Emancipatory Potential and Micropolitical Practice: Teaching the Sociology of Education

A paper presented to the British Sociological Association Annual Conference, 'Sociology in Action' Plymouth, March 1989


 The paper discusses notions of theory as emancipation in the work of Bhaskar and Habermas, and contrasts these with notions of theory as strategic communication or as resources in (micro)political struggle (as in Bauman).  The abstract discussion is illustrated by reference to the emancipatory claims typically made in Sociology of Education texts, courses, and lectures. Some general reference will also be made to other examples of educational theory (Psychology and Philosophy).
In the final section, the concrete context of teaching on teacher training courses will be examined, drawing upon some recent work in classroom studies (including Ball on micropolitics), but developing the argument at the level of higher education. Results from some preliminary, small-scale case-studies will be included.


 The 'split' between theory and practice in teacher training is a theme that demands attention from anyone involved in teaching the sociology of education. There are a number of manifestations of the split which present themselves differently. 'Theorists' find themselves under increasing pressure  to justify their work in terms of immediate relevance to the classroom teacher, for example, but the mechanisms whereby theory is actually 'applied' are left unclarified. What seems to be involved is some view of theory as a source of privileged insight into the world, with practice logically derived from this secure foundation. Only theory which leads directly to practice in this way is to be permitted, for both right- and left-wing contributions to the discussion. However, this view of the theory-practice relation is one that is becoming increasingly problematic.

With the emergence of the 'new' sociology of education in the 1970s, a greater theoretical self-awareness became thematised in the literature, as writers and course designers discovered the rebukes to 'positivism' in symbolic interactionism and marxism. The implications of the 'new' sociology raised the issue of theory, or epistemology, in general. Thus the famous but rather specific and idiosyncratic debates between the sociologists and the philosophers at the London Institute (Young, M and White, J 1975, 1976) centred on 'relativism', but began to raise the classic concerns found in general theory - how is theory possible, how might it be related to empirical data, and what is its relation to practice. The last concern gained force from a more general marxist problematic as those 'great continentals' who had written specifically (and relatively accessibly) about education (especially Althusser and Gramsci) found their way into sociolgy of education, often via 'popularisers' first (Whitty 1985) too. Rather in the spirit of the person finding themselves holding the tail of a tiger, the 'new' sociologists of education began to discover social theory and its dilemmas.

A striking feature of the development of the major trajectories is the role of institutional and professional politics. Institutions and courses, such as the London Institute, and the Open University's famous undergraduate courses of the 1970s, and the role of particular conferences, such as those held at St Hilda's (Whitty ibid) seem to have played a key role in producing the characteristic discourses of the subdiscipline. Occasional imports from Europe and the USA (the latter including the influential works of Bowles and Gintis [see file], or more recently, Apple and his associates) were crucial in establishing new directions (sic) for the theoretical work. Even the iconoclastic crusades of ethnomethodolgy or British post-Althusserianism surfaced occasionally, although iconcolcasm tended to be marginalised by more activist strands. A full study of the role of 'invisible colleges' remains to be undertaken, but the point here is that 'theoretical' issues were put on the agenda by, and largely remain subservient to, more 'practical' or 'applied' issues, even in the 'more sophisticated' work (Whitty ibid). Even the new sociology of education seemed somewhat apologetic about theory, always ready to postpone or subsume 'purely theoretical' issues. This is hardly uncommon, of course. Nevertheless, sociologists of education have always been acutely aware of their clients, probably more so than in any other 'applied' area: not only do soiciologists of education commonly teach teachers or trainee teachers, they also teach them, in the very sorts of educational institutions that they claim to be analysing. It is virtually impossible to avoid the 'practical' aspects of the 'theory-practice split', therefore.

Students themselves will put the issue on the agenda by demanding a justification for 'all this theory'. They will report back from their teaching practices with a confident repetition of the widespread professional ideology (and accurate perception) that 'theory does not work in the practical classroom situation'. At the institutional level, the contribution of the various educational disciplines, including the sociology of education, have been minimised recently or even omitted (which often means they are still taught but by non-specialists). At the national level, often connected with the institutional one via the politics of accreditation and validation, bodies like CATE or CNAA require courses to be designed which embrace 'practice' and 'experience'. These trends have not gone unresisted, and it would be misleading to abstract from the complex political struggles and alliances which determine actual course design and teaching - but it is clear that there is a politics (both 'macro' and 'micro') to the 'theory-practice split', that it is not just an issue of epistemology. 'Theorists' can not afford to defend themselves on the lofty ground of abstract argument alone (and not many do, it will be argued), and 'activists' can find themselves engaging in 'struggle' at a much more mundane, local, and 'micro' level than their works anticipate. 

Any theoretical labour that seems to handicap what has become a rather grim struggle for institutional survival must look particularly unwelcome at present. Yet the turn  towards 'relevance' or activism is one which embodies its own contradictions, and which runs the risk of reducing theory either to an idealised moral commentary on classroom life or to propaganda. The former invites cynical disregard from students and practitioners, the latter an even more vicious campaign by moral entrepreneurs. The whole process has been encountered before, in the emancipatory claims made by more general social theory.

Emancipatory Claims

One response to the crisis confronting the sociology of education has been to reassert certain emancipatory claims for the subdiscipline. Examples are common (although I am not claiming that these claims are universally made without reservation), and the claims are familiar - doing sociology of education will help teachers understand classrooms or schools more fully or wholly in some sense. This 'whole' to be exposed sometimes lies partly buried 'beneath the surface' where it can not be examined by the 'ordinary consciousness' of the practitioner. However that consciousness can be relatively easily extended, by merely teaching (compare the emancipatory claims of some strands of marxism, say, where a radical politicisation, a deep transformation of consciousness is required). The necessary extension can come from adding information about a 'context', for example, or by pursuing implications which, it can be pointed out, lie implicit in practice:

  '...[educational research]...can, in fact, transform one's view of life...Sociology can also liberate from false notions of personal inadequacy or blame... our knowledge [of discipline problems] would be incomplete without an appreciation of wider contexts...Sociology often reveals deeper realities behind appearances.' (Woods and Pollard, 1988:11,12)

 'Teachers are sometimes not aware that the child's display of knowledge is constrained by the structure of the task, the organization of discourse,and the physical parameters of hte teaching-learning situation' (Mehan, 1986:101)

 ' Patriarchy is the education paradigm...there was no alternative but to set up a "circle of women" to produce and validate knowledge about women..."After institutionalised education you feel worse. After feminist education you feel better" ...' (Spender, 1987: 143,151,152)

Emancipatory claims of this kind are inscribed in the forms of argument deployed in 'theory' courses or textbooks as well. The arguments classically follow a 'realist' narrative structure, where a number of flawed understandings are offered first to the reader or listener, and then the underlying truth which makes sense of and transcends all the 'surface' readings of the situation is stated, or, better still, is left to emerge and be 'discovered' by the reader. This form is common, I believe in lectures, seminars and tutorials (certainly common in my own!), and it makes its quintessential written appearance in the OU course unit where, periodically, students have to record their views of a topic, or summarise and criticise a number of views they have just encountered, and are invited to 'self-assess' themselves by reference to the course writers' preferred views. Wexler (1982) pursues a similar analysis for school textbooks in the USA. 

Of course, these claims and forms have been the subject of the most prolonged debate in social theory, but there is little evidence of this debate in the sociology of education (doubtless for the micropolitical reasons mentioned above). To be fair, some recent contributions tend to acknowledge, at least, the difficulties (Whitty op.cit., Hammersley, 1989), and the work of Culley and DeMaine (1983) will be acknowledged and discussed  below.

Ironically, some of the most trenchant objections to these claims have arisen from post-Althusserian or post-structuralist writings, once eagerly pursued as a source of a more correct, secure, or more 'scientific' critical marxism by sociologists of education! Yet an uneasy accommodation with these writings has been common, with sociologists of education wanting to embrace only some of the critical implications.

It would be fair to say, to summarise a series of lengthy debates in some of these writings, that notions of 'surface/depth', 'context' or 'totality' are undoubtedly ambiguous and often unhelpful metaphors, even in the classic works. The deployment of these metaphors in concrete analysis reveals either an incoherence or a dogmatism, even in the 'founding fathers', as one famous intervention demonstrated with surprising ease (Hindess, 1977). These  demonstrations can be liberating themselves in a personal sense, as the reader of, say, the 'Introduction' in Grundrisse, shifts the blame for the frustration and sense of inadequacy induced by irritating metaphor after irritating metaphor from reader to text.

The humanist focus upon flawed perceptions or consciousness, involved in many an emancipatory claim, as a source of limitation on understanding has largely been rejected by an attention instead to discourses or practices that construct (mis)recognitions (Mepham, 1979). The corresponding implications for liberating practice as a matter of correct perceptions and solid deductions are also in doubt, partly because of the rejection of the whole procedure as ill-founded (since Althusser, 1970, although he too was to be purified in the fire of Hindess ibid and Hirst, 19XX): the 'objects' of experience and the 'objects' of theory are different objects, constructed in different linguistic and conceptual practices, and sharing only a name. It is an idealist fallacy to expect even corrected consciousnes to grasp and totally subsume objects. As we shall see in an argument directed against the claims of 'practice', it is an empiricist fallacy to operate the other way around and to prioritise the apparent 'objects' of experience, by some appeal to 'the facts' or 'the reality of classroom life', for example.

The powerful arguments against the search for privileged 'metanarratives' (Lyotard, 1986) as a guide to secure theory, can hardly be ignored. Any emancipatory claim which bases itself on a superior insight into an underlying reality, or a grasp of some privileged concepts, cannot avoid the questions raised most acutely by 'post-modernism': what is the foundation for the claim to superiority? how can we distinguish emancipatory claims from any other 'narratives'? why should some discourses be granted the status of metanarrative? 

It is also clear that the crisis affects all foundationalist arguments, no matter how impeccably emancipatory they might be in intent. As a colleague once pointed out, one's first reaction upon being exposed to anti-foundationalist arguments is to exult in the discomfort they bring to rivals: only later does it occur that one's own cherished metanarratives are also subverted! The anti-foundationalism case applies alike to marxism and Christianity, to sociology and to its rivals. 

Some popular versions of feminism that operate with some notion of a 'deep' structural or foundational concept of patriarchy to explain 'surface' manifestations of female oppression are also susceptible to the charges of 'incoherence' or 'dogmatism' as the two levels of the arguments are brought together. Culley and DeMaine (ibid) argue this case, with specific reference to the work of Hirst, pointing to the 'essentialist' and 'ontological' notions of 'needs' or 'interests' in certain feminist analyses of patriarchy (like Deem's) (p 162).

Kingdom (1980), cited in Culley  and DeMaine, points to the incoherence of arguments claiming that one can reduce legislation or courts decisions to the interests of male, upper class judges. Her analysis serves to make a general case that could be used equally to criticise work like Spender's cited above. We can analyse liberating laws (or educational reforms?), for example, as the result of a wrong identification of male interests, a temporary failure of the partiality of the law, or a kind of strategic withdrawal the better to secure long term male dominance. 

As Adlam (1979), and also cited in Culley and DeMaine, argues, 'a duality can not be stretched into a diversity' (p 99), that is, a basic polarity between men and women can not be used as a coherent  foundation for an examination of the specifics of all the diverse relations between them. Adlam goes on to consider the political usefulness of emphasising diversities in women's struggles, as opposed to the usual claims that there is one essential (sic) constituency of 'women' who simply are represented by (socialist) feminism (a theory, she argues, privileging a politics, despite the apparent activism of the project). In a conclusion of general significance for this paper, she argues that liberation requires politics not some foundational theory.

At the tactical level, 'realist' narratives have also been criticised. Far from offering emancipatory insight, they can quietly privilege a particular dominant view, and leave readers or listeners or viewers practically powerless to intervene. As a pedagogic device in radical cinema, 'socialist' or 'critical realism' once attracted serious criticism of this kind (Maccabe, 1981) [ see file], yet its use in radical education seems largely unquestioned (with the exception of, say, Wexler op.cit., or Thompson 1979). Realist narrative conforms so much more deeply to the conventions of formal education, to notions of 'good' lecturing and writing, and, above all, to the constraints of student grading schemes, as I have argued elsewhere (Harris 1987) [ and see file], that the pedagogic equivalent of an avant garde cinema is unthinkable.

Responses to the Crisis:  Bhaskar, Habermas.

One path out of the crisis precipitated by post-modernism involves a turn back to realism, especially transcendental realism of the kind popularised by Bhaskar. The story, developed in the pages of Radical Philosophy, for example, involves a sustained counterblast at the 'post-Althusserians', both at the conceptual and political levels. It will be necessary to summarise very heavily here too, but the British post-Althusserians were roundly condemned by Skillen (1978) or Collier (1978) for idealism and incoherence in their own writings. In an ingenious piece, Eliott (1986) linked the iconoclasm of Hirst to the opportunist politics that the critique had finally come to embrace. By the strict and rigid canons of coherence and discursive purity that had led to the powerful criticisms of virtually all the founding (sic) traditions in sociology, history and marxism, all attempts to guide politics with theory were flawed. For analysts, there remained 'concrete' analysis that looked uncomfortably like Weberian sociology after all (Turner, 1981)). Activists could rely only upon 'calculation' in politics, and that too closely resembled once-despised predecessors - Wilsonian pragmatism in this case (Elliott op.cit). 

In many ways, the trajectory resembles one outlined by Colletti's account of Marx's early critiques of Hegel (Colletti 1975) - abstract philosophy, in its attempts to purify and manipulate concepts, remains abstracted from, and uncritical of existing practice, and thus far too likely to apologise for that practice, when it decides finally to 'apply' itself to 'the real world'. In Hegel's case, the notorious accommodation with the Prussian State was the result, for Hirst, the return to Labourism. Indeed, the abstractions of Habermas and Bhaskar run the same risk, as we shall see, where a sophisticated abstract defence of emancipatory theory (or science, or communication), can end in a blindness to the strategic, micropolitical elements of actual, concrete, theorising. Considered in an activist mode, the dilemmas are equally clear and acute, since no actual grubby concrete poltical practice can ever be as pure as a theoretical argument. Activists are then left with the choice of remaining pure but aloof, or facing an uncomfortable rapprochement with actual practice  and risking compromise, dilution of the faith, or incorporation.

 'Realism' offered one alternative to the post-Althusserian tragedy. Bhaskar's work ,in brief, offers an argument for realism that follows a familiar 'transcendental' route: science is only intelligible as an activity if we assume realism; a real world can be conceptualised that breaks with the old empiricism, by postulating a world of real entities that are knowable only in their effects; those effects are not tightly  determined,  but are real, emergent properties produced by multiple determinations. In social science, parallel arguments lead to 'naturalism' in Bhaskar's work (Chalmers, 1988). Similar arguments appear to lie behind Gidden's 'structurational sociology', although the position seems unclarified.

Most relevant for our purposes is Bhaskar's discussion of the emancipatory claims of the approach. After summarising a numnber of emancipatory steps a social science can take, Bhaskar describes 'explanatory critical rationality', where it becomes possible to show that an object is 'blocking' an accurate perception of reality, and that that object is contingent, and can, in principle, be removed (Bhaskar 1980). This is a matter of the relations between objects and beliefs, and helps Bhaskar escape from the circularities of purely 'hermeneutic' accounts. 

His examples in the article are rather schematic and abstract, or based on rather Habermasian accounts of Marx or Freud, but the whole argument seems to offer a parallel with some arguments advanced in the sociology of education that attempt to account for, say the rival views and perceptions of teachers and pupils, in terms of their social class backgrounds or mobility experiences - see Hopper (1981) for an unusuyally explicit account. Certainly, the sociology of education would be an excellent empirical discipline to comb for concrete examples of the kind of demonstration that Bhaskar has in mind. Criticisms of the approach can be considered with those of Habermas's below.

Habermas's work also operated with a similar project involving the grounding of emancipatory claims made for theory in 'quasi-transcendental human interests' (Habermas 1972a). Earlier versions of 'critical theory' tried to base their claims on some notion of 'totality' (in Adorno), or a lingering adherence to an autonomous subject (in Marcuse), both of which would be liberated or fully acknowledged in (although never finally subsumed by) adequate theory. The 'q.t.h.i.s' model broke with these problematic conceptions, and were described as interests in 'work', 'symbolic interaction' and 'emancipation'. Habermas used them to sytematise his earlier critical work on positivism and the human sciences (located in the first two interests, respectively, and so justifiable, but not acceptable as universal), while leaving a space and a project for critique and critical theory (representing the interest in emancipation).

The project found a new application in the influential work of Carr and Kemmis (1986), where the apparatus of the q.t.h.i.s was used to rebuke existing notions of knowledge in school curricula, and, as in Habermas himself, to fight off various kinds of imperialism where knowledge grounded in only one of the interests claimed to be universal and self sufficient. This sort of argument will be echoed below  when we consider the universal claims of 'professional studies' in teacher edcuation.

However, the whole 'quasi-transcendental' apparatus has been heavily criticised. The precise status of the  'transcendental' level was unclear, for example (Bubner 1982)), and the general argument, found in the 'post-Althusserian' approach outlined above, also applies to Habermas and to Bhaskar: how exactly can the two levels of the argument be reconciled without circularity or incoherence or dogmatism?  What actually happens when one moves from the level of observed practice to the 'transcendental' level, for example, and what guides the processess of abstraction?  Are these processes of abstraction the same in all three cases? From the other way around, how is it possible to move from the transcendental level to find practices that both reflect these human intertests as they are, so to speak, and offer a critique of them? Similar points have been made about other 'two-level' arguments as in 'structuration' models, for example, and they are almost certainly inherent (see Chalmers op.cit., Dallmyr 1982, Benton 1981).

Habermas himself moved on to another apporach, of course, having acknowledged his critics (Habermas 1972b), and came to stress the emancipatory potential of 'the ideal speech act' (i.s.a. - sic) instead (Habermas 1979). In the 'i.s.a'., the force of the better argument alone prevails among formally equal participants. There are no restrictions on the scope or direction of the argumemnt. The full range of argumentation is deployed (including 'rhetoric' Habermas 1984), rather than some self-denying ordinance to use only 'scientific' or 'practical' forms. Claims as to the truth or appropriateness of the speech, or the sincerity of the speaker, can be raised and questioned by any participant at any stage. Habermas wants to argue that such speech is within the grasp of all competent speakers.

The 'i.s.a.' is used to complete the same projects as before. Social and natural sciences are sytematised and arranged according to how fully they permit argumentation and speaker competence to develop in their accounts. Habermas embraces an evolutionary schema to perform this systematisation and, en route, fights off rival approaches such as relativistic ones (his earlier struggles with hermeneutic and systems theory could be recast in the new terms).

The political implications of the 'linguistic turn' are less clear, though. Habermas had used terms such as 'blocked' and 'distorted' communication in the earlier approaches. Communication could be 'blocked' by some unreflected adherence to a restricted form of communication, such as a discourse which took for granted some customary political goal and had not rethought that goal in the light of new conditions (Apel 1979). 'Distorted' communication occurred when particular interests masqueraded as more general ones, as in the classic marxist accounts of how market forces acted supposedly in the interests of all, or, more acutely in modern societies, how the State claimed legitimacy as an agency pursuing universal goals while quietly privileging the particular ones of dominant groups (Habermas 1976).

Notions like an 'ideal speech act' can clearly be used to help identify these distortions still, as well as serving the older goals of rebuking the universalist claims of more restricted social sciences. I have used the notion of 'conversation' in the i.s.a. to expose the limits of the term 'conversation' in educational technology, for example, (Harris, op.cit.) and much could be gained from using Habermas to widen the scope of the analyses of classroom language currently dominated by ethnomethodolgical interests. Habermas himself is alert to the foundationalism lurking in these usages, however, and has warned his readers against taking the i.s.a as a kind of blueprint or metanarrative from which to read off an approved emancipatory practice. Political activity is now a relatively autonomous area with its own constraints and risks. Nevertheless, the i.s.a. seems to remain as a kind of tactical weapon in the hands of activists, able to be asserted 'counterfactually', to keep debate alive, as it were (Habermas 1982), or to resist 'colonisation of the life world' (Habermas 1984). 

High-powered theory reduced to the level of a mere tactical weapon, and a rather conservative one illustrates the extent of the crisis induced by 'post-modernism'. One can no longer scour works like those of Bhaskar or Habermas expecting to find some 'pure ground' upon which to base tactical interventions in local struggles. One finds the issue of the emancipatory claim discussed in the abstract at a very general level, but with such rigour, critical purity, and advanced 'philosophical' awareness that no immediately practical benefit can be gained. This is the same sort of 'pathos' that haunted classical critical theory, as well as some of its rivals like the 'sociology of knowledge' (Piccone 1978, or Vallas 1977). The disappointment has played a part in a rejection of 'grand theory' in favour of some more optimistic or activist work (notoriously, in the sociology of education, Gramsci's work). 

However, activism has its problems too, although one ran a risk of incurring deep personal unpopularity in outlining them in certain quarters! It is associated with emanciaptory claims of the old doubtful kind, for example,as if Gramsci's work were somehow uniquely privileged as a metanarrative. As the debates about his work reveal, though, there is as much incoherence and dogmatism among Gramscians struggling to interpret concepts like 'hegemony' or 'organic intellectual' as among Althusserians or any other group of theorists. (Entwhistle 1979, Gibbon 1983). 

Moreover, arguing, as is common, that theories should be rank ordered in terms of their relevance to practice, with Gramsci often in first place, Althusser next, and critical theory way behind, is precisely the same sort of argument as is found among right-wing versions of the theory-practice relationship. It is a left-wing positivism, and therefore runs a number of risks familiar in the history of marxism.  Finally, it is  hard to justify all the risks and limits on the grounds of political advantage, since activism as a political project seems to have lost its way and lost its revolutionary agents with the discovery of the populist power of Thatcherism, the conservatism of youth, and the relative powerlessness of organised labour. In these circumstances, activism looks increasingly propagandist or 'idealist' in both the popular and academic senses of the term.

Nevertheless, activism has helped focus attention on an aspect of the  theory-practice debate which has been negelected in the abstract discussions - how the emancipatory claims of theory are actually wielded in concrete politics. Again, this sort of discussion usually takes a 'left-wing' turn in the  dominant strands in the sociology of education, but Bauman's recent book (1987) serves as a useful reminder that social theory's flirtations with power (which Bauman says are likely to increase with the post modernist crisis) have more commonly been rather disreputable 'right-wing' ones. 

Micropolitics in Teacher Training

Having talked so far about social theory as a source  for the emancipatory claims made in 'theory' courses in teacher training, however indirectly and hesitantly, it might be appropriate to consider not activism, but the more likely rivals to those 'theory' courses. Here, a difficulty presents itself, however, since it is hard to identify alternatives with a stable content. It is common to refer to 'practical' or 'professional' courses, at least in my experience, as the  main rivals to courses based on educational disciplines ("the 'ologies"). In the abstract,  it might be possible to characterise those courses as designed 'with a practical intent',as Habermas might put it, focussing upon skills required by the succesful teacher. These skills seem to range from familiarity with the routines of classrooms and staffrooms, knowledge of and practice with pedagogical techniques, teaching packages and schemes, and skills of diagnosis and assessment. Some courses offer skills like this at three levels  - individual, classroom, and school. 

Skills are commonly taught in formal and informal ways in College, and, crucially, while on treaching practice in actual schools (or equivalent placements). These locations make it difficult to codify contents exactly, of course, especially since 'practical' concrete applications of skills forbid generalisation.  Traditionally, and for the reasons of micropolitics as we shall see, the supervision of such courses is undertaken by staff who rarely specialise in 'theory', and so it is difficult to find 'theoretical' comment about them. 'Theorists' (including myself) are unlikely to have had much chance to experience these courses themselves or to have observed them (except long ago, as trainees ourselves).

The claim, developed with degrees of explicitness,  seems to be not one of emancipation in some abstract sense, but that these courses lead to practical success. Success follows if students embrace particular methods or techniques, and here some familiar paradoxes arise, it seems. In the first place, it is clear that indivdual schools can vary, and so methods and techniques can only be 'applied' to concrete cases after interpretations and adaptations. Applications of methods involves a kind of two-way modification, apparently: the methods are adjusted (operationalised in effect) to fit the concrete case, and vice-versa, as the concrete cases are interpreted, certain features abstracted from them, certain elements 'recognised' and others ignored and so on.

I have no close detailed observations to offer here, but, from a number of accounts offered by disgruntled students and colleagues, ususally, for the former, after a disputed assessment has been made of teaching practice, it seems likely that these processes of interpretation and application feature the same qualities of incoherence and dogmatism as discussed above. The parallel here is with critical discussions of positivism in Adorno, for me (Adorno 1976). These discussions also point to a reliance on method as a kind of metanarrative guaranteeing success (via a discussion of the links with pre-Enlightenment magic). Adorno also argues that the concrete object has to be dominated and subdued first (in laboratory experiments or idealisations) before the methods can be made to 'fit' successfully, and thereby suggests a deep link between cognitive and political forms of domination. It would be useful to consider as well, studies of the 'practical reasoning' of scientists as they try to 'fit' a scientific vocabulary to observed events - say as in Mulkay (1979).

It would be tempting to explore these issues further, but  as an interim conclusion, it seems likely, to put it mildly, that a turn towards 'the practical' is not sufficient to avoid the crisis of educational theory, even though this is usually what theorists are urged to do. The crisis seems to disappear, but only because the apparent imperatives of the practical situation (that is the power of the practitioners over students and tiros) prevent debate. Disputes over the legitimacy of the propsed methods simmer on although they are less visible, articulated neither by theoretical nor political interests at present. However, the crisis in theory is used in micropolitical strategies to buttress its perceived alternative, of course, and no one is really addressing the abstract issues per se.

Even the alternatives are not markedly different, though. There are no 'pure' cases of 'theoretical' and 'practical' courses found in teacher training. All 'theory' courses have long had to justify themselves at the institutional level by claiming to be relevant to practice, for example, and the claim to success has always been implied with the claim to emancipation, as the following examples show.

The practical orientation in education has been a source of limitation at the broader level of research and argument in the disciplines: classroom observation has been closely tied to the issue of teacher control, for example, as a kind of surveillance technique as Sweetman (1988) argues, or as an intervention in a 'practical' debate about effective styles (MacIntyre 1986); studies of the subcultures of boys long dominated the field, partly since they were often the sources of more noticeable 'discipline problems' (McRobbie 1981), and the same point applies to 'working class' forms of school deviance as opposed to the equally interesting but less personally threatening 'white collar' forms; teaching systems on the margins of conventional education (public schools, special education, transition education, distance education) get relatively neglected, despite their theoretical significance; the very discursive boundaries of the sociology of education were accepted as being coterminous with the occupational interests of existing pedagogues and adminstrators, and only recently have parallels been pursued with the sociology of the media or the sociology of the State. 

The same points seem to apply to the equally oddly  specialist and ghettoised disciplines of psychology and phoilosophy of education, although I am less informed here: in the former, the connections between concepts of intelligence and the development of selective testing are well-known, at least (Henderson 1976), while in the latter field, the apologetic nature of classics such as Benn and Peters establish a harmony between existing forms of school provision and the (official) political culture of Britain, even for the non-specialist reader.

'Professional' studies exhibit the same impurities. There always is a 'theory' of some kind involved in practice, of course, albeit at the level of 'spontaneous philosophy', or of something drawn from some half-remembered theory course of long ago. A number of studies of the  'professional perspectives' of schoolteachers have found admixtures of this kind (Esland 1971, Woods 1980), and it is fair to expect them in the perspectives of 'professional studies' at College level too. At both levels, it seems expedient,at times, to deploy 'theoretical' concepts, or at least theoretical language, possibly in order to gain some micropolitical advantage. Thus a number of writers have noticed teachers deploying an 'educational perspective' when discussing pedagogy with researchers (and a possible contradictory one when in classrooms) (Esland, op.cit. Sharp and Green 1975, Keddie, 1971). The strategic nature of these different discourses has been interpreted with varying degrees of sympathy and professional solidarity - see Hargreaves (1986).

At the level of course design, 'professional' courses also seem to embrace 'theories', partly because of the difficulties in separating them from practice,as above,  and partly in order to gain acceptance from various validating and legitimating bodies. Theoretical and abstract knowledge still seems to be 'high-status' at least in those circles and for those purposes. For the skilled micropolitician, as we shall see, a number of other 'OK words' have to be included in course submissions too, as the preferred terms of the CNAA or CATE or HMI emerge and decay. 

Schoolteachers too are learning to couch their work in the newly acceptable terminology. The solemnities of the accounts of activities undertaken in classrooms in mainstreeam and 'transition' education have been noted, at least in polemical pieces if not in 'proper research' , and there are 'organisational  myths' in many institutions referring to the ways in which trivial or routine activities in classrooms can be dignified: preparing a poster for display can be rendered as 'interdisciplinary work'; exercises where children identify objects by touch can be seen as 'science'; learning to change the spark plug on a motor mower can be recorded as 'acquiring a range of technological and social skills at an appropriate level', and so on. Appendix 1 gives a tongue in cheek example. Woods' study (1984)  of 'survival strategies' includes 'morale boosting' which involves 'well established rhetorics' useful in the  'legitimation of certain forms of absence and removal ... There is now a vast thesaurus of "progressive" vocabulary and idioms from which the teacher might draw to construct his [sic] own vocabulary of motives'.(p.61)

These examples lead to the main argument in this piece, in fact. The differences between 'theory' and 'practice',  and the relations between them, for practising teacher trainers at least, are micropolitical ones, not epistemological ones. The relations between theory and practice are unstable, and need continual redefinition because they are the subject of, and the trigger for, micropolitical struggles for students, control over courses, promotion prospects, and all the other resources available in institutions. Indeed, I want to support the view that strategic action of the type described as micropolitics (and there are difficulties in using the term) is fundamental to and constitutive of the theory-practice relation, not just an additional dimension to the problem.(Hoyle 1988, Ball 1987, Foucault 1980).  Whether one accepts or not this strong claim, the micropolitical level is at least a necessary one to counter the abstractions of the focus on (very) macropolitics in theorists like Habermas, and the likely problems outlined above.

Case Study

Researching the micropolitics of teacher training is likely to be very difficult for anyone at the centre of any struggles themselves, and in this field, there are long-established practices which make it difficult to observe even the lectures of colleagues, let alone their seminars or tutorials, or visits to schools. 

In a fully developed study, it would be desirable to acquire full transcripts of lectures or other interactions in order to pursue the sort of detailed analysis of strategic talk in, say Pinch and Clark's piece on market traders. As it is, I can refer only to some exploratory notes taken during those occasions when I have found it possible to attend others' lectures or seminars, in a number of different institutions and over a number of years.

Interviews and participant-observation would also suggest themselves as suitable methods to uncover and explore strategies of distancing, differentiation and involvement between the different audiences interested in theory-practice relations. I can offer only the results of some very preliminary interviews with some colleagues, and the results of some participation in some of these encounters in a number of different institutions over a number of years. In these cases and when attending the teaching sessions of others, I have not always maintained a strictly research orientation, but have lapsed into 'naive' participation on occasion. I am not offering the results summarised here as anything other than a most tentative and exploratory preliminary stage of what I hope might turn into acceptable research on this neglected topic. I have attempted to disguise identities, for obvious reasons, and this has involved changes in content on occasion, to disguise subject matter specialisms, for example. I have also collectivised reported activity.

In lectures I have attended, emancipatory claims do seem to have been advanced, and they have promised to reveal some hidden context or totality as in the classic examples discussed above. Thus in my first example, Dr Athene's lecture promised to make comprehensible a series of events in a Russian play by filling in the social context of the work, in a kind of 'sociology of  knowledge' approach. Thus characteristic themes in the zeitgeist of the author's milieu were described and then used to make intelligible selected sections of the text, often at the level of detailed scenes or characters. 

Dr Telemachus used a different basis for his emancipatory claim while lecturing on a more 'professional' topic. As well as claiming that successful practice would follow a study of his subject (indeed, that listeners would become more successful parents as well as teachers), he was offering a privileged insight into classroom life, appearing as a trained observer of others' folly or inadequate understanding as they tried to cope with pupil disaffection. Studying Telemachus's subject brought insight and control, over others and over oneself, as one achieved liberation from one's own emotional, personal, immediate and ill-conceived reactions to rude behaviour. 

Professor Calypso seemed to operate at a different level, with a kind of 'deferred gratification' model. In her introductory lecture on theories of pupil underachievement, she offered a summary of a number of pieces of research and argument, predicted a certain confusion in the listeners, wryly apologised for making it all seem like an acdemic game but promised that at the end of the course students would be in a much better position to come to their own conclusions about the causes of underachievement. The idea seemed to have been to 'unblock' thinking about the topic by selecting a range of conflicting and sometimes counterfactual accounts, as an essential first stage, much as did the famous OU Education Studies course E282.

Other sessions seemed designed to expose something more like 'distorted communoication' in Habermas's terms. Dr Poseidon offered an historical account of Scottish progressive primary schools apparently designed to show, as in Johnson's well-known 1981 article, that popular education did once exist, that there was indeed a struggle over education, and that popular demands were once very different from the dominant views that prevailed in our apparently unified and uncontroversial State schooling system. Ms Agamemnon's lecture similarly put current policy in context by summarising a range of philosophical and historical debates about the curriculum, and managing to imply quite clearly that the Government had indeed made a 'selection from available knowledge' which it was attempting to disguise as 'natural' or agreed, precisely as in the 'new' sociology's critique. Mr Polyphemus argued that notions of seemingly universal 'good practice' in primary schools often penalised female pupils, and, after giving some examples, he invited students to consider whether notions of 'good practice' at that very institution, did not do the same.

Arguments like these seem impeccably emancipatory in intent, sharing many of the characteristics of famous critical pieces. The courses which sustained them are currently under pressure, however, and they have attracted epithets like 'heavy theory', or 'lacking a professional referent'. These are relative terms,  however, with an unstable meaning contingent upon the alliances and forces at work in teacher and College politics.

Lectures like these are not innocent of 'politics' themselves, of course. The easiest way to demonstrate this is to consider them as making claims to specific status as well as to emancipation in general. These status claims are directed most obviously  at the immediate audience, but also through them at rival positions in teacher education. Dr Athene's lecture rather aggressively assumes that listeners are as familiar as she is with a range of Russian novels and operas, and with the history and politics of the period. Indeed, listeners are expected to have a working knowledge of Russian pronunciation too, since proper names are spoken but not written down anywhere for the ease of the note-taker. The audience is not provided with a booklist before lectures, and so there is no opportunity to have prior access to  works cited nor to any independent material addressing the theme. The text to be interpreted is known, but students coming to it for the first time are hardly likely to possess the same detailed knowledge as the experienced pedagogue who has probably given this lecture several times before. Rival accounts are permitted, including the occasional comment from students, but these can be patronised, ignored, or treated as embryonic versions  of the preferred reading. The overall effect recorded in my notes is of 'an intensely personal tightly integrated worldview - so personal that it is impossible to intervene except to anticipate the course of the preferred view'. This personal posession of knowledge is used to exclude those of insufficient perception, both students, and beyond, colleagues unable to match such a tour de force

Dr. Telemachus also offered a personal worldview of this kind, making it clear that his own wisdom and insight testified to the efficacy of the approaches he outlined. His aneccdotes concerning his own success with 'difficult' pupils in 'difficult' situations reinforced his personal authority as much as the power of the discipline concerned. The connection between observation or surveillance and power has been charted by Foucault among others, and students found themeselves calmly surveyed as Telemachus waited for quiet or dealt with a question. Again, colleagues who lacked the concepts or self control needed to perform the cool clinical observation were being downgraded, as well as students.

Prof Calypso exhibits best the power relations connected with a 'classic realist' pedagogy, as outlined earlier. The students were presented with a certain level of 'narrative tension' as Calypso laughingly refused to offer right answers. Students require 'right answers' even more than the abstract viewer of realist film, of course, because they have to produce assignments regularly for grading. The  only way to get answers, though, lay with further commitment to the narrative, guided only by Calypso. Students needed 'emancipation' from the confusion generated by the narrative itself, one might say. There was no alternative but to wait as Calypso demonstrated her superior position (as the only one who knew the end of the story and, thus, was above all passion) by starting false trails and red herrings, setting up alternatives only to demolish them, and so on. Some of the red herrings were the positions of her rivals, of course.

With themes like these, we have rediscovered the Althusserian 'paradox of the subject', the processes whereby one becomes an (emancipated) subject only by subjecting oneself first to power. However, the general processes outlined by Althusser miss a number of specifics in educational institutions. Lectures like the ones I have described are mixtures of emancipating and dominating practices because of local determinants including the need to 'show one can control a group' and demonstrate mastery of the pedagogic conventions of one's subject, the unspoken contract that exists between lecturers and students whereby both need to generate succcess in examinations, and so both have an interest in producing simplified 'right answers', and, above all, the  need to fight for space, and maintain popularity in an institution which demands external justifications for courses and lectures rather than offering an unconditional commitment to scholarship. These activities serve to constitute in practice what general theory refers to as the 'interpellation' or 'positioning' of the subject.

I have given some examples of the 'dark side' of power in these sessions, but there were also lighter moments,  of course, as lecturers paused to tell amusing anecdotes or jokes, relate emotional stories of tragedy  and heroism, or exhibit the 'role distance' of the professional by commenting  adversely on their own performance. All these devices preserve the popularity of a lecturer, of course, and they may have a pedagogic role too. In the spirit of Habermas's injunction  not to restrict consideration to one particular 'respectable' form of argument, these ought to be included in any concrete study too.

With 'practitioners', I have been unable so far to observe their teaching sessions, but I have managed a small number of interviews as a pilot study. Even from the limited material gathered so far, it is clear that 'practitioners' are more complex than their stereotyped labels indicate (not surprisingly, of course, since micropolitical practices are responsible for the stereotypes). Some 'practitioners' have been 'theorists' before, for example, and some have retained an interest in 'theory' that matches that of the 'theorists'. The overall impression is that the 'theory-practice' issue is used strategically to demarcate a number of boundaries between  themselves and audiences like schoolteachers, colleagues in the same institution or even in the same department, and members of rival organisations such as University Departments of Education.

The boundaries shift over time and with changes of career. External policy changes provide triggers for further activity, as when the CATE criteria stressed the need for more teaching practice in schools for trainee teachers. As one respondent reported, the micropolitical implication of the apparently innocent pressure for more school time was that there would be much less room for College-based work, and so a competition for space was likely, between subject specialists, 'professionals' and 'the "ologies"'. Those specialising in the 'ologies lost most, not for any particular epistemological or principled reasons,  but because 'they didn't have many friends' (in schools or in local national government). In colleges, the 'ologists' had made enemies because they had been 'riding high' in the decade before. The next struggle for this respondent would be to reduce the amount of time spent on subject studies, as the pressures for subject expertise from the National Curiuculum led to the recruitment of less specialised teachers. Whether this implication had dawned on colleagues was unclear.

As Ball suggests, respondents vary in terms of their explicit pursuit of strategies. The most acutely strategic respondents saw micropolitics as the main issue in teacher training, and connected the theory-practice issue to a range of other strategies, including strategies in the politics of gender. The least strategic respondents offered much more noticeably 'philosophical' commentaries on the issue. Of course, it is particularly likely that skilled strategists are going to be good at finding out what an interviewer wants and supplying it.


Much more needs to be done at the concrete micropolitical level.The material gathered so far in this study is very  patchy and preliminary. It needs to be extended by more systematic interview and observational data, although there are formidable methodolgical and political problems in gathering it. Nevertheless, some possibilities have been illustrated here, perhaps, sufficient at least to argue that the 'theory-practice' issue in teacher training is not a 'philosophical' issue at all, but a sociological one. 'There are no solutions to practical problems from philosophers' (Albury et al. 1981)


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