Saturday, November 17, 2018

Mary Gergen and Kenneth J. Gergen: The Communal Origins of Knowledge

Contemporary constructionism has multiple roots. They grow from a variety of different dialogues that span the the humanities and the sciences. In this sense, social constructionism is not a singular and unified position. Rather, it is better seen as an unfolding dialogue among participants who vary considerably in their logics, values, and visions. And the dialogues remain in motion. To articulate a final truth, a foundational logic, or a code of values would indeed be antithetical to the flow of the dialogue itself.


The Communal Origins of Knowledge

Perhaps the pivotal assumption around which the constructionist dialogues revolve is that what we take to be knowledge of the world and self finds its origins in communal interchange. What we take to be true as opposed to false, objective as opposed to subjective, scientific as opposed to mythological is brought into being by historically and culturally located groups of people. This view stands in dramatic contrast to two of the most important intellectual and cultural traditions of the West. First the tradition of the individual knower, the rational, self-directing and knowledgeable agent of action is thrown into question. ... the constructionist dialogues ... challenge the individualist tradition, and increasingly invite an appreciation of relationship as central to knowledge and human well-being. Second, the communal view of knowledge also represents a major challenge to the view of Truth, or the possibility that any one arrangement of words is necessarily more objective or accurate in its depiction of reality than any other. To be sure, accuracy may be achieved within a given community (not Truth but 'truth'), but any attempt to determine the superior account would itself be the outcome of a given community of agreement. All authorities of truth are thus both legitimized and relativized.

Without doubt, the most influential opening to the communal view of knowledge is located in the pages of Thomas Kuhn's 1962 volume, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. ... As Kuhn proposed, knowledge within any discipline depends on a communally shared commitment to a paradigm. Roughly speaking, a paradigm consists of (1) an array of assumptions about what exists (ontology), how it may be known (epistemology), and how scientific work out to proceed (ethics), and (2) a pattern of activities held to be consistent with these assumptions. The importance of Kuhn's proposal is twofold: first, a commitment to a paradigm must precede the generation of knowledge. Thus it is the commitment to a priori [roughly --> knowledge without experience] set of assumptions and practices that makes knowledge possible. In effect, different paradigms will create different scientific realities, and there is no means of standing outside a paradigm of some kind to adjudicate among them. Truth exists only within a paradigm. The second significant point is that individual minds are not the source of knowledge, but communities - people in relationship. Individual knowledge, on this account, is not a private achievement but owes its origins to community participation.

While Kuhn's work grew from the soil of historical study, highly congenial ideas had also been brewing for many years within sociology. Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia, Fleck's Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, and Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, among others, had all been concerned with the social processes giving rise to scientific truth claims. Such work also contained important implications that went far beyond the realm of science. Rather, one could begin to see that everyday knowledge - indeed the grounds for all our daily activity - were also lodged in community negotiations. These implications were made most fully apparent by the work of sociologist, Harold Garfinkel ... and his colleagues. As Garfinkel reasoned, built into the conventions of ongoing conversation are 'methods' for creating various events, objects, institutions, and the like as 'real.' These reality-generating practices are termed 'ethnomethods.' For example, to classify a particular event as a 'suicide' requires that people come to an agreement that, from the enormous and complex flux of everyday life events, a certain configuration counts as suicide. Depending on the ethnomethods in operation, however, what one group might call suicide could be interpreted as an 'act of honor,' or an 'accident' or, given a certain kind of conversation we might come to see all cigarette smokers as engaged in suicidal behavior. As Garfinkel also reasoned, these unwritten agreements can be fragile; if participants question them the consequences can be painful. ... and the intense frustration that can result from failures to participate in them ... points to the enormous trust we must place in each other from moment to moment to support the common rules for constructing reality.

Gergen, Mary and Kenneth J. Gergen. "Social Construction of the Real and the Good: Introduction." Social Constructionism: A Reader. ed. Mary Gergen and Kenneth J. Gergen. Sage, 2003: 2-3.

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