The AQAL grid
This post is part of an an ongoing reading group exploring Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael E. Zimmerman. For more info about the group, go here. To read the rest of this post, please click the fold’s link.
Up to this point most of the chapter discussions have involved language, jargon and references from thinking and schools of thought that are outside my own particular expertise. Though I find those discussions quite interesting, I have not really been able to participate in them with any depth. For chapters 5 and 6 I’m going to discuss the material from the perspective of my particular interest, which is media education. I apologize in advance for not adding much to the previous conversations. Hopefully you will gain something from my perspective.
Chapters 5 and 6 launches Part II of the book, which focuses on the “Who, What, and Where of Integral Ecology.” Chapter 5, “Defining, Honoring and Integrating the Multiple Approaches to Ecology,” is an ambitious effort (as is all the other sections of the book) to group and define the various schools of ecological thought according to the AQAL grid.* Chapter 6, “Ecological Terrains: The What That is Examined,” is a more extended examination of the first of three major concepts laid out in chapter 5.
I find the approach of both chapters quite useful, actually, and like the idea of mapping ecological theories according to their various perspectives. I’m not immersed enough in any of the specific theorues to quibble about their placement, so I suspect others who are more steeped in a particular tradition or attached to a method might object to their location. If anyone wants to argue the specific classifications of ecological perspectives in these chapters, by all means use the comments section to do so. I’m going to apply this method of mapping to relevant media theories for my own work.
Simply put, who = epistemology, how = methodology and what = ontology (these are not meant to be in any particular order because they are enacted simultaneously). Any stakeholder will come to the table with some kind of configuration of these, and E/Z point out that no human is wrong 100% of the time, so everyone will have a partial perspective that has validity according to his or her perspective (who, how, what) based on a number of possible configurations. Again approaching this from my own bent as a media educator, this model helps clarify how media practitioners will approach media differently according to a variety of contextual and environmental factors. They will chose to use media in unique ways as opposed to the view of most media critics that treat audiences as uniform.
The authors use the term “holon” to describe any node in the network of these relations. The holon can be a “member” of an ecosystem (biophysical and noospherical) but not a part, reflecting its relative autonomy to choose an interaction (however limited or expanded it might be given the perimeters of its structural coupling—here I’m borrowing from Varela and Maturana’s explanation of why an ant will be limited in what it can do versus a human). The holon’s reality will open up according to its worldspace.
According to E/Z each quadrant is a “terrain.” The integral ecology perspective takes into account all four terrains of the AQAL grid. So when we see a tree, there are actually many trees within different perspectives. This concurs with how media texts are viewed according to different theories. For example, in my survey of media education texts I found that most look at media from the LR perspective, in other words, from the view of only one terrain. In recent years there has been research that looks at what audiences do with media (UL, LL) as opposed what it does to them (LR). Unfortunately most debates about media (and media literacy) are either about the interior versus the exterior point of view, but rarely both. The UR is rarely discussed in media studies except for one field—media ecology —which tends to look at how the the LR’s technology shapes the cognition and behavior of individuals. This interests me greatly, in particular how different kinds of media correspond to different brain functions (i.e. TV is right brained, whereas as literacy is left brained). An integral approach would definitely look at cognition and behavior as important elements of how we engage media.
The beauty of the quadrants model as applied to media education is that it allows us to see how our experience of media is enacted according to differing affordances. The quadrants are not separate but emerge together. So if we look at a media text as a boundary object, it can be understood from the point of view of economics (LR), its impact on physiological behavior (UR), phenomenology (UL) and culture (LR). I think from Varela’s view, all these factors co-enact each other. This would be a tough pill to swallow for critical theorists who believe that political economy (LR) is the root structuring mechanism that drives consciousness. In Marxist terms LR and LL would be the “superstructure” and the UL and UR would be the “base” (I think). What gives the appearance of a stronger influence of a particular area, such as political economy, would be the center of gravity it has to pull behavior towards it. So though it would appear that Britney Spears is just a phenomena of the culture industry and is only popular because of economic forces that shape taste, the individual who encounters Spears and is her fan is also enacting her desire (I’m thinking out loud here) according to the worldspace that opens her reality. Her worldspace could be shaped by family, religion, education, mental development, emotional state, age, gender identity, etc.
The terrains model concurs with what I had already noticed when I worked Native American communities. On the rez I could see that the social science perspective only told part of the story. According to the culture industry model, Native culture should be obliterated, but that is not the case. What made some more resilient to the influences of technocratic culture than, say, a suburban white person? To explain what I was encountering, I developed something based on the medicine wheel (I call it a “media wheel”) which also has four quadrants: cognition, culture, environment, and individual. The integral model I think is clearer and better thought out.
Quadratic and quadrivia:
Who: The quadratic approach is represented by the quadrant of ontology (being). In this quadrant we place the individual (holon) at the center. She has four simultaneous modes of enacting reality (going clockwise): experiential phenomena (UL), behavioral phenomena (UR), social and system phenomena (LR), and cultural phenomena (LL).
What: The quadrivium is the quadrant of epistemology (knowing, a way of seeing). This is how we look at any phenomena (such as a dying fish in a lake). For my purposes, this would be how one approaches a boundary object (such as a Pepsi commercial). Unlike the ontology quadrant, we put the boundary object in the center and look at if from four perspectives (going clockwise): psychological and phenomenological inquiry (UL), behavioral and physiological analysis (UR), ecological and social assessment (LR), and cultural and worldview investigations (LL). This seems to come close to Peirce’s semiotic elements.
How: The corresponding methodologies for looking at the media text would be: phenomenology (UL), physiological properties of media/textual elements such as color, sound, motion, editing as they relate to cognitive/sensory experience (UR), economic factors of media/critical theory (LR), and the cultural aspects of it—anthropology/semiotics (LL).
In chapter 6 E/Z write about 12 niches of ecological perspectives. For them, each terrain is comprised of three levels of complexity. This is where I get a little lost and I feel they are cramming too much into the model. I’m not even going to get into it because it give me an ice cream headache trying to integrate it.
The rest of chapter 6 is devoted to examples of perspectives that focus on each terrain. This is very helpful. I appreciate the abundance of examples used to help explain these rather complex models. The final example, the 12 niches of a stream restoration project, shows how exhaustive the model is. Personally, I find it a bit too exhaustive. It’s hard to get an overall picture when there are too many perspectives to take into account. Sometimes there is a benefit to simplification and for my personal tastes, the 12 niches pushes me over the edge. However, as demonstrated earlier, the four terrains combined with the quadratic and quadrivia perspectives are very useful mapping tools that allow for the combination of differing theoretical camps.
* If you are entering this forum without the context of the previous discussions and chapters, these initials correspond to the All Quadrants All Levels grid developed by Ken Willber (see above graphic). Here is a brief summary:
Upper Left (UL) – “I” is the interior first person view and can be characterized by phenomenology/umwelt/subjectivity.
Upper Right (UR) – “It” the exterior reality of the individual that is described by behavior and can represent the objective conditions of a person, such as her cognitive and sensory structure.
Lower Right (LR) – “Its” represents the holon’s environment and can be characterized by an ecological or economic system, depending on what aspect we are investigating.
Lower Left (LL) – “We” is the interior plural reality that is identified with culture, language and semiotics.