Drawing of at least two topics from across the module , discuss how the theme of situated knowledges can contribute to our understanding social psychology.
your understanding of and ability to explain the interrogative them of situated knowledge.
Your ability to link the themes of situated knowledges to the wider study of social psychology .
Your ability ability to select appropriate social psychology topics and research and use them in the development of an argument.
Your ability to demonstrate the skills of meta-level or integrative thinking.
Your ability to write a clear, focused, and critical discussion which addresses the question.
Book 1 chapter 2, 3 and 9( Hollway)
Book2 chapter 1 ( Taylor)
Block 6 online commentary chapter(Motzkau)available from the module website. Please below for a copy of this :
Block 6 online Commentary: The production of knowledge
by Johanna Motzkau
How does social psychology matter? Producing knowledge – evaluating research
This Block 6 Commentary will…
•recapitulate the main conceptual threads of the module including: ◦the historical embeddedness of social psychological research
◦the reciprocal relationship between research and the social world
◦the four interrogative themes, focussing in particular on situated knowledge and power relations
◦the four perspectives and how they relate to another
•give a detailed explanation of what it means to conduct a ‘critical evaluation’
•introduce three modes of critical evaluation which guide you when formulating your own critique, comparing different research perspectives and assessing their compatibility
•offer an example of critical evaluation by comparing research on ‘Love’ from three perspectives
•highlight a real academic debate about research in the social psychoanalytic perspective which is criticised by researchers from the discursive and the cognitive social perspective.
Throughout the module we have aimed to equip you with a sophisticated understanding of social psychology by systematically exploring two interrelated aspects of the discipline.
Historical and contextual embeddedness
We highlighted the historical and contextual embeddedness of this research by showing that the theoretical frameworks researchers use, the questions they decide to ask, how they define the phenomena or topics they investigate, how they understand knowledge to be produced and what research methods they chose or devise, directly relate to the historical time and place in which they live, work and conduct their research. It is in this sense that knowledge has been described as situated.
This situatedness of knowledge is inevitable and it is not in itself a good or a bad thing. But being unaware of it, or even denying it, when conducting, evaluating or using research is problematic because it means overlooking or dismissing, crucial contextual information. Hence understanding the history of social psychology is not just about appreciating the origins of the discipline per se. But it also disrupts the notion that there has been smooth progress in the development of the discipline, i.e. it undermines the idea that with time we gain ever–increasing certainty. Being aware of this helps to develop a productive scepticism about purported facts and certainty, because it is clear that today’s knowledge, like yesterday’s, is always situated and best understood and evaluated against the context in which it was gained and that it seeks to explain. In social psychology, this is particularly the case because the objects of our knowledge (i.e. phenomena and how we define them) are constantly affected by historical changes, among which are the effects of social psychology itself. This leads us to the second aspect.
1.1 Reciprocal relationship between research and social world
We have explored the reciprocal relationship between research in social psychology and the social world it investigates. That is, we showed that research questions are not just influenced by social, political and historical context, but research findings also feed back into social life, informing, for example, policy, law and common sense understandings people hold. These in turn inform their behaviour and judgements.
In this way social psychology is shaped by, but also directly contributes to, continuously re-shaping the lived realities of those it investigates. Thus, the relationship between social psychology and its subject area can be referred to as a powerful ‘two way dynamic’ (see Book 2, Chapter 2, Section 4). It is in this context that we have alerted you to the power relations that are always present where knowledge is produced, generated and taken up.
It is crucial to remember though that these power relations, and the reciprocal dynamic, are always there, i.e. they cannot be avoided, and power itself is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it merely produces effects and in this sense it has been described as ‘positive’ (here meaning ‘productive of something’; see Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 4.1). Only a critical evaluation of the effects it produces in relation to a specific context can provide a value judgement about how far these effects may be good or bad and for whom. For example a better understanding of social interaction can have beneficial effects (e.g. contributing to better education policies or conflict management). However, where certain insights are over-generalized and presented as absolute or universal, it becomes difficult to evaluate, and where necessary, challenge knowledge and its effects, and this can have bad, even oppressive effects for those concerned. In such cases knowledge often perpetuates (implicitly or explicitly) certain stereotypes or political agendas of a certain time/place (for example the initial assumption that crowds are always irrational and bad was a ‘taken for granted’ stance at the time, which meant that the potential productive and pro-social effects of crowd dynamics were overlooked, or indeed not even considered, see Book 1, Chapter 1).
You can see that these two aspects are closely related and together they offer a productive evaluative perspective. Remembering the situatedness of knowledge and being aware of the power relations that operate on, and within, research is thus not as such an ‘oppositional/critical’ stance, but it forms part of the social and political responsibility of conducting, disseminating and studying social psychological research.
1.2 Critical evaluation
Throughout the history of social psychology the attribute ‘critical’ has come to be associated with more recent research perspectives some of which take an explicitly oppositional and subversive stance vis a vis the mainstream (we have covered some of these in this module). However, when we encourage you to be ‘critical’ or ask you to ‘critically evaluate’ research or perspectives in the context of this module, we do not mean that you should adopt a per se oppositional or subversive stance. Nor do we mean that such critique should always be directed against mainstream approaches. In the context of this module when conducting a critical evaluation we expect you to take a stance of productive scepticism towards any perspective or research finding you encounter; a systematic scepticism that allows an appreciative, balanced and contextualized inquiry into the merits, relevance and problems with any research in Social Psychology.
1.3 Perspectives and paradigm shifts
Throughout the module we can see that the increasing complexity and diversity of the discipline is driven by disagreements and debates between researchers that translate into paradigm shifts. This is called a ‘paradigm shift’ because such disagreements do not just challenge previous findings and methods, but researchers’ critique leads to the development of alternative ways of defining the entire phenomenon under investigation (i.e. devising new ontological frameworks). For example, when the discursive approach to emotion emerged this constituted a paradigm shift, as it presented an entirely new model of emotion phenomena as discursive, and a new way of investigating them. Such new paradigms form the basis of different new research perspectives.
However, these new perspectives and paradigms have rarely replaced the traditional ones they criticize or seek to overcome. This is why in Social Psychology today a number of different perspectives (and their paradigms) exist alongside each other, and while sometimes complementary, often they are not compatible. Still, perspectives are continuously changing and approaches that merge and combine aspects of previously incompatible perspectives may already be in the making.
In this context Langdridge (see Book 2, Conclusion chapter) reminds us that both ‘critical’ and ‘mainstream’ positions are not as homogeneous or as neatly divided as we may assume when reading about ‘critical’ versus ‘mainstream’. Research in the ‘mainstream’ for example has diversified hugely and there are many collaborations across boundaries. Also, incompatibility can be due to the fact that different perspectives pursue very different projects, i.e. they have different aims, so ‘overcoming’ or ‘replacing’ another approach is not what they are trying to do anyway.
1.4 Four research perspectives
This module has focused on four important perspectives
•the cognitive social
• the phenomenological
•the social psychoanalytic perspective.
As outlined in the introduction to the module (Book 1, Introduction Chapter) a conscious decision was taken to offer a detailed account of more recent critical perspectives in Social Psychology alongside the mainstream perspective.
It is important to remember that due to having such a long tradition research within the mainstream Social Psychology (here represented by the cognitive social perspective) is hugely more varied and diverse in terms of methods, approaches and topics than we have been able to explore in this module. Conversely, and inevitably, some of the very recently established critical perspectives (e.g. the social psychoanalytic) are at the time of writing (2012) only pursued by a relatively small number of researchers. As a result of this the number of topics covered is limited and there may not yet be a lot of debate or critique. This does not mean that these perspectives only work for a small number of topics or that they are above criticism! With time they will broaden their topic areas and diversify their methods, but they will also be subjected to more intense internal and external criticism.
The discursive perspective is a good example for this gradual diversification as it has already produced a number of different strands, some of which are covered in this module. Edwards’ discursive psychology approach (as introduced in Book 1, Chapter 6, on Emotion) differs slightly in orientation and aim from Wetherell’s critical discourse analysis as outlined in Book 1, Chapter 4 on Families; Billig’s Rhetorical Psychology (as introduced in Book 2, Chapter 6 on Group Processes) offers yet another variety of discursive psychology, which is also represented in Book 2, Chapter 7 on Obedience (see Reading 5.2). Another important strand of discursive psychology in UK Social Psychology that we have not been able to cover in this module is represented by the work of Parker (2003).
We believe the benefits of having introduced you to exciting new and critical perspectives far outweigh the problem of having to limit coverage of mainstream research. Further, the critical evaluation skills you learned in this module due to a detailed encounter with recent critical shifts in the discipline should equip you well for your own future exploration of the vast and exciting mainstream of Social Psychology.
Activity 1: Pause for reflection:
Can you identify the commonalities and differences between the different discursive approaches covered in the module? You can use the space below to collate your notes:
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1.5 What does it mean to ‘step back’? Tools for critical evaluation
Now that you have worked through the whole module and gained a richer picture of the discipline and the topics it is concerned with, it is worth considering again, and in more detail, what it means to evaluate critically what you have read, i.e. what it means to ‘step back’, and how the interrogative themes might help you with that.
Chapters 2 and 3 of Book 1 were designed to help you understand social psychology historically in terms of where it started, how and why it changed (Chapter 2) and the different perspectives, approaches and methods that characterise it (Chapter 3; see also Video clips 1 Contemporary Methods & Perspectives). These are not definitive histories (histories, too, are situated knowledges), but together they demonstrate how it is possible to step back from the content of Social Psychology to identify how it is part of various overarching patterns.
We devised the four interrogative themes that run through the module in order to further assist in this process of stepping back (these are: power relations, situated knowledge, individual–society dualism and structure–agency dualism). The latter two themes (the dualisms individual-society and structure-agency) alert you to the ways dichotomies are used, or challenged, in research to bolster certain types of explanations or approaches. The first two themes (power relations and situated knowledge) capture the overarching issues to do with the production of knowledge (including those related to the other two themes). In this sense they are crucial in guiding your critical evaluation and this is why they are covered in more detail in this final commentary.
Looking at this summary of the module so far it is clear that this module presents you with a particular challenge. It asks you to learn about and grapple with the subject matter of Social Psychology, while also introducing you to its historical and contextual embeddedness, as well as tracing diverse theoretical and methodological shifts and criticisms that have been launched more recently, enriching and diversifying Social Psychology.
We appreciate that while doing this it can be difficult to maintain a clear sense of how to compare the topics under investigation; to know where the different perspectives are anchored, and on what basis they might be compared or criticized: are they compatible, complementary, competing or just co-existing? Are they all adequate in their own right or can we argue/determine that one perspective is better than another, and why? How can we critically evaluate them, how can we anchor/define our own position towards these approaches? In short: How do we ‘step back and critically evaluate’?
In the remainder of this Block 6 Commentary I will try to add some clarity to these questions. This commentary is not so much a conclusion, but rather an attempt at demonstrating how you can organize and formulate your own critical evaluation of the topics, perspectives, methodologies and debates presented in this module, and how the interrogative themes of power relations and situated knowledge might help you do this. Hopefully this will also enable you to make future use of the evaluative and critical skills you have developed in this module
2.Three modes of critical evaluation
It is important to be aware of the different angles, or ‘modes’ you can adopt when evaluating research in Social Psychology (and anywhere else for that matter). This may seem obvious, but while reflecting on the module and formulating your own critical evaluation of the various topics, approaches and perspectives, it is easy to get confused about these modes and your own footing, i.e. where you are arguing from and what you are aiming at. To organize your critical evaluation I suggest you distinguish between three main modes of critical evaluation:
•Critical Mode 1 – Within Perspective
•Critical Mode 2 – Between Perspectives
•Critical Mode 3 – Meta-Perspective
These are outlined in more detail in the following sections.
Please note: These three modes of critical evaluation do not constitute a hierarchy and they are not mutually exclusive but overlapping; and as your critical evaluation unfolds you may find yourself moving back and forth between them. Also, you need not refer to them explicitly in your writing. Still, being clear about them and keeping them in mind will help you systematically plan and formulate your critical evaluation and to achieve a well structured, plausible and coherent argument.
2.1 Critical Mode 1 – ‘Within Perspective’
When we are discussing a topic within a perspective (e.g. the topic of attitudes is discussed within the cognitive social perspective) we are basing our evaluation on the aims, definitions and assumptions of that perspective. We ask whether, according to its own criteria, the approach to e.g. attitudes about breast-feeding in public, is appropriate and whether it delivers on its own promises.
When for example considering cognitive social research about attitudes in Critical Mode 1 you might ask questions about the experimental set up used in that research (where experiments are involved), or about how well the scales or items are constructed to measure attitudes in this context (if it is a questionnaire type study); so you are asking about the reliability of the instruments used to measure attitude, and whether they are constructed well.
You could also critically evaluate the way the experiment was conducted (or the questionnaire applied). You might consider the following:
•Were errors made in the selection of participants?
•Or are there problems with the type or number of participants?
•Or were errors made in the way the questionnaire was administered or the experiment executed (here you might point to demand characteristics).
Finally you could consider the real world relevance of the study. Does it actually explain what it claims to explain, i.e. does it offer valid findings relevant to the real world in the way the researchers claim it does (here you could point to good or poor ecological validity). Is the way the researchers interpret their findings and draw conclusions, plausible and valid or are they exaggerating the explanatory power of their findings, overlooking important issues, or claiming effects they have not proven?
An example of an evaluation in Critical Mode 1 is a specific methods critique raised about Milgram’s experiments (see also Book 2, Chapter 7 on Obedience). Some critics point out that his set up was not really an experiment in the strict sense, because it lacks a central feature of an experiment: a control group. That is, a group where participants engage in the same activity as those in the experimental group but without the independent variable.
If you were to criticize the concept of attitude (how it is defined) and its relevance as such (which is also a legitimate line of critical evaluation), or the experimental approach as such, then your evaluation moves into Critical Mode 2 or 3, because you are challenging the fundamental assumptions the perspective is based on.
This illustrates that in Critical Mode 1 you do not engage critically with the theoretical foundations of a perspective as such (i.e. its overall theoretical framework). You remain within the one perspective (and within the ontological and epistemological assumptions it makes) and criticize it on its own grounds. Note the difference though between the ‘theoretical framework’ of a perspective and various ‘theories’ that may be developed in relation to a phenomenon within one perspective. Researchers working within any one perspective may develop competing theories about specific phenomena, and if you were to compare and evaluate these you are likely to be doing this in Critical Mode 1. Still, ‘theories’ can in themselves push the fundamental theoretical framework a perspective as such, so there may be borderline cases where tracing such competing theories within a perspective could take you into Critical Mode 2 or 3, which are explained below.
2.2 Critical Mode 2 – ‘Between Perspectives’
Critical Mode 2 captures a stance where you are critically evaluating one perspective from the position of another perspective; i.e. examining it through the lens of another and anchoring yourself in that other perspective (i.e. taking its position).
A brief illustration of Critical Mode 2 can be found in the last section of Book 1, Chapter 3 (‘Methods and Knowledge in Social Psychology’). This section outlines developments around attitude research as conducted in cognitive social perspective. Potter and Wetherell’s critique clearly steps outside of the cognitive social perspective and criticizes the perspective, its concepts and implicit assumptions as such. Crucially Potter and Wetherell criticize the way the topic (attitude) is conceptualized (i.e. as a generalisable phenomenon and something that is fixed in peoples’ minds), when, as they argue ‘attitudinal objects’ vary significantly between people and at different times (i.e. what people mean varies). Due to this misconception they argue that there is little that can be meaningfully found out about the way attitudes are expressed and influence people’s actual lives. So they look at the cognitive social perspective from the stance of the discursive perspective they are developing, and which they argue offers a more appropriate and more relevant way of looking at attitudes as they are expressed and affect people’s lives and interactions in the context of specific societal issues (e.g. racism).
This module is built up around the idea of contrasting perspectives, so you can find similar examples for Critical Mode 2 in every Study Block. For example the chapter on Emotion, Book 1, Chapter 6, first outlines shifts within cognitive social approaches (Critical Mode 1), but then looks at the topic through the lens of the discursive approach, criticizing the cognitive social perspective from the discursive perspective; the chapter on Embodiment, Book 1, Chapter 8, explores and criticises other perspectives from a phenomenological point of view.
In Critical Mode 2 you step back from one perspective in order to look at it from the position of another perspective. You do this by anchoring yourself in the theoretical framework of that other perspective. In fact this is what you have already been doing when writing your TMAs, as it helps to better understand how perspectives relate and to explore their respective strengths and weaknesses. Moving back and forth between two perspectives you can weigh up their respective value and explore what they would make of each others’ approaches.
Looking at the history of Social Psychology you can see that when researchers do this they always have a specific aim and motivation, such as Potter and Wetherell who found that something important was missing from research into attitudes at that time. So while their critique is a conceptual one, it is driven (in this case) by a specific concern about a serious societal issue that is prominent in these researchers’ lives, and that they want to see addressed (i.e. racism). In this sense this is in part also an example for Critical Mode 3, as you will see next.
2.3 Critical Mode 3 – ‘Meta-Perspective’
To examine various perspectives in comparison overall we take a meta-perspective and thus move into Critical Mode 3. We are then stepping back from any specific perspective at all to evaluate the implications and effects of the way different perspectives define their topics, construct or choose their methods and interpret their findings. In a way this means taking the activity of doing social psychological research (or any other research) as our object of inquiry.
We could say that this is a philosophical way of engaging with research, and while this has a long tradition in disciplines like History and Philosophy of Science, this approach as we know it now has only become relevant for Social Psychology due to the work of the French Philosopher and Psychiatrist Michel Foucault. This does not mean that we have to closely follow Foucault’s specific agenda when engaging in Critical Mode 3, but it is worth remembering that he pioneered this way of meta-thinking in social scientific research. As Foucault’s work became more recognized, researchers in Social Psychology increasingly used it as a new way of evaluating their own and others’ work.
You will remember that the four interrogative themes were introduced in the context of Foucault’s work (see the last section in Book 1, Chapter 2). It is then clear that, even though the four interrogative themes can be instructive for considerations in Critical Mode 1 and 2, they really originate in and define Critical Mode 3. This is because they highlight issues and questions that span across the different perspectives and highlight recurring issues that affect all perspectives and debates in different ways. So we are in Critical Mode 3 when speaking about institutional and disciplinary powers and when examining historical conditions for certain types of research to emerge and when speaking about the situatedness of knowledge.
In the introduction to this Block 6 Commentary I explained why ‘power relations’ are considered ‘positive’ (they always produce effects), but they are not in and of themselves beneficial or problematic. It is the effects they produce in a specific context that can be judged as being beneficial or problematic.
When looking for problematic effects of power relations you could for example ask:
•What things are being ‘taken for granted’ in this research or perspective?
•Are there any unchecked implicit assumptions in the way the:◦questions are asked?
◦concepts are defined?
◦research is set up?
◦findings are interpreted
•What questions or contextual specificities are assumed, obscured, or cannot be seen or asked about?
•Are population groups or individuals ignored or presented in a specific, potentially narrow, manner?
•What is problematic about this?◦How does this negatively affect persons/practices concerned, or the validity/relevance of findings generated?
When looking for beneficial effects of power relations you could ask:
•What previously obscured or unrecognized detail or factor has become visible as a result of this research or question asked?
•How does this benefit the people or practices concerned, or the validity/relevance of the findings generated?
•How has this changed or at least highlighted previously problematic power relations?
As outlined in the introduction, the situatedness of knowledge cannot be avoided, but being alert to it gives us an insight into the contextual embeddedness of research. When examining the situatedness of knowledge in relation to a specific piece of research, you could ask:
•How does this research or perspective, and the way it is set up, reflect the spirit or the ideas of the time and place it is conducted in?
•How are specific political, social, ethical, cultural, economic issues of the time reflected in the research and the way the results are interpreted or discussed?◦Are the concerns, questions and methods reflective of specific groups or more generalisable?
◦Is the research a reflection of a particular country or cultural context is it generalisable to other countries or other cultural contexts?:
•How are specific political, social, ethical, cultural, economic issues of the time reflected in the research and the way the results are interpreted or discussed?
•Are the concerns, questions and methods reflective of specific groups or more generalisable?
•Is the research a reflection of a particular country or cultural context is it generalisable to other countries or other cultural contexts?
When looking at very recent research conducted in the UK: ◦What is it about ‘now’ in the UK that makes these questions pertinent and relevant?
◦What would this research look like if it was conducted elsewhere; or 10 or 50 years ago?
◦Would these questions have been asked at all, and why/why not; and who would have asked them?
•Why does it make sense at this time and place (or in this situation) to interpret the results in this specific way?
•How far does a piece of research or a perspective appreciate or overlook the situatedness of knowledge ◦What are the benefits or problems that arise from this?
Example for the relevance of ‘power relations’ and ‘situated knowledges’
Book 2, Chapter 8: ‘Bystander Intervention’ offers an example of how historically and societally specific power relations influence what is considered worth talking about and examining (i.e. scientifically relevant). It also shows what is overlooked at a certain point in time, thus illustrating the importance of appreciating knowledge as situated. In this case the societally prevailing norms meant that the sexual and gender aspect of the crime did not feature in research initially (and did not for a long time).
This had a problematic effect on how well the case of K. Genovese and the wider problem of violence against women could be understood, discussed and tackled. Further, specific power relations are expressed in the way gender relations themselves are constituted at that time (there is an implicit assumption that it is normal for women to suffer violence at the hands of men particularly when in a relationship). So the question was framed entirely as one of ‘bystander ignorance’, obscuring issues of gendered violence, race and class, as well as making it hard to detect the normative assumptions that facilitated overlooking these issues.
When talking about power relations in this context we do not mean that individual (white male) scientists deliberately avoided a focus on gender (though this may also have happened). We mean the power expressed in the societal norms that prevented certain crucial questions from appearing relevant, i.e. in this case those of gender, race and class inequalities. Looking at the situatedness of knowledge it is then interesting to see that F. Cherry (see Book 2, Chapter 8, Reading 7.2) herself reports that initially she was not aware of this issue. Only with time and with shifts in societal norms and debates (here for example enabled by emergent civil rights and feminist movements), did she develop her insight into the importance of gender, class and race in the context of bystander research. So in a reciprocal dynamic new questions become available as part of overall societal shifts that broaden individuals’ (here F. Cherry’s) analytic perspectives and vice versa. In this specific context the power of civil rights and feminist critique had a beneficial effect on the way such crime and violence against women could be understood. We can see how situated knowledge reflects prevailing power relations, but also how F. Cherry’s alertness to the situatedness of knowledge enables her to help challenge prevailing power relations to open up new perspectives.
How do we anchor ourselves when comparing perspectives in Critical Mode 3?
You can see that, when ‘stepping back’ we are in Critical Mode 3. But does that mean we are just critiquing from personal assumptions and thin air? What legitimises our critique? Where is it anchored when we are stepping back so far? Clearly we still need to anchor ourselves. There are three aspects to this:
We are anchored in a good overall understanding of the topic area (Social Psychology), of how each perspective works and what its aims are, i.e. what types of questions it asks and what problems it tries to solve. This is why a critical evaluation needs to be appreciative of the research and explicitly engage with the whole field.
Inevitably we each find some perspective(s) more convincing than others. So in our evaluation we will ultimately tend towards anchoring ourselves in that (those) perspective(s). This is inevitable and appropriate as long as we are aware of this and argue explicitly why we are ultimately most convinced by a certain perspective for anchoring rather than another.
Most importantly though, the way you anchor yourself (and argue which perspective you consider most convincing) is related to the kind of questions you think are most important to pose, answer and research, the phenomena and issues that drive your curiosity or that you feel passionate about.
The third point is crucial, because in the same way as research perspectives change and diversify as the social and political realities surrounding researchers impact on researchers’ outlooks, concerns and interests – so is our own critical evaluation of these perspectives (and our preference for some perspectives) always anchored in our own idea of what the most important phenomena are to examine, what types of questions we should ask about them, and how they should be investigated.
Even though when writing a critical evaluation you are not designing a research project, you still need to have specific issues/topics/problems in mind to anchor your critique and to offer a final argument as to which perspective you think is most convincing and relevant. It is likely that you will pick up on the relevant issues/topics/problems identified by the researchers who work within the perspective you find most convincing. You can then highlight the value of their argument for it, argue why you agree with them and how this concern might currently be relevant. There are plenty of examples for this throughout the module. For an example of researchers reacting to recent events in London see Reicher’s work on the 2011 London riots (Book 1, Chapter 1, final section). Further you could draw on your ideas from conducting your own research project earlier in the module.
This last point highlights that you cannot argue based on anecdotal personal assumptions or spontaneous preferences. The critical evaluation and your final argument will have to be explicitly related to, and based on, the extensive study of a topic area, the explicit appreciation of existing research, different theoretical models and societal circumstances. This means (to repeat what you already know): you must explicitly refer to and use what you have learned on this module for your evaluation and argument.
The important message for Critical Mode 3 is that, when comparing different perspectives and arguing why they might be compatible, contrasting or contradictory, or why one is more convincing than the other, you will ultimately have to relate and anchor your evaluation to a specific type of issue, question, or problem that, as you can then argue, is best addressed via a certain perspective. So the phenomenon, or topic, how researchers in the field (or you) define it and why they (you) define it in this way, is the ultimate anchor for Critical Mode 3.
The three modes of critique are still quite abstract, so in the following section I will offer a more specific example of how ‘stepping back’ and writing a critical evaluation works. In Block 1 you have been introduced to four perspectives on a headline about ‘hate’ (see Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 3.1), for this reason we thought it would make for a good contrast to compare research produced in different perspectives on the topic/phenomenon of ‘Love’. This is not to introduce a new topic area to the module (you have covered plenty already). But for this example I am deliberately using a topic not covered in this module in order to avoid making unavailable a module topic you may want to write about in TMA06. So this is to ensure you have a full choice of all the module topics.
As you will see, this is not a comprehensive coverage of the topic ‘Love’. I will not be able to cover all the perspectives either, but I will offer some examples of how you might approach discussing and evaluating the different perspectives’ efforts to understand ‘Love’.
3.You don’t know what love is…?
Going through the three modes of critique it has become clear to you that the problem of how researchers define their phenomenon, i.e. the specific ‘thing’ they aim to study, is not just crucial for the way the research is set up, but also for the way it might be critically evaluated. You may want to return to Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 2 (‘Four Social Psychological Methods’). Here Wendy Hollway outlines why for cognitive social approaches we might speak of a ‘unit’ of study (because the focus is on a specific cognition/behaviour), while with regard to qualitative approaches the term ‘focus’ of study might be more appropriate (because questions asked here are broader, more exploratory).
Activity 2: Pause for reflection:
Return to the table ‘Approaches to Social Psychology’ in Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 2, to remind yourself of these differences. Use the space below to note those differences and jot down some ideas of how these differences might affect the compatibility of research in the different perspectives perspectives.
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To keep the example critical evaluation of Love research short I focus only on three of the four perspectives, omitting the Social Psychoanalytic. The Social Psychoanalytic perspective is referred to separately in Section 3.3 of this commentary, which hints at a debate in which Spears and Wetherell engage critically with Hollway and Jefferson’s research about “Vince’s choice” (see Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 3.1). This is a good example of a real ongoing ‘between perspectives’ and ‘meta-perspective’ debate (Critical Mode 2 and 3) about research covered in this module.
I used the OU library to find examples of research on ‘Love’, but as there are many types of love (‘maternal love’, ‘sibling love’, ‘platonic love’ etc), I had to narrow my search to look for research on ‘romantic love’ or ‘intimate love’. To allow a comparison I will describe the research reported in each article focussing on the…
1.phenomenon and how it is defined,
2.method used (and the findings),
3.aim of the research, i.e. why the researchers do it and what their project is.
The short descriptions that follow in box A, B and C capture the research and approach in each perspectives’ own terms. For this example I can only offer very short descriptions of the research, omitting aspects and thus inevitably misrepresenting it slightly. For more detail do have a look at the articles by clicking on the title of each reference on the next page.
3.1 Three perspectives on love
(A). Cognitive Social:
Heafner, M. and Ijzerman (2011) The Face of Love: Spontaneous accommodation as Social Emotion regulation, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 37(12) 1551–1563.
This study consists of experiments examining a cognitive aspect of romantic relationships: emotion regulation through spontaneous accommodation. Via three experiments researchers test, and find support for, the hypothesis that partners spontaneously regulate their own and their partner’s emotions by spontaneously displaying a soothing facial expression when confronted with the angry/disapproving face of their partner (this is called ‘accommodation’); when faced with a stranger’s angry face they would spontaneously mimic the angry expression.
Phenomenon: The article does not define love/relationships as such. But the opening lines indicate that it is considered as constituted and maintained by a set of cognitive mechanisms and efforts. The phenomenon is thus a specific cognitive mechanism that contributes to the functioning of love, i.e. ‘emotion regulation by spontaneous accommodation’. This in turn is defined as expressed via (and thus testable by looking at) the spontaneous facial expressions of participants when confronted with a specific stimulus (angry face).
Method: Twenty-three to thirty couples participated in the experiments. For the main study electrodes were attached to participants’ faces to measure the precise muscular activity for smiling and frowning in response to images shown. Participants were misled about the real aim of the study and told it was about ‘spontaneous recognition’. They were exposed to a series of images on a screen showing for 2 seconds the smiling or angry face of their partner or a stranger. The analysis was based on the assumption that reactions within the first second after exposure are spontaneous/unconscious and any reaction after that is deliberate/conscious.
Aim/Project: It shows that people do not just deliberately, but also spontaneously (unconsciously) inhibit their own destructive (angry) reaction to maintain a relationship. Researchers highlight that rather than trusting people’s self-reports as other studies do, their approach offers generalisable, objective measures of cognitive mechanisms that maintain romantic relationships and shows that in times of relationship turmoil there are not just deliberate but also unconscious regulatory mechanisms at work.
Leslie, B., Morgan, M. (2011). Soulmates, Compatibility and intimacy: Allied discursive resources in the struggle for relationship satisfaction in the new millennium. New Ideas in Psychology, 29, 10–23.
This research conducts an empirical and historical analysis of the shifting discourses about relationships and love. They find that the traditional concept of ‘romantic love’ (i.e. the assumption you should marry for love and love alone) is linked to individualistic assumptions of capitalism, and question its efficacy to produce stable relationships today. They discover new discourses of relationship that refer to more holistic assumptions of connectedness: ‘compatibility discourse’ and ‘soulmates discourse’. They claim these newer discourses complement shifts in socio-economic conditions and potentially offer more suitable frameworks for relating today.
Phenomenon: The object of study here is ‘Love/intimacy’ as expressed in, and experienced through, the changing discourses (mobilized by people and available in cultural products) that define what we consider to be ‘good’, ‘stable’, ‘satisfying’, ‘desirable’ relationships, and which thus shape our expectations of our own relationships and how we enact them.
Method: An historical review of discourses of romantic love since the 1960s (as found in the literature) is combined with interviews with 13 single women and men aged 30–43 (asked about their understanding of relationships, how it changed over time and what they are looking for in a relationship); and an analysis of texts from internet dating sites. The analysis looks e.g. for interpretive repertoires and uses Foucauldian discourse analysis (see Book 1, Chapter 2 and 3).
Aim/Project: The research aims to contribute to better understanding why a growing number of adults in OECD countries remain single and childfree during their prime decades of fertility. This is a pervasive social change that comes along with falling birth and marriage rates, escalating divorce rates and more cohabitation. Getting an insight into what shapes the discourses that guide people’s idea of a satisfying and stable relationship helps to see why certain relationship models (romantic love) might foster expectations that set couples up to fail, while recent emerging discourses, that are overlooked by policy makers, might be more relevant to current life circumstances.
Finlay, L., V. Eatough (pending) A phenomenological approach to understanding the experience of discovering a kindred spirit connection, Phenomenology & Practice.
This study examines the experience of ‘discovering a kindred spirit connection’, or ‘falling in love’, what elements it might consist of and how it is lived concretely in an embodied relational way. Researchers identify 5 dimensions of kindred spirit connections: Bonding, Fellowship, Destiny, Chemistry and Love. These are related back to existing academic literature to enrich the concept.
Phenomenon: The experience of feeling a kindred spirit or falling in love (the idea being that these are closely connected). The phenomenon is not narrowly defined at the outset. Instead the researchers describe the personal experience that inspired their wish to explore the phenomenon of falling in love (see section Aim/Project below).
Method: 24 colleagues and friends were approached and encouraged to write a protocol about an experience of ‘discovering a kindred spirit connection’. Data was analysed using phenomenological techniques of reading the data closely and repeatedly (empathetic immersion) and identifying hidden and explicit meanings and themes. The researchers did this iteratively by themselves and later met to discuss and reflect on their findings.
Aim/Project: The research is inspired by the researchers’ own experience of feeling specifically warm hearted, deeply rooted, and stimulating connections to people they met at academic conferences. This was a feeling they thought contained elements of what can be described as ‘falling in love’ (romantically), and they wondered what constituted such a complex experience and how the phenomenon can be captured in its richness and complexity. Noting that this is an exploratory study, they hope to contribute to better understanding the complex phenomenon that is the experience of falling in love, which people frequently struggle to describe, capture, and get to grips with.
3.2 Threads for critical evaluation of Love research – examples
I have read all three articles in full and if you were doing a critical evaluation of them you would have to do the same, as the summaries above do not provide all the detail you would need for a critical evaluation. Still, the following is only meant to offer some examples of how a critical evaluation could proceed, and what you have learned from the summaries is enough to follow those examples (feel free to have a look at the articles though if you are interested).
Looking at the three summaries it is clear that it is not just the methods that differ dramatically, but that each perspective has its own way of defining the phenomenon (Love), and their aims differ hugely. This makes direct comparison difficult. In the following I will give examples of how thinking in terms of the three Critical Modes you could proceed in your critical evaluation of (A), (B) and (C), argue which might be the most convincing approach and explore their degree of compatibility.
Making a start…
If this fits with your question and you have space to do this, it is always worth initially staying ‘within perspective’ (Critical Mode 1), as this allows you to demonstrate your understanding and appreciation of the research itself. In Section 2.1 above I have already offered examples of ways to critically evaluate cognitive social research in Critical Mode 1, so now I will focus on (B), the discursive perspective.
(i) Critically evaluating the Discursive study of Love
In (B) the phenomenon is defined in line with the very specific agenda of this perspective. Here researchers are not interested in abstract cognitive mechanisms of Love (as is A), or experiential expressions (as in C), but they derive their question from a specific, current societal problem and want to know how to better capture it. While in Critical Mode 1 you could for example ask generally:
•whether the research question as such is relevant and can be explored using discourse analysis?
•whether the data (interviews as well as data from literature and media analysis), how it is collected (e.g. participants selected) and analysed is appropriate for discourse analysis of the type the researchers claim to conduct
•whether you are convinced by the analysis of the interview data and how well it is linked to the broader contextual discourses?◦Is there enough evidence, from the data, to support the analysis and findings, are these illustrative and plausible?
•Are the overall conclusions drawn about the problems/benefits of certain discourses well argued, plausible, and are they relevant to the problem the researchers claim to address?
Some of these questions can be explored just by looking at research article (B) in detail, but to evaluate the appropriateness of their use of discourse analysis you would have to refer to literature (e.g. DD307 Module Books) on discourse analysis to support your evaluation.
(ii). Moving to Critical Mode 2
If you want to move on to evaluating the way (B) has captured the phenomenon Love as such, you are moving to Critical Mode 2 (or 3). You could look at (B) from the phenomenological perspective and raise the following critical points:
•(B)’s approach is too superficial, too text focussed and thus misses the essential embodied experience of Love as expressed in individuals’ experience,
•(B) allow their analysis to be guided by political and societal analysis rather than closely attending to exactly what participants say.
Taking the opposite position again you could argue that a discursive psychologist might criticise (C) for:
•focussing too firmly on the individual and losing sight of the socio-economic conditions and how they impact on peoples’ lives
•overlooking that the dominant discourses that determine how people can engage in and understand their own relationships are crucial for how they talk about and experience them. So the discursive perspective is not overlooking experience but indeed helping understand it better.
Both discursive and phenomenological perspectives might criticise (A) for ignoring people’s own insights into and experiences of Love, which they consider an essential feature for understanding ‘Love’. So you could argue that both might consider the way (A) defines its phenomenon as irrelevant, and thus the method as flawed as it reduces a complex phenomenon such as relationship turmoil to mere instants of ‘spontaneous facial muscle tension’. Hence knowing the exposure-reaction-time and muscle pattern response, cannot tell us anything meaningful about how ‘relationship turmoil’ might be resolved.
Arguing from a cognitive social perspective, you could argue that (C)’s approach is based entirely on a small sample of individual self-representations (not even selected randomly) and that (C) has no way of checking whether these accounts are genuine and how they correspond to reality. So from a social cognitive perspective one could highlight that the findings are not generalisable and there is a danger that in (C) researchers’ analysis merely confirms personal assumptions held by the researchers. From a cognitive social perspective one might challenge (B) by saying that (B) focuses too much on what people say, failing to explore what’s behind the text: the unconscious and physiological mechanisms that ultimately constitute ‘love’ as a fundamental human characteristic.
Investigative themes in Critical Mode 2
Situated knowledge: In this context you could argue that from a discursive position (or phenomenological for that matter) (A) fails to appreciate the situatedness of knowledge, as (A)’s set up does not involve anything contextual in specific relationships rather it isolates a singular function. This could not just mean that the findings are meaningless, but there is also a risk that they are over-generalized, with their explanatory value being overestimated.
Power relations: from a discursive position you could further argue that by promoting (A) as a relevant approach, and basing its credibility implicitly on a natural science model, (A) makes it hard for others to challenge the definition of its phenomenon and the way data is generated and findings are interpreted. One could point out that (A) does not actually offer a definition and thus implies ‘love’ was a self-evident thing, like a natural phenomenon; further by doing this (A) could be said to obscure other important questions about relevant factors, e.g. gender or life context, cultural differences or societal assumptions about relationship turmoil.
These are examples of critiques that proponents of the different perspectives might raise against one another (Critical Mode 2), but if you agree with some of them, then you can bring them up again, or enforce them here, to support your own overall evaluation (Critical Mode 3).
Clearly many more angles could be explored, but these are just a few examples of the threads of critique you could pursue. You can see the argument at Critical Mode 2 is often based on one perspective challenging the overall framework of other perspectives. So despite being rigorous in their own right, they seem incompatible. Also, when comparing just the sections on ‘aims/project’ you can see that the things these three perspectives want to achieve are very different and apparent disagreement can result from the incompatibility (and ignorance) of their respective aims. Although they might also challenge the legitimacy or value of each others’ aims. So Phenomenon, Method, Aim/Project always need to be considered together. Yet, arguments about compatibility could still be made where you find that perspectives just examine a very different aspect of a broader phenomenon, so findings could complement another. Arguing this we are moving into Critical Mode 3.
(iii) Moving into Critical Mode 3
When evaluating compatibilities or establishing which of the three offers the most convincing exploration of Love, you are moving into Critical Mode 3. As outlined earlier in this Commentary you anchor your evaluation by arguing which approach comes closest to the kind of questions you find important to research in relation to Love, how they should be asked and researched, and why you think this is the case. Your views about the value of the perspectives in general may or may not have changed since TMA01, but by now you have encountered a good selection of research to draw on to argue your point. As outlined in Section 2.3 you can follow arguments made by researchers in the literature you read arguing why these convince you.
In our Love example, arguments could be made for all three, as long as you explicitly state why (A)/(B)/(C) is most convincing in terms of making relevant and important findings about Love. You could ask:
1.What aim should research about ‘romantic love’ pursue?a) What types of issues should it address and illuminate?
b) Who should it be relevant to, should it aim to solve specific problems, and if so which?
2.In view of question 1 above, what definition of the phenomenon makes most sense and why?a) Based on this – which of (A), (B) or (C) offers the most valid, relevant, useful definition, or is more than one definition useful for differing contexts?
3.Based on question 1 and 2 above, what method is most appropriate to research Love?
Power relations and situated knowledge
Your evaluation is further guided by questions about power relations and situated knowledge. Here you could pick up on some of the points already raised above at Critical Mode 2 (these are points you might find in the literature, or in the articles (A), (B) and (C) themselves). You can use the questions detailed in of this commentary to guide your evaluation.
For this Love example you might ask:
•What is ‘taken for granted’ in (A), (B), (C)’s definition of love and the way research is set up?
•Are the definitions (A) (B) (C) offer relevant, productive or problematic and in how far?
•What questions cannot be asked, what is removed from view as a result or overlooked, and what is problematic about this?◦Against (A) you might argue that while objective findings are appealing, the study systematically distracts from much more important contextual factors; ‘love’ is not a static thing, and we can only make sense of how people today relate/love when taking into account the specificities of their lives (e.g. race or socio-economic factors such as poverty, illness, unemployment); so you are going with and maybe expanding the argument made by (B).
◦You could also think about gender roles in romantic relationship – how are these explored or obscured in (A), (B), (C); and are implicit norms perpetuated (e.g. omitting romantic relationships between people of the same gender)?
◦Following the cognitive social perspective, as illustrated in (A), you might argue that basic physiological mechanisms and functions are key to understanding Love, and these can be researched to understand Love scientifically and beyond self-representation and subjective assumptions about Love. You could argue for a combination of (A) and (C) to examine what the experience of relationship turmoil is vis-à-vis the spontaneous accommodation responses of the same people. This could add value to both approaches.
•What previously obscured detail/factor about love becomes visible as a result of the research/approach, and who/what benefits from this?
•Where is the situatedness of knowledge overlooked or obscured with detrimental effects, and where is it recognized and integrated productively?
From this evaluation at Critical Mode 3 you will also get a better idea of whether and to what extent perspectives could be compatible, and in how far they might complement each other, or whether they are completely incompatible and why. You can see that the argument about compatibility or not, needs to be made based on a clear idea of what such a combined approach might aim to achieve. Still, as you are now arguing from a meta-perspective you can examine whether certain aspects of perspectives could be usefully combined, and argue in favour of compatibility, even if this goes beyond what researchers in (A), (B) or (C) suggest (or may agree to) because this is your argument.
3.3 A ‘between perspectives’ debate of Social Psychoanalytic research
In real life academic contexts researchers from the four perspectives you have studied in this module rarely engage directly with each other’s work. This is due to tradition and differing aims (see Section 1.3 of this commentary). However there is an example relevant to this module; where researchers from three perspectives have engaged in a debate focussed on the Social Psychoanalytic perspective. We cannot cover the debate here, but wanted to point you towards it so that those interested can follow it up.
The debate is about Hollway and Jefferson’s Social Psychoanalytic perspective as presented in their study of ‘Vince’s choice’ (published in the British Journal of Social Psychology in 2005). You have already read a detailed summary of this research in Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 3.1. There are short critical commentaries by Wetherell (2005) (discursive) and Spears (2005) (cognitive social) and a brief response by Hollway and Jefferson (2005) (see below, each just 3–4 pages long).
If you want to have a look at the details of this debate please follow the links:
1.Hollway, W., Jefferson, T. (2005). Panic and perjury: A psychosocial exploration of agency British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 44(2), pp.147–163. You can understand the debate by re-reading Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 3.1 (and without reading this longer article version).
2.Spears, R. (2005). Commentary: Where did Vincent’s van go? British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 44(2), pp.165–168. Spears praises Hollway and Jefferson for moving beyond text and language and exploring what is behind the words looking at material reality. He criticises them for relying entirely on one single case; and for failing to report or take into account any of Vince’s context (age, personality, family background, physical condition); also he is not convinced by the analysis of Vince’s dilemma and the evidence offered for unconscious processes at work.
3.Wetherell, M. (2005). Commentary: Unconscious conflict or everyday accountability? British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 44(2), pp.169–173. 1.Wetherell takes Vince’s perspective and criticises Hollway and Jefferson’s analysis for ‘putting words in his mouth’ producing interpretations Vince may strongly disagree with. She argues interpretive repertoires can explain Vince’s dilemma, so the assumption of an unconscious is not needed; she criticises that the discursive context that Vince is positioned in by the interviewers is ignored in the analysis which as a result overlooks Vince’s actual predicament.
4.Hollway, W., Jefferson, T. (2005). Response: But why did Vince get sick? A reply to Spears and Wetherell. British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 44(2), pp.175–180. Hollway and Jefferson highlight that both critics overlook or ignore the central focus of their analysis (‘why does Vince go off sick exactly when he does’); e.g. they respond to Wetherell that within Social Psychoanalytic analysis it is appropriate to ignore the context of the interview as they focus on the inner psychological world of Vince; further the interpretations are legitimate as their approach is theoretically informed and rigorous.
This debate is a good reminder that perspectives constantly evolve, that debates are ongoing and that researchers themselves sometimes struggle to fully appreciate or make sense of each other’s research in another perspective. Clearly there are no final answers to these debates and this is why good skills in critical evaluation are your compass to navigating them.
Remember a good critical evaluation has two main features:
1.It demonstrates your ability to move flexibly between perspectives, acknowledging and discussing their main aims and theoretical framework;
2.it provides a thoughtful and balanced commentary on the debate as such, but offers your explicitly argued conclusions as to what the most convincing perspective is and why.
This Block 6 Commentary has focussed on the ‘The Production of Knowledge’. It has:
•highlighted the importance of the interrogative themes, focussing in particular on power relations and situated knowledge,
•explored the relationship between the four perspectives,
•explained critical evaluation as a stance of ‘productive scepticism’ towards any perspective or research you evaluate,
•outlined in detail three modes of critical evaluation◦Critical Mode 1 ‘within perspective’
Exploring a perspective or research in its own right and according to its own claims.
◦Critical Mode 2 ‘between perspective’:
Assuming the position of one perspective to look at another (and vice versa) to critically evaluate each others’ theoretical foundations, methodology, definitions, claims or aims.
◦Critical Mode 3 ‘meta-perspective’
Stepping back and assessing all perspectives while anchored in the perspective you find most convincing based on the finding that it best addresses the kind of questions you argue are most important to pose, answer and research.
•Finally, I guided you through a brief example critical evaluation of three research articles on ‘Love’ highlighting their compatibility, incompatibility, how they might criticise each other and how you should anchor and formulate your own overall conclusion as to which perspective is most convincing.
Block 6 online Commentary: The production of knowledge
It is important to remember that ‘the word ‘discuss’ invites you to critically discuss a topic . In developing your critical discussion , you should also find book 1 , chapter useful.
When thinking about how situated knowledges can contribute to our understanding of social psychology , it would bevery useful to turn to the idea of critical evaluation , and how situated knowledges can help us construct this. You are advised to draw on Motskau’s online commentary chapter as a primary source for a discussion of this aspect of situated knowledges.
One of the purposes of this essay is to invite you to begin to draw from across the module to link core ideas with several examples of research . On this point ,the question also asks you to refer to at least two topics such as the bystander intervention research book 2 chapter 8 , attitudes research book 2 chapter 4 .
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