Dr. Kenneth Gergen joined West Chester University on Wednesday, April 6, to deliver a lecture on “Rethinking Social Science.” Before a packed room in the Philips Autograph Library, the Senior Research Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore University and President of the Taos Institute suggested a new, more radical approach to the field of social science, one which moves beyond basic academia and encourages students and experts alike to become “agents of change.”
Gergen has been a major figure in social constructionist theory for more than 30 years, studying the nature of knowledge and how humans cooperate to build an understanding of the world. He has published more than 300 articles in books, journals, and magazines and received various awards for his work, including lifetime achievement awards from the American Psychological Association Division on Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, the Society for Constructivism in the Human Sciences, and the Constructivist Psychology Network.
Gergen is a “theorist who lives in a world of application,” according to Dr. Donald McCown, the co-director of West Chester University’s Center for Contemplative Studies, which coordinated Wednesday’s event.
The Taos Institute, of which Gergen is also a founding member, strives to apply social constructionist theories to promote social change. What he proposes now is a movement away from the inertia of pure academic study and working instead towards active involvement in a community to make positive, tangible impacts.
For Gergen, the issue with academia lies in the attempt to map an ever-changing world. Writing an academic article, for instance, can be a long process and possibly take over two years with research and revision.
By the time it’s published, Gergen said, “everything you studied no longer exists.”
As knowledge of the world is in constant flux, he suggests that perhaps we have mistaken what knowledge is.
Holding a plastic water bottle in his hands, Gergen contemplated the various ways he could describe the object. Were he a maker of plastic, he proposes, he would talk about the bottle’s composition and flexibility. As an art historian, he might talk about the significance of its shape. As an environmentalist, he might have “a lot of other things to say.” It might be frightening.
“I can talk about [the bottle] from a variety of viewpoints,” Gergen said, and in doing so, what he’ll have done is “create it as that thing.”
While people can and should attempt to be neutral, Gergen believes that no knowledge of an object can be acquired outside of a subjective perspective. Words can only be used to describe things or events “after the fact,” and these descriptions, in turn, define. Rather than focus so heavily on predicting the future and attempting to “get it right about what exists.” Gergen instead advocates the active attempt to change what exists, or to “move in flow to co-create the future.”
One example he gave of such effort to recreate the world was first inspired when he and his wife, Dr. Mary Gergen, realized they were getting old. Gergen explained that culture commonly viewed aging as a decline, but they instead chose to imagine it as the best years of their lives.
With this positive spin, they together began an online newsletter called “Positive Aging,” which is now distributed to 20,000 recipients.
In this way, Gergen pushes for social science to move beyond study and take action. The natural sciences are appreciated, he argued, not because of what they publish, but because of what they do for our culture.
“What have social sciences given to culture?” he asked.
It’s value is not in books or journals, he said, but in “what we can do for people.”
Etta Griffin is a fourth-year student majoring in English writings with a minor in journalism. Contact them at EG826453@wcupa.edu