Saturday, 25 October 2008

Brace yourself, cos this goes deep

Googling around for info on the legitimation of ideas, I came across a paper on the Challenger shuttle disaster which looks like it might be an interesting read. Here's a chunk of text from the paper about how ideas come to be accepted -

"Analogy in combination with the social mechanisms identified here—professional legitimacy, conversation, technologies, time, networks, social support—seem to be ingredients fundamental to the diffusion of expert knowledge. Scholars interested in the production of knowledge and the diffusion of ideas have tended to approached the problem one of two ways: reputation or content fit (Camic 1992; McLaughlin 1998). The reputational perspective accounts for the rise and fall of ideas based on historical and cultural context, geography and national traditions, institutional, organizational, and network arrangements, or individual characteristics of the author and scholarly life. This case affirms the reputational model’s findings about institutional arrangements and networks, adding to it by emphasizing the actor-network association (Latour 1987, 1988) and by suggesting that technologies of dissemination might be usefully incorporated into the study of knowledge production, regardless of type of knowledge or historic period. The second approach has explained the acceptance or failure of an idea by its content. Camic, discussing the role of the content-fit model in a theorist’s selection of intellectual predecessors, implicitly suggests analogy: “The relationship exists chiefly because of the fit between the arguments, concepts, themes, materials, orientations, or methods of certain earlier figures and some aspect(s) of the work of the thinker under study” (1992, p. 423). The fit with the content of an idea is affirmed by the empirical analogies that enabled the theory of the Challenger accident to travel to the Columbia tragedy. These analogies and the structural equivalences between the two problems suggest that the form of an idea or theory in relation to its application to other empirical situations may also be significant in the legitimation of ideas, their acceptance or rejection and dissemination."

The paper is NASA Revisited: Theory, Analogy, and Public Sociology by Diane Vaughan.

Title hat-tip: Mike Skinner


John said...

Urk. Couldn't they just stick to rocket science? I might have a better chance of following that.

So are they saying: "Some people think experts choose what to believe because their mates told them, and some think it's because they work it out for themselves. But we reckon that if you noticed we didn't tie a bit on properly last time, you might suspect this time round that we'd only gone and forgotten it again."?

Or not of course - you have me utterly befuddled now!

Tom P said...

Yeah I think the reputational approach is basically "should I believe this?" based on things like who is saying it, how it fits with cultural norms etc.

I think the content fit idea is more like "does this idea share some common ground with something I already know?" So it might suggest that I might reject an idea if the assumptions on which it is based are very different from the ones I have.

Of course you could argue that these two approaches are linked since they are both 'good reasons' to accept or reject an idea. We might not actively consider how relevant or well-grounded these factors are when we consider an idea, we just use theme as boxes to tick to help us decide whether to give it serious thought or not.

Nick Drew said...

hmm ... could be missing something, slow Monday etc, but these two theses seem a bit - obvious ? - even dull ?

not much more illuminating than "some ideas you get from your parents, some from your Church"

anyhow, to stir the pot a bit, here's a phenomenon we don't really suffer from in the UK - the Germanic university system, where you learn at the feet of Professor Schmidt; Schmidt sets the exams; and to pass, you must regurgitate the thoughts of Schmidt: you are a Schmidt-Schüler, and that's all you need to know by way of legitimation

(I caricature a bit, but not much)

Tom P said...

I like the content fit argument because it suggests, to me anyway, that we might not entertain ideas because of the way they 'look'. Sort of. So using a analogy or metaphor that doesn't fit with the way I already look at the issue may mean I reject the idea on those grounds alone.

Yeah the role of the professor is an interesting one, especially when you consider that a lot of philosophical ideas can be construed in different ways. So in order to progress you need to master the professor's own take on the ideas in question.

John said...

So does that suggest that spin is inalienable from politics? If you can tweak your metaphor to be more easily received by the people you want to influence, then you could make them think twice about your proposal rather than dismissing it out of hand.

I've been reading a book (honest) in the last week which touched on this (Love the work, hate the job by David Kusnet). A union organising campaign at a hospital was not going so well. The nurses had all signed up thanks to some good energetic work by activists and organisers, but the technicians weren't at all keen, and were needed for the whole bargaining unit. The union bought in a technician from an already unionised workplace, who presented largely the same details to the techs, but without the "Yes we can" rhetoric and a whole bunch of graphs instead, and they won over enough to narrowly win the technician vote.

Tom P said...

Well, personally I think there is a load of stuff you can do to make your pitch more appealing, and certainly using an effective metaphor is one to think about.

I've being thinking for a while that there is a lot that the unions could learn from this kimnd of thing to improve the way they appeal to non-members. The example you give makes a lot of sense to me if you buy the idea of social proof suggested by (amongst others) Robert Cialdini. People are easily influenced by what others do, especially if the others in question are like them. So getting in someone doing the same job to extol the benefits of being in a union is a very sensible idea.

You could also flesh this out a bit by providing some stats - what about posters or flyers stating 85% (or whatever) of technicians in the industry are union members? I'm sure this would have an impact because it tells you what other people like you are doing.

The book Influence by Robert Cialdini is worth a read on this stuff.

Liz said...

Here's more for your thinking: Chris Burns, who writes about information management and the psychology of decisions -- PLUS information disasters such as the Shuttle disaster, has written a book that addresses a lot of these. It's "Deadly Decisions" and it's based on detailed study of a dozen major information disasters by an expert on information management. It's very accurate -- and it's very interesting.