AR and Social Construction

I first met Ken Gergen (click here for video) when I requested a piece for the first Handbook of Action Research (way back in 1998). Ken graciously said yes and introduced us to his spouse and writing partner, co-author and feminist thinker, Mary Gergen. In their writing for the Handbook, they explained the basics of social constructionism, i.e., the concept that what we take to be real, rational or good is the result of social process. This view contrasts with the more dominant view that we’ve inherited a world that pre-defines us and which cannot be remade. Their stance neatly articulates a perspective on the world that has lived in parallel to the more dominant viewpoint since the Modern rational-empirical era (Newton, Descartes), which insisted that mind and matter are separate and that any interaction resembles the interaction of say billiard balls, rather than say lovers. Social constructionists insist to the contrary, that together we can and do remake our understandings of the world! This social constructionist grounding for action research thus starts from a different set of axioms, different from the dominant regime of knowledge.

One of the most important is that social constructionists call us to rethink the separate individual, who has been the hero of the Modernist era. This hero turns out to be deeply interdependent with her/his context of relationships. And that’s a good thing!  Of equal significance, constructionism throws into question the very idea that research can provide an accurate or objective mirror of the world.  Researchers inevitably carry with them into their practice the assumptions, values, and ideologies of the professional groups of which they are a part. They construct the world from within the confines of their tradition. As Gergen proposes in a recent prize winning article (posted here), if research in the mirroring tradition does subtly imply how people should think and act, then why not take the bull by the horns? That is, we shouldn’t we engage in research that actively changes the world?  In a word, action research.

What surprised me most, however, is that Ken and Mary, unlike many great thinkers who also espouse a post-modernist, post-heroic view (or Pluralist view), seemed willing to step out into the implications of their own ideas. They were willing, in other words, to step into the action paradigm.Both of them, for example, have actively participated in performative social science. Rather than describing or explaining, they find ways of realizing their aims in bodily enactment. This is not to say that Gergen wishes to abandon the traditions of social science. He and his colleagues have been very active in establishing qualitative research in the otherwise conservative establishment in psychology. However, as he and his colleagues wrote this in a recent article in the prestigious flagship journal, American Psychologist (article here), their goal is a full-flowing pluralism.  In displaying scholarly caution and respect for what has gone before the advent of the Pluralist turn, Ken is a “crossover” scholar, a dweller on the threshold between the conventional/dominant, but now shaky paradigm of knowledge and a new, more action inviting approach. You’re invited to listen in on my interview with Ken so we can hear in his words why his core message is so important for action researchers as we help to re-make rather than mirror the world. Read From Mirroring to World-Making