This review seeks to situate Jerome Bruner within the debate in sociology between symbolic interactionists and functionalists. This is the real “pay off” of Bruner’s work, that method must conform itself to the subject matter, rather than the other way around. It preserves diversity without forcing the subject matter of social relations and meaning into a series of a priori categories.

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The obsession with quantity and quantification is one of the major weaknesses of the social sciences. Quantity has to do with structure, function and standardization. But this has been the modus operandi of the social sciences since their inception. The social consequences of this are astounding, especially in the social standardization inherent in the “reign of quantity” (cf Guenon, 2004, 11-16). But quality is making a comeback.

Quality is the world of actual events, the real “content” to human life at one time relegated to fiction and romantic ideology. Bruner’s book is challenging the reign of quantity through a sort of Wittgenstinian lens, rather derivative on earlier 20th century linguistic philosophy, but original in the sense that it is aimed at the cognitive psychological community.

This is where the book begins, to lay out the two modes of thought, allegedly incommensurable, that of logic and that of narrative (Bruner, 1986,11-14). The claim that these two modes are incommensurable is difficult to swallow, but it remains the case that writers on the history of science, social theory or psychology have generally taken one or the other as starting points. For the social sciences, of course, logic has been the ostensible beginning for all scholarly research.

The distinction between logic and narrative is really old news. The former concerns procedure, structure of thought, empirical proof, method and quantity. The latter seeks above all, meaning, or the relation not of abstract variables, but of concrete life. The former seeks structure and function, the latter is symbolic. The former refers to quantity, the latter to quality. In sociology, the former is structural functionalist or behaviorist, the latter, symbolic and interactionist, existentialist at its root (Blumer, 1969, 78-80).

On the other hand, symbolism approaches the world as Bruner does: the world is created by minds negotiating a happy equilibrium among competing claims. The actual lived data of any society, their own narrative approaches to the world are constructed by minds meeting in this field of negotiation. The society is then not reducible to a quantitative set of functions, but rather, society is a created world where symbols of interaction and transaction exist and the individual responds, each response comprising its own set of negotiations with social signals, hence, creating not a mechanism, but an organism.

Putting this more simply, what Bruner is holding is that language, the medium of this symbolization, cannot be put into a computer model, as so many psychologists have done. The “modeling” approach is strongly criticized by Bruner in the sense that it refuses to take narrative into account, considering it a residual category, an epiphemonenon without scientific meaning. However, Bruner challenges this by holding that the meaning of utterances cannot be understood without its cultural and emotional situation. This, the illocutionary force, is just as important as the words and their grammatical structure themselves (Bruner, 1986, 65-68).

Hence, there are two approaches: the quantitative, logical, functional and abstract approach for many years dominant in the social sciences. These are typified by structural functionalism, behaviorism, Marxism, public administration, political liberalism and in short, the entire structure of the Enlightenment (cf. Merton, 1968, for a description of these linkages, esp 65-87).

On the other hand, the narrative form is not abstract, concerned with content and data rather than procedure and overall method, concerned with how the self interacts with the social symbolism of the society and the existential situation of both the person as well as the social whole itself, the social whole comprised by a complex set of symbolic interactions and negotiations within the confines of these signals and symbols. Ideologically, these are typified by existentialism, linguistic philosophy in the sense of Wittgenstein, ethnic nationalism and relativism, romanticism and Nietzschianism.

This is also the approach of fictional literature and poetry. This approach rejected method for real lived experience. More accurately, this approach rejects the domination of method and the idea that method comes before the actual data of the subject. Method, in the qualitative, existential view, holds that method needs to be conformed to its subject, not the other way around (cf. Oakeshott, 1933, for the basics of this idealist method, esp 9-27).

The human mind, in social relations, is in fact a world making object. While this is not interesting from the social theoretical point of view (where it is very much old news), for cognitive psychologists, this approach causes problems for their own biases, especially that of methodological standardization, likely the most visible social consequence of such an approach (Bruner, 1986, 96). The existential approach holds that content is more important than method, leaving the world open to a tremendous diversity of experience and worlds, epistemic communities that can only be understood from the inside (Bruner, 1986, 82-85).

Putting this differently, the sociologist or the social theorist cannot approach any given society or community armed with the school-taught methods of the social sciences. This is an arrogant and “god like” approach, where the observer, armed with the latest computer models, deigns to oversee the functions of society and nearly plugs them into the latest model, coming up with conclusions that fit the model rather than the society. It holds that all societies are basically the same, since human beings have the same needs. Societies are then classified as “backward” or “progressive” according to the ability of functional articulation, something that exists solely in the faculty offices of universities.

What is being crated with Bruner’s approach is the concept of “cognitive wholes,” or worlds that are created from within, blurred from outsiders by its own self articulation (Bruner, 1986, 85). The mental processes of the individual itself are world creating, or at least world affirming, and these processes crate an existentially real result. But this process can only be understood through the linguistic idea of situationism, where all elements of communication are taken into consideration, not just the structure of utterances (Bruner, 1986, 65).

The real weakness here, however, is the insistence that the two modes of thought, logic and narrative, are actually incommensurable. To hold that the logical approach is not based on its own self-description of being objective and against superstition is untenable. The logical approach views the Enlightenment not as a set of power relations in 17th century England or even the domination of the banks in 15th century Florence (both as central to the development of the Enlightenment idea of science), but as abstract method compared with metaphysics and superstitious “priestcraft.”

This is the story of the Enlightenment, one very easy to challenge. In other words, the Enlightenment model of behaviorism or functionalism is itself purely narrative, regardless of the self-congratulatory sense of being “scientific” and “objective,” themselves derivative of power relations and utilitarianism (cf Foucault, 2001, for an in depth approach to this method). In other words, Burner engages in his own form of mystification by holding that logic is itself separated from narrative. It is not.

But this is a common problem where Bruner, a big name in his field, must not step on the toes of his university colleagues, and hence, must use measured language in dealing with the flaws of the majority of his colleagues. It is refreshing to see the re-emergence of content over structure, and this is just one more, basically derivative and unoriginal, nail in the quantitative coffin. Derivative, but welcome.

Bibliography:

Merton, Robert (1968) Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press

Blumer, Herbert (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. University of California Press

Bruner, Jerome (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard University Press

Foucault, Michel (2001) The Order of Things. Routledge

Oakeshott, Michael 91933) Experience and Its Modes. Cambridge University Press

Guenon, Rene (2004) The Reign of Quantity. Sophia Perennis Press

 

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