Ian Hacking and the human kind

For my previous phd topic, Ian Hacking’s work was providing a useful frame.  I still think this applies for exploring learning in collaborative, digital environments, so I’m going to make a start here by outlining a bit of what Hacking is about.  Caveat: I still have much reading and thinking to do.  This is mainly drawing on what I did for my MSc in STS.

When thinking about learning in World of Warcraft, I think we need to think about what we are learning (ie learning to be, to become a thing). James Paul Gee’s stuff on projective identity is useful here for thinking about the individual learner, but I think Hacking’s stuff on human kinds helps us take a wider, sociocultural view on becoming.

Hacking has a few concepts that are useful here:

  1. The idea of the human kind
  2. The way a human kind emerges
  3. The way a human kind responds to being studied

1.  The human kind

The “student” human kind
(by D Services, 2012, flickr)

So, a human kind is something that relies on human talk and action to exist.

Lecturer, student, gender, marriage, authority are all human kinds.  If you wiped humans off the planet, human kinds would cease to exist.  This is in comparison to non-human kinds – like tigers, mountains, gold – which do not rely on human talk and action to exist. If humans disappeared, non-human kinds would carry on.

The “tiger” natural kind
(by stephenhanafin, 2009, flickr)

Others like Barry Barnes  (1983, 1996) and Martin Kusch (1999) talk about these two kinds as social and natural kinds.  But whether human/non-human or social/natural, these are highly idealized kinds.  When we construct knowledge about a non-human (natural) kind, we are doing something social to what comes under that description of a kind (imagine how different things might be for a species described as ‘endangered’ compared to that described as a ‘pest’.)

A human kind, I’d argue, is what we are learning to become when we undergo formal (or informal) learning.  I’m currently learning how to be the kind ‘academic’.  I’m also trying to be ‘marksman hunter’ in World of Warcraft.

Hacking (1995) proposes four criteria for being a human kind:

  1. the kind must be highly relevant to us
  2. it must be peculiar to people, sorting their actions and behaviours, bringing characterisation and classification
  3. it must be a kind of behaviour we want to have knowledge about (ie studied in the human sciences)
  4. it must be one where we have an inclination to project the kind of behaviour onto the person.

When Hacking talks about human kinds, he opens up interesting ways for us to think about where these kinds comes from, how we learn to take on a kind and what it means to be that kind.

2.  The way a human kind emerges:  Making up people

Making up people (“Peoplebrushes” by fotofilip, deviantart)

Hacking describes human kinds as a way of ‘making up’ people – it’s an act of production, of creation.  It’s a way of naming and understanding people.  He uses the term ‘dynamic nominalism’ to try and capture the iterative, dynamic process in which the names and the named emerge simultaneously and in interaction with each other.  What it means to be a ‘gamer’ for instance develops as the characteristics we see as making up a ‘gamer’ emerge.

While human kinds do not encompass all that we know of people as individuals, they do enable quantification and “digests of what matters in intimacy” that “acquire the abstraction of the sciences or impersonal management” (Hacking, 1995: 354).  This can have an affect at a personal, individual level – even when human kinds are presented as scientific and value-free they are laden with judgement.  There are serious social implications to a family member ‘coming out’ as homosexual or a colleague sharing the news that they have been diagnosed with depression. Importantly, while a human kind may be a cultural artefact, it isn’t any less real for members of that kind.

Hacking says that the process of making up people ‘changes the space of possibilities for personhood’ (1986:165).  Possibilities for people are bounded, determined by what is imaginable and articulable, what is named and described. A draenei paladin In World of Warcraft, for instance, what it means to be the ‘tank’ is different to what it means to be the ‘healer’. The tank’s job is to keep the big bads focused on him to hold the agro so no other players get hurt.  The healer’s job is to keep the tank alive (and after that, the other players).  The kinds of abilities each player gets is different based on the class and specification they have taken up.  For instance, a paladin could theoretically be a healer or a tank, but has to choose a specification which gives particular strengths for the one role and undermines the likelihood of doing a reasonable job in the other.  Choosing a Holy specification means the paladin is ideally placed to heal (its costs less energy, is more effective) but means they lose the crowd controlling spells the Protection specification would have to tank.  Coming under one description (Holy paladin) both limits and makes possible different things to coming under another description (Protection paladin).

Hacking also says making up a kind of person involves developing “systematic, general, and accurate knowledge” from which to “formulate general truths about people” that are precise enough to predict behaviour and enable effective intervention (1995: 352).  This is the name or kind that we might know (imagine, for instance, what it means to say someone is ‘depressed’ or a ‘gamer’ – we instantly have ideas and expectations about what it might mean to be that person, what kind of behaviours we might see from them.)  Arguably, a community of practice (a la Lave and Wenger, 1991) is about enculturating someone into that way of being.  A player needs to learn, if they want to be a healer and a paladin, not only that they need to choose the Holy specification, but also how and when to wield what spells.

3.   The way a human kind responds to being studied:  The looping effect

(by cubistscarborough, 2007, flickr)

For Hacking, there is a difference in the way human and non-human kinds respond to being made up, to how they exist under description and how they respond to being classified.  This is partly because human kinds are value laden and partly because human kinds are aware of their classification.  So, as Hacking (1995), while mud may not care if it is classified as ‘muck’ or ‘mud’, a person may care deeply about how they are classified.  For instance, to call someone a ‘depressive’ has moral connotations, it may make us treat that person differently, it may make them feel differently about themselves and to behave differently.  It changes the description under which they exist, enabling a re-description of present and even past experiences.  A person diagnosed as depressed can make choices, conscious or tacit, to adopt the ways of that kind or to reject the classification.  As Hacking (1995: 369) notes, “classifying people works on people, changes them, and can even change their past”.  This awareness and response to classification has implications for the classification itself.  Firstly, the changes of individuals within the kind can effect the kind itself.  Secondly, since the kind changes, new knowledge about the kind exists which then informs people of that kind.  This second point sheds light on the ever-changing definition of depression in formal classificatory practices such as the Diagnostics and Statistic Manual, as depressed people as a cohort developed particular characteristic behaviours, and in practices more informally, such as discussion of depression as being related to a poor diet after an Oprah Winfrey special.

What this means for my research is that things I am studying are ever-changing – the people under that kind are responding to the descriptions about them. In this way human kinds become what Hacking calls a ‘moving target’ – they’re hard to pin down, as they are categorized they respond to the categorisation in ways that may change what it means to be thing we are attempting to categorise.

There’s much much more to Hacking than these few paragraphs can cover.  So be prepared to hear more in due course! 🙂


About Clara O'Shea

I'm an Associate Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. I teach on the MSc in Digital Education. I'm also doing a PhD on learning and becoming in collaborative digital environments.
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