Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Distributed cognition: How practical are its methods?


Distributed cognition, as outlined by Edwin Hutchins, like mainstream cognitive science, takes decision making, learning and so on to involve cognitive processing. However, unlike mainstream cognitive science, the distributed cognition approach is not bound by the skin and skull of the individual in analysing cognitive processing. According to Hutchins distributed cognition approach, cognition is socially, materially and temporally distributed. This approach puts great emphasis on the social and cultural context and cognition is distributed over time as we develop over time. Interactions among individuals as well as the materials (artefacts/tools) used in aiding cognition are central in analysing cognition. The material environment can serve as a medium to amplify cognition of the artefact user. 

Hutchins gives the example that using a calculator seems to amplify one’s ability to do arithmetic. One needn’t look too far or think too hard to be convinced that the social and material world play crucial cognitive roles and that one shouldn’t be limited to skin and skull but consider the social and material if one aims to give a full account of our cognition. 

In principle, an approach like the one distributed cognition advocates for, one that sees the individual and its socio-cultural context as a large cognitive system, with greater emphasis on interaction with others and the role of cognitive artefacts, is an ideal one that might capture cognitive processing at its fullest.

However, how problematic is implementing this principle into practical researches? As Hutchins himself points out, an understanding of cognition that is all inclusive of culture, context, history and emotion is very complex and has proved to be frustrating. According to Hutchins, ethnographic and simulation (in some cases) methods are used as a way to investigate distributed cognition. Arguably, not all phenomena related to social distribution of cognition lends itself to be simulated, and the ethnographic methods do not seem easily accessible.

As most of us are at the moment contemplating the kind of research methods we will engage for our main project, being exposed to the kind of apparently ideal approach that is all inclusive in understanding cognition provides food for thought. However, I am pessimistic, partly due to the inaccessibility of ethnography, that exposure to such approaches will have a significant impact on how most of us will approach our research projects. 

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