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A week with the author - Ken Gergen

Thank you for joining with us for a week long conversation beginning on Monday, March 16th through Friday, March 20th, 2015 with oft-published scholar Ken Gergen about his new article "From Mirroring to World-Making: Research as Future Forming" about the re-framing of scientific inquiry from a passive mirror reflecting what is to an active, relational process that shapes the future.

We invite you to continue the dialogue and post questions or comments for Ken or the other community members to discuss current models of research and inquiry and what the future could hold.

Our week culminated on Friday, March 20th featuring a webinar with Ken further exploring the themes from his article and building on the discussion that emerged over the course of the week. To listen to a recording of the webinar click here: RECORDING OF WEBINAR

Two articles recommended by Ken during the webinar:

Pursuing Excellence in Qualitative Inquiry

Promises of Qualitative Inquiry

Winner of the 2014 essay competition, Independent Social Research Foundation, London, UK

In press: Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour

About the article:

The “science wars” of recent decades have largely subsided, giving way to what might be viewed as a condition of reflective pragmatism. However, the prevailing metaphor underlying most research across the social sciences remains that of the “mirror.” That is, even while conscious of its biases, researchers continue the attempt to reflect, explore, illuminate, or describe aspects of individual or social life. After considering some of the shortcomings of the prevailing practices, I offer an alternative to the mirror metaphor, one that defines the researcher in terms of world-making. By this I mean an orientation to inquiry in which the major attempt is not to assay the world for what it is, but to actively shape the contours of the future. A future forming orientation is especially invited by the increasingly rapid fluctuations in social life, and represents an alternative to the prevailing tradition and its unclear consequences for society. Shifting from a view of knowledge as propositional, to one of knowledge as praxis – or practical “knowing how” – I discuss research in a future forming direction, including critical inquiry, the creation of new practices, and collaborative action. Attention is also given to the role of theory, and to a relational ethic of research.

More about Ken Gergen:

Kenneth J. Gergen, Ph.D., is a founding member, President of the Taos Institute and Chair of the Board, and the Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College. Gergen also serves as an Honorary Professor at the University of Buenos Aires. Gergen received his BA from Yale University and his PhD from Duke University, and has taught at Harvard University and Heidelberg University. He has been the recipient of two Fulbright research fellowships, the Geraldine Mao fellowship in Hong Kong, along with Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, and the Alexander Humboldt Stiftung. Gergen has also been the recipient of research grants from the National Science Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and the Barra Foundation. He has received honorary degrees from Tilburg University and Saybrook Institute, and is a member of the World Academy of Art and Science.

E-mail me when people leave their comments –


        • Thanks, Tore...this is most interesting. I must share with you,however, the direction I find myself moving which is less about the individual (e.g. my anticipation, my interpretation, etc), than to the relational patterns...that is, patterns of activity that emerge not from me or you, but the collaboration. Thus, when I talk about moves, my attention focuses on the public actions, and the way they unfold together...the way we co-create each other, and the realities we create. I go into this in some detail in my book, Relational Being, but perhaps you can get the drift here.

    • Thank you for bringing your inquiry focus to the group discussion. It is interesting to me that the participants' vision became manifest in the outcome of your study.

  • Tore and Prateeksha,

    I would very much love to see your research projects. I want to develop a research program that opens up alternatives to the 'mentalization' and medicalization (psychiatrization) of young peoples' distress. And here I would love to hear Ken Gergen's input. It seems that sometimes problem-oriented critique can also be part of constructive 'future-forming work', no? I think of Robert Whitaker's work, for example. His research extensively articulates the harm embedded in the current dominant mental health system, 'illuminating' 'what is', and at the same time, Whitaker's work functions as a powerful springboard for transformation.

    I value the call for research that contributes directly to a more liberating, just, and sustainable future--I find this innovative, necessary, and thoroughly inspiring--and at the same time I wonder if the distinction between problem focus and positive focus is somewhat arbitrary. Is it possible that at times, 'the occasion' will call for a disruptive, analytic critique of 'what is', and at other times, the research context might call for a more tangible, positive, future-forming achievement? 

    • So, just to add, the utility of the research project might depend not only on the particular features of the research, whether it is positive or negative in focus, etc., but rather, the usefulness and value of the research might depend largely on the relationship between the research and a particular living context? Warm greetings to everyone, Jan 

      • I am not clear about the meaning of positive or negative focus- my focus is always to research with a purpose to find something that evades the casual glance, for it requires a deeper engagement. Since my need for research stems largely from the need to find solutions, it keeps me somewhat aligned to that goal all the time. Even in my work in counseling, because I am also into research, some unusual insights come now and then, and frequently I share them with the ones I counsel.

        Just to share a little example, please read  via this link. warm regards to you too.

    • Dear Jan

      Thank you- I am at the culmination of my writing. It would be a pleasure to share further. I principally call my research - emancipatory. I think to reclaim the right to interpret your narrative,  not from clinical but social constructionist perspectives, in particular looking at the relational aspects of life, illness, meaning making, recovery etc are important.

      These are also central to my work in counseling others. I see my work to be future forming, and radical, for it starts from the self. I do not need to research for any professional or academic goals- i am not even qualified to contribute in that sense! I am just tenacious and committed to helping people recover, document my findings, starting with  personal autoethnographic writing and then extending that to others- both in counseling and research. Hopefully training as well, in the near future.

      I strongly feel to not look at mental illness through the frameworks offered by people who have only theoretical perspectives, pardon me, because a lived experience and similarly based knowledge endow people to look at the label of illness itself as suspect. I have serious reservations about psychiatric appropriation of human suffering and re-casting it in the language of illness categories.

      I totally agree with the significance of research to be future forming, for what else ought the purpose of research to be- but find solutions for dilemmas that elude easy answers? So perhaps you would agree that the only authentic place for solutions to emerge would not necessarily be university departments only, but the actual sites, which have traditionally been the subject of research. This is where my current study is also located.

      I would be happy to connect and share further writing and ideas. Thank you and regards

      • Dear Prateeksha, It seems you are a very courageous counselor, and if you could share your writing with this group I think it would be wonderful. I agree with you about the need to move beyond university departments. As I write in my article, most (but not all) researchers are caught up in the mirror metaphor of research, so they continue to remain within the traditional set of realist assumptions about "mental illness." I also wish you could have joined us in Norway last year when a group of almost 200 joined in conversation about alternatives. There is now a crying need to find a way to extend this conversation - and the sharing - around the word.

        • Dear Dr. Gergen

          Thank you so much for such a warm resonance. Indeed I am trying to be courageous, because my 'knowledge' is informed  by a past of being treated for bipolar for 18 years and 'recovery' only after I wrested free from the limiting frames of reference, offered by psychiatry. It was a chance encounter with social constructionist views, that brought about the paradigm change personally. Otherwise, even when I had gone off psychiatric medication, I still believed the 'bipolar' word.

          Language is not a neutral entity and it has consequences- you have 'taught' me that. It takes a huge, dogged effort to reject language for the manner of its dissemination is so thorough with pathways so well entrenched- that even if one moves beyond its limiting frameworks, it is not so easy to convince others about it. That is why I consider it important to counter the hegemony of language first of all. This is what I am trying to do by my writing.

          You may appreciate the fact that since I have spent nearly two decades of my life in the maze of 'mental illness', it has been a difficult road to recovery, and that recovery has to be in multiple domains, especially financial. I come from a resource scare country and even though I wanted to be in the Norway conference, I simply did not have the means - for I cannot keep asking my family to bail me out.

          As a counselor too, there are few one encounters who want to take the non-psychiatry path; for the fear of relapse which people have encountered again and again, are well coded in their memories. I totally empathize with that stance, since it is an experiential knowledge on that count too. When others told me that bipolar was nothing to worry about, I thought they were making the suffering seem small.

          So like a lone wolf I am trying on many counts, and really this is the wilderness- for no university is ready to offer me the scope to create the work that I want to or am doing. And I cannot but do it, for I owe this to society , no matter what the personal cost.

          Please read here an introduction to the new method is counselling that I hope I would have others to share with someday, that I am trying to work on in real life settings and document via research (though not started that yet) and in case you would like to see my published writing here, I share it via this link. Thank you so much Dr. Gergen- your work is a great inspiration, and when I see the amount of contribution one person can do to society, you stand out a great role model. 

          My deconstruction of illness primarily started within a constructionist framework. Thereafter,  I moved into music (being a musician) to  claim my right to create self healing. However, the real synthesis, I believe, has happened due to my aptitude for research, notwithstanding a non-university based setting. Regards once again.

          • I am very interested in what you have done here, Prateeksha, and have now downloaded one of your papers (the paper on social construction of  illness would not download). I could also send you some work that is relevant. However, if you are not aware of it already, do check out the website:

          • Thank you for writing about your life experience, Prateeksha. This is hugely important work you undertake.

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