Context has different perspectives

A short time ago I attended a talk by Paweł Nowak on the subject of context. I was a bit perplexed before he started, after all context is an idea we tend to use frequently, and I’d never considered it much of puzzle. If you need to help me understand a situation you will explain some of the background; this is context.

Inevitably, though, there are complexities, especially when we try to explain what context really means. And there are lessons to learn. In the end much of what he said needed much greater thought and consideration than I could process very quickly or easily. I’m pleased I took notes.

But there was one idea which I keep returning to, which is that there is no such thing as one context. Context is the relationship (the collection of links) between the system we are considering and the environment in which it lives. Both of these things are complex, particularly the environment, which is the real world. The real world is a very complex thing. Therefore we cannot reasonably highlight all the links between the system and the environment—there are just too many. We have to be selective.

There are two immediate lessons from this. First, when provide context to explain something we should think about which links we include, which we exclude, and which we put more or less weight on. We choose our context based on what story we want to tell. We can tell one story or another. What do we want our audience to think?

The second lesson is the converse. When someone says to us, “Let me give you the context…” we should be aware that this is only one perspective. There are other stories and other perspectives. We may even ask ourselves, “What has this person not told me?” This is probably most obvious when listening to politicians. But it is true to to some extent in our daily work lives, too, albeit for different reasons. If there we are dealing with a particularly sensitive or high-stakes situation then gathering differents contexts—plural—may be very useful. And then we can construct our own story.

Photo by Michael Coghlan