Social Theory (2014): The Research Investigator as Instrument Across the Human Sciences

Awarded to Professor Kenneth J. Gergen for his essay:

‘From Mirroring to World-Making: Research as Future Forming’


After decades of acrimonious debate on the nature of scientific knowledge, researchers in the human or social sciences are reaching a state of relative equanimity, a condition that may be characterized as a reflective pragmatism. Yet, even while the context has favored the development of new forms of research, the longstanding ocular metaphor of inquiry remains pervasive. That is, researchers continue the practice of observing what is the case, with the intent to illuminate, understand, report on, or furnish insight into given states of affairs. And, while selectively useful, such an orientation is not only limited in potential but subject to a receding span of application. As I will propose, when the logics of reflective pragmatism are fully extended, we enter a new territory of understand- ing, one in which the vision of research is radically altered. We replace the captivating gaze on the world as it is with value based explorations into what it could be. This conception of a future forming orientation to research opens the way to new aims, practices, and reflections.

To foreshadow the direction of this offering, one might usefully reflect on the contribution of the past century of social science research to society and to the world. From the hundreds of thousands of studies—the countless hours of devotion by talented and educated professionals—what has resulted? What new policies, practices, or forms of daily life have emerged? Have our traditional practices of research added significantly to human wellbeing? With these questions linger- ing in the margins of what follows, I begin here with the recent, intense, and wide-ranging discussions of the nature of scientific truth. Within the social sciences these discussions have left a trail of misunderstandings, animosities, and an increasing divide between traditionalists and those variously termed “post- foundationalist,” “post-empiricist,” and “post-modern”. It is not my intention to review the vast body of literature surrounding these issues, nor to resolve the remaining tensions. Rather, in what follows I shall first bring into focus what appear to be some of the most widely recognized outcomes of these debates— often drawing support from both critics and defenders of tradition. With these in hand, I shall extend the logics implicit in these conclusions to explore an emergent conception of what it is to conduct research within the human or social sciences. Here I will point to significant shortcomings of widely shared traditions, both conceptual and pragmatic. I will then outline the potentials of what I see as a far more promising alternative. This conception of a future forming orientation to research opens the way to new aims, practices, ethical deliberations, and reflections. My intent in this case is not to eliminate the longstanding traditions, but to bring into focus new and far-reaching potentials of inquiry.

Kenneth Gergen

Professor Kenneth J. Gergen

Senior Research Professor of Psychology, Swarthmore College, and President
of The Taos Institute