FOM: social construction?
Lincoln.Wallen at comlab.ox.ac.uk
Sun Mar 22 15:03:30 EST 1998
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From: martind at cs.berkeley.edu (Martin Davis)
Cc: fom-digest at math.psu.edu
Date: Sun, 22 Mar 1998 11:42:59 -0800
At 04:06 PM 3/22/98 GMT, Lincoln Wallen wrote:
>I hope it was clear from my posting a few minutes ago in response to
>Tait's message that it is exactly this view [expressed by Silver] that
>I think has a lot of merit. I put it differently: certain
>anthropological schools have adopted the view, *not* that people (like
>mathematicians) act like anthropologists when engaging in their chosen
>activity, but *the other way around*: that there is no position
>"outside" the activity one is studying from which to gain a more
>direct understanding of the structure and truth of the activity.
>Hence it is the anthropologists who must act ethnically and seek to
>understand *as the participants themselves understand*, not in some
Yes! I think of this point of view as a disease imported from France. In
anthropology it was Claude Levi-Strauss (sp?) who pushed this point of view
in (I must say) a charming style. I don't know about Britain, but in the US
one finds it not only in anthropology departments, but particularly in
language departments. How weak this stuff is was made clear by Sokol's hoax.
No doubt it has many precursors. Garfinkel and Sacks in the US have
done most in conversation analysis. There are a fair number of groups
in the UK that are developing this. Interaction analysis is still
very difficult. My understanding is that the school has been effectively
marginalised in US sociology.
There is no one position here so a blanket condemnation of these ideas
as being "weak" will be difficult to defend. Also, the sociological
form of these ideas are weak in predictive power due to difficulties
in representation and interpretation which I alluded to by saying that
the reading of the theories is one of the most difficult problems
still to be resolved. However, as a matter of practice: suffice it to
say that we use the perspective quite effectively in the anlaysis of
communication in control room situations in financial, commercial and
less benign settings. The analyses are used to support the design of
technology for these settings.
The analyses, being empirical, and not conjectural like cognitive or
psychological modelling, lend themselves to scientific work and
subsequent observational evaluation.
As a natural scientist myself, it is the closest I have seen to a
scientific treatment of situations in which humans agency is a central
part of the behaviour of some system.
I have a feeling we are talking about ideas which had a similar
genesis, but find it hard to square your comments with everyday
Can you elaborate on what you see to be problematic in looking into
mathematical activity this way?
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