From: Joanna Sale
Subject: phenomenological research methods and radical constructivism
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
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?
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
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
"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.
Ernst von Glasersfeld
From: Clare Bentall
Subject: Questions re links between
radical constructivism and issues of culture
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
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.
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!
Ernst von Glasersfeld