Saturday, September 19, 2009

Two Ways of Analyzing

Just as there are at least two ways of seeing (things and qualities - see the post from September 2), there are at least two ways of analyzing, based on the nature of the relationship or the purpose that you have in mind.

For example, if I am interested in figuring out what kind of place I want to move to, the characteristics of the place are probably what I need to think about first. Do I want something that is close to downtown? Secure? Full of light? So I focus on these qualities, and I analyze alternatives by the extent to which they share the qualities I want.

On the other hand, if I want to provide some basic furntiture for the place where I already live, I may focus a lot more on things - and particularly, how those things fit together to make a larger thing. In that case, I may be more interested in the relationships of the parts to the whole.

This may seem like I am making an intellectual distinction, and I suppose you could look at it that way. I don't see it that way. If I want to get better at using my thinking skills to solve a problem, then I have to pay attention to what my mind is doing. To help us do that together, let's focus on a couple of ideas about these two types of analysis.

1. Different mental skills are involved.

The last three posts on this blog explored the skill of classification analysis - of grouping and sorting things according to shared qualities or characteristics. The last two posts looked specifically at applications of classification in marketing and in basic accounting. What about this part-whole skill?

I'm going to refer to this skill as "structure analysis," using the term developed by Albert Upton and his students. When we use our thinking skill of structure analysis, we really do focus on the "thing" itself. We define things, we count them, we figure out how they fit together - we pay attention to the relationship between the parts and the whole.

In the example mentioned above, we might start figuring out what furniture is needed for the eating area by listing parts: table, chairs, buffet. Then we might count those parts - 1 table, 4 chairs, 1 buffet. The counting is one of the ways in which structure analysis differs from classification analysis. Structure analysis is quantitative. When we are analyzing the relationship of the parts to the whole thing, quantities matter.

2. The "best" skill to use in a given situation is determined by your purpose.

If I am a college student analyzing the furniture I need, structure analysis is probably the critical skill. I'm interested in making sure I have the parts needed to function - chair, desk, bed (for some - refrigerator, sound system...). On the other hand, if I am a designer helping a successful couple furnish their new home, the pieces of furniture involved (the "parts") may be a given. My job may be much more focused on the qualities of the environment - the "look and feel" - and I may be more successful by attending to a classification of my clients' desires related to these areas.

This may be the most important part of developing and refining thinking skills for learning and solving problems - the need to be aware of, and focused on, the purpose involved. Our cognitive skills provide a robust and flexible set of tools for accomplishing intellectual tasks. Becoming more successful at using these tools means becoming increasingly better attuned to purpose.

If you have been thinking that there are others ways to analyze, then I agree with you. In fact, one cognitive skill not yet addressed provides a set of tools for addressing another dimension - time. A classification is an abstraction, and timeless. A structure, however, is more concrete, and structures have a tendency to change over time. More to the point, we have problems we must solve that involve changing structures over time, which suggests another type of analysis, and another cognitive skill - which means another post.

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