Genesis of Signs in Adult Activity

Signs, as relations between signifiers and signifieds, do not simply exist but need to be established through the forms of work identified in Fig. 10.2, structuring the material continuum to obtain forms and relating the different forms obtained. These forms of work generally are not made thematic but simply assumed, for example, when writing about what laypersons or experts say and do after being asked to explain what a particular graph in their domain of expertise expresses. The same kind of work can be observed in research laboratories, when scientists plot data and then figure out what can be learned from the displays they created. Sometimes people just create signs on the fly, such as the case referred to in Chap. 2, where two researchers begin using a hand-arm gesture that imitates a professor’s movements during a physics lecture. We note that the gesture, as used communicatively by those two researchers, evolved over time, eventually being reduced to a mere flick of hand and finger. We also note in Chap. 2 that simultaneously, there were changes in the signified, that is, in how the gesture was used as part of the communication. In that case, the gesture, though social and cultural through and through, never became a widespread form of communication. It endured over a few months, having currency only between those two researchers, and then it disappeared again. Because it was not recorded—other than in subsequent descriptions—it has been an ephemeral means of communication.

One area in which the emergence of signs has been reported is in the context of interpreting graphs (Roth 2003). Consider a task that might be found in an introductory biology course, which asks for a discussion of the implication when the death rate and birthrate of a species take the shapes depicted in the graph (Fig. 10.5). Students are asked to make statements specifically concerning the conservation of the species. The task also instructs focusing on particular parts. In this situation, we

Task used in a think-aloud protocol with research scientists

Fig. 10.5 Task used in a think-aloud protocol with research scientists. It requires identifying specific signifiers that stand are to stand in a signifying relation with biological phenomena may think of the graph as a field of signifiers that can be related to some population with a size or density N. For example, if we consider an intersection of the two curves at a particular population size N1 as a signifier, then one signified is a constant population size (density); this is so because death rate and birthrate are the same at the point of intersection so that there is neither an increase nor a decrease in population size. It is apparent that what a person will say and discuss depends on what she takes as signifier; and what she perceptually isolates (a form of structuring) as signifier depends on the possible signifieds available to form a sign relation. Such tasks also have been used in research on graphing expertise (Roth and Bowen 2003). The studies with practicing scientists asked to do the task exhibit some surprising results that can be described and explained within the framework articulated here (i.e. Fig. 10.2).

In this task,16 all of the university scientists (n = 8) identified the left intersection (at N1, the signifier) to stand for an unstable equilibrium (signified) but only four of the eight public sector scientists did so. In the case of the right intersection of birthrate and death rate (at N2), seven university and three public sector scientists identified the correct signified (stable equilibrium). When they were done with the task as stated, the scientists were also asked to respond to a query in which a signified was provided and they were to locate the associated signifier in the graphical display (Fig. 10.5). The question was: “Which part of the graph corresponds to the greatest increase in population size N?” Here, the signified is stated as “the greatest increase in population size N.” Only one university scientist and no public sector scientist located the correct signifier—which is that point where the function N ? (birthrate - death rate) is maximized. The study was repeated in an expanded form with physicists, who responded to the same tasks as the biologists and to structurally identical tasks in their own field (Roth 2012a). The comparison shows that they were generally less successful in the graphs from biology, where they were out-of-field, than the public sector biologists, who had been less successful than the university-based biologists.17

In this task, the participants were explicitly directed towards possible signifiers; when they were not directed in this manner, success rates dropped drastically. One issue identified among biologists and physicists was related to the work of structuring. Thus, a 30-year veteran physicist (Annemarie) said, “I cannot help but seeing slopes.” This is apparent in the following fragment where she articulates what she is seeing. [1] [2]

Fragment 10.1

Whatever gives itself to Annemarie’s perception, figure above ground, is indeed what she can take as a signifier. We generally do not make ourselves see some physical feature differently—unless prompted to see something else than what we see, as this is the case in the many examples of images that can be seen in two or more ways.[3] We perceive whatever offers itself to be seen. That seeing then comes to be made present again in iconic form by means of a gesture, whereby the pencil tip moves along the birthrate curve showing that it is rising. That is, she is seeing the increase (i.e. the slope), which, as she states elsewhere, is greater than the increase in (i.e. slope of) the death rate in the same area of the graph. Struggling with the task, she asks the research assistant to give her a clue. He replies by stating what can be identified to be her problem: “Well, I think what’s confusing you ... you are talking about the birthrate as slopes of those curves ... but those curves are the rates of change.” The research assistant instructs her what to look for and look at; and he relates it to the signified change in population. That is, her struggle, already identified in situ by the research assistant, pertains to the form that offered itself as a signifier; and it is the relation of this signifier to another form that cannot be established as a result. In this situation, a sign does not exist in the form that allows something to be related to something else. As a result, a sign does not develop. Instead, Annemarie will ask the research assistant for more clues, which will lead to a tutoring sequence of how to look at the graph so that the relevant signifiers come to stand against the ground ready to be related to the relevant biological phenomena. It is this labor that we refer to as structuring work.

The fragment begins after the research assistant instructs Annemarie to focus on the area to the left of the left intersection (at N1) and to tell him what she sees. In effect, he is asking her to engage in the work of articulating the perceptible structure (signifier). She accepts by stating that the birthrate is less than the death rate (turn 01). After a pause, she offers a signifier: “the population is decreasing” (turn 03). There is an acceptance particle (“right!”), and a query then is offered asking for a statement about the direction in which the population size changes (turn 04). This is accepted in a reply that consists of a verbal index (“this way”) together with a hand- arm movement to the left (turn 06).

Fragment 10.2

The two begin to speak simultaneously, as part of which the research assistant offers an instruction to draw an arrow, which Annemarie subsequently accepts by drawing arrows to the left and right and away from the N1 at which the two rates are the same. The reply “I really wasn’t seeing that at all” is a gloss of what she has come to see, which may be the direction in which the population was headed, as arising from the relevant {query I reply} (turn 04 I turn 06)—though the transcription does not reveal what it might have been definitively.

In this case, we observe the genesis of a sign. In the beginning of Fragment 10.2, Annemarie apparently is still seeing the slopes of the curves. One can see and hear her struggle, because she asks four times for a (little) hint or clue, which initially meets resistance, but then leads to the conversion into a longer tutoring sequence. Repeatedly there are formulations of not having seen something, sometimes referring to a feature of the graph, at other times “seeing” a signified (i.e. the movements in population size at the points specified in the task, Fig. 10.5). The sign—i.e. the signifier-signified relation—first exists as social relation, and specifically in the sequence of turn 01 (Annemarie), turn 04 (research assistant), and turn 06 (Annemarie). It is here that an association is made between the signifier (turn 01) and the signified (turn 06), held together by turn 04, which is both an acknowledgment and acceptance to the preceding turn 01 and an invitation to identify the signi- fier that finds its partner in turn 06. The positive evaluation of this identification is provided in turn 07. Here, the relation between the two segmentations of the material continuum is produced by and is reflected in the social relation between two people—i.e. the sequentially ordered transaction. That is, what later shows up as a sign, the relation between two segmentations of the continuum, was a social relation first, just as a concrete human psychology a la Vygotsky would have it.

The natural history of signs may be studied in other contexts as well, for example, in science classes. Here, elements of the curriculum may be thought by curriculum designers and educators as standing for and in relation with given scientific concepts. From this perspective, students may be said to fail to “understand” those meanings and relations. But rather than taking a deficit approach, researchers might be better of studying what students actually do that leads to the emergence and evolution of signs. Interested researchers might draw on the ways such studies have been conducted among scientists, who, by the very nature of their discipline, constantly are involved in the work of evolving signs that exist in the relation between the data often depicted in graphs and the phenomena that these graphs stand in for (e.g. Roth 2013). Such scientists are constantly learning; and yet many educational psychologists are not interested in the implications of “learning in the wild” that may have possible implications for designing school-based learning environments. Consider the kind of work done while a scientific research group attempts to grasp what the data they have produced and plotted in a graph (signifier) stand for (signified).

Over a period of 5 year, we followed the scientists of an experimental biology laboratory (e.g. Roth 2014). The biologists intended to establish a method for fish hatcheries to optimize the date at which they were to release the young salmon smolts[4] into the wild. The optimization method was based on a Nobel-winning theory according to which the composition of the retinal cells changed when salmon migrate to the ocean from a high of more than 90 % of one constituent to about 5 % (Fig. 10.6, dotted stepwise curve). After having for a while collected data on young salmon from one geographical area, the scientists are puzzled. Their data do not fall onto the expected (predicted) curve at all. More troubling, 21 data points seem to follow something like a sine curve; but four data points lie considerably away from that pattern and closer to the original curve that they had intended to confirm. In this stage of their research, they have one part of the sign, the signifier, but they do not have the other part, the signified. They therefore have no sign at all, at least not in the sense of a signifier-signified relation. Their data analysis meetings show that they cannot infer the signified from the data points and graph. So they engage in investigating some of the relating work they have done. Even before there is closure in the production of the sign, they are trying to find out what the signified is and, in so doing, give birth to a sign.

When the scientists are at the point of publishing their data, it is quite apparent that they talk about them and their graphs as if “‘look[ing] through’ the measurement points seeing ... the real events in the hatchery where they get their fish, and in the river and estuary, where they capture additional specimens for sampling purposes” (Roth 2013 : 95). This “looking through” is like our everyday use of any concept or text: when we read the newspaper, we are seemingly transported to the event that the text is about. In reading “An investigation into the disappearance of $40,000 from School Parents’ Advisory Council has resulted in charges announced today,” everything—the investigation, the theft, the victim, and the charges laid—is present to us without requiring effortful interpretation. It is as if someone pointed to some phenomenon visible in our immediate surrounding. But because the scientists do not see what their decontextualized data stands for, they have to engage in the

The data of an experimental biology laboratory are plotted differ from the curve expected from the standard theory

Fig. 10.6 The data of an experimental biology laboratory are plotted differ from the curve expected from the standard theory, and four data points are far away from the apparent pattern relating the 21 other data points

work of reconstituting the context of the data collection and the source of their specimen for the purpose of finding the partner of the signifier-signified pair to the one they had in hand. In the process, they talk about the ensemble of environmental factors that might have influenced the specimens from which they took their retinal samples—including climate, the nutrient concentrations in the water bodies of the geographical area, or the number of specimens that had migrated into the river systems during the previous season. They also investigate the ages of the fish, which could be for unknown reasons either bigger first-year or smaller second-year fish. They investigate whether there is a link between the amount of retinal composites and the weight of the fish. In the end, after having conducted a lot of work to find a signified, the scientists do not publish those data that deviate from the sinusoidal pattern (i.e. the data including the four data points observable in Fig. 10.6). But they do publish those data where they were able to reconstitute the entire process that have led to the ultimate creation of the graph, from the initial catching of the fish at a particular time of the year through the machinery of scientific research to the plot on the computer monitor. In this case, therefore, the researchers’ investigation coin?cides with the investigation of the natural history of a sign, which began with different forms of structuring work and the making of connections between the results—leading to the eventual birth of the sign (i.e. the sinusoidal graph).

  • [1] This task turned out to be one in which the 16 scientists of an initial study were more successfulthan on the other tasks that they were asked to solve.
  • [2] Because the task requires identifying possible signifieds, and physicists likely are less familiarwith the domain of biology, the results make sense.
  • [3] Wittgenstein (1953/1997) presents a duck-rabbit, that is, an image that can be seen as a duck oras a rabbit. An Internet search will produce many other examples.
  • [4] A smolt is a salmon during ajuvenile stage in the life history of this fish. When salmon are smolt-ing, their scales turn silvery and there are physiological changes that prepare it for migration fromthe freshwater (where it is born and lives the early months of its life) to the ocean where it growsto adult size and readiness to return to the freshwater systems to spawn.
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