Meanings (by Robert Stake)

[This is a guest blog – best read as a poem. It is written by Bob Stake, a prominent research methodologist and social commentator based at the University of Illinois. Stake was one of those who, in the 1960s and 1970s,  led the development of methodologies for social enquiry that proceeded, not through the use of models, instruments, algorithms, measures, theories, but through the portrayal of people, their circumstances and their lived experience. As social researchers were asked more and more to evaluate social and educational programs – new school curriculum, novel approaches to professional training, environmental protection projects, community development initiatives – so they came under pressure to produce methods which could guide program managers and politicians as they tried to understand how to engineer and manage change. Conventional methods failed: they were too static, too abstracted, too coarse-grained to answer the detailed questions being asked as to why this change did or did not happen and how to replicate it. It was Stake, among a small number of others, who responded to the challenge, not by trying to simplify the world of innovation, but by capturing and finding ways of managing its complexities. One of his first insights is rehearsed here, in his most recent writing: that no human activity can be held static for long enough to measure it, to test it. Behind all action there is meaning, and behind the multiplicity of actions in a classroom, on the beat, in a hospital ward there are many, always shifting meanings. This does not imply that human action is beyond our understanding – but that we have to tolerate high levels of uncertainty and the inevitability that there will be multiple explanations (narratives) of what we see and do. What follows will need careful reading – but it strikes to the heart of this Blog site – the democratic need to challenge the simplification of single narratives.]

© Robert Stake

  1. To be meaningful, it doesn’t have to be full of meaning, full to the brim, but just to mean something. Shreds of meaning are meaningful. And it’s fine if it doesn’t mean the same to everyone. In fact, we come to understand amid incomplete and different meanings. Still we try to be more meaningful.

A message will have multiple meanings. A word will have multiple meanings. A picture and a gesture, as well. No one meaning satisfies the yearning to communicate. We are blessed with multiple meanings.

It cannot be otherwise. As far as we know, meanings exist only within the thought of living creatures. They may be registered in scents, on paper, or in the cloud, but as with the tree falling in the forest, it takes a creature to make it meaningful. Mostly we mean, a person.

And as each person is changing, and as the context changes, and as attentions shift across the parts, meanings change. The change happening at this moment may be tiny but, in moments more, the meaning becomes simpler, or more complex, or just different. As part of living, personal meanings change. Some hover, resisting the drift.

For each meaning, over time, the batch of momentary and enduring meanings is a swarm, a nebula; malleable, ever-changing, vacillating; often consistent enough, having recognizable form.

Any collection of these momentary and enduring meanings drawn across a group of persons nestles in the same ways, under the radar, ever-changing, vacillating; often consistent enough, having recognizable form. We can say that each batch of meanings vies with others for recognition, for expression.

  1. To put them into writing doesn’t then keep the batch the same.  It reads out differently. To share meanings with others doesn’t keep a batch the same. Meanings change, especially in social experience. It’s the default position.

What is put into writing, into a template, on the record, is not exactly what was thought. Especially in careful expression, it changes. What is spoken is never what was thought. You can’t speak your mind.

It may be too much to say all recorded meanings, all explications, are misrepresentations. They emerge, partly unconsciously, only partly intended and expected. Some are better, some are worse, than the batch from which they came.

We want to get it said so that others can share. We want to get it put down, so we can work it further. We know the meanings can be made better. But people change in unintended ways, and meanings will too.

The changes may not be different enough to make a difference. Often they are not. But is it a mistake to remain indifferent to the ebb and flow, the changing? Often it is.

The world sometimes thinks there are true meanings. Or what is official is the right meaning. Meanings right and true are what experience and contemplation persuade us is right and true.

  1. The thing meant, giving meaning, usually is complex, a composite, a composite of composites. Its batches will themselves be composites, soups, machines, itineraries. Each component has its own batch of meanings.

The combined meanings of the components are not the same as the meanings of the whole. One does not understand the whole better by fixing on the sum of parts. Mother, hunger, fidelity profit from example, but gain meaning as wholes.

The quality of a writing sample is not necessarily better understood as a weighted sum of the quality of the characteristics: the purposivity, the style, the persuasiveness of the writing. Concentration on parts makes it more likely other parts will be overlooked, such as the utility of the passage in a letter of recommendation or eulogy.

Weighting parts lends itself to consistency of comparison but not necessarily to understanding. Fixing the weights for all samples passes as a step toward fairness, but often is not. Grand meanings need grand scrutiny, holistics as well as analyses.

Internal consistency can be meaningful with homogeneous entities, but seldom with composites. Most organic entities are composites. Even the best of soups, say, lobster bisque, relies little on internal consistency.  Marshlands and genealogies are composites, with meanings at risk when put to the analyst’s tools.

  1. We have meanings in our head, weakly bounded, poorly anchored, seldom safely registered. We seek their registry, to make them explicit, explicated. Context plays a part, situation, circumstance; available to immediate test, sometimes long-playing. We want our meanings understood, often as explanation, drawn on experience, revealing what we know.

We seek the center of the meanings, we digest, we synthesize. Wisconsonians have urged we “ruthlessly winnow and sift.” We may approach the best meaning for some purpose, but not the always-better meaning.

We utter, record, codify many of our thought-meanings to work them better, to put them on display, to exercise our will. They may gain their way as much from the writing-down as from their logic. The order of things needs writing, signage, manifestos.

It is a mistake to think that codified meanings retain the integrity of the batches of thought-meanings from which they spilled. Words know no end of meaning, but almost every actual record will be simpler, more abstract, than the original batch. We so edit.

When registered, formally verbalized and activated, put into policy or practice, the meanings often are condensed into what is widely found acceptable. Social criteria can be brutal. The integrity of the composite meaning may be diminished.

Codification will sometimes lead to misperception, as when the template is taken as original intent. Misperception may be deceit when the registration is deliberately passed off as fulfillment or consensus of abiding thought.

What has been called the Information Age is as much the Misinformation Age. Scrutiny and validation are muscled aside. Strong is the intent to generate unwarranted meanings in advertising, politics, and administration but also throughout our personal discourse.

Safety can be offered through deliberate mention of breaches, anomalies and alternate meanings. Protection from misperception requires scrutiny, skepticism and validation of what is passed as codification of original meanings.

Particular examples of how our lives are diminished by letting the register, the document, stand for the meanings in our mind, are as follows: What we mean by intelligence is hurtfully misrepresented by a test score. The great batches of meanings of education are hurtfully misrepresented by a diploma. The meanings of fiscal integrity are hurtfully misrepresented by credit ratings. The meanings of citizenship are hurtfully misrepresented by police blotters. And with hurtful absence of fidelity, the integrity of a country is too often represented by its gross national product, its war record, or its bill of rights.

  1. We are blessed with multiple meanings. Not just twos and threes but batches and whorls. We are blessed with uncertainties. With growth and decay of meanings, our minds are more free to choose, improvise and contend.

We have no choice in a fast world and distraught society but to use simplistic indices, templates, and standards. Gaining meaning, losing meaning. So, one defensible standard of social responsibility might be: Resist synthetic documentation overriding our personal batches of meanings.   The essence of understanding is not yielding to the most respected authority, nor reduction to the precise denominator. The essence is respecting the multiple meanings of our experience.


Bob Stake, 7-17-2017

1 Comment

  1. You’re right, Saville. Bob Stake’s piece reads like poetry: “… batches will themselves be composites, soups, machines, itineraries.” Pure John Ashberry. Or Wallace Stevens. But unlike the poets, Bob takes us to a more practical encounter with meaning, applicable more immediately to our work and ourselves, a humility of scrutiny, a more knowing unknowing. Thanks to you both! — Robert


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