Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Even More Thoughts on New Librarianship, Weeks 2-3: Structure, Agency, Ontology

Earlier I discussed how R. David Lankes choice of conversation theory within a constructivist worldview lead to unexamined political biases, which, in turn, lead to a discussion on twitter. Conversation theory also has some empirical baggage that goes unexamined within the course.
Here be dragons!
Truth by consensus implies that truth is created, rather than discovered. It would be more correct to say that instead of truth, Lankes is talking about some sort of intersubjective agreement, or solution, or belief: a consensus-based outcome of conversation. This agreement may be taken as true, but it is taken as true only by a certain group of people having a certain conversation at a certain time. In short, any agreement created is not truth, it is not gravity, for example, contingent upon a host of situational factors. Different people at a different time may come to a different agreement. The same people at a different time may come to yet another agreement.

Constructivist theories of learning are not the same as worldviews. How, what, why, and where we learn are often socially constructed, but facts are not.

When Alfred Wenger proposed his theory of plate tectonics in 1915, he was met with skepticism. Sixty years later, it was widely-accepted. We now know that this theory is fact. It is true. No consensus can validate or invalidate it. It simply is, because truth exists, and is discovered or uncovered. Conversation may aid, or be the sole source of, discovery, but bidden or not, truth is present.

End point.

One of the slides that Lankes put up in week three of the course looked familiar.

In particular:
Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0268401213000509 
Anthony Giddens' argues that structure and agency mutually constitute each other; like yin and yang, or love and marriage, you cannot have one with out the other. Margaret Archer's concept of morphogenesis attempts to unpack this relationship. The end result is something like a dialectic, or a conversation, if you prefer, between structures and agents, over time.

Libraries are structures. Librarians are agents, except when they're not. Communities are similarly both structures and agents. It's messy, like reality. 

What might New Librarianship look like using this approach? In week four Lankes leads a discussion on criticisms, critiques, and alternatives to New Librarianship. Maybe we'll find out. 
If you're interested:

Archer, M. (1988) Culture and agency: The place of culture in social theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Archer, M. (1995) Realist social theory: The morphogenetic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press..
Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.


  1. Plate tectonics is an interesting example, because no trained scientist would ever call it "true" if pressed...they would call it a well validated theory. All theory in a scientific context are by their very nature a consensus explanation of evidence - however, contingent on not finding counter-evidence. Theory is a high bar to be sure, but far from grasping the bar of "truth." Remember, before plate tectonics, there were other theories.

    1. Dave, elsewhere you've written "I'm not going to deny being a constructivist, but I would not go so far as to say I am a complete relativist who thinks we make the universe through conversation (as was implied in this post). I'm a pragmatist…." That is not well validated.

      What is not contingent knowledge? What is something that is true?

  2. Some (sort of technical) thoughts:
    I agree with some version of Tarski's semantic theory of truth. Truth is nothing more than a property of sentences.
    So, sure, a theory is not usually deemed "true"...because it isn't a sentence. However, we can ask whether the sentences expressed within the theory are true in the sense of asking whether they successfully refer to their intended referents. When I say "The mid-Atlantic ridge is growing larger" this is true if and only if (1) the subject "the mid-Atlantic ridge" successfully refers to the mid-Atlantic ridge and (2) that ridge has the property of growing larger.

    Basically, on a standard scientific realist account, a theory isn't true, but it can be validated. And that validation is a function of the extent to which the sentences derivable from that theory are true (successfully refer). Yes, there have been many theories about many things, but they can be evaluated based on how well they generate true sentences, and some theories (like plate tectonics) generate overwhelmingly more true sentences than other theories (that earthquakes are caused by Poseidon). Notice too that this doesn't entail that a scientific theory won't contain or entail false sentences or inconsistencies. Just that successful theories converge on the truth.

    As far as consensus goes, it's true that established theories have the consensus of the scientific community. But that only means that most scientists agree that the theory is the best explanation(highest validation). This is different than the constructivist truth-by-consensus theory, which holds that the theory is validated because of the consensus. For a consensus/constructivist account, consensus leads to validation. For a realist, validation leads to consensus.

    Sorry for the long comment, y'all!

    1. The problem comes in identifying which statements are true and which are false.

    2. Like I said, a sentence is true if it successfully refers. False if it fails to refer. All we have to ask of any statement are: (1) does the subject actually refer to something and (2) does that thing have the property described?

      Maybe you're really concerned with how we can make linguistic reference to an objective world? There's no short answer to that, but there are many answers running throughout the philosophy of language. Now, you can go the post-structuralist route and deny that we have the ability to use language to accurately refer to reality, but that sort of linguistic idealism is pretty much the straightest path to relativism (which you reject).

      Or, maybe you're really concerned with the processes by which we come to discover whether sentences are, in fact, true. I don't see that as a problem...more of a separate issue where we can begin to talk about observation, experience, experiment, reason, critical thinking, memory, education, and so on. In librarianship, we might discuss information literacy, documentation, scholarly communication, authority control, reference services, and so on.

  3. A man believes a lake to be frozen over. He walks into the lake, and the ice breaks. Just before he drowns he knows the lake not to be frozen. The lake not being able to support the weight is true. The meaning if the man's death is not. As an observer, what was your responsibility? To convince the man not to go on the ice? After the fact to put up a fence to prevent anyone else from going on the ice? What did the man’s death mean to you? to his family? Is it the same? Will it have the same consequences?

    I stub my toe, it hurts. This is true. On the other hand “obesity will lead to negative health consequences,” is this true? There is certainly a lot of medical evidence behind that statement, and yet there are plenty of overweight folks who will die of other causes (including getting hit by busses, and yet we don’t say busses are bad for your health). What’s more, there are plenty of folks who are obese in spite of full knowledge of the truth.

    This is why I concentrate on behavior over the concepts of truth: 1. We cannot predict how people will behave in the light of the truth and 2. There is such a complex interaction between facts that causality and consequence are nearly impossible to reach the bar of truth as you layout.

    I hate to introduce yet another theory that starts with C, but it is another major worldview informer of mine: Complexity Theory. It shows even minor variables can have major effects. This response is partially how I see the world, partially how I slept last night, partially who I talked to before responding, partly a sunny day…the accumulation of facts is important, but does not equate to how people act, see the world, or know.

    Reality exits, I believe that. I just don’t think that reality is the only indicator of how we interact with it. In fact, how we see reality, as a creation of God, or an accumulation of fundamental particles, or wave forms of energy, or simply the burden we must all bear is a construct. What I see, hear, feel, smell, and taste I’ll trust, how they combine together I find individual and influenced by the society I live in.

    Librarians dealing in facts is delightful, but not nearly as important as them dealing in behavior and meaning. I know this is not a philosophically firm view. But as a social scientist I am more interested in how people act.Once again, my attempt is to shift focus of librarianship from an accumulations of truths, to affecting the behaviour of the community.

  4. A few more thoughts that hit me in the shower (where I do all my thinking): Suppose the man who believed the lake to be frozen didn't walk on the ice. Instead he encouraged others to go onto the ice. Before you say he had a responsibility to find the truth of his statement first, how many items contained in library collections, or referenced by librarians, have been so vetted? Vetted by the librarian? I know this is the pragmatist speaking (in the philosophical sense), but this type of validation is actually rare. what's more presenting research at all levels of validation is essential in places most concerned with truth in the scientific sense - academic libraries and research libraries.

    It may also explain my lack of fully defining the world of fiction in new librarianship , because I don't see the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction as very concrete.This is not only the introduction of "un-truths" into things like biographies and such, but the vast introduction of truths into fiction. Stories help us make sense of the world, and control our behaviors. While I am all for informing folks of author/publisher intent, to me that intent does not control the meaning gained by the reader.