Archive for January, 2010

The  following is based on an itty/bit of a research idea I had while reading in my bath -tub. Unused, subconscuious parts of my brain get bored and  derive  stuff like that by using the interpretative-analytical scheme for the analysis and reconstruction of regimes of knowledge production I have developed. I have given up on trying to understand what my brain does and how and why.

While the model is not reiterated in the suggestions below, it is advised that anybody who’d like to develop this project should consult a description of the model for educational purposes or just ask me what the chatter is all about.

Please note: This is not a worked out research proposal nor an undertaking I plan to do soon or ever. Nor is it the best written piece of mind. It’s just got enough interesting ideas to be “out there” for someone to ahck away at. Truth to tell I have one of these proposals in my head every day at least once. I just rearely ever bother to write them down.

Premises and Assumptions

A first premise is that research is oriented by two axes or binary oppositions, which we will use as ideal-types for the study of the “direction of fit” of research:

a) Research can be discipline-oriented or problem-oriented.1

Discipline oriented research follows an established set of methods and theories that are summed up under a discipline or sub-discipline. They form the conventionalizations (Bloor) or constraints towards the development and execution of a research-project. For example, a researcher working in the sociology of ethnicity and family is only allowed to apply certain kinds of methods and address certain types of problems. S/he could not find any real world problem and then look for suitable methods of addressing its study and/or resolution. The only problem/s she can find and will be able to study are those that can be formed within the frame of reference of the allowed methods and concepts of sociology of the family and ethnicity.

This type of research can be called Technology or Engineering2, because it is an orientation of applying a standardized set of methods and ideas towards a problem that can be constructed from within those confines.

Problem orientation, on the other hand, means that a researcher identifies a real world problem by making it explicit and then goes looking for suitable means to study the problem without adhering to disciplinary boundaries. Michel Foucault is an excellent example of this type of research which we should call scholarship.

The distinction between researchers, aka their self-identification should run along those lines, whether they want to be technologists or scholars. The ideal researcher is able to be both. However, there is a bias in current education and research administration towards discipline-orientation and the “training” of technologists rather than the “education” of scholars. A criterion of good higher education should be the quality of the mix between training and education. However, recent reforms of higher education in Germany, the Bologna reforms, have in their implementation focused on training.

Training, however, and discipline orientation, equips a researcher with limited means to acquire further knowledge outside of the discipline and the set of methods. If higher education intends to equip students with applicable knowledge for the contemporary job-market and a very clear cut career track than that is fine. However, it does not equip students for the future job-market or alternative careers, not to mention anything of the promotion of civics.

b)The second distinction is between projective and affirmative research.

Projective research is the kind of research that does seek to discover something about which little is known. It does not seek proof but answers to questions with open end.

Affirmative research, on the other hand, seeks to find or construct proof for an answer or a solution already in existence. Affirmative research is often (though not always) quantitative, since there is a culture of “trust in numbers”. It is much harder to create projective research quantitatively, for quantitative methods usually need “to know what their looking for”.

Policy Research is often affirmative research, with researcher being employed to “Affirm” a policy decision that is “already been made”. Most organization and evaluation research is found in this field.

Administration and bureaucracies require affirmative research, for their complexity has led to path dependencies of policies.


I                                                        II

projective                                                                               affirmative

IV                                                      III


The majority of social research, including business and policy related research, in the past few decades, has been in sector II (discipline oriented affirmative). Respectively, semantics (metaphors, practices, &c.) have been created along those lines.

Over time, research administration, including research funding, have adapted accordingly and by process of virtualization (hyperuniversalization and hyperspecialization,  this type of semantics has spread into the process of the creation of research proposals throughout various disciplines that are far from social research. The evaluation of research proposals is, in other words, infected by the semantics of the affirmative, discipline-oriented rationality.


In this research project, the primary task would be a semantic analysis of actual research proposals and the peer reviews.  A large number from as many years as available and over a wide range of disciplines.

Using ideas from the theory of semantic qualifying (Bordage et al), we should try and identify semantics that are typical for the ideal-types we have sketched as the premises of our research.

Our hypothesis is that, regardless of the origin of the project, positive reviews and final acceptance of the project will be more likely for those proposals that use semantics following the affirmative-discipline-oriented rationality.

For example and oversimplified, a study that suggests to study the question “how was the human body perceived in science and society America in the nineteenth century? And when and why did it become a problem that science studied the body in parts? What were the lasting consequences if any?” will less likely be turned into reality than will the following proposal:

“In the latter half of the nineteenth century, American medical culture was in a process of expert differentiation. This affected the way that medical science constructed the human body it studied. The body was no longer conceived of as a whole but perceived as parts. These theoretical parts, reassembled into a whole picture, no longer fit together. Representations of the human body are, therefore, fragmented in the 19th century. Using Goffman’s method framework analysis for a study in organizational sociology on material from the Women’s history collection at Harvard Countway Library for the period of 1850 to 1880, we will show how two emerging medical disciplines, cardiology and endocrinology, have held completely different interpretations of the human body,which were expressed in the publications of their professional organizations.”

in addition to the semantic analyses of the proposals and the reviews, the former grant applicants could be included by use of questionnaires that are based on semantic qualifying towards the study of three questions:

How did they intend to write their proposal?

What do they think of the evaluation process and how it applied to them.

If they revised and resubmitted a rejected project, how and why did they revise it?

The lead question might be:

How much power and control does a researcher have over his/her own research, choice of topic, and execution of project. Freedom of Research Question. (Max Weber).

Presumably, the direction of fit is  from bureaucratic path dependencies negates projective and problem-oriented research (or: really good science: inventive research and interdisciplinary scholarship of discovery).

in other words, today, most research tries to make the problem fit the bureaucracy of the research design, instead of making the research methods fit the problem.

1Aside from my own ruminations about the differentiation of types of science, one should consult Alfred Whitehead’s Modes of Thought Lectures, Isabelle Stengers work on Whitehead, and Bruno Latour’s essay “How to talk about the bodyBased on Whitehead, Stengers and ANT, Latour provides a great discussion of what good and what bad science is.

2This is similar but not identical to the “social technology” debates of the 1970s. In part, at least for the German context, many social scientists who have been and still are “critical” of systems theory and its potential for social technology, social engineering, &c., will have to be subsumed under the “discipline-orientation” in this model.

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Grown-ups have forever had, one would think, this annoying tendency not to want to admit that there is something they do not know or do not have an answer for. Whenever an automatic-question-rifle, otherwise embodied in the form of a child, is taking aim and shoots holes into the body of knowledge with bullets of the caliber called curiosity, grown-ups always forger that “I do not know” is the closest to a bulletproof west that you can have. This may not stop every child; some will just switch to other objects of curiosity, others will want to know why the grown-up such attacked does not know, which usually happens when the bullet-proof west came cheap (children seem to have a keen sense for dishonesty, while they can be mesmerized by the most unremarkable tricks all the same). But, no, in general it seems as though grown-ups or rather grown-olds, for most people leave their inner child behind and therefore just grow old but not up, where growing old means a transformation where something is left behind, and growing up is more of a creative a synthesis), as if these grown-olds do not want to admit that there is something they do not have an answer for. If they did, they would have done something to spark the spirit for the adventure of research in the child and maybe their own. Yet, this seems to happen rarely and, unfortunately for our civilization, this seems to have been going on on for a couple of generations.

A few generations ago, grown-olds would, upon exhaustion of their knowledge, say something like “….well, that’s so because God made it so.” That answer is a real killer. Referring to an entity whose design cannot possible be known is a fantastic trick and one is left wondering what god grown-olds refer to in the age of secularization.

One of the most dramatic changes over the past few generations can be observed in the loss of curiosity. Children outgrow curiosity ever faster. We can blame mass media, disinterested parents, bad genes and those evil behavior disorders they cause, like ADHD for example (by the way sit down in coffeeshop for an hour and watch people with kids and you will quickly discover where a deficit in attention actually lies and, like me, argue for a little deficit spending, instead). However, maybe the problem lies deeply rooted in our culture and the of shifting from asking questions to the administration and marketing of answers.

One can easily imagine that once an attention deficient parent has run out – ever more quickly – of answers, that s/he will retort that this or that is just not profitable, leads to nothing,  or that “time has run out”. Who, I ask, keeps track of time and the economies of answers? Well, God, remember that old white-bearded loosh  they used to paint in the middel ages, is out of question(s), for he is no longer a suitable answer, today. The new god or metaphysical entity is a janus-faced  fellow with invisible hands.  I call it the Great Accountant and the Great Bureaucrasia. (Just so I have an answer for questions that I cannot answer and need not to, because we have answers, you get the drift).

I came upon that thought, when I realized that I had made, without realizing, an adjustment in my young academic life which shows how much I have grown – I leave it to you, dear reader, whether that qualifies as “up”. Looking through my old research grant proposals, I figured that something had ultimately changed in my way of asking a question. In short, today, I don’t. A few years back, I used to express what the question was that I was asking in my research and that I wanted answers for. Today. I write sentences like “I will show this” and “I will argue that this is so” to express what is the subject matter of my research. I seem to be full of answers and when I ask for somebody to support my research, I ask to be paid to provide an answer I have already given. Moreover, I answer in a way that does fit – no not a question – but either into a bureaucratic structure or into somebody’s budget. interestingly, when I was asking questions, I was constantly berated by condescending peers and not taken seriously by senior colleagues (well mostly Germans, my American friends are certainly more open and curious than the German Bureaucrats.) Little wonder my questions had not met with financial success. Therefore, it stands to reason that my answers should lead to success, even if I am afraid that I have ruined my reputation already and am widely known as somebody who asks questions, and therefore anybody who runs into me should be so smart as to be  “out of time: in advance, which can easily be made accountable.

In the economy of questions and answers, a monopoly has arisen, a naked singularity, a black hole. The answer has made the question disappear behind the event horizon.

We seem to have all the answers already. Like that famous statue that is already in the stone, only that nowadays we approach the block and already have the statue and no one wonders anymore how the pieces have had to come off to produce it. Where is the sense in that? Well, there is none. this example itself is only half-logical, but therefore it is a wonderful example of how far we have come with “bureaucrapatrolling”  the floors of scientific research.

We have taken curiosity and questions out of our research in science and the arts, substituting them for the production of accountable answers that fit in with budgets and bureaucratic structures.

Imagine somebody saying: give me two or three years worth of money to live and do some travel for my research, I have a question like “How did people think about the body in the 19th century in the US? Why and to what effect? And lets see if what we know about that already holds up with what I find.”  We’d declare such a person mad. No hypothesis to prove, no research plan, no budget proposal. Just a guy who is curious and has the guts to  ask a question and say “I will surely find some really cool answers”.  Well, that used to be scientific research. But today, it seems, we do not need that, for we have all the answers already, we know all there is to know. The age of discoveries is long gone, and therefore we have no time for the questions of our children no more. Why should we, the answers are all on the internet and we are out of time to start with.

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It has recently been argued in a secondary study that most of the previous studies on learning styles – there are typologies that account for up to 72 different learning styles – are actually inconclusive when it comes to the data collected. The authors suggest that maybe the idea of learning styles, such as visual, textual, tactile, spatial audio, digital, &c. are nothing but fictitious artifacts. In regard to learning styles, I myself as a young scholar who is bound to pursue a career at teaching, I have had several occasions to discuss the question with colleagues and friends as well as read a lot about the subject matter in literature on psychology and literature on teaching.  I was often left very unsatisfied with the literature and frustrated with the discussions, in particular with people who were studying to become school teachers. What I often encountered was a snobbishness and condescending attitude of people who were very adamant about their opinion that, as a mere “scholar” , I was ill-equipped to be a “real teacher” in their eyes, that I had no idea about different “learning styles” and teaching techniques fit to satisfy the needs of students with such learning styles.

In particular, the case I made, in turn, was that as a sociologist and philosopher,  I have to teach with a rich text dependence rather than other media and that there is just so much that can be done about. I was and remain convinced that it is imperative that we maintain a minimum of text reading competence, which I still deem the key to a successful and healthy  career and life. At the same time, this does not mean at all that we do not have to account for different learning styles or what Howard Gardner has called so fittingly multiple intelligences.

However, theorizing about and studying the idea of multiple intelligence is one thing, bringing it into the classroom (whether at school or university) is another, and finally, incorporating it into the idea of lifelong learning, which is even in a continually digitizing and virtualizing world, is an even more daring task.

The world and our society remain text dependent. And simply “absorbing” texts, even or especially large quantities of it, brings its own intricacies with it, for simply “decoding the information” is often not enough. From various interesting researchers, above all Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid), have we learned to distinguish between two reading styles, informative and interpretative reading, which are two neurophysiologically distinct operations that have a lasting effect on our brains which structure the potentialities of operational modalities of our brain to a large degree.

Reading is, after all, not an operation that the human brain is genetically constituted to do. The brain is equipped to handle spoken information quite well, reading, in particular following a written argument, not just decoding a symbol or two, is a unique capacity that is preserved and learned within culture thus it is a “nurtured” quality that is enabled by the human brain’s capacity to learn new tricks over time and change accordingly, a trait we have come to know under the term neuroplasticity since, at the very least, William James’ Principles of Psychology.

The brain adapts to the different ways it is required to process information and when reading and writing emerged into a cultural practice that became part of everyday life, an evolutionary shift occurred in our collective brains so to speak, which Wolf has reminded us of that it has been duly noted by the likes of Plato, who realized (and resisted) that a major rupture had begun to take over humankind.

We are witnessing, says Wolf, another such transition now as the new generation of kids and adolescents are born digital natives, meaning their primary education in everyday lives occurs in the digital realm with its unique forms of information processing. However, she also states that we digital immigrants  are able to adapt, even if slower, to this situation and our brains change accordingly.

This development may yet not be for the better if the previous cultural technique of reading as a cognitive style is becoming lost, just as it is important that the processing abilities for long and complex oral communications should not be lost us. New cultural techniques and the cognitive processing styles they bring with them should add to the others not abandon them.

In reading styles, Wolf has denoted the difference to be between information and interpretation. In the information reading style, bits of code are just decoded and stored or processed as the bits themselves. But this impoverishes the potentials that lie in the information. Creative potentials to use the information for the development of new ideas, use in different contexts, or even to just stir our imagination are lost. It is as if you unwrap a Xmas present, open the box to see what’s inside but you never take the actual present out of the box.

The digital native’s style of reading is based on this and their cognitive processes adapt accordingly. Interpretative reading styles allow for the “gift to come out of the box” to be toyed with.

This way, I argue, real inventions and new ideas are possible. All that “information-based” cognitive styles allow for is innovation in a given frame along predestined pathways. But solutions may not be found this way that account for the complexity of the world and the challenges we are faced with.

The same is, I fear true, about learning styles and multiple intelligences, and, I think, that in further research we will need to correlate Wolf’s reading styles with the multiple intelligences approach.

Certainly, people are born with different potentialities of their cognitive faculties and we may find that early childhood nurture will develop some better than others. The problem many young teachers that I have been bashed by seem to have fallen into is that they suggest I adapt to the child’s, adolescent’s, or student’s “style” without challenging the other faculties to help them develop further skills. What I am saying, however, is that instead we need to take serious the “multiple” in multiple intelligences, and accept that each person and his/her continually adapt to their environments – usually of longer periods of time – and use their faculties according to the environmental challenge. A mono-dimensional approach that suggests that as teachers we must do our best to make the content suit the student’s ability and style, in my opinion, doesn’t quite cut it. If we want to do something good for a child or student we need to help them understand the content by employing and developing all these styles. Everybody is capable of learning to understand spoken argument, reading interpretatively, and reading informatively, just as we all can potentially process visual, audio, tactile, written information, etc. We need to create challenges for our students and children in order to nurture them, not cater to them to nurture only comfortability. Sapere Aude!

The magic word is embeddedness:

Information is always embedded in different medial contexts (written, visual, audio, tactile), and for its further use it needs to be taken from its original context and embedded in equally complex contexts. Take medical information, for example. Many therapies today are ill-suited to fit the lives of patients. Many patients are just “cases” that are managed onto therapy-pathways. But these therapies should be embedded into their everyday life-worlds in order to work. This is just rarely the case, and with the increasing “digital divide” and the economic shifts of ever richer and ever more poor people in our Western societies, this problem will only increase. Sure, a tenured full professor, a high level manager, or rich shareholder may not have to ask for caregivers to help embed a therapy regime into his/her life-world.

The single mom living off scrapes garnered from three different sub-minimum wage, living in the notorious Dorchester, MA, will not be given the same means for her child, nor will current school or college culture enable the child to “take good care for her/himself” over a life-course. The increase in obesity, ADHD, depression, and, finally, social conflict, may be a partial result of fundamental transformations in our culture of learning and education that led to impoverishment of interpretation and real life embedding skills. Reading thick books, as Wolf suggests, is not a skill we should forsake in our digital age. We still need to challenge our children and students to read books, while they embark on a journey into an increasingly digital world.  We need to stimulate all the sense and faculties, but reading and interpretation remains the key for only interpretative reading allows us to “learn the languages” of all the possible worlds including the digital world, to paraphrase the insight of Wittgenstein.

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Happy New Year!

There will be no new texts for another week. However, by the week-end of Jan.10, you should expect the upload of several texts that I am currently working on in parallel.They will involve learning styles, the skin as a fictitious boundary, Obama’s speech-act problem, and the end of Germany as a society. I can’t wait for your reactions to all that.

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