© Kenneth J. Gergen and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Gergen was interviewed via Skype by Laureano Ralon on June 5th, 2011
Kenneth J. Gergen is an American psychologist and professor at Swarthmore College. He obtained his B.A. at Yale University in 1957 and his Ph.D. at Duke University in 1962. The son of John J. Gergen, the Chair of the Mathematics Department at Duke University, Gergen grew up in Durham, North Carolina. After completing public schooling, he attended Yale University. Graduating in 1957, he subsequently became an officer in the U.S. Navy. He then returned to graduate school at Duke University, where he received his PhD in psychology in 1963. His dissertation advisor was Edward E. Jones. Gergen went on to become an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University, where he also became the Chairman of the Board of Tutors and Advisors for the department and representative to the university’s Council on Educational Policy. In 1967 Gergen took a position as Chair of the Department of Psychology at Swarthmore College, a position he held for ten years. At various intervals he served as visiting professor at the University of Heidelberg, the University of Marburg, the Sorbonne, the University of Rome, Kyoto University, and Adolfo Ibanez University. At Swarthmore he spearheaded the development of the academic concentration in Interpretation Theory. In an attempt to link his academic work to societal practices he collaborated with colleagues to create the Taos Institute in 1996. He is currently a Senior Research Professor at Swarthmore, the Chairman of the Board of the Taos Institute, and an adjunct professor at Tilburg University. His most recent book is Relational Being.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Well, you have to understand at the outset that my father was a professor. He was a professor of mathematics at Duke University, and I grew up in a neighborhood with primarily professors, staff and so on at the university campus – so it was a tradition I was very familiar with. It was not an original choice: I thought probably I might go into Law, Medicine or Business, but when I went to undergraduate school I realized I was really fascinated about ideas. Commerce seemed third rate, Law seemed like a lot of work for other people, and Medicine seemed more like a technology. So the sort of love of ideas really made it a very conscious and deliberate choice.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
My primary mentor was Edward E. Jones, a social psychologist at Duke University. My secondary mentors were Kurt Back in sociology and Sigmund Koch in psychology. I learned quite different things from them and all of them were important to me. I think with Jones, I watched him and marvelled at the way in which he could work within a professional network, engaging in active dialogue, understanding the current issues at stake, and carrying out an active program of inquiry. He was a master at knowing how to find research support, mounting credible research, and publishing in the major journals. Kurt Back, on the other hand, was an imaginative sociologist who had come out of the Lewinian tradition, and was much more open to exchanging ideas. I learned how to engage in creative theorizing, and what kinds of ideas could accomplish various ends. Back was wonderful in linking creative whimsy with practical application. And then there was Sigmund Koch, an articulate critic of the empiricist tradition in psychology, a philosophically sophisticated scholar who was unafraid to speak out. I really appreciated his audacity. All of these people have served as models in one way or another, all have motivated and inspired.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
Surely there are variations among university settings. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, professors spent as little time with undergraduates as possible, and I think that situation has only intensified. As I see it, the role of professor at major universities has really changed, and rather than them being educators or even scholars, they are increasingly becoming instruments for increasing the income of the universities. So the university becomes increasingly dependent on professors for soft money to run their programs, and at the same time the universities are increasingly engaged with expanding their reputation. The publish-or-perish criterion becomes further intensified to the point that what you are really there for is to generate as many research papers and bring in as much grant money as possible. Education becomes a secondary, even tertiary interest. And by the way, in terms of technology, I think it only intensifies the extent to which the professors spend time in the network of professors as opposed to students. There was a time when most professors at my school, Swarthmore College, would have their doors open during the day so that students or colleagues could wander in and talk, but at this point most doors are closed and professors are pretty much on the Internet – if they are present at all.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by information overload?
Well, I have my own take on this. I have rather abandoned the view that I had when I came in to education, which was that your job was to teach people a curriculum or set of ideas or tradition; that is, to share something I knew and they should know. I look at the challenge much more now as kind of mutual or dialogic exploration, and I have written a fair amount about this. Lecturing is a poor pedagogical practice in any case, and increasingly there is a problem of commanding attention. My increasing attempt is to generate dialogue, to get us talking together. If you are engaging in dialogue you are not on the Internet, and you are not texting. Also, help students locate engaging projects, where they actually care about the outcome. This may involve working in the field, generating relationships with people outside. Sometimes I give students responsibility for teaching the class. There are classes where I have said, “okay, look, next week this group is going to be responsible for what goes on in here, and you can have a lecture if you want, but you can also do a lot of other things. Let’s see all the ideas you have for running this classroom, and if we can make them work.” So the class becomes student driven. These are all ways of drawing students into the educational process and making it relevant to their interests and the interests of the society. Now they have a voice in the proceedings, and are not simply there taking notes to feed back to me on exams. In the contemporary world of technology, lecturing can be the most boring, and inefficient form of education I can imagine; if I were a student I would also be on the web.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
There are some short-run and long-run answers to this. For both graduate students and professors, the short-run pragmatic answer (and one I abhor) is simply “publish everything you can,” because it’s a competitive job market and tenure is difficult; it is largely the publication record you are going to be judged on – that is the system. By the time you get out of graduate school you should already have two or three papers under your belt, whether they are jointly authored or not – publish! I don’t recommend this because I think it’s an ideal; I’m just recommending it because I think it is a fact of the system.
My heart is with the long-run and more transformative answer, and that is, do not confine yourself to the profession that you are going into. If you are going into communication, for example, don’t just read the communication literature! Take other courses: sociology, anthropology, literary theory, comparative literature, philosophy. It is not within the profession where most of the creativity will occur; it will emerge at the intersections, that is, when ideas are combined, integrated, morphed, or placed in conflict. Creativity is always, to me, at the cross-roads. And this will also prevent you from becoming a narrow specialist who only knows a certain small territory and makes no contribution to the scholarly or societal worlds more generally. The problem with most psychologists today is that people just ride into these very tiny areas where all their colleagues are. They are little interested in the rest of the field, nor do they keep up with any ideas in any other disciplines. Research becomes so narrow that it makes no difference to anyone outside their colleagues in that special tradition. There is little contribution either to society or the broader intellectual community.
You seem to be endorsing interdisciplinary studies here…
Absolutely! My hope is that enough people will have enough interdisciplinary work so that they will terminate this wholesale drive to grind out what typically amounts to an archive of trivial research papers; that they will begin to think more broadly of “what kind of contribution do I make to the world?”
Let’s move on. As you know, the Cartesian notion of a unitary subject with hard boundaries came gradually under attack from different schools of thought: in the first half of the 20th century existential philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty put forth a conception of self as being-in-the-world, amidst things, and past its fleshy boundaries. In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan spoke of media as “extensions of man” – mind, body, and senses. In the 1970s post-structuralist thinkers such as Barthes and Foucault announced the “death of the author” and “the death of man.” More recently, however, Andy Clark, David Chalmers, and Robert Logan have taken on more moderate approaches with their notions of an “extended self.” How did your own notion of a Multi-being or Relational Being contribute to the decentring or de-structuring of the Cartesian subject?
I presume you must be somewhat familiar with my book, Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community, in which those later concepts were featured. The central contribution that book makes to the sort of decentring of the Cartesian self is certainly different from Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, and different as well from Barthes and from McLuhan’s extended self. The central argument goes something like this: that to make any sense at all requires coordinated action between two or more persons, so that whatever I say, for example, only comes into sense by virtue of how you coordinate with it, and vice versa. If you affirm what I say, you give sense to my words; if you do not listen, I make no sense; if you disagree my utterance becomes questionable. In this way meaning lies not within the head of an individual, not within the words of an individual, but in the process of coordination. It is not the “me” speaking to “you,” nor you replying; the genesis of meaning lies within the you-me coordinated action.
Consider: If you take words the individual words in a sentence, not one is meaningful alone; words become meaningful only by virtue of their relationship to other words; a paragraph stands as meaningful in terms of its relationship to other paragraphs, and so on. Now, put that in the context of what we call interpersonal relationships. The same holds true: I only make sense in terms of the way my utterances fit into a context or conversation, which is a coordinated activity like a dance. In a Wittgensteinian sense, meaning is created in the game itself – not within the action of any individual player. So if you follow that out, the very idea of a Cartesian self is a by-product of that relational process, or, to put it in another way, any unit like a self, or subject, or boundary between self and other is already coming out of the relational activity. This is to say that everything that has any meaning for us at all has its origins in a relational process, which itself cannot be articulated outside of using its own by-products. So what we have then is a sort of originary source of all meaning lying in coordinated activity, or what I call a confluence, a flowing together…
I guess somebody like McLuhan, who once made the claim that “the meaning of meaning is relationship,” would certainly have agreed with you here. Still, I wonder what the implications are of a potential decay in the relational model you propose, that is, from relativity as the condition of possibility of all intelligibility to the kind of naïve, almost nihilistic relativism that makes communication very difficult?
Let me start from ground zero here: from the relational perspective developed here, questions about “what really is the case” are not particularly interesting. Relational constructionism is ontologically mute. Whatever we say about the nature of things is going to come out of the tradition of coordinated activity in which we are engaged, and that activity will create what we take to be the objects in the world, its value to us, and so on. Thus, for example, if we want to say that there is something like a political order or power structure, we are only doing so by virtue of a tradition of intelligibility that allows us to make sense in this way. And if you are willing to take the tradition seriously, then yes, we can say a great deal about power, raise questions about differing forms of power, and compare organizations or governments in these terms. But we cannot therefore conclude that power structures are real (or not) outside of the way we talk and act. The same arguments also apply to the account of relational constructionism. Now, you can call that nihilistic relativism if you want, but I am not sure what you mean. Some people take relativism to mean that everything is equal, and that is not what being said here…
Precisely. I guess the kind of relativism I am thinking about, to paraphrase John Searle, is one that tends to reason along the lines of “that mountain is there for me, but it may not be there for you.” One which does not differentiate statement of fact from fact stated…
Well, once you start talking “the fact” and the “statement of fact,” you are already participating in some relational tradition. Outside of a relational tradition there is no mountain, there is no fact, and there is no viewing agent. Once you are in the tradition, you can say a lot of things about that mountain and whether a statement of fact about it is accurate or not. As the philosopher Nelson Goodman put it, you can give an account of the world from this perspective or from that perspective, but outside of any perspective, what can you say? I look at each perspective then as a tradition of articulation – a tradition that is born out of relationship. So until you are engaged in relationship there is really nothing to talk about.
Now, with that said, there is certainly room in the constructionist perspective for social critique. Within any tradition there will be standards of the good, and these are often going to be at odds with the vision of the good in other traditions. And, as traditions often encroach upon each other, there should be a space for the critical voice – the voice of resistance. But, what social constructionism does not give you are the grounds, the philosophic foundations, to nullify, silence, or eradicate other traditions. One’s critique is ungrounded critique; but the lack of grounds does not de-legitimate the critique. As I have discussed in Relational Being, I am drawn here to developing and extending forms of discourse that enable the inter-weaving of otherwise conflicting discourses.
I guess my concern is that, when we start talking about everything being relative to individual perspectives, people tend to adopt positions that do not always seem to lead anywhere – “It is all relative,” “It depends what you mean by,” “Who are you to say?”
Yes, I am not fond either of these arguments. In a certain way they are a waste of time, although I do recognize that they represent a tradition. But I see little to be gained by arguing foundationally. What I am trying to do in my work is to remove the foundations that would allow anyone’s particular perspective dominate or become omnipotent or univocal. Secondly, it is important to me to champion both pluralism and social critique. And thirdly, my hope is to generate ways of moving across otherwise conflicting traditions of the real. If another person’s voice – however disagreeable – is legitimate within his or her tradition, perhaps there is something to learn from that. Take science, for example. Natural science as a tradition has stood in the way generally of most spiritual traditions, because for natural sciences spiritual traditions are make-believe, mythological, and misleading. So, following the scientific logic, you eliminate the spiritual traditions from the curriculum, you eliminate them from your life. However, many of these traditions harbour rich discourses on what is worthwhile doing in life; what is worthwhile standing for; what is it to be humane; what is it to love other people or love nature, and so on. Now, from a constructionist standpoint, you as a scientist might want to think about the strengths and limits of your tradition. You may surely wish to criticize spiritual traditions in the sense that they do not make good predictions. Fine! But science offers very little in the way of the kind of moral discourse generated within the spiritual traditions. Would it not be valuable, then, to sustain these traditions and join them in dialogue on the nature of good and evil? Constructionism invites critique, but not elimination, and it provides reason to explore the possibilities of other traditions in terms of what they might offer.
You have been associated with social constructionism. How did the term “social construction” evolve since it was introduced by Berger and Luckmann more than forty years ago?
Berger and Luckmann were highly significant theorists in terms of social construction; however, they are not alone; philosophers such as Nietzsche, Dewey, and most certainly Wittgenstein made enormously important contributions. However, there have been major transformations in thinking since Berger and Luckmann. For me, contemporary constructionism has very little resemblance with Berger and Luckmann, because what happened since then was, first of all, the explosion in critical theory. Foucault would be a good example, but we could point to feminist, gay and lesbian, and anti-Colonial movements among many others. In contrast, there is little critical or political edge to Berger and Luckmann.
Secondly, since this early work there has been burgeoning of inquiry in the history of science, the rhetoric of science, and social studies of science, all of which details the many ways in which science is a communal construction. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is but one exemplar. And thirdly, you have profound developments in literary theory, from Barthes to Derrida, that will take all the central components of Berger and Luckmann – which is after all social phenomenology – and simply deconstruct them along with everything else. In some way, Berger and Luckmann are a modernist version of social construction. For me, the social construction of today is really the child of an enormous amount of thinking that generally goes under the heading of post-modernism, post-structuralism, and post-foundationalism.
Do you think there is a tendency in social theory to overemphasize symbolicity and sociality at the expense of embodiment and temporality?
Here you have to make a distinction that is not often made but is very important. You can look at social construcionist theory – and I include relational theory as its outgrowth– in two ways. First you can see it as a meta-theoretical orientation to all meaningful action, and second as a theory about the process of constructing meaning. On the meta-theoretical level, it recognizes that all our ways of putting things, our various ways of talking, have their origins in the social. So we recognize that whenever we are trying to make sense we are relying on some sort of social tradition. From this standpoint we would avoid deliberating on what really is the case; we would recognize that all talk is from a tradition or a perspective or frame that we have co-constructed. Now, this is a minimalist theory because the more you attempt to articulate the premises, the more you invite reification of the constructionist standpoint.
So if you say “these are human bodies that are making up those realities,” you invite us to view the human body as a fundamental reality. If you then say the bodies are neurologically constituted, then we begin to treat neurology as real. And of course, neurology does not function without an environment, so the environment is real. So are the trees, and the rocks and the plants, and organizations, and economies, and so on and so forth. So now you have imported into the meta-theoretical orientation everything that you have been talking about as being socially constructed. What you want to do, then, is keep that meta-theory very sparse; it is only a point of view, a perspective.
Now, once you have done that, then you can say “okay, if we recognize that whenever we start talking we are going to be making something real from some tradition,” then you are free to move in myriad directions. And if you want to put bodies in there, let us certainly do so; medical science would be impossible without such a reality. There is nothing wrong with speaking about corporality, neurology, hormones, spirits, and so on and so on. That is, you have complete freedom to create the world in whatever way you may find useful, and in that sense constructionism is a pragmatism. But for whom these are valuable ends – who wins and loses as a result of taking the realities seriously – become serious questions. So, for example, if you want to go off and do manipulative experiments on human beings, yes, you can construct the world in a way that makes this plausible. But who benefits from that work? What kind of morality is involved? What are the implications of that way of life? So it is a pragmatism with critical consequence.
Constructionism also invites a creative orientation to life. Any reality that has been constructed can be deconstructed and reconstructed. Let’s return to medical science for an example. If I am going to go to the doctor because I am in pain, I might want to say: “look, I am willing to play the medical game if you could solve this problem for me. If you want to call this a neurological problem and you can show me what I can do to stop the pain, I am willing to say, all this is real.” On the other hand, I may want to suspend the medical reality at some point and say, “wait a minute, pain is a social construction, and therefore it is possible that I can reconstruct it so it is not pain, it is something else? Could pain be pleasurable? And I might want to explore that possibility. So what constructionism does is to allow you to drop in to any game that is useful, but to suspend it and create something else if it is not.
Your book Relational Being won the 2010 Media Ecology Association’s Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Social Interaction. What do you make of the work of McLuhan et al.?
I think McLuhan’s work was tremendously important at the time and it has ripple effects that go on today. Media Ecology is an exciting area of study. I do think there is a slight tendency to embrace a “great man” orientation, but I think that is limiting. And while McLuhan was really exciting at the time he was writing, but I do not think it is a rich enough body of literature to sustain a productive field of scholarship. Indeed, most of the media ecology people you have interviewed have gone on to do some really fascinating things, with but a distant relationship to McLuhan.
What are you currently working on?
First of all, let me just say that Relational Being was a big book for me. It represented a break-through both in the content and the form of the writing. As a result I have been doing a lot of talking, speaking, disseminating, expanding, enriching, and so on. It has been a very important process of nurturing the book along, extending the dialogue, giving the ideas a continue presence and vitality.
The other thing I am working on right now is with my wife Mary Gergen. We have been involved for three decades now doing what we call performative social science, that is, trying to challenge the idea that there is a privileged form of scientific writing, and it is represented in the current journals and monographs of one’s field. Then we propose, if there is no privileged form of communication, then why not open the social sciences to virtually every form of communication available to our culture? Why not write it short story form, novels, or in poetry? But why even writing? Why not do social sciences as an art form? Why not dance? Why not music? Why not photography? So we have been experimenting in various ways – conferences, workshops, etc. – with various forms of performance, and what we are trying to do is to bring all this work together so that one can view the array. We are also including a lengthy discussion of why performative work, its potentials and possible shortcomings, and a review of other work in the field.
I also spend a lot of time with a non-profit organization called the Taos Institute (www.taosinstitute.net) which tries to bring social constructionist theory together with practices in education, therapy, organizational change, community development, peace building, and the like. As President of the Institute, a huge amount of my time is devoted to its endeavours.
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