Category Archives: Conceptualization

On walking and mediated embodied experience in ethnographic map making

Girl walking in a beach. Porto Covo, Portugal.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I’ve been thinking about my spatial experience of my contextual environment and about what I have learned over the years in consciously encountering space as a user of space, a creator of space, and a participant in community through space.  I am thinking about this as I am getting ready to do some tutoring on domain mapping in ethnographic research.  Here is a summary of my spatial experience.

As a child most of my experience with space was either moving through it on foot or by being driven around in a car.  Toss in the stroller, occasional plane ride, boating, crutches, sledding, riding a bicycle, but by and large WALKING and RIDING dominated my childhood experience of space.

As an adult I would live in cities like Chicago and Honolulu, places where the infrastructure encouraged walking.  This changed my understanding of terrain, and walking became my primary vantage point for my movement through space, although each place did have new modes of movement; Chicago had a train, Honolulu had surf boards.

Doing fieldwork in West Africa I would never drive; I saw most of sub-Saharan Africa in a van, or a Volkswagen, or a Renault, but I was always the passenger.  At least I could stare out the window and imagine what it was like at a walking pace.

Where I live now has a walkability score of 25 out of 100.  Where I lived in Chicago had a score of 98, Hawai’i had a score of 78; clearly my current 25 is pitiful in comparison.

To be fair, where I live now there are some residents with a score of 82, so, it is not like walking is precluded by living here, just that it is not easy for everyone (like me).  I walked home from work once and it took me three hours.

This has restricted my daily routine movement to driving.  These days I experience my landscape from a vehicle (much like my Africa passenger days), but this time I don’t even get to look around and pay attention to what zooms past my face; no, I only pay attention to that which is necessary to avoid collisions.

Driving has seriously hindered my sense of place.  I used to spend a lot of time walking, exploring, noticing things at street level, at a pace that let me participate and observe; being a car driver has forced me to give up participation with a place in favor of being a consumer of that place, the road is just a conduit.

Instead of participating with the place I now participate with my driving peers as we consume the street on our way to our various destinations.  The interactive dynamic is not with the people who reside in a place, but with people who routinely pass through the place.  This is like the boat that is moored to the riverbank, the boat might not move but the river has certainly changed.

Compared to the speed with which I now drive through my neighborhoods, walking is practically standing still.  Walking is being the boat moored to the bank; driving is the rushing river.  And the places I drive through do not really change either, but I have nothing to do with the neighborhoods which I zoom through, not the shops, not the landscape, not the people.

I need to stop driving so much.

I need to learn to walk, again.

I need to experience the physical crust of earth and to encounter a place with my feet, unmediated by round rubber tires and a gas pedal.

Being a driver has abstracted my encounter with a place by removing the minutia and patient tiny details made visible to the walking man.  I say “man” because I speak of myself; I was a walking man, like James Taylor, but now, where I live, if you walk expect to be stared at, honked at, yelled at by crazy fun-loving child-drivers, and occasionally the target of someone’s empty sodacan/coffeecup/waterbottle hurled out the window with an insult.  I am serious; walking is stigmatizing, and dangerous.

This is partly why I drive places.

My level of attention to place as a driver does not decompose into lower level experiences with place like it does on a stroll where those small experiences gradiently build up to become a walking journey, instead I pay more attention to how many red lights have impeded my progress.

Walking for me does more than serve the function of travel between places; I walk to know a place.

When I move somewhere new (or even visit from out of town), the first thing I do is walk around a place, in an ever widening gyre, a scroll stroll uncurling through a city emanating away from my apartment or hotel room.  I walk around and I get a feel for what surrounds me.  I don’t even look at a map until I have learned the map through my feet.  By doing this I start to learn my place in the broader context, and this is where you encounter the joys of a place, its people, its vitality, its curiosities; by walking you learn the identity of a place.

This afternoon I thought about how walking is natural for me as an ethnographer; in fact, walking is essential.  And one of the reasons it is so important is that it helps in making maps of a place, in mapping the domains and the various spatial relations found in that place.  Sure, you can sit somewhere and draw a map of everything you see, but I promise you, if you walk around a place and look first with your feet, your map will be more detailed, more accurate, and more relevant as you come to capture the reality which each participant experiences as they use that space.

I might have seen a lot of sub-Saharan West Africa, but it doesn’t mean too much to me, and I certainly could only attempt to map it out from an approximation of the various landmarks I happened to have noticed from the window.  This is because the dynamic and progressive movement of a vehicle is that your sense of figure-ground organization is constantly shifting, and it goes as fast as the driver feels is necessary.  But when you walk around, if something becomes figural in your field of vision, and you feel it is important, you get to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of what you have seen.  This kind of intentional embodied experience is vital for making sense of a place.

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Why I Care About Ontology

Staircase perspective.

Image via Wikipedia

In a broad sense of the term, any particular ontology serves as a framework against which we interpret information; think of it like an organized perspective that we use as a lens to view and understand the world.

When you study a culture you are concerned with figuring out how they understand the world and how they make sense of the world.  This study of sense-making follows the concept that people do what seems logical and rational to their perspective.  I am interested in mapping these sense-making resources and translating them into a format that reveals the internal consistency and relationships between the rationale and the external context and stimuli.

If you look back through the histories of science & philosophy you will see the pendulum swing between two extremes in regard to ontology, one extreme believes that there is a unified and complete ontological structure to the world, the other extreme believes that there are many unified and complete ontological structures.  This is the debate between whether we can know truth objectively, or whether it is known as a perspective.

In my work I explore how we construct global formal ontologies as well as how we generate idiosyncratic folk-ontologies; this is the both/and response – I want to know how we engage in thinking when it is shaped by public beliefs and private beliefs and what it takes to reconcile the disjunctions.

One of the ideas that has kept my attention the longest is that the structure of a thought represents the choices that have been made to arrive at that thought, and that structure also shows us what has been ignored as the thought is being formed.  I want to know how the external world interacts with the internal world.  I want to know how it directs our thinking.  This is the foundational riddle that makes me want to do linguistics.

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Schematic Construals in Favor of Ecological Transportation

If you say the admittedly odd sentence “The baby feeds on mother’s milk.” it accesses a parasitic construal for the act of eating.  Pardon any offense this might cause you; I promise to redeem myself.  I am not saying that babies are parasites, but that the transfer involved could be construed as parasitic at this stage (depending on your nature/nurture views).  Please hang on for a few more sentences.

If you replace the lexical items with items from the same grammatical categories you could arrive at this sentence: “The car runs on gasoline”; this construal is merely consumptive.  All that has been done is replace a subject noun (baby) for another subject noun (car), a verb phrase (feeds on) for another similar verb phrase (runs on), and finally, a noun (mother’s milk) for an another noun (gasoline).

The innocent and non-parasitic behavior of the car in the second example sentence results from the fact that the source of the consumed material is absent from the semantics of the sentence.  Some would argue that it is implied.

So far we have a baby that acts parasitically toward its mother in order to consume a substance in order to operate, and a car that acts consumptively toward a substance in order to operate.

I want to argue that the car is actually parasitic depending on how your worldview construes the relationship between gasoline and its originating source: fossil fuel that comes from within the earth.  A reading of the earth as a mother (which many mythological systems do) would render the car’s unidirectional consumption of fuel a parasitic consumption of a resource from the earth.  If you construe the concept CAR in this parasitic way and realize that it is markedly different from a relationship between a child and a mother (the child later benefits the mother, they have a loving bond, they provide things for each other – exculpating the child from the parasitic framing), it seems reasonable to begin to look for ways to mitigate the parasitic nature of the car.  While some of the emissions from a car may provide positive feedback into the system our earth belongs to, by and large the car does nothing good for the earth, and truly embodies the role of parasite.

Something should change.

Because transferral of energy always entails a forward chain of consumption, it cannot be the consumption model that needs to change; it must be the parasitic nature.

One alternative is an epiphytic consumption, something like a solar car.  (At this point you probably see that this is not an article about babies or about cars, but rather construal and schematization).  Whether or not solar cars are a reality, that model would satisfy the need to reduce the parasitic nature of gasoline-run cars on the limited resources of a mother earth.

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How Inception Helps Me Edit Papers

Inception: Alternative Poster

When I am writing a paper that has a page limit I use the first draft to make sure that I have a complete thought, I do not worry about exceeding the page limit.

For the first round of editing I read through the entire paper once. I then reread the paper section by section.

I open a new document for sections which I want to edit and conduct all of my editing in the new window so that I can preserve the original thought while I carve up its copy.

During that new window editing, I will then take paragraphs from the section and open new windows for each of them before using the cut copy paste “kick” to move it back through the layers of the document.

When I make it back to the original layer, what I am left with is a concise, coherent, and consistent paper. In a way, for each paragraph I have gone three layers deep to plant my idea.

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How I became a Linguist: Characteristics of Intelligent Behavior

Systems thinking about the society

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Sometime in the early nineties my mother gave me a list of Arthur Costa’s twelve characteristics of intelligent behavior.  This list actually had a lot of influence in my life as I stumbled upon the trajectory toward anthropology and linguistics.  It taught me that I could actually organize observations and thoughts and cause them to not only make sense out of reality, but to blend the sense-making process with the process of describing reality.

I wanted to summarize Costa’s 1988 list here and to provide a link to a full article by Costa that explains the rationale behind each of the list items.

  1. Persistence, persevering when the solution to a problem is not immediately apparent
  2. Decreasing Impulsivity
  3. Listening to Others – with Empathy and Understanding
  4. Flexibility in Thinking
  5. Metacognition: Awareness of Our Own Thinking
  6. Checking for Accuracy and Precision
  7. Questioning and Problem Posing
  8. Drawing on Past Knowledge and Applying it to New Situations
  9. Precision of Language and Thought
  10. Using All the Senses
  11. Ingenuity, Originality, Insightfulness: Creativity
  12. Wonderment, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and the enjoyment of problem solving – a sense of efficacy as a thinker [Costa: 1988]

What strikes me as important in this list, is the correlation to the task of conducting both anthropological and linguistic fieldwork.  Wherever one is a stranger this list equips with the basic attitude necessary to learn to fit it, or at least to be welcomed in to a community.

This list is also manifest in anyone doing any kind of systems science.  All twelve of these skills make it possible for you to collect data, analyze it, and turn it into some kind of presentable report that describes the system.  This three activity cycle: collect, analyze, present is what I feel is at the core of being any kind of productively observational person.

Since this original list was published in the 80’s, Costa has revised it under the label “Habits of Mind” and expanded it to include 16 habits.  Since this revised list was not a part of my path to linguistics I chose instead to list the original.  However, the revised list is great and can be found here.


Costa, Arthur, L. (1988). Teaching for Intelligence: recognizing and encouraging skillful thinking and behavior. (p.22) in Transforming Education (IC #8), Context Institute. Stable URL:

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An Emergentist vs. Universalist view of Language and Cognition

Distributed cognition

Image by Lisa Brewster via Flickr

I wanted to present a list that outlines some of the main differences in thought about language between Emergentist and Universalist perspectives.  This is important I think because it shows how only certain kinds of programmers and mathematicians can work successfully within a Cognitive framework.

Consider these characteristics of an Emergentist (Cognitive) view:

  1. Singular Mind (General Cognitive Abilities)
  2. Distributed Cognition
  3. Neo-Empiricist
  4. The Complex System IS the primitive
  5. Prototypes
  6. Online and Dynamic Processing
  7. Usage Based View of Language
  8. Falsifiable
  9. The Appropriate Level of Granularity is the Form-Meaning Pair (i.e., constructions)

Now, compare that list with this Universalist (usually Generative) view on the same issues:

  1. Modular Mind
  2. Localization in Neuroscience
  3. Innate
  4. Atomistic, Reduce!
  5. Feature based categories & Atomistic Set Theory
  6. Stable Structures and “Switches” that enable cognition
  7. Competence Based View of Language
  8. Language is the de facto expected product of the mind
  9. Reductionism refines phenomena out of existence

Can some middle perspective be taken that combines both extremes?  What are your thoughts?

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How Novel Constructions Emerge Over Time

Reading Michael Israel’s The Way Constructions Grow taught me some things about how novel constructions actually emerge in a language.  I encourage you to check out this classic article.

The -Way construction in present usage has undertaken a sort of functional compression since its earliest usages in the 1300s.  Three main functions have been historically tracked in the -way construction usage: motion, path creation, and possession.  Motion has been functionally understood in the manner sense

Path creation has been functionally understood as the means sense.  Possession is not dealt with in an in depth manner, and Israel focuses on analyzing the convergence of Motion and Path Creation into the modern -way construction.

Here are two examples:

  • He chewed his way out of that mess (path creation)
  • The dog crawled his way home after getting hit by the truck (motion)

In the beginning the -way construction needed verbs that were related to motion and path creation, but as time went on it began to incorporate verbs that are “marginally or incidentally related to the actual expressed motion.”

The idea is that over time something I call “functional compression” occurred as the generic construction was expanded to include the different functional senses (Motion, Path Creation, Possession), which resulted in an increase in the construction’s productivity.  This process was enabled by the use of analogical extensions

Analogical usage and schema abstraction both provide important implications of CogLing approaches.  Analogical usage corresponds to the Production Principle which states that utterances should sound like things the speaker has heard before.  This is a form of conservatism in the theoretical framework.  Schema abstraction corresponds to the Comprehension Principles which states that representations should capture similarities across experienced usages, and assists innovation and novel extension.  This idea of compression is important for dealing with a vast exposure to similar tokens of a construction.

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Doing Strategic Planning #2: Decision Making and Identifying Policy Material through Discourse Analysis

,., decision making

Image by nerovivo via Flickr

Continuing on the posts about strategic planning, today I want to share how I encourage people to develop policy.  The organization that I am helping had a baseline report drafted by a committee member.  In the baseline report all of the areas of involvement were catalogued and this person identified several gaps in the way that the organization operated.  This person also organized all of the decision-making processes that the organization (a small foundation) uses to conduct day-to-day business and to make decisions about monetary investments & expenditures.

The organization has a long history of successful functioning and I am only a recent player in the story, but the organization is in a state of transformation and part of my role is to bring consistency to the process of adaptation.  Basically this project is sort of the development of a change-management strategy.  This means that a lot of policies will need to be rewritten.  In fact, decision-making is the prime goal of this particular strategic planning project.

Because the organization already had several documents and had recently drafted the baseline report I was able to compare the report to the historical documents and identify statements that would drive the prospective policy.  I borrow a common industry standard called “requirements” that are basically active-voice, single-proposition statements that elucidate a concept that is vital to be considered in the system (the decision-making process in our case).  Another feature of these statements is that they usually contain an auxiliary modal to indicate a degree of forcefulness behind the statement.  Again, the idea is to get at what things are vital to be considered in the decision-making process.

I took the baseline report and identified what the committee member found as criteria for decision-making.  I made a list of these items.  Next, I took the historical decision-making documents and identified where those criteria came from in the historical document and made a list of those locations.  This is like the process of making a concordance of references and is similar to the data management strategies that field linguists and anthropologists use in constructing data tables and dictionaries.

I asked the organization members to look through the documents and draft their own list of these vital statements so that through the process of this shared discourse experience they would become increasingly familiar with the actual textual material that we will be using to draft the strategy and goals in subsequent meetings.  The idea was to get people thinking about what their real needs actually are before they start looking to the future and to do this with an eye toward using policy to keep their strategy planning in line with their vision and mission statement and other relevant brand documentation.

Stay tuned for further updates.

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Reflexivity and Recursion in Soulwax’s “Part of the Weekend Never Dies”

Cover of "Nite Versions"

Cover of Nite Versions

Since I am posting a lot about Soulwax this month, I thought I should include this clarifying snippet about the differences between the various acts which the Dewaele brothers lead.  In “Part of the Weekend Never Dies” Stephen explains these acts to a Mexican female presenter who is interviewing him about the show:

[00:03:50] Presenter: “First of all, what’s the, can you tell the audience like what’s the difference between 2ManyDJs, Soulwax, or Radio Soulwax?” Continue reading

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Weaving Narratives: Possessions = Autobiographies

I recently created a short interview about my art project “Weaving Narratives” where I describe the process of reading objects that people own.  I hope you check it out and let me know what you think in the comment section [click the picture to view the film].

Also, weave your own narrative using the photo-documentation for this project [a free download to use in your own creative process].

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Your Language Constrains How You Can Think & Speak

When a specialist tries to talk about their specialist view of the world with a non-specialist it rarely ever goes smoothly.  In fact, usually, the specialist either talks at too specific a level for the non-specialist to comprehend, let alone understand, or the specialist talks at too general a level to do the subject any justice.

The same thing happens whenever you take any two people who belong to two different generations, disciplines, or subculture.  In fact, this same type of miscommunication happens whenever you take two very similar people and try to get them to relate, there are gross miscalculations in the process of decoding each other’s meaning. Continue reading

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What I got for Christmas…

Integrantes de Daft Punk, banda francesa de mú...

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  1. Daft Punk’s film “Electroma”
  2. Daft Punk’s album “Human After All”
  3. Gilles Fauconnier’s & Mark Turner’s “The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities”
  4. Stephen C. Levinson’s “Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity”
  5. Stephen C. Levinson & David Wilkin’s “Grammars of Space: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity”


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Think Like a Bacterium: OSMOS, Naïve Quorum Sensing, & the iPad

I was recently sucked into playing OSMOS on my iPad.  I never play video games (usually I am too busy: wife, art, school, work) but I did happen to spend four hours straight playing this game over winter break.  This game synthesizes math, physics, biology, conceptualization and human enhancement.   Continue reading

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AC/DC-inspired examples of the “-way” construction

Angus Young, lead guitarist of the hard rock b...

Image via Wikipedia

Theway construction is a structure that expresses a range of ideas like “manner” in relation to an activity that follows a path.  The construction is elaborated by accessing an AGENT/Trajector, using a verb with a possessive pronoun and the word way, and the landmark/domain through or over which the AGENT moves.  The distribution pattern for the -way construction is: X Y its way Z, or,  NP VP -way PP.

Take a look at these five examples:

  • Bon Scott played his way all across Sydney.
  • Angus Young schoolboy’d his way through every concert.
  • Hells Bells tolled its way to the top as AC/DC reunited following Bon Scott’s tragic death.
  • Brian Johnson Bon-Scott-ed his way into the hearts of AC/DC fans.
  • “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” threatened its way to the top with its tough guy personae.

You will immediately notice that there are not just canonical verbs being used in this construction, “schoolboy’d” and “Bon-Scott-ed” are not typically considered verbs, but functionally in these cases they are acting as verbs expressing manner.

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Preludes for Memnon – Aiken, Consciousness, and Ontology

I have a new link in my sidebar and I wanted to tell you a little about it.  One of my three favorite poets is Conrad Aiken, a sincere and highly lucid poet of consciousness.  Currently I am working on a paper about the metaphors of trees in ontologies (expect a post mid February) and a segment of Aiken’s Preludes for Memnon are included in a section using cognitive poetics to extract the conceptualization structures in his work.

Anyway, check out this site dedicated to Aiken’s work:


SWEET! My paper made a Top Ten Download List!

I checked my email this morning and received a message telling me that my recently distributed paper “Figure-Ground Organization in Attention and Construal” made it on a top ten list for downloads yesterday from both the Cognition & the Arts eJournal and the Cognitive Linguistics: Cognition, Language, Gesture eJournal…Awesome!

I hope you check it out!


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