A Social Constructionist Approach to Research John Shotter

30th January 2012.  Institute of Family Therapy, London

There is a tendency to treat circumstances we find bewildering or disorienting, ones which are strange and new to us, as posing a problem for us. Thus we often respond to such events by seeking a solution to them, by trying to explain them. This classical problem-solving approach to research has its history in Descartes’ Discourse on Method of 1637.

There is, however, an altogether different dialogical way in which we can respond on finding ourselves in difficult, uncertain, or unsettling circumstances. It depends both on the very fact that our circumstances are, in reality, of a still indeterminate nature – that they do not already consist of separate (still to be discovered) things or objects – and on the fact that as living and growing beings, we are spontaneously responsive to the doings, to the movements, of the others and othernesses around us. While we can come to a manipulative understanding of a dead form in terms of objective, explanatory theories representing the sequence of events supposed to have caused it, by ‘entering into’ living relationships with another living being, a quite different form of engaged, responsive understanding becomes available to us from within our involvements with them.

This dialogical, social constructionist form of inquiry – which first developed in relation to Mikhael Bakhtin’s and Wittgenstein’s work – is now finding its origins also in the works of William James and John Dewey, and is being extended in the work of Gergen, Anderson, Senge and Scharmer, among many others.

John Shotter is Emeritus professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, University New Hampshire, U.S.A. and Research Associate, Centre for Philosophy of Natural & Social Science (CPNSS), London School of Economics.

He is the author of Social Accountability and Selfhood (Blackwell, 1984), Cultural Politics of Everyday Life: Social Constructionism, Rhetoric, and Knowing of the Third Kind (Open University, 1993), Conversational Realities Revisited: Life, Language, Body, and World (Taos Publications, 2009) and Getting it: Withness – Thinking and the Dialogical… in Practice (Hampton Press, 2010).

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