Action Research: Language, Text and the Construction of Meaning

This is the next installment of my action research project which articulates the profoundly institutionalising effects of the bureaucratisation process which has been layered over my life…

You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: The History of Action Research’ by clicking HERE.


This part of the study starts to examine how language shapes our experience and how opportunities in the world are mediated through the language we use.  Language shapes perception with the inferences it holds within it and when crystallized into paperwork and digital systems can predetermine the outcomes which come of the inputs.



‘I don’t recognize this strawman’ I think to myself when looking at the many and varied forms of paperwork and administration which get thrust towards me as defining my existence. I am told that these are imperative; I get told that they serve critical purposes; I get told I must do them but when I ask to teach me the rules to which they accord I am regularly told that the administrators cannot tell me them and can offer no insight or advice.


A straw man in legal terms refers to a person who legally owns something in name only.  This is done to hide the identity of the real owner… Since a straw man is not a true person, they exist only within the environment they were created, such as the state.  A straw man also refers to a tactic that aims to waste time and/or mask the issues at hand in order to gain the upper hand and beat an opponent.


This is interesting to me because I have started picking at the edges of law to excavate into the esoteric rule base (intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest) which I am informed applies to everyone.  So far I have found the legal community, like the medical community, practicing something of an omertà – (a mafia code of silence about activity and a refusal to give evidence) – being insular to those outside their professional world who want to understand and practice the internalised knowledge.


Of course, it is easy to criticise particularly when one feels something valuable is at stake.  The notions of health and justice are sacred, so it is easy also to understand why the sacred must be defended.  Similarly it is easy to identify how organizational paperwork might be cherished – as at its best it facilitates the achieving of something particularly when working in groups of people.  The pictures which are built up in the minds of people of what is not immediately in front of us are often drawn through the layering of archetypes.


The archetype of the parent is commonly portrayed as loving, caring and nurturing; this straw man obscures the fact that sometimes a human in this perceived role behaves in the opposite way.  I have taken to asking people doing jobs if they find the paperwork which they have in their job helps them achieve their aims.  Also I ask them if the paperwork which gets done represents the work they have done or are hired to do…


Language, Text and the Construction of Meaning

“People educate each other through the mediation of the world. As this happens, the word takes on new power. It is no longer an abstraction or magic but a means by which people discover themselves and their potential as they give names to things around them. Each individual wins back the right to say his or her own word to name the world.


When an illiterate peasant participates in this sort of educational experience, he or she comes to a new awareness of self, has a new sense of dignity, and is stirred by a new hope” [11].


Merely being able to construct the world in terms of communicative language is a means to a strengthened individual, and the power in that language is stored in its ability to convey experience of a reality by proxy of it being listened to.


To listen to someone is to set store in that being, what they have to say and to confirm that inalienable dignity which comes with getting recognized as a conscious, thinking, feeling being. Growth, learning and capabilities come from this. Voice, agency and the right to representation are all features in a broader discussion of how language can be used as an enclosure of agency.


Alfred Korzybski the founder of General Semantics suggested that “All human knowledge is conditioned and limited, at present, by the properties of light and human symbolism.” and “The solution of all human problems depends upon inquiries into these two conditions and limitations…all human life is a permanent dance between different orders of abstractions…all human knowledge is postulational in structure” [33].


Korzybski wrote about Non-Aristotelianism evaluating. While Aristotle wrote that a true definition gives the essence of the thing defined, general semantics denies the existence of such a discrete ‘essence’. Korzybski suggests an evolution in human evaluative orientation.


In general semantics, it is possible to give a description of empirical facts, but such descriptions remain just that – descriptions – a compression of the reality which necessarily leaves out many aspects of the objective, microscopic, and submicroscopic phenomena they describe. He explains that language can be used to describe the smell of a perfume, but one cannot give the smell of the perfume.


In the field of general semantics, the content of all knowledge is structure, so that language (in general), science and mathematics (in particular) can provide people with a structural ‘map’ of empirical facts. There is no ‘identity’, only structural similarity, between the language (map) and the empirical facts. Here Korzybski lays out his most famous axiom – ‘a map is not the territory’:


If we consider an actual territory say, Paris, Dresden, Warsaw, and build up a map in which the order of these cities would be represented as Dresden, Paris, Warsaw. To travel by such a map would be misguiding and wasteful of effort. In case of emergencies, it might be seriously harmful. We could say that such a map was ‘not true’… or that the map had a structure not similar to the territory (structure to be defined in terms of relations).
A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory. Two similar structures have similar ‘logical’ characteristics. Thus, in a correct map, Dresden is given as between Paris and Warsaw, and a similar relation is found in the actual territory.


A map is not the territory. An ideal map would contain the map of the map, the map of the map of the map, endlessly. This characteristic was first described by Royce. We may call it self-reflexiveness. Languages share characteristics with the map.


If we use languages of a structure non-similar to the world and our nervous system, our verbal predictions are not verified empirically, and we cannot be ‘rational’ or adjusted. Our science would be handicapped by semantic blockages, lack of understanding, lack of vision which is disturbed by inconsistencies and paradoxes, due to the words not being the things they represent. Language has self-reflexive characteristics. We use language to speak about language, which introduces verbal and semantic difficulties [34]. We are thus faced to deal with relative understandings when we engage in language.


The notion of cultural relativism raises problems in terms of sociological analysis and must be dealt with. Patricia Clough criticises Dorothy Smith’s perspective in the process of Institutional Ethnography as being a limited critique of sociological discourse because it fails to reflect on sociology as itself a dominant discourse of experience [49].


If we recall the perspective that Freire lays out for us on language and take it into the participative context, the discourse of sociology and any other paradigm stored in a special language set, potentially becomes owned and available to those subject to the ruling apparatus [9].


The means to make meaning and participate in shaping the dominant discourse through becoming a part of the community of peers comes through appropriating the language and knowledge by those who are ruled.


Smith responds to the problem of postmodernism in this way: “The poststructuralist/postmodernist critique of representation and reference creates a fundamental problem….It challenges the very possibility of a sociology committed to inquiry into the actualities of the social as people live them.


The poststructuralist/postmodernist critique of the unitary subject of modernity is central. It is argued that the subject and subject-object relations are inescapably in and of discourse and language. Both subject and object are discursively constituted and there is no beyond to which reference can be made in establishing the truth of statements.


A description of using a street map in an actual context of “finding our way” exemplifies how a science might be inserted into a local practice. Telling the truth, it is argued, is always and only in just such actual sequences of dialogue among people directly present to one another or indirectly present in the texts they have produced.


My own and others’ observations are used to reconceptualise “referring” in general as integral to a social act of finding and recognizing an object as a local performance. In conclusion, I suggest that the example of a map offers to sociology a model that does not displace and subordinate people’s experience but can be used by them to expand their knowledge beyond it [48]”


Language and the making of meaning should be a representative process in terms of Action Research. In contrast, language can be constrained by process and constraining in itself in certain processes and contexts which have not had language sufficiently developed to represent the phenomena. In the process of the Outcomes Star (and other paperwork) we are concerned with a textuality which forms a part of a ruling bureaucracy – one which defines the representation of reality solely on its own terms.


In the Institutional Ethnography context, along with interview data of, observations of everyday life, the researcher captures the language used by participants. This can be used for analytic purposes. Part of what the researcher is seeking out are traces of how the participants’ action and talk are conditioned.


Experiential data thus inform a method, allowing researchers an entry into understanding the social organisation for the purpose of analyzing the experiences. By analyzing, it is meant the process of writing back into the account of experiences, the social organisation which is inherent, but invisible in them [54].


The analytic use of people’s accounts which reveal the social relations “in” the speech is an important tool. It reveals thought and aspects of behaviour through the language that is not represented in codified jargon, statistics or formal reports that have been ‘sanitized’ and which ultimately dictate the outcomes.


It is a way of ordinary talking where the speaker is making sense of the setting, for themselves and for the listener. According to Smith it is impossible to speak sensibly without clarifying the social relations [54].


De Castro and Giorgi discuss the treatment of language in their development of Existential Phenomenology. They talk about the synthesis and integration of insights gleaned by the researcher/co-researcher in order to make a consistent description of the phenomenon under study.


It is here, in this juncture of process where the actual situation and verbatim accounts are summarized into a form of textuality where the danger of subordinating the ‘paramount reality’ (the reality of everyday life) [105] to the values embedded in, and which drive, the abstract administrative process. Dorothy Smith’s process of Institutional Ethnography examines this subordination to textuality specifically as a part of the ruling apparatus.


The process for getting at a representative expression of the ‘paramount reality’ in Existential Phenomenology also involves a linguistic mediation. After completing the situated descriptions the researcher sublimes to a general description of their structures in which they aim to show the essences of the phenomenon under study.


This is an attempt to get at the trans-situational characteristics which transcend the specific situations but which feature regularly within each of them. We are looking at a process which informs perspective through shifts in the explanatory power of the language which is being used.


Von Eckartsberg described this earlier: “Giorgi brings in another important distinction and order into the methodology by identifying the situated structure and the general structure. He works with individual experiences and protocols until he reaches the level of articulation of situated structure. Only then does he “universalise” or “essentialize”, that is transcend the existentially situated specificity in favour of an essential trans-situational understanding” [75]


Some researchers see the idea of dividing the specific account from the general account as unclear, opting instead for a single synthesis of a coherent and consistent description. Here the step of separating the specific from the general is framed as an important part of an archival method which preserves perspectives in a more authentic expression. From this concordance renderings of those perspectives can be generated to communicate the situation to a broader context. The adoption of this method may suitably resolve some of the doubts which Dorothy Smith expresses in committing something to text.


The importance of the methodology as an archival one stems from the loss and changing of authentic detail which can happen in all processes of translation. The Aristotelian view that all things have an essence which can be described is simplistic and the archival forms preserve in some way a path back to the respectively authentic details which can be called upon in a forensic way if required. Important meaning can thus be accessed in a procedure of concordance which might otherwise be lost in non-conservative forms of textuality.


It is possible to equate this separation of the specific and general to the steps which produce the different linguistic renderings of perspective we met with earlier – the first person singular and the third person singular. The difference in the language set which is used moves from the informal to the formal syntax which may be interpretable as a movement from the specific to the general.


An example might be where a client shares through vernacular language, an experience with a support worker of having cravings for drink, problems with memory and difficulties with saying stuff. Reaching for the wrong words or not understanding things. The support worker might recognize this as subclinical Wernicke’s disease and identify it to the client opening up routes of understanding which can be pursued in the libraries and with clinicians.


Relating this becomes a mapping of language from the informal experience to the formal, and back again; and the conversation is mutually concorded to the relative stakeholders experience which facilitates discovery on both sides.


This interpretation of language is one which takes the formal to be a codification which is designed to communicate specialized circumstance to a universal audience. This represents a counter-perspective of a view where language is used to esoterize and limit people’s understandings. The aim of the linguistic synthesis is to communicate the mutually identifiable structure of the phenomenon or experience; and in doing so assist in revealing an understanding of how the phenomenon or experience takes place.


In summary, if we can value language on its power for representation via its explanatory power; and bureaucracy on its ability to facilitate the means and ends of the life activity it has been applied to, we can start to see the criteria for assessing the textuality of processes emerge.


Bibliography of References:

[9] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversay Edition, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos with an introduction by Donaldo Macedo, copyright 1970, 1993 by Paulo Freire; Copyright 2000 Introduction by Donaldo Macedo. Page 12

[11] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversay Edition, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos with an introduction by Donaldo Macedo, copyright 1970, 1993 by Paulo Freire; Copyright 2000 Introduction by Donaldo Macedo. Page 32

[33] Robert P. Pula, ‘Alfred Korzybski: Collected Writings 1920 – 1950; An Appreciation And Review’, A Review of General Semantics Vol. 48, No. 4 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 424-433 Published by: Institute of General Semantics

[34] Alfred Korzybski, (1931) “A Non-Aristotelian System And Its Necessity For Rigour In Mathematics And Physics”. Presented before the American Mathematical Society at New Orleans, Louisiana, Meeting of A.A.A.S., (December 28, 1931) published as “Supplement III” in “Science And Sanity”

[48] Smith, D. E, 1996 ‘Telling The Truth After Postmodernism’, Symbolic Interaction, 19,3 171 202

[49] Clough, P. 1993 ‘On The Brink of Deconstructing Sociology: Critical Reading of Dorothy Smith’s Standpoint Epistemology. The Sociological Quarterly, 34, 1, 169-182

[54] Marie L. Campbell, Institutional Ethnography and Experience as Data, Qualitative Sociology, March 1998, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 55-73

[75] Von Eckartsberg, R, 1998 “Essential Phenomenological Research” In R. Valle (Ed) Phenomenological Inquiry in Psychology: Existential and Transpersonal Dimensions. New York: Plenum Press, page 25

[105] Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann (1966), The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. ISBN 0-385-05898-5, Page 35