cognition as networks
With the increasing interest in the cognitive structures that underlie organizational and market activity, I think it is important to take a step back and think more carefully about the constructs and how they are used. A quick glance at the literature reveals a long inventory of cognitive structures used in research – categories, frames, schemas, logics, scripts, recipes, etc … Currently within organizational theory there is much emphasis on categories and how they constrain and enable market behavior. While there certainly is good reason why categories should matter, we should ask ourselves if categories are the right unit of analysis.
Let me propose that a more tractable way of thinking about cognition is to treat categories as embedded within a broader network of other categories through a series of relationships – essentially what is called a schema. Empirically, this means capturing the nouns/phrases as categories and the verbs as relations that connect them. See Kathleen Carley and colleagues efforts to draw such cognitive maps. In my own work, with Christopher Bingham, we have applied this technique to analyze how the insurance industry conceptualized the early business computer. But, what do we gain by looking at the network as opposed to the individual categories?
One reason why considering the conceptual network is important is that cognitive mechanisms, such as analogies, leverage the relational structure and not the category structure. Gentner and colleagues have characterized analogies as mapping a relational structure between something familiar and the new concept. Something new is familiar because of the shared relational structure as opposed to sharing the same category. In fact, in our work with the computer, we observe two distinct analogies – one comparing the computer to existing office machinery and the other, to the human brain. Just focusing on categories would miss this powerful mechanism to expand and develop new categories.
Another reason has to do with meaning. With respect to meaning, focusing on categories places an emphasis on identifying the salient characteristics that define the category as well as boundary maintenance. However, our research has shown that the meaning of relations and categories can change not because of internal changes to the category itself but because of changes in its associations. For example, early on the relation “verify” was associated with clerical workers and office machinery and took on the meaning of checking up on the office machinery to make sure it was doing what it was supposed to. Over time, what “verify” was associated with changed. Programs replaced clerks such that computers would self-verify and other kinds of users and information were added. “verify” shifted from confirmation through comparison between humans and computers to the computer acting as the ultimate proof.
Third, by thinking of cognitive networks encourages us to think more deeply about higher-order structures that influence cognition (see Klaus Weber). For instance, Martin Ruef has argued the new categories are likely to emerge in less densely populated areas of the network. Another intriguing approach would be to incorporate network measures in our analysis of cognition. For example, how do clique structures respond to new information as opposed to more diverse cognitive structures? At what point are relational structures developed in relation to categories?
I am curious, what do you think of the advantages and disadvantages of thinking about cognition as networks?