Incommensurability and Discourse in Risk
One of the most important concepts discussed by Feyerbend, Laktos, MacIntyre and Kuhn is that of incommensurability. Incommensurability refers to incongruence and misunderstanding between linguistic structures. What this means is that disciplines are limited in what can be understood outside of their own discipline. One’s language limits one’s understanding and one’s ability to talk outside of the constraints of ones own discipline. One of the reasons why WHS needs curriculum reform (https://safetyrisk.net/isnt-it-time-we-reformed-the-whs-curriculum/) is because of this mismatch in linguistic structures between disciplines. If safety is a generalist helping activity it needs to be able to speak and translate across disciplines rather than develop its own professionalized discourse. Then if one wants to speak into this discourse from a different discipline discussion is quickly closed down, debilitating genuine education because things get lost in non-translation. In such a situation people assume there is not a translation problem but an intelligence problem.
I was invited this week to run workshops at Monash University for graduating and post graduate students in Mining Engineering. I was allowed 6 hours to introduce the Social Psychology of Risk, what a challenge. This was a challenge not because the students were not intelligent but because none of the students had the language or linguistic structure to understand what I was going to discuss. So where does one start? How does one translate many years of experience and research in Social Psychology and risk to people who don’t have a similar linguistic structure? Even the word ‘congruence’ in Maths and Science means something entirely different in psychology! Kuhn (2000, The Road Since Structure) demonstrates that even within the same discipline (Science) translation becomes impossible because paradigms and assumptions of identical words and names for concepts don’t match. Speaking across disciplines in many respects is a wicked problem without access to generalists who can translate.
Often the best way to introduce new concepts is by introducing new vocabulary and explaining meaning but this relies on the will of the second discipline to desire to learn and belief in not knowing. When one’s whole worldview is defined mechanistically and technically, why would one want to learn through narrative, social engagement and drama? This is not just a problem of learning vocabulary but a much deeper problem of hermeneutics. Different disciplines think differently semiotically as well which even limits the ability to communicate symbolically or through signs. Each discipline also has different ethical constructs that add to incommensurability. This means that arguments are not arguments and debates are not debates but inter-language misunderstandings with parties that think they understand each other. Then when someone asks a person (regardless of discipline) to research across or into another discipline they think that 10 minutes in a pop book on medicine will help them talk to a brain surgeon.
This is why WHS should be transdisciplinary in education, so that it can speak across disciplines and not be locked in A discipline. So that it can understand critical concepts in humanistic disciplines and speak across disciplines rather than be locked in ‘cross purposes’ and mis-semiosis about risk.
So, how did things go with the engineering students. After 6 hours I think they learned two new words and began to realize that the Social Psychology of Risk was a whole new world.