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Debate about ‘definitions’ (of ‘culture’ etc)

Monday, October 1st, 2007 @ 3:11 pm
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Posted in  Literature, Quotes

Since last Tuesday that I attended a session from the Taught Doctorate in Counselling, there has been an interesting email exchange amongst the group about how/if do we define ‘culture’ and about our methodological/philosophical stance around definitions in general. Here is the interesting email exchange:William (27.9.07) wrote:
“I personally find definitions usually restrictive and like the fluidity of how words are used. Like what does counselling or love or socialism or God mean? Many definitions of these terms merely excludes e.g. if you don’t believe Jesus died for your sins you are not a Christian. Life is not neat like that! So I am interested in what research participants understand by words not what us academics or dictionaries mean. It is interesting to track meanings across sub-cultures. Like I love how the word ‘wicked’ changes its meaning from youth culture to fundamentalist Christian culture!”

I responded (27.9.07) saying:

“Pittu Laungani (2007) writes:”like most abstarct words, such as intelligence, personality, goodness, virtue, the word ‘culture’ is also difficult to define, it is more easily misunderstood than understood, more sinned against than
sinned. It is a word that is often quite misused, abused and reviled”. He then describes popular conceptions, academic conceptions, anthropological and psychological perspectives to the term. In a workshop with Colin Lago I attended few years ago, he highlighted that by the early 60’s there were in excess of 160 different definitions of culture in the social science literature. So,that’s one reason why my literature review could be tricky, but keeping in mind your position around definitions, it could be a good starting point not trying to put it into a frame but make decisions around what perspectives of it to include or exclude and why.”

Kevin Fletcher (1.10.07) responded to both saying:

“The appetite for definitions presumably springs from a desire for certainty – some way of pinning down some concrete facts about a mysterious and changing world. As practitioners and researchers (and in some cases teachers) we strive to understand our subject, and then want to be in a position to explain everything – to ourselves, to our clients or to our students. If something can’t be explained, it’s not only unsettling at a personal level but it might appear to undermine our role as researcher, teacher or “learned person”. How do we admit that we don’t know the answer or that we can’t define some of our terms categorically? But I agree, William, that we can value fluidity and find a way of reconciling ourselves to the idea that permanence isn’t achievable, or even desirable, and the mind might be freed up for something more creative. And here’s a cultural variation: I read in a novel recently a passing reference to the importance of the idea of impermanence – in Japan, the falling of the cherry blossom is cherished for the very fact that the flowering is ending; ceramics are made deliberately with at least one flaw to show that perfection is not the aim (or even possible?).

F. – I’m not sure this is helpful, but I have experimented with actually broadening my literature reviews, away from the professional journals and textbooks and into the realms of philosophy, novels, poetry etc. Socratic questioning, after all, isn’t about certainty – it’s about admitting the limitations on our current knowledge. I think Socrates maintained that the more he asked, the more he learned, but also the more he realised he didn’t know. Gilbert Ryle said his favourite author was Jane Austen, because she doesn’t tell the reader what to think but lets us make up our minds about characters by observing how they behave. There are many sources of knowledge – since the late 19th century we’ve been making a science out of human behaviour, but has it lessened the impact of Greek cultural influences from 2500 years ago, or English influences from 200 years ago? Hope to discuss further.”

I think this is such interesting debate to keep in mind, especially when i come to do my literature review around a topic which can be very ambiguous and big….am now reminded of the ‘fat woman’ metaphor i was referring to during our last {hD group supervision session…William made a link to Dali’s paintings…i then wrote on my diary that my PhD might feel like a fat, unevenly shaped woman now to me cause am not quite digesting the process….Dori’s fat two volume PhD seemed beautiful to me though….so, this whole point is cultural as well…need to explore this metaphor bit more…

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