Frameworks of Emplaced Abstraction

Part II: Hayakawa’s abstraction ladder and Sack’s place-centered cone of knowledge as useful writing tools.

Part I introduced the construct of emplaced abstraction and situated it within dialogues of science communication work; Part III applies these ideas to three examples of credible and trustworthy science writing; and Part IV concludes with a simple sample assignment and list of primary sources.

Science writing involves the process of abstracting at multiple levels, with great concern for word choice that highlights relationships between primary elements and influential forces.

In the A Field Guide for Science Writers chapter on writing about nature, McKay Jenkins points out that such writing brings about “the challenge of the poet: With lofty, often abstract imaginative aspirations, he or she must find the most vivid details with which to express them.”

Jenkins invokes Aldo Leopold’s description of encountering the fierce green fire fading in the eyes of a wolf he had just shot — a turning point toward Leopold’s thinking more like a mountain and less like a man. Jenkins also invokes Rachel Carson’s account of DDT trucks rolling through mid-century American suburbs and the approach to pest control sometimes characterized as better living through chemistry. DDT is “a subject for environmental reporting,” Jenkins says, whereas “hubris is a subject for nature writing.” The best nature writing, he says, will invigorate the space “between hard science and artistic abstraction.”

In the science communicator’s want to explore broad topics, Jenkins addresses the challenge of devising narrative strategies to convey abstract ideas. These narrative strategies are the “teaspoon of sugar to help the medicine go down.”

Jenkins uses a simple conceptual model comprised of two circles and an arrow to illustrate connections between particularity — drawn from data such as observation, interviews, and expeditions — and broader philosophical questions related to topics such as species extinction, climate change, the mind of a wolf, or indiscriminate use of chemicals.

This is a basic yet useful way to help students identify components and parameters of a writing project. By identifying potential polarities in a storyline and highlighting relationships between higher order abstractions and context-rich particularity, students can better envision both the forest and the trees, as it were.

Writing instructors and students have been drawing guidance from S.I. Hayakawa’s book on semantics, Language in Thought and Action, since it was first published in 1939. The concept and image of the abstraction ladder, itself based on work by Alfred Korzybski, has been a useful guide for communication instructors and students wishing to enact critical thinking while developing effective writing practice across the curriculum.

Journalist and writing instructor Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute references Hayakawa’s abstraction ladder in a short interjection for the Neiman Foundation collection Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide.

The ladder of abstraction is “one of the most useful tools for a narrative journalist,” Clark writes. Identifying and integrating elements from both the top and the bottom of the abstraction ladder helps address a common problem of getting mired in the “muddle of the middle.”

“Writing at the top of the ladder is telling,” Clark says, whereas “writing at the bottom of the ladder is showing, presenting detail.”

A common mantra in journalism is “show, don’t tell.” For students just learning how to integrate methods of storytelling with evidence-based insights from credible scientific sources, it can be useful to encourage a “show and tell” approach. Doing so encourages students to describe not only the “What?” but also answer the question of “So what?” or “Why does this matter?” Evidence-based information is therefore presented clearly while students are also able to explain how such scientific facts or assertions relate to systemic social-ecological concerns.

In Hayakawa’s original description and diagram, the ladder is an absent metaphor. His drawing is more a series of circles, rectangles and embedded dots. It connotes a relatively linear relationship between concrete and abstract elements. By the third edition of his book, from 1972, the ladder image was added to help further illustrate and extend the metaphor.

Reproduction of S.I. Hayakawa’s original image of the absraction ladder.

Though Jenkins’ model offers simplicity and is effective in distinguishing between detailed information and more abstract concepts, it lacks nuance. Hayakawa’s model includes more nuance and allows students to understand and practice the utility of abstracting experiential phenomena through strategic word choice. Drawing on Hayakawa’s work, writing teacher David N. Chung [PDF] offers four levels of abstraction.

Level one is the most specific, using concrete and identifiable nouns such as Levi 501 jeans; African violets; and a blue, three bedroom house on Hollis Street. Level two moves into more defined noun categories or groups such as the clothing industry, teenagers, parents, middle-class, newborn child, house plants, etc. In level three, abstractions move into noun classes which cluster people, places or events into broader groups with minimal specification. These might include men, women, transgender people, everybody, nobody, therapist, teacher, the media, etc. Level four includes even more general abstractions, topics such as life, beauty, time, education, well-being, hope, good, evil, etc. Elaborating on Hayakawa’s “Bessie” example or other specific abstractions, such as Chung has done, may be a useful point-of-entry for student writers to explore the parameters of their topic ideas and the relationships between elements within. A sample assignment as such is included in Part IV.

While the prior examples were developed from and by writers specifically to help students better define and delineate their topical choices, humanistic geographer Robert Sack developed his relational geographic framework in the 1990s to explore the role of place in creating knowledge. Sack’s model has been interpreted and developed by researchers such as Daniel Williams to explore and extend concepts of place in environmental tourism, place-based conservation, and human dimensions of natural resources management.

Sack’s cone of knowledge stretches from the vertex of emplaced ontological forces — materiality (nature), meaning, and social relations — to wider generalizations of ecology, environmental ethics, psychology, economics, and politics. Researchers such as Williams have characterized this epistemological range as one stretching from of a view from somewhere to a view from virtually nowhere.

Sack’s basic representation of the role of place in creating knowledge provides a conceptual map for understanding qualities of place-based experience and knowledge generation.

“Place” in this context can be considered a specific geographic location imbued with meaning, often through significant experience. The open end of the cone invites space for critical pluralism across wider sets of abstraction. In this earlier representation, mezzo-layer elements are not included.

Abstracting in this way is useful but offers some undesirable consequences, as Williams points out in his 2002 article. First, such abstraction is “a decontextualizing process that results in a loss or ‘thinning’ of meaning” as evidenced by the general propensity of scientific discourse to overlook influential factors such as everyday experience or meanings of place from a phenomenological perspective. Second, knowledge production at the open end of the cone tends to become highly fragmented by way of discipline-specific methodologies; abstraction in the traditional academic sense has tended to isolate and segment understandings of particular people interacting in particular places within the context of larger social-ecological forces.

The critical pluralism Williams has called for (see his 2014 article) helps researchers to not only identify influential factors at the cone’s narrow end and more universal, often discipline-specific, theoretical paradigms at the top; it also identifies mezzo layers of epistemological, axiological, and ontological betweenness informed not only by technoscientific discourse but also humanistic elements of history, culture, and place.

These frameworks offer useful guides for developing the parameters and central elements of cohesive narrative nonfiction stories, particularly those dealing with terrestrial or place-based phenomena.

While experienced writers likely already have useful systems in place and can draw on the first-hand experience of developing engaging evidence-based narratives, beginning and intermediate writers may find these frameworks more useful as they move from research and reporting to outline, drafting, and revision. Identifying central narrative elements — key people, places, scenes, plot points, and transitions — at the outset of a project is helpful in identifying the parameters of emerging story ideas.

In Part III of this series, the ideas described above are applied to three examples from the 2017 Best American Science & Nature Writing collection.

Place-based ✨ Ecology + Social Relations + Meanings. Writing, Editing, Teaching & Learning. Ruralist. Homecomer. Driftless Minnesota.

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