Notes on: Maton, K & Moore, R. (2010) (Eds) Social Realism, Knowledge and the Sociology of Education.  Coalitions of the Mind.  London: Continuum.

Dave Harris


This is about social realism and its implications for the sociology of education.  Social realism intervenes in debates that formerly included constructivism, post structuralism and postmodernism, but these are relativist.  They also help address knowledge itself, and deny the assumption that the only choice is between positivism and relativism.  There is also a false dichotomy between objective and socially constructed notions of knowledge.  Sociology of education is spent a lot of time trying to criticize knowledge claims rather than 'exploring the social grounds for objectivity in knowledge or the autonomy of knowledge - producing fields' (2).  Social realism attempts to bridge these polar opposites.  Knowledge is 'inescapably social' but this does not entail relativism.  There is objective knowledge but it is a social phenomenon produced by people in actual contexts and it is 'fallible rather than absolute or merely relative'[not really social realism in the Bhaskar tradition of the transcendent reality then?  Looks like Popper again].  This knowledge has a power in itself, it does not reflect  essential truth or social power.

Education produces and teaches knowledge, but it has not focused on knowledge as an object in the sociology of education.  We need to understand what knowledge is.  Social realism makes it central.  We need to investigate her own knowledge is created and developed in the form which it takes.

There is a distinction between truth and truthfulness, for Williams.  Truth involves claims to epistemological power, not that there is 'unchanging, eternal Truth' (3), but that we can choose rationally between different sorts of knowledge 'in terms of their explanatory power'.  Truthfulness involves looking through appearances to '"the real structures and motives that lie behind them"', but this can obscure the true nature of knowledge.  Sociology of education has focused on critical deconstructive analyses of the curriculum, to show underlying 'interests and experiences of a dominant social group'.  Truthfulness has replaced truth, although it still implies some deeper truth.  However, constructivism, feminism, multiculturalism and post structuralism all obscure knowledge as a study in its own right.

Social realism embraces both truth and truthfulness, trying to add to the structures beneath the appearances, but arguing that these 'are more than the play of social power and vested interests'(4).  It embraces ontological realism, epistemological relativism, and judgmental rationality' [citing Archer et al 1998]. Ontological realism recognizes 'that knowledge is about something other than itself: there exists a reality beyond our symbolic realm', 'independently existing realities, both natural and social', which limit what we can know, checking our collective beliefs [confused again, is there an external reality or a collective belief in one?].  Epistemological relativism accepts that knowledge is socially produced rather than being invariant Truths, but it does not imply judgmental relativism: we can choose between competing knowledge claims, on a 'rational, intersubjective bases'[enshrines rationality and assumes some legislating institution - no doubt the university].  This escapes the priority that positivism gives to the logical properties of knowledge claims.  Instead we are looking at collective procedures producing judgments 'against the background constraints of the real' (5).

In education, we are more interested in the substance, how fields of social practice produce knowledge and particular procedures for rational objectivity.  Again we don't have to choose positivism or relativism, and nor do we have to choose transmitting knowledge or valorising the learner.  Knowledge producing fields have both 'relational structures of concepts and methods…  And  actors positioned in institutions within specific social and historical contexts' [epistemic and social dimensions].  Knowledge emerges from practices and contexts and cannot be reduced to them: it can transcend its own conditions [presumably relying on Popper again]. 

In this way, social realism goes beyond constructivism, for Young [it is all horribly self referential, and rather parochial --  London University].  Nor can we construct the world free of consequences, since the world reacts back.  Fields of practice are only 'relatively autonomous'(6), but there are 'both arbitrary and non arbitrary bases' for practice.  Knowledge itself shapes the world [followed by '("realism")'].  Knowledge is not certain, but it 'is an object in its own right but as real effects'[further definition].  Social realism helps us to understand these different forms and their effects, including the capacity to build powerful knowledge, and to affect education, to discuss access and professionalism - lots of nice 'practical issues in educational theory and practice'[and this is what subsequent chapters in this book do, apparently].

For example, teacher training has recently emphasised learning rather than knowledge.  This is produced 'a radical skepticism towards knowledge' seeing it as a mere power play.  Knowledge is insufficiently differentiated and the construction of the curriculum seems arbitrary.  Similarly, pedagogy is seen as focused on process not the form of knowledge, and the authority of teachers becomes personal.  Curricula and pedagogy are conventional, and there is no rational sequence on offer.  The same views underpin arguments to replace conventional teaching with ICT.  It is argued that there are no differences between every day and educational knowledge.  This attacks teaching as a profession and disempowers learners.

Social realism does better and accepts such differentiation of knowledge.  Knowledge is real and differentiated and emergent, and teaching should be structured accordingly.  There are differences between production and educational contextualization, but they are still related.  There are 'may be good reasons for why [SIC] some subjects are typically organised in curricula and taught differently to others'(7) [come back Hirst and Peters], but these are not absolute differences, nor are they arbitrary.  Future research should sort out the arbitrary from the non arbitrary [the latter here is defined as 'the affects of an ontological imperative'].  It also follows that if there is non arbitrary knowledge, some forms of knowledge are more epistemologically powerful than others, and this should affect pedagogy by taking account of hierarchies of knowledge.  There are even implications for assessment which should evaluate 'the content knowledge of learners'.

In democracies all citizens should get equal access to powerful knowledge.  We should not just 'celebrate the experiences of students' (8), and risk relativism.  The social backgrounds of students are one variable, but so is the form of knowledge involved.  Overall, both intellectual and educational practices 'necessarily involve hierarchies', but these are not always and everywhere arbitrary.  Popper argued that progress is indicated by the problems created by intellectual fields, and that these problems must be engaged with both truth and truthfulness [pretty odd summary.  Nothing on falsification? Also, knower mode throughout - we should believe this because Popper said it].

There is also a political dimension.  Seeing knowledge as value free is associated with conservatism, and critical relativism is seen as radical.  For the latter, arguing that knowledge is an object worth studying can be seen as reactionary.  Social realism is both non relativistic and socially progressive.  Others have complained about relativism, including Furedi and Wheen [his piece on mumbo jumbo].  Furedi has argued that the role of intellectuals is crucial to a democratic ethos and this is been undermined by cynicism.

We need to reclaim the association between Reason and Truth and social progressiveness: postmodernism is not the last word.  Events like September 11 show that objective reality exists and has consequences [common sense definitions of social reality here] we have to avoid what Gellner called 'the suicide of reason'(9).  The consequences have also been endless fragmentation 'political toothlessness and deleterious educational outcomes' (10) as seen in the sociology of education [professional reasons for realism here]

Social realism is not just another school but should be describe better 'as a coalition of minds', with differences among social realists, or although there is a sense of collaboration and constructive engagement.  This produces an ongoing dialogue, as Durkheim once said about collective representations.  This means the social dimension is central and the intellectual field is shared: it is not just a matter of competitions over power.  This diminishes the full social nature of knowledge.  Intellectual activity is collective and about symbolic membership and coalition, extending over time and space.  There is no radical break with the past [not what Popper says here] .  Examples of such coalitions include intellectual traditions in sociology, such as the one inspired by Durkheim; critical realism in philosophy that bring together Bhaskar, Gellner and Williams; linguistics through Halliday and his associates. However, Bernstein has had 'the most immediate influence'[restoring Bernstein to the canon is another reason for adopting this perspective], and his ideas produce a central thread for the book.

Coalitions of social realists have also developed through associations and discussions, including a series of publications [with Maton and Moore prominent].  Attention was given first to the structural features of knowledge, and this had further applications, above all Maton's.  This resurrected Young.  International conferences and publications leads to more waves and chains of participants.  The chapters in this book illustrate progress [some of them Maton's papers].  Further participation is required.

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