Picture: friends talking and drinking by Miguel Jimenez. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons cc-by-nc-nd2 licence.

Encounters for learning and change. Pedagogues, animators and informal educators work for encounters – face to face meetings. They also work for encounter – relation or engagement with themselves and others.

Contents: · seeking situations of co-presence · co-ordinating activities · encounter and personal growth · encounter and relation · further reading · how to cite this article

Most of the conversations that animators, pedagogues and informal educators engage in involve them physically being with people. They have to seek situations of co-presence; to co-ordinate their activities with the rhythms and contours of the neighbourhood or community in which they work.

Seeking situations of co-presence

Their first step is to work their way into being within conversing distance of the people they want to talk to. They have to make themselves part of the ‘scene’. The second is to move from being part of the scene to being present in a direct way as a person. It means moving, in Goffman’s terms,  from unfocused to focused interaction. The former consists of those signals that have to be made because individuals are co-present in a situation – signs of mutual awareness. The latter involves people paying direct attention to what the other is doing or saying (Goffman 1961: 58). Moving from silence to speech, or from being part of the scene to a focus of attention is made more difficult by all the various rules or norms concerning ‘talking to strangers’.

Educators and animators seeking to make ‘openings’ can employ one of four basic moves or tactics:

  • greeting or speaking to a member of a group or gathering to whom they are already known or can legitimately speak to. They can then use that as an introduction to the other people present. Classic variations on this theme include making a fuss of a pet, pulling a ‘funny’ face at a small child, and then greeting the accompanying person.
  • becoming recognized as someone who was routinely around, who was a feature of the scene. This involved spending a lot of time ‘being around’. Contact can then be made by building on greetings or routine episodes such as asking the time; or by using the situations that occur.
  • going up to people, saying who you are and what you are doing and then asking questions or offering information. This tactic can range from giving out leaflets; through simple questions ‘I am new to this area, what is there to do round here?’; to introductio ns, ‘I am the local community worker…’
  • doing some activity that attracts attention or interest. In building-based settings this can be simply sitting at a table doing some craft work. People come up to see what you are doing. Outside, workers may use devices like stalls and displays, mobile coffee stands and so on. (Smith 1994: 44-45)

A lot of thought can go into selecting the appropriate tactic or move. Educators’ need to be able to handle their anxieties  and these sorts of situations are fraught with problems as Goffman (1959; 1961) has shown. Having made the move and got an opening, they can use this to ease interactions at other times. They have established what Goffman describes as a ‘relationship wedge’ (ibid.: 105).

Co-ordinating activities with the rhythms and contours of the neighbourhood or community

The concern to enable co-presence has a number of continuing implications for the work, and the way informal educators, pedagogues and animators engage with time and space.

Catching the moment: The wish to work in ways that connect strongly with participants’ everyday life involves informal or local educators and animators in settings that are not tied to them in the same way that classrooms are linked to teachers. It also means that they do not work to institutional, ‘clock’, time in the same way. There will be fixed points like appointments but, in general, local educators think in larger and fuzzier blocks of time-space. They are ‘around’ for people at certain times – perhaps being in an office or project or, like street workers, having their particular routes and locales. Their concern is to ‘catch the moment’, to encourage reflection at critical points. This brings with it it’s own problems – including a certain ‘hit or miss’ quality and the possibility of undervaluing the use of more formal and disciplined work.

‘Owning’ space: The desire to ‘catch the moment’ and to fit in with lo cal routines and practices means that local educators and animators can end up dealing with quite sensitive matters in some very peculiar situations. Questions can also arise around the theme of ‘not invading other people’s space’. There is a tendency, particularly within detached youth work, to see what are essentially public places as ‘their’ (meaning the young people’s) space. Others are aware of this slippage and may define public space communally.

The shopping area, the streets, these areas are public space, not just ‘their space’. So if someone is chucking litter on the floor you say something. These are things I would do in my own street. You lighten it. You might say ‘get a whole in one’ rather than don’t throw it on the floor. I don’t have notions about exclusive space in that sense. It is our space.

When thinking about local education and development and the ‘ownership’ of space, Goffman’s (1959) distinction between back and front regions is helpful. Even in settings such as family centre s and community centres where people have worked on rules and programmes, workers and users can experience space – the setting for interaction – very differently. The office, for example, may well be seen as ‘ours’ by workers and they may then talk about ‘going out’ into the centre (which in some way is seen more as the users’ space). They do this in much the same way that detached youth workers or community workers might talk about ‘going-out’ on their rounds. In this sense the office is, for much of the time, a ‘back region’. It is where practitioners can take time-off from face-to-face performances to clients and users.

The cultural experience of time-space: Informal education and community learning and development requires an awareness of the cultural experience of time-space and what this means in different societies. This is not just a matter of workers’ thinking and practice. It is also to do with the way in which those they work with see the world. This tends to be framed in one of two ways. One strand arises out of comments about time-keeping and how different people see keeping to strict ‘clock times’ more or less important. Dealing with extended social systems in ‘modern’ societies requires people to keep to agreed clock times, for example, for appointments or when going to work.. Enabling people to see, and come to terms with this is often a key aspect of the work educators do. However, there is the question of cultural imperialism – are workers encouraging the adoption of a ‘western’ view of time?

The other strand concerning cultural experiences of time-space arises out of the images or mental maps that people have of where th ey live and work. The work involves attending closely to where people draw the boundaries of their neighbourhood and how they talk about distance. Informal educators’ attention can be drawn to this dimension because of what they may as the constraints that these images or maps have upon people’s ability to make use of their environment. People build up general pictures of environments and these include information about what exists at various locations as well as feelings about those places.

Encounter and personal growth

In the mid to late 1960’s ‘encounter’ entered the vocabulary of informal educators in a particular way. This owed much to Carl Rogers. Following on from the work of  Kurt Lewin and other’s around experiential learning and ‘T’ Groups (training in human relations), Rogers (and some US We st Coast trainers) looked to encounter groups to promote personal growth.

The experiential group was still considered an instrument of education, not of therapy, but a broader, more humanistically based definition of education was proposed: education is not, they argued, the process of acquiring interpersonal and leadership skills, not the understanding of organizational and group functioning, but nothing less than full self-discovery, the development of one’s full potential. (Yalom 1995: 491)

In such groups spontaneity, personal awareness and sensitivity to others were key themes. For Rogers (1970) encounter groups held the possibility of our ‘opening up’ to ourselves and to others. By working for an environment characterized by certain ‘core conditions’ –  genuiness (congruence), acceptance and empathy – group members could ‘authentically’ encounter each other (and themselves). They could begin to trust in their feelings and accept themselves for what they are.

The encounter group, which seemed such a feature of personal growth activity and training for group work and informal education, has fast become a fading memory. It has been overtaken by the development of the theory and practice therapy groups; the shift to a concern for the possession of competencies in many professional arenas; and the explosion of various alternative therapies and experiences on the personal growth front.

All real living is meeting – encounter and relation

For theorists like Martin Buber encounter (Begegnung) has a significance beyond co-presence and individual growth. He looked for ways in which people could engage with each other fully – to meet with themselves. The basic fact of human existence was not the individual or the collective as such, but ‘Man with Man’ (Buber 1947). As Aubrey Hodes puts it:

When a human being turns to another as another, as a particular and specific person to be addressed, and tries to communicate with him through language or silence, something takes place between them which is not found elsewhere in nature. Buber called this meeting between men the sphere of the between. (1973: 72)

Encounter (Begegnung) is an event or situation in which relation (Beziehung) occurs. We can only grow and develop, according to Buber, once we have learned to live in relation to others, to recognize the possibilities of the space between us. The fundamental means is dialogue.

Exhibit 1: Martin Buber on encounter

I can look on (a tree) as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air – and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognise it only as an expression of law…

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number…

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness. Martin Buber (1958) I and Thou, pages 19-20)

This brings us one of Buber’s famous distinctions between relation and irrelation. We can either take our place, as Pamela Vermes (1988: 40-41) puts it, alongside whatever confronts us and address it as ‘you’; or we ‘can hold ourselves apart from it and view it as an object, an “it”‘. So it is we engage in I-You (Thou) and I-It relationships. The first, I-You, involves a sense of being part of a whole. As Dan Avnon put it, ‘This “I” is not sensed as singular; it is the “I” of being present to being’ (1998: 39). In contrast ‘I-It’ involves a distancing. Differences are accentuated, the uniqueness of “I” emphasized. ‘The “I” of I-It indicates a separation of self from what it encounters. By emphasizing difference, the “I” of I-It indicates a separation of self from what it encounters’ (Avnon 1998: 39). ‘The hyphen of I-You indicates relation; the hyphen of I-It indicates separation’ (ibid.: 40).

The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, not can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; and as I become the I, I say Thou.

All real living is meeting. (Buber 1958: 24-25)

The last sentence is sometimes translated as ‘All real life is encounter’. This, as Pamela Vermes (1994: 198) comments, could be taken as the perfect summary of Buber’s teaching on encounter and relation. However, it seems unlikely that he would have agreed with the notion that where there is no encounter is life ‘unreal’. It appears to be in encounter ‘that the creative, redemptive, and revelatory processes take place which Buber associates with the dialogical life’ (op cit.).

Recommended reading

Buber, M. (1947) Between Man and Man, London: Kegan Paul. Transl. R. G. Smith. 211 + viii pages. Republished by Fontana, 1961 – and now available from T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh. A collection of pieces that fills out I and Thou – and that has a a special resonance for educators. . Comprises ‘Dialogue’, 1929, ‘Education’, 1928, ‘The Question to the Single One’, I936, ‘The Education of Character’, 1939, and ‘What is Man?’ 1938.

Lemert, C. and Branaman, A. (eds.) (1997) The Goffman Reader. Cambridge: Polity Press. 285 +lxxxii pages. . This is a very helpful collection, bringing together extracts from his major books plus a number of important essays such as ‘The interactional order’, and ‘”Felicity’s condition”‘. Material is organized in four sections: the production of self; the confined self; the nature of social life; and frames and the organization of experience. Charles Lemert cont ributes an opening essay on Goffman; and Ann Branaman examines Goffman’s social theory.

Smith, M. K. (1994) Local Education, Buckingham: Open University Press. See chapters three (Engaging in conversation) and six (Embedding practice).

Other references

Avnon, D. (1998) Martin Buber. The hidden dialogue, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Buber, M. (1958) I and Thou, Edinburgh: T and T Clark. 171 pages.

Goffman, E. (1961) Encounters. Two studies in the sociology of interaction, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Goffman, E. (1963) Behavior in Public Places. Notes on the social organization of gatherings, New York: Free Press.

Goffman, E. (1969) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London: Penguin.

Hodes, A. (1972) Encounter with Martin Buber, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Rogers, C. (1970) Encounter Groups, New York: Harper and Row; London: Penguin.

Vermes, P. (1988) Buber, London: Peter Halban.

Vermes, P. (1994) Buber on God and the Perfect Man, London: Littman of Jewish Civilization.

Yalom, I. D. (1995) The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, New York: Basic Books.

Zeldin, T. (1998) An Intimate History of Humanity, London: Viking.

Acknowledgements: Picture: friends talking and drinking by Miguel Jimenez. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons cc-by-nc-nd2 licence. flickr.com/photos/migs212/136782609.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1996, 2011) ‘Encounters’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/encounters/. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1996, 1999, 2011

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