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May 23, 2018

Updated Thoughts on Discourse Analysis: Brief Comparisons With Conversational Analysis

Thoughts About Definitions


There has been a plethora of definitions of discourse and many approaches to discourse analysis defined, and understanding them is going to take some time. Judith Baxter in her paper “Discourse-Analytic Approaches to Text and Talk” published in the book “Research Methods in Linguistics” brings some much-needed clarity in this early stage of deepening my understanding of discourse and language. As I had expected, different theoretical orientations, philosophical perspectives, and the disciplines that provide some of the contextual and situational characterisations have caused the emergence of differing definitions and perspectives of discourse and its analysis.


Baxter suggests three general definitions of discourse. Firstly, that discourse can be viewed as language above the sentence: any piece of text that consists of more than just a single sentence can be considered a discourse. Secondly, and is a definition that appeals most to me personally, is the, as Baxter puts it, “functional and sociolinguistic” definition that views language as language-in-use with a focus on the context and situational aspects of discourse. The third definition revolves around the existence of discourses and not just a single discourse, which when placed within a post modernist, post structuralist perspective refers to the emergence of social realities from these discourses, with a focus on power structures and authorities. The first two definitions from what I can currently understand aligns more with a realist ontology perspective of discourse, with Baxter later suggesting that Conversational Analysis is situated within a more realist perspective compared to discourse analysis.


I have some reservations about a post structuralist, post modernist view of discourse that leads to the construction of a social reality. That’s more than likely because I identify myself as an ontological realist or at least some flavour of realism where I believe that external objects exist and through discourse and language can be referred to by learners. I have difficulties in accepting that certain objects are simply constructed by learners, which is advocated by Parker who in 1992 suggested that objects and reality itself are constructed through discourse and language. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, evidence is an externally existing object that is not constructed by the learners at that time (although one could argue that ultimately evidence is a human constructionbut it’s not exactly black or white and quite frankly that’s another matter) but is externally referenced through discourse and language. What we have therefore is a mix of what is real (evidence exists; it is real independent of a participant knowing about it) and what is a construction (the relationship between evidence and another relatable object that needs evidencing, and the discourse surrounding the evidence, which might differ between different types, between different people, and different contexts).

Philosophical Thoughts


It appears to me from the literature that I have read so far, different authors have different philosophical ideas about what discourse analysis is. There appears to be some sort of consensus that discourse analysis is commonly used within a post structuralist, post modernist, Foucauldian theoretical perspective (even though Michael Foucault actually rejected post structuralism and post modernism labels) as well as hermeneutic and interpretive perspectives. Conversation analysis is positioned typically within a more empiricist, realist perspective. Both deal with discourse and language in different ways and there is a huge amount of debate and discussion regarding both. For example, some authors have aligned discourse analysis with a social constructionist epistemology and therefore assume a relativist ontology; however, other social constructionist authors have argued that a social constructionist epistemology does not necessitate a relativist ontology. From what I have read about social constructionism previously and from the notes I have taken, I remember thinking about social constructionism as an epistemological concern and not an ontological concern.


Conversational analysis, meanwhile, according to Baxter works better within the empiricism and realism orientations. From what I can understand with my initial readings, the core attack against Conversational Analysis refers to its philosophical assumptions: some authors suggest that language and discourse cannot be analysed objectively or reveal truth about reality, because those authors believe that the truth of social reality is embedded within the discourse and thus revealing a relativist social reality. This is again something I have difficulties accepting when exploring the phenomenon of research interest because, as already mentioned, as already mentioned through the previous discussion of evidence.


Brief Summary


I appear to be developing a philosophical understanding of Conversational Analysis and Discourse Analysis and therefore from the Philosophical level it could be argued that I am learning towards Conversational Analysis. However, as I think about the methodological application of both I am finding that things are not quite so black and white. And this is where I have a challenge now because it is coming clear that Grounded Theory is not able to capture the characteristics of the data that I am becoming more fascinated with and desire to explore more (and there is a need in literature to explore these characteristics). The question is, which methodology or method do I now use? Which is the most suitable and in what way shall I know which is the best to use? Will graph theory now be affected? Could I still go for a multi-method or mixed method approach to understanding the phenomenon of interest?


Those questions I shall begin to answer in the next post that shall be written soon!


May 22, 2018

Initial Thoughts and Ideas of the Definition and Philosophy of Discourse Analysis

Emergent research designs are shaped by what you observe in your qualitative data. This can include part of the design, perhaps such as the methods that you use to analyse your data or holistic reconfigurations which can include your research questions and even research directions. This is what I am finding with my research design at the moment. I am finding that I am being drawn to characteristics and aspects of the data that are not likely to be captured by grounded theory, but I previously thought they could. I was wondering which methodological direction I could turn or perhaps use in addition to Grounded Theory. I found usefulness in graph theory or network analysis but this still, as far as I can currently understand, is not able to capture the characteristics that I really want to study and explore the most in relation to the phenomenon of interest and characteristics of that phenomenon. After thinking about this further and in conversation with my supervisor I returned to reading about a method I had previously read about but did not think was relevant, till now (plenty of this happening recently!) and that method is Discourse analysis.


Discourse analysis is a complex, fluid, flexible and adaptable set of ideas, competencies, approaches and methods suitable for the analysis of discourse and language use that can be situated with a variety of different theoretical and philosophical theories and ideologies. Because I have only just begun rereading the relevant literature and contextualise the literature within my own philosophical and theoretical frameworks, this blog post briefly sets out some of my initial thoughts of the definitions and philosophies of Discourse Analysis.


Thoughts about definitions


Discourse analysis is, unsurprisingly, the analysis of discourse and language that occurs in a variety of different contexts and situations. Unsurprisingly therefore, many authors of papers and textbooks note the difficulty in creating a universal definition of discourse because different contexts and situations creates different emphasise, types, structures and formations of discourse. Educational discourse, for example, would be different to political discourse, which in turn would be different to scientific discourse, and so on, not to mention there are many internal differences e.g., Educational discourse differs depending on the its purpose and context e.g., teacher-learner discourse is different to, say, student-student discourse. Teacher-learner discourse could be based on power relationships and acknowledgement of authority whilst student-student discourses could emphasise learner empowerment and the impact of democratic classrooms.

I am beginning to align with the perspective of Julianne Cheek where in a paper titled, “At the margins? Discourse Analysis and Qualitative Research” the author argues that to understand discourse analysis is to effectively understand our own theoretical and philosophical positions because discourse analysis can effectively be placed within any theoretical or philosophical orientation. Julianna Cheek situates discourse analysis within Foucauldian Theory, Post Structualism, and Post Modernism; therefore, the author situates their discussions and applications of discourse analysis within those theoretical frameworks.

A while ago I came to the point where I do not consider myself a post structuralist or post modernist in relation to my own views of the phenomenon of interest and I have further acknowledged this through disagreeing with a quote by an author named Parker who in 1992 suggests that all objects of reality and perhaps reality itself is created by our own discourses and language. I find this a little difficult to accept within Educational circles because in a social learning situation where learners disagree, the person who disagrees with another’s claim needs to present an alternative claim and, ideally, some sort of evidence. Where has this evidence come from? If this evidence has come from an external source then it cannot be possibly suggested (from my current understanding) that evidence is constructed by our discourses and language because this evidence has a real, external existence and would exist independent of our own ideas and awareness of it. What might be more correct to suggest, possibly, is that it is not evidence that is constructed by the learners but the discourse and language that is contained within and surrounds the use of this particular piece of evidence in relation to a claim being made within the context of, for example, challenging another claim. Here you have important questions such as what is the relationship between evidence and claim? What is the nature of the evidence? What is the nature of the claim? What is the nature of the relationship? In what way is the other claim being opposed? What are the discourse and language structures being applied? In what way do these differ from person to person and from context to context? It’s a complex field and that’s just a basic example, from what I can currently understand!


Philosophical Thoughts


It’s quite an idea to get your head around: to best understand discourse analysis is to best understand your own philosophical ideas, because it is your philosophical frameworks, both ontological and epistemological, that determines the way in which you frame your qualitative data and your framing of the way in which discourse can be and shall be analysed.

As I have discussed on this blog, I align more with a realist ontology than a relativist ontology (I’ve also hinted towards this in the previous section) and therefore I have difficulties in accepting definitions of discourse that suggest that reality itself is constructed by our discourses and language. I am developing my arguments and critiques of this but it suffices to say currently that perhaps in some cases it is not that the object itself is created by our discourses and language, but it is the meaning and interpretations that we apply to an object that is constructed by our language and discourse but that doesn’t mean that our discourse reflects the reality of it and that doesn’t mean that each account is equally true.

Another observation I have made in the literature is that some authors associate discourse analysis with Social Constructionism. I have talked about Social Constructionism briefly previously on this blog, and what I have found with the previous readings of Social Constructionism is that it does not necessarily align itself with a relativist ontology as some authors attempt to make out (remember though that papers and textbooks are usually written to align with an author’s conceptions of reality) but that it is ontologically neutral. I have to reread the literature on Social Constructionism again but from what I can remember and what I can remember writing about it, Social constructionism as an epistemology can work with varieties of realism as well as relativism. Whichever Social Constructionism is situated ontological depends on you and your conceptualisations of reality.

The philosophical concerns of discourse analysis appear to be very open for debate and therefore there does not appear to be any universally acceptable definition or philosophical positioning of Discourse Analysis. This very much depends on the understanding that you have of yourself and your own philosophical positioning.

This is all work in progress but I do feel that there is a place for Discourse Analysis in my research as it aligns now with the way I have been observing and exploring the data and my observations of Grounded Theory being able to capture what I have been observing. Whether or not I keep Grounded Theory and Graph Theory approach, and whether or not this research is going to be multi-method or mixed methods, depends entirely on the way that I can use discourse analysis, and the way in which it can complement other approaches. A blog post shall be written either soon or sometime in the future about my initial thoughts of the methodological thoughts of discourse analysis.

It’s a complex field!

‘till next time!


May 21, 2017

The Conceptual Confusions and Ontological Fluidity of Social Constructionism

In the previous blog post I discussed the interchangeability problems referring specifically to social constructivism and social constructionism. Convenience and ease of understanding are possible reasons why writers choose to use constructionism and constructivism interchangeably under a single subjectivist umbrella. Whilst it is a pragmatic approach for beginning researchers as they begin to understand the diversity, variability, complexity and intricacy of the field of research philosophy and methodology, it is strongly advisable for Ph.D. candidates (I am currently doing this myself) to approach each theory separately whilst acknowledging their subjectivist, epistemological position. A key separation, among several that I shall be exploring in future blog posts, is their disciplinary origins: constructivism originated in psychology from the likes of Paiget and Vygotsky as key authors, whilst Constructionism developed from sociologists such as Burr, Gergen, Berger and Luckmann among many others. Therefore, constructivism focusses on the cognition both in individual and social contexts, whilst constructionism from my current understanding focusses more on the historical, cultural and social contexts of the participants and social concepts such as language and discourse.


Conceptual differences


As I navigated my way around the literature, initial confusion set in as I attempted to understand the way that different writers conceived of the social world and therefore the way that social constructionism has been used with respect to constructs of the social world, which includes reality, knowledge, truth, meaning and understanding. As I continued to navigate through the literature, I came to observe a group of writers classifying reality as existing independently of the mind, whilst classifying reality’s constituent concepts (knowledge, truth, understanding and meaning) as constructions of the mind; another group was observed to have classified both reality and its constituents as constructions of the mind.


Previous understanding of ontology led me to perceive the difference between the writers’ positioning of reality within their thinking, and led me therefore to perceive each group as advocating an ontological stance. The group of writers who treated reality as a mind-dependent concept were relativists, whilst the group of writers who treated reality as mind-independent concept were considered realists. But here I had the interesting thought that unlike social constructivism, which has a relativist ontology, social constructionism is ontologically neutral.


Ontological Neutrality And Fluidity


Now I had the idea that social constructionism could be situated within a realist or relativist ontology, which to me makes sense because, as I have covered in earlier blog posts (and what I shall be continuing to explore and write about in the future), the selection of a particular ontological position does not necessarily influence the epistemological stance. We as human beings are far too diverse in our thinking and interactions with reality to place ourselves within linear ontological-epistemological relationships as commonly presented in textbooks, but I accept that this might not be a universally accepted claim.


Guided by my new assumption of social constructionism as being ontologically neutral, I came across a journal paper written by John Cromby and David Nightingale called “What’s Wrong With Social Constructionism?” The authors partway through the paper draw on the wider literature to come to the same conclusion: that social constructionism can be situated within either a realist or relativist ontology. Social Constructionism therefore has a subjectivist epistemology but can be placed within a realist or relativist ontology, and this perfectly reflects my beliefs that, as mentioned, we as humans are cognitively and psychologically diverse: we all think of reality and of our coming to know and understand reality differently; therefore, it might not be suitable or accurate to simply assume that a particular ontological position naturally leads to a particular epistemological position. This might be in contrast to the typical linear presentation of the ontological and epistemological relationships in literature: that a realist ontology necessitates an objectivist epistemology whilst a relativist position necessitates a subjectivist epistemology. Again this might be due to authors attempting to simplify associations for ease of understanding and to encourage the early researcher to understand that there are distinct differences between philosophical positions, but this oversimplification could undermine the potential worth and value of perceiving philosophical positions as flexible and fluid instead of strictly regimented.


What does this mean for my research specifically?


This could actually cover another blog post, which is at the time of writing this blog post is currently in the making. But here it suffices to say that my beliefs in the diversity of human thinking, understanding, exploration and contemplation of the world, reality and the entire universe is complex and should not be encapsulated in some pre-defined linear ontological-epistemological relationship. That said, I do have the belief that there is a single reality out there and that there are aspects of the social world that exists independently of our thinking, knowing or perceiving of these aspects. But, I do not have the belief that we can access this social reality easily: our thinking, theories, thoughts and frameworks that we have about reality should always be considered fallible and held with an element of scepticism and be subjected to constant reanalysis and refining. It is therefore right that I consider my research within the context of a realist ontology and a subjectivist epistemology; more specifically at this time as I currently understand the field of research Philosophy, a subtle realist ontology and a constructionist epistemology.


I shall be writing more about this subject as my understanding of subtle realism and constructionism improves, along with the relationship between them, and the methodologies and methods.


May 20, 2017

Overcoming the interchangeable nature of Social Constructivism and Social Constructionism

As Ph.D. candidates, we can become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of literature that is read through to orientate ourselves with our field of interest from the philosophical and methodological levels, and the phenomena of interest from different disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. During the navigation of literature so far, I have encountered numerous cases where several terms have been used interchangeably to refer to the same concept or principle, and this has and can cause much confusion among Ph.D. candidates about the exact meaning of a concept.


Social constructivism and social constructionism are two subjectivist epistemological theories that have been used interchangeably within papers and textbooks to refer to the same principle: that we come to understand reality through constructing knowledge, meaning, truth and understanding within a social context. Whilst they share this principle, their application and process of social construction of concepts differ greatly as both theories focus on different aspects of interaction within the social world, and therefore focus on different attributes and concepts of the social world. It is worth noting that there is no single version of either constructivism or constructionism: there are various types of both theories developed ranging from “weaker” versions to “stronger” versions, the variety which, whilst adding to the initial confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed, corresponds to the diversity of human thought and the way in which we interact with reality.

Interchangeability


Since there are varying forms of constructivism and constructionism and given the sheer volume of literature published regarded both, it is not a major surprise to find out that there is a trend to simplify terminology and represent, in arguably a simplistic fashion, different points across the epistemological spectrum using simplistic conventions. The points typically range from positivism / post positivism (objectivism), followed by pragmatism and critical realism (middle range), and then constructionism / constructivism (subjectivism). Sometimes the subjectivism section goes a step further and include interpretivism, which again is different to both constructionism and constructivism in terms of its purpose and the concepts it deals with, but for matters of convenience these writers appear to categorise them as the same. A classic example I have recently come across that explains why some writers prefer to lump conceptually similar theories together is to try to explain (I assume for the benefit of the Ph.D. candidate or other beginning researchers) a clear distinction between objectivism and subjectivism epistemologies. There is some discussion that suggests that Charmaz termed her version of Grounded Theory as Constructivist Grounded Theory to attempt to separate it from the more positivist (Glaser and Strauss version) and pragmatist / symbolic interactionist (Strauss and Corbin) versions of the time. There is some debate therefore in Constructionist circles about whether her conceptualisation of Grounded Theory is Constructionist rather than Constructivist. This is an area of debate that I shall be exploring further and shall write any further thoughts about this in a follow up blog post.


As can be observed, subjectivist theories particularly constructionist and constructivist have been used interchangeably to refer to the same concept even though there are significant differences between them. The question is therefore, in what way can we overcome a potential barrier to clarity?

Overcoming The Barrier Of Interchangeability


The best way I find to overcome the barrier of progress caused by the confusing interchangeability is to hold a sense of scepticism and level of questioning. I asked myself why constructivism and constructionism were being used interchangeably and was therefore sceptical of their representation in the literature as if they were the same. Essentially, I refused to take at face value the possibility of constructivism and constructionism being the same, and explored each of these further to find out what they meant as a research Philosophy. It was an open, inquiring mind, my own nature you could say, that motivated and inspired me to ask relevant questions.
An additional help was that for quite a while prior to starting a Ph.D. I had a lot of interest in the theory of social constructivism and I originally intended on exploring social constructivism in some way on the Ph.D. (gosh haven’t times changed since then!), therefore the reading that had occurred did assist in my immediate suspicion and scepticism about both terms meaning exactly the same concept. A reason for this immediate suspicion and scepticism was that I had read constructivism, as well as constructionism, within the context of a learning theory, which is quite different from reading both as research philosophies. Even so, constructivism and constructionism both differ significantly as learning theories; therefore, I had the impression from this difference that they would be different as research philosophies.


Translating this into more practical academic tasks, the best way to begin is to either use a search engine or an academic database to explore constructionism and constructivism separately. Google Books is usually an excellent way to find introductory research textbooks that explain what each of these terms are, or your own University library digital databases. Slideshare and other presentation sites are excellent applications to help assist with what these are in bullet point terms and some presentations have some excellent visuals to help assist with your learning of these terms. Once you have mastered the definitions and differences between each of these theories, use Google Scholar and your University library databases to explore specific implementations and applications of these theories as well as the wider debate and discussions for and against various aspects of these theories.


The introductory materials, followed by papers that cover the implementations and applications of these theories, then followed by exploring the wider literature regarding the interpretations, debates and discussions about various aspects of these theories shall give you a firm basis and understanding of the differences between these theories. As well as, what I found, giving you a firm basis to decide whether constructionism or constructivism are relevant for your research (or even aspects of each), or if something completely different is required.


Concluding Thoughts


I still wonder why some writers are motivated to categorise similar yet widely differing theories as the same. I suspect that it is because of convenience and simplicity of understanding to assist beginning researchers on their quest to understanding the vast array of different epistemological theories, debates, discussions and applications. The Ph.D. candidate therefore must be aware that whilst such convenient categorisations are useful for introducing the fact that there is a vast distinction between objectivism and subjectivism, they need to question further and explore each point along the epistemological spectrum in order to fully grasp and understand the variety of theories, and variation within these theories, in order to identify, select, and justify their epistemological stance, which in turn acts as an input to forming a philosophical justification of the research design.


I’m still learning, I’m still exploring, I’m still experimenting, and I still ponder and analyse the significance of my now settled philosophical perspective and the role it plays in my research design!


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