2021 Presidential Address: Discourse in 2021: Some Observations From a Radical Behaviorist
Carol Pilgrim (University of North Carolina Wilmington)
Characterizing one’s behaviorism as radical entails a world view that is simultaneously fundamental in its emphasis on selection by the environment as the origin of behavior, whether public or private; thoroughgoing in its relevance to all dimensions of human endeavor, from simple reflexes to complex social systems; and extreme in its focus on changing the social environment to impact critical cultural reforms (e.g., Malagodi, 1996). Indeed, increasing attention to cultural behavior analysis has been a highlight of our recent history in this field, and significant strides have been made in expanding analyses beyond the molecular contingencies operating at the level of the individual to the meta- and macro-contingencies in effect for groups of individuals (e.g., Glenn, 2004). Of course, a cultural-level perspective has been a defining feature of most, if not all, of our sister social sciences from their inception, and it has been suggested (e.g., Malagodi, 1996) that behavior analysis could gain much from seeking alignment of our basic principles with complementary approaches and methodologies found useful in the broader social science arena. A case in point involves the study of discourse, defined conventionally as “extended expression of thought on a subject in connected speech or writing” and “rooted in concrete contexts such as history or institutions” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). A scholarly target of multiple social science disciplines, quantitative and qualitative analytic strategies have been developed to better characterize, and study the function(s) of, a given discourse. In considering alignments, Skinner’s own analysis (1957) detailed differences in size across verbal operants, allowing for those of considerable extent, and he discussed discourse-like phenomena not infrequently, as in his treatment of the difficulties presented by the literatures of freedom and of dignity for a science of behavior (e.g., 1953, 1971). It will be argued here that important dimensions of current events on the national scene, as well as within behavior analysis, could also be described in terms of conflict in discourse and that, in seeking to find solutions, we might be wise to undertake a more broadly informed and truly radical approach to understanding the nature of discourse, its selection and transmission, and its impact on other modes of behavior. The extent to which a given discourse can function as a unit, and as a significant form of cultural practice, will be explored through examples.
Dr. Carol Pilgrim received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 1987 with a specialization in the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. She is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she has been honored with a Distinguished Teaching Professorship (1994–1997), the North Carolina Board of Governors Teaching Excellence Award (2003), the Faculty Scholarship Award (2000), and the Graduate Mentor Award (2008). She received the Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award and the College of Arts and Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award in 1992, the ABAI Student Committee Outstanding Mentor Award in 2006, and the ABAI Distinguished Service to Behavior Analysis award in 2017. Her research contributions include both basic and applied behavior analysis, with an emphasis in human operant behavior, relational stimulus control, and the early detection of breast cancer. Dr. Pilgrim has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst, associate editor of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, and The Behavior Analyst, co-editor of the Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Bulletin, and as a member of the editorial boards of those and several other journals. She is a Fellow of the Association for Behavior Analysis International and of Division 25 of the American Psychological Association. She has served as President of the Association for Behavior Analysis, the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis, Division 25 of the American Psychological Association, and the Southeastern Association for Behavior Analysis. Additionally, she has been Member-at-large of the Executive Council of ABA and Division 25, and member of the Boards of Directors of the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis, and the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.