Everyday Understanding: Social and Scientific Implications

Gun R. Semin

Kenneth J. Gergen

This collection of original essays is concerned with people's everyday understanding of the world. Within the past decade, social scientists have produced a considerable body of research investigating the nature of this process. The intriguing issue raised in this edited book is the extent to which lay and scientific understandings converge. The conventional thinking has been that scientists have a privileged position because their methodology enables them to explain the previously unarticulated conceptualization of the layperson. However, reflecting the shift away from traditional positivist thought, greater significance is now attached to the similarities rather than the differences between lay and scientific understanding.

The editors, Gun R. Semin & Kenneth J. Gergen, have been in the forefront of the new scientific movement and they have assembled a group of contributors from both North America and Europe. There is a diversity of views and approaches represented, and in fact not all of the contributors are committed to non-conventional models. The editors have succeeded in producing a coherent volume which nicely illustrates how lay understanding can be conceptualized and examined.

Four theoretical perspectives are represented. Understanding as cognitive representation is the traditional approach and is guided by the notion that the individual operates as an information processor. The mind acts as a computer in processing and giving meaning to information coming from the external world. This approach thus assumes that scientists have a privileged position because of their observational skills. The contributors who use the cognitive representation model have modified it to some extent by focusing on the affinity between lay and scientific modes of understanding. In a particularly interesting paper, Hanns-Dietrich Dann examines the "subjective theories" of teachers and how these implicit cognitive representations are utilized in educational practice.

The phenomenological viewpoint is represented by Amedeo Giorgi's essay. Drawing on the ideas of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Giorgi conceives of understanding as a process based on commonsense descriptions of the everyday world. In contrast with the cognitive representation perspective, no distinction is made between the experiencing subject and the external world. Scientific and lay understandings are thus closely associated with one another.

Most of the contributions are based on one of the two models which have emerged from the postpositivist movement: socially based cognition and social constructionism. The former was anticipated in the writings of Vygotsky and it has been recently developed in Moscovici's work on social representations. The core notion is that cognitive categories are social in their origins. Unlike the model of cognitive representation, understanding is not based on inductive processes within the individual. Felice Carugati's essay is an especially good example of this social perspective. He treats the concept of intelligence as a reflection of normative representations.

Social constructionism makes no distinction between individual and social origins of understanding. How persons explain their world is achieved through the process of social exchange inherent in language. This position carries on the legacy of Wittgenstein's later writings. Among the contributors committed to constructionism, Jan Smedslund deals with theorizing in psychology as a reflection of common-sense understanding and hence a historical and cultural artifact. Gergen, Gabriele Gloger-Tippelt, & Peter Berkowitz examine how parental conceptions of child development are culturally constructed.

The essays are all of high quality and in general the book serves as a stimulating and challenging guide to core issues in social science theorizing and practice.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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