To Stir or To Dissect?

On not mixing up levels of a problem

On this blog, I usually write either about IT-related things or about the academic parts of student life. This blog post will surely be the most basic one yet. Nevertheless, I deem it necessary to write it, as a reminder to the topic of this blog post, the - or at least my - general approach to solving problems, is often necessary. Too often do debates get out of hands because two discussants concentrate on different levels of a problem without keeping in mind how these levels relate to each other. Too often are there simple misunderstandings because people communicate on different levels.

I argue, that any larger problem, any larger question can be dissected, broken up into different levels or layers, which can then again be broken up into different single aspects. Only through a clear-cut differentiation of each of these can a proper solution or answer be found. On the other hand, there are links of mutual influence between the different aspects and layers that sometimes make it hard to follow through consistently with differentiating the layers. Instead of mixing up the layers as a result of this highly complex interlinkage, though, we should analyze the links and relations between different layers/aspects as a later step and still keep the clear-cup differentiation.

This, I argue, is the reason for the development and documentation of set approaches in the production of knowledge. A given approach offers a way to map a problem, say, to break it up into different layers and different aspects within layers. Additionally, it may point to key aspects which deserve special attention among the myriad of aspects that can be potentially identified as part of a problem.

Breaking down a problem

Indeed, I believe that this basic assumption is a major part of the foundation of modern science. Without being literate enough in the general history of modern science to substantiate this claim, I can offer a number of examples from different disciplines in which categorization is used to get a hold of a problem. I will do so in the first part of this text.

Also, I believe that this meta-approach - breaking up problems, analyzing the parts, looking at the whole problem again and analyzing it using the previously gained insights - is applicable to most if not all problems of everyday life. This will be dealt with in the second part of this text: I outline the three layers of problem solving to be found when editing a website, which uses my CMS.

Different Fields, Same Structure of Inquiry

This section outlines two different approaches from very different fields of science to show that across the field there is a common structure to how problems are analyzed. This common structure is the dissection and breaking down of problems into different layers and subsequently different aspects of each layer as described above.

  1. In her Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work, Parreñas (2001) discusses the life of (Filipina) labor migrants using a framework breaking up the levels or layers influencing a labor migrant as follows: First, there is the structural level, describing large scale, systemic aspects like global capitalism. Second, there is the intermediate level, describing e.g. policy. Finally, the subject layer describes the immediate surroundings of a person within the group of people that is to be analyzed.
  2. Benkler (2006) uses another threefold set of layers to describe the conditions of the development of society towards a "networked information economy". These layers are the physical (e.g. the distribution and ownership of internet connections), the logical (e.g. software), and the content (e.g. laws to restrict the reproduction of cultural products) layer.
  3. In translation studies, a number of different layers of a text are identified. Among these are the text itself, it's context, and the paratext (e.g. headlines).

A large number of other scientific approaches, showing the same structural characteristics of breaking down problems into smaller parts which can first be analyzed in isolation, then in their relationships to others, can be found. The point of this small list is not to highlight the given approaches. It is to highlight the existence of categorization as a common tool.

In the next section I show how categorization of a similar kind may be useful in everyday situations using the example of editing the design of a website based on JACMS.

Editing a Website Based on JACMS

There are three levels of edits that can be made to a website running JACMS. The first I will call the software level. Editing it means directly editing the code of the software or, if possible, changing the settings. Edits to it include, e.g. edits to the spelling of words in the navigation (by changing the source code) or the disabling of certain functions of the website (in the general settings).

Second, there is the design level and, third, the content level. The differentiation of design and content is slightly more complicated. Changes on the design layer affect the way all elements of a certain group of elements look, e.g. all links or all headlines. Text content itself on the other hand are clearly on the content level. The way a post finally looks may be on either layer. On which it takes place depends on the motivation behind the change to be made.

Say, one wants to change how [all links]{.underline} within [all posts]{.underline} look. In this case, since the design change applies to all links, or at least is about changing the default look of all links, the design change is to be considered to be on the design level.

Contrastingly, design may be part of the content. If one, e.g., wants to emphasize a given word by using italics, the change of design is directly linked to an intended change in meaning. Thus, it is to be considered a part of the content layer.

In a nutshell, one may ask oneself: "Does my edit change anything in the meaning or do I just want to make the website look prettier?".

Once the level on which the intended change is to occur has been identified, the appropriate measures can be taken. To change the design overall (in case of a design level problem), users can access the CSS file in the backend. Using another function, they can edit posts, and thus the design of only single words (or any other kind of entities in general) in case of content level problems. Finally, software level changes will most likely not be done by the user editing the post. They can only be done either by a person who has access to the source code or administrator rights within JACMS.

This is an example

An example of the differences between content and design layer using a headline. The full headline carries the default style, determined on the design level. The "is" is additionally written in italics for emphasis - which is a change on the content level.