Truth in Society

October 18, 1994

Prompt #25

Depth of field . . .

Last week, when you were not actually meeting with your focus group, your Truth in Society time was given over to "serious reading." We recommended that you pick one book to read from cover to cover. This reading had a very general purpose: to help you -- and your focus group -- come to a fuller understanding of the context within which the particular events of your "episode of believing" took place.

On the assumption that you did read such a book from cover to cover, now it's time to do some "serious writing," informing your focus group colleagues of what you discovered, what you think it means, and what you see as the implication for your developing collaborative inquiry.

What connections have you been able to draw? What new issues have come into view? On the basis of what you've just done, what seems to you to be a logical next step? These are the first kind of questions that we'd like you to think about now.

In addition to questions such as those, we also need to begin to tackle ones of a second sort, ones that have to do with the authority (author-ity) which the various authors claim our attention. This second order of questions arises because as we read more and more about the "same event," we'll discover that the various accounts differ, and that sometimes the differences are quite marked: we'll encounter not just different versions but conflicting or discrepant versions. The differences can be about the "facts" -- who really did what, when, how. Often they will have more to do with more complicated issues, ones that center on why things happened as they did, and on what motivates individuals to act in certain ways, and what broader significance should be attached to the so-called "facts." And more complicated still will be differences in moral judgement, how the roles of heroes, villains and fools are properly assigned.

We'll need to think about how to critically assess the various accounts, examining the evidence actually adduced, the implicit and explicit assumptions being made. One of the things that this entails is understanding how the particular author's viewpoint was entered into her/his account.

One common way to get at what we are talking about here is to use the word bias. Bias refer to the distortion caused by the personal beliefs and preconceptions of the "teller of the tale." Bias is clearly something bad, regrettable, something to be avoided, reduced if not eliminated. Bias is noise or interference; the subjective judgement of the teller interferes with our ability to clearly receive the objective information we need about the tale itself. The assumption is that when authorial bias is tuned out, what we are left with is an objective and complete account, one that is wholly faithful to "what actually happened."

We think that there are problems with understanding as "bias" the ways in which the author leaves her imprint on her account. All knowledge is knowledge from a certain point of view. All knowing implies a knower, a knower who is situated within a concrete here-and- now, and who thus takes a definite point of view vis-a-vis his tale and his audience. The idea that any one account could be made completely objective, and thorough, and self-contained may turn out to be a fallacy. What we have are many different, interested accounts, which we must take up and critical examine and use for our own purposes. (This entails some critical self-reflection about our own assumptions and values.)

Given that we are always dealing with "accounts," and that accounts reflect the perspectives of the account-givers, then we need to formulate these questions of the second order: What do we know about the authors of the books? What kinds of claims do they appear to be making? On what basis are the claims to authorial authority based?

So now what?

Use the time between now and this afternoon's closing meeting to draft a memo to the other members of your focus group. Then prepare an edited and wordprocessed version to bring to our opening meeting on Thursday. In your memo attempt to address both questions of the first and second orders, as described above.

(If the assumption made in the second paragraph does not hold in your case, then we'd suggest that you make every effort possible to catch up, so that you can likewise have a memo that your group can use on Thursday.)

There are two items on the agenda for our 4:00 pm meeting today: (1) discussion of ways of organizing our time and pacing ourselves; and (2) developing and recording focus bibliographies.

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