Telling the Truth after Postmodernism


  • Dorothy E. Smith

    Corresponding author
    1. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
      Department of Sociology in Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 252 Bloor St. W., Toronto, ON M5S IV6, Canada.
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  • I am indebted to the reviewers of this paper for their critique. Their thoroughness and thought were valuable to me in rewriting. It has not been practicable for me to respond to those of their suggestions that were directed towards enhancing its references to symbolic interactionism. Though deeply influenced by the work of George Herbert Mead, originally introduced to me in Tamotsu Shibutani's brilliant course at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1950s, my history in sociology has not been in symbolic interaction, and I cannot redirect it at this point. I have, however, reworked the paper to develop its dependence on Mead more fully, and I hope this will compensate for the deficits they found. I am also very appreciative of the critical thought and eye of my friend and colleague Liza McCoy.

Department of Sociology in Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 252 Bloor St. W., Toronto, ON M5S IV6, Canada.


The concerns of this paper come from an attempt to develop sociological inquiry from women's standpoint and to create a sociology for people. It is a project that must rely on the possibility of “telling the truth.” The poststructuralist/postmodernist critique of representation and reference creates a fundamental problem for this project. It challenges the very possibility of a sociology committed to inquiry into the actualities of the social as people live them.

The poststructuralist/postmodernist critique of the unitary subject of modernity is central. It is argued that the subject and subject-object relations are inescapably in and of discourse and language. Both subject and object are discursively constituted and there is no beyond to which reference can be made in establishing the truth of statements. Rather subjects are constituted only in discourse and are fragmented, multiple, diverse. This paper argues that, though the unitary subject is rejected, an individuated subject survives though multiplied and that a central failure of poststructuralism/postmodernism is to come to grips with the social as actual socially organized practices.

Using the theories of George Herbert Mead and Mikhail Bakhtin, the paper goes on to offer an alternative understanding of referring and “telling the truth.” Observations of sequences in which people are identifying an object for one another are described to demonstrate the radically and ineluctably social character of the process. The argument is then extrapolated with further examples to offer an alternative account of referring. A description of using a street map in an actual context of “finding our way” exemplifies how a science might be inserted into a local practice. Telling the truth, it is argued, is always and only in just such actual sequences of dialogue among people directly present to one another or indirectly present in the texts they have produced. My own and others' observations are used to reconceptualize “referring” in general as integral to a social act of finding and recognizing an object as a local performance. In conclusion, I suggest that the example of a map offers to sociology a model that does not displace and subordinate people's experience but can be used by them to expand their knowledge beyond it.