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The Trouble of Social Constructivism(1)

Saila Anttonen

University of Oulu, Department of Education
P.O. Box 2000, SF-90014 OULU, Finland
Phone: +358-8-511 302; Fax: +358-81-553 3600; E-mail: Saila.Anttonen@oulu.fi

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22-25 September 1999

Session 12.13 Philosophy and Education

Abstract

A paper will discuss about the problem of social constructivism in the context of the research on the history of education. Social constructivism will be defined as following. It means that the community of scientists socially constructs the scientific knowledge in mutual communication. Such definition of social constructivism differs from the psychological views of constructivism according to which the individuals construct scientific knowledge "in their heads", also in their individual minds.

The trouble of constructivism, concerning the both above mentioned forms, is that the objectivity of knowledge becomes problematic. This raises the question whether socially constructed knowledge is reliable at all. Especially, the ideological forms of scientific knowledge, which are historical facts, prove that this point should be taken seriously.

True, the danger of the biased or even false knowledge is bigger in the case of psychological versions of constructivism. This trouble will be reflected on the basis of Jürgen Habermas' theory of argumentation and historical evidence, which have been got from the historical research on the educational ideology of National Socialism.

The links between power, knowledge and science are analysed as one of the main problems in the debate between the project of modern educational sciences and post-modern discourses in the educational sciences. The examination focuses on the contradictions of domination and emancipation in the field of educational sciences. The confrontation is constructed from the conflicting views put forward by Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas.

Habermas argues that domination is an obstacle in the pursuit of true knowledge. Foucault, however, argues that all knowledge is constituted and socially constructed under conditions of power. The aim of both of these philosophers is to criticize some distorted forms of domination. Their different agendas with regard to the solution of these problems are examined in this article. Foucault's proposal concerns struggles for power, and Habermas' proposal concerns a domination-free speech situation.

1. Introduction: Social constructivism and power in the crisis of modern educational sciences

A paper will discuss about the problem of social constructivism in the context of the research on the history of education. Social constructivism will be defined as following. It means that the community of scientists socially constructs the scientific knowledge in mutual communication. Such definition of social constructivism differs from the psychological views of constructivism according to which the individuals construct scientific knowledge "in their heads", also in their individual minds.

The trouble of constructivism, concerning the both above mentioned forms, is that the objectivity of knowledge becomes problematic. This raises the question whether socially constructed knowledge is reliable at all. Especially, the ideological forms of scientific knowledge, which are historical facts, prove that this point should be taken seriously.

True, the danger of the biased or even false knowledge is bigger in the case of psychological versions of constructivism. This trouble will be reflected on the basis of Jürgen Habermas' theory of argumentation and historical evidence, which have been got from the historical research on the educational ideology of National Socialism.

The links between power, knowledge and science are analysed as one of the main problems in the debate between the project of modern educational sciences and post-modern discourses in the educational sciences. The examination focuses on the contradictions of domination and emancipation in the field of educational sciences. The confrontation is constructed from the conflicting views put forward by Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas.

Habermas argues that domination is an obstacle in the pursuit of true knowledge. Foucault, however, argues that all knowledge is constituted and socially constructed under conditions of power. The aim of both of these philosophers is to criticize some distorted forms of domination. Their different agendas with regard to the solution of these problems are examined in this article. Foucault's proposal concerns struggles for power, and Habermas' proposal concerns a domination-free speech situation.

Foucault's aim is to promote the articulation of forms of knowledge which are neglected by the hierarchy of science. This struggle together with the mediums of subordinated knowledge can not emancipate educational sciences from power, because the opponents of current regimes of power will create tomorrow's regimes. Habermas' aim is the emancipation of scientific discourses from this long cyclical structure of domination. I argue that the main purpose of his communicative paradigm is an attempt to justify the criticism of power and the normative foundations of critical theory which do not include domination.

The problem of power in educational sciences is dealt with in the context of debates about modernity/postmodernity. I will focus on the most prominent European debates, those which have emerged between philosophers who have worked in the field of the project of critical social theory constructed by Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse and French philosophers who have developed theories of postmodernism. The leading contemporary German critic; Jürgen Habermas has commented on French postmodernism developed by among others Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault. In this article the views of Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas are contrasted.

Representative American versions of postmodern discourses; for example Aronowitz, Calhoun, Jameson, Nicholson, and Seidman, include the same kind of views of social constructivism as Habermas's (1987b, pp. 37-49) renewed project of modernity: for example reflections on morality in science and the search for contemporary protest potentials, renewed participatory politics, feminism, and environmental movements.(see for example Aronowitz, 1992; Calhoun, 1992, pp. 273-275; Jameson, 1989; Nicholson, 1992, pp. 81-91; Seidman, 1992, pp. 72-75).

The general definition of modern society and science can be historically rooted in modernization, in especially social and cultural development since the seventeenth century. Innovations in science and technology are seen to be the driving force of modernization. The revolution of industrialization has strongly directed the process. Cultural development has created decentralized world views and the differentiation of culture to different spheres of science, morality and art.

In order to abolish such a determinate point of view that things only happened, there are good reasons for conceptualizing modernization as a collective project and as a result of social action. So, it is possible to have new perspectives on the problem. What kind of future are we pursuing in this cross-road of modernity, postmodernity or society after modernity? (see for example, Anttonen, 1992; Anttonen, 1994; Habermas, 1987a).

According to Habermas (1975; 1987a; 1987b, p. 69) the aims of the project of modernity have been for example democratization, more developed forms of communication, a claim to solve problems and make decisions discursively, a rational, decentralized world view etc. These are great goals and achievements of western modernization. However, the accomplishment of purposes has failed and produced the crises of the project. For this reason the present is a cross-roads, where a direction of continuation of the project should be reassessed without giving up its rational and progressive core. Fruitful possibilities, for example collective and social learning potentialities, opened by modernization and modern world view, should be materialized as well as negative consequences and crises-tendencies being eliminated. Foucault (1976; 1977) was similarly very critical towards the materialization of modernization and modern science. The main difference between Habermas and Foucault is the point that a Foucauldian postmodernism abandoned these great purposes and utopias of modernity, which Habermas considers important (see, Habermas, 1976; 1981a and b; 1987a; 1987b; 1989).

The discussion concerning postmodernity at times deals with the post-industrial phase of development of societies. If this were the case it would be possible to formulate a thesis that postmodernity means "true modernity" where the most powerful and efficient aspects of modernity, for example, the significance of science and technology, mass communication, multinational companies, and desentralization of power, have expanded and become even more intensive. (see for example Jameson, 1989.) The discussion about the nature of society after modernity has meant a sharp break and social and cultural discontinuity with regard to modernity. Time has passed modernity and its social aims. Democracy, rationality, development, and progress have proved untenable after coming into crises, for example; economic growth and cumulative technology to environmental crisis, new mass communication, rational and bureaucratic administration to a totally controlled and overcomplicated society, creating colonialization of life-worlds of people.

The complex links between power, knowledge and science are one of the main problems in the debate between the project of modern educational sciences and postmodern discourses in educational sciences. Modernity has believed in the power of science and technology. This kind of scientism has begun to fade away, because modern science and technology have shown their destructive faces. Their central position in developing destructive mechanisms and war machinery and in supporting centralisation of power became the object of public discussion in the 1960s. It is argued that modernity is broken and postmodern culture and society have begun to develop since the world wars (see for example Seidman & Wagner, 1992, p. 14). On the one hand, postmodern discourses have questioned prevailing self-understanding of modern science and the belief in progress, which has had the central importance in science and society ever since the Enlightenment. On the other hand, postmodern discourses have defended values, which celebrate the triumph of these tendencies. (see Calhoun, 1992, p. 274; Lyotard, 1986, pp. xxiii-xxv, 3-4.)

As a conclusion I conceptualize postmodernity as a collective form of understanding of our age. This conceptualization explains contradictory, even sharply contrasting definitions, because the contradictions are the real character of postmodernity. The important point is which of these analyses penetrates the core of our age, contemporary culture, society and science. Afterall, prevailing collective self-understanding shapes our possibilities to social action in the future. I argue that one of the main differences which creates disagreement between versions of discourses of social constructivism questioning the mainstream of modernization and modern science, is their relationship to the problem of power and to the complementary question of morality in modern educational sciences. Different discourses, however, agree that the mainstream of modern science has included the aspect of domination. I argue that contradictions between Foucault's and Habermas's views can be used to articulating contradictions and cross-purposes of foundations of educational sciences, too.

2. Is critique of power possible in postmodern power-constructivism?

Horkheimer & Adorno (1972) argue in "Dialectics of Enlightenment" that modernization has been characterized by man's domination over nature and over other people. As a consequence, all relationships between human beings have been reified and commodified, which has caused people to become alienated, lose the meaning of life and lose their freedom of action. In other words, the Weberian Iron Gage of rationalization and Western modernization is now being closed. To sum up Horkheimer & Adorno conclude that the emergence of modernization can be traced back to power and that particularly one aspect of power, namely domination (die Herrschaft), is primarily responsible for the crisis of modernity and modern science.

Habermas (1982; 1987a) disagrees with both Horkheimer & Adorno's analysis of modernity, and a Foucauldian notion of postmodernism, which two views he considers parallel to each other. He thinks that Horkheimer & Adorno's pessimistic analysis of modernization destroyed all possibilities to formulate counter-forces and to act on behalf of a better future. According to also Foucault (1977, pp. 109-133) the formulation of normative criteria and appeals to morality are pure disciplinary power and the utopian hopes for a better future legitimate suppressive practises in the present. Furthermore, it is impossible to escape power, which is pervasively everywhere in society manifesting itself in constructivistic discourses of sciences, too (see Foucault, 1976, pp. 89-108). The only possibility to act for a radical change is therefore the struggle for power. This is a very critical point for Habermas's communicative intentions.

If, as Foucault suggests, postmodern culture and way of life are completely pervaded by power, control and domination, there is no room left for arenas and islands of discourse free from domination, which would make critique of power possible. Therefore, the basic question concerning power in postmodernity is Orwellian: Is postmodernity a collective form of understanding, where power has become so identified with people that people do not see it as domination, but submit to it willingly (comp. Lyotard, 1986, pp. 64-102)?

3. Social constructivism in the cross-currents of domination and emancipation

Habermas's analysis of power is the central part of his theory of modern science. He argues that domination is an obstacle to the pursuit of true knowledge. He focuses on negative, suppressive and subordinative aspects of power, on domination (die Herrschaft), which he considers a social problem. The roots of his critical attitude towards domination obviously lie in classical critical theory and its concept of domination. The totally dark and pessimistic analysis of power in critical theory becomes understandable in the context of World War II, fascism and totalitarian systems. The central aspect of this concept of domination is authoritarianism, which is a manifestation of humanity's decline. However, Habermas also has a more optimistic concept of power. He does not call it power, but emancipation, which means possibilities for human beings for the first time to consciously decide their destiny and the future of the whole humanity.

Habermas (1965) focuses on emancipatory cognitive-interest as a possible way to practise science and to construct knowledge socially without the aspect of domination. Recent remarks about "communicative power" have replaced the earlier emancipatory rhetoric in his analysis. He argues that technical, practical, and emancipatory interests have always directed the pursuit of knowledge in the history of modern science and in the history of human species generally. Human beings have striven for knowledge;

1) for technical control of nature and people in order to better control and dominate processes of nature and society

2) for understanding of socio-cultural traditions in order to better understand themselves and their social and historical reality

3) for emancipation from produced constraints in order to develop themselves towards full humanness. According to Habermas power hidden in modern science is especially connected with technical interest and scientism which is based on interest-free illusion. Emancipatory cognitive-interest is a counter-force for domination, because its aim is to deconstruct unnecessary power and to liberate from pseudo naturalistic constraints.

Foucault's (1977, pp. 109-133) analysis of power fundamentally questioned the possibilities for the emancipatory force of knowledge and science in the postmodern world. He argues that all knowledge is socially constituted and constructed under conditions of power. The power of scientific knowledge is not based only on ideologies, because there is also disciplinary power in science, which manifests itself as hierarchical regimes of truth, which indeed are regimes of power. For this reason, it is not possible to emancipate science from power by deconstructing ideologies. There are no possibilities to distinguish manipulatory standpoints and knowledge from non-manipulatory ones. Foucault's concept of power is contradictory. On the one hand, disciplinary power is very close to the concept of domination developed in critical theory. On the other hand, power is a productive force. It is not only a suppressive force, which says NO, but it produces pleasure and makes things run smoothly. It is energy which produces knowledge and scientific discourses.

However, Foucault (1976, pp. 84-85; 1977, pp. 131-133) regards the disciplinary power of science as a problem. The hierarchy of scientific knowledge is a response to the needs to control each society. The voice of power-holders constructs scientific knowledge. The institutions of science produce knowledge which is required by those in power. Disciplines, networks of scientific knowledge and hierarchical regimes of truth in science are mediums of disciplinary power, which flows via science to users of scientific knowledge. Human sciences have had a very central role in this disciplinary process which has based on knowledge, mediation of information and education. Human sciences are responsible for spreading the forms of its manifestation, for example information registers, therapies, techniques of research, because they have extended their arms everywhere in human life. Mediums of this disciplinary power have especially been pedagogues, family planners, psychologists etc.

Any scientific standpoint could not emancipate itself from networks of power, because power and its disciplinary aspects are a condition for the construction of all knowledge. A desire for knowledge is a desire for power. So, knowledge itself is power and always manipulatory. The discourses of truth are always outcomes of struggles for power. It is possible to struggle for a dominant position in the hierarchy of science, but emancipation from this machinery of domination is not possible. (see Foucault, 1977, pp. 109-133.)

Habermas (1987a, pp. 272-275) argues that although domination over nature and social technology have left marks on modern science, self-understanding of human sciences is not totally reificated by technocratic consciousness and social technology. The hermeneutic and critical standpoints have competed with social technological manipulation especially since the 1970s. Knowledge is produced besides under conditions of domination and constraints also by constructing argumentatively agreements and mutual consensus. Knowledge has had an emancipatory force in the history of science. He argues that for Foucault it is not important what kind of interests knowledge and science serve. He argues that this hinders Foucault from formulating emancipatory counter-forces.(see, Habermas, 1981a, pp. 481-482; 1987a, pp. 280-293; 1987b, pp. 116-158.) Foucault, however, criticizes the representatives of emancipatory standpoints claiming that they have never noticed power in their own camps. It was always in opponents' camps.

Habermas's (1965) arguments for the possibility of emancipatory counter-forces are grounded on domination-free dialogue. He has further developed this idea as an ideal speech situation or as an ideal speech community in the 1980s (see for example, Habermas, 1981a, pp. 34-71; 1987, pp. 116-142). It would be possible to deconstruct ideologies and to become closer to truth in an ideal speech situation, which must fulfil very unprobable conditions concerning equal rights and duties of communicators, competencies of communicators and an elimination of other factors, for example money and power, which could distort communication. First, his theory is a medium of critique, because it is a theory about normative standards of the valid critique. Second, it is a theory about the history of modern science which includes islands of scientific communities and discourses, which have orientated towards equal communication, mutual understanding and consensus conserning truth and rightfulness. The implicit structure of free, open and equal communication is the guarantee for critique of power and way to transcend domination. However, the realization of this kind of argumentation on a large scale is very unlikely.

As a conclusion it can be argued that power is the field of cross-currents of domination and emancipation. Power in educational sciences is the field of cross-currents between the totalization of manipulatory social technology and an emancipatory force of knowledge. If only power and domination have significance in modern science, emancipatory discourses are pure rhetoric which hides their aspect of power. If modern science has really created emancipatory knowledge for humanity, there are possibilities for dialogues free from domination and arenas of rationally motivated agreement, which is the first condition of truth.

4. The trouble of constructing future in educational sciences

What possibilities do we have to deal with the problem of power in social constructivism in the context of educational sciences? I cannot give any final solutions to this problem, but I will try to formulate two alternatives on the basis of Foucault's and Habermas's philosophies. The aim of both these philosophers is to criticize some distorted forms of domination. They choose different means. Foucault's (1976, pp. 84-85; 1978, pp. 83-101) method is based on historical research, genealogy, and the aim to contribute to the articulation of forms of knowledge, which are abandoned from the hierarchy of science. However, this struggle on the side of subordinated knowledge cannot emancipate science from power. The struggle for domination continues for ever, because emancipatory discourses are power as well. Power has already caught these discourses in the struggle for their articulation. Habermas's method is an utopian "ideal speech community". His aim is emancipation of scientific discourses from this everlasting struggle for domination, where the deconstruction of the old regimes of power will create new ones. The telos of consensus and mutual agreement is latent in language and communication, which is the guarantee for possibilities to construct the arenas of free, open and equal argumentations in scientific communities and to liberate potentialities of collective learning. (see Habermas, 1975; Habermas, 1976; Habermas, 1982; Habermas, 1981a and b; Habermas, 1987a and b; Habermas, 1989.)

The preconditions for changing a process of modernization and for altering its mistakes are the renewed self-understanding of modernity and the abolition of instrumental domination. Human sciences and especially educational sciences could have a significant role in this process, if they could realize "sprouts" of domination-free discourse in educational and human sciences and so promote social and collective learning. One precondition is discourse without domination, because domination and hierarchies of science are hindrances of genuine collective learning. Our task is to construct the arenas of discursive practices, which should be based on solidarity and mutual pursuit for knowledge, and could enrich, not dominate people’s life-worlds.

Foucault leaves us with an everlasting struggle for power. Habermas leaves us with an everlasting struggle on behalf of a domination-free world. If Foucault were right, there would be no point in siding with Habermas, because it would be a losing struggle. If Habermas were right, there would be no point in siding with Foucault, because the consequence would be social action and a future where domination comes back for ever. Anyway, according to the both philosophers, the future is open, and the educationalists can try to have an effect on it by constructing its lines socially taking into account especially moral criteria.

References

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Notes

1. I have analysed the problem of power in the following article, too:

Anttonen, S. 1995. Educational criticism of power. In S. Anttonen & P. Pitkänen (Hrsg.) 1995. Kritizismus in der Pädagogik. Oulun yliopiston kasvatustieteiden tiedekunnan opetusmonisteita ja selosteita 61/1995, 42-61.

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