The Construction of Negotiated Meaning: A Social Cognitive Theory of Writing

The Construction of Negotiated Meaning: A Social Cognitive Theory of Writing

The Construction of Negotiated Meaning: A Social Cognitive Theory of Writing

The Construction of Negotiated Meaning: A Social Cognitive Theory of Writing


Based on five years of close observation of students, writing and collaborative planning- the practice in which student writers take the roles of planner and supporter to help each other develop a more rhetorically sophisticated writing plan- foremost cognitive composition researcher Linda Flower redefines writing in terms of an interactive social and cognitive process and proposes a convincing and compelling theory of the construction of negotiated meaning.

Flower seeks to describe how writers construct meaning. Supported by the emerging body of social and cognitive research in rhetoric, education, and psychology, she portrays meaning making as a literate act and a constructive process. She challenges traditional definitions of literacy, adding to that concept the elements of social literate practices and personal literate acts. In Flower's view, this social cognitive process is a source of tension and conflict among the multiple forces that shape meaning: the social and cultural context, the demands of discourse, and the writer's own goals and knowledge.

Flower outlines a generative theory of conflict. With this conflict central to her theory of the construction of negotiated meaning, she examines negotiation as an alternative to the metaphors of reproduction and conversation. It is through negotiation, Flower argues, that social expectations, discourse conventions, and the writer's personal goals and knowledge become inner voices. The tension among these forces often creates the hidden logic behind student writing. In response to these conflicting voices, writers sometimes rise to the active negotiation of meaning, creating meaning in the interplay of alternatives, opportunities, and constraints.


constructive inferences, and rehearsal, and each is supported by Heidi's own divergent but coexistent personal values and assumptions about what is important to learn. So when her personal curiosity dictates one reading strategy and her desire to cooperate with a presumed request for an intelligent reading dictates another, the attempt to orchestrate these practices becomes a strategic act.

Literate acts are sites of construction, tension, divergence, and conflict. They happen at the intersection of diverse goals, values, and assumptions, where social roles interact with personal images of one's self and one's situation, where individual rhetorical agendas mix with highly conventional practices. These metaphors -- " intersect," "interact," "mix" -- are by design inconclusive, refusing to privilege one force over the other. That is because literate acts are often sites of negotiation where the meaning that emerges may reflect resolution, abiding contradiction, or perhaps just a temporary stay against uncertainty.

III. Literacy as Action: Some Emerging Claims

I have used these comparative sketches to argue that a social cognitive alternative to the public story of literacy is emerging among educators in rhetoric and composition, educational psychology, sociology, and cultural theory. It is not that these theorists, teachers, and researchers see eye to eye or necessarily all read each other, but a new discourse about literacy is being formed nonetheless. In this discussion, for instance, literacy rates are rarely discussed because the performance they measure has little credibility. Correctness and control of privileged conventions have lost some of their status as definers of literacy or as ends in themselves. They are instead recognized as valuable tools and skills that let writers function in certain contexts (like school), even as they serve to bar the door of entry to students who are less prepared. Such skills are important, sometimes dramatically, critically important, but not because of their inherent value as a necessary building block or tool for thinking. They are important in part because certain groups of people, like teachers, administrators, employers, and readers make them so. In this discussion, students are no longer defined in terms of intellectual, cultural, or informational deficits. Expert/novice differences are useful, task specific measures of what people can do/could learn. However, novices are not blank slates, but learners who bring a great deal of cultural capital and literate experience with them (that may both help and hinder learning in school).

Perhaps the most fundamental shift in this social cognitive conversation is that it is not about literacy as a monolithic, magical entity that some . . .

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