Re: scientific status of PCP, & New 'language/action' paradigm

Robert Parks (
Mon, 24 Jun 1996 11:30:29 -0400


I'm glad you found a definition of "paradigm" that referred to Kuhn. There
is an interesting phenomenon in the use of the term that I should mention
to you. BECAUSE the term refers to basic beliefs about the world, people
who are promoting their own beliefs against a skeptical audience sometimes
use the term "paradigm" in order to indicate that their beliefs are
significantly different than others... so much different that there may be
difficulty in interpretation and understanding - just as the Catholic
Church had difficulty understanding and accepting Gallileo's theory about a
geocentric world.

You appear to believe that your beliefs ("paradigm"?) are significantly
different than those you are communicating with on this list. In one of my
letters I tried to explain to you that this is not true, at least in my
case. I have read some of Maturana and Varela, all of Winogrand and Flores,
and some of the "Language/Action" literature dealing with computer
supported work environments. I am sympathetic to a considerable part of the
thrust of these works. The notion that we live through language coincides
with one half of the fundamental distinction I make in my "Language and
Politics" class between language as medium and language as tool.

There are, however, problems with the literature you have chosen to elevate
to the status of a paradigm. The problem is that it is NOT paradigmatically
different from other literature exploring similar areas. Wendy Crebbin, for
example, has mentiond a feminist literature, and works on language by
Fairclough (one of which I use in my class) that explore a similar
perspective, claiming that many of our views are shaped within a language
that is imbued with the power relations of a patriarchal society. (All of
the authors you have mentioned are men... could it be that....hmm...
sorry.. thats an unfair approach, since I too haven't mentioned any female
authors... ) And I have mentioned (I think) works of Habermas on
"communicative action" and others in the "critical theory" tradition. These
are differences that may or may not produce the kind of problems that can
occupy a fruitful scientific progression, a paradigm.

In any case, I would appreciate it if you would read an article by Lucy
Suchman, in the Journal called "Computer Supported Cooperative Work". The
article is titled "Do Categories Have Politics: The Language/Action
Perspective Reconsidered". In this article, Suchman makes a good case that
since Searle's speech act theory is based on a theory of meaning which is
rooted in the speaker's "intention", when an organization identifies and
facilitates a specific set of intentional communicative acts that are
possible through its cooperative work software, it is in fact restricting
the natural openness, rootedness and creative flow of communication. This
"intention accounting" can then be seen as part of a social control process
by which organizations narrow the creative range of their employees and
enforce a limited and imposed set of communicative actions.

This view seems to me quite plausible and interesting. Yet as I read it, I
thought that one response by Winograd and Flores might be to take advantage
of the approach of PCP - and allow the user to impose her/his own
communicative constructs on the software. This IS roughly what Gaines and
Shaw do in their use of RepGrid to construct expert systems, and have also
explored use of these software tools in cooperative work.

One last point. I'm not sure if you intend to remain on this list. I'm not
sure how active I will be either. But I would in any case ask that you get
into a LEARNING mode. In that case, I and others will be able to learn much
more from you. If you present your views (or Winograd/Flores or
Maturana/Varela) as plausible tentative and open for discussion, then
others can learn from them. They learn from the process of fitting what you
propose with what they hold to be most fruitful beliefs and approaches to
research. In the best scenario, everyone learns.

Best regards,