Thursday, 12 June 2014
For a new article using a social realist account, see Leibowitz, B. and Bozalek, V. 2014. Access to higher education in South Africa: A social realist account. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. 16 (1), pp 91 - 109. http://wpll-journal.metapress.com/link.asp?id=X7243U561274. This article is part of a special issue on widening participating in the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The articles in this special issues cover the topic of access to higher education from a range of theoretical perspectives, including social realism and critical race theory.
The Reality of Social Construction, by Dave Elder-Vass was published in 2012 (Cambridge). Here Elder-Vass argues that social scientists should be "both realists and social constructionists" (p.3). He agrees that "our senses and/or concepts of ourselves are shaped by discursive forces as well as by other forms of experience" (p. 12). He further develops the concept of "norm circles", posited in his 2010 book, The Causal Power of Social Structures which he says regulate cultural, linguistic, discursive and epistemic practices. These circles influence our thinking and provide the resources for us to think and to challenge. These circles are, he argues, increasingly intersectional. Significantly, for the Structure, Culture and Agency project, although Elder-Vass stresses culture and norms, he makes provision for the influence of "practice" and "participation" - for those of us who feel very strongly about practice based perspectives on learning and development. He also affirms the importance of materiality: "material configurations of, for example, location or technology may also help to shape these practices" (p. 259). This is extremely helpful for the Structure, Culture and Agency research project's investigation of how context influences academics' participation in professional academic development activities, where we have found that geographic location of universities, for example, does have a potential impact on teaching quality. But in a more fundamental sense, the material world is the basis for much action and sensory activity: "our minds are material; our social world is material; neither is fundamentally divided from the rest of the world in a way that would prevent us from accessing that world" (p. 262). A point that Elder-Vass makes several times in the book, is that it is people, not language, that influence how we talk about the world. This should prevent us from reifying language the way many pro-multilingualism or pro-mother tongue activists do.
One of the joys of this book is that it traverses a huge body of theory on language, discourse, knowledge and agency. Elder-Vass gives his view on diverse writers including Durkheim, Foucault, Judith Butler, Saussure, Berger and Luckmann and Margaret Archer. He makes a successful attempt to write lucidly and fairly simply about a range of important ontological and epistemological issues and provides a very interesting account of critical realist thinking about how norms are generated. It is a valuable resources for investigating the influence of institutional contexts on the professional development of academics.