Kenneth Gergen

On page 14, there is a cartoon, a Larson cartoon.  In an otherwise empty room, a man is sitting at a desk, on which sits a telephone and a sheet of paper.  He’s looking towards us, and he appears somewhat bemused.  Behind him is a window, with a few tall buildings in the background.  The text reads: “Anatidaephobia: The fear somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you’.  What?!  You look more carefully, and there in the distance, almost invisible in one of the upper windows of the tower on the left, is a duck.  I laughed the first time, and I still do, but I now realise the humour is pointed.  The book is about identity, about how we perform on the stages on which we find ourselves, about our uncertainties over other people, and about what is real and what is socially constructed.  What was that famous Thomas theorem’? ‘If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’ (the quote comes from The Child in America, by W I and D S Thomas in 1928, although Thomas and Znaniecki had first expressed this in view in their earlier study of the Polish Peasant in Europe and America).  Hang on, I just told you that I can see there is a duck there!  This is getting tricky:  is it real, or isn’t it?  Perhaps I’m seeing things!

The cartoon on page 14 is in Kenneth Gergen’s book, The Saturated Self, written in 1991, with the tantalising subtitle Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life.  It is one among a strange, almost serendipitously collection of books that have helped me make some sense of the world and my place in it.  Twenty-five year earlier, I had begun a process of grappling with phenomenology, and especially Alfred Schutz’s dense analysis in The Phenomenology of the Social World, and the rather more readily accessible book by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.  These were social scientists developing an approach to the nature of knowledge in their disciplines.  Gergen was to add to my understanding, all the more so as he was an example of how thinking was changing in the social ‘sciences’.  After adopting a traditional scientific approach in the 1960s, his own research was based on a very different perspective by 1991.

The foundations of certainty had already been eroding in the natural sciences.  For a long time, scientific theory had shifted from being statements of what is the case to what can be described as provisional conclusions:  based on what we know today, this seems to be the case, until enough contrary findings or observations to demand a rethink.  In the 20thCentury Thomas Kuhn explained this in terms of his concept of a  scientific ‘paradigm’, a generally agreed set of scientific assumptions about ways of looking at the world that remain in place until enough contradictions precipitate a rethink, a revolution typically triggered by an accumulation of findings that no longer ‘fit’ with the prevailing paradigm.  All that is easy in physics, chemistry and cosmology, if a little trickier in biology:  yes, I am just joking, science is hard and controversial everywhere!  However, whatever strains exist in relation to the basis of the natural sciences, any pretence of a paradigm makes no little sense in relation to sociology, social anthropology and history, where conflicting assumptions and perspectives abound, let alone in psychology a subject riven by confusions and contradictions.

To help his readers, Kenneth Gergen takes a very personal approach to explaining his perspective on social psychology.  At university in the 1960s, he studied psychology as a scientist.  Comments on his website regarding his early research explain the approach, “To summarize, the message of social psychology inherent in the prevailing Zeitgeist was that empirical research can furnish an unbiased and systematic description and explanation of social behavior, that the accuracy and generality of these theoretical accounts are subject to continuous improvement through research, and that there is nothing so practical for society as an accurate, empirically supported theory. In effect, scientists can offer the society enormous riches in terms of principles of human interaction, and with these principles the society can improve itself. With respect to our understanding of selves, progress in knowledge is interminable”.  Gergen had carried out studies of self-perception and how it was affected by evaluation by another person, a series of findings he was later to reject.  Why?  Well, the research of one of his contemporaries, Stanley Milgram, was to provide the axe to chop down the objective science pretensions of a psychologist.

Leaving on one side the legitimate and detailed critiques of Milgram’s research and findings, his series of basic studies provided some troubling data. They were set up to measure the willingness of study participants, men in the age range of 20 to 50 to follow the instructions of a ‘teacher’ whose experimental requirement quickly became confronting.  The participants were led to believe that they were assisting in an ‘experiment’, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a ‘learner’, who was actually an actor working with Milgram. These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that could have been fatal had they been real.  Unexpectedly, the experiments revealed a high proportion of subjects would fully obey the instructions, although often doing so reluctantly.  Despite various criticisms, the experiment has been repeated many times, with fairly consistent results.

What this simulation, together with many hundreds of studies since, makes clear is that people aren’t like inanimate objects, and that, as Gergen puts it, “the discipline of psychology not only stirs the pot of social meaning, but it is value saturated. That is, in spite of its attempt to be value-neutral, the interpretations of the discipline subtly lend themselves to certain kinds of action and discredit others. The tradition’s most well-known research, for example, discredits conformity, obedience, and succumbing to attitude change pressures. In this way the discipline subtly champions independence, autonomy, and self-containment; cooperation, collaboration and empathic integration of the other are all suppressed. So not only does the field operate to change (or sustain) interpretations, but it also functions unwittingly as a moral and political advocate. The hope of a value neutral science is deeply misguided”.

For Gergen, this was to lead him to what he calls constructionist social psychology.  Without getting too technical, (and modern academia is full of dense, complex and often impenetrable constructs), he explains the key feature of his approach is what he calls the ‘forestructure of understanding’.  He explains this by analogy.  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn explained the interpretation of scientific evidence is largely guided by a paradigm of understanding, a theoretical ‘forestructure’ which is central to the field at the time.  Scientists carry out research and interpret their findings within the terms of this shared theoretical framework and a priori assumptions.  In the same way, Gergen argues, people’s actions don’t transparently reveal their subjective worlds or mental processes, but rather the psychological world so dear to the heart of many social psychologists is a social construction, and the findings used to justify statements about this world are only valid insofar as we remain within the paradigms of the field:  findings don’t have any meaning until they are interpreted, and these interpretations are not demanded by the findings themselves.  Gergen argues they result from a process of negotiating meaning within the community of psychologists and researchers.

What does this mean?  Gergen is an academic, and he isn’t about to win a prize for lucidity.  He often uses some horrible neologisms, and much of the writing is far from accessible! Fortunately, the stories, cartoons and photographs in his books help enormously.  He isn’t an iconoclast, and traditional empirical research remains important, but not in the way it used to be used as analogous to empirical research in natural science.  Instead, he sees its value in “1) illustrating interesting or challenging ideas, and 2) tracing patterns of conduct of major significance to the society, just as Milgram’s work brought challenging ideas about  obedience into focus raising criticall questions about the power of social influence, and the needs and problems of both belonging to social groups and remaining independent of them.”

In other words,  empirical research is not abandoned; its goals are simply rethought so that outcomes are linked to societal concerns, challenging taken-for-granted understandings. People establish collective agreements on what is ‘real, rational, and right’, and articulate these agreements in the language they use.  It is a view analogous to Wittgenstein’s philosophical framework, where he argues things only ‘exist’ if there is language to talk about them.  From this perspective, Gergen argues it is essential to use analytical processes which refer to the historical and cultural character of the taken-for-granted world, with its potential for suppressing and ignoring alternative voices in the community.

The Saturated Self is a 30-year-old manifesto for today.  The constructionist perspective places no particular constraints or demands in terms of preferred visions of the future, although it is clearly an approach that encourages the development of theories and practices that favour communalism over individualism, interdependence over independence, participatory over hierarchical decision making, and societal integration as opposed to segmentation.  Indeed, it has to be that way, since the constructionist view of knowledge is that it is socially constructed.  Gergen uses the theme of the ‘self’ to make this clear.  In the experimental scientific tradition self-conception is usually treated as more or less self-contained, as something within the individual, a feature of internal, biologically based mental processes.  This view stresses independent functioning, relegating institutions like marriage, family and community to be by-products of individual interaction: we’re all on our own!

If that is a rather depressing, even scary conclusion, there’s an alternative perspective in The Saturated Self, the title revealing Gergen’s belief in the richness of possibilities that exist.  At the beginning of the book, he imagines a scenario.  Two people have been enjoying spending time together for some months, but they haven’t revealed their emotions.  Gergen sees this as pivotal, because, as he goes on to explore, whatever one says to the other is not only a self-revelation, but also a signpost to how the relationship will develop.  “Her vocabulary of self-expression is large enough.  For example, she might demurely admit that she is ‘attracted’, ‘stimulated’, ‘fascinated’ or ‘intrigued’. More boldly, she could say she is ‘infatuated’ of ‘falling in love’, or, more riskily, that she is ‘intoxicated’ or ‘madly passionate’.  Such terms as ‘soul’, ‘need’, ‘want’ and ‘lust’ are also on the tip of her tongue.  But how should she choose … each term of self-revelation has different implications for the future”.

These choices are within that ‘forestructure of understanding’ mentioned above.  The possibilities are unfolding, of course, and alternative words might be used a little later on, or meaning renegotiated, or drawing on new words as part of creating new options for relationships.  Incidentally, thirty years later, Gergen’s choice in using a woman as his protagonist and describing her actions with words like ‘demurely’ and ‘boldly’ reads today as rather sexist.  The very process he is describing has continued in the interim!

Gergen sees the end of the 20th Century as heralding a new stage in relationships.  Prior to the 20th Century, the dominant mode for thinkers was ‘romantic’, seeing the wellsprings and forces in relationships as driven by deep-seated emotions of love, hate and indifference.  This way of conceptualising relationships was replaced in the 20th Century by modernism, and the forces of logic, rationality and universal laws.  As Gergen saw it, one approach was that of humanism, but concluded “there is little evidence that beliefs in individual agency, freedom, and moral deliberation – central to the western tradition from at least the Enlightenment to the present – have contributed to the humane treatment of human beings.  Massive obliteration of peoples in western culture has not diminished markedly since the 17th century – that epoch often identified with the origins of humanist thought”.  He suggests the current dominance of individualism has overtaken humanism, offering a perspective “that the coming world condition would allow for peaceful coexistence – each individual, and each cultural enclave simply persisting in its own self-determined way – independent of the others.  However, world conditions no longer allow us to live in such independence; we now recognize our common existence on a ship that shows every possibility of sinking.  Under such conditions, to celebrate the pre-eminence of the individual is to invite an ingurgitating [?] conflict of peoples seeking to save their own skin”.  How true, looking at the wreck of society in 2022.

Are there implications for the creation of a humane society? Of course, there are many, but he sees language as critical:

“Constructionist thinkers generally abandon the view that our language about the world (or the self) functions as a mirror or map, or that it bears any transparent or necessary connection to an array of existants outside itself.  In contrast, constructionists have largely favored some form of Wittgensteinian or use-based (neo-pragmatist) account of language.  Here the emphasis is placed on meaning as embedded within language use, words deriving their meaning from the attempt of people to coordinate their actions within various communities.  In this vein, the meaning of language originates within ongoing relations among people.  The individual mind is abandoned as the originary source of meaning and replaced by relationship. Or to extend the implications still further, our capacity to mean (to think, to be intelligible, to count ourselves as individual agents at all) is born of relationship. Relationship precedes individual existence, and not vice versa.  If we can grant the preeminence of relationship in fostering human intelligibility, we are positioned to reconsider the foundational assumptions within the humanist tradition. Can we, in particular, re-vision the family of humanist concepts in terms of human relationship – altering our understanding of them such that they are rooted in relationship?”

It might be hard to believe it in reading this brief summary of Gergen’s somewhat complex thinking, but he offers two important perspectives.  The first is what might be called the ‘possibilities of the self’ that his analysis explores.  In part this is a function of his focus on relationships:  with another we create something which is our ‘self’, but each relationship has the possibility of alternatives, as we become more complex and saturated:  we are a rich embodiment of selves.  As a result, we become who we are through our interaction with others: “we sense ourselves as both constituted by, and constituting, the other”.

I know, this is getting hard to read.  Gergen is academic.  Thank goodness his text is relieved by his use of images.  There are cartoons, like Gary Larson’s described at the beginning of this blog; there are photographs of people who play with possibility, like Cindy Sherman and Gilbert and George; and there are images that twist our perceptions, through imagining impossible constructs, as with the person and cartoon confusion of Roger Rabbit.  For Gergen, the subtitle he chose for his book was ‘dilemmas of identity in contemporary life’.  For the reader, it might have been better titled ‘the possibilities of identity in contemporary life’:  while his views and suggestions are dated, Gergen helps us confront a process of change in thinking about identity that is still working its way through society today.