As you may notice I have switched language to English, so this blog can be said to have made the transition from an ethnocentric focus to a (western) world centric. I think it’s time for the rest of the world to catch up in the development… My aim is to introduce theories within the field of adult development as simplified as possible to get a fundamental understanding. I hope to also start translating my introductory texts on Piaget, Kohlberg, Kegan, Loevinger, Commons, Wilber, Graves etc that I have in Swedish, unless I find someone to do it for me (and money to pay that someone). English is not my mother tongue so please excuse my rather rudimentary skills. My motto is: Don’t get it right, get it written!
Within the field of Adult development there seems to be two main directions, one that focuses on the cognitive development which could be seen as the ability to handle complex information and problem solving. The best example is MHC or the Model of Hierarchical Complexity by Commons et al, which defines a scale of 0-15 orders of hierarchical complexity. Using this we can define tasks at a certain order and at certain domains and assess persons, or other organisms, according to this scale.
The other direction or branch is ego development or development of meaning-making. This is, at least to me, a bit harder to understand and explain, but it’s worth a try since I think it tells us a bit of how we function as meaning-making creatures according to what Robert Kegan refers to as developmental constructivism. And let’s do it by comparing with how scientific research works.
Most of us have probably done some experiment in physics class such as examining the elasticity of a spring. You take a spring and load it with various weights and observe the spring’s elongation (increase in length). Let’s assume that we do five measurements like this and we might end up with the following diagram:
Here we have five data points where each point tells us that for a certain weight (e.g. 1 N) you get a certain elongation (0,11 m). There seems to be some sort of pattern here and what we typically do next is to draw a straight line which is the best fit we can make. From this line we can make a prediction of what elongation we should expect to get for any arbitrary load. The scientist’s task here is firstly to gather data (blue dots), the method of this is to measure the weight and measure the spring’s corresponding elongation, and secondly from that data draw a conclusion (red line). The scientist should also have some discussion about whether the errors are small enough to be regarded as measurement errors, but let’s not dig into that.
From a constructivist perspective some might say that we construct reality, but that is not an accurate description. Rather, we construct patterns from the gathered measurement data. The pattern, or the line in the case of our spring’s elongation, does not exist in reality “out there”. All we can find out there are various events – stuff that happens. And then we construct patterns the same way we look at stars and construct the constallations. There are no giants, serpents or lions in space, that is only our projection of the images and associations in our mind from the cues we get from the stars. The patterns, or meaning, are how we organize our experience in our mind.
So scientific theories, such as Hooke’s law (that describes weight vs elongation) or the standard model for particle physics, are only constructs, although the best constructs or patterns that we have come up with up to this date. They are not true, they are stories, but they are good and useful stories if they help us understand events and can predict the future accurately. The same way the wolf constructs patterns from the observations of where his pray usually can be found, how to successfully track it and hunt it down. Constructing these patterns is a learning process.
In a similar way that the scientist gathers data, although not as thoroughly and systematically, we gather sensory data from our daily life. And from these observations we construct patterns which are generalizations such as “when I drop things they fall” or “when I hit people they get mad”. We see things happen and construct concepts and traits such as good and evil, hot and cold, suffering and bliss, blonds and redheads. From a developmental perspective our ability to construct these patterns evolves as we gather more information, can differentiate and access new domains of experience, and even further as we start to find patterns from the constructs we have made from observations etc. The constructs we make becomes increasingly complex.
So far we have only touched on single phenomena. But how do all fit together? Let’s go back to the scientific world and exemplify with Higgs boson. Why are the scientists at Cern so happy right now? According to the latest results from the LHC experiments a new particle called Higgs boson has been detected. The existence of the particle was postulated by (among others) Peter Higgs as a consequence if the standard model of particle physics were to be accurate and coherent. Scientists don’t only want different models for different phenomena, they also want all models to cohere with each other.
Why? Well, if we have a situation where two possible things can happen depending on which theory we use, only one of them can be correct. This was the case for small particles close to black holes where the standard model gave one result and Einstein’s general theory of relativity gave another. In order to close this gap string theory was developed. The theorists wanted coherence and paid the price in higher complexity
Therefore a “Theory of everything” has been the Holy Grail that the scientific community has been striving for for a long time. We want our models to be as simple as possible (Occham’s razor), they should accurately describe reality and we also want them to be coherent with other models – when they are compatible with each other and fit together seamlessly. Showing the existence of Higgs boson was a huge step in that direction, therefore the cheering at Cern. We want coherence rather than fragmentation.
This search for coherence was also an expression Jane Loevinger used to describe what meaning-making or ego was (or did) for individuals. Not only do we make generalizations and construct patterns to organize our experiences. We also want these various constructs to fit together into a coherent worldview which can be seen as our frame of interpreting reality and our place in it, or at least we seem to strive for it. In her dissertation Susanne Cook-Greuter described it as a fundamental trait and characteristic of a human being of being a meaning-maker.
Thus, meaning-making can be said to be the activity of finding patterns and meaning in our experiences by relating them to other experiences and to ourselves. Meaning-making is the construction of the stories of the world and our place in it. They tell us who we are, what we know and how we should live. They can evolve to increasingly complex forms and they can also be acknowledged as – just stories.