The next Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum (Open University) seminar ‘Connecting reflective theory, research and practice’, to be presented by Lynn Fendler, Caroline Ramsey and Chris Kubiak, is shaped by the thinking of Mikhail Bakhtin. I’ll confess that I didn’t know much about Bakhtin’s ideas – I hope this post doesn’t suggest that much has changed.
As preparation for tutoring an Open University course, I have read an article by Janet Maybin (2008) ‘Language, Struggle and Voice: The Bakhtin/Volosinov writings’. This provides useful background and raises some interesting questions about ‘reflection’ (the topic of the seminar).
Mikhail Bakhtin was born in 1895 near Moscow. He died on 7th March 1975. He lived in what Maybin describes as ‘provincial obscurity’ during the Stalinist era. This included a period of six years in internal exile in Kazakstan. His work was unknown in Russia until the 1950s. English translations only began to appear in the 1970s. There is some uncertainty as to what was written by Bakhtin and what by other colleagues including V.N. Volosinov.
Bakhtin and Volosinov are trying to replace a tradition view of language with something very different. The traditional model can be traced back to Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 20th Century. This model suggests that language is a decontextualised abstract system of signs which are used to convey meaning. In contrast, Bakhtin and Volosinov argue that language originates in social interaction and struggle. A fundamental notion of Bakhtin was that language should be studied in its ‘concrete lived realty’. As Maybin (2008:65) puts it:
They present a picture of language as essentially social and rooted in the struggle and ambiguities of everyday life.
Volosinov in particular argues that the words and phrase we use have an ‘evaluative accent’ – that as they describe they evaluate and make judgements. This applies to all – even apparently trivial – everyday interactions and conversations.
I think these thoughts are provocatively relevant for the seminar where participants will, after all, consider the implications of a particular word – reflection. Moreover this consideration is being done in an interactive way – it might even seem like a struggle. I think there are other aspects of this approach that have a bearing on thinking about how reflection is to be theorised and used in practice.
Bakhtin suggests that within the struggles around language use different forces are at work. Some he describes as centripetal forces. These are the authoritative, fixed and powerful discourses – for example those promoted by politics science or religion. However, countering these are centrifugal forces. These lead to a huge diversification of language in different genres for use by (for example) different professional groups, age groups or at different historical periods. These centrifugal forces also result in the inner (reflective) dialogues that we all have ‘inside our heads’.
So the picture is one of a vast array of intrinsically evaluative and contextualised language use. This is called ‘heteroglossia’ by Bakhtin. This heteroglossic world is overpopulated with other peoples’ language to the extent that it makes it difficult for us to speak in our own words and make our own meaning. We are always speaking with other people’s voices. Maybin (p.68) reminds us of dramatist Dennis Potter’s quip:
The trouble with words is you don’t know whose mouth they’ve been in.
Bakhtin also notes that there are no ’natural ‘words – that language exists only in other people’s mouths, in other people’s concrete contexts and serving other people’s intentions.
The idea that we only speak what has already been spoken by others is a powerful and problematic one in the context of trying to get people to reflect on their own experience or practice. It also raises massive issues for academics in terms of what they say and write. Yes, we cite other sources when we draw directly on them to include referenced quotes. But this only touches the surface of claims to originality and ‘adding to knowledge’ if the voice we think of as ‘ours’ is just one in a heteroglossic world.
I’m sure that the seminar on 2nd December will provide a suitably interactive context is which we will explore our ideas about reflective theory practice and research. I hope that you will be able to attend or, if you can’t come on the day you will catch up with what was recorded on the CIC website.
Dr. Jonathan Hughes
Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum, Open University
Maybin, J. (2008) ‘Language, Struggle and Voice: The Bakhtin/Volosinov Writings’ in Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader , M. Wetherell, S. Taylor and S.J. Yates (eds.), Sage, London.