fractality

In her book about scale, the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern suggests that it is an error to assume that the small is less complex than the large. Strathern argues that the difference between small and large is not a question of complexity but rather one of fractality. Strathern draws on on the notion that in nature patterns are often replicated (albeit not necessarily exactly) at various scales; both exact likenesses and family similarities exist between the very large and the very small. It is important, she proposes, to focus on the relationships between scales and the holes that these relationships create.

The idea of fractality is important to anthropologists and other ethnographers who very often have large amounts of data, but offer detailed analysis of a small number of particular incidents. In these cases, it is the continued thinking and analysis produced by immersion in the setting that allows the researchers to select incidents that are likely to be most illuminating – the most illustrative of the complexities and incommensurabilities of the larger ‘culture’. They also seek to find the relationship between the small and the large, but perhaps do not focus as much on the absences and gaps, the holes, according to Strathern.

Our study is small. It is not part of a larger data set per se, although it is one event in our much longer-term research engagement with learning in the gallery. However, we have found, perhaps as Strathern suggests, that this small project is highly complex and not amenable to simple answers, to one-best explanations. It may also be the case that the questions we are grappling with are the same as those that might emerge in a much larger and longer project.

We wonder of course if this project is a fractal in our longer term project, or in the overall cultural value research endeavour. We are very interested to see, as other projects near completion, how much our thinking and tentative conclusions might mesh with others. But we are also anxious to see what are the gaps and holes in our joint efforts.

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