The training involved one Power Point presentation after another, most of which entailed some stultifying combination of semantics, theory and complicated visual depictions of behavior models. The training materials looked like they'd been held hostage in some business management consulting firm that demanded ransom in the form of adherence to its enthusiasm for inane diagrams supposedly representing conceptual analysis of real world phenomenon.
Earnestly attempting to stave off sleep by focusing on the slides, I recalled Walter Ong's explanation in his masterful book, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, that abstraction is a characteristic of thinking in literate (that is, modern) societies. Pre-modern, oral societies think more situationally:
Illiterate subjects [in one experiment] consistently though of the group [of drawings of a hammer, saw, log and hatchet] not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations - "situational thinking" - without adverting at all to the classification "tool" as applying to all but the log. . . . A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: "They're all alike. The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces. If one of these has to go, I'd throw out the hatchet. It doesn't do as good a job as a saw." . . . Asked why another person had rejected one item in another series of four that he felt all belonged together, he replied, "probably that kind of thinking runs in his blood."(p. 51 (citations omitted).)
Of course, situational thinking isn't bad or less intelligent than abstract, categorical thinking. It's a different way of organizing information that, in certain contexts, is appropriate or even superior to abstract, categorical thinking.
One such situation, I have discovered, is during a training for hygiene promotion in emergencies.
Hygiene promotion involves persuading and cajoling people into washing their hands after using the toilet. Safe water and food handling, safe disposal of excreta and solid waste, and safe management of "vectors" (rats, flies, mosquitoes, etc.) is also part of the job.
The job can be difficult and anxiety-provoking because the subject matter can be embarrassing, and people are often unwilling to discuss or change intimate habits, especially with or at the behest of strangers or foreigners. In learning how to do the job, case studies, simulations and opportunities to work directly with relevant populations are helpful. But as any parent who has toilet trained a child can affirm, diagrams of models of behavior change don't offer much assistance in getting a kid to use a toilet.
This retreat into business-consulting-speak may be a simple result of hiring too many engineers to do water and sanitation-related work in emergencies. Engineers are notoriously poor communicators.
But this silly and ineffective abstraction about hygiene promotion may also have another cause: anxiety about discussing embarrassing and, potentially, demeaning issues. Making a behavior model about hand washing may seem, to some, more important work than actually communicating with others about hand washing; certainly, there's less risk of personal exposure and humiliation.
Sadly, such a perspective simply leads to wasted efforts. No matter how advanced the society in which we live, we are all practitioners of primitive functions, like defecating. Modern thinking is powerless to change ancient facts.
(Image courtesy of the Global WASH Cluster website)