John Shotter

John Shotter's work has a continuously developing character in which themes and sources are revisited as each little reworking of them enables him to discover a richer set of insights and syntheses around the central question: 'what is it to be human'. He has been, along with his oft-time collaborator Ken Gergen, a central figure in the elaboration and legitimation of an approach in contemporary psychology termed ' social construction'. His work draws from the sources and stirrings that we have been outlining during this course, and cast a penetrating light that brings out their relevance for understanding what humans are about, and what the character of our lives is, in ways that we predict you will experience an 'Aha!' feeling time and again as you begin to read his work here: 'Aha!, so that's what all this stuff is about.' This is one of the reasons why his work has become of increasing interest to contemporary discursive therapists.

John originally left school at 16 to be an apprentice in an aircraft factory, as he recalls in the preface of his (1993) book, Cultural Politics of Everyday Life. He subsequently enrolled as an undergraduate student in mathematics in Bristol in the mid-1950's, a city that was at the forefront of the revitalization of post-war British 'culture' until it was eclipsed by the Liverpool of the 'fab four'. Peter O'Toole's performance in Waiting for Godot at the Bristol Old Vic at this time, for example, is one of the turning points of British theatre in the 20th century. The distractions of this vibrant life perhaps contributed to his exam performance not proving sufficient to continue his student-exempt status from conscription into the armed forces for a two-year period of National Service, so that he was then whisked away into the Royal Air Force and trained as a radar technician. He whiled away the time until 1960 dismantaling and reassembling radar equipment on the shores of the Baltic, and enrolled as a part-time student in psychology in Birkbeck College, London, on his discharge, while supporting himself as an electronics technician in the Phonetics Department at University College London - working on speech analysis and synthesis machines. At the completion of his degree he became an electronic 'research assistant', split between the Department of Electrical Engineering (headed by Raymond Beurle, who was both the inventor of night vision binoculars and the first person in the world to simulate a nerve network on a computer, and the Department of Psychology at Nottingham University. His first abandoned Ph.D. there was to do with a statistical decision theory analysis of the performance of night vision binoculars - looking at the interplay between amplification and resolution. Next, he and began (but also never finished) a Ph.D thesis that aimed to build an electronic device that operationalized transformational grammar so as the 'thing' could speak. The thesis was abandoned not through laziness (see, for example, Shotter, 1969), but because of a nagging, and growing, doubt - even if one could construct a machine that passed the famous 'Turing test' (if a machine can be built so that it answers a human interogator in ways such that the interogator could not decide if he or she were communicating with a machine or another human being, then it passes the test) - as to whether such a simulation told one anything interesting about what 'speaking' was 'really about'.

These doubts have to be seen against a background of an almost total empiricist domination of British academic psychology and psychological politics at that time, with the main proponents of empiricism being Donald Broadbent and Hans Eysenck. A flavour of the times can be captured by considering Broadbent's essay 'A defence of empirical psychology' in the in-house jornal of the British Psychological Society. Here Broadbent cited an informal survey of British psychologists showing that while about 50% of senior psycholgists called themselves 'behaviourists', none at all of the junior ones did. He then proceeded to give a vigorous defence of empirical psychology, both as a theory and a method, firmly identifying himself as 'on the behaviourist side of the fence'. Shotter and his colleague Alan Gauld wrote a critique, published in the American Psychologist, in which they argued that 'Broadbent's 'empirical' theory is logically incoherent', concluding that

the inability of 'empirical' theory and of traditional empirical methods to cope adequately with our linguistic abilities and performances thus emerges as a only part (but a central part) of their general inabilty to cope with human rule-following actions - an inability which ... stems from a failure to distinguish the different relations which we have to the material world and to each other. The choice which lies before psychology at present would appear to be either, on the one hand, continuing with the established theoretical presuppositions and methods of investigation and dealing only with those problems which happen to be amenable to them, or, on the other hand, taking up the fascinating and vitally important problems of human conceptual thought and rule-regulated behaviour, and siding with those who, however haltingly, and with whatever difficulty, are endeavouring to find new theoretical concepts and practical methods with which the problems can be effectively tackled (1970: )
Adding that 'our own sympathies in these matters will be abundantly clear' (ibid). A fair, though not necessarily politically-astute statement to publish with respect to the only psychologist to have then been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the high bastion of high science. Broadbent replied to these accusations in his fuller, book length treatment of his position In defence of empirical psychology' (1973), labelling them 'the last kicks of an outmoded culture'. Not a great testimonial for the epitome of the establishment to hang on the head of a then junior lecturer in a provincial British university, and one whose personal effects might be ironically discerned in the title of one of Shotter's later books, The cultural politics of everyday life (1993), for certainly within the intervening years Shotter became a prophet unheralded in his native land, eventually taking a chair in Holland before moving to the United States.

Many of the themes that continue to occupy Shotter's thinking and explorations up to the present time were set out at this point. This can be seen in the following quotation from unpublished seminar notes from 1972 - to eventually see their fuller development in a critque edited by Nigel Armistead, Reconstructing social psychology (1973) - which begin with Descartes' claim as to how we might 'render ourselves masters and possessors of nature', and hark back to the concerns outlined about empiricism by Shotter and Gauld (above):

While classical science demands that we study everything as if it were matter in motion according to natural (or an absent God's established) laws, occasionally people seem able to act from a belief, a mere conception of a law, thus exempting themselves from this demand. In attempting to live according to laws, people may fail; they may act inappropriately, rightly or wrongly, legitimately or illegitimately, etc.. And in acting thus, according to laws, they have a responsibility to others in their actions; they must make their actions intelligible to themselves in others' terms; and the laws structuring their reality must be open to negotiation and re-negotiation. In such circumstances, psychology becomes a moral not a natural science. But not all human behaviour has this character. While there are somethings we clearly do do, there are others which we just as clearly do not do, things which merely happen. And this distinction between actions and events is fundamental in human affairs.

This much, at least, we can say from our own experience. But when we ask how is such a way of life as this possible, a way of life in which we can become responsible for our own actions rather than being merely victims of happenings, then we must theorize about our nature: If we are to have the power to determine the world (and in it we include ourselves), then the world itself must be essentially indeterminate. And if alternative determinations are to be possible then unrealized potentialities must in one way or another exist. Thus it would be possible for human beings to act responsibly if they possessed powers of determination in an essentially indeterministic world of real potential. ... [I will] suggest a form of psychological inquiry not directed towards discovering how the mind (or the brain] 'works' leading indirectly to the domination of men by men, but directed towards increasing the mastery of all over their own way of life (1972).

We see here the setting out of a number of the threads which have subsequently been worried away at:

  • the distinction between action and behaviour - which lies at the heart of Images of man in psychological research (1975), and which led, in collaboration with Alan Gauld, to a study of hermeneutics - Human action and its psychological investigation (1978);
  • this distinction led to the realization that there was a sphere of activity that was neither the province of individual action or behaviour (nor both), but a zone of uncertainty (what Vygotsky pointed to in his concept of the zoped) in which natural propensities and cultural influences are interwoven: the sphere of 'joint action', which Shotter has been returning to refine and elaborate ever since;
  • the notion of responsibility that humans have to others for their actions - culminating in Social accountability and selfhood (1984);
  • the claim that human realities are negotiated - leading to an ongoing interest in Vygotskyean themes, brought together in Cultural politics of everyday life (1993) and Conversational realities: Constructing life through language (1993);
  • a concern with the moral nature of human activity, continual through the above;
  • a worrying at the place of language and 'theory' in relation to action, bringing in a trawling through the works of Vico, Wittgenstein and Bakhtin from 1980 onwards;
  • a similarly central, though not always explicit, wondering about the nature of 'experience', and hence an interest in and appeal to phenomenological work, particular the social and corporeal versions of Schutz and Merlau-Ponty.
  • and, as a kind of culmination of the above, an outlining of a 'knowing of a third kind', not a 'knowing that', nor a 'knowing how', but a 'knowing from within'.
And, when we look at the citations in the finished piece in Armistead's collection, we see an indication of these traditions to which Shotter was already turning: Berger and Luckmann; Garfinkel; Harre; Mead; Schutz; Vico; and Vygotsky amongst others.

In the next few pages we will follow up a number of these themes in more detail. Note, however, that we are not attempting to produce here an 'essential' potted guide. First, the ouevre is still continuing [for example, note current excursions into Merleau-Ponty's (1968) notion of the chiasmic intertwining of influences]. Second, and more importantly, Shotter's work has more of the character of drawing others into a creative dialogue so as to help them gather together resources to reach Wittgenstein's point: 'now I can carry on'. In a world of action, bringing indeterminate possiblities into being through interaction there can be no closed-in, definitive interpretation. See here for his own account of his research trajectory.