Knowledge-Building and Dialogism
What Bakhtin's theories of dialogue can tell us about knowledge-building and schema
I recently read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Collected Poems for a #CanonChat book-talk, and it’s evoked quite a bit for me. I spent several years totally immersed in formal poetry, sonnets, Petrarch and a pseudo-bohemian lifestyle, so the content and the vibe of the poems really hit me in a unique way. That said, I’ve been considering what it means to read (or re-read) different things at different points in one’s life. In a convo with my spouse on a recent evening, I mentioned that maybe I would have been super into Millay’s poems about ten years ago—but I’m not sure how they hit me now. All of this is to say that—clearly—I’m a different person now than I was ten years ago, so a current situation and context are absolutely critical to interpretation and meaning making.
Perhaps you’ve re-read a book, re-watched a film, or re-heard a song in a different context before and made a new meaning in that revisit. Here’s another example from my recent experience: As a Louisiana fella, I’ve always known about Randy Newman’s tune “Louisiana 1927,” but it was never really high on my list of meaningful tunes. Last August Hurricane Ida really did a number on my community here in Southeast Louisiana, and we were displace from our home for six months due to wind damage. This experience really changed how I interpret my life here in Louisiana, so when recently I came across a little pod about the Louisiana flood which featured the song prominently, I heard the whole thing differently—and basically bawled.
Clearly, we bring a lot to our readings, watchings, and listenings to artwork and expressions. Surely, it’s because of lots of reading around dialogue and discourse, but these shifting interpretations remind me of the work of Mikhail Bakhtin around dialogism, or around the sociocultural perspective emphasized by Lev Vygotsky.
Both Bakhtin and Vygotsky’s work stress the circumstance, context and situation of actors and individuals in acts of communication and interpretation. Catherine A. Sanderson defined the sociocultural perspective as:
A perspective describing people’s behavior and mental processes as shaped in part by their social and/or cultural contact, including race, gender, and nationality.
I’d expand this to consider the historical moment, or almost what Bakhtin would call a chronotype: relations of time and space as they are represented in language and discourse. A few other terms from the philosophy of Bakhtin may also be helpful for us here considering the shifting landscape of interpretation through time—and the changes in knowledge we bring to meaning making moment to moment.
First, Bakhtin decries what he terms monologism, or the invitation or tendency toward a “right,” normative, shared and universal meaning or interpretation across individuals. Considering the sociocultural and historical positions we inhabit moment to moment, day to day, and considering the anecdotes at the start of this blog—there’s a novelty and spontanaeity inherent in our experience of the now which must affect our interpretations. This gives credence to the importance of knowledge-building in curricular materials or pedagogical strategies more generally. Bakhtin pushes against this invitation to a “right” or primary interpretation into the realm of dialogism.
Bakhtin’s conception of dialogism has been described as a space where multiple and divergent points of view interact, or sound simultaneously. Rather than advancing the authority of a “right” point of view—a monologue—Bakhtin emphasizes polyphony, or discourse wherein conflicting positions are given voice and and combine or synthesize over the course of the conversation. Bakhtin also theorizes around heteroglossia, or the overlay of oppositional or divergent meanings present across individuals in dialogue. Considering shifts in interpretation due to changes in an individual’s knowledge, heteroglossia helps us recognize that meanings are derived within a social situation, and that there are always alternative meanings to be derived as the social situation shifts.
I’ll continue thinking about how Bakhtin’s sociocultural philosophy and Vygotsky’s dialogic psychology come to life through contemporary movements in education and teaching reform. Please share your thoughts on the sociocultural perspective and knowledge building below in the comments.