Process and Content, Symptom and Substance

Prerequisites for this page—first see Content and Process, and Substantive and Symptomatic frames

This is third level stuff, I'm afraid. If experienced reality (the search for qualia notwithstanding) is ground level, its immediate interpretation (reflection, construction, framing, discourse) is the first floor [1]. Categorisation of that interpretation is on the second floor, and comparison of the categorisations is necessarily on the the third. I'm not entirely comfortable with my feet so far off the ground—it tends to make me dizzy, but for the sake of completeness I need to explore the relationship between these constructs and their ranges of convenience.

I should like to be able to claim that they are "pure", in the sense that they relate to entirely different ways of interpreting, but as the exposition of each construct has shown, that is not the case. They tend to run into each other, and I'm not always sure which one I am using. That is as it should be—they are simply tools for thought, as discussed in the introduction to this section. They are no more than that, and their justification is entirely pragmatic.

Thus in the diagram below, the constructs are laid out orthogonally (at right angles to each other). This is a gross simplification of reality, but serves to give us four broad "perspectives" on (social) reality. Remember, too, that the constructs are continua (about more or less of one pole rather than the other): they are not absolute dichotomies.

 Four perspectives arising from the two constructs

Click in the quadrants to skip to the relevant section (or just read on).

Face value

This is the most commonly used perspective, and indeed without it we should not be able to function effectively. One characteristic of much "delusional" and hence psychotic behaviour is the failure to relate to the fact that sometimes things are indeed what they seem to be. As even Freud is believed to have said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar". (At the risk of being anal, a source for this quotation would be appreciated!)

Taking things at face value does not mean gullibility: in the Content view, statements have truth values, and they can be wrong. However, to say that someone is "lying" requires a slight shift in the direction of Process (it imputes a motivation to deceive), and of Symptom in that it looks beyond the presenting statement and frames it as a deliberate untruth.

To say that a communication is a mistake (an incorrect answer to a teacher's question, for example), is a move in the Symptomatic direction, but remains firmly at the level of Content.


Look here for more on deconstructionSo to the academic frame of reference, which I have chosen to call "deconstruction", after Derrida's notorious project.

It is concerned with Content rather than Process, particularly in that it is applied chiefly to texts. Written or other permanently-recorded "texts" such as films may have a Process impact at the time of their production: I'm not sure whether this is true or not: it is Symptomatic of my ignoranceDarwin's "Origin of Species" for example may be said in tabloid-speak to have "sent shock-waves through the biological community" on its initial publication, but thereafter it is just there, in the public domain. (Although it might have Process implications for someone discovering it for the first time.)

Deconstruction allows the reader to decide what a text is really about, and in so doing suggests that it is not merely what the author intended it to be. Without using the terminology, it is therefore a mainstay of the academic community. The recognition that "History is written by the victors", for example, is to introduce a degree of Symptomatic framing into an account of history. It may be the starting point of an academic study, just as may the acknowledgement that much academic advance proceeds by debate rather than any linear accumulation of knowledge.

Indeed, some element of Symptomatic scepticism is to my mind an inalienable component of academic study in social science and humanities beyond the first year of university.


Politics—at all levels from internal family politics to international relations—is a world of perpetual debate, and also one in which shame-culture tends to predominate, and so it is not just Content which matters. In many respects Content is less important, indeed, than the contribution (for better or for worse) to the debate—hence locating this form of discourse in this quadrant.

The utterances of politicians may be treated symptomatically by outsiders, especially in the case of attempts by commentators to divine what is really going on in the case of secretive regimes. Are you old enough to remember the arcane interpretations made by "Kremlinologists" of the physical arrangement of prominent politburo members on the balcony at the May Day or October anniversary parades? However, only the most cynical or conspiracy-oriented tend to hold to this frame: because of the power of politicians' words and actions, both they (or their speechwriters) and commentators, are more likely to treat them substantively to the extent of holding them to account for their promises.


I have chosen to label the final quadrant "ethological". Ethologists study animal behaviour, often in the wild. Since there are limits to how much Content can be inferred from animal vocalisations or behavioural cues, it is the Process aspect which attracts attention: and since it is impossible to say what is intentionally "meant" by a communication, it is treated symptomatically.

The ethologists' safeguard in research terms is to focus only on typical and repeated behaviour, to minimise the likelihood of reading anthropomorphic messages into it.

Morris D (1967) The Naked Ape London; Pan BooksApplying such a frame to human communication—rather as Desmond Morris did so many years ago in "The Naked Ape"—may be clever, if disrespectful, but it also misses much of the point. The distinctiveness of language is precisely its ability to carry Content, as well as symptomatic and Process information.

Emics and Etics again

The emic/etic construct has been touched on in the Symptom and Substance paper, but it appears again here: at a broader level, Content and Substance are emic notions, Process and Symptom etic ones.


Apparently this is attributable to Enrico FermiI hope that if you are now confused, it is at a higher level than before!


1  I'm British: for us the first floor is the floor above the ground floor.

The distinction is one of progressive contextualisation, analogous to Bateson's view of levels of learning [Back]


To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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