Monday, September 7, 2009

Analytical Leverage, Part 1

Wow - pretentious title, huh?

The idea behind it is pretty simple. Language tools can provide a starting point for analyzing - even for analyzing things we don't know much about. The best part is that you are probably already using at least some of those tools, perhaps without an awareness of how powerful they can be.

One of those familiar tools is what I call the "sorter," a quality or characteristic that is shared by multiple "things." Like most good tools, the sorter is much easier to use than it is to describe. So try this little exercise:

What characteristic do each of these people have in common?

Michael Bloomberg, Eli Wallach, Donald Trump, Peter Stuyvesant.

You probably ruled out occupations pretty quickly, even if you didn't recognize one or more of the names. You probably also identified that they are or were all males - if only by their first names. You may have also said that they were famous or prominent. And if you are from New York City, you may also recognize them as people who lived there for some important part of their lives. Maybe you know more about these guys than I do - so you might have come up with something else they have in common.

Each of the common characteristics you named may be called a sorter, a verbal label that enables you to quickly determine who's in, and who's out of a category. So, for example, I could have added Anne Meara (actress & comedienne) to the list. As a long-time NYC resident, she still fits the residency sorter. You might consider her well-known enough to fit the "fame" sorter, but she clearly wouldn't fit on the basis of gender. On the other hand, the only characteristic that say, Britney Spears shares with the group is fame.

Not exactly rocket science, right? Well.... Let me point out a few of the less obvious aspects of what was going on in your mind as you followed my admittedly simple-minded example.

First, you didn't need a lot of instruction to understand the mental process involved. Classification Analysis - grouping and sorting things according to shared charactristics - is a mental process that your mind does so readily that you (probably) don't even think about it. I'll say that again - you don't even think about it. Consciously. That's the point. What could you do with this tool if you did think about it consciously, especially in helping you understand subjects that are unfamiliar to you right now?

If you've been following this blog, you may recall an earlier post (September 2) that mentioned the work done by Dr. Albert Upton 60 years ago. The type of relationship defined by shared characteristics - what I'm calling classification analysis - is one of the types of semantic growth that Upton identified. Semantic growth is the power behind what I'm calling "analytic leverage," your ability to understand your universe by deliberately using this capability as a tool.

If you are interested in learning more about the concept of "semantic growth," the best source is probably Upton's classic Design for Thinking. Another source (I hope) will be future posts on this blog.

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