10 August 2015

Controlling the Social Construct

Nearly 100 years ago, Edward Bernays conceived of an advertising campaign that leveraged the Suffragette movement to compel women to smoke cigarettes. That campaign was called Torches of Freedom. We can only imagine the extent of public relations today!


Social constructs of learning theory

With that in mind, why hasn't the main theoretical framework that shapes education been seriously challenged? In fact, so granted is the constructivist world view that few feel the need to articulate or discuss it.

The Vygostky derived ideas of Social Constructivism, or the Piaget derived ideas of a more individualised constructivism, lead many of us to believe activities like group work, discussion forums, debates, open access, replication and reinterpretation, online networked learning etc, are appropriate ways for education to be conducted. Perhaps they are not, if all that we think is a managed message bouncing against a controlled opposition.

The antisocial construct

Anyone who has spent any time outside Western social constructs knows that the constructivist world view is limited and problematic. Chet Bowers touches on the problems in his (unfinished, in my view) book, False Promises of Constructivism. I've skirted around the edges of them with posts tagged neocolonialism.

Those intercultural problems included, I want to question the premise of social constructivism, in these days. It's been nearly 100 since it was shaped from a peasant and aristocratic society struggling through industrialisation toward modernity. A similar amount of time since Edward Bernays fired up his "torches of freedom".

I'm wondering if individuals and their societies really do freely construct their knowledge and understanding, or is it more likely constructed for them, through the professions, their educative curricula, marketing, media, public relations, controlled opposition, psychological operations and worse? And if this is so, what then of social constructivism as a learning theory?

Poster sourced from a Facebook stream, author unknown

It is surely common knowledge that powerfully resourced people pay institutions, organisations and others to work tirelessly at constructing messages aimed at shaping and limiting public opinion, market demand, consumer behaviour, student motivation, research outputs, and so on. To what degree these efforts dominate? How much do those efforts shape our individual and collective world view, knowledge and understanding?

You might say that those powerfully resourced message makers are still within the social frame of social constructivism, but my questions ask if their is anything other than their domination. Is there anything in the way of free social construction going on? Is it all designed and controlled? Even perhaps my questions? Certainly at least, they're prepared for my questions.

The Fourth Estate

We hope that a Fourth Estate exists to check and balance the power of rulers. If we thought it was found in the Media, we should take a look over its history and think again.

Perhaps it's found in the universities then, with the corruption of research and academic integrityacademic capitalismmanagerialism and crass performance measures that restrict intellectual freedoms. I'd like to see Adam Curtis deal with universities, much like he did with The Trap.

I'm inclined to think of universities much in the same way as the media, and increasingly so. They both orchestrate a curriculum of sorts - a managed message of curricula, confined to the limits of controlled opposition. Both have overt and covert objectives and measured outcomes. Their directions and plans are controlled and managed by a narrowing professional type, with not-so-mysterious links to corporate elites and oligarchical power. The salaries of Australian university Vice Chancellors speaks volumes.

What is left of intellectual freedom (if there ever was such thing) has been marshaled to the logic of academic capitalism. Social scientists and anthropologists now teach business, marketing and human resource management. Everything is pushed to a determined vocational outcome and "employability" is the strange choral sung across the sector this year. Who does this serve most of all?

Plato's Allegory of the cave by Jan Saenredam in 1604

The Internet

So with the Fourth Estate looking like a figment of our imagination, or a fig leaf over privatisation, we look to the Internet and the idea that free thought and association can exist there, at enough scale to be the defacto Fourth Estate. But rest assured, the powerful are never going to be far away. They just need a little more time to conceive of today's "torches of freedom".

As we watch a consolidation of Internet services to just a few corporate giants, they're privately collecting our massive data for exclusive insights into population behavior patterns with zoom functionality right in on an individual. Combine this power with the resources to test, stimulate and react to those insights... they must be dizzy with the possibilities. Even the universities are in on it.

So we see, via leaks, 'illegal' disclosure, and agitational propaganda, outrageous world trade agreements being signed; black-op wars being waged toward planned conclusions (See 7B); private collection of detailed demographic data; governments passing laws that intrude on people's privacy, who does not think it fascism?

Efforts to realise a more equitable distribution of access to the means of digital production - such as Free Software, Free Media, Open Data, Open Access, Crowd Source and Open Source, are largely ignored by those same governments and public services. All this in an era of an apparently free thinking and vocal Internet! Either the power of the Internet is an illusion, or its power is inconsequential to the oligarchs who are very much in control.

Random Acts of Gentle Anarchy

You might call 'Arab Spring' for the Internet, as though such things take place in an ideal bubble of human righteousness. Why not pause to consider the possibility of it being swiftly and mostly a managed message and controlled opposition, to enable a larger plan of geopolitical power grabbing, financed through resource theft and a myriad of private interests in war economies. It's the way it always has been!

Russell Brand, EXPOSED... The Fabian Society connection, and the white dog trews logo!

So if there is no Fourth Estate with any semblance of power, then what is left to be said of the idea of social constructivism, or democracy?

And then to begin, The Story of Your Enslavement


Steven Parker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Parker said...

A superb articulate blog post, you may be interested in Charlotte Iserbyt Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), U.S. Department of Education, during the first Reagan Administration.

In particular her comments about Benjamin Bloom (Blooms taxonomy) and the purpose of education to program like a computer people's thoughts actions and feelings; challenging learner's fixed beliefs.

Considering Blooms taxonomy is the foundation of teacher training this video relates to your assertion that learning is not constructed naturally; it is often engineered from the beginning to lead the learner to a pre-determined goal of thinking.

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Steven. Yes, that video should be added. I'm glad you put it here in the comments.

Steven Parker said...

George Carlin - It's a big club and you ain't in it

Leigh Blackall said...


Howard Johnson said...

I'm basically a social constructivist although, like Ian Hacking (in the "Social Constructionism of What"), I shy away from using the term because there is little clarity as to its meaning. Rather than the free form construction of knowledge, I think of it more like we are socialized into cultural practices. Social Poetics is the hope for method of seeking to write new practices and a meaningful life, though I share (I think) your frustrations with the challenge of rewriting established practices. I wrote a medium post about some of the methods of social poetics derived from John Shotter's work here: https://medium.com/@HowardJ_phd/a-way-to-go-on-could-this-be-it-850f4a9f6bfd (just In case it is of any help.)

Steven Parker said...

Thanks Howard I believe the tincanapi relates to your post on the methods of social poetics see: http://tincanapi.com/plans-goals-targets

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks for the comment Howard, I hope you saw Steven's reply, and sorry for my absence. I wonder if you'd see a connection between your inquiry into social poetics and the second half of my post on academic capitalism, exploring the blatant disconnect between ideals and action in the university sector, and the absence of any effective way to see and calibrate on consequences:

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks for the comment Howard, I hope you saw Steven's reply, and sorry for my absence. I wonder if you'd see a connection between your inquiry into social poetics and the second half of my post on academic capitalism, exploring the blatant disconnect between ideals and action in the university sector, and the absence of any effective way to see and calibrate on consequences:

Howard Johnson said...

Hi Leigh;
I see social poetics as a methodology for reframing dialogue. I embrace it because I distrust revolutionary impulses; I see them as leading to some form of Stalin, Mao, or Napoleon. Right now that is leading me to encourage people to rewrite capitalism rather than take an anti-capitalist stance. The same could be said for academia as well. In economics my beef is with the neoliberal folks whose philosophy seeks to justify a gilded age neocolonial morality. For instance the current us political debates are being framed around a capitalist vs socialist perspective. It's up to Bernie to reframe the debate and not play the game on neoliberal turf. Morality is a key and we must all seek out our "better angels" regardless of our cultural background. On the academic side, the academy has always been an elitist institution. Social poetics (derived from social constructionism) for me is about devising institutional scaffolding to support people's ability to craft their own life and story. There are better and lesser angels in our academies as well.