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The son of John Jay Gergen, the Chair of the Mathematics Department at Duke University, and Aubigne Munger (née Lermond), Gergen grew up in Durham, North Carolina. He had three brothers, one of whom is David Gergen, the prominent political analyst. After completing public schooling, he attended Yale University. Graduating in 1957, he subsequently became an officer in the U.S. Navy. He then returned to graduate school at Duke University, where he received his PhD in psychology in 1963. His dissertation advisor was Edward E. Jones. Gergen went on to become an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University, where he also became the Chairman of the Board of Tutors and Advisors for the department and representative to the university’s Council on Educational Policy.
In 1967 Gergen took a position as Chair of the Department of Psychology at Swarthmore College, a position he held for ten years. At various intervals he served as visiting professor at the University of Heidelberg, the University of Marburg, the Sorbonne, the University of Rome, Kyoto University, and Adolfo Ibanez University. At Swarthmore he spearheaded the development of the academic concentration in Interpretation Theory. In an attempt to link his academic work to societal practices he collaborated with colleagues to create the Taos Institute in 1996. He is currently a Senior Research Professor at Swarthmore, the Chairman of the Board of the Taos Institute, and an adjunct professor at Tilburg University.
Gergen is married to Mary M. Gergen, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, and a major contributor to feminist psychology and performance inquiry. She is the author of over 50 articles and is the co-author (with Ken Gergen) of "Social Construction." They publish the Positive Aging Newsletter with a readership of at least 12,000.
After completing graduate school in experimental social psychology, Gergen had an impact on the field with his 1973 article, "Social Psychology as History". In the article, he argues that the laws and principles of social interaction are variable over time, and that the scientific knowledge generated by social psychologists actually influences the phenomena it is meant to passively describe. The article proved contentious, receiving criticism e. g. by Barry R. Schlenker. The developing dispute became known as the "Gergen-Schlenker debate" and touched topics around the metatheory of social psychology. Karl E. Weick later took Warren Thorngate's contribution to that dispute to formulate Thorngate's postulate of commensurate complexity - a theorem revolving around research methodology in social sciences.
Gergen's work is associated with social constructionism. He has been particularly concerned with fostering a "relational" view of the self—where the "traditional emphasis on the individual mind is replaced by a concern with the relational processes from which rationality and morality emerge." He is also known for his comment "I am linked therefore I am" as an answer to Descartes view "I think, therefore I am". Other major interests in his diverse works include analyzing the effects of technology on social life, examining connections between social construction and theology, and promoting a more optimistic model of aging.
From the earliest point in his academic career, Gergen’s work was characterized by its catalytic potential. As an experimental social psychologist, his earliest studies challenged the presumption of a unified or coherent self. He then raised questions about the value of altruism, by exploring the ways in which helping others leads to the recipient’s resentment and alienation. However, it was his 1973 paper, “Social psychology as history,” that precipitated a major shift in his career. Here he argued that most of the behavior patterns studied by social psychologists were historically perishable. Further, because of the implicit values embedded in psychological theory and description, the dissemination of knowledge had the potential to alter patterns of social activity. To study obedience to authority, for example, might reduce the likelihood of obedience. In effect, social psychology was not fundamentally a cumulative science, but was effectively engaged in the recording and transformation of cultural life. These arguments created broad controversy and the article subsequently won an award for the volume of its citations. Also contributing to what was called[by whom?] “the crisis in social psychology” was Gergen’s subsequent publication on generative theory. Here he proposed that because theoretical suppositions were not so much recordings of social life as creators, theory should not be judged by their accuracy so much as their potential to open new spaces of action.
Combining these ideas with developments in literary and critical theory, along with the history of science, Gergen went on to develop a radical view of socially constructed knowledge. This view was proposed as a successor project to what Gergen considered an inherently flawed empiricist conception of knowledge. From Gergen’s perspective, all human intelligibility (including claims to knowledge) is generated within relationships. It is from relationships that humans derive their conceptions of what is real, rational, and good. From this perspective scientific theories, like all other reality posits, should not be assessed in terms of Truth, but in terms of pragmatic outcomes. Such assessments are inevitably wedded to values, and thus all science is morally and politically weighted in implication. As he saw it, this same form of assessment also applies to social constructionist theory. The question is not its accuracy, but its potentials for humankind.
This latter conclusion informed most of Gergen’s subsequent work. In one form or another, this work is concerned with transforming social life. For the most part, the preferred direction of change is toward more collaborative and participatory relationships. Writings in the areas of therapy and counseling, education, organizational change, technology, conflict reduction, civil society, and qualitative inquiry all bear this mark. Dialogues with practitioners have also been facilitated by Gergen’s popular volume for public consumption, The Saturated Self, and his work with the Taos Institute. Most of these developments are summarized in Relational Being, Beyond the Individual and Community. However, this volume opens up new territories both theoretically and practically. It attempts to rewrite psychology, in demonstrating that what are considered mental processes are not so much “in the head” as in relationships. It also attempts to answer charges of moral relativism with a non-foundational morality of collaborative practice. A way is also opened for bringing science together with concerns for the sacred.
- Enlightenment effects. The moral and political effects on cultural behavior of disseminating scientific knowledge. (“Social psychology as history”)
- Generative theory: Theory that unsettles common assumptions, and opens up possibilities or new forms of action. (“Toward generative theory”)
- Deficit discourse. By constructing the world, and particularly individuals, in terms of problems, there is an objectification of deficit and a suppression of positive possibilities. (Realities and Relationships)
- Cycle of progressive infirmity: With the dissemination of information about categories of mental illness, people come to see themselves in these terms. As a result, they seek help from the mental health professions, which are in turn, expanded in numbers. With the expansion of the mental health industry, new diagnostic categories are developed and disseminated. The society becomes progressively infirmed. (Realities and Relationships)
- Multiphrenia: The condition, largely attributed to technologies that increase social contact, of being simultaneously drawn in multiple and conflicting directions. (The Saturated Self)
- Pregression. To unsettle the modernist value placed on progress, the proposal that for every change that is effected in societal life, the repercussions will unsettle multiple conditions that people define as positive. (The Saturated Self)
- Positive aging: As an alternative to the pervasive view of aging as decline (deficit discourse), it is possible to discover and construct myriad ways of creating later life as a period of unparalleled growth and enrichment.
- First and second order morality: All collaborative relationships will being about some understanding of the good. With multiple groups proclaiming their own good, the stage is set for interminable conflict. Second order morality is achieved through practices that bring otherwise embattled groups into a condition of positive collaboration. (Relational Being)
- Transformative dialogue: Forms of dialogic practice that dissolve the barriers of meaning separating otherwise conflicted parties. (Relational Being)
- Co-action. One’s actions have no meaning in themselves, but come into meaning through another’s collaborative action. At the same time, another’s potentially collaborative actions only become so as they are supplemented. All human intelligibility emerges not from individual actors but through co-action. (Relational Being)
- Multi-being. What is commonly viewed as the individual subject is the common intersection of multiple relationships. (Relational Being)
Gergen has received research grants from the National Science Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and the Barra Foundation. His work has merited awards from the American Psychological Association, the National Communication Association, the Constructivist Psychology Network, the University of Buenos Aires, and Ibanez University in Santiago. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Alexander Humboldt foundation. He also holds honorary degrees from Tilburg University, Saybrook Graduate School, and the University of Athens.
- Toward transformation in social knowledge. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1982. Second Edition, London: Sage, 1994. ISBN 978-0-387-90673-7
- Historical social psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum 1984, (edited with M. Gergen). ISBN 978-0-89859-349-5
- The social construction of the person. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1985 (edited with K. E. Davis). ISBN 978-0-387-96091-3
- The saturated self, Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books. 1991; 2nd. Ed. 2001. ISBN 0-465-07186-4
- Therapy as social construction. London: Sage (1991). (edited with S. McNamee). ISBN 978-0-8039-8302-1
- Realities and relationships, Soundings in social construction. Cambridge, Harvard University Press. 1994 ISBN 978-0-674-74930-6
- Relational responsibility. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. 1999 With S. McNamee ISBN 978-0-7619-1093-0
- An invitation to social construction. London: Sage, 1999. 2nd ed 2009 ISBN 0-8039-8377-8
- Therapeutic realities, collaboration, oppression and relational flow. Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos Institute Publications. 2006 ISBN 978-0-7880-2166-4
- Relational Being. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009 ISBN 978-0-19-530538-8
- Social Construction in Context. London: Sage, 2001. ISBN 0-7619-6545-9
- Gergen, Kenneth J., & Thatchenkery, Tojo Joseph (2004. First published 1998), "Organizational science in a postmodern context", in Robert C.H. Chia, In the Realm of Organisation: Essays for Robert Cooper, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-12699-1, http://books.google.com/books?id=KLTfiVRm8wIC&pg=PA15&lpg=PA15&dq=%22Organizational+science%22+Thatchenkery&source=bl&ots=jiMZlKETE9&sig=ZetxjJhBzz8aWOk2GEDBT1O-Xhk&hl=en&ei=T14kTJCOLMyOkQX-9MSTAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CBsQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Organizational%20science%22%20Thatchenkery&f=false, retrieved on 25 June 2010 ISBN 0-203-26727-3 (Adobe eReader Format). Essay originally published 1996. See article listing below.
- Gergen, Kenneth J. (2007), "Writing and relationship in academic culture", in Mark Zachry & Charlotte Thralls, Communicative Practices in Workplaces and the Professions, Amityville, NY: Baywood, ISBN 978-0895033727
- Gergen, Kenneth J (1973), "Social psychology as history", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 26 (2): 309–320, doi:10.1037/h0034436, http://www.swarthmore.edu/Documents/faculty/gergen/soc_psych.pdf, retrieved on 25 June 2010
- Gergen, K.J (1978), "Experimentation in social psychology: A reappraisal", European Journal of Social Psychology 8: 507–527, doi:10.1002/ejsp.2420080407
- Gergen, K.J (1978), "Toward generative theory", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (11): 1344–1360, doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1684, http://www.swarthmore.edu/Documents/faculty/gergen/toward_gen.pdf, retrieved on 25 June 2010 (Scroll down to page 3 for article).
- Gergen, K.J (March 1985), "The social constructionist movement in modern psychology", American Psychologist 40 (3): 266–275, doi:10.1037/0003-066X.40.3.266, http://www.swarthmore.edu/Documents/faculty/gergen/Social_Constructionist_Movement.pdf, retrieved on 25 June 2010
- Gergen, K.J (1989), "Social psychology and the wrong revolution", European Journal of Social Psychology 19: 463–484, doi:10.1002/ejsp.2420190513
- Gergen, Kenneth J., & Thatchenkery, Tojo Joseph (1996), "Organizational science in a postmodern context", Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 32: 356–378, http://www.swarthmore.edu/Documents/faculty/gergen/Organizational_Science_in_a_Postmodern_Context.pdf, retrieved on 25 June 2010 See also chapter in book, listed above.
- Gergen, K.J (October 2001), "Psychological science in a postmodern context", American Psychologist 56 (10): 803–813, doi:10.1037/0003-066x.56.10.803, PMID 11675987, http://www.swarthmore.edu/Documents/faculty/gergen/Psychological_Science_in_a_Postmodern_Context.pdf, retrieved on 25 June 2010
- Gergen, K.J (2007), "Relativism, religion, and relational being", Common Knowledge, Symposium: “A Dictatorship of Relativism?” 13 (2-3): 362–378, doi:10.1215/0961754X-2007-011, http://www.swarthmore.edu/Documents/faculty/gergen/relativism-religion-relational-being.pdf, retrieved on 25 June 2010
- Gergen, K. (1993). Refiguring Self and Psychology: Kenneth J. Gergen, Hampshire: Dartmouth Publishing.
- Stroebe, W. and Kruglanski, A.W. (1989). Social psychology at epistemological cross-roads: On Gergen’s choice. European Journal of Social Psychology, 19, 485-489.
- Wallach, L. and Wallach, M.A. (1994). Gergen versus the mainstream: Are hypotheses in social psychology subject to empirical test? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 233-242.
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