Von Glasersfeld's answers
November 2001









From: Joanna Sale 
Subject: phenomenological research methods and radical

Dear Dr. von Glasersfeld,

I fear that my question is too simple for you. I am a novice qualitative researcher (PhD student) in the health care field. I have read some of your work on radical constructivism and have felt very inspired by them - I would like to take that approach to my research (as much as I am capable of doing so). I am doing a study on cancer care employees' experience with research. In the qualitative world, this type of study would be labelled a phenomenological study. Unfortunately, the purpose of phenomenological analysis is to come up with an essential structure of the experience. This seems to go against the radical constructivist approach where I would imagine one would expect a diversity in people's experience. I realize that radical constructivism and phenomenology may not be compatible for this reason. However, in the health sciences, we are obligated to label our method and the nature of looking at people's experiences lends itself to phenomenology. Do you have any suggestions as to how I should approach this conflict? Thank you.

Joanna Sale


Dear Ms. Sale,

I don't think that RC and Phenomenology are incompatible in the way you suggested.

It is the case that all experience is subjective and therefore individually different, but this does not exclude large areas of compatibility. Otherwise we could not make (and keep) appointments to meet, agree about anything, or, indeed, collaborate in any way. The point is that in many things we do the individual differences are irrelevant.

Consequently, psychotherapists and anyone involved in medicine or "health care" can construct relatively general models of experience and use them as a basis for predictions and interventions - as long as he or she remains aware of the fact that they are an observer's hypothetical models and not descriptions of an objective reality. In other words, they are as fallible as any statistical "fact" when it is applied to an individual.

The point where RC disagrees with phenomenology concerns the hope that phenomenological analysis will ultimate lead to some knowledge about an ultimate reality. RC does not admit anything of that sort.

Best wishes,

Ernst von Glasersfeld


From: Clare Bentall 
Subject: Questions re links between radical constructivism and issues of
culture and power

I am currently reading Radical Constructivism, as part of my PhD research, and much of it resonates with me. I had already come to the conclusion that if there is a 'reality' out there the only way we have of knowing about it is via our own experience. In my PhD I am looking at communication between tutors and teachers on a teacher training programme in Mozambique. I am interested in the different understandings the teachers develop of the content of the course (English language teaching) when compared with those presented to them by the tutors and also those highlighted in the course materials. I am interested in exploring how the context in which the teachers live and work, ie their own background, experience etc 'influence' the understandings they develop during the training.

The chapter on language and communication in Radical Constructivism seems to me to make a great deal of sense. My question to Ernst von Glaserfeld is how he sees issues of culture and power in communication.

For example the teachers are in positions of relatively less power than the tutors, who will decide if the teachers pass or fail. The tutors' understandings in a sense therefore have more weight than the teachers.

How does Ernst von Glaserfeld see power operating in communication, from a constructivist point of view?

Also in communication we use our predictions of others' experience to help us anticipate others' interpretations of what we say and to help us decide how much to say and how much of the context we can assume they have experiential knowledge of. We assume 'shared' (ie compatible) understandings of experience with those from our 'culture' and we seem to operate in coordination with those others. How does the notion of 'culture' fit with the constructivist perspective?

I would also personally like to know how Ernst von Glaserfeld sees his work linking with Garfinkel, particularly re communication, and Bourdieu with his notion of habitus.

Thank you

Clare Bentall


Dear Ms. Bentall,

If you have read the chapter on language in my book, you will have realized that in my view 'communication' does not involve transporting meaning  (concepts, ideas, images) from one person to another. It does involve evoking concepts, ideas, images, etc. in the receiver but these are all necessarily 're-presentations' of items that the receiver has constructed at an earlier time for himself (from his/her experience and/or thinking). 

Now, if a British-born and -educated person wants to train Mozambique-born students in a teacher training course using English as the teaching language, this person had better get fairly well acquainted with the language the students normally speak. There is going to be a considerable amount of meaning in the British tutor's world that is not directly translatable into the students' world; and unless the tutor knows at least about some of these discrepancies, his/her teaching will not be very effective.

You also ask about 'power' and 'culture'. You probably won't like my view of either, but I would like you to remember that what I am giving you is just MY view.

With regard to power I agree with Maturana: Power functions only where it is conceded. - If you want to pass a course and know that it is the tutor who decides whether you do or you don't, you have to try to satisfy the tutor's conditions. You do this not because of the tutor's 'power', but because you want a certificate. The moment you think of it as your choice, the tutor has no power. No more than a mountain has the power to make you climb it. The choice is yours. In the case you have in mind, the situation is, of course, more complex. The students may have great difficulty in finding out what the tutor's conditions are, and the tutor, being ignorant of the students' ways, may set impossible conditions. But none of this is a question of power.

'Culture' used to be a difficult item but has become less so during the last fifty or sixty years. When I grew up, culture was first of all indicated by a person's well-developed tastes, manners, and interests (no simple criteria!) and only secondarily by geographical or ethnic preferences. Today, the second meaning has superseded the first and almost anything people have come to do habitually can be considered part of their culture. - In the case of your tutor I suspect that problems are generated by the fact that the students show 'cultural' behaviours and attitudes that are still firmly rooted in traditional tastes and feelings and are therefore difficult to decipher for a foreigner.

If you want a simple (too simple) recipe for the construction of 'cultural' manifestations in the individual, you might say that any way of behaving or thinking that can be considered characteristic of the particular social group will in time generate compatible behavior or thinking in the new members of the group.

Both your questions about Power and Culture would deserve to be treated in a book!

Best wishes,

Ernst von Glasersfeld




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