Monday, 20 July 2009

Perceptions and misunderstandings

Having failed to obtain yet another lecturing position, I have been thinking again about perceptions and how it is easy to end up talking past each other. With a core part of my research being based on the principle that people are aware of phenomenon in different ways (Thompson 2008, Marton 2000), you might think that I am used to the idea that we need to clarify what a person is referring to before we assume that we know how to respond.

In my thesis (Thompson 2008), I explore the perceptions that software development practitioners have of an object-oriented program. My results produces two outcome spaces; a set of categories that express the different expressed awareness of the phenomenon. The first outcome space relates to how they perceive the nature of an object-oriented program and second to how they perceive the design characteristics or constraints. Each of these provides a range of perspectives used by practitioners.

What I am conscious of is that I am not necessarily picking up the intent of the questions in an interview nor am I ensuring that I am clarifying the interviewer's intent. The result is that we can end up talking past each other rather than talking about the same issues. Of course, it is a while since I last had to go through an interview process so I should have taken time to ensure what the focus of the question was and ensure that I was answering the question required.

However, this same concept applies more generally. In computing, we can see the developer and the customer appearing to use the same language but making assumptions that mean that they fail to communicate. A husband and wife can end up doing the same thing.

In international affairs the situation is possibly worse. Different cultures means different assumptions and different suspicions. The negotiators might appear to agree on the surface but the underlying cultural differences mean that they are actually assuming a different implementation. The two parties then come into conflict for not having fulfilled their side of the bargain.

What is worse is when a particular party endeavours to force their perspective on the other. This I believe is what we are seeing in the application of one model of economic thinking to the resolving of problems in every country. When the model is already shaky and is really designed to enslave then there can be confusion when the rhetoric is that of freedom and democracy. There can be no freedom when I am indebted to another party but again, am I talking past the promoters of the current economic models because I am looking at the requirements of the system from a different perspective or level of awareness?


Marton, F. (2000). The structure of awareness. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 102-116). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT University Press.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North. Available at:

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