Psych Bio: Kenneth J Gergen

Kenneth J. Gergen (born 1935) is an American psychologist and professor at Swarthmore College. He obtained his B.A. at Yale University in 1957 and his Ph.D. at Duke University in 1962.

The son of John J. Gergen, the Chair of the Mathematics Department at Duke University, 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. During his tenure at Harvard, Gergen served on review panels of the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health; he also collaborated with Raymond Bauer at the Harvard Business School, and served as a consultant with … 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.” She often collaborates with her husband, and together they publish the Positive Aging Newsletter with a readership of at least 12,000. He has five children, Laura Houston, Stan Gergen, Antonia Gergen, Lisa Bell, and Michael Gebhart.

Gergen is a major figure in the development of social constructionist theory and its applications to practices of social change. He also lectures widely on contemporary issues in cultural life, including the self, technology, postmodernism, the civil society, organizational change, developments in psychotherapy, educational practices, aging, and political conflict. Gergen has published over 300 articles in journals, magazines and books, and his major books include Toward Transformation in Social Knowledge, The Saturated Self, Realities and Relationships, and An Invitation to Social Construction. With Mary Gergen, he publishes an electronic newsletter, Positive Aging ( now distributed to 20,000 recipients.

Gergen has served as the President of two divisions of the American Psychological Association, the Division on Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, and on Psychology and the Arts. He has served on the editorial board of 35 journals, and as the Associate Editor of The American Psychologist and Theory and Psychology. He has also served as a consultant to Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company, Arthur D. Little, Inc, the National Academy of Science, Trans-World Airlines, Bio-Dynamics, and Knight, Gladieux & Smith, Inc.

Major Contributions

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 both criticism and support from various social psychologists.

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 “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.

Kenneth J. Gergen, Ph.D., is a founding member, President of the Taos Institute and Chair of the Board, and the Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College. Gergen also serves as an Affiliate Professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and an Honorary Professor at the University of Buenos Aires. Gergen received his BA from Yale University and his PhD from Duke University, and has taught at Harvard University and Heidelberg University. He has been the recipient of two Fulbright research fellowships, the Geraldine Mao fellowship in Hong Kong, along with Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, and the Alexander Humboldt Stiftung. Gergen has also been the recipient of research grants from the National Science Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and the Barra Foundation. He has received honorary degrees from Tilburg University and Saybrook Institute, and is a member of the World Academy of Art and Science.


One thought on “Psych Bio: Kenneth J Gergen

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