Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Method Madness

I recently found this passage in doing some background reading on narrative.  It's the kind of excerpt that makes me want to get up and do a cartwheel or yell jackpot! and confirm to everyone sitting nearby that I've finally lost it.  (If you don't have the same reaction, that's probably good.)
"Sir Frederic Bartlett, a celebrated Cambridge psychologist, was the first scholar to investigate and theorize cross-linguistic and cross-cultural differences in narrative construction.  In Bartlett’s (1932) classic study, Western subjects were read a Native American story, The War of Ghosts, and then were asked to re-tell it.  Because the participants found both the story structure and many accompanying details unfamiliar, they repeatedly transformed the tale in recall, both through omissions of details and through rationalizations, which made the story conform to a more familiar Western pattern.  On the basis of these observations and experiments, Bartlett (1932) developed his theory of schema that informs much of contemporary cognitive science, psychology, and narrative study.(Pavelenko, in press, p.7)
What I find so exciting about Bartlett's experiment is that it is so similar to my own, but it's from 1932!  It tests the culturally defined pattern of narrative which is linked to how we make sense of the entire plot line of the story.  Discovering that my methodology has some precedent which I have now adapted and appied to communication via ICT strengthens the validity of my approach.

Here in Gulu, Uganda, I am investigating the reverse phenomenon as Bartlett.  I'm interested in individuals far from the cultural of design...telling their own stories through a western artifact.  (Some Acholi speakers may call phones and tech related objects "things for work made with craftsmanship in iron" or alternatively, "things for work made with with skill from whites")  I hypothesize that when a narrative is given in Acholi via an ICT, a narrative shift occurs, but it is the ICT which triggers this shift.  The shift is between an Acholi narrative structure and a western one, and the spatial cues of the technology 'space' we enter when using ICT applications causes users to adapt their narratives and concepts to fit the western model much in the way a bilingual Acholi-English speaker makes small changes when switching into English.  This change happen at the cognitive level, the level of categorization, ordering, and many other 'thinking' level pre-language processes that the speaker may or may not be aware of.  My hypothesis is that the ICT, even if the interface language is in Acholi, is recognized to be 'of the west' because of other visual cues which every culture makes sense of in different ways. (Check out international signage for some great examples.)

My hypothesis is based on years of field observations in a range of linguistic and cultural settings, but the challenge is how to create a research method that captures a phenomenon I have a strong inkling about in valid and reproducible terms that the academic community will also find compelling.

Other research that I find cartwheel-worthy comes out of ALT-I, the African Languages Technology Initiative.  In particular, the engineers Odejobi and Adegbola theorize, 
"services supporting CMC [computer-mediated-communication] intended for use in African environment should exploit and implement language technologies developed around African languages and cultures."
 They propose this addition to current technologies of American and European origin should first,
"describe and represent the knowledge systems underlying African systems of communication in a form amenable to computation, e.g., numerical, graphical, or symbolically…. by critically and analytically address[ing] the question of how African people represent concepts." 
My research is therefore grounded in conceptual transfer theory within cognitive linguistics.  Their idea is both broad and ambitious, and my research begins to explore the possibilities they suggest.  If we concede that there are a myriad of ways in which different cultures communicate, why is there only one style of communication technology as research teams led by both hill Hill and also Zakaria propose, only the western-engineered model of sharing our narratives, transmitting stories, moderating the digital information that has become interconnected with our very identities?  This research examines the impact of information and communication technology design-- the current mono-cultural design-- on narrative, identity and participation with examples from a bi-lingual Acholi-English case study in Gulu, Uganda.

...and this case study involves what exactly?  That is what I have been explaining to community leaders for the past several weeks in order to get the OK to start collecting data. (My Acholi explanation is getting better slowly and involves the word apoka poka  which means difference)

Odejobi, T. and T. Adegbola. 2010. Computational and engineering issues in human computer interaction systems for supporting communication in African languages. In: O.A. Taiwo ed.  Handbook of research on discourse behavior and digital communication: language structures and social interaction. Chpt. 56. [ebook] ISBN: 9781615207732 [Accessed 20 January 2012].

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