A neat experiment reveals the extent to which we do not always know why we make the decisions that we do[ii]. I always quote this when teaching on our education research masters to challenge the idea that the ‘objectifying’ ‘non-dialogic’ quantitative methods of natural science are not appropriate for researching people. The abstract is clear: ‘Over a 2-week period, French and German music was played on alternate days from an in-store display of French and German wines. French music led to French wines outselling German ones, whereas German music led to the opposite effect on sales of French wine. Responses to a questionnaire suggested that customers were unaware of these effects of music on their product choices’.
There is plenty of research to suggest that brains make decisions to act before the supposed owners of those brains have any consciousness of the decision that they are about to take [iii]. When asked about their decisions after the event people are not aware of this but rationally reconstruct good reasons coherent with their self-image of being in control.
This research evidence fits well with the claims from Foucault and others that ‘the discourse speaks the subject’. Barad’s quantum physics version of this is that ‘we’ are produced as ‘subjects’ out of entangled quantum systems that include the material environment. In other words , who we are is shaped on the inside by the environment including all the advertising images and musical jingles. So where does that leave freedom and agency?
Well actually this is not as bad as it looks. Consider the research study that I quoted. This kind of science gives us a collective awareness of how environments impact on us which gives us collectively the freedom and agency to redesign those environments. Smoking, for example, has almost disappeared now in public places in the UK, where once it was ubiquitous, after a massive collective redesign of all the messages given to children, including banning smoking from films and adverts. This kind of agency is not the agency of an autonomous rational self. It is a participatory and dialogic kind of agency. A good dialogue can lead to decisions and actions that I can feel happy with and identify with through an extended sense of self that includes the dialogue as a whole. Science is a long-term powerful dialogue that enables us to become self-aware collectively and so enables us to redesign ourselves in ways that reduce toxicity and promote flourishing.
We each of us have a voice only insofar as we participate with other voices in dialogues. Collective decision-making can be more-or-less monologic or dialogic. Where it is dialogic people can experience freedom and agency but only as participants in larger processes. The message of the new materialism of Barad and others is that matter enters into these dialogues. The media that we use in education, for example, whether cave paintings, slate and chalk, pencil and paper or electronic tablets linked to the internet, shape how we think and how we are able to think and so must be given a voice – that is to say we must become aware of these material voices and include them as part of the larger dialogue.
In the previous blog I challenged Vygotsky’s account of education as drawing children out of participatory thinking into autonomous reason. But another way of describing his view of education might be as drawing children out of one kind of participation into another. Out of the short-term circuits of addictive distracting kinds of participatory thinking, the thinking of advertising jingles and consumerism, into those longer-term dialogues of the culture as a whole through which they can participate in shaping their own world and their own future, our collective world and our collective future. Education enables freedom and agency when it challenges what we think we are and opens us up to the infinite strangeness of what we really are and what we might become.
[i] Wegerif, R. (2005). Reason and creativity in classroom dialogues. Language and Education, 19(3), 223-237.
[ii] The influence of in-store music on wine selections. North, Adrian C.; Hargreaves, David J.; McKendrick, Jennifer Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 84(2), Apr 1999, 271-276.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.84.2.271