Layers of context

July 7, 2024

I often talk and write about context, and there’s good reason. According to the dictionary, context is the situation within which something exists or happens. That definition is valid, but it sheds little light on its variety or critical influence. From the simple and visible to the complex, chaotic and hidden, context exerts its power on everything. Our activities, our thoughts and our behaviours.

In his excellent book ‘Exploring Context in Information Behavior’ (2018), Naresh Agarwal explores and demonstrates the breadth of context, outlining fifteen unique types. Yes, fifteen!

To illustrate, here are three examples:

Context as the ‘actor’s’ mind

In 2016 and leading up to the Brexit vote in the UK, then President Barack Obama had said to the press that Britain would go to the “back of the queue” for trade deals with the US if it voted to leave the European Union. I make no remark about the statement, however in a taxi journey a short while after, the topic of Brexit came up with the driver. As we discussed it, the driver revealed that he hadn’t been sure what to do, but after Obama’s statement, he emphatically voted for Brexit. He really ‘didn’t like being told what to do from the US’ and it was ‘none of his business.’

Context as legacy and determinant

The Dutch Hunger Winter is a literal translation of ‘Hongerwinter’, a period during the last year of the second world war in the German-occupied Netherlands. In brief, as winter bit, Germany blockaded supplies and caused a severe famine.

One legacy of the action was that children of women who were late in pregnancy at the time went on to experience problems with obesity. Research concluded some epigenetic, intergenerational inheritance, where the unborn foetus had ‘checked’ to see what the conditions were and favoured a metabolism extremely conservative with calories. That is, when those children ate, their bodies held on to more than other children. More intriguing still, the next generation also experienced an echo of the trait. As the women with the storing metabolisms became pregnant and their foetuses developed, they passed a smaller share of calories onto their child than other mothers. In turn when those children were born, they also metabolised more calories and experienced similar problems with weight gain.

Context as assigned meaning during interaction

In a study carried out by the Harvard Business School – ‘The IKEA Effect: When labour leads to love’ – one group of participants was asked to construct some IKEA furniture and then place a value upon it.[i] A second group was given a pre-built version and similarly asked to consider its worth. The study team found conclusively that those who had built their own furniture both valued the result at a higher price and were later more motivated to purchase it.

In each of these, the context around the people involved influenced their life, actions and choices, consciously or not. If we add these contexts to those of systems (e.g. complex, predictable and so on), the influence of a recent conversation, what is happening in the news, societal values or the performance of a role, it’s easy to see how all-encompassing this is. Certainly, when we hear that judges issue harsher parole sentences when they are hungry, it’s not nearly so surprising.

So why should we care?

Consider a recipe for a classic Mojito.

  • Juice from a lime
  • 20g granulated sugar
  • Handful of mint leaves
  • Ice cubes (or crushed ice)
  • 60ml white rum
  • Soda water to taste

Together with the lime juice and sugar, mash the mint leaves in a bowl. Pour into a tall glass and add ice to fill. Pour in the rum and stir, adding soda water to taste.

Nice! Let’s also apply the traditional idea that quality ingredients + quality process = quality output. Thus, if we have fresh mint and lime, sharp and fizzy soda water and we prepare the drink with due care, we will always get a decent result. In other words, enforcing strict quality control on the inputs with clear instructions and training for the process is very likely to succeed.

However, from the kinds of context variables described so far, we have a moving background to all interactions and decisions. Sadly, this means our refreshing mojito is not guaranteed even then, say:

  • We’ve never had a quality mojito, so can’t tell if ours is any good.
  • We thought we knew what we were doing so didn’t bother to read the instructions.
  • Our sense of smell is off due to illness, and we use parsley, not mint.
  • Someone suggested putting salt around the glass because they saw someone famous do it.
  • Our personal preference is extremely strong with little soda, but others do not like that.
  • We were influenced by a friend that it should be tequila, not rum.
  • Due to a problem with alcohol, a partner has replaced the rum with water.

I’ve made up that list, but I hope it illustrates the point. From that we might conclude a few things:

  1. One person’s quality or ideal outcome is another person’s worst or least favoured.
  2. A situation will have invisible constraints and positions of argument that we are unaware of, and these may exert an influence.
  3. We cannot reliably predict anything involving humans due to the depth of context around each person’s actions and thoughts.
  4. None of us are really in control of anything because earlier influence always guides our hand.[ii]

While that sounds a little bleak, being aware of our own contextual unawareness – whether about ourselves or others – has value. Indeed, if we accept that we cannot reliably predict the results of our actions we give ourselves more opportunity to sense when things aren’t going the way that we want. That doesn’t mean a constant analysis of situations, nor endless checking-up on what people are doing, it means holding some space for the incidental and surprising. It means listening to others and paying attention to how strategies, changes and people are behaving. You might prevent a catastrophe or reveal an option you didn’t know existed. Or, you might just get a more reliable cocktail when it’s time for a drink.

[i] Michael I. Norton,
Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely, ‘The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love’, Journal of Consumer Psychology 22, no. 3 (2012): 453–460, doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2011.08.002.

[ii] See Determined, by Robert Sapolsky for MUCH more on this point.

Image by Social Butterfly from Pixabay