On the Basis of Knowledge and Meaning
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.— Albert Einstein.
I like to draw figures to help me to organize and make sense of my thoughts. And I drew a little one this morning as I was reading Julian Stodd‘s discussion of what he titles the Social Age of Learning (scribbled right onto page 16 of his book The Social Leadership Handbook (2nd Ed.), where the publisher conveniently left some space for doodlers like me). Here’s a representation of what I drew (my original chicken scratch is considerably less legible):
This visualization came to me as Julian introduced the reader to the relevance of sense making (See Weick, 1995) in the social age, lightly describing how members of a community each bring to the table their own perspectives and interpretations, but it is through collective collaboration that we organize and make sense of these diverse perspectives to arrive at a shared sense of meaning. As a scholar trained to consider levels of analysis (identifying and correctly specifying the level at which a phenomenon occurs (i.e., within an individual, in a dyadic interplay between people, at the group level, as an organizational or cultural development, etc.), I was immediately intrigued by the potential for interplay that this model represents between individuals and their communities. But as you can see from the gray box addition I’ve attached as an antecedent to the model, I have reason to believe that the more macro level comes into the model not only at the outcome stage of meaning making, but as a preliminary factor influencing each member’s perceptions.
Such consideration is not an entirely new revelation on its own — it easily aligns with theories of social learning, which broadly considers how we learn through our exposure to and engagement within the social sphere, which ultimately influences our behaviors as we model, imitate, and exhibit behaviors based on our interactions with other people within our social communities. However, it got me thinking about the origin of knowledge.
Okay, so social learning theory would posit that one’s knowledge originates in those social engagements to which one has been exposed and the tacit learning from those experiences that is either explicitly or implicitly reflected in his/her behavior. And the model above suggests that the communities to which one belongs serve as important social learning environments. But what is is a community? I reflect on my own formal learning experience. Having earned my Ph.D. nearly 10 years ago, my MBA five years prior to that, and having since then taught thousands of students from undergraduates to post-graduate and executive learners, the simplest explanation of my basis of knowledge is simply that I studied my tail off, wrote an acceptable dissertation on a relevant topic, and earned a philosophical doctorate degree. Add to that the continual learning in which I engage within the academy, and voila! — a qualified, knowledgeable contributor to at least one branch of social science. But let’s delve deeper into this “because I have a Ph.D.” validation.
The basis of my knowledge, simply put, stems from the communities in which I have thus far engaged. But these communities extend far beyond my surface experience and immediate exposure. My graduate education MBA and Ph.D. journey is distinct from that of any other learner, even those from the same institutions who studied under the guidance of the same advisors. So, it appears we need to break down the facets that together make up my learning community, and with regard to my professional career, let’s say that this began with the communities in which I engaged throughout my graduate studies. I began taking doctoral-level seminars while engaged in my MBA studies at Binghamton University (SUNY Binghamton), where I was first exposed to concepts of social psychology and to considerations of levels of analysis (described above). Binghamton’s Management department and its faculty are largely involved with the School of Management’s Center for Leadership Studies. The readings to which I was exposed while engaged in this program was a conglomeration of seminal research on industrial and organizational psychology and organizational behavior curated by the respective professors. And as you can imagine, there was a heavy inclusion of work related to leadership, levels of analysis, and the like. In this regard, my learning community extended beyond my classmates and instructors, but to each of the instructor’s communities, those of their advisors, and by extension, those communities in which each author whose work I read engage(d).
Although at the time – from my peripheral seat in Upstate New York’s Southern Tier – I did not feel as though I belonged to such an extensive network, it is this extended community that nonetheless influenced my perceptions, attributions, and interpretations of my field. Interpretations that continue to influence the way I think, engage, and contribute to the management community today. As did my exposure to advisors, research, discussions, collaborators, and reviewers on topics of social networks, mentoring, knowledge sharing, epistemologies, and various methodological approaches from my subsequent learning communities at the University at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo) and the University of Georgia (UGA), where I eventually earned my Ph.D. Equally vital contributors include the academies I chose to join and the respective “heroes” within each of those academies; the experts with whom I shared a professional attraction who engaged and guided me directly, as well as each of the people to whom they were connected. And these only touch on a few of the professional communities that immediately come to mind, let alone the social circles with the academy – i.e., the research tangentially relevant to that which I read on a more regular basis that I only know about because a friend shared it with me over a beer at the end of a long day at a conference. Add to this my personal social communities, and this blog post would go on for just too long.
Fundamentally, the diverse variety of thought to which I have been exposed through each of the communities to which I belong or have belonged – through everything from direct involvement to extensions of thought passed down through a web of weak ties – influence the way I think, feel, interpret, and ultimately contribute to the communities in which I currently engage. And in so doing, through my contributions to each of my contemporary collectives, these vast and past communities influence the ultimate meaning that my professional and social collaborators and I make of the world. So, when I think back on the question of “what is the basis of my knowledge,” I am forced to think beyond the mountains of reading that I did during my Ph.D. and the books and journals that currently topple my desk, to consider the waves of people who have influenced everything I have come to know thus far. And I am humbled.
Thank you for reading this far! This is my first blog post, well, ever. I’m sure if I go back and reread it, I’ll be astonished at the amount of rambling I can create, and I’m sure there are a few sentences that go on for a few too many lines. Even so, I hope that this first of my recorded musings (and approximately # 32,000,032 of my overall but largely unrecorded and forgotten musings) offered you a worthwhile takeaway.