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October 10, 2006

van den Broek, Paul, and Kathleen E. Kremer. "The Mind in Action: What It Means to Comprehend During Reading."

van den Broek, Paul, and Kathleen E. Kremer. "The Mind in Action: What It Means to Comprehend During Reading." Reading for Meaning: Fostering Comprehension in the Middle Grades. Eds. Barbara M. Taylor, Michael F. Graves, and Paul van den Broek. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.


I came to this chapter through a citation in Elfenbein, and will probably end up chasing down some of its cites as well.

The chapter focuses on readers' ability to construct "coherent mental representations" of a text, representations that can be put to use later.

When reading is successful, the result is a coherent and usable mental representation of the text. This representation resembles a network, with nodes that depict the individual text elements (e.g., events, facts, settings) and connections that depict the meaningful relations between the elements (2).

Coherence depends primarily on two forms of relations among the nodes: referential and causal/logical (2).

Upon completing reading, people recall events with many connections to other events more frequently (5).

The picture of successful text comprehensions that emerges is one in which readers' focus of attention continually changes with each new sentence. During each cycle, readers attend to new text elements while letting others fade into the background (8).

Rest of the chapter focuses on the various elements that comprise the activity of reading, including the skills that readers internalize as they mature.


The mental representation as network is the big find for me--the blockquote from page 2 was one of the things that led me deeper in Elfenbein in the first place--but there are a few other things to note.

One is that coherence works from the center out. The further away from a text we get, the more likely we are to forget the details, so that ideas, events, or terms that are more central in our representations are likely to last longer. To put it another way, the tagcloud of a text decays, with the smallest words dropping out first. We can lose the vast majority of details from a mental representation without sacrificing coherence.

It's also worth noting that these ideas scale pretty easily--what's true here of texts can be extended to any network that we employ as a coherent mental representation, whether that network is textual, social, disciplinary, etc.

October 9, 2006

What's shaking

I'm guessing that I'm getting a little more traffic lately, thanks to shouts from Dan and if:book, so I thought I'd throw a quick entry up talking in a little more detail about what I'm doing here, both now and in the long term...

First, I suppose, is that it's important to note that this site is very very "fledgling." I take part of my inspiration from the project that Mitchell Stephens is doing, but also from an abiding interest over the past couple of years in the ways that blogging has changed the way I write. One of the things I genuinely believe is that blogging for three years has diffused my attention, and pushed me away from what I've called the event model of academic prose: the binge-and-purge structure that governs academic writing through graduate school, up until the dissertation, when it is often simply assumed that "3 months reading, 2 nights writing" will be sufficient to produce book-length manuscripts. Writing something that size requires ongoing, gradual writing, and so that's what I'm doing here.

I'm working under the assumption that this will be my second book, but I'm not 100% committed to that outcome. Like the site itself, which I expect to gradually morph as I think of things I can do with it, I'm open to the possibility that this will be the permanent home of this set of my interests, or that I'll extract a few articles or chapters from it, or that something else entirely will suggest itself to me. Thus far, I've given a couple of conference presentations, taught a graduate seminar, and held a workshop on this material, so it's not as though I'm starting from a single set of criteria for making use of it. Long story short, I'm focused more on the process than the outcome, for the moment anyway.

Right now, posting has been intermittent, and mostly of the hunting and gathering variety. I have a bunch of material that I haven't posted on, mainly because right now I'm busy chasing down citations, ordering books, etc. A lot of the obvious things missing from my bibliography are simply waiting on my shelves for me to get to them.

Finally, what am I doing? My general hypothesis is that there's something to be gained from bringing network studies and rhetoric into contact with each other, and in the process, I'm spinning into a bunch of other areas that each have something to tell me. The conclusions I hope to reach touch on questions of writing, disciplinarity, genre, and textual representation. My work with the CCC Online Archive has become partly a laboratory for my thinking about this stuff, about the value of incorporating more database-oriented perspectives into a field that is decisively narrative in the ways that it perceives itself.

Oh, and for better or worse, I'm doing it publicly. Subscribe to me and watch me go...

October 4, 2006

Emirbayer, Mustafa. "Manifesto for a Relational Sociology."

Emirbayer, Mustafa. "Manifesto for a Relational Sociology." The American Journal of Sociology 103.2 (Sept 1997): 281-317.


Sociologists today are faced with a fundamental dilemma: whether to conceive of the social world as consisting primarily in substances or processes, in static "things" or in dynamic, unfolding relations (281).

The key question confronting sociologists in the present day is not "material versus ideal," "structure versus agency," "individual versus society," or any of the other dualisms so often noted; rather, it is the choice between substantialism and relationalism (282).

The relational point of view on social action and historical change can most usefully be characterized by comparing it with its opposite, the substantialist perspective. The latter takes as its point of departure the notion that it is substances of various kinds (things, beings, essences) that constitute the fundamental units of all inquiry (282).

Dewey & Bentley: 2 varieties of susbstantialism: self-action (doctrines of the will, rational choice theory, game theory, norm-following, structuralisms) and inter-action (variable-centered approach).

Fundamentally opposed to both varieties of substantialism is the perspective of trans-action, "where systems of description and naming are employed to deal with aspects and phases of action, without final attribution to 'elements' or other presumptively detachable or independent 'entities,' 'essences,' or 'realities,' and without isolation of presumptively detachable 'relations' from such detachable 'elements'" (Dewey and Bentley 1949, p. 108). In this point of view, which I shall also label "relational," the very terms or units involved in a transaction derive their meaning, significance, and identity from the (changing) functional roles they play within that transaction (285-6).

Relational theorists reject the notion that one can posit discrete, pregiven units such as the individual or society as ultimate starting points of sociological analysis (as in the self-actional perspective) (287).

(Niklas Luhmann in footnote on 288)

What is distinct about the transactional approach is that it sees relations between terms or units as preeminently dynamic in nature, as unfolding, ongoing processes rather than as static ties among inert substances (289).

Theoretical Implications: macro and micro

macro: rethink power, equality, freedom, agency

Goffman example of meso: Of paramount importance in "the proper study of [face-to-face] interaction," he argues, "is not the individual and his psychology, but rather the syntactical relations among the acts of different persons mutually present to one another" (Goffman 1967, p. 2) (295).

micro: individual, self-formation

Research Directions: In this section, I shall consider several of these more empirical lines of investigation, using as my main organizing principle the idea of three trans personal, relational contexts within which all social action unfolds: social structure, culture, and social psychology (298).

SNA "best developed" approach to analysis of social structure

etworks usually mean disparities in access to both information and control benefits. Network analysts draw heavily upon the methodologies of sociometry and graph theory (the mathematical study of structural patterns in points and lines) to formally represent social figurations (299).

Saussure, Peirce, Bakhtin, Jakobson (300)
Collins, Latour (302)

Challenges: Despite its many important contributions, this perspective still confronts a number of unanswered questions. In the section that follows, I shall survey the most significant of these problems, taking up in turn the issues of boundaries and entities, network dynamics, causality, and normative implications (303).

Boundaries: diff to match up observer's boundaries with perceptions of participants (Bourdieu "solves" it tautologically).

Dynamics: diff to preserve motion, avoid falling back into substantialism

Causality: diff to avoid positing invisible substances as causes

Normativity: is there a critical, debunking element to unfreezing static substance? should there be? description v prescription


I'm already following up on some of the citations from this article, so it's already been very useful in that regard.

There are definitely some places where it matches up for me with Latour's more recent work, and not just because of the citation. BL's emphasis on tracing associations and not falling back into "the social" as substance clicks with this article pretty well.

It's broader than I need, although it sticks to a really useful good, bad, site sort of outline structure that's helpful. And I can see where this will be helpful in framing some of the arguments I want to make about disciplinarity. Disciplines, as hybrid socio-textual networks, are heavily invested in a substantialist approach to knowledge, seems to me--theories and trends get nominalized very quickly into disciplinary currency.

So, not lots of additional thoughts, but I can see how this piece could function as something of a touchstone for me, keeping me from falling prey to an overemphasis on structure at the expense of dynamics.