Edu-positivism, Tesco and the search for the truth of a £5 note

Following a debate on Twitter and the recent BLOG by @suzyg001 , about the concept of truth and knowledge in education, I thought I would add my contribution to the debate. Just to clarify, you might call the truth, in the context of this BLOG, as educational research truths.

I place this in the context of how traditionalist educators ascertain the truth. This is oft debated on Twitter. In my last BLOG I suggested that traditionalist educators have adopted a position that I describe as edu-positivism. This conforms to two basic views; that social science is less rigorous than the scientific method, and that the only way of ascertaining the truth is by using evidence to verify the truth of a proposition.

Positivism is essentially an epistemic perspective, however it has now become somewhat of an insult amongst edu-bloggers. The question I pose, is that if someone or other feels that most, if not all, social research does not ascertain the truth, then how do you account for the truth in education?

It seems like a reasonable question. I would make it clear though that this is not aimed at any particular blogger. The arguments are established for the purpose of furthering debate. Edu-positivism is a discursive device, a position, not a representation of someone or others view. That is true, not least because over a period of time, ascertaining individual views on the issue has proven somewhat difficult, possibly as a consequence that the forum of debate is TWITTER, with all its limitations.


A general trawl of BLOG sites and Oxford dictionaries seem to conform to this definition:

Truth is most often used to mean being in accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal the quality or state of being true.

The truth therefore is a social construct that measures a proposition against it’s existence in some notional form of reality.  So, in educational research terms, the “truth” is really a discussion about the assertion of something, or other, and a subsequent discussion or investigation into the existence of that something, or other, in some notion of reality whether it be realist, constructivist, relativist etc etc.

You could break down a search for the truth in 3 ways;

  • the epistemic assumptions implicit to the proposition
  • the ontological assumptions (reality) against which that proposition is measured
  • whether the proposition has any relationship with reality as framed by the ontological assumptions of the proposer

The ten minute thought game on truths

I was pondering this whilst sat in Costa in Tesco tinkering with my iPhone and fondling a £5 note waiting for a friend who was buying a coffee. I envisaged that my friend would return and hand me the coffee, and I would say something like, “here’s a £5” note give me my coffee.

So my question is: what are the conditions required to make that statement, “here’s a £5 note”, true. Here are some basic categories I came up with.

Manifestation in the rational human mind

A £5 note is, at its most basic, a product of the human rationale; without a human mind there is no £5 note. Think Descartes and the rationalists, Cogito ergo sum. You think it, therefore it is true. In other words the £5 note cannot be brought into existence until a human mind has thought of it.

Social construct in the mind of more than one person

However sadly I had to conclude that “I think therefore I am” doesn’t actually translate into, “I think of a £5 note therefore it is, and I can buy a cup of coffee with it”, just because the human mind can think of the concept of a £5 it doesn’t necessarily explain the truth of a £5 note, or in this case buy me a coffee.

If I present a £5 note to my friend, and its existence is purely as a consequence of my mind, I am unlikely to get a coffee in return. A £5 note is only true, external to the knowing of the individual rationale mind. It has to be understood objectively in the social world, at least by my friend, for me to get my coffee.

Stable physical properties in the natural world

However simply because something is held to be true in society doesn’t establish the truth of a £5 note. If I present evidence that a £5 note exists objectively in the minds of more than one individual it still won’t buy me a coffee. I have a social construct, I also have a discursive construct but I don’t have a cup of coffee.

The £5 note has a physical manifestation. It is true, in Costa, at least that a £5 note only exists because there is a relationship between the £5 note in my hand, and the cup of coffee in the hand of my friend. The paper note exists as a physical symbol of the conditions of the £5 notes existence in the social world.

Unless of course I’m in France, where a £5 exists as a rational and a social construct but has no meaning as a tool of monetary exchange. There is no relationship between my £5, and a cup of coffee at Costa in France.

It also has to have stable properties in the natural world. A fiver that combusts when in contact with oxygen could prove problematic.

Legitimation by hierarchical power structures

At this point we have the basic conditions of a £5 note however a sociologist might say, “hang on a sec'” there is an awful lot more to a £5 note than just those three conditions. Someone has to legitimise it, in other words someone has to give it some credibility in the social world. The Queens head doesn’t appear on it for no reason. The concept of the £5 note is, as a consequence of a hierarchical power structure that legitimises the construct and underpins it’s credibility; promising to pay the bearer.

If my £5 note bore the face of Russell Brand rather than the Queen, my friend would simply not accept it as a £5 note.

Conclusion (of sorts)

So my conclusion is that, although a £5 note has a physical representation in the natural world, there is no aspect of it that can be understood solely from it’s physical properties without knowing the socio-cultural and historical circumstances of its existence.

It is a social construct, that consists of (at least), the following four conditions:

  • a manifestation in the rational human mind
  • a social construct objectively understood in the mind of more than one person
  • physical properties in the natural world
  • legitimation by hierarchical power structures

And that is the problem of any approach to educational research that considers social research to be largely irrelevant. My view is that without social research you can know something of the properties of the £5 note but know little of  the properties that make it true, in any truth seeking proposition in the social world.

10 thoughts on “Edu-positivism, Tesco and the search for the truth of a £5 note

  1. Yes, it seems edu-positivists are more concerned with counting cats than seeking meaning and understanding in socio-cultural contexts.

  2. Nice summary of the problem.

    I think much of the Twitter debate resulted from the terminology used by different debaters. My background is in the ‘hard’ sciences, so I’ve had to learn the language of philosophers (and social constructivists) as I’ve gone along. Because I’ve not been familiar with the ways in which various terms are used, I feel more comfortable with working things through from first principles (though even that term itself is used in different ways in different contexts.)

    Something that’s fascinated me about cognitive science is the way in which new findings are bridging the traditional divide between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences and their methodologies.

      1. Traditionally, what’s out there has been viewed as a physical reality determined by mechanistic, highly predictable ‘laws’. By contrast, our perceptions and knowledge of what’s out there have been seen as fuzzy, shifting, variable and unpredictable. The problem has been figuring out the correspondence between what’s out there and what’s in there.

        Mechanistic linear models of perception and learning, like behaviourism and artificial intelligence (brain-as-computer) shed some light on what might be going on, but both models ran into problems. The breakthrough came with the realisation that information about what’s out there is processed in the brain via interconnected networks of neurons and that the connections between neurons get stronger the more they are used.

        A close-ish analogy would be the way footpaths, minor roads and major roads link up with each other. Because of the linkages between them there are multiple ways you can get from one place to another. In the UK, most routes began as footpaths but some have morphed into major roads as a result of the amount of traffic they’ve carried.

        Because we each have a unique experience of what’s out there, and because we each have subtle – or sometimes not so subtle – variations in sensory processing, each of us has unique knowledge about what’s out there, although obviously much of that knowledge is common to most of us.

        To take your £5 note analogy, although everyone seeing your £5 note would see the same note, their knowledge about it would depend on their knowledge about currency – that knowledge being carried in physical linkages within networks of neurons in their brain. And it wouldn’t be limited to some hypothetical abstract Platonic kind of knowledge about £5 notes; it would involve all their experiences associated with £5 notes, even if they can’t recall those experiences.

        Hard and soft sciences are often caricatured in terms of their use of quantitative vs qualitative methodologies. That is clearly a caricature since a great deal of data in physics, chemistry and biology relates to the qualitative properties of things.

        And many psychologists and sociologists, for example, use qualitative and quantitative research designs depending on which is most appropriate. For example, unstructured interviews relating to a particular phenomenon can give insights into factors research participants see as salient, repertory grids can highlight differences between participants’ perceptions, and card sorting can show how people categorise their perceptions. Each of those qualitative methods can give you data that can then be analysed quantitatively if that’s appropriate to the research question.

        Hope that answers your question.

  3. I have no science background ; hard or soft. All I can see is that if your friend had bought your coffee for you, this would have added another interesting element to your truth ;)))

  4. I found this one interesting and a straightforward summary which is good for me.

    “I place this in the context of how traditionalist educators ascertain the truth.”

    This for me was an interesting one, as I often find traditionalists stop well short of actually explaining how they arrive at their truth in any detail or with any clarity. The most vocal boggers tend, in my experience, to reply on the fact that they are so obviously correct that the argument is won.

    This is not an ad hom, just an observation from experience and it does not apply to an individual blogger. I think that the most vocal bloggers just have that 100% certainty that they know the true and are always correct, for some reason.

    Maybe some are worried that they will give away their best “stuff”. They also seem overly concerned about their popularity e.g. “hits” and “followers”, maybe an element of secrecy is required.

    It would be nice to know the basis on which some tradstremists ground their beliefs rather than quoting the odd piece of research or educational philosopher and then drawing the argument round in circles talking tone, ad hom or strawman.

    In this blogpost, this blogger explains in detail where their ideas come from for others to comment. That takes courage.

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