AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

10. Postmodern and Poststructural Theory

10.1 Read me first
10.2 Postmodernism
10.3 Realism and the Symbolic: Two Ways of Knowing
10.4 Poststructural Feminism and Research in Educational Communications and Technology
10.5 Postmodern and Poststructural Theory
10.6 Conclusion
10.7 Envoi
Search this Handbook for:



10.3.1 What is Educational Technology?

  1. Educational technology is nothing until we say it is. From that position it is a social condition living within a dynamic history.
  2. Educational technology is a way of thinking about education, instruction, curriculum, students, etc., rooted in positivism and science.
  3. Educational technology is about control.
  4. Educational technology has its own discourse and world view that has grown out of the enlightenment.
  5. Again, educational technology is nothing until we say it is.

Our field is now beginning to address issues concerning multimedia, virtual reality, and global networking. The instrumentality of accomplishing our goals is complex enough, but we must also address the social, political, and epistemological questions usually ignored in our field. You cannot be simply a designer and producer of instructional messages without being concerned and involved with issues concerning meanings, voices of authority, and ideological reproduction. Inquiries concerning truth, meaning, consciousness, and notions of "self' are basic to our field. Without such questions, we may not realize that we are part of the system, and that the system is part of us. In this essay, I begin to address the notion of "truth" through two guiding paradigms I term as realism and the symbolic. The notion of truth is critical to those us who work in the fields of educational technology and instructional system design, because by the very acts we attempt to accomplish, we position ourselves and construct the users/learners.

What we understand as "real," "unreal," and "virtually real" is dependent on where we stand in relationship to what we believe is out there. Let me put it an other. way: It may not be a question of conscious belief; either it, something called reality, is there or it is not. If you believe it is there, there is no point in thinking about it. On the other hand, what we know and what there is may not be the same. In any case, all we really have to work with are representations of the external and internal worlds we create. How we treat those representations, as a correspondence to reality or as flirtations with realism, defines ourselves as subjects and not as objects. Who we think or believe we are centers on how and what we believe we know. It comes down to a question of beliefs and unquestioned assumptions about knowing; an epistemology.

A paradigm, as a way of knowing, as a platform for defining and limiting understanding and fixing a world view that determines and legitimates actions, providing structures for understanding what is natural and correct, guides, directs, and limits what we think. If a paradigm defines what is natural and correct, it also defines what is unnatural and not correct (Kuhn, 1962). Paradigms define social relations as a constellation providing "shared ways of seeing the world, of working" (Popkewitz, 1984, p. 3) in the world. In this manner, paradigms are social constructs that suggest "a frame of reference which reflects a whole series of assumptions about the nature of the social world and the way it might be investigated" (Bun-ell & Morgan, 1979). Paradigms, as frameworks for thought and practice, as a system of values and beliefs about what is, are not neutral. 11ey are born, maintained, and reflect human social and historical interest (Habermas, 1968). As Popkewitz (1987) suggests, a paradigm provides us with a "world view or framework of knowledge and beliefs through which we see and investigate the world" (p. 193). Frameworks and structures begin to define relationships and meanings within the limitations of itself. Adherence to ways of thinking about the world do more than define the world. Ways of thinking are the world.

My interest here is in the ways in which a paradigm defines objects as subjects, and bow social realities and subjectivities are reproduced and maintained as a function of representation as a discourse within a paradigm. To accomplish this, I will refer to what I will term the realisbyunctional (classic realism) paradigm and the symbolic interpretive (symbolic) paradigm.

10.3.2 Realism

Educational technology, instructional technology, and instructional systems exist within a realist/functional paradigm defined by positivism, capitalism, progressivism, structuralism, and classic realism. How our field has come to define effectiveness and efficiency, as well as forms of accountability, exist within that paradigm. The definitions and representations of reality, as legitimated by the paradigm, begin to define the discourse that in the end defines you and me. Discourse practices, language in use from a realist perspective, emerges from an ideology of realism. The correspondence between representation and what it refers to involves shared assumptions about reality, ourselves, and others who exist within it (Belsey., 1980; Cherryholmes, 1988; Rorty, 1991). Realism as an ideology operates as a discourse that interpolates human beings as subjects (Therborn, 1980).

"Culture and society, in the structural universe, are anonymous, objectified thought systems; they are systems of behavior and thought that no individual human has authored or intended" (Crick, 1991, p. 161). From this, perspective reality can be known and expressed through systems or relationships of representations or signs. In both realism and structuralism, there is an assumed system or structured correspondence between representation and reality. Furthermore, realism and structuralism decenters; human interest where "significance, intelligibility, meaning are properties of systems, not a matter of human will, subjectivity, or intention" (Crick, 1991, p. 161). Realism suggests that "the social world external to the individual cognition is a real world made up of hard, tangible, and relatively immutable structures. . . . For the realist, the world exists independently of an individual's appreciation of it" Burrell & Morgan, 1979, p. 4).

As an alternative, poststructuralism offers a way of understanding, of knowing the world. Poststructuralism recognizes the authorship, voice, and the intentionality of various ways of knowing (Goodman, 1978; Rorty, 1991). It begs the question of meaning and significance. It positions language as discourse that benefits human interest (Cherryholmes, 1988).

The two opposing ways of understanding the world, structuralist and poststructuralist, are found within the dialects of realism and the symbolic. Realism, as discussed above, emerges from positivism, and holds that we can know reality through representations. From a realist perspective, the correspondence between representation and reality is not something that individuals create; it exists outside human intent, whereas the symbolic rests on the interpretive and constitutive acts of social performers.

Understanding the external world as an artifact, as a social construction "willed into existence through intentional acts ... man [sic] is shown to live in a world created through consciousness" (Burrell & Morgan, 1979, p. 233). But how those relationships come to hold meaning does not exist outside the social world or any discourse as positivism and realism suggests. The meanings and their constructed

relationships are the result, from a poststructuralist perspective, of historical social conditions. Semiotics and postsemiotics, as models for understanding the communication process, may be helpful in understanding the dialects of realism and the symbolic (Barthes, 1964; Cassirer, 1955; Hawkes, 1977; Norris, 1982; Weedon, 1987; Wollen, 1969).

As realism positions the individual in relationship to "a" reality, the symbolic positions the individual as a reflective participant in the social and historical discourse. A semiotic model, one that positions the sign as a referent to a known "truth," standing in place of what it refers to, runs counter to postsemiotics, where there exist many interpretations, many truths. From a realist perspective, the sign is what it depicts. The photograph of Uncle Joe does more than stand in place of Uncle Joe: It is Uncle Joe.

Semiotics, as a science of signs, positions all forms of language as a signifying system. Visual representations like photographs, illustrations, and drawings are part of that signifying system. Communication is the signifying system in practice. When we view an educational film or look at a textbook illustration, we are engaged in a process of signification, a process of meaning construction that from a realist perspective is fixed within a structure of relationships and other meanings. These structures and relationships over time become codified into reified systems of significance.

We come to know and understand the world and our position in it through the representations, the stories, we have at hand. The stories we read, hear, and see define who we are by the nature of the discourse employed. If those representations appear to be natural, like the language we use, they also appear to be objective and neutral, free of human intervention (Belsey, 1980). Realism and semiotics provide the view that the world is something we are born into; it is known and knowable. Language and significance is something we learn, not create. Meaning is reified, and the social and historical construction of relationships and intentions becomes transparent. What we see, what we hear and speak, what we know, all appear to be natural and real. From a realist semiotic structuralist perspective, there is no difference between the reality of the world and bow we talk about it or picture it. Reality is reality.

Reification and realism go hand in hand in masking the authorship of the messages experienced by both producers and readers of constructed representations. It is through the use of the existing codes of realism that makes illusion plausible. The power of the realist text is to make itself appear to be real and natural. Through various modes of experience, the realist text seems more like day-to-day life and not the appearance it really is.

The correspondence between the understood world (one being real, accessible, and knowable) and the realistic representations of it have interesting implications for educational technology. If the world is as it is depicted, then what I have experienced is the "truth" (Rorty, 1991). How people, places, and objects are talked about, and are presented in relationship to each other and others, either confirm or contradict what I know about the world. If I believe in* the objectivity and neutrality of what I see, I never question what I know or what the experts tell me (Muffoletto, 1993). What I know is what I know. For me, the existence of the representation is not the question. The question that I feel should concern those working in the field of educational technology is the nature of signification. What does the text mean, to whom, and why? Positivism, structuralism, realism, and semiotics all present a way of seeing and understanding the world through representations. There is no questioning of the storyteller, or even the recognition of a storyteller. The world is as you are told.

10. 3.3 Symbolism

Symbolism, as I use it here, fits more comfortably into an interpretive paradigm, one that is poststructural and postsemiotic. Postsemiotics departs from the notion of "a" truth or "a" reality; nothing is natural. Language, discourse, institutions, pictorial representations, and auditory reconstructions are social products, embedded with social purposes and human interest. The symbolic/interpretative paradigm of poststructuralism and postsemiotics attempts to deconstruct the nature and implications of naturalism. In doing so, poststructuralism rejects the notion of "a" reality, "a" truth, and a natural correspondence between representation and truth. In rejecting the acceptance of "a7 truth, poststructuralism replaces the realist positivist point of view by recontextualizing signification, offering alternative and oppositional readings, thus creating other realities (Goodman, 1978).

Poststructuralisin and symbolic interpretation recognizes the individual as a socially and historically constructed subject. It rejects realism and embraces constructivism (see 7.2, 7.3). Poststructuralism constructs a world that is the result of a consciousness, the consciousness of the individual. It is a consciousness that is itself the result of social and historical interactions. These interactions, reflective and critical, look to issues of power, control, and benefit in the analysis of messages, educational or otherwise.

Before I move on to a discussion of representation and subjectivity, it should become apparent that the differences between the two paradigms make them incompatible. One positions reality as something out there to be discovered, a preexisting world with established truths. The other argues for many possible realities, constructed by the consciousness of the individual. Here the world and truth(s) are not waiting to be discovered, but to be created. To understand one or the other, one must believe what the paradigm presents (Rorty, 1991).

10.3.4 Representations

Standing in place of something else, referents, representations, signs (indexes), emblems, etc., and particularly realistic images (icons), not only refer to a point in time and place but also refer to a relationship between the producer of the representation and the "object" referred to. Representations also refer to the perceived viewer as a reader or receiver (this at times may be the producer themselves) (Berger, 1972; Fish, 1980; Monaco, 1977). The difference between readers and receivers is a critical one. Readers actively produce meaning, their own meanings out of perceived experiences or texts (Attridge, Bennington & Young, 1987; Holub, 1984; Freund, 1987; Weedon, 1987). The term receiver has historically placed the individual in a more passive role in the communication process. Sometimes the receiver was to provide feedback, but at all times the receiver was to reproduce the intended message sent by the sender. Receivers were never empowered to create their own meanings of value and worth. It was the job of the sender to design a message that would produce the desired outcomes. Using the term receivers, the sender was empowered. The use of the term reader empowered individuals and valued their understanding.

Representations as a constructed experience, a text to be read-and this includes all types of messages---cannot be anything but intentional. Texts are produced as part of a history of interrelated texts and constructed experiences.

Meanings are produced and reproduced as a result of social and power relationships. The individual, and our notions about what it means to be an individual, is a result of those institutional affiliations (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Bronowski, 1965; Eagleton, 1976; Popkewitz, 1991). Again, the producer of any representation is its first constructed reader. Readers are constructed so that messages may be designed to speak to them. Whether it is Whittle's "Channel One" (DeVaney, 1994) or who "I" think you are, the organization and presentation of any message is a result of the speaker's notion of whom they think they are talking to. To understand this connection between producer and reader, it must be positioned within existing institutional and knowledge power relationships. How a representation comes to be meaningful to both producer and reader is in the end a result of historical social, political, economic relationships and contests (Freund, 1987; Holub, 1984).

10.3.5 Receiver or Reader

It is necessary at this point to turn briefly to the notion of the individual as subject. It may suffice for now to suggest that who or what we think "we" are is socially constructed. How we think about ourselves and others is the result of our experiences with various ideological texts, representations, and discourses (Belsey, 1980; Berger, 1963; Berger & Luckarm, 1966; Berger, Berger & Kelner, 1973; Muffoletto, 1991, 1993). Social institutions-like families, religions, and education-inform the individual as to whom he or she is through the repetition of stories. Mass media and educational media as experienced phenomena present numerous narratives that inform us and position us in relationships to others and social institutions. In light of experiences and discourses that are controlled by others, we come to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, when actually the "I" is a result of social, political, economic, and historical factors. Ideology, sense making of the world, works to form and inform us (Ellsworth & Whatley, 1990; Popkewitz, 1991). This is no simple matter. The social construction of individuals as subjects is mediated through various forms of representations that consume the individual. This hegemonic process, as Feenberg (1991) suggests, is not imposed through struggle between self-actualized individuals but one that "is reproduced unreflectively by the standard beliefs and practices of the society" (p. 78) where individuals find themselves.

The self-as-subject is a social construct whose place will vary according to the construction process. It is not a fixed for-eternity entity but a moment in a relationship. How we are termed as individuals can therefore be framed as an ideological question, a matter of the position we occupy or believe we occupy within a social and cultural order (Nichols, 1981, p. 30).

How that self is formed, maintained, or changed is a result of repeated social experiences. I include within these social experiences the experiences of students and teachers with educational media and technology. These social expenences are representations and re-presentations of various encounters in the social world. For example, continuous experiences of women in submissive and powerless positions, acting out trivial roles, may, with other observed phenomena, affect the consciousness, a sense of self, of women and men and their perceived relationship to each other and the social order. If the vehicle for this example is codified in realism, the delivery of these continuous messages may become transparent, and the message eventually reified.

The struggle for control over minds and hearts of individuals is an ideological battle. Postsemiotics, as a form of discourse analysis, attempts to unpack the ideological framework of naturalism and realism to reveal its subjective and political nature. From the symbolic interpretative paradigm, the representation or text is an experience created through the interaction of the intended text and the consciousness of the reader or viewer. The experienced text is the only text ever experienced. This experience is never fixed or natural, but is the result of social dynamics, agreements, and conflicts. Who we come to think we are is the result of experiencing various cultural and cross-cultural texts.

A word about the notion of interpretative communities in the formation of consciousness (Fish, 1980). How readers make sense out of their experiences, and their understanding of future experiences, may be understood in terms of history, power, and discourse. It is through historical experiences with representations as part of various discourses that we become subjects. If questions over authority and expertise are never raised, the meanings of experiences are told to us through various storytellers. The power and control over the meanings of experiences are given to us. This is not to suggest that there is no resistance to those imposed meanings. There are, and those whose resist are usually marginalized.

As individuals come to share like meanings, they form what Stanley Fish (1980) has referred to as "interpretive communities." These communities share some common understandings, visions, and projections. Because of this similarity of knowing, they form various levels of commonality. Individuals may hold, at different times, membership in various communities. Whether you are a student, a teacher, instructional designer, or parent, your understanding of experiences is determined by the horizons of that community. One's sense of self is maintained and reproduced by the continuous retelling of stories, always situating the listener in some relationship to the story.

We become what we know, and what we know we become. The sense of self, "who I am," is the result of interactions with voices of authority, constructed texts with intended meanings, and the ideological parameters of social likeness. In this manner, the individual is a social construction, a product of discourse and ideology.

Unlike the realist perspective, the symbolic recognizes the social existence of meaning, and the shifting horizons of self. As the symbolic suggests, meaning and truth must be unpacked. The problem is that in the deconstruction of meaning, meaning is never found, for once it is, it must

again be unpacked. In this manner the individual is frozen-frozen because there is no ending to the process of deconstruction, of new meanings, and of new understandings. There is no truth except for the moment.



Attridge, D., Bennington, G. & Young, R. (1987). Post-structuralism and the question of history. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Barthes, R. (1964). Elements of semiology. New York: Hill & Wang.

Belsey, C. (1980). Critical practice. London: Methuen.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of seeing. New York: Viking.

Berger, P.L. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

(1963). Invitation to sociology: a humanistic perspective. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Berger, B. & Kellner, H. (1973). The homeless mind:modernization and consciousness. New York: Vintage.

Bronowski, 1. (1965). The identity of man. Garden City, NY:Natural History Press.

Burrell, G. & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis: elements of the sociology of

corporate life. London: Heinemann.

Cassirer, E. (1955). The philosophy of symbolic forms. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cherryholmes, C.H. (1988). Power and criticism: poststructural investigations in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Crick, M. (1991). Claude Levi-Strauss. In R Beilharz, ed. Social theory: a guide to central thinkers, 160-67. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

DeVaney, A. (1994). Watching Channel One. Albany, NY- SUNY Press.

Eagleton, T. (1976). Criticism and ideology. a study in Marxist literary theory. London: Verso.

Ellsworth, E. & Whatley, M.H.. (1990). The ideology of images in educational media: hidden curriculums in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Feenberg, A. (199 1). Critical theory of technology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fish, S. (1980). Is there a text in this class? The authority of interpretive communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Freund, E. (1987). The return of the reader. reader-response criticism. London: Methuen.

Goodman, N. (1978). Ways of worldmaking. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Habermas, J. (1968). Knowledge and human interests. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Hawkes, T. (1977). Structuralism and semiotics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Holub, R. C. (1984). Reception theory: a critical introduction. London: Methuen.

Kuhn, T.S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Monaco, J. (1977). How to read a film: the art, technology, language, history and theory of film and media New York: Oxford University Press.

Muffoletto, R. (1991). Technology and texts: breaking the window. Paradigms regained: the uses of illuminative, semiotic and post-modem criticism as modes of inquiry in educational technology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology.

(1993). Machine as expert. In R. Muffoletto & N. Knupfer, eds. Computers in education: social, political, and historical perspectives. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Nichols, B. (1981). Ideology and the image: social representation in the cinema and other media. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Norris, C. (1982). Deconstruction: theory and practice. London: Methuen.

Popkewitz, T.S. (1984). Paradigm and ideology in educational research: the social functions of the intellectual, London: Falmer.

- (1987). Critical studies in teacher education: its folklore, theory and practice. London: Falmer.

- (1991). A political sociology of educational reform: power/knowledge in teaching, teacher education, and research. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rorty, R. (199 1). Objectivity, relativism, and truth. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Therborn, G. (1980). The ideology of power and the power of ideology. London; Verso.

Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory. New York: Blackwell.,

Wollen, P. (1969). Signs and meaning in the cinema. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.


Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The Association for Educational Communications and Technology

1800 North Stonelake Drive, Suite 2
Bloomington, IN 47404

877.677.AECT (toll-free)

AECT Home Membership Information Conferences & Events AECT Publications Post and Search Job Listings