Notes on: Hodgson, N.  and Standish, P.  (2009) ‘Uses and misuses of post structuralism in educational research’, in International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 32 (3): 309-26.

Post structuralist ideas have been adopted in educational research in too shallow a way.  Foucault’s work is a good example, and there is another text referring to Lyotard—Griffiths (2003).  Deleuze and Guattari offer a better approach.  Basically, ‘educational research that is supposedly informed by post structuralism fails to acknowledge the conditions of its own constitution’ (310).

Poststructuralism is used to deny grand metanarratives and the possibility of universal truths.  Knowledge is therefore subjective and propped up by power relations.  Qualitative methodologies are the best ones to expose this, and  narrative research is a particular way to let the oppressed speak in the name of social justice.

Educational research itself is affected by the need to consider practice, especially current practice in classrooms.  This is supported by policy makers.  Research becomes a matter of problem solving, and philosophy itself is seen as excessive and likely to alienate  the practitioner.  The result is a rather superficial understanding of theory.  There has been a move to extend educational research as a body of knowledge in its own right, but even there, official views, as in the ESRC still limit its scope and insist on a tie with policy and practice.  The guidelines for social anthropology are much more open by comparison.  This is the first of a number of assumed levels of understanding, and prevents, for example, notions of agency or emancipation to be critically discussed.

Foucault’s work offers a good example.  It is common to cite it as a guide to research, and as offering a commitment to emancipatory practice.  However, Foucault himself ‘does not take a position’ (312), permitting no easy identification with current practices.  Notions of identity indicate this—conventional identities tend to be taken for granted, in order to understand how injustice works, often by assuming some notion of the whole subject.  Instead, how subjectivity is constituted ought to be analysed.  However, ‘The idea that we may not want to understand ourselves as subjects at all…  may seem counterintuitive’ (313).  It might also be inconvenient.  Foucault’s own work with prisoners shows that his main interest was not to raise their consciousness, but to discuss how notions of good and evil, innocence and guilt are actually constructed [and examples of Foucault’s indifference to the actual contents of prisoners’ speech emerges clearly, 313. What a prat though – seeing it as just an interesting philosophical inquiry!].

The same problems arise with pursuing social justice for minorities in education.  Once again, the processes of subject construction are really examined.  There is ‘a reluctance to let go of the stable human subject’ (314), and a debate about categorisation of the subject instead.  The problem is enhanced by reading Foucault ‘according to key terms and concepts’, in line with the hidden agenda discussed above.

The same applies to Foucault’s  conception of power.  Power relations are everywhere rather than being confined to a particular group.  However, ‘a Marxist or neo Marxist understanding of power’ (315)  often underpins notions of social justice and empowerment common in educational theory.  For Foucault, power emerges through action and discourse, rather than from any outside determining force.

Foucault does not provide a simple theory or model to guide research, unlike the dominant conceptions in educational research.  Instead, there is a stress on ‘an ongoing process, an ongoing struggle’ (315).  Much of the educational research draws on Discipline and punish, which gives an impression of the role education plays in ranking and standardisation, and this seems to offer an ‘apparent natural affinity’ with educational research.  However, there is a more philosophical challenge in Foucault’s work [as above].  There is also a tendency to select key terms and develop a kind of template.  None of these techniques help to problematize dominant thought.  Admittedly, Foucault's texts are difficult to read [!], but this should alert us to complexity, not invite a simplification in order to engage in empirical research—the usual appearance of post structuralist ideas are as methodological discussions, with all the uncertainty and reflexivity and self doubt removed.  Overall, ‘an orthodoxy exists…  Within poststructuralist – informed educational research…  Thought has been distilled into operationalizable concepts that fit within the dominant research framework, determined as it is by particular kinds a focus on policy and practice’ (316).

Instead, Foucault analyses practices which produce particular forms of subjectivity.  There are historical circumstances in which these emerge [the Foucaldian weasel about the effects of class relations].  These are not intended to be guides for further research [merely philosophical speculations then?].  If any implications for resistance follow, it will turn on interrogating subjectivity itself and its entanglement with power. Narrative educational research, in particular where concerned with social justice, illustrates this limited reading.

[Oddly, the actual text discussed relies on Lyotard not Foucault—no obvious single text on Foucault?] Griffiths’ text takes the standard position to acknowledge different voices, including the author's, and to try to break with conventional academic structures, in this case involving no fixed sequence of chapters and the ability of contributors to respond as well.  It is apparently a systematic attempt to incorporate poststructuralism, although it still indicates the problems.  The contributors tell their stories, as co-authors.  However, these contributors were chosen to represent conventional categories of excluded sexual and ethnic minorities.  There is a contradiction here in that individuals are supposed to tell their own stories, and yet are also expected to represent these predetermined categories.  Griffiths justifies this with reference to Lyotard and the interest in excluded voices and petty narratives [surely shared by Foucault as well, in his attempt to rescue submerged histories—but neither would be content with the conventional sociological categories of exclusion?].  The Dearing Report is taken as an example of dominant discourse, and these excluded voices show potential resistance.

Choosing those categories clearly indicate some prior assumptions, and these conform to the current ‘mainstream discourse of inclusion’ (318)—so the excluded voices become ‘familiar in tone’ (318).  In this way, even radical theory is left intact and unchallenged.  Further, such work can strengthen the dominant university system, with its classic requirements for publications [same with H & S surely?], and also offer only a complementary utopia: ‘the text as a whole is indeed oriented to aiding practitioners to cope with the system as it is’ (318).  The text relies on key terms and explicit readings, presumably to assist practitioners in their striving for social justice.  In this way, it is dangerously similar to ‘those forms of work on the self demanded by the knowledge economy…  as found…  in superficially benign current preoccupations with reflective practice’ (319).  Indeed, Griffiths recommends continuing self audit and self appraisal.  Genuine self knowledge remains elusive.

The account also relies on understanding power in terms of getting conventional social justice, instead of understanding how ‘normal’ selves consonant with discourses are constructed, across social practices.  That includes research practice itself, and the way in which orthodoxy constructs particular readings, including readings of Foucault.

Deleuze and Guattari can be seen as resources to offer a more critical analysis [except that they are also subjected to this orthodox reading—including this paper as well].  In this case, it is knowledge itself which is questioned, as well as the value of individual experience—a ‘narcissistic tendency that often accompanies current readings of poststructuralist thought’ (320).  Instead, no fixed theoretical frameworks are offered, and a variety of texts in different fields are cited.  ‘Educational research, by contrast, seems confined to those texts with a reference to all relevance for education is explicit…  engagement with a broader literature…  tends to be presented as an excursion’ (321).

In  Thousand Plateaus, conventional knowledge is represented as a tree, even in Chomsky, and even if ‘biunivocal’ categories replace strict binaries.  This is an example of how demand for social justice ‘can…  be seen as constituting multiple versions of the same voice’ (321).  [Then a quote about a multiplicity being revealed by a reduction in the laws of combination is discussed.  I don’t see how this is possible without referring to the mathematical dimensions of Deleuze’s thought, as Delanda explains].  Multiplicities emerge [in more complex radical or fasciscular root systems] instead of connecting lines, but even this does not break with dualisms, including those between subjects and objects.  The system, and possibly subjective thought itself, maintains a unity.  [Hence a criticism of work which assumes the identity and unity of the subject as a mechanism preventing or managing complexity—Adorno puts it much better.  No discussion of the machinic notion of the self?]

The multiple must be made, using the dimensions already available [and this is where the strange remark about removing dimensions in order to understand deeper constitutive levels of reality seems appropriate.  It is the relation between Euclidean geometry, projective geometry, and topological geometry discussed in Delanda].  ‘They refer to this system as a rhizome’ (322) [I’m not sure that this is how they define a rhizome, which seems to be one of those metaphors applied fairly inconsistently].  The nodes and networks produced by a rhizome are not tightly connected to signifiers or other systems of coding, leaving an excess.  [Hodgson and Standish seem to be on the verge of exploring the ontological dimensions of Deleuze’s thought?].  Rhizomes feature multiplicities, and these have determinations, magnitudes or dimensions, but cannot be explained in terms of subject and object.  Desire [or the operation of machines] means that rhizomes develop, including taking lines of flight.

The ordinary notion of the subject is therefore problematic.  It is also based on a lack, seen best and the constant demands for performativity.  However, ‘for Deleuze and Guattari…  It is the lack that enables the deterritorialization by the rhizome...  An orientation away from the direction of the root and branch into a space not yet stratified’ (323).  [This seems to avoid the frequent argument in Deleuze that desire should not be seen as driven by a lack.  Again there are some doubts about whether the single notion of the rhizome is really up to understanding deterritorialization.  Hodgson and Smith seem fixated on this one concept].  Unlike fascicular roots, there is no simple underlying structure, but rather ‘an experimentation in contact with the real’ [quoting Deleuze and Guattari, 323].  It is performance rather than competence.  Rhizomes can coexist with trees, but there is a longer term tendency for trees to dominate and close desire down.

Research should not involve a choice between rhizome or tree [as if this choice depended on the individual researcher, and not a huge structure of supervision, bidding, funding and all the other bureaucratic paraphernalia!].  However, it is ‘a matter of acting on desire’ (323), with an odd reference back to this idea of losing dimensions as a means of letting the rhizome emerge—do we choose whether or not rhizomes emerge?  At the very least, we might be able to understand ‘the way in which the tree is constituted [which] enables individuals to see themselves implicated within it’ (324).  [A very confused account in my view, which follows from doing precisely what they criticised Griffiths for doing – grabbing a single concept out of context and making it fit their agenda.  Their agenda actually isn’t all that different from Griffiths anyway?].

Educational research and practice limits readings of poststructuralist thought.  The desire for social justice relies on tree- like conceptions.  The subject is still central. But ‘by removing oneself in the sense of an N-1 orientation’ we get a different view (324).  Their earlier work (2007) shows what this N-1 orientation might look like—‘a differently oriented focus on the self…  Greater humility in relation to what is at stake in education’ (324), somehow sustained by a lack [an excess surely?].  [I think that the lack is how they interpret N-1?]

Identity politics assumes it is possible to construct a complete, whole individual but this needs to be questioned by a ‘rhizomatic approach to research’, which would work on the idea of a lack of wholeness not to pursue the fantasy of a complete subject but to produce instead ‘a Nietzschean affirmation without negation’ (325) [clear as mud—some notion of joyful pursuit energised only by desire as the will to power?].  This will avoid conventional categories of identity which try to overcode excess.  Narrative research relies on far too easy a notion of the story [you need Deleuze on the critique of naturalism in cinema here].  As a result, apparent subversive stories simply become incorporated into conventional writing the self.  Conventional conceptions of justice need to be interrogated, so do conventional methods, using poststructuralism to rethink the way in which the researcher relates to the world and asks questions about the world and self.

Griffiths, M. (2003) Action for social justice in education: Fairly different.Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Hodgson, N and Standish, P. (2007) Netwroik ,critique, conversation: Towards a rethinking of educational research methods training. In Educational research: Networks and technologies. ed P Smeyers and M Depaepe, Dordecht: Springer.