On gaps

What leads a person to do something different, to be creative?  It is said that design begins with a gap in the user’s experience (Ulrich 2011).  However, we might note that a person only experiences as a gap something they experience as a gap.  (The “objective” gap that a third party could point to is not necessarily a gap “subjectively” for the person.)  Moreover, if the experience of a gap is not accompanied by a sense that something can be designed and used to bridge the gap, then it can slip out of the person’s day-to-day attention.

The schema to follow allows us to think about two kinds of gaps together.  On the vertical direction, a proposal to represent the way things are (knowledge) or to manipulate them (technology) may entail social arrangements that do not currently exist.  For example, in a 1979 study I co-authored (Ferguson et. al 1979), restoration of soil degraded by salinity in south-east Australia could have happened by flushing out the soil with irrigation water, which was the current practice, or by ion-exchange in mixtures of gypsum and organic compost.  At that time, there was no separation of garbage into components, municipal composting of organic waste, or transport of such compost back to agricultural areas.  On this last item, there still is not, but it is clear that the ensuing years have made the counter-factual social arrangements around gypsum-compost approach more realizable.  The vertical gap, once large, has been reduced.   Yet—and this is the horizontal direction—a constituency would still have to be built to support the piloting and establishment of such an approach.  In the process of doing so, the approach might get adjusted so that more people can become invested in it.  Perhaps it would involve fewer or less profound counter-factual social arrangements.


In this last spirit, the schema is not meant as a static map of approaches, but as a place to chart trajectories.  Suppose, for example, that someone invents a touchscreen cell phone, relying on existing cell-phone networks to make calls.  We might position that innovation near the bottom left and notice the early adopters who just have to have one of the new devices whatever the price.  Soon, however, software developers create apps that allow for parents to keep track of their teenagers’ whereabouts, to run GPS instead of carrying maps, to take photos during surgery, and so on.  The innovation is now moving on a trajectory to the right and a little upwards as more people’s concerns are addressed by the innovation.  Eventually, the rise upwards leads to a dip downwards as the new social arrangements become the norm.

Suppose, as another example, we position Schweickart’s detailed (2002/2011) account of Economic Democracy as an alternative to capitalism.  Readers might find the account compelling but see no opportunities to build a social movement to support the transition to such a system.  If the ideal is positioned at the top left, the path to “cross the chasm” and bring more people into the project may well involved a steep drop from the ideal until what is left seems more immediately relevant to their concerns here and now.  Alternatively, a firm Schweickartarian may acknowledge the depth of the counterfactual arrangements entailed, but insist on pushing the trajectory however slowly to the right without watering it down.  Of course, the speed of moving to the right—of building a constituency for Schweickart’s Economic Democracy—may speed up as unfolding economic, political, and environmental crises hit capitalism, leading more people to  the gap in the vertical direction and contribute to bridging the gap in the horizontal, constituency-building direction.

The two directions in this schema match the perspectives on Action Research described by Taylor and Szteiter (2012), for which the schemas at http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/ARcycling2.html provide an entry point.


Ferguson, J., A. Smith and P. Taylor (1979). “Economic aspects of the use of water resources in the Kerang Region” Technical Paper no. 11 of the Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (I.A.E.S.R.). (Second report to the Ministry of Water Resources, Victoria).

Schweickart, D. (2011)  After Capitalism, 2nd edition.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Taylor, P. and J. Szteiter (2012) Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement Arlington, MA, The Pumping Station

Ulrich, K. T. (2011)  Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/~ulrich/designbook.html


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

5 Responses to On gaps

  1. This schema extends my thinking about microworlds, messy worlds, and real worlds (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-uZ) during the Learning Creative Learning MOOC in spring 2013. For example, the creativity that happens in computer-based micro-worlds would start in the bottom left, edge upwards and to the right, perhaps “crossing the chasm” to address some everyday concerns of more people, but more often staying to the left as a small circle of fellow-inhabitants of the micro-world share creations that are possible because they accept that no changes in the wider social arrangements are entailed. Messy worlds is a label for situations in which gaps of both types can be perceived, but which don’t dictate the details of how to bridge the gaps.

  2. This schema also suggests, given the gaps in two directions, that all research should be thought of as Action Research, http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/ActionResearchEpi_Cycles.html

  3. This schema invites us to incorporate into constituency building an ethic of “flexible engagement” (defined shortly) thus enhancing the ability of ourselves and others to build constituency next time around. (This might be like a derivative of the gap–how speedily we can bridge the gap.)

    From Taylor (2005), Unruly Complexity: “Flexible engagement. An ideal in which researchers in any knowledge-making situation are able to connect quickly with others who are almost ready—either formally or otherwise—to foster participatory processes and, through the experience such processes provide their participants, contribute to enhancing the capacity of others to do likewise..”

    This schema invites us to incorporate into knowledge- and technology-making an ethic of “transversal engagement” (defined shortly) thus reducing the likelihood that we will be blind-sided or steamrolled by political-economic changes.

    Transversal engagement = ideal practice and policy that
    • takes seriously the creativity & capacity-building from well-facilitated participation among people who share a place or livelihood
    • mitigates adverse trans-local decisions
    • incorporates knowledge-making of non-local or trans-local researchers including their analyses of abstracted dynamics of political-economic change

  4. Pingback: Moving and motivating given the gaps | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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