Etienne briefly illustrated what he meant by referring to his son’s ‘meaningless’ biology homework on cells. I found this interesting as one of the more meaningful aspects of my own education was the study of biology – for me what could be more meaningful than the study of life – and within that the study of histology – related to the study of genetics, which I remember as being fascinating, since I could easily relate it to ‘me’ – why I have brown eyes, cannot roll my tongue and so on.
Next week the Academic BEtreat starts and we have been asked to prepare by reading at least one section from Etienne’s 1998 book. I have read the section on ‘Identity’ and commented on that in a blog post a couple of weeks ago. Another section that we could choose to read is on ‘Meaning’ (p. 43-71). Slow reading is required for this book. Each sentence is densely packed with ideas. It took me a two hour train journey from Lancaster to Birmingham last week to read that small section; I am now on the train again and have two hours to digest the reading and make this post. Quite a luxury!
The key words in this section for me are: Practice, reification, meaning, negotiation and duality.
Some of the key ideas (or highlights for me) as I understand them are that:
- we experience the world and our engagement within it as meaningful through practice (p.51)
- meaning occurs through an ongoing process of negotiation, which does not necessarily involve language
- fundamental to the negotiation of meaning are participation and reification
- participation is a source of identity (p.56)
- ‘participation is not something we turn on and off’ …’the meanings of what we do are always social’ (p.57)
- reification gives our meanings an independent existence and shapes our experience. These independent forms become a focus for negotiation. Reification as a constituent of meaning is always incomplete.
- participation and reification are a duality, not opposites, not on a spectrum, not substitutions for each other, not translations of each other, not classificatory categories. They are complementary.
- ‘The communicative ability of artifacts depends on how the work of negotiating meaning is distributed between reification and participation’. (p.64)
So from this can we say that cell biology for Etienne’s son was not meaningful because the requirements of practice, negotiation, reification and participation were not fulfilled, or was it just that he was badly taught, or simply that histology doesn’t capture his imagination in the same way as another discipline, such as music, might
My memory of histology is from my university days, where most of my study was solitary – working in the library for long hours – which was broken up by periods of sitting in vast lecture halls looking at the back of the lecturer writing in chalk on a blackboard so far away it was difficult to see. So I remember participation as passive. I don’t remember any overt negotiation, although I must have negotiated meaning with myself and the reification must have been the required essay, which I don’t remember discussing with anyone. According to Etienne ‘The meanings of what we do are always social’ (p.57) and even drastic isolation is given meaning through social participation. He also says that reification can be a process as well as a product.
So in the BEtreat I hope we will be able to discuss further
- the relationship between meaning and social learning and, if I can make meaning in isolation, what exactly do we mean by ‘social’ learning and participation?
- the relationship between meaning and identity. Do I have any control over my identity and the meaning I make and if so how does this relate to participation, negotiation and reification?
- how is meaning affected by culture and context?