Reframing the “debate”: Lakoff and Brulle

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

One of the things I was most struck by in the recent public discussions surrounding the NY Times piece, Lakoff’s response in AlterNet (and subsequently Bob Brulle’s response on the environmental communication network listserv) is the construction of a “debate” and a clash of differences. Call me a pollyanna, but I feel quite weary of such discussions being framed as debates, or even more adversarily as “Lakoff vs. Brulle or Cognitive Science vs. Discourse Analysis”. My sense is that, frankly, we need them all. We don’t have time or resources for factions and splitting at this critical time; rather we must devote our energies to bridge building and seeing how our respective approaches may complement one another. It’s when we assert one approach is perspective is the one, that we start to run into serious problems.

I won’t deny that I have some real issues with certain approaches to environmental psychology and communications theories. It’s evident that there are some profound epistemic differences underpinning our chosen approaches or disciplines. For example a cognitive approach is based on a model that may seem at great odds – perhaps even irreducable – with, say, a psychoanalytic approach. And you can argue these approaches have different views of what counts as valid and real. This may true, however perhaps it’s a better use of energy to consider what cognitive behavioural or scientific work can address – illuminate, if you will – more appropriately, than say, a psychoanalytic or discourse analysis approach can. Or what a social movements perspective brings to the psychological ones. How engaging with poetics and imagination are part of a puzzle that also includes hard sciences, social theory and activism.

It takes a lot to rise to this type of ‘bridge building’ and I for one can find it very difficult. But I do believe that our environmental issues – a euphemism for the real travesties and horrific situations taking place – require us to make this effort. We need them all: cognitive scientists, discourse analysts, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, communications scholars, ecologists, political sciences, and on and on. We need all of our resources to help us understand how to stem and mitigate environmental destruction and degradation. That is what brings us all together, isn’t it?

Renee LertzmanReframing the “debate”: Lakoff and Brulle


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  • stephen - June 24, 2009 reply

    indeed. what used to seem like fun – clashes of epistemic titans – now seems adolescent and tiring. maybe that is because i am growing older and less patient about things working themselves out eventually. in my work in psychology, i prefer to see different approaches as tools in a toolkit. to be sure, many of them are irreducible on an epistemic level. but the person in the room – or the folks on the street – aren’t necessarily interested in the provenance of one or approach with regard to the other. their interest in something that ‘just works’ is not entirely misplaced. and, further, perhaps the urge to reduce all problems or issues viz. psychology or motivation to one framework or solution says more about our tendency toward hubris than the nature of the ‘problem’ itself.

  • Nicola Thomas - July 7, 2009 reply

    Pluralism is the way forward and was the selected rationale for my Phd’s methodology, which is based on the combined usage of different paradigms in an intervention, and therefore uses complementarism as its rationale. In this approach, pluralism’s complementary paradigms are equal, and benefits can be gained from employing different research methodologies based upon different paradigms. Complementarism is particularly important to the problems we are facing, as it involves understanding both the biophysical and social realms of existence. Natural and human activity systems are ontologically distinct and our epistemological relationship with natural and human activity systems differ. Therefore, these differences demand complementary paradigms to gain this necessary ecosystem health understanding.

    So let’s not debate which approach to take, we need all of them!

  • Victoria Hurth - July 9, 2009 reply

    Yes I agree! I also am taking a pragmatic approach inn my PhD which utilises different methodologies based on what is practical not what is paradigmatically ridged. One of our key challenges is not to work out how to solve our problems but how to solve them together – if our energies are eaten up by each other we haven’t pushed the system’s energy in a positive direct – we have just neutralised the system’s energy.

    It is for this reason that is dismays me to see an approach to behavioural change that focuses on values as oppositional to one that focuses on symbolic marketing aspects. Yes some aspects of social marketing can perpetuate the issues, but many don’t. We need both and we need to work out how they can work together to create the long term change we desire.

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