Ccontemporary Epistemological Research in Education Essay

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ABSTRACT. In this article the authors challenge contemporary epistemological research within educational settings. After a reconciliation of the current models which treat epistemological beliefs as static and mechanical, the authors present a teaching experience to illustrate their enactivist view that epistemological beliefs should be conceptualized as fluid and dynamic constructs, emerging in web-like configurations. Answers to epistemological questions unfold within the interstices and mutual interactions between people and their environment.

Boundaries between studentteacher, individualcommunity, cognitionbodily experience are becoming blurred. From this enactivist perspective the researchers role changes considerably. Instead of determining teachers personal traits and epistemological make-up, the researcher should sensitize teachers to the subtle ways epistemological beliefs are enmeshed within their day-to-day professional lives, focusing on the complex fabric of the teaching practice. KEY WORDS: contemporary epistemological research, education, enactivism, lived experiences, personal epistemology.

We rehearse information, but perform meaning. Information is like the web of links in a wire fence; Meaning is like the cascade of waves on a mountain stream. Cliff Crego (2002) 2002 picture-poems. com THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY Copyright 2008 Sage Publications. VOL. 18(1): 2745 DOI: 10. 1177/0959354307086921 http://tap. sagepub. com Downloaded from http://tap. sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. 28.

THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(1) What is the true nature of knowledge, and how does a person come to know? These questions first became subject of psychological investigation in the late 1960s through the seminal work of Perry (1968). Today, these questions are studied under the umbrella of research on personal epistemology (Hofer & Pintrich, 2002). Personal epistemology has come to be seen as the common denominator for research done within this field and as a term signifying individual conceptions of knowledge and knowing.

These conceptions are referred to by many disparate labels, of which the most commonly used term is epistemological belief. Other labels are: epistemological posture, epistemological resource, and ways of knowing (Niessen, Vermunt, Abma, Widdershoven, & van der Vleuten, 2004). Because the term (epistemological) belief is already more broadly used within (educational) psychology and thus easy to associate with, we will use this term throughout the article when referring to issues of knowledge and knowing.

Within this article we provide a cognitive psychological and an enactivist account of epistemological beliefs and claim that the differences between both are ultimately reflected in Cregos distinction between the rehearsing of information and performing of meaning. We will apply the enactivist perspective to an interview segment to enable deeper understanding of teaching practice. The application of the enactivist account to this case has the character of a hermeneutic circle. This means that the enactivist account provides us with a background view that enables us to understand teachers experiences more fully.

At the same time, the process of application is also a practice of opening up and being caught by new insights while interpreting. These insights might alter our epistemological perspective. This study is part of a larger ongoing investigation to understand the phenomenon of resistance by teachers to a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) environment using the epistemological perspective as our interpretive framework. PBL, in short, is an instructional method that, contrary to frontal teaching, chooses not to instruct students directly, but to facilitate the process in which students themselves and in collaboration with each other learn the necessary knowledge and skills by working on real-life problems.

The role of the teacher is paramount to the success of this method. This is why the example used throughout this article highlights a teacher (Josie) who is situated within a PBL course. In the following we will first present the fragment taken from the interview with Josie. In this fragment she talks about her struggle to introduce a group of new staff members to ProblemBased Learning.

We will also provide a more in-depth linguistic, methodological, and ontological characterization to contemporary epistemological research. Finally the contours of the enactivist perspective will be drawn in more detail. Josies Case Interviewer (I): How would you describe yourself as a trainer? Josie (J): I always try to get the group excited about PBL. Downloaded from http://tap. sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

NIESSEN ET AL.: EPISTEMOLOGICAL RESEARCH IN EDUCATION 29 I: How do you do that? J: By trying to get everybody involved. At the same time, this is a potential pitfall. For instance, in a training session last week there was a group of student tutors and this group was really very critical, because they had attended other PBL courses. That was when I found myself trying to create more structure”thats where I felt inadequate, because there were so many people with so much experience. In these instances its important to offer students guidelines and structure.

You should be able to deviate from this structure”but only in those cases when its possible. Some teachers see this very clearly. Personally, I tend to create structure together with the group”on the spot. With some groups this works out just fine and with other groups it would have been better if I had provided a clear structure from the start. We would have come further. I: Students get restless? J: No, yes, well, theres too much input and too few conclusions. I think thats a major thing in PBL”its a major issue that too often, maybe, no actual conclusion is reached.

Thats really what I think is probably my own shortcoming, something that as a student I thought was missing in the system. That structure”the framework in which you work. I: What does this framework look like”what is it made of? Do you know what I mean? J: A connecting thread. I: You say that on the one hand youre trying to find this thread ”and you want to connect it with the experiences of the participants”but thats difficult because their experiences are so diverse and a common theme is hard to discern.

J: Well, maybe thats because there just isnt one single thread and because PBL is based on the assumption that the available knowledge is relative. So you cannot say theres one single solution to a particular problem. The important thing is that you are working towards a solution. Josie (a pseudonym) is a junior teacher trainer at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration. She was one out of a group of 10 teacher trainers and 9 new staff members of Maastricht University in the Netherlands who were interviewed about their experiences with PBL, their concerns and unresolved issues.

The participants we interviewed came from different departments of Maastricht University and differed considerably in experience with PBL, general attitude towards teaching, general teaching experience, and opinion about the value of PBL for student learning. Despite the marked differences in background and experience among the interviewees, Josie was not the only one who presented a complex and multilayered experience. Looking at other participants day-to-day teaching experiences, we similarly encountered varied and multilayered stories. This phenomenon is neither strange nor new.

Studies by Perry (1968) and Lyons (1990), but also more recently from Phillion and Connelly (2004), show us that when researchers turn their attention to actual teaching experiences, the presented picture of teaching and epistemological beliefs is more textured and complex. The Downloaded from http://tap. sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. 30 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(1) selection of this particular segment has been guided by the potential to learn from it about the role of epistemological beliefs in teaching.

According to Stake (1994), the potential for learning is a different and sometimes superior criterion to representativeness (p. 243). The fragment shows how Josie is struggling with the question: How do these students come to know? In the interview, Josie as a teacher trainer talks about her ideas and ideals of student involvement within her courses. She says that in some situations she finds it difficult to realize these ideals. She refers to her attempts to structure group sessions. She thinks that in order to do so, she has to develop a connecting thread that will enable the group to achieve a sense of closure.

This metaphor nicely illustrates Josies narrative approach to teaching. Her goal is to develop, together with the group, a storyline with a beginning, middle, and an ending. She expects that this jointly developed plot will enable the group to close the session in a satisfactory way. Josies ideas and strategy implicitly characterize her epistemological approach to one of the key questions in epistemology: How does a person come to know? , or How should this group of students come to know? We can see an answer emerging from the confrontation between her ideals, her self-image, and the group with its characteristics.

When she says Its in these instances that its important to offer students guidelines and structure, she refers to her failed attempt to provide guidance, which, to her, was necessary to give the group a satisfactory sense of closure. This experience appears to have triggered a slight change in her epistemological outlook. Instead of her a priori assumption that students should be regarded as knowledgeable others, who will work together with the teacher to create a common thread, she now thinks that the group process also depends on her ability accurately to estimate the amount of prior experience that students bring to the course and her own experience and skills.

Josies rapport with the group of students is coloured by her ideals about student involvement. It is also with this particular group of students, who have so much experience, that she discovers the failure of her usual strategy, i. e. developing a structure on the spot together with the group. In her own words: Their experiences are so diverse and a common theme is hard to find. As a result she is confused and forced to reassess her epistemological ideal of student involvement in light of the concrete situation.

Looking back on this experience, she reflects on the epistemological perspective underlying PBL and in doing so realizes that there isnt just one single solution to a problem and that all knowledge can make a contribution. The lived experiences of Josie as a teacher are interpreted as an indication that the epistemological questions can only be meaningfully understood when they are placed within the context of the story that defines the situation as a whole.

To put it in more general terms, in order to assess a situation epistemologically or Downloaded from http://tap.sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

NIESSEN ET AL. : EPISTEMOLOGICAL RESEARCH IN EDUCATION 31 make sense of teachers experiences epistemologically, we need to take account of the circumstances that constitute each new teaching situation. In Josies case these circumstances included her conviction that a common thread had to be identified, her skills to get the group to do this, the group size and group members varied experience.

We would assert that her epistemological belief is essentially indexical (Roth, Lawless, & Tobin, 2000), meaning that it is significant only as seen from within the concrete circumstances in which it arises. In the following section we will focus on the contrast between this view of epistemological beliefs and the prevailing views in contemporary epistemological research. Contemporary Epistemological Research Although the term contemporary epistemological research suggests that there is a unified research domain, there are in fact different movements to which researchers within the domain of personal epistemology may turn.

These movements may be referred to as trait-oriented, theory-minded, and resource-oriented. This means that researchers typify epistemological beliefs respectively as traits, theories, or resources (Hammer & Elby, 2002). Although we agree with Hammer and Elby that there are some important differences among these movements, we also discern an important mutual characteristic: all are rooted in cognitive psychology. This seems to offer an interesting perspective for an analysis and characterization of the field as a whole, because it would go to the very heart of research on epistemological beliefs regardless of the particular movement.

In our view, Cregos phrase rehearsal of information very aptly captures the essence of contemporary epistemological research in relation to three interrelated angles: language, methodology, and ontology. Linguistic Idiosyncrasies of Contemporary Epistemological Research A striking linguistic characteristic of the cognitive psychological discourse about the foundations of thinking and believing is a marked preference for the use of nouns (Saljo, 2002). Since contemporary epistemological research is grounded in cognitive psychology, this characteristic is also discernible in epistemological research.

The phenomenon addressed within epistemological research can be denoted by different labels: epistemological belief (Duell & Schommer-Aikins, 2001; Hofer, 2000; Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, 2002; Schommer, 1994, 1998b), epistemological position (Perry, 1968, 1988); epistemological theory (Hofer, 2000; Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, 2002), epistemological standard Downloaded from http://tap. sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved.

Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. 32 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(1) (Ryan, 1984a, 1984b), epistemological resource (Hammer & Elby, 2002), epistemological style (Martin, Silva, Newman, & Thayer, 1994), epistemological reflection (Baxter Magolda, 1992, 1994, 1996), epistemological posture (Desaultes & Larochelle, 1997), epistemological orientation (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986), epistemological antecedent (Powell, 1996), and ways of knowing (Belenky et al. , 1986).

The worrisome aspect of the predominance of nouns as the building blocks for thinking and believing is that it creates the impression that peoples capacities and ideas should be conceived of as unchanging objects (Saljo, 2002). Nouns distract our attention from the processes in which epistemological constructs can be seen to emerge. Nouns denote a final state as opposed to a process in which actions and thoughts are continuously taking shape and modifying each other. The idea of stability is reinforced by the tendency to represent epistemological beliefs as stable cognitive traits or theories (Hammer & Elby, 2002).

Epistemological beliefs are seen as trait-like or theory-like features which are stored and acted upon inside the brain. From an epistemological trait perspective, individuals beliefs and ideas about epistemology tend to cohere into stable positions or levels, phases or stages, which can be distinguished from other levels and phases with regards to organization and quality. They are seen as declarative knowledge to which a person has conscious and articulate access. In epistemological theories, beliefs are perceived as being structured in this way (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, 2002).

Congruent with the tendency to see epistemological beliefs as stable and object-like traits or theories stored within the individual mind, most researchers tend to refer to epistemological beliefs in terms of individuals having them (Pehkonen & Torner, 1999). Another feature within Western society that reinforces thinking about epistemological beliefs as objects and unchanging is the linguistic tendency to typify mental phenomena dichotomously, i. e. as belonging to eitheror categories (Amstutz, 1999; Davis & Sumara, 1997).

Examples of such dichotomies are: mentalphysical, internalexternal, individualcollective (Davis & Sumara, 2001; Heft, 2001). Membership of one category precludes membership of the other one of the pair. This divisive either/or mode of thinking reinforces the image of people as unchanging. Something or someone is or is not of some category. According to Langer (1989, 1997), divisive thinking has this effect when people take categories or opposites literally or without mindful attention. She calls for heedful and critical thinking in which mindless acceptance of categories is regarded as the opposite of powerful learning.

We think that a contemporary interpretation with a language that treats epistemological beliefs as stable and trait-like or object-like has trouble interpreting the epistemological picture that arises from teachers concrete perspectives. When we analyse Josies account and realize that she tunes into the situation as a process that unfolds in interaction with the group, we realize Downloaded from http://tap. sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved.

Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. NIESSEN ET AL. : EPISTEMOLOGICAL RESEARCH IN EDUCATION 33 that the boundaries between individualcollective, selfother, and internalexternal are not clear-cut. They are fuzzy, blurred, and overlapping, and we see no clearly outlined either/or distinctions. We think epistemological beliefs should be better conceived of as emerging characterizations within a process of mutual adaptation, such as in Josies attempts to tune in to the ideas of the group and to her own and reconcile them.

Because this process unfolds concurrently with the teaching process, it cannot be fully anticipated a priori or even as it is being enacted. To us, this view is compatible with a concept of epistemological beliefs as continuously unfolding processes, like waves cascading down a mountain stream. Just as the water and the mountain are being shaped and reshaped in their continuous interaction, so is the answer to the epistemological question How do these students come to know? being rephrased under the influence of interaction in a concrete teaching situation.

Particularities Regarding the Methodology within a Contemporary Epistemological Perspective Characterizing the methodologies that are used in contemporary epistemological research, we see an equally differentiated array of instruments: production-type tasks, open-ended interviews, vignettes, observations, illstructured problems, and Likert-type questionnaires (Duell & SchommerAikins, 2001). What is striking to us is that despite this diversity, epistemological beliefs research is exceptionally unitary in its preference for using the individual and his or her beliefs, knowledge, desires, and attitudes as the unit of analysis (Lyons, 1990).

We think this preference is congruent with the predilection for nouns emphasizing the object-oriented way of thinking; it seems to us that an orientation towards epistemological beliefs as object-like has been (tacitly) operative in the development of instruments that are used to study them as personal and stable traits or theories. We notice that an orientation to the individual is especially recognizable in questionnaire (Likert-type) studies and standardized interview studies.

Despite growing criticism of questionnaire studies, they have been and continue to be an important method in studies of epistemological beliefs (Duell & Schommer-Aikins, 2001). Part of their popularity seems to be attributable to their easy and quick administration. Nevertheless, Hammer and Elby (2002) reveal a fundamental problem when they point out that item formulation is often far removed from day-today teaching practice while at the same time it is assumed to pertain to these contexts (see, e. g., Schommer, 1998a; questionnaire: Nothing is certain but death and taxes).

According to Hammer and Elby, this is neither true nor Downloaded from http://tap. sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. 34 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(1) viable when made explicit. Most epistemological studies ask participants direct questions about their beliefs, often by presenting epistemological statements and asking them to rate their agreement/disagreement on a Likert scale.

For example, students may be asked whether they agree or disagree that the best thing about science courses is that most problems have one right answer (Schommer, 1990, p. 499); the science principles in the textbooks will always be true (Songer & Linn, 1991, p. 769); or knowledge in physics consists of many pieces of information, each of which applies primarily to a specific situation (Redish, Saul, & Steinberg, 1998, p. 217). It is only by a presumption of unitarity that the results of these studies may be considered to apply to all contexts of learning (Hammer & Elby, 2002).

However, the item formulation must be generic to preserve internal congruence throughout the whole study. It would be incongruent to perceive of epistemological beliefs as stable traits or theories but apply highly context-specific or dialogical research methods. A generic item formulation makes perfect sense given the a priori position that epistemological beliefs are stable phenomena. Epistemological beliefs are seen as tangible features and measured congruently.

They can therefore be conceived of as entities that impact on teaching behaviour linearly, i. e.cause exists as an inherent constituent of epistemological beliefs. Contemporary cognitive epistemological research is concerned with the search for explanations of the epistemological perspective in order to predict and control students and teachers behaviour. Using standardized (correlational) measuring techniques, researchers are able to identify these linear and law-governed patterns.

The role of the researcher in this process is merely to uncover these relationships objectively, with validity and reliability (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, 1994; Lincoln & Guba, 1985, 2000).

In interpreting Josies segment, it is true that Josie shows an epistemological preference to create a common thread together. At the same time we also see that this preference becomes active and is questioned while interacting with this specific group. Her experience of the situation she describes has led her to acknowledge that in this instance”given her own and the groups experience”a different approach might have been more successful. Confronted with this new experience, a breach is made within otherwise customized behaviour.

These breaches provide opportunities for change and revision of ideas to suit local circumstances. We interpret Josies ultimate handling of the situation as the result of reciprocal dynamics between different personal and situational elements, whose influence can be seen from a holistic point of view, but which cannot be reduced to any element or correlation in particular. Downloaded from http://tap. sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. NIESSEN ET AL. : EPISTEMOLOGICAL RESEARCH IN EDUCATION.

35 The Particularities Regarding the Ontology within a Contemporary Epistemological Interpretation Ontology is the subdivision within metaphysics that deals with the nature of being. More concretely, ontology is revealed in the question: What is real? We might thus ask whether epistemological beliefs are real. According to Baptiste (2001), one of the most troublesome questions surrounding the issue of ontology is the distinction between the facticity and the quality of a thing. Facticity refers to the question of whether a thing exists. In our case we might ask if epistemological beliefs do exist.

Departing from a realist perspective (Heron & Reason, 1997), the answer within contemporary epistemological research is that epistemological beliefs do indeed exist as theories, traits, or resources. For realists, epistemological beliefs are just as real and tangible as observable objects. The quality of a thing refers to the form of a phenomenon or the nature of an object. Within contemporary epistemological research, epistemological beliefs are thought of as psychological and physical phenomena. They are psychological because they reside in a persons mind.

They are also (presumably) physical on the basis of the default assumption that epistemological beliefs correspond to cognitive units in the brain (Hammer & Elby, 2002). Finally, there is the question of whether it would be possible for epistemological researchers to claim that epistemological beliefs exist without reference to cognitive psychology or cognitive science. Contemporary epistemological research, although not explicitly referred to, heavily draws on cognitive science and cognitive psychology as its foundational precursors, meaning that these strands are the background theories they implicitly build on.

Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1997) have pointed to the reifying effect of cognitive science on cognitive psychology when describing the centrality of the computer metaphor and similar language use. This computer-oriented language is also apparent within educational research in general and epistemological research in particular (Davis & Sumara, 1997). It depicts humans as disenchanted, cerebral beings who receive and process information from events and objects to establish representations (beliefs, desires). These representations in turn govern and give meaning to their own behaviour and that of others.

In Josies interview, but also in the other interviews we conducted, we see from an enactive viewpoint first and foremost acting persons (Packer & Winne, 1995) who stumble and haphazardly manage to guide their classes through the course. Josies hesitation to infer definite conclusions about the preferred course of action in this particular situation is hard to interpret as an image of information rehearsal, the picture we see framed within contemporary epistemological research.

As we see it, in this particular situation her answer to the question How do these students come to know? is embedded within a network of concrete relations and a process of mutual attunement. Downloaded from http://tap. sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved.

Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. 36 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(1) In our view, Josies hesitation to draw definite conclusions should not be deplored but welcomed, because it may open up opportunities that may lead to epistemological attunement, which may guide students and teachers to the most appropriate end.

The interview excerpt with Josie illustrates the existential dialogical nature or ontology in which it is hard to dissect the knower from the known, mind from body, student from teacher, teacher from context, et cetera (Hosking & Bouwen, 2000). Josies teaching might be viewed as a responsive choreography in which her behaviour and beliefs co-evolve within a relational web of individual inclinations or cognitions, her skills as a teacher trainer, the characteristics of the students she teaches, and the dialogue between these elements altogether.

In the final section of this paper, we will explain and illustrate our enactive or dialogical world orientation. An enactivist world orientation is grounded in the assertion that people form complex fabrics of fundamentally and inextricably intertwined relationships with everything else”physically/biologically and experientially/phenomenologically (Davis & Sumara, 1997). From this viewpoint, epistemological beliefs are not primarily or solely cognitive features, but they are temporarily crystallized enactments in ever-changing webs of mutually defining elements.

An Enactive and Dialogical Perspective on Epistemological Beliefs So far, we have focused on a passage from Josie and characterized contemporary cognitive epistemological research from a linguistic, methodological, and ontological point of view. The enactive epistemological perspective takes into account many elements, such as the group experience, the group size, and her own (in)abilities to provide a common thread (structure).

In this final part of the discussion, we take up the challenge to sketch and explain more thoroughly the contours of an enactivist interpretation that enables us to take into account these elements to which Josie refers. Although we typify our interpretation as enactivist, we will also draw on theoretical notions derived from philosophical hermeneutics (Gadamer, 1990; Widdershoven, 1999) and narrative psychology (Abma, 2000; Josselson & Lieblich, 1999; Lyons & LaBoskey, 2002).

Enactivism is an emerging worldview that lingers in between and draws from different domains, including philosophical phenomenology (Varela, 1999), complexity theory (Waldrop, 1992), and evolutionary biology (Bateson, 1979, 1987). Although this worldview is of reasonably recent date, it is receiving more and more attention within the domain of education (Davis & Sumara, 1997, 2001, 2002; Davis, Sumara, & Kieren, 1996; Sumara & Davis, 1997). Within the domain of contemporary epistemological research, enactivism has been largely absent, although the work by Belenky et al.

(1986) and Lyons (1990) shows strong similarities. In the following we will Downloaded from http://tap. sagepub. com at Universiteit Maastricht on August 6, 2008 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. NIESSEN ET AL. : EPISTEMOLOGICAL RESEARCH IN EDUCATION 37 first explain enactivism as it is defined by Davis and Sumara in the field of education (Davis & Sumara, 1997, 2000, 2002; Davis et al., 1996).

Although not directly translated to the educational or the epistemological field, we will also be using some of the terms (eclectically) used by Varela et al. (1997) since they are eminent in the field of enactivism. To enact means to work in or upon or to act or perform. Enactivism refers to the idea of knowing in action. People come to know and believe about the world by interacting with it bodily, experientially, and cognitively.

This means that individuals are simultaneously biological and social beings who experientially embody both cognitive and physical dimensions within their actions. Because continuous interaction is such an important feature of enactivism, one could claim that it holds a relational ontology meaning that all social realities and all knowledge of self, others, and things are viewed as interdependent or co-dependent constructions existing and known only in relation to each other (Hosking & Bouwen, 2000).

When we review Josies story again, we see a rather inexperienced teacher trainer who struggles with the epistemological question: How should these students come to know? Her commonly used approach to create a common thread together is rather problematic given her own (in)abilities within a large group of experienced students. As a consequence of this inexperience she adjusts her epistemological outlook to include the notion that when faced with a rather experienced group she needs to hold more control.

Interpreting her account enactively, we would claim that her final outlook to this particular situation is the result of the interaction between her ideal to create a common thread together and her communication skills, her self-image, the groups size, and the amount of experience of the group. It is the confrontation of these elements within the concrete enactment that sets the stage for this particular response to arise. The enactive paradigm as exemplified by Varela et al. (1997) emphasizes the relev.

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