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2.1: Understanding World Views

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    Everyone holds ideas about how the world works. An idea about how the world works is called a paradigm.

    Paradigms are often informal and unconscious, but they profoundly impact how we relate to what’s around us. An illustration of how world views shape our perceptions is the cartoon with a glass partially filled with liquid followed by multiple interpretations for the image as experienced through different world views. The optimist says the glass is half full, the pessimist says the glass is half empty, and the pragmatist says the glass contains drinkable juice.

    In philosophy, major paradigms typically are defined by an “ontology” and an “epistemology.” A paradigm’s ontology answers, “what is the nature of reality?” and its epistemology answers, “how do we know what is real?”

    You are probably familiar with the paradigm of positivism even if you haven’t heard the name, as it remains the predominant paradigm in early and high school education. Positivism views reality as something that exists external to us and we can know it by removing our biases and examining it objectively. This is a very useful way of viewing the world if you are, for example, trying to work out the physics to land a spacecraft on the moon.

    However there are many, many other formal paradigms, such as constructivism which views reality as something that we create as subjective observers (meaning there are as many realities as their are observers), or interpretivism which views reality as something socially constructed by groups of observers. These two paradigms may be less useful for landing a spacecraft on the moon, but they much more useful for investigating the experiences of students in higher education.

    There is no one “right” way to view the world (i.e., no “correct” paradigm), and it is possible to view the world through multiple paradigms to arrive at multiple truths that are all valid from within their own world view. This is what happens in the optimist / pessimist / pragmatist cartoon—the person interacting with the cartoon is asked to “try on” all three of the world views to see the truth in all of them.

    However, the world views we use may be more or less useful for what we are trying to understand. Consider the examples of the moon landing versus understanding student experiences. We would not want to force an objective reality on students since every student experience is unique and equally valid even when they contradict each other. But we would also not want to say that reality is created by the observer when attempting to calculate a trajectory to the moon—there must be an objective solution to those calculations in order to land the target.

    World views are important to understanding critical disability studies because the field is, essentially, disability studies viewed through a critical theories paradigm.

    Critical Theories Paradigm

    The ontology (what is reality) of the critical theories paradigm is that the reality we can sense and engage with is shaped by social, political, economic, cultural, and other structures of human power relations so strongly that those structures are assumed “real” and we are no longer consciously aware of them.

    The epistemology (how do we know reality) of the critical theories paradigm is through our positionality relative to these structures.
    “Positionality” is where your identities and experiences position you relative to accepted power structures. For example, my positionally as author to this textbook is as a queer disabled American of Italian heritage, and as an academic and activist (among other identities).
    Critical theories seek to reveal—through reflection, evaluation, and systematic inquiry—the systems and structures of human power and relations that we take for granted. The critical theories paradigm is is seen as inherently emancipatory since the structures and systems we take for granted are inevitably shaped by power.


    Michel Foucault was a philosopher who helped shaped critical theories, and several other recent paradigms that address power and society. One of Foucault’s core concepts was “knowledge/power” which reflects the way that knowledge and power are joined with each other. Those who have power, get to define what is legitimate knowledge, and those knowledge that is legitimized supports the structures that keep the powerful in power.

    This dynamic is illustrated in [FIGURE X]. In the figure, knowledge and power are engaged in a feedback loop with each other. Knowledge legitimizes power and power legitimizes knowledge. Anyone outside of that loop—everyone else—has no legitimacy or power with which to interrupt the feedback loop. This creates conditions that reinforce dominant structures with no inherent way to break the dynamic.

    Critical Theories and Disability

    In this interactive text, we will use a critical theory paradigm to improve our ability to see how the social forces we may take for granted shape our relationship to disability both as individuals and as a society. Like taking the perspective of the pessimist or the pragmatist about the glass of liquid when you’re actually an optimist, this text provides tools to take the perspective of the critical theorist.
    In particular, we will critically identify, reflect on, and evaluate disability in our current environment. What does disability mean? Who gets to definite it? What do different models and narratives say about what we value?

    We will engage with activities to better perceive the structures of marginalization and dominance that engage with disability. [ADD SOMETHING ABOUT / LINKS TO THE “HOMEWORK” THAT EXISTS IN THE PENCIL ITEMS IN THE TOC]

    And, assuming that how something is structured can impact the way it behaves, we can then potentially make systems change by manipulating those structures. The final two chapters of this book extend the critical disability lens from simply uncovering the existing structures around disability which we may take for granted to examining how we might be able to change those structures.

    There are other ways to approach disability culture, disability rights, and improved quality of life for people with disabilities. But for the remainder of our time, I encourage you to try on the world view of the cartoon person who perceives the glass of fluid and says, “What social forces that I take for granted put this here?”

    This page titled 2.1: Understanding World Views is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dora Raymaker via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.