Dr. Judith M. Newman



Constructing Knowledge


Date: Wed, 10 Jun 1998
From: Judith Newman <jnewman@hfx.andara.com>

I guess I hit some kind of nerve with my thoughts on "validity." This will be a long reply because I'm going to respond to Bob, Jack and Brian by dialoguing with their words.


Bob Dick wrote:
> Before I get too far into the current discussion I think it might
> be useful if I define my understanding of the terms. I have in
> mind "validity" and "truth," both of which I find problematic.
> By "validity" I mean something like "agreement with reality" or
> "more than fiction or fantasy. "
> By "truth" I mean something similar. In both instances I
> recognise that my views of the world are constructions of mine.
> At the same time, I hope in developing these constructions I
> am influenced by the data. I hope, further, that these data
> (whatever form they take) are influenced by what happens in the
> "real world. "
> (Yes, I do assume there is a world out there, and that it is to
> some extent knowable.)

I think I've become more of a deconstructionist than Bob is -- that is, while I accept there is a "real" world "out there" I'm not convinced it's knowable in any "objective" sense. I think we're always dealing as blind men with the elephant -- and it's precisely our different views of "reality" that are important to understand so that from time to time we can step out of our own limited perception and entertain alternate interpretations of that world.

> When I do action research I have some interest in changing my
> behaviour or in helping others decide if they wish to change their
> behaviour. To do this, I think, requires that I or they develop
> models of the world that somehow match that world. I think of this
> as "validity. "

I also have that same interest in changing my behaviour and in helping others decide if they wish to change theirs. But I don't think it's possible for anyone to develop models of the world that "somehow match that world" because any "knowing" is necessarily "interpretation." So while I accept there is some direct link between a "real" world out there and my sensory responses -- my "knowing" what those responses mean is an interpretive act and it's at that point that any direct connection to any "reality" is severed. I attempt to "validate" my interpretations by touching base with other's interpretations (it's like creating intersecting sets in a Venn diagram) -- and the extent to which my interpretations have something in common with somebody else's reflects a communal interpretation -- a "knowing" that is more than just my own personal construction.

> Defined in this way, it is a concern of mine. From what you say,
> it may or may not be a concern of yours.
> In the interests of my own education, I invite you to say more
> about your position.

I am concerned with tabulating my personal interpretations with those of a wider interpretive community. I came to my current set of beliefs about meaning and interpretation many years ago when I taught a course on "Reader Response" -- one of the most interesting texts with which the teachers and I grappled was Stanley Fish's "Is there a text in this class?" from his book of the same name in which he contends:

a system of intelligibility cannot be reduced to a list of the things that it renders intelligible. What Abrams and those who agree with him do not realize is that communication occurs only "within' such a system (or context, or situation, or interpretive community) and that the understanding achieved by two or more persons is specific to that system and determinate only within its confines. Nor do they realize that such an understanding is enough and that the more perfect understanding they desire -- an understanding that operates above or across situations -- would have no place in the world even if it were available, because it is only in situations -- with their interested specifications as to what counts as fact, what it is possible to say, what will be heard as an argument -- that one is called on to understand (p. 305). 2

What I understand Fish to be arguing is that we make personal sense by constructing meaning within an interpretive community and that the sense made within any particular interpretive community must, in turn, be explored in terms of other communities' interpretations but that there is no "match" with an objective world other than a collective interpretation of that world.

Jack Whitehead wrote:
> As a university researcher and teacher I have a commitment to
> help my Ph.D. students to make original contributions to educational
> knowledge. All my students are educational action researchers who are
> asking questions of the kind: How do I improve what I am doing? As they
> describe and explain their own professional learning (create they own
> living educational theories) I help to establish validation groups in
> which groups of critical friends subject their explanations to questions
> of the sort: Is the explanation comprehensible? Are the assertions
> sufficiently supported by evidence? Are the values clarified and justified
> in the course of their emergence in practice? Does the explanation live in
> the sense of containing an evaluation of past practice and an intention to
> create something better in the future?

I am asking the same questions, Jack -- How do I improve what I am doing? What counts as evidence? How do my interpretations of a situation connect with others' understanding? I'd contend that what's happening in the "validation groups" is that personal understanding/interpretations are being tested within an interpretive community, that is, the "data," the ideas are responded to so that the "researcher" can see in what ways his/her perceptions are similar to and different from those of others. It's important, however, to keep in mind that the interpretive community creates its own sense of "reality" which is still an interpretation, albeit a more widely shared one than one's personal construction.

I do believe I need to situate my ideas/hypotheses within an interpretive community but I'm hesitant to call that "validity" because of the baggage that this word carries -- it implies some kind of more direction connection with "reality" than I believe exists.

> I'm still holding to the idea of validity as crucially important to action
> researchers who are seeking to make significant and original contributions
> to knowledge.

I think I've abandoned a concern with "validity" and replaced it with a need to find/create an interpretive community within which data, ideas, arguments resonate. I am concerned about making "significant and original contributions" not to knowledge but to the understanding of the interpretive community.

Brian Murphy wrote:
> Judith,
> You wrote:
> the most any research account can really do (no matter what the flavour) is to
> allow the reader to take a fresh look at his or her own work.
> Do you mean by "his or her own work" the work of the reader, as opposed to
> the work of the individual reported in the research account?

When I read a research account, whether it's technical/rational (as Schon3 would call it) or an account of reflection-in-action, I'm using it to test my ideas, beliefs, experiences against those of the interpretive community. I don't read any account as standing on its own, but rather as situated in a discourse tradition, and offering interpretations of experience against which I think about my own interpretations. As Margaret Meek 4 puts it: "the text lets me read myself."

> If the former, then it seems to be suggesting that the only purpose for
> reading research is to understand better what we are doing ourselves -- we
> are not really interested in the "account in itself" only in the leverage
> it gives us. This seems unduly self-centred.

It's not a matter of self-centred -- that is what text does, that's how it operates -- the ink marks on the page (or coloured pixels on a screen) carry no meaning in and of themselves -- what sense we make of the impression they make on our retinas is the result of interpretive processes -- we make sense based on what we bring to the text in terms of our personal experiences, our beliefs, the collective meaning we carry around with us. I can "read" an account from what Louise Rosenblatt 5 calls an "efferent" stance (what facts does this poem teach us?) but ultimately any reading is done against the backdrop of "my theory of the world in my head."

> Sure, when we read research accounts we try to relate them to our own work
> and interests but we also sometimes try to "judge" them or come to some
> opinion about them. In particular, where we have doubts about the
> plausibility and credibility of the research we need to be convinced by the
> nature of the evidence presented. (Though I accept that some people will
> accept an account on the basis of a researchers claims to "intensive,
> personal involvement'). So this to me implies that validity is an important
> consideration and should be taken seriously.

But I would argue that "judging" them or "coming to some opinion about them" is part and parcel of relating them to our own work and interests -- since our work and interests are the backdrop against which we are reading. It's not possible to come to a text as a clean slate -- we bring who we are to each and every reading, and that's what makes reading so interesting because who I am is changed by every reading I do, consequently rereading a text is a new experience since it's a new "I" who is doing the reading.