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Ecological knowledge and affordances

July 16, 2007

When browsing the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Journal of Environmental Psychology 27 (2007) 1–13 ) I came to an interesting article about the book review.

Book ‘‘Ecological Psychology in Context’’ by Harry Heft (2001).
Revisiting Gibson, Barker, and James’ Radical Empiricism—And Rethinking Environment and Environmental Experience

The book is mostly discussing ecological psychology through the commitments of James Gibson and Roger Parker. The author emphasises affordances as a conceptual construct which has been influencing research in various areas.

Heft has a particular, socio-cultural viewpoint towards ecological psychology.

Ecological refers to the dynamic reciprocity that characterizes animal and environment relations.

‘Ecological psychology’ perspective does have its own and interesting take on the nature and place of ‘environment’ and the ‘social/cultural’ in such an ecological approach.

Ecological psychology offers the discipline a much needed focus on the environment considered from a psychological and relational point of view.

Instead of needing each individual to construct a private, subjective environment, the individual would need to possess the means for detecting structure already present in the environment. Such an analysis would provide the grounds for the possibility that features of the environment are directly perceived by an individual, even while these properties exist independently of the individual.

If directly perceivable environmental features exist independently of an individual, they can be viewed as features of a possesses in relation to the perceiver and are perceived in the context of a goal-directed action.

The gap between the individual knower and the known can be bridged (side-stepped actually), and the common grounds for shared, mutual understanding, although still leaving vast freedom for differences between knowers, becomes a possibility.

In the synopsis Heft writes: knowing is rooted in the direct experience of meaningful environmental objects and events present in individual–environment processes and at the level of collective, social settings.

For Heft all these objects constitute environmental knowledge.

I like one of the sentences, in which the book author argues against psychological distinction of the environment and mind.

The environment is not in the head, but the head and body are in and of the environment, which we directly perceive and experience, and which is ‘by nature’ both an objective given and independently meaningful in terms of functional significance.

The environment is meaningful. We directly experience an environment of meaningful objects, of meaningful events, of meaningful places, of meaningful social actions, and of meaningful institutions.

We engage a meaningful environment of affordances and refashion some aspects of them…These latter constructed embodiments of what is known—which include tools, artefacts, representations, social patterns of actions, and institutions—can be called ecological knowledge.

Heft also pursues an argument based on a consideration of shared meanings in shared environments, with the meaningful features of these common environments being literally ‘constructed’ embodiments of what is known, i.e. ecological knowledge, including tools, artefacts, representations, social patterns of action, institutions.

Ecological knowledge through its various structural, material culture, human setting manifestations becomes an integral social and cultural part of ‘the environment’, with these social and cultural affordances constituting effective, largely material, forms of knowledge with their own functional significance, cultural transmission, and
adaptation implications.

Heft is following the specific object- or action-focused meaning-conception.
He both socialises and encultures the notion of affordances.

Especially significant about affordances and behaviour settings is that from the point of view of the actions of the individual they are perceptually meaningful features of the environment. Affordances are environmental features that are enfolded in goal-directed actions, that is, they are constitutive features of actions.
The object’s meaning derives from a particular set of intrinsic properties that it possesses in relation to the perceiver and is perceived in the context of a goal-directed action.
In principle, affordances are specified by stimulus information. Included among the categories of affordances to be found in most human cultures are tools, artefacts, representations, and places.
Behavior settings are perceivable dynamic environmental structures of collective, interdependent actions and milieu (p. 384).

The whole review is rather critical and raises several questions in the end.
However, I find it particularly interesting that Heft plays with ‘ecological knowledge’ which is created in cultural actions and the ‘affordances’ as some stimulus features of actions and ‘ecological knowledge’.

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