Recognizing Subjectivity | As long as we are human
and possess feelings, we react subjectively to the people
and social processes we study. Whether or not we are conscious
of our subjectivity, or acknowledge its influence on our work,
it is inherent in our psychology as social beings. We participate
subjectively and emotionally in every interview and experiment,
even if we make our observations through a one-way mirror.
We also respond subjectively and emotionally to non-human
animals and purely physical phenomena. Physical chemist and
philosopher Michael Polanyi argued that all knowledge is personal
and necessarily reflects our humanness and human-centered
scales of value:
If we decided to examine the universe objectively in the
sense of paying equal attention to portions of equal mass,
this would result in a lifelong preoccupation with interstellar
dust, relieved only at brief intervals by a survey of incandescent
masses of hydrogennot in a thousand million lifetimes
would the turn come to give man even a second's notice. It
goes without saying that no onescientists includedlooks
at the universe this way, whatever lip-service is given to
"objectivity" (Polanyi 1958: 3).
Anthropologists have embraced Polanyi's conclusion that experience
exists only within particular cultural and interpersonal contexts,
adopting "dialogical" methods in which the data
consist of conversations between the anthropologist and her
subjects, and it is recognized that the interviewer is chiefly
learning about herself. In their studies of non-human social
behavior, by comparison, Bernd Heinrich, Michael Fox, and
Frans de Waal have drawn consciously and creatively on their
subjectivity as a source of testable hypotheses: if particular
chimpanzees seem to be behaving generously or unselfishly,
for example, can we use this possibility to construct better
experiments or more explanatory models of chimpanzee society?
Reading and talking about issues such as violence elicits
feelings in students, and triggers recall of their own experiencessome
of them unpleasant. Repressed memories influence our thinking
and behavior even if we are completely unaware of them, or
make vigorous efforts to disregard them, as considerable bodies
of research on war psychiatry and the social psychology of
negative stereotypes have shown. Pretending to be objective
and banishing the expression of personal feelings from the
classroom cannot remove the effects of unvoiced feelings and
memories on students' understanding of the curriculum. We
believe that it is better to identify and address students'
subjectivity and the attendant attitudes and biases regarding
the contents of the course.
There are ethical as well as analytical hazards in theorizing
about "them" before we understand something about
"us." Persistently studying social behavior in the
context of others attributes societal "problems"
to them. It assigns blame to them, and arrogates to ourselves
the wisdom and authority to judge, correct, or punish their
behavior without a candid examination of our own conduct and
responsibilities. This is particularly true in the case of
violence studies. Courses should not imply that others are
the victims and the perpetrators of violence, exonerating
everyone in the classroom and the academy. In our view, learning
to blame and pity others without developing critical self-awareness
may be good training for a privileged and powerful elite,
but it is not good science.
Experience and Comprehension | Building on students'
personal experiences with violence is not only a strategy
for teaching them to recognize and address their own subjectivity.
It also contributes to their comprehension of the subject
matter and their ability to apply their classroom insights
to concrete situations in their daily lives. Since the 1960s,
a growing number of educators have endorsed "experiential"
pedagogy, which helps students connect theories with action,
from the primary to university levels (reviewed by Gruber
and Richard 1990).
Experiential learning is not new. Everyone has learned experientially,
and there are many things that we cannot learn by other means.
No one has ever learned to ride a bicycle or pitch a baseball
from a book. These skills are learned and improved through
repeated action, and by finding ways of adapting one's body
to get the desired results. Indeed, Zen Buddhists argue that
motor skills are best learned and performed by suspending
conscious thinking altogether (the principle of No-Mind).
Thinking and the use of words are distractions from the complex
and subtle interrelationships of the eyes, hands, and muscles.
Everyday experiential learning is not limited to motor skills.
A child entering a room filled with unfamiliar adults has
already learned to be a good social scientist. She has developed
the ability to identify tolerant, emotionally responsive individuals
and to avoid potentially hostile ones. She has begun generalizing
from her daily observations of adult behavior to construct
predictive social-psychological models. As she grows older,
her experiential horizons will widen to include formal education,
the mass media, and membership in a variety of groups. Her
models will be culturally influenced, and will merge somewhat
with the models and beliefs of the people with whom she interacts.
In the 1920s, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget concluded
that children are not passive receptacles of information but
active explorers who generate and test hypotheses about reality
based on their experiences. As children master more complex
tasks, they utilize their experience to construct more powerful
models. George Kelly and Lawrence Kohlberg subsequently extended
Piaget's theory of cognitive development to the child's modeling
of social and psychological as well as physical phenomena.
Everyday social interaction is guided by the ability to engage
in "mindreading," a skill developed through experience
and model-building (Whiten 1991).
Children everywhere appear to reorganize their conceptions
of moral and social order in paradigmatic leaps as they grow
older, and each child's empirical observationsher experiencetriggers
her discovery of new ways of understanding the world. This
explanation of individual cognitive development parallels
Thomas Kuhn's theory of the history of Western science. Kuhn
suggested that "revolutions" in scientists' shared
basic conceptions of reality do not simply arise from the
accumulation of increasingly precise data, but are triggered
by scientists' sudden realization that they have been overlooking
important types of data. Scientists' efforts to reconcile
old theories with new types of information can result in a
complete reconfiguration of their worldview (or in Kuhn's
terminology, their paradigm).
Linking Theory, Perception, and Action | We are all
scientists, in the sense that we try to understand and predict
the events around us (Kelly 1963). We explore the world through
our senses, actions, and thoughts, and periodically develop,
revise, and replace personal theories that attempt to explain
how the world works. Our understanding of a phenomenon is
"real" when our personal theory enables us to make
reliable predictions based upon our sensory perceptions (Duckworth
1987). The theories we are taught at school do not cultivate
"real" understanding, however. We can recite them,
and even may be able to apply them to problems posed by instructors
or in textbooks, but we do not spontaneously utilize them
in relevant contexts outside the classroom.
As an example of this problem, Eleanor Duckworth tells the
story of a colleague's graduate course on teaching mathematics.
While learning how to demonstrate some of the principles of
geometry using a geoboard (a pegboard with an array of nails
on which shapes can be created and manipulated using elastic
bands), one teacher "discovered" that the area of
a triangle is one-half the length of its base times its height,
regardless of its angles. She had been taught the familiar
formula for calculating the area of a triangle years earlier,
but it became "real" understanding, rather than
simply recitation, only when she had learned it for herself
Most of our students have already taken introductory courses
in social sciences. They are hard pressed to produce examples
of social dominance or aggression in their own lives, however,
despite the fact that they live in a racially divided community
and attend a relatively authoritarian institution! They have
learned to recite any number of social science theories, but
do not yet recognize the application of those theories to
their everyday experience and personal choices. A mind filled
with theories about the nature of racism and domination can
simultaneously hold racist beliefs and violent motivations.
Learning abstract ideas does not change behavior. If the goal
of violence studies is to reduce violence, students' feelings
must be aroused through social interaction with each other
and with other victims and perpetrators of violence.
Direct, emotional contact with others, sometimes described
as empathic knowing (Cell 1984), has generally been acknowledged
as the most effective way to teach interpersonal skills in
the health and mental health fields (Burnard 1996). There
is also a growing body of experimental evidence that experiential
or empathic classroom activities reduce aggressive behavior
and increase cooperation among children (see, for example,
Roberts and Strayer 1996).
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