Janaury 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 1

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The Applied Theorist with an Academic Day Job

Thomasina Borkman, George Mason University

When I was awarded my PhD from Columbia University in 1969, I was counseled that if I wanted to work in academia I should begin immediately since academia did not value, and was very unlikely to hire, applied sociologists mid-career. During my first semester as an instructor, I taught a course in social deviance. For more background I read Edwin Lemert’s (1951) Social Pathology wherein he said that people who stutter cannot form voluntary associations as that requires talking and talking is what stutterers cannot do. A few weeks later, I saw an announcement of a public lecture for parents whose young children stuttered hosted by a five-year-old organization of people who stutter. This organization, I thought, is not supposed to exist, and so I decided to check out the lecture. I was very impressed that the presenters, despite their fear and discomfort, delivered their message, stuttering throughout.

Attending a regular meeting of the group, I asked if I, a fluent sociologist, could study their group; they were pleased to have someone interested in them (almost all self-help groups I have encountered are enthusiastic about having a respectful outsider interested in them). Over the next four years, my research involved immersion in the world of self-help groups for people who stutter. Participants in these groups were trying to improve their lives and decrease the stigma they experienced by confronting their stigmatizers—both individuals and institutions. Through my participant observation of their meetings and in-depth interviews, I identified the group dynamics, participant characteristics, and impacts; studied other groups in the United States and in other countries through mail surveys; and then followed the groups and their movement intermittently for 17 years. I found that rather than being “huddle-together” groups as characterized by the research literature, they were self-organizing, problem-solving, self-help mutual aid groups who challenged the public’s perception of them.

Experiential Knowledge and Wisdom

While studying the group over a period of years, I saw some active members and the group as a whole challenging the speech therapists to whom they had previously deferred. Many members had become temporarily fluent through professional speech therapy only to revert within months to their pre-therapy level of stuttering. As participant after participant shared similar stories, they began to ask whether there was something deficient with speech therapy. Why were they, accomplished and intelligent human beings, blaming themselves? They developed a certainty that their independent but similar experiences were trustworthy knowledge.

My formulation of the concept of experiential knowledge derived partly from my own experience and partly from what I learned from this and other self-help groups. In 1972, I joined a women’s consciousness-raising group and was nearly expelled before I learned to express my personal experiences and overcome my training.

A small grant from the National Institute of Mental Health allowed me to study three groups selected for their varying reliance on experiential knowledge versus professional knowledge as the basis of authority: alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous were the most reliant on experiential knowledge; the people who stutter were somewhat reliant on professionals  (speech therapists); and, a group for ileostomies and colostomies (a new technology for artificial bladders and colons)  relied extensively on professional medical knowledge.

Throughout my career, I have conceptualized and articulated distinctive aspects of self-help groups, and I have my research on experiential knowledge in peer-reviewed publications. Experiential knowledge—not an incidental part of self-help groups—is the key distinctive feature that is the basis of individual identification and bonding with the group and a major source of their empowerment and strength to challenge societal stereotypes.

These concepts of experiential knowledge and wisdom were to underpin and direct my future work. It became increasingly clear that social support from an experientially similar peer differed from that given by families and friends who lacked such experience. Moreover, experiential knowledge of a health problem was different (though sometimes overlapping) from professional medical knowledge. My respect and admiration for the  pragmatic knowledge of mature self-help groups increased and guided my relationships with them. In order to incorporate their valuable experiential perspective, I had to move toward more innovative participatory research.

Translator/Bridge to Critic

In 1978, as a visiting researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), I was asked to look at a recovery program in California that the division chief was thinking of defunding. The program left data forms about individual clients blank arguing that they had no clients because participants self-managed their own recovery. On a site visit I recognized that the recovery organization was a self-help organization adapting the principles of the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous within a government funded 501C3 nonprofit structure with paid staff. I was able to explain that the program did not have “clients” in the usual sense and save their funding.

Subsequently, as part of my visiting research work, I, along with a psychologist, learned that California had hundreds of these programs named “social model” recovery programs. These programs constituted a social movement that had existed since the 1940s but had been destroyed in other states by the forces of professionalization and medicalization. Describing social model recovery programs using professional treatment terminology, distorted what was happening in the programs. But, describing and explaining the programs using the language of self-help/mutual aid, created a new paradigm—one whose very different premises and suppositions were difficult for professionals to grasp. I documented this in a NIAAA published monograph, “A Social-Experiential Model in Programs for Alcoholism Recovery.”

Social model proponents were very pleased with the monograph. They considered me a pioneer in creating the analytical and conceptual tools to describe and make meaningful the dynamics of their process. At the same time, I was a critic of the social model program for deficiencies and vulnerabilities in its approach. This form of public sociology (as an applied theorist) is characteristic of my entire career.

By the 1980s, I began and continue to operate in interdisciplinary professional associations. Colleagues in ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) and community psychologists in section 27 of the American Psychological Association SCRA (the Society for Community Research and Action) have always welcomed my subject matter and my approach to understanding alternative organizations and innovative citizen initiatives. In contrast, I have found that some sociological venues are negative toward research on self-help/mutual aid, at times condemning it without knowing what it is.

In turn, ARNOVA encouraged me to expand my focus to cross-cultural comparisons of civil society such as mutual self-help groups. A 1995 Fulbright research fellowship facilitated a cross-cultural comparison regarding the impact of Canadian vs. U.S. health care systems on the nature and types of self-help groups and resource centers. Such comparisons are never simple or straightforward.

Working with colleagues in the UK, Sweden, and Japan on cross-cultural projects in the ensuing years continues to reveal more about the United States. In Croatia, a post-socialist society, I recently learned that the existence of a civil society is dependent on the political system and that sympathetic professionals working within a restricted civil space are needed to create pockets of citizen initiative and mutual aid.

I have always tried to find the balance between contributing to scholarly knowledge and finding ways to help real groups in society. Being a bridge-builder and critic from within academia is the best way I have found to contribute to both realms. In academia we talk about research enhancing teaching but I have also learned that my scholarly orientation enhances applied research. 


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