Sunday, May 14, 2006

Contextual Knowledge Management in Discourse Production, Cognitive Explantion of Discourse Practice

Contextual Knowledge Management in Discourse Production, A CDA Perspective by Van Dijk in Ruth Wodak and Paul Chilton (Ed) a new agenda in (Critical) Discourse Analysis (2005)

Van Dijk’s notion of ‘Knowledge Device’ and its role in explaining the process of interpretation and production of discourse in this article is, as far as I am concerned, an absolutely necessary concept in theory of discourse analysis and its relevance in social studies. K-Device and ‘context model’ by which major functions of discourse in formation of belief system -specially in terms of Van Dijk’s more collective scoop of institution, national and cultural belief- are elements of a logical explanation on why mass discursive practice like that of media has such a pivotal role in modern lifestyle belief (and I would also say truth) formation system.

Rather than engaging with research on the-taken-for-granted assumption of many CDA scholars that discourse has a major role in ideology production, this article actually tries to ‘explain’ in what terms and conditions discourse is bound to be loaded by such a colossal role.

This common presupposed and unaccounted assumption of many CDA applied research works is part of the platform of Chilton’s criticisms about the theory of CDA (Chilton 2005). However, unlike Chilton’s panicky urge for CDA to make a major shift towards cognitive psychology (he goes as far as seeing CDA basically useless), Van Dijk continues his work of integrating notions of cognitive psychology in theories of discourse and actually illustrates how these notions help establish a stronger approach for CDA. Van Dijk is recently interested in accounting for a comprehensive context model for DA in his recent works and tries to ‘explain’ mental processes at work in understanding and production of discourse. Yet, he has not abandoned the notion of social commitment in CDA in his work. That is why the light he throws on the socio-cognitive nature of discourse phenomenon is a step forward for CDA research.

There are some points and quotes that I found most interesting in regards to the questions lingering in my mind and the comments that I had to add based on my understanding of the potential applications of these notions and their relevance.

What Van Dijk says about the definition of ‘Knowledge’ is not that much in its more traditional epistemological terms rather it is a more pragmatic and psychological definition as he says on his definition of ‘knowledge’:

‘This very succinct definition is rather pragmatic and socio-cognitive than philosophical and abstract , and does not feature, for instance, the notion of ‘truth’, as it is used in the traditional definition of knowledge in epistemology as ‘justified true beliefs’(73)

The relationship between ‘belief’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ is an interesting one. I see them as one following another one, where ‘knowledge’ – at its more collective scale- can constitute what a society conceives as ‘truth’ that is why I do not see why Van Dijk says that his account does not deal with the notion of ‘truth’.

I do not see why or how the notion of ‘knowledge’ needs a redefinition or why the string of cognition, belief, knowledge, and truth can not be assumed.

He goes on

‘I take truth as a notion that only applies to language use and discourse or speech act, and not to beliefs. Each community, or historical moment of a community, has its own criteria that allow members to establish that some beliefs are treated and shared as knowledge, whereas others are not….A belief is treated as knowledge in a community if it is presupposed in the public discourses of that community, for instance in storytelling, songs, or news reports (page 73)

This is a crucial point is the link between the current discourse of a community and its ideological outlook. This is why different communities may be living in two epistemologically different worlds even when talking about the same practical phenomenon of concrete nature. This does not necessarily happen between two national communities rather such a difference in take on events can be seen among different layers of the same national community too, based on family backgrounds, jobs, level of income and many other socio cultural factors. For instance, the way a community which is affiliated to the soldiers and army, like the family and friends of an army man may define ‘war’ and the ‘knowledge’ or belief they share about it can differ drastically with that of a community which is affiliated to family members who are engaged in relief effort for war stricken people. They both seem to ‘know’ what ‘war’ means but their ‘know ledges’ are horrendously different.

Van Dijk very rightfully calls for the necessary of an account which defines different kinds of knowledge and classifies ‘knowledge’ in terms of its Scope, Specficity, Concreteness, ‘Reality’, Objects, and firmness. The scope as is seen later on is the most important feature in its relation to DA. As far as the scope feature of ‘knowledge’ goes there are, personal, interpersonal, group, organization, nation, and culture kinds of ‘knowledge’ (73)

‘Much knowledge of the world’ is general, abstract, and shared by members of a whole culture. It is this knowledge that is presupposed in the public discourse of that culture’ (74)

In the regards to the definition of context Van Dijk says that, what for many CDA analysts constitute ‘context’ is basically the situational properties of a certain discursive event which are relevant in production and understanding. However, the relevant properties of a situation which are the most important element in one’s interpretation of a text are constructed by the person’s mind and the classic situational relevance cannot directly implement itself in the properties of the discourse in its production or interpretation. Thus there is a dialectical and interactional relationship between the classic relevant properties of discourse and the subjective relevance model in the individual’s mind or his mental models.

In van Dijk’s words:

‘I therefore define a context as the mental representation of the participants about the relevant properties of the social situation in which participants interact, and produce and comprehend text or talk. This mental representation is called ‘context model’. (76)

Context models explain why different people interpret a situation differently and what makes them relay the same event differently in their narrations. Another aspect of context is that it is dynamic. That means, people’s mental models are flexible entities which are constantly being influenced. That explains why airing out different narrations of events is so crucial in a society in which essential context models of people are not formed or influence by day to day individual interactions but by mass influence of discourses of media. This leads us to assigning a pivotal role to a well equipped, well thought freedom of speech along with diversity in civil society apparatus through which, firstly, a diverse array of potential collective context models exist and secondly all groups have the means to influence the discursive sphere of the society. This, in turn takes us to the notion of discursive (deliberative) democracy of Habermas.

Discourse changes what people ‘know’ or their collective ‘knowledge’ and hence influences mental models of interpretation of the public.

Other aspects which contribute to context model when interacting or doing a discursive practice, are; intentions, the addressees, nature of this practice, and institutional setting. It is what we know about them, what we know they want to know, and what is relevant.

Yet, the K-device is the key concept in shaping all these others factors. That is they all can be thought of integral part of K-device even the way we come to ‘know’ ourselves.

The personal knowledge or interpersonal level of knowledge are not necessarily discursive that is the knowledge has an empiricist nature but when we go to a larger scope of group, organization, and nation this knowledge has to take a form of abstraction where not every member of the group has that concrete empiricist knowledge hence, group ideologies are necessarily discursive.

‘National knowledge is the knowledge shared by citizen of a country. It is typically acquired at school and through the mass media and presupposed by all public discourse in the country’ (79)

‘Cultural knowledge is the fundamental Common Ground for all other discourses and for all other kinds of knowledge, and hence presupposed by all discourse...of cultures. Most of what is traditionally called knowledge of the world is cultural knowledge. Cultural knowledge is usually general an abstract, and hence not about concrete social or historical events, as is the case of much of national knowledge. (80)

In a brilliant part Van Dijk shows what the mechanisms of process of stereotyping can be based on the knowledge definitions. These are the general rules of what mental processes are at work when individuals are engaged in a discursive practice;

‘if the recipients are believed to be members of another epistemic community, then activate knowledge about that other community’ [this is where by activation of this sort people who have not had any personal or interpersonal knowledge about that community have to rely on the media presentation of that other recipients and probably remember only the sharp points about them] If such knowledge fails, assume that knowledge may be the same or similar to that of your own community. When in doubt, ask or otherwise show ignorance’ (80)

We see that there is a gradual transition between general cultural knowledge and specific personal knowledge the first is virtually always presupposed to be known the latter virtually always presupposed to be unknown to the recipients [and the first is abstract and discursively formed by grand narratives of which media is a big part of and the second is first hand or second hand account of experiences] (80)

Thus, we generally take the meta collective scale knowledge for granted while the bigger the scale becomes the less concrete and unmediated is our knowledge. On the same note Van Dijk gives another general role of how mental models work;

‘What the media have not reported before, the recipients don’t know’ [and what has been covered before is taken for granted to be part of the truth architecture] (82)

‘We have assumes a difference between e.g. personal, interpersonal, group, institutional, national and cultural knowledge, of which the first tend to be represented as specific, autobiographical event knowledge, that is, as mental models in episodic memory, and the latter as more general knowledge in ‘social’ memory’ (85)

According to Van Dijk CDA should ‘not only analyze the social conditions and consequences of discourse, and [it should] also [analyze] sociocognitive ones’

He gives two main arguments for this call;

‘firstly cognition is a necessary interface between discourse and society and secondly that cognitive structures we deal with are at the same time social as is the case for knowledge, attitudes, ideologies, norms and values.’(87)

CDA specifically deals with the study of discursive reproduction of power abuse, with forms of domination and social inequality (87)

Here Van Dijk comes to the consequences of such a knowledge based account and says:

‘If knowledge is defined as a socially certified, shared belief of a community, it is obvious that those groups or institutions who have preferential access to public discourse, such a as that of the media, or other forms of power and authority, such as politicians, professors or priests, are in an excellent position to influence people’s knowledge formation,(88)

One way of media manipulation which practically prints itself on peoples mind, is that they do not consider a belief or knowledge to exist if it has not been covered, That leads to a social mental models in people’s minds that ‘if it is not covered that it is not there’ like the case of right wing press where they get so confused and of course infuriated when they need to discuss racism in the society.

In a multi cultural nature of many European countries the process of perceptions and evaluation of media coverage is different for different cultural communities who do not have the knowledge archive and/ or knowledge architecture of ‘western’ type that means they may treat the discursive data hugely different from that of the main stream majority for whom the discursive practice is usually designed and performed.

As Van Dijk says there is huge work to be done on what the implications of assuming such universalistic approach on knowledge architecture of different communities, could be and I think this is a key issue in discussing the heated issues like ‘integration’ and the talk about so called none integrative immigrant communities or the notion of ‘terrorism’. Where these communities (none integrative immigrant ) may have different patterns and sources in what they ‘know’ and ‘believe’ and where to get the ‘truth’ and these mental sources are basically different with the sources of the general majority group. This can potentially lead to having two neighbours supposedly living under similar practices of social ‘knowledge’ e.g. media and yet having totally different takes on the world even about the most concrete every day activities while they live geographically a few feet away from each other. This can be sources of tension in producing racism or potentially dangerous ‘othering’ at both ends in a country with different cultural communities (or nations?!!!)

As an explicit example to show how K-device may work in a news report interpretation in people and in the patterns by which these assumptions of knowledge can manipulate and enact or reinforce a certain approach towards the given event, Van Dijk takes on a new report in Palestinian-Israeli conflict and shows what the knowledge structure of this piece of news report is and how certain parts of this structure may not be shared by none ‘American’ readership of this newspaper. It is how this presumption of old knowledge can feed the readers who do not have that previous knowledge to update and form their context model of the event.

On a more classic CDA take, he also talk about discursive manipulations in reporting the old knowledge segments in promoting a certain take on the pattern of the events e.g. calling the historical course of the events in the nominal of ‘confrontation’ or ‘violence’ while other none NYT readership may see these words very general if not misleading.

‘In other words, presupposed knowledge may not only take the form of (false) presumptions, but also presumptive forms of denying or hiding facts by euphemistic descriptions (95)

An analysis of the contextual K-device strategies used by journalists, such as this one, should carefully and critically examine not only what beliefs are taken for granted as knowledge, but also how this is done (95)

The metal cognitive role is reporting for a newspaper is;

Overall (meta) strategies…:when the recipients are members of my community, assume that they know all that I know except the information about recent personal experiences or sources not (yet) used by the recipients This will counts for both every day stereotyping as well as news in the press.(96)

This can explain why somebody from another cultural sphere seems to have a lot to share with the main stream culture of the new place he is in. As is the case of a none British individuals talking about issues both pertaining to England and international and the fact that almost everything that he might say is treated as new knowledge for the recipients of intact British individuals. This partly explains why there is a more liberal, comprehensive, multifaceted ideological framework seen at the academic institutions and universities where there are internationality and diversity.

The questions are now;

What is the procedure of understanding what knowledge architecture is at work in a certain community? Is it possible to do such a thing without living that culture? How can we categorize the differences among different communities or cultures in what they seem to ‘know’ about a certain event?

When Van Dijk himself categorises what constitutes old knowledge vs. new knowledge in that news report of NYT, does he rely on his subjective assumptions? Or there is a mechanism in tracking the old and new without being a member of that community or group. That is to ask if Van Dijk can do this categorisation about the NYT because he is a regular reader of NYT or he can do that about other news papers about which he doe not know a lot.


At 3:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you have not already read it before, John Berger's 'Way of Seeing' might be of interest to you.

Another thing that came to mind reading your text was that humour is often difficult to translate into other languages, or for those of diverse cultures to relate to, because it is often so contextual.

Tiny comments which I hope are helpful;)

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