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Notes from our discussion on "Culture as Disabilit
Date: //2006-08-04 17:06:32 :
Link to this Comment: 20128
I wrote up this summary of our discussion to think about some of the ideas some more... I hope others will add additional thoughts as there were many good ideas I didn't include...
In their essay, McDermott and Varenne propose that disability can only be understood as something emerging at a societal level. Disability can only be meaningful when one looks at an individual as embedded in a group of other individuals-- a society or culture. No sense can (or should) be made of disability as an attribute inherent in any particular individual. They say,
"One cannot be disabled alone..."
"The world is not really a set of tasks..."
They identify two ways in which disability is often made sense of and then offer their own:
1. Disability as deprivation
2. Disability as difference
3. Culture as disability
A parallel may be drawn between their ideas and evolution. In the context of evolution, the world IS a set of tasks (to survive, to reproduce, etc.). However, nature does not care how an organism/individual gets along in the world, that it does is all that matters (i.e., a human moves around by walking on two legs, a bird does so by walking on two legs or by flying, whereas a snake uses its entire body to move itself forward; mammals reproduce sexually-- by combining their DNA with that from other individuals, whereas a bacterium reproduces by simply creating a clone of itself). From an objective standpoint, no way can be said to be inherently better than another.
In human cultures, disability is created when a society puts a value on doing something one way as opposed to another. In doing so, the world in which ALL individuals must live is changed to suit some and not others. The world still remains a set of tasks, but now the world is navigable only by those individuals who do things in that very specific way. For example, a person may be considered abnormal if they cannot hear. Because a society changes the world in ways which best suit those with intact hearing--communicating via speech, creating telephones, making music, etc.-- a deaf person can no longer get by as easily in the world.
The parallel to evolution is interesting because the world is being continually modified not just by individuals of one group (one society), but individuals of many different groups (many societies). Just as a group of individuals can marginalize some of its own members, so too can (and do) multiple groups/cultures repress and constrain others. Further, one species can disable another (e.x. considering the human contributions to global warming, we could say that coldwater fish may some day become disabled as global temperatures rise).
In 1950, psychologist Karl Lashley published “In search of the engram”. Lashley asked where in the brain memory is located. First, mice were trained to run a maze. He removed different parts of each mouse brain (some mice had two or several different parts removed) and then assessed their ability to complete the same maze. He found that although the degree of impairment was proportional to the number of removed parts, ALL mice were ultimately capable of completing the maze. Lashley’s concluded that the brain is equipotential with respect to memory.
Equipotentiality can be contrasted with the view of localization of function, which is more common today even though the observations by Lashley have not yet been challenged. Equipotentiality does not deny that there are specific modalities of the brain—such as vision, audition, and so on. But, unlike a localizationist perspective, it acknowledges that, given a task, an organism has many ways of completing it. Why does a localizationist view then prevail? Because it’s demonstrable to show that a person is incapable of doing a task when they are constrained in very specific and unnatural (?) ways. For example, a patient with prosopagnosia is said to be incapable of recognizing people, including family, friends, and even his/her own reflection. But, this is borne out usually only in a clinical setting when being tested on recognizing people from pictures. That is, recognizing visual images. However, in daily life they ARE perfectly capable of recognizing family and friends, most times by voice recognition (auditory cues). Such individuals are disabled only when allowed to do things in pre-determined and constrained ways.
Lashley provides a concrete example of two different, albeit both sufficient ways a mouse can learn:
“These facts indicate that, in the absence of the visual cortex, the learning of the brightness
reaction is carried out by the optic tectum. However, so long as the visual cortex is intact,
removal of the tectum has no effect whatever upon the performance of visual habits. The
tectum apparently does not participate in visual learning so long as the cortex is intact.” (466)
The contrast between disability as deprivation and disability as difference may be strong, but the contrast between disability as difference and culture as disability is subtle. Again, a deprivation approach says that a priori of any societies or culture, there are certain, correct ways of doing things in the world and people either have them or they don’t (and are disabled). A difference approach is roughly equated with the “politically correct” sentiment: “I have a way of doing X, and you have a way of doing X. We’re just different and each way is equally preferable.”
However, one can go further and say cultures create not only disabilities but abilities. The difference approach implies that methods of doing things are inherent properties of the individual (an individual sees, hears, etc.). Culture as disability does not. The notion of abilities, characteristics, or properties, of an individual is not meaningful unless taken in the context of some set of tasks, in the context of a world with which an individual interacts. These ideas resonate with the philosophical tradition of constructivism (or anti-realism). There can be no real or true description of an individual in isolation. A materialist may still say that some neurons in a particular organisms brain fire in the presence of electromagnetic radiation, but is still referencing the external world of that organism. As an example, we might say that all human beings are blind, because we cannot detect infrared light, say, as snakes do. “Blind” as a concept is only understood when it is constrained and made very specific (detection of electromagnetic radiation of wavelength x, etc.).
It is our activity as a culture that creates tasks which in turn defines abilities and CREATES disability. It should be our job to allow such tasks which we create to be achievable in the broadest array of methods possible.
If one accepts the authors’ argument, a quite different view of society must be taken. What sense can be made of mental “illness”? schizophrenia? the insanity defense? Pedophilia? In the latter case, intimacy between adults and children can be found in other cultures where it is not stigmatized. In the case of mental illness/disorder/disability, these are then things in need of better understandings as well as not things to be “fixed”. Further, if we do not constrain the way tasks are to be completed, individuals need to be free to complete those however they so chose. Certain ways of doing things must be open not only to those currently considered disabled, but open to everyone. In other words, no special treatment (ex: even though a student may test negative for a learning disability, he/she should be free to have as much time to complete a test). Ramifications for education? Saying that an individual should be free to complete a task or achieve a state by any means he/she wishes parallels with the difference approach to disability. Why must an individual complete a task/achieve a certain state in the first place?
Date: //2006-08-06 22:39:51 :
Link to this Comment: 20131
"The idea that chronic hostility, vengefulness, or divorce are indicative of mental illness would be illustrations of the use of ethical norms (that is, the desirability of love, kindness, and a stable marriage relationship)... The norm from which deviation is measured whenever one speaks of a mental illness is a psycho-social and ethical one."
So, the judgment of hostile/non-hostile, etc. is made by a culture, though I don't think he goes as far as McDermott and Verenne to say that it is culture that makes the split between hostile/non-hostile, etc. and that (from a more philosophical standpoint) hostile/non-hostile may not be something inherent within an individual. But to that end, he does acknowledge that descriptions (and subsequent actions) are never purely objective. He quotes the term "participant observer", which I think articulates the idea well:
"[A psychiatrist] is committed to some picture of what he considers reality-- and to what he thinks society considers reality-- and he observes and judges the patient's behavior in light of these considerations."
I'm hesitant to agree with the entire essay because it's unclear to me whether or not he is further denying a "materialistic account" of, for example, the phenomena which we might call schizophrenia:
"The notion of mental symptom is therefore inextricably tied to the social context in which it is made in much the same way as the notion of bodily symptom is tied to anatomical and genetic context."
That is, he certainly rejects a "medical model" of mental illness, but I'm not sure if he's rejecting a "biological model" as well. Irrespective of how a society judges that particular "mental symptom" I think saying there is a neurological correlate to that and every other "symptom"/mental/bodily state is not the same. For example, in an individual with schizophrenia, the over activity/spontaneity of neurons firing in the temporal lobe or what have you manifest as auditory hallucinations remains fairly objective, though the very calling of attention to this particular difference between a schizophrenic and "normal" individual and any subsequent judgment is where the "participant observer" comes in. Though maybe this is still being a realist...?
And one last point of his I think relevant is that he distinguishes between an individual and society deciding that he/she deviates from the norm. That is, while society/culture should not create pressure for individuals to seek "treatment"/change, the methods and means (pharmacology, psychotherapy, and so on...) should not be denied to those wanting them.
|culture as disability and ...|
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2006-08-07 11:30:08 :
Link to this Comment: 20132
"the world IS a set of tasks" ... I like and think very useful the distinction between "a set of tasks" and "ways of accomplishing those tasks". Its a particularly clear and, I think, valuable distinction in thinking about what we mean by disability, biological evolution, and the Lashley work. Because of it, one can (should?) not regard localization and equipotentiality as oppositions, one can/should acknowledge that evolution is in the business of exploring the variety of ways that tasks can be accomplished rather than finding the best one, and one can/should accept that a characterization of specific "deficits" is not a necessary (and perhaps not even a particularly useful) approach to human diversity.
As you note though, even in biological evolution there is some relevant fuzziness in the distinction. A given species is not in fact free to explore ALL possible "ways of accomplishing those tasks". The existence of other species, like the inanimate world, sets limits to what is a viable way of accomplishing the "tasks" for any given species. The limits are never such as to narrow the possibilities to one but they certainly can be great enough so one might want for some purposes to say that the "task" is not entirely independent of the circumstances. There is an important positive as well as negative side to this. Other species may in fact bring into existence the potential for NEW "ways of accomplishing those tasks" (ie create new evolutionary niches). And so the "task" itself becomes even more one that is less independent of circumstances.
And that, of course, is reminiscent of our course conversations about realism and constructivism. There is something "out there" (ie a set of constraints on the stories one might tell about "reality") but there is always more than one available story and hence no way to tell the story that is perspective-free (there is no "fact of the matter"). Moreover, the "task" (to make sense of things?) is itself an influencer of what one is trying to make sense of (and perhaps even whether that or something else is the "task"?). So maybe the task itself is somewhat fluid?
And all of that is of course reminiscent of (for me at least) the "bipartite brain", an organization in which what can change is not only "ways of accomplishing tasks" but definitions of the nature of the task itself (the "stories"; see Writing Descartes). A product of evolution is an architecture that can not only explore ways of accomplishing tasks but reconceive "task" itself? Freeing human life (at least) from any fixed conception of "task"?
And, with that freedom, throwing one into "abject relativism"? Not necessarily. See "Theory and Practice of Non-Normal Inquiry" and The Emergence and (continuing) Evolution of the Story of Story Telling" and On Beyond Post-Modernism: Discriminating Stories". The argument, basically, is that not ALL possible task definitions "work", just as not all ways of achieving tasks work. And hence that we should move on to task definitions that haven't yet been shown not to work, in particular to a commitment to "generativity" in the future.
Does this help with "disability"? with "mental health/insanity"? As you say, "Blind" as a concept is only understood when it is constrained and made very specific (detection of electromagnetic radiation of wavelength x"). And I agree that the arguments make it less appealing to use "medical model" approaches to either disability or insanity. I like the direction of your following "while society/culture should not create pressure for individuals to seek 'treatment'/change, the methods and means ... should be be denied to those wanting them" but think we actually need a still broader "different view of society".
Not all individuals are the same, and it is not at all clear to me that we want to evaluate people in terms of a "norm". Some people are, under some circumstances, troubling to themselves and/or to people around them. How are we to deal with either or both, in lieu of concepts like "disability" and "insanity"? My suggestion is that we use, for the moment, the criterion of "generativity". The question ought not to in what ways particular ways people are different from others so as to cause problems (for others or themselves) but rather in what ways they are different that open new "ways of accomplishing tasks" and new ways of conceiving "tasks". To put it differently, we start with a presumption that difference is good rather than bad and commit ourselves to helping everyone become better able to shape their own lives and to impact in positive (though not entirely predictable) ways on people around them.
|Response to Laura|
Date: //2006-08-07 11:37:50 :
Link to this Comment: 20133
|Re: Roll Over Rev. Bayes|
Date: //2006-08-09 12:47:23 :
Link to this Comment: 20149
If I recall correctly the conversation we had with Professor Grobstein some weeks ago about Bayesian stats/prob, one way of contrasting Bayes and classical prob/stats is that the latter assumes a reality. Bayesian stats/prob does less so/or bases predictions about future events based on (all?) previous experiences/observations/outcomes/probability, rather than using a fixed/unchanging conception of reality (?). So, that’s the context I read your paper in and for the questions/thoughts here… Because you say that Bayesian stats can be used to more “accurately” make predictions, and posit “truth” I assume that for you Bayesian statistics does make more use of the concept of “reality”? But, referring to one of your previous papers concerning the unknown/uncertain and “comfort level”, would it still make sense to say that as you collect more observations/experience (prior probability becomes replaced with revised probability and so on) Bayesian statistics instead expresses the confidence/comfort level with which you can make a prediction/judgment rather than become necessarily more “accurate”/closer to reality? To be more concrete, I might say that “classical” probability that I have breast cancer is 1% and if I have a positive mammogram the certainty of having breast cancer remains the same. But, using Bayesian prob and the new observation that mammograms are not always accurate, I can more confidently predict my chances of really having breast cancer given what I know (probability of breast cancer and information about mammograms). So, if one uses Bayesian prob. to assign “comfort levels” to judgments/predictions, if it were used more would one really jump to fewer “false conclusions” or make fewer “mistakes” or just be more confident about conclusions whether or not we can say that they are true/false?
|looking forward ...|
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2006-06-22 10:34:29 :
Link to this Comment: 19555
Date: //2006-10-31 00:26:14 :
Link to this Comment: 20817
Date: //2006-11-22 08:37:42 :
Link to this Comment: 21161
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