10 May 2010

On another threshold concept, rediscovered

Threshold concepts are not only like portals, they are also like buses. You wait ages for one, and then three come along together.

I've been editing the video of our joint presentation on them at a Study Day last month (here) so I am sensitised to keep finding (or rediscovering) them.

Today I was listening in the car to a Radio 4 (of course) programme in which "Matthew Taylor discovers what the latest scientific research can tell us about the human need for religion". In the programme, he interviewed anthropologist David Sloan Wilson (Darwin's Cathedral Chicago; U Chicago Press, 2002) who drew the distinction between "practical" (survival oriented) beliefs and "factual" (accurate/truthful) ones, and averred* that in the real world practical beliefs win every time. And in order to practise as an anthropologist, you need to adopt the perspective of the practicality/utility of a belief rather than its factual accuracy. That is a threshold concept. It is a dizzying prospect. But a moment's thought shows how it opens up the way into a new and potentially fruitful understanding of other people's beliefs.

I was only struck by this because I am sensitised to look for TCs at the moment. I myself made a similar point about the nature of myth in ch. 6 of Atherton (1989). I make no great claim for this insight. I was merely making a point in passing about what I meant by "working myth". And interestingly, I suspect that most of my (very few!) readers, thought, "OK, so what?" and plodded on to more interesting and relevant stuff.

So, the idea needed a context in order to become a TC. It is the interaction between the discipline and the TC which gives the latter the potential to transform understandings. Drop an explosive idea into a tank of inert gas, and nothing happens. Drop it into oxygen and all hell breaks loose.

More precisely it is to do with how closely-coupled is the contextual system. A TC in the form of a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1962) --when accepted--overturns the consensus of "normal science". Generally speaking a similar bomb in the humanities splutters into oblivion enveloped by tenuously connected fluffy fibres of unconnected meanderings......

Which poses the question of how the humanities were hi-jacked by "Theory" Assuming the contention is correct (I'm not convinced, but I have to admit that it is more fun than scholarship)...

*  I've been waiting for years for a chance to use that word!

Atherton J S (1989) Interpreting residential life: values to practise London; Tavistock

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