Associate Professor of Sociology Renee Monson was the featured speaker at the New York State Sociological Association annual conference in October. Her talk titled “How Do You Know? Probing Inquiry, Reporting Investigations, and Producing Knowledge in the Age of Trump” explored two ways in which people may encounter assertions about what is known.
Truth claims, Monson says, are answerable to the question “how did you know?” and provoke examination and assessment of the claims in the form of questions about evidence. Truth statements, on the other hand, “provoke approval and disapproval, avowal and disavowal of the statement in the form of ‘likes,’ re-posts or ‘dislikes.’”
Both truth claims and truth statements, she says, are assertions of what is true and real, “but the point of contesting truth claims is to engage in a collective effort to produce knowledge, while the point of contesting truth statements is to differentiate tribes and recruit followers.”
“What concerns me about the age of Trump,” she says, “is the extent to which the examination of truth claims has been replaced with the posting of truth statements in our everyday discourse.”
Monson asserts that the larger culture in America—far beyond the political arena—is retreating from the examination and assessment of truth claims and turning toward an avowal and disavowal of truth statements. “I argue that this has deeply troubling implications for social scientists and for educators of tomorrow’s leaders,” she says.
In the classroom, Monson sees this most acutely when students are presented with opportunities to participate in collaborative pedagogy or group projects. Her research leads her to the conclusion that students are not developing some of the skills they need to engage in a collective effort to produce knowledge.
For example, data from her “Research Methods” course suggest that although collaborative pedagogy is an effective way for students to learn, students often approach group activities with negative attitudes, “and increasingly, [they] struggle with data collection methods that require them to engage directly, one-on-one, with those they don’t know,” she says.
“This matters because the collective effort to produce knowledge about the social world—which is the work of social science—is deeply linked to the collective effort to move toward a more just and joyful world—which is the work of citizenship,” says Monson. In order to do this work, students must be able to discern which truth claims are supported by evidence, rather than limiting themselves to aligning only with truth statements they “like.”
Monson joined the HWS faculty in 1998. She has a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Wisconsin at Madison, an M.A. in public affairs from University of Minnesota and a B.A. in sociology from Oberlin College.