Not Talking about the Same Thing: Introducing Conceptual Literacy

In none of the sciences, and not even the perspectives within them… were people talking about the same thing.

(Adam, 1990: 5)


or those who are new to social theory and research the multitude of meanings that are given to the same term gives rise to a certain amount of concern. Students feel muddled and confused as they search for the correct meaning of a particular term or try to sort out the variety of meanings from a wide range of literatures. Recourse to a dictionary is one response. Recourse to a tutor is of course another. Giving up and learning to live with confusion is perhaps a third. Giving up altogether is a fourth option! The search for a fixed, unified and indeed accessible meaning becomes something like the search for the ‘philosopher’s stone’ that in myth promised to turn base metal into gold.

It is, of course, not only those who are new to an area or students more generally who have concerns about multiple and changing meanings. This is an issue that has been noted by researchers for a considerable time. In researching the literature on all the key terms used in this text – time, choice, experience, difference, care, equality, theory and research – there was an abundance of commentary on the variability of their meanings. Thus, the complete quote from Adam is:

In none of the sciences, and not even the perspectives within them. . . were people talking about the same thing when they made use of the idea of time. They seemed to be talking about phenomena, things, processes, qualities, or a dimension, a category, and a concept, using the word unproblematically as if it had only one meaning. (Adam, 1990: 5-6)

Similarly, Anderson (1998) comments that conceptualizations of choice are vague and ill-defined and thus methodologically fraught with

problems. Scott (1992) refers to the use of the term experience as ubiquitous and Barrett (1987) makes a similar comment about the use of the term difference. Thomas (1993) reflects on how conceptualizations of care tend to be presented as generic rather than taking into account that the meanings of care are domain specific. Evans (1995) suggests that there are two major conceptualizations of equality but these are not the same as those noted by Brine (1999). Poovey (1988: 51) comments, ‘There are as many deconstructions as there are feminisms.’ Butler and Scott (1992: xiii) note that ‘‘‘Theory’’ is a highly contested term within feminist discourse.’ They ask whether theory is singular or multiple. Or is theory defined in opposition to something that might be described as atheoretical, pre-theoretical or post-theoretical? Or is theory distinct from politics? In response to the question ‘What is research?’ my colleagues Loraine Blaxter and Malcolm Tight and I (Blaxter et al., 2001) identify 20 ‘views’ of research. We also suggest that ‘even a brief review of writings on research will uncover a lengthy and potentially baffling list of types of research’ (ibid.: 5) and we offer four different representations of the research process.

One response to this diversity has been to try to work towards a unified schema of conceptualization. This is because if we are not ‘talking about the same thing’ (Adam, 1990) how can we be sure that our research is comparable or that our results are valid? Thus, Burgess (1984) explored the varied conceptualizations of terms such as ‘race’ and ethnicity, age, gender, health and illness, education, social class and occupation, leisure, politics and voluntary associations with a clear recognition of their ambivalent and transient meanings. The con­tributors to Burgess’ text may have been initially concerned that researchers used the same meanings for the same terms. In this their aim was to improve the validity of comparative research. Nonetheless, in line with much thinking in the postmodern, they also recognized the impossibility of this. Thus:

If the contemporary diversity of sociology and social research makes the emergence of a unified conceptual scheme unlikely, it is nevertheless essential to be aware of how one’s work relates to that of others. Researchers need to consider how the concepts and indicators that they use relate to those used in local and national studies both now and in the past, in an attempt to find some common ground and with a view to enabling comparisons to be made. (Burgess, 1984: 261)

More recently postmodern and poststructural theorizing has brought to prominence the significance of language in understanding the changing

nature of meaning. Thus Scheurich (1997) comments on how post­modern theorization has illustrated how the relationship between language and meaning shifts in small and large ways, between people, across time and according to varied situations. What is shaping the difference between the approaches evidenced by Burgess and Scheurich is whether or not meanings can be fixed and whether a consensus could be achieved on the conceptualization of key research terms.

This text enters the terrain of conceptual meaning with some sym­pathy for Burgess’ position. In this I would reiterate that researchers need to consider how the concepts they use relate to other concep­tualizations. Indeed, I would go further than this and argue that researchers need to be conceptually literate. Conceptual literacy is no more, and no less, than an act of sensitization to the political impli­cations of contestation over the diversity of conceptual meanings. In this it draws attention to the multiplicity of meanings that are invoked by the use of key terms; to the dualistic framing of language; to the art of deconstruction; and to the salience of focusing on language in use. However, more broadly, conceptual literacy is concerned to develop an understanding of the effect of epistemic games that surround conceptual contestation in producing warrantable knowledge that justifies the directions through which a field of enquiry and its associated political concerns may proceed.

My point of divergence with Burgess is his starting point that there might be some common ground in the operationalization and con­ceptualization of key terms. As a sensitizing act the exploration of conceptual literacy in this text does not aim for closure on conceptual usage in the sense of offering a ‘last word’, a complete review or a definitive operationalization of any term or any theorization of language and its meaning. Indeed, my purpose is quite the reverse. Rather, I imagine that you will enter into the analysis at many points in terms of your own experience, knowledge, politics and purposes. At most, I hope that some of what I have to say will provide food for further thought as part of an open-ended and ongoing exploration for understanding conceptual usage in your own work and intellectual development.

I make these points because if my own experience is relevant, the existence of divergent and plural meanings not only has implications for the development of a field of knowledge but also for our learning careers. For all its postmodern provenance, plurality stands in contra­diction to a more modernist desire for fixity and boundedness, for neatness and framing. It contradicts, in fact, a desire for absolute knowing that is a mark of scientific enquiry. Thus, when, for example, I come across a new term or theory my response is very similar to those of

my students. I want to know what it ‘really’ means as if this were possible. My desire for the boundedness of knowing also leads to a sense of muddle and confusion when that feeling of safe boundaries, clear frameworks or absolute meanings is absent. And, this sense of muddle quickly moves into a sense of self-blame. Somehow it is my fault there is this confusion and this is probably due to some personal failing in my education, my IQ, the fact that I haven’t read enough, and so forth. In terms of my learning career, therefore, I experience confusion and failure. I want to give up. I am inclined to close down rather than open up to this veritable array of diversity of meaning.

Relatedly, my concern that the text is perceived to open up, rather than close down, understanding is not simply due to a commitment to these elements of postmodern discourse. Rather, it is because I am acutely aware of what I have not said, what I have edited out and, of course, what I do not know. In this I am drawn to Crick (1976: 11) who, in the introduction to the publication of his doctoral thesis, comments on how his work was to a large extent ‘the result of a situation brought about by the naivete thesis’. Naivete is a relative term that is usually used with pejorative overtones. As such, one’s naivete can only be understood by looking back from some point of greater and more respectable wisdom. The ignominious nature of naivete means that we have a tendency to refuse it a place in our learning careers. Rather, we focus on the progressive myths of learning that are con­cerned with the acquisition of expertise as the only credible prize. Such myths focus us on the end points of education – the book, the thesis, the dissertation, the exams passed – as ends in themselves and ultimately as acts of closure. A phrase that was popular in Britain a couple of years ago rather sums this up. ‘Been there. Done that.’ In this progressive myths disallow the importance of foolishness, naivete and not knowing as moments of continual beginnings that absolutely require openness and openings.

It is, therefore, for these reasons that I offer the term conceptual literacy as an act of sensitization that opens us to the variety of ways that we can understand the evidence of multiple meanings. Fuzzy, blurred and multiple meanings are not signs of the personal failure of the naive. Their recognition is a prelude to unveiling the broader political significance of conceptual contestation. As such, this text explores the contested and varied meanings of equality, difference, choice, care, time and experience within their usage in feminist theory and research. To this end I now offer an overview of my pedagogic approach to the construction of this text and, of course, a brief commentary on what is to come.

Pedagogic Concerns

As the brief review of the contents of this text will indicate, an analysis of key concepts draws on a range of theoretical and methodological terms. I am conscious that for many students even the word ‘theory’ is off-putting and acts as a point of closure. Many students comment that they do not understand theory, they are not ‘theoretical’ people or they are more concerned with practice. My response is usually to say that theory simply means explanation and how are we to explain our social worlds or what we find in our research if we do not have some kind of theory? However, I am also conscious that any form of writing is a pedagogic act. By this I mean that it is an opportunity for teaching and learning. For this reason I need to say a few words about how I have responded to my pedagogic concerns.

Whenever I hear a student say that they are not interested in theory, I understand this as reflecting on the mental barriers that are set up by the expectation that theory is a difficult subject. I agree that it can be. However, I would also suggest that finding many and varied ways into a topic can greatly facilitate understanding. Texts such as Brooks (1997), Beasley (1999) and Freedman (2001) that outline key theoretical posi­tions are an excellent way of developing knowledge about the social theory that underpins feminism. Yet they are only one genre through which knowledge can be enhanced. In turning to this text I appreciate that readers may focus their attention on single chapters because of their particular relevance or importance. However, I would suggest that you may find it valuable to consult those chapters that are not necessarily of immediate or primary concern. This text offers an alternative approach to understanding some of feminism’s more formal theoretical concerns because particular theoretical perspectives give rise to alternative conceptual meanings and implications for how to proceed. These theoretical perspectives form cross-cutting ties within the text. Therefore within the discussion of each of the concepts you will find commentary on, for example, liberal, cultural, materialist, postmodern, poststruc­tural and postcolonial feminism.

In addition, and somehow, theory is often viewed as detached from empirical research. One either ‘does’ theory or one ‘does’ research. Moreover, there is another form of detachment that operates across this binary. This is that theory is abstract and empirical research is concrete. Because of my concerns about these kinds of false separation, you will find interleaved within the discussion of the varied conceptualizations of equality, difference, choice, care, time and experience a number of illustrative case studies. These are drawn from contemporary research in the fields of education, employment and family and have been selected to concretize the more abstract nature of the discussion. As I am primarily concerned to illustrate how concepts are applied in different forms of research I mainly focus on the methodological approaches and theoretical frameworks of these case studies. This allows us to under­stand the ‘results’ of research with the necessary contextualization of how these results were obtained and theoretically framed.

Finally, as a text focused on developing a form of literacy, I have included suggested further readings. This text provides an introduction and an overview of the central issues of meaning, as I see it, in the varied definitions of feminism’s key concepts. The further reading has been selected to provide examples of work that can build on the material that has been presented here.