Abstract for the call in Frontiers of Psychology: Qualitative Methods for Studying Groups
Fathoming the Group in Social Theories of Learning. Social Ontologies and Methodologies in the Study of Learning.
Anders Buch, PhD
Reader & Head of Research Program
Centre for Quality of Education, Profession Policy, and Practice VIA University College, Denmark
Article type: Conceptual Analysis (max 8.000 words)
Social theories of learning (STL) theorize and study learning as a phenomenon that takes place in the social realm – and in groups. However, what is meant by ‘the social’ and ‘groups’ is far from clear (Epstein 2018; Salice et al. 2019). Thus, theories of learning must specify, among other things, how they construe the subject-object relation, i.e. the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the theory and specify appropriate methods to study learning.
Traditional cognitive theories of learning have construed learning as a metal process of representation that takes place within the individual subjects as they are intentionally directed towards objects in their environment. STL, however, discard the idea that learning should be conceived as a purely cognitive process of mental representation in individuals, and stress the collective, situated and social nature of learning (Lave 1988). In STL the subject is not a passive individual recipient, but actively participate in collective social practices (Lave & Wenger 1991;
Cook & Brown 1999). Groups thus become the locus of learning and unit of analysis for some STL.
Notably, some STL have privileged Communities of Practice as the central unit of analysis for theorizing learning (Lave & Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998).
In contesting Cartesian representationalism, STL have become post-epistemological, and ‘the knowing subject’ has been decentered in giving priority to the study of unfolding social processes in groups (Lave & Wenger 1991) – and beyond local groups in social practices (Gherardi 2009; Buch 2020). However, the post-epistemological movement has not been appeased in relocating learning from the knowing subject to social groups and broader social practices – the decentering, some authors claim, must transcend the social realm more radically to understand learning (coming to know) as sociomaterial processes that do not privilege human agency (Gherardi 2019). Scholars within the ‘material turn’ and post-humanists (e.g. Latour 1993; Barad 2007) have emphatically argued that privileging ‘the social’ and ‘the human’ vis-à-vis ‘the material’ and ‘nature’ is
unjustifiable, and echoes the modernist Cartesian dualism. The post-epistemological revolt against the ‘knowing subject’ will remain incomplete if the subject-object relationship is not thoroughly epistem-ontologically reconstructed, they claim (Gherardi et al. 2017). The social group thus become an untenable stopping point for analyzing processes of learning. Rather, the analysis must proceed to investigate the intra-acting and entanglement of matter in processes of becoming in sociomaterial assemblages.
Furthermore, the methods that have traditionally been used to study learning in social groups, must also be transcended, the post-humanist researchers argue (Gherardi 2019). Research must become post-qualitative in breaking with the inherent modernist bifurcations that unattentively focus
research on human agencies and neglect paying attention to non-human, material agencies (St. Piere et al. 2016; Lather 2016).
The post-epistemological orientation of social learning theories beyond the ‘knowing subject’ to social groups and further to social practices have been based on an epistem-ontological critique of Cartesian representationalism and its bifurcation of the subject-object relationship. The post- epistemological orientation is thus based on an ontological argument that forefront the basic processual and dynamic character of social being, and conceptually construe learning in relation to complex sets of social activities that unfold in material settings.
However, I will argue, the ontological argument does not automatically lend strength to the
methodological argument put forward by post-qualitative researchers. Drawing on Charles Taylor’s (1995) discussion of the relationship between ‘issues of ontology’ and ‘issues of ‘advocacy’, I argue that the relationships between ontological stances and methodological preferences are intricate and historically forged, but by no means (logically) forced. Following John Dewey’s instrumentalist logic of inquiry (Dewey 1938), I will argue that methodological priorities and modes of inquiry must pragmatically be aligned with the problems dealt with and the situations that are constructed in the research process. Studying learning as a phenomenon of or beyond groups, and with or without a human centered perspective of the social, must ultimately be determined pragmatically.
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