Postmodernism: what is it? (for engineers)

August 18, 2016 – 6:26 pm

Yeah, my citation formats are a mess.

Postmodernism is not monolithic, and it would in fact be highly ironic if it were a single, unified school of thought, methodology, or movement with a clear goal, for that is what postmodernism itself critiques (Tierney, 1993).  This poses challenges to the engineering reader encountering postmodernism for the first time. Engineering is a high-consensus field (Biglan, 1973) meaning that part of the engineering disciplinary culture is an expectation that terms have precise and widely agreed-upon definitions (Storer, 1967). In contrast, postmodernism grew out of arts and humanities fields with traditions of lower-consensus. One challenge for engineers encountering postmodern and other culturally-low-consensus research for the first time is setting aside expectations based on a high-consensus culture’s expectations of stable and consistent terminology (Borrego, 2007). When reading the subsequent explanations of postmodernism by postmodernist scholars, it is important to keep such cultural differences around the notion of definitions in mind.

The task of this section is to provide a brief overview of postmodernism, so I will of necessity oversimplify what is a broad and complex transdisciplinary sociocultural movement with a rich history that is impossible to cover in full in a short space. I will begin by simplifying the language that I use: throughout this document, I use the word “postmodernism” as an umbrella term to refer to a movement that is encompassed by various terms sometimes called “the posts”: poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, post-post, and so forth. These multiple and intertwining movements have a complex co-evolutionary history, and there are fine distinctions and debates on the differences between them, but such a discussion is outside the scope of this document. Instead, my aim is to give the engineering reader a general overview of postmodernism through the words of postmodernist scholars and theorists, and bridge their theoretical concepts to ideas and practices within the engineering domain. As such, I will use the term “postmodernism” for the remainder of this document to mean any of the various “post” movements, and then specify poststructuralism, etc. if a specific historical reference or theoretical idea requires more detailed unpacking.

As a philosophy, postmodernism extends to the very first principles of things. Foucault, one of the major “post” philosophers, described postmodernism as “involv[ing] a critique of metaphysics: of the concepts of causality. of identity, of the subject, of power, knowledge and of truth” (Foucault, Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings, 1988, p. 18). It is a foundational paradigm that seeks to destabilize the foundational, which makes it difficult to describe.

This attribute of destabilization is evident in one of the most-quoted definitions of postmodernism from Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition”: “The postmodern would be that which,in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.” (1984, p. 81) Here one can see the resolute insistence of postmodernism at remaining a low-consensus field; to “deny itself the solace of good forms” is to keep meaning always in flux.

Present-day postmodern theorists Jackson and Mazzei continue in this vein. “[Postmodernism] seeks… to cut meaning loose, and to keep that difference (and therefore meaning) at play… there is a constant deferral of meaning, leaving traces of other [choices] that had to be excluded…” (2012, p. 70-71). Similarly, postmodern scholars Tierney and Bensimon describe their own qualitative work as postmodernists who “…reject the notion that we can ever understand ultimate Truth through reason; instead, truth is considered ephemeral and subject to multiple, conflicting interpretations… Postmodernism is… centrally concerned with decoding the multiple images that occur and brings into question previously unchallenged ideas about language and identity” (Tierney and Bensimon, 1996, p. 15). Patti Lather, one of the first scholars to take a postmodernist approach to qualitatve research in education, offers that “[postmodernism] ask[s] questions about what we have not thought to think, about what is most densely invested in our discourse/practices, about what has been muted, repressed, unheard.” (Lather, 1991, p. 145).

Postmodernism cannot be concretely defined. Foucault famously claimed that such a task was impossible, as “the premises of [postmodernism] disallow any denominative, unified, or ‘proper definition of itself” (Foucault, Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings, 1988, p. 18). Postmodernism adamantly resists concrete definitions “…presumably because such practices represent an attempt to pin down an essence which does not exist” (Gavey, 1998:119, Feminist Poststructuralism and discourse analysis: Contributions to feminist psychology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, No. 13, 1989, p. 459-475.)

Since the practice of postmodernism gives itself to the questioning of meaning, it involves a great deal of linguistic play. Consequently, the words postmodernists use to describe their practice also vary widely: Derrida calls his work “deconstruction” (1967), Lather and Smithies call theirs “troubling” (1997), and St. Pierre and Pillow call theirs “working the ruins” (2000). However, there are characteristic attributes and themes that arise from this refusal to concretely define foundations and settle on definite meanings and “good forms,” to borrow Lyotard’s phrase. Postmodernist practice carries an ethos of play and disruption that Lather compares to that of the archetype of The Fool (2007). It is a paradigm in constant motion, always questioning and refusing to settle — even refusing to settle on the notion of “refusing to settle.”

In fact, as good a definition of postmodernism as any might be to compare it to the Tao, or “the way,” in the classic Chinese mystic text “The Tao Te Ching” (here translated by Ursula LeGuin).

the way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

In the following sections of this document, I will unpack a little more about postmodernism by comparing it to more familiar ideas from qualitative research within engineering education, beginning with other research paradigms that are more commonly used in the discipline. In fact, two separate reviews of paradigm usage in engineering education research found that while other paradigms such as postpositivism and interpretivist perspectives were represented in the literature, postmodernism was conspicuously absent (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008; Beddoes & Borrego, 2011). In contrast, educational studies went through its “postmodern turn” in qualitative research over the course of the past half-century. The effect, if one steps from education research in education studies to education research within engineering, is one of a time warp; the philosophical paradigms used in engineering education research today largely parallel those used in educational studies half a century ago.

However, postmodern practice is not unfamiliar to engineering education; one of my desires to bridge the two disciplines comes from the conviction that postmodern theory provides language for some aspects of engineering education practice that we currently struggle to define. I see them as two halves of a praxis — a conscious, self-reflexive practice that can articulate its own theories — that are searching for each other. Therefore, after making a paradigmatic comparison to other philosophies more familiar to engineering education researchers, I will use examples from engineering and engineering education practice in order to illustrate and explain key ideas from postmodern theories that were used throughout the project.

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  2. Aug 20, 2016: Mel Chua » Blog Archive » Postmodernism for engineers: the (draft) collection

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