All 5 entries tagged Constructivism
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September 11, 2017
As a research philosophy, Constructivism emphasises an active relationship between researcher and participant. This is to mean that the researcher co-constructs, negotiates and validates meaning and knowledge with the participants. Truth, meaning, knowledge, understanding and our knowing about the phenomenon of interest is not discovered or interpreted, but is constructed or developed. Therefore, constructivism suggests that there are multiple truths and that no single truth is more valid than the other truths. For various reasons, I was beginning to experience problems with this conception of understanding the phenomenon of interest. Firstly, because I have no actual involvement with any of the participants, therefore, there is no co-construction occurring between myself and the participants. Secondly, because the intention is to contribute to classroom practice it is impossible to conceive of multiple truths. Products that are developed for practice-based disciplines cannot function on the idea of multiple truths, because you cannot have, for example, two models that evaluate the same aspects of critical thinking. One model has to be viewed as being more true to the reality of critical thinking, based on some criteria set, than the other. You can have, however, two models that evaluates different aspects of critical thinking, but not same aspects.
Once I realised this, I realised that I was conflating truth, meaning, understanding and knowledge in terms of the way in which we come to understand each of these terms in our research contexts. They had to be treated separately and differently to the way I was conceiving them. But in what way? Where could I possibly begin? What on Earth does it mean to have single truth and in what way can I come to understand what this truth is? I came to understand that my philosophical beliefs of the time were not compatible with the research context. I could not possibly continue with a constructivist philosophy given my new awareness of the research context and given the nature of a practice-based discipline. And then, I came to know the philosophical concept of ontology, and I realised my mistake: I was conflating ontology and epistemology. I was treating knowledge that we have of reality as mirroring reality itself. I came to know ontology as a separate study unit in itself, so I embarked on separating epistemology and ontology, and studied them further. I shall discuss the journey of epistemology another time.
Now that I separated ontology and epistemology I could focus on understanding my own beliefs of the nature and structure of reality itself. Remember that ontological beliefs refer to our beliefs about the nature and structure of reality, and epistemological beliefs refer to our beliefs about attaining knowledge about this reality. As I read papers and book chapters of ontological books, I came to understand that I didn’t perceive reality as internal within our minds, but that there is a reality external to our minds. In other words, that there is a reality independent of our knowledge and conceptions of it. This was actually a revelation, and not something that I expected. However, now was the time to find out where my developing beliefs could be situated within the existing ontological frameworks and beliefs.
As I reflect on this point in my journey, I remember that I still had that behaviour of trying to pigeon hole my beliefs or fit my beliefs into a pre-existing set of ideals and frameworks. Why was this? I think it was initially more to do with convenience because I was trying to understand the existing frameworks that are available to possibly evaluate and critique them whilst attempting to apply them to my own set of beliefs. With the awareness and understanding I have now, I find it neigh-on impossible to situate my beliefs within any single existing framework. But at the time I just wanted a better understanding.
After reading widely around the topic of philosophy I came across the notion of realism, and this supports the idea that there is a reality out there independent of our conceptions of it. But what version? There are many versions available and it took me a while to align myself with the correct ontology, or what I thought was the correct and relevant ontology. I did settle on critical realism for a fair while due to my research methodological approach of mixed methods. But I came across problems in the mixed methods approach and, therefore, critical realism.
I had to question and really contemplate my ideas about reality, as discussed in Part C!
I am hoping that I have made clear the importance and value of understanding your own ontological beliefs so far in writing this blog. This is not to suggest that you should know everything about ontology as this would be a pretty impossible task unless you were doing a Ph.D. specifically in dealing with ontological issues. But, I do feel that it is important to engage with ontological issues in the context of your research, in terms of attempting to understand your own ontological beliefs, to situate these beliefs within the wider published field of ontology, and the way in which your ontological beliefs shape your overall research design. For me, this has been a long journey of twists, turns, introspection, doubting, experimenting and challenging my own ideas. And, this is a journey that is still unfolding itself!
The changes that have occurred with my ontological (and epistemological) beliefs over the years lead to the following question: is it that we actively construct and alter our beliefs of reality? Or is it that we simply become more aware of the complexity of reality itself and of our beliefs about this reality? There are no easy answers to these questions, but it is the role of a Ph.D. candidate to explore their own beliefs, and to situate them within the wider published frameworks and theories. I originally thought of this as straight forward, but really, it isn’t, despite the way in which some academic textbooks attempt to portray it as straightforward. Situating beliefs and trying to find where they fit within the wider literature can depend on the research problem, the research context, and the overall, general discipline within which a researcher is situated. But even then, research problems and research contexts can be philosophised in several ways, and can therefore be explored using a variety of different approaches sometimes in combination.
When I first began the Ph.D. I was convinced that I was a constructivist. I conceived reality and knowledge of reality as a personally constructed entity with no real objective existence. Therefore, I had the idea at the time that everyone constructed their own truths and it was the job of the constructivist to find out the way that people perceived the truth of certain aspects of reality based on their experience. My preference towards constructivism was driven by my favourable position towards constructivism as a teaching and learning theory. However, as I found out fairly quickly into the Ph.D., constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is completely different to its philosophical orientation.
The idea of constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is that learners are able to construct their own understanding and knowledge about subjects instead of passively listening to a teacher. Learners are active participants in their learning, and through experimentation and collaboration they build their understanding and knowledge. This is in some sense similar to constructivism as a research philosophy: researchers construct their knowledge of what is going on within a research setting through actively participating within the setting, typically through co-constructing and negotiating meaning and knowledge with the research participants. What is usually found is each participant constructs their own truth about reality therefore leading to multiple truths, and constructivism treats truth of all perspectives as the same.
Whilst this might initially be appealing, I did come across stumbling blocks as I shall discuss in Part B!
May 21, 2017
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
January 23, 2017
Positivist perspective suggests reality is fully independent of human perceiving, thinking, knowing and knowledge of that reality, with all knowledge of that reality being readily accessible to the researcher through objectivist methods e.g., experimental methods and closed ended surveys. Interpretivism suggests reality is fully constructed within the mind, therefore fully dependent on the mind, and therefore no reality or aspect of reality exists independently of human perception or knowledge of it therefore our understanding and knowledge of reality mirrors reality itself. Realism suggests that there is a reality independent of the human mind but we cannot ever attain a full understanding of it, whilst Pragmatism does not really care either way (basically). At least, this is the way that onotological beliefs are presented in typical academic texts and research papers but in reality (no pun intended) there are nuances within each therefore the spectrum of ontological beliefs is more complex than what most authors tend to express. And, this is where my problem is.
Typically, a researcher at the ontological level is defined as either a realist, where there is a reality independent of the human mind, or a non-realist, where to some extent the researcher perceives reality as being dependent on the human mind. But in the context of my research and as a researcher, I find it difficult to imagine a reality that is completely independent of all human perceiving, understanding, and knowing. There simply cannot be a reality that is completely independent of the human mind when it comes to social sciences because humans are far too complex socially, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually and psychology to simply dismiss as empty states within research projects. Researchers also cannot be treated as empty states completely divorced from any influence upon the research process, as they come with a background of experience, perspectives, knowledge and preconceptions. Conversely, there simply cannot be a reality that is fully dependent on the mind of the participant or the researcher; in other words, I find it difficult if not impossible to imagine a reality that is constructed solely by our language, thoughts, perceptions, knowledge and experiences of that reality. This is primarily because ordinary observers can be misguided in some way with their thoughts, perceptions, knowledge and experiences of reality: just because we observe empirically that a stick bends in water does not mean that a stick really bends when it enters water. The mental states that are involved with developing our thoughts and perceptions might not be functioning properly, and therefore perceive objects that might not actually exist, or have certain thoughts that do not mirror what is really going on in that reality external to the observer, or believer. Or, we might have a sound set of mental states involved with the production of our perceptions and interpretations, but objects might be perceived differently based on our knowledge schemes and definitions of these objects. I’ll give an example:
Is a mountain bike a mountain bike because of a successful mapping between our knowledge schema and the reality of a bike? Or is it a mountain bike because of the way that we perceive its behaviour perhaps based on an internal knowledge schema: that it moves and functions as a mountain bike? Or is it a bit of both? What about if the mountain bike has a wheel missing: can it then be called a mountain bike if we define a bike in its characteristic of being able to move and transport a person from place to place? Can it still be called a bike just because it is similar to our knowledge schema of it? What about a bike that is left to rust for many many years and is no longer functional? Is a bike still a bike even if it can therefore change its formation from time to time?
A key ontological question here is: does a mountain bike really exist in itself, in its own form within reality, or does the mountain bike exist in accordance with the internal knowledge schema and successful mapping of this schema onto reality? It can be tentatively suggested here that a bike or a form of a bike really exists independent of our knowledge of that bike whether a person knows of a bike or not. A mountain bike might not exist in a person’s world, but that is not to suggest that it doesn’t exist at all: it has simply yet to be discovered. Now this is important because if we say that a mountain bike really exists in reality then we simply discover it, and the knowledge schema in our minds about a bike’s formation is simply an interpretation of what it really is. Another, shorter, example: some argue that a tree is a tree because it is a tree: it exist independently of our imagination and our minds therefore it is simply waiting to be discovered and not perceived or constructed. Others argue that a tree is a tree because we define or interpret it as a tree: a tree still needed to be defined in the first place as a tree, therefore its general shape and behaviour is interpreted as a tree.
What I am thinking currently is, in order to perceive an object of reality, that object has to have existed or exist in some form within the external reality. We simply could not have perceived a tree to be a tree or a bike to be a bike if some sort of formation that led to such definitions had not existed in the first place. Therefore in the context of my research work on learning processes within the social sciences, there has to be an independent reality or, more likely, there has to be aspects of learning processes that exist independently of my own understanding and knowledge of those aspects and independent of the understanding and knowledge of the participants. When we think about an interpretivist perspective, surely my interpreting of these aspects or objects of a learning process entail the existence of these objects, but those interpretations are what they are: fallible notions and theories of what is going on, and therefore susceptible to constant revision.
Therefore, interpretation is different to construction; interpretive philosophy, therefore, has to be different in form and function to constructivism philosophy despite them sharing aspects of relativism and subjectivism; but at the moment I find it difficult to adhere completely to an interpretive philosophy because I have the belief that aspects of reality exist independently from our interpretations. All interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but it might be the case where certain interpretations are closer to what is really going on in reality than other interpretations, but in what way can this be known? Can we really find out exactly what is going on in reality? Will it really be the case that our interpretations could match exact reality? This might be difficult to realise, because of the complex backgrounds that researchers bring to data analysis of learning processes and also dependent on what aspect of the learning process they are exploring. But if the learning process or even aspects of the learning process really exists, what aspects are they? And, in what way can I tell if they really exist or if I just perceive them to really exist?
More questions can be asked: what does this all mean for an interpretivist and constructivist methodology? Remember my previous blog post about methodological liberalism: I do not believe that methodology has to be tied to a particular philosophy; therefore in my research the case study methodology and grounded theory method can align with either realism or interpretivism. But what are the implications on case study and grounded theory?
I have starting points, backed up with the firm epistemological belief that our knowledge of reality is simply an interpretation of objects, object behaviours and of their relationships, and each researcher therefore shall attain different knowledge and understanding of these objects and their relationships relative to their experiences and knowledge of the phenomena of investigation. This does not suggest, though, that there are actually multiple realities but does suggest that to some extent there are independent objects and object behaviours that are interpreted by us. As mentioned, all interpretations would not be completely right, but some might be more right than others. I have starting points so I will be building up on these.
Ideas and arguments are continuously developing, but currently in the context of my own research some questions are: what exactly are the aspects that are independent of the mind, and what aspects are dependent? To what extent, therefore, can I claim to be a realist or an interpretivist? And, although I shall be able to ground my own interpretations of the data within the data itself, in what way can I judge which interpretations and hypotheses accurately reflect reality the most? Therefore, what would be the criteria for this grounding? Would my interpretations be different to others, and if so to what extent? And in what way would this affect the validity and reliability of the new theory?
And, no, I’m not going to talk about perceptions of fairies and pixies!