales and management workers, and probably many more people that I’ve overlooked) have cooperated in setting up and maintaining the complicated supply, manufacturing, and distribution chains that bring hammers to market and put them into the hands
of the end users.
From the perspective of the user, the hammer is not in itself a controlled environmental variable, except as its motions are controlled by the user to achieve control of the perception of using nails to fasten pieces of wood together. (Notice that 2-by-4’s
and the nails used to fasten them together are also standardized products with their intended uses also in some sense built in.) The hammer, nails, and pieces of wood are simply the means chosen by the user to control the perception of building a planned wooden
structure, and not ends in themselves. In the PCT analysis that I am trying to develop, they serve as segments of a feedback path to link the user’s physical actions with the perception that the user is seeking to control of successfully building the planned
As (part of) the user’s feedback path, the hammer (1) is an item designed for exclusive use of one person at a time, that (2) has somewhat limited flexibility for helping to control perceptions other than hammering in nails, but nonetheless (3) serves
as a pretty effective means for controlling that perception, and (4) is a durable and thus relatively fixed object that (5) is pretty difficult (but probably not impossible) for the user to modify to suit his own requirements.
Considering this complex social and cultural context for the hammer as an object, Bill is right that it would be naive and oversimplified to describe the hammer as offering “affordances,” with its purposes somehow emerging from its physical qualities,
as if it were some natural object to be picked up and found a use for, like a rock that a stone-age person might pick up and then try bashing things with it. On the contrary, the hammer has been designed, shaped, and distributed by a collection of people who
had a specific set of purposes in mind–a tool for sinking nails and pulling them out again. That it works well for those purposes is fully intentional, not an accident of nature.
By the same token, it seems to me a little naive and oversimplified for PCT analysts to view the hammer simply as an object with physical properties, ignoring all the social and cultural baggage carried with it–the many people’s purposes that its form
embodies. To communicate effectively with social scientists about things like hammers, PCT advocates will need to get more sophisticated in describing how large collections of people can provide standardized feedback paths for each other to use in controlling
a multiplicity of individual perceptions.
Enough ranting for today. . . I’m probably going on and on because I stayed up until 2 AM last night to watch Romney’s hastily written concession speech and Obama’s highly polished acceptance speech (a speech that was well worth waiting up for!).
Look for another installment on the subject of feedback paths in a day or two.
My best to all,
PS to the sociologically inclined: Two interesting recent books by sociologists describe the production and enforcement of standards, a topic closely related to the collective control processes that I have described above. I take these books as hopeful
signs that my field is finally getting ready to accept a PCT analysis of social structure and culture, which could put all these concerns into a more coherent context than sociologists have been able to do so far.
Busch, Lawrence. 2011. Standards: Recipes for Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lampland, Martha and Susan Leigh Star. 2009. Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying, and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life. Ithaca, NU: Cornel University Press.