While research often seems to be motivated by the fantasy of reducing everything to a single formula within a completely closed and buttoned down system, in fact that is not really how we understand. Let us take, as an example, the classic formula that Einstein used in his general theory of relativity ‘e=mc2’ – how do we understand it? To understand a formula like this we need to apply it to various contexts, e.g. to imagine travelling in a tram at the speed of light and consider what happens to mass and to time, etc. The understanding is not in the formula but it emerges in the dialogic tension between the apparently abstract and universal formula and various concrete and specific contexts of application. This is not only how such abstract formulae need to be understood, it is also how they are developed in the first place. At least this is how Einstein claimed that he worked to discover these most abstract and universal of claims by doing thought experiments like riding on the front of a tram approaching the speed of light.
If this dialogic tension between the concrete context and the abstract idea is true in the natural sciences it is even more clearly true in the social sciences. In the discipline of Social Anthropology, for example, ethnographers have long struggled with the tension between ‘emic’ knowledge that is all about understanding the point of view of the group being studied and ‘etic’ knowledge that is interpreting the same group from the outside, applying a more universal scheme labelling their means of production as ‘hunter-gatherer’ for example or their religious word-view as ‘animist’. In fact the kind of knowledge produced by Social Anthropology always implies a combination of the emic and the etic. We can only become aware of and try to make sense of indigenous ways of thinking because we see them from an outside perspective. We can only take an etic or external perspective on the basis of some insider knowledge which we translate and interpret into our outsider scheme.
If we look at a dialogue from the outside we might say there are many voices in play. We might analyse transcripts and break down those different voices. But this is potentially already to fall into the illusion of objectification as if the dialogue was over there in front of our gaze. In reality we are always involved in the dialogue. If we were not involved in the dialogue in some way we could not make any sense out of it. A mathematical analysis of the patterns in sounds would not give the meaning. We know the meaning only because we share an insider view of the language and the culture and so are able, to some extent, to enter into the dialogue as a vicarious participant.
There is always a first person perspective as well as a third person perspective. The essential structure of a dialogue, any dialogue, is not just two or more voices but an inside and an outside. I label you and contain you within my universe when I pretend or claim to understand you and, if I am dialogically engaged with you, I am also aware that you are doing the same to me and that the you as a consciousness that I am in relationship with therefore transcends me. In other words you are not just the person I have an image of – you are the transcendent consciousness that can locate me and define me within your gaze (Wegerif, 2013, p.31). Clearly these two perspectives in any dialogue are incommensurate in the way in which Kuhn claims that different research paradigms are incommensurate (Kuhn, 1962/2012). The inside and the outside perspectives cannot be reduced to a single measure or a single gaze. Yet it is the tension between them that is generative of meaning and indeed of understanding as well as of misunderstanding and of the illusion of understanding.
If most research on dialogues is conducted in a monologic framework then what would a more dialogic framework look like? It would begin with the awareness that all research involves a living dialogue between two incommensurate or irreducibly different perspectives; the perspective of the lived experience of the subjects of the research moving from the inside out and the view that is trying to define and locate that experience moving from the outside in. This combination of an inside view looking out and an outside view looking in corresponds to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the ‘chiasm’. Chiasm is a term Merleau-Ponty borrowed from rhetoric where it refers to the reversibility of a subject and object in a sentence. The sentence, ‘I see the world: the world sees me’, is an example of a chiasm. Merleau-Ponty applied this to his understanding of the nature of perceptual events.
In proposing a chiasm methodology for research on educational dialogues I am not just proposing mixed methods. As Shaffer (2017) brings out in his work on quantitative ethnography, we can use numbers and statistics to explore the unique significance of events taking an inside ‘qualitative’ or interpretive perspective. The difference between an inside and an outside approach is not in the method used but in the stance. The outside view objectifies and compares taking what Buber referred to as an I-It stance. The inside view subjectifies and understands empathetically from within taking what Buber referred to as an I-thou stance.
The idea of chiasm suggests a principled way to bring these two research approaches together in one whole. This is to inter-react and inter-animate the inside view and the outside view systematically at each level and type of analysis to gain insights and make meaning without ever fully integrating them into a single vision. If we are comparing classes in terms of test results we should try through videos – if they are group tests, or perhaps guided key event interviews – to also find out what it feels like to perform on this test and what was going on for the student from the inside point of view.
Another way to think about chiasm is as figure-ground reversal. In a video or transcript we are as much concerned to understand unique learning incidents as to find general patterns. Our interest is in the way in which patterns flow from incidents and how incidents may illustrate patterns but in a way in which the two points of view are dialogically inter-illuminated rather than, as in the nomothetic (monologic) approach, one side is reduced to the terms of the other.
The Generation Global programme promotes internet-mediated dialogue between schools in different countries. It has reached over 200,000 students aged 12 to 17. After a compulsory module teaching ‘the essentials of dialogue,’ classes engage either in team blogging or in facilitated video-conferencing with classes in other regions of the world, discussing issues that often relate to global citizenship. The team blogging involves placing students into teams in the GG online learning community. In these teams, they talk with peers from other countries by creating short blog posts in response to pre-determined prompts (or questions), and by commenting on each other's posts.
When we were asked to evaluate this we had to provide an evaluation of the impact of the programme that was rigorous and convincing as possible. On the other hand we also sought to understand the processes whereby individual young people develop and change their attitudes towards others who are different from them. These twin aims required that we combined together in one methodology, two very different perspectives; one perspective looks at the experiences of young people in the programme as if from the outside, seeking to measure change objectively, the other perspective explores the same experiences as if from the inside, trying to understand how each encounter feels for the young people involved and what it means for them in the context of their lives.
Before taking part in team blogging, students were asked to reflect on how they ‘feel about people from those countries, communities, cultures and faiths you expect to meet when team blogging?’ They were also asked to reflect on why they feel this way; ‘write about things in your experience that have shaped your views’. Similar questions were posed after the team-blogging event. Quantitative data on how many blogs were written, read, and responded to, were also gathered.
1140 reflections were filled in in total by individual students from more than 100 different schools. These were labelled as either ‘pre’ blogging experience or ‘post’. Matching pairs of pre and post reflections enabled us to explore changes in attitudes through changes in language use. Analysis of this data used a combination of discourse analysis and corpus linguistic statistical techniques.
When we compared the pre data with the post data using we were most struck by how pronouns use changed(1). These quantitative differences in the way language was being used were massively statistically significant. But that is to look at the matter in an outside and rigorous way – the other question is what did these differences in word use really mean in practice?
Before the blogging experience ‘we’ refers most commonly to the home group as in the following two typical uses:
‘when i heard from my teacher that we were going to team blog . I was very excited’
In addition ‘we’ is also sometimes used to refer to a very abstract notion of the unity of the human race:
‘we all made from the same mud which is God create us from’.
After the team-blogging experience the way in which ‘we’ is used changes to refer to a much more concrete sense of shared identity:
‘It was a wonderful experience. As i blogged and they commented on my blog, i found out that somehow we share similar beliefs and all of us wants to spend our life loving each other. Also i got to know that there are some common problems we face and its time we should find a solution to these problems and should stand up for each other.’
‘We could easily find common ground and it was good to splash up my views and recive comments of what they think of my thoughts ‘.
At the same time the use of ‘They’ to refer to the other also changed. Before the team-blogging experience ‘they’ were clearly simply ‘other’. The following statement is typical:
‘I feel curious to know about the lifestyle they live, also the kind of problem they face in the society’
After the team-blogging experience the ‘other’ took on a much more concrete form and was seen as ‘like us,’ perhaps even as part of an extended sense of ‘us’.
‘after the team blogging I feel that they are also like us . they also enjoy singing , dancing , act , ect’
‘All of them where extremelly different. Each has their own opinion and worldview. Some of them differ from me and some are quite similar’
On qualitative examination then the change in the use of pronouns to refer to self and other between the pre-team-blogging reflection and the post-team-blogging reflection indicates a shift in identity from a relatively closed sense of ‘us’ defined against an abstract sense of ‘them’ towards a more dialogic identity which can best be described as identification not with ‘us’ against ‘them’ but with the dialogue that unites the two terms.
This corpus-linguistics inspired discourse analysis of changes in the use of language in online reflections by young people both before and after team-blogging experiences of online dialogue with other schools was just one small part of the overall study but it showed clear evidence of changes in the way in which they identified themselves and others. These changes were in the direction of increased dialogic open-mindedness.
This use of text analysis illustrated one way in which the inside perspective of reflections by individuals can be combined with the outside perspective of statistical rigour in describing a general change. The changes in each individual’s attitudes towards others and otherness were reflected in changes in the use of pronouns such as ‘we’ and ‘they’ that could be picked up by a general corpus-linguistics analysis of the difference between two corpora. At the same time that general difference helped the analysis focus in on the individual utterances that led to it.
This illustration shows the potential of a dynamic circular dialogic interaction between inside and outside perspectives in which neither aspect is reduced to the other and yet there is no synthesis because it is the juxtaposition of inside and outside views that the reader is led to understand both the significance of the statistical changes (outside view) and the causal processes that led to those statistically significant changes (inside view).
[The idea of Chiasm as a dialogic research methodology is developed further in a forthcoming book to be published by Bloomsbury: Kershner, Hennessy, Wegerif and Ahmed. Researching Educational Dialogues.]
The ‘Measuring Open-Mindedness’ report is at https://institute.global/sites/default/files/inline-files/Measuring%20Open-mindedness_29.06.17.pdf
(1) A special thanks to Phil Durrant for help with the corpus linguistics analysis
Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968). The visible and the invisible: Followed by working notes. Northwestern University Press.
Shaffer, D. W. (2017). Quantitative ethnography. Cathcart Press.
Wegerif, R. (2013). Dialogic: Education for the internet age. Routledge.
Wegerif, R., Doney, J., Richards, A., Mansour, N., Larkin, S., & Jamison, I. (2017). Exploring the ontological dimension of dialogic education through an evaluation of the impact of Internet mediated dialogue across cultural difference. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction.