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Pragmatism as a candidate methodology

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog


To recap, a methodology suitable for this thesis must be:

  1. Recognised and respected as sound.
  2. Well-suited to the research area and aims of the thesis.
  3. Allow for results that will make a difference to a research area.

So far we have rejected Cybermethodology, Grounded Theory, Critical Theory and Post-Structuralism. The next candidate methodology to consider is Pragmatism. We shall find that this methodology is especially suited to the current thesis as it fits the three criteria set out above.

As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although it was Charles Sanders Peirce coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ – later switching to ‘Pragmaticism’, “a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (Collected Papers, 5.414) – the ideas it represents have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, R.W., ‘Circles’ in Goodman, R.B., 1995:25)

Pragmatism has evolved over the last century and a half and therefore has many definitions. We shall explore the nuanced views of Pragmatist philosophers such as Peirce, Quine and Rorty in the next section, but start here with a definition by the populariser of Pragmatism, William James:

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the beliefs were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (James, 1995, p.77)

In this sense, it is already clear that Pragmatism is well-suited as a methodology that fits the third of the criteria specified above. Pragmatism is focused on a ‘difference’ making a difference in practice – with truth being defined by James elsewhere what is “good in the way of belief” (James, 1995, p.30). Pragmatists reject the Correspondence Theory of truth, which holds that a statement is true if and only if it accurately describes (i.e. corresponds with), that being described in the external world. This causes a problem in terms of verification; how can we know whether our ideas are true? Pragmatists answer this question by reference to a ‘community of inquirers’ rather than individuals. Truth becomes what is “expedient in our thinking” (James, 1995, p.86) and dependent upon discussion and debate within society:

The ‘absolutely’ true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge… Meanwhile we have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready to-morrow to call it falsehood. (James, 1995, p.86)

We shall explore in the next section how Pragmatism has been developed by philosophers such as Dewey, Quine, Davidson and Rorty but, for now, we must examine whether the core of Pragmatism constitutes a sufficient basis – and meets the set criteria – as a methodology for this thesis. Having established already that the third criterion is satisfied by Pragmatism, we turn to the first and second criteria to see if they, too, can be satisfied.

Pragmatism is a philosophy that, in its present form, is around 150 years old but with roots that go back further. Several research journals a dedicated to the field and three of the best-known philosophers of the 20th century, William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, were all Pragmatists. It is a coherent approach taught in modules in high ranking and respected universities. Academic papers and books based on the Pragmatist method contribute to the world’s body of knowledge every day. It is safe to say, therefore, that Pragmatism can be deemed an approach that is ‘recognised and respected as sound’.

As for the second criterion, I would argue that Pragmatism is well-suited to postmodern world, particularly suited to research in the digital sphere, and especially suited to research on Digital and New Literacies. The reasons for this suitability are threefold. First, Pragmatism is what John Dewey calls a ‘practical fallibilism’ (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.13). This uncertainty is not because of a gap between mind and matter but “stems from the fact that we can never be certain that the patterns of action that we have developed in the past will be appropriate for the problems that we will encounter in the future” (ibid.). In terms of Digital and New Literacies, we cannot be sure what kinds of ‘texts’ (and therefore what kind of literacy practices) will be necessary in the future. As a result, although we may do our best to make provision for what we see on the horizon, Pragmatists cannot be certain that past patterns of action will suit future problems.

Second, Pragmatism does not constitute a “recipe for educational research and educational researchers” being “as much a way of un-thinking certain false dichotomies, certain assumptions, certain traditional practices and ways of doing things” (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.114). Given that the central question of this thesis is “What are digital literacies?” it seems particularly appropriate to explicitly analyse the boundaries of literacy practices as well as question dichotomies, assumptions and traditional practices.

Third, Pragmatism does not aim to close the book and end the story by reference to definitions and postulating static theories. Instead, theories have a ‘cash-value’ and are tools:

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [such as ‘God’ or ‘the Absolute’] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. (James, 1995, p.21)

It is us who impose categories on the world, argues the Pragmatist, and ‘truth’ is a process of assimilation – not of discovery.

Pragmatism, therefore, is a philosophy that provides a sound methodology on which to base this thesis. In the next section I shall give an overview of the development of Pragmatism as a theory in order to define what shall be referred thereon as a form of shorthand as ‘The Pragmatic approach’ or ‘Pragmatism’.


  • Biesta, G.J.J. & Burbules, N.C. (2003) Pragmatism and Educational Research (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD)
  • Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: A Contemporary Reader (Routledge: London)
  • James, W. (1995) Pragmatism (Dover: London)

Methodology section: Post-Structuralism

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog


The next candidate methodology we shall consider is Post-Structuralism, a name give to a loose collection of (mainly French) ideas and authors by US academics. Related to Postmodernism and likewise lacking a ‘manifesto’, Post-Structuralism is a rejection of many schools of thought, including Structualism, Phenomenology, Analytical philosophy, and Marxism (although it is pro-Marx). The reasons for Post-Structuralism as a candidate methodology for this thesis are threefold. Firstly, the ‘subject forms the object’ – that is to say that the reader replaces the author as primary, with no one particular view being classed as ‘authoritative. Secondly, Post-Structualists avow practical expression rather than abstract arguments, Jacques Derrida’s (1985) anti-apartheid writing being an example of this. Thirdly, there is a close link between Post-Structuralism and Constructivism, a movement beloved of progressive educators.

Despite the insistence of Post-Structuralists that their focus is upon radical activity and practical expression, their writing is often fraught with complexity and nuance that translation into English can amplify. Here, for example, is Derrida explaining ‘deconstruction’ and the difficulty in translating the word (coined by Derrida) into languages other than French:

“[I]n spite of appearances, deconstruction is neither an analysis nor a critique… It is not an analysis in particular because the dismantling of a structure is not a regression toward a simple element, toward an un-decomposable origin. These values, like that of analysis, are themselves philosophemes subject to deconstruction. No more it is a critique, in a general sense or in a Kantian sense. The instance of krinein or krisis (decision, choice, judgment, discernment) is itself, as is all the apparatus of transcendental critique, one of the essential “themes” or “objects” of deconstruction.” (Derrida, 2008, p.4)

Indeed, Roland Barthes (who went through a Post-Structuralist phase) called for a ‘metalanguage’ whereby we could talk about the meaning and grammar of language(s) in a systematised way without prioritising the intentionality of the author. He talks of the author being “a modern figure, a product of our society… emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation” (Barthes, 1977). In this way Barthes and his peers rejected the doctrine of Structuralism – the idea that each domain of knowledge can be understood through a linguistic structure. Assister (1984) has identified four ideas common to the various forms of structuralism: (i) every system has a structure, (ii) the structure determines the position of each element within it, (iii) structures are real things that lie beneath surface meaning, and (iv) structural laws deal with co-existence rather than change. Structuralism appeals, therefore, to a ‘third order’, a reality external to that of reality and the imagination (Deleuze, 2002).

Post-Structuralism, in rejecting Structuralism, posits that the latter is synchronic (or ‘descriptive’) whilst the former diachronic (or ‘historical’). There is no rational way to evaluate preferences relating to truth, morality or aesthetics, argue Post-Structuralists – leading to what Michel Foucault (1976) terms the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’. Language and texts are not natural but are instead constructs which may be interpreted, and interpreted in an infinite number of ways.

In terms of this thesis, Post-Structuralism seems to be, at first blush, a useful methodology to employ. It rejects the binary opposition between, for example, signifier and signified meaning that we can use it to make sense of what has been termed the ‘Read/Write Web’ in which the reader is in some way also the author. Post-Structuralism also rejects the concept of a single, stable notion of ‘self’ and instead embraces the tensions between multiple personas and ways of being. This maps onto, and helps explain, the variety of ways in which we represent ourselves in both physical and digital worlds. Interestingly, some Post-Structuralists claim that the ‘truth’ of a population is located at the edges rather than the core, at the places in which it is changing rather than the places at which it remains static. “[Words] signify from the “world” and from the position of one who is looking” states Lévinas (2003, p.12), meaning that although the limits of knowledge are important they cannot be observed directly, only identified through their effects. Given that the debate around digital literacies presuppose that the practices they contain lie on the outer boundaries of what we know, the Post-Structuralist approach would seem suitable.

There are, however, some issues with Post-Structuralism which make it unsuitable as a methodology for this thesis. As we identified in the introduction to this chapter, there are three criteria for a methodology. Whilst Post-Structuralism certainly seems suited to the aims of the thesis, it is questionable as to whether it can fulfil the other two aims. The first criterion, that the methodology is ‘recognised and respected as sound’ would seem unproblematic to progressive educators and those embracing Constructivism (a theory that we generate meaning and knowledge through the interplay between the ideas we encounter and experiences we have), but would be rejected by more conservative colleagues.

Closely allied to this issue of recognition across the political and educational spectrum is the third criterion: that the methodology will allow for results making a difference to the research area. Post-Structuralism, emerging from France in a period when Cold War collaboration with the USSR led to a dissatisfaction with ‘Marxism’ (if not with Marx). Post-Structuralist authors define their approach almost entirely in negative terms, as a rejection of what has gone before and therefore, it could be claimed, define a philosophy that is more an expression of a problem than a method of finding a solution. Post-Structuralism has been attacked as relativist and nihilist by a range of critics and, lacking a clear manifesto and coherence of approach, certainly seems to be an amorphous collection of ideas difficult to apply in practice.

Finally, there is the issue of application. Although the concepts inherent in Post-Structuralism are appealing to those investigating New and Digital Literacies, the movement lacks the power of an epistemology that can make a difference in practice. Stating, for example, that the limits of knowledge play an unavoidable role at its core is more of a reminder to consider elements in their totality rather than epistemological bedrock.
Post-Structuralism is a programme that, although appealing, is defined too much in negative to be useful for this thesis. As with Critical Theory, it has no way to build its way out of a potential collapse into solipsism and subjectivism.


Assister, A. (1984) ‘Althusser and structuralism’ (British Journal of Sociology, Vol.35:2, June 1984, pp.272-296)

Barthes, R. (1977) The Death of the Author

Deleuze, G. (2002) ‘How Do We Recognise Structuralism?’ (in Taormina, M. (ed.) (2004) Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974, pp.170-192)

Derrida, J. (1985) ‘Racism’s Last Word’ (Critical Inquiry, Vol.12(1), Autumn 1985)

Derrida, J. (2008) Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume II (Kamuf, P. & Rottenberg, E.G. (eds.), Stanford University Press

Lévinas, E. (2003) Humanism of the Other (Chicago: University of Illinois Press)

 

Methodology section: Critical Theory

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog)


Critical Theory is a complex fusion of two different schools of thought. Although based upon a critique of society and culture, Critical Theory remains an umbrella term within which are found Marxist theory and the ideas of the ‘Frankfurt School’. Whilst the former has a normative dimension (there is a way that the world ‘ought’ to be) the latter is more of a hermeneutic approach (gaining knowledge through interpretation of ‘texts’).

These two distinct streams are merged by Postmodern Critical Theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard in the sense that everything is considered to be a ‘text’ and therefore open to multiple (and potentially infinite) interpretations. In addition, a ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences from the 1960s onwards led to theorists such as Saussure, Derrida, Chomsky and Barthes redefining the social sciences as dealing with symbolic representations of the world. The fusion of the two streams became complete when, from the 1980s onwards, Habermas redefined Critical Theory as a theory of communication.

In the 1990s, Horkheimer defined a ‘critical theory’ as adequate only if it is simultaneously explanatory, practical and normative. “That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation” (Bohman, 2010). Critical Theory undoubtedly fulfils the third of the criteria set out as necessary for a methodology underpinning Digital Literacies. If Critical Theory were successful, society would be transformed. However, as Bohman goes on to elaborate, Critical Theory is “rife with tensions” because of its ambition to transform capitalism into ‘real democracy’ (Bohman, 2010).

The failure of Critical Theory to revolutionise society is a result, claim Blake & Masschelein (2010), of “the failure to overlook the most serious motive behind Critical Theory, its negative aspect and messianic impulse” (in Blake, et al., 2003, p.55). To respond to this negative aspect, continue the authors, “is to accept as valid the cry, “I don’t know what, but not this!” – and thus to repudiate the fatalism of a seemingly compulsory acceptance of the present” (ibid.).

A second phase of Critical Theory, led by one of the leading intellectuals of our time (in the shape of Jürgen Habermas), seeks to transform it into “the mode of inquiry that participants may adopt in their social relations to others” (Bohman, 2010). Habermas combines the transcendental idealism evident in the first phase of Critical Theory with a selection of ideas from the American Pragmatist tradition (Shalin, 1992, p.253). The latter is evident in Habermas’ claim that universal consensus is the ultimate goal of communicative action – with anything short of this evidence of our commitment to the process. As Shalin points out, this differs (as we shall see) with Pragmatism as, in the latter, a dissenting attitude is “imminently rational in that it points to conflicting potentialities of being,” alerting us to the “risks and uncertainties inherent in alternative lines of action” (Shalin, 1992, p.258).

Through the work of Habermas, Critical Theory (as defined in its second phase) is a recognised and respected methodology. It is an established and active research area with journals, professorships and many books dedicated to debates and developments. In this sense, Critical Theory not only meets the third of the aims of a methodology, but also the first (being recognised and respected as sound). It is only with the second criterion that issues emerge: Critical Theory’s suitability to the research area of Digital and New Literacies.

There are three main issues with Critical Theory that I shall outline here that make it unsuitable as a methodology within the area of Digital and New Literacies. First, there is the difficulty of a theory which is general and universal in outlook, but which depends upon subjective experiences. It leaves the individual in an epistemological dilemma: either their choice of approach seems arbitrary, or the Critical Theorist has a ‘special ability’ to make correct choices. Neither is satisfactory. The way out of this dilemma explained by Bohman (2010) – to treat the subjects of inquiry as ‘knowledgeable social agents’ and to focus on the goal of “initiat[ing] public processes of self-reflection” – seems to beg the question when it comes to fostering digital literacies. One cannot assume competencies and behaviours that one is hoping to instil.

Secondly, Critical Theorists conceptualise praxis (the enactment of a theory) almost solely in terms of work. Whilst Critical Theorists set their targets against the ’scientification’ and ‘technologization’ of society, they often fall back onto instrumentalist thinking. Even Habermas, claim Blake & Masschelein (2010), strips individuals of the ‘humanness’ of their interaction, conceptualising communication in terms of “the economic and rational logic of performance and counterperformance” (Blake & Masschelein, 2010, p.54). A methodology suitable for understanding and putting into practice work around Digital and New Literacies should not be continually reduced (or necessarily even reducible) to purely economic considerations.

Thirdly, and briefly, there is no genuine direct connection between Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy in the English-speaking world. This, allied with the concerns about the instrumental understanding of communication, concerns Blake & Masschelein (2010, p.50-1). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a methodology should help make clear the path from theory to practice for a research area. Critical Theory does the opposite of this, adding a layer of complexity to an already confusing and contested field. Using Critical Theory as a methodology for research into Digital and New Literacies would be to multiply uncertainty and confusion.


Blake, N., Smeyers, P., Smith, R. & Standish, P. (eds.) (2003) The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education (Oxford)

Bohman, J. (2010) ‘Critical Theory’ (in Zalta, E.N. (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Shalin, D.N. (1992) ‘Introduction: Habermas, Pragmatism, Interactionism’ (Symbolic Interaction – Special Feature: Habermas, Pragmatism and Critical Theory, Vol.15(3), 1992)

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