Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Trying to communication through language

There is no doubt in my mind that the words we use set the scene for the meaning we are trying to convey.  Perhaps it is obvious from that statement that I don't perceive  the relationship between the person communicating and the person receiving the message to be particularly simple. 

I know from my personal experience that I often try and explain something, either in person or via email, and the person I am communicating with can receive a very different message to what I intended. 

I also know from my writing that it can be laborious to try and find the right word to really convey what it is that I mean.  The thesaurus (as well as the spell check) is my friend and I consult with her often.  And then despite my best efforts, I often come back to a manuscript and have no idea what I was talking about.  Especially if it has been a while.

So I agree with both the philosophers and the structuralists who suggest that words are signposts.  And I am familiar with research that suggests in F2F communication it is as much your body language and your facial expressions, as it is your / my words.

I've heard and read many arguments about the politics of language, but today I was reading about the perspectives of Richard Rorty (as constructed by Peter Reason, a great Action Research author, in Volume 1, Edition 1 of the Action Research journal, back in 2003 - kindly shared with me by Lucy Bolger).  Rorty is a pragmatist, who studied with an older philosopher (John Dewey) whose ideas first caught my attention.

Rorty talks about the need for creating new language when we want to convey new concepts.  This is a position I have rejected emphatically for quite some time, and as with most things I am certain about, it turns out that I wish to change my mind.  Some of you will have heard my rants about stupid words like 'musicking' (should be musical participation) and 'affordances' (should be potentials) and 'reflexivity' (should just be reflections).  But in truth I have come to love each of these words because of the very special meanings they have and the ways that they are used to convey something particular that has a strong meaning to those people who find that notion important.  I've been playing with the idea of musical wellbeing myself - but more of that on another day.

Rorty provides and eloquent justification for this by explaining how using language that comes from another school of thought, and group of people who agree to that school of thought (aka Kuhn's paradigms), conveys those beliefs.  And using that language puts the new ideas into a reactionary position - rather than a creative and innovative one.  Anyway, he does say it better, with some scaffolding ideas from Peter Reason:

"If we want to argue persuasively for a new view of phenomena ... we are caught in a 'contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed vocabulary which vaguely promises great things' " (Reason, p. 105, quoting Rorty at the end, 1989, p.9)

I ended up at Rorty precisely because of this dilemma.  Paradigm thinking suddenly felt like too much of a reaction against qualitative/quantitative thinking. So dualism had become four columns (five, including a participatory paradigm, as per the SAGE handbook of Qualitative Research - the birthday present I bought myself 5 years ago:) and now post-paradigm thinking is emerging, and mixed methodology gurus are trying to find the philosophical (epistemological / ontological) underpinnings of that.  Dewey's pragmatics does have a lot to offer.

The next piece that Reason offers is about our values in relation to the kinds of research we do and the language we use to describe it. 
"We need to tell imaginative stories of new possibilities rather than build political theories" (p.111)

To me, this speaks to feminine ways of knowing, rather than knowledge derived from masculine styles.  Intuitive sensing of the next step, rather than a pre-defined plan of attack that explains where we are going before we even begin.  My personal development work with the Feminine Power school that is aligned with Wilber's Integral group has opened my mind to the possibility that I don't need to know where I am going in the future, I only need to know where I want to step next.  This may be obvious, but for me it was similarly empowering and helped me realise that I was trying to shape my life according to a way of knowing that I do not believe in.

So I retract my belief (and accompanying statements) that people who make-up words are wankers.  And as I journey forward into better understandings about the ways that mutually empowering and creative relationships can build a better world, I may even make up the odd word.  Watch out!