Grounded, Experiential Teaching about Violence
Russel Lawrence Barsh and Chantelle Marlor
Barsh is Associate Professor of Native American Studies, University of Lethbridge and an HFG Grantee. Marlor is a graduate student in sociology at the University of British Columbia.
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Grounded Theory | Experiential pedagogy is conceptually related to grounded theory, an inductive, ethnographic approach to building social theories. Combining experiential learning with grounded theory meets the complementary goals of strengthening the validity of social science theory and making the teaching of social theory more relevant and meaningful for students.

Like experiential learning, grounded theory begins with the observation that we each build social models based on our own experiences. Our models are chiefly based on interactions with members of our own group or community and therefore include shared "cultural" assumptions and beliefs. Tested by their reliability and usefulness in our own daily lives, our social models are likely to be reasonably reliable descriptions of the way members of our own group interact and how they interpret each other's behavior. Our models may also include untested or untestable hypotheses ("good people are rewarded in Heaven") as well as biases—that is, associations we selfishly choose not to test, or to test using double standards ("most of those people are lazy").

Personal models are probably more reliable descriptions of our communities than the speculations of scholars who have never actually lived with us. Strangers may not only misinterpret our most basic gestures, such as head nodding, which has the opposite meaning in North America and South Asia, but the ways in which we make assessments of one another. Concepts such as "guilt" in English, amae in Japanese, or api'niimaatti in Blackfoot, are attempts to label very complex and somewhat vague ideas about human behavior in particular societies. They defy reliable translation. Books have been written struggling to explain them. Yet the people who live in Japan (for example) are closer to appreciating the subtle social and psychological processes which collectively are labeled amae, because they have spent lifetimes living them, watching others grapple with them, and using them in daily decision making.

The role of ethnography—listening to and sharing in a group's lived experience—is to identify concepts or categories pertinent to understanding social relations within that group. Pioneered by anthropologists a century ago, ethnography was incorporated into a general theory of "grounded" social-science methodology by Glaser and Strauss (1967). Grounded theory is inductive. Similarities in the behavior of different individuals, groups, or "cultures" suggest similar underlying processes. As more individuals and groups are studied, more inclusive and reliable generalizations may be possible. Most social theory is deductive, however. Scholars speculate about universal principles of human behavior, then seek evidence of behavior consistent with their conjectures. Deductive theorizing is not "objective," because it necessarily begins with each scholar's own cultural and social assumptions.

Deductive social science would be a good approach if all humans were much the same. Grounded theory assumes that human diversity is considerable, however, and that generalizations can only reliably be made about particular sets of individuals or groups—the ones we have actually lived with, observed, and understood in their own terms.

A grounded approach therefore values the independent development of theories to explain the behavior of many diverse populations. A theory of Blackfoot youth gangs in Lethbridge is recognized as a useful tool for managing youth violence in Lethbridge and as a potential building-block for developing more general explanations of youth behavior. By giving a purpose to locally specific research, and promoting rigorous local theory-building and empirical theory-testing, grounded theory can provide a framework for experiential learning through the study of populations and processes on, and near, the university campus.

Grounding and Intellectual Honesty | We have argued that grounding the study of social phenomena such as violence in students' own experiences is important because it illuminates the problem of subjectivity, promotes a "real" and applicable understanding of concepts and theories, and supports a more reliable, inductive approach to building social theories. Another reason for grounding social science teaching is intellectual honesty. Grounding tends to reduce authoritarianism and obscurantism in teaching.

Social scientists are fond of promoting theories with undefined, ambiguous, or highly abstract terms that can be interpreted in multiple ways and are difficult if not impossible to translate into reproducible observations or measurements. "Social class" is one example; among other things, it can refer to income, occupation, property ownership, participation in a grouping or network of people, or characteristics of speech, dress, and interpersonal behavior. As Paul Fussell observes in his tongue-in-cheek treatise on class, moreover, "you reveal a great deal about your social class by the amount of annoyance or fury you feel when the subject is brought up" (Fussell 1979: 16). Like many other social science constructs, class is intensely subjective and impossibly complex.

Pretending that constructs such as class are not ambiguous and subjective is a way that instructors demonstrate their power over students. A student who is unfamiliar with the topic and its current jargon will find it impossible to relate the concepts and theories to her own experience, and will therefore lack any basis for evaluating or questioning its validity. The instructor cannot effectively be challenged to justify her arguments because the students can never know precisely to what she is referring. The result is an illusion of professorial infallibility which, like doctrines of infallibility in religion, place faith ahead of individual experience, reason, and empirical inquiry.

One of us attended an Ivy League law school. During an otherwise tedious and uneventful course on civil procedure, the instructor, a distinguished practitioner and jurist, was expounding learnedly on the legal principles applicable to a case alleging negligence in the crash of an airliner. As he was summing up his analysis, a student in the back row raised his hand. "Professor, excuse me, have you ever flown a plane? I'm a pilot, and you simply cannot fly a plane the way you've just described it."

If you are teaching a unit about sexual violence, there will be a student who says, "I've been raped." If you are teaching about war, a student will say, "I was in Bosnia." (If they do not feel free to say it they will still think it, which is worse—because it will mean that they feel you understand nothing about the topic of your lecture.) An instructor can try to avoid such encounters. Most do. Alternatively, personal experiences can energize a course on topics such as violence, and ensure its grounding in empirical reality.

Teaching as Violence | Students learn from the social context of a course, as well as its nominal content. Authoritarian instruction is a form of domination, and implicitly legitimizes domination. Like any other large human organization, the university and its classrooms are theaters of power, domination, and aggression based on titles, degrees, tenure, age, gender, and color, among other attributes. We teach within an environment which is itself part of the topic of violence, and students are not blind to this fact. Many feel stressed, depressed, abused, and marginalized. Some have been sexually manipulated, others subjected to capricious grading or unreasonable rules and regulations. Teaching about violence as if its location is somewhere else does little to enhance an instructor's credibility as a scholar.

Social science students are strenuously taught to talk about how "they" think and act, not how "I" think and act, although the "I" is, after all, a part of human experience, too. This denigrates the relevance of students' own lives and experiences. Students thus learn to adopt an implicitly authoritarian view that they are somehow outside of human experience, but above it, in the lofty clouds of objectivity. They learn, paradoxically, that their own unacknowledged and unexpressed personal experiences and beliefs, which necessarily inform their viewpoints as students of social life, are more objective than the lived experiences of their human subjects. This, too, is a form of domination. When we talk about "them" and "their" violence, we are excusing ourselves from self-awareness, self-criticism, and personal responsibility.

Those students who have never actually been victims of violence, or the children or friends of victims of violence, see violence daily in the news and entertain themselves with violent television, films, and sports. They have experienced authoritarian teachers, preachers, politicians, and bureaucrats. They are frequently confused, angry, prejudiced, or dreadfully misinformed, but these are both resources and barriers to understanding that we, as instructors, must engage.

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