Welcome to Rethinking Theory, a blog maintained by Sheffield Institute of Education.

The purpose of this blog is to provide information about the seminar series, Critical Perspectives on Theory and Methodology in Educational Research, and to capture discussion and debate on the issues that arise. The seminar series is complemented by a Theory Reading Group.



Living in the brackets

Living in the brackets

[This post was originally posted online here on 23rd November 2015 by Liz Barrett on her Living with Autism blog]

Now I no longer have to be at home for Dylan at the end of the working day I make a point of going to events which I wasn’t able to get to previously.  Recently I have been enjoying a series of seminars on theory and methodology and was particularly looking forward to tonight’s discussion of the use of narrative methods in research. The research discussed during the seminar included projects undertaken with prisoners, asylum seekers and young people who have a parent with dementia. There was some reporting of project data but because the primary concern was with methodological issues the main focus of the discussion was story as a ‘way of knowing’.

Although the event was not ‘about’ the topic I write about here, I found myself making links with Dylan. One researcher, for example, reminded us of the difference between ‘story’ and ‘narrative’; the personal material which prisoners had shared during interviews were ‘stories’ but the researcher’s re-telling of these stories turned them to ‘narrative’.  This blog also incorporates these different layers of text in that it reports Dylan’s story through my narrative lens. Given the orchestration of such narratives is in the hands of the researcher (or blogger) rather than the story-teller, ethical issues are raised by the subject’s lack of power or control.

I wondered, during the seminar, if we could increase the power of subjects by involving them in the construction of their own narrative; could creative writing techniques be used, for example, to help them re-frame their stories? This was something I had tried to do, I reflected, when working on a project with prisoners some years ago (albeit as a writer rather than researcher). It is, however, considerably more challenging to find ways of involving Dylan in the construction of his own narrative. Perhaps this is something which marks the learning disabled out from other vulnerable groups whose stories we need to hear; refugees and asylum seekers, for example, or elders.

Inevitably the seminar discussion turned to the therapeutic use of story. Despite the unequal distribution of power, the subject was felt to benefit from involvement in the research. The simple act of ‘being heard’, it was argued, was helpful to those whose stories might not otherwise be told; ‘being present’ was therefore as much a gift as ‘the sacred stories’ themselves. Again I tried to apply these ideas to Dylan. Does a blog enable me to be more present for Dylan? Or would I hear his story anyway?  Am I present for him differently because I challenge myself to narrate his tale?

This blog is, however, no longer Dylan’s story: the switch from Living With Autism to Living With(out) Autism marks a shift from writing about Dylan to writing about the impact of Dylan’s move to residential care on me. In this situation, I am both story-teller and narrator. There is still, however, a therapeutic quality to the story-telling: my 100 day framework for transition is a sort of ‘half way house’ from where I look forward and back. This is limbo land, a place in brackets; I am neither living with autism nor entirely without it. From this healing space I can hopefully learn to let go lightly. It is, perhaps, a therapeutic place in so far as a blog offers the story-teller the gift of ‘being heard’.

One of the presenters at tonight’s seminar suggested that stories are powerful because they can challenge ‘master narratives’.  Single stories, it was argued, can undermine a dominant discourse, unsettling traditional power structures and establishing new knowledge. The examples given included beliefs about teachers wrongly accused of sexual misconduct and beliefs about the experience of being parented by a mother or father with dementia. In both cases, it was suggested, we need to listen to individual stories in order to adjust our perception of the issue.  As I drove home from the seminar I asked myself which ‘master narratives’ about autism Dylan’s story might challenge and transform.

See also Liz’s blog post Challenging Master Narratives

‘Bricolage away’ – using Bourdieu’s ideas today

‘Bricolage away’ – using Bourdieu’s ideas today

Reflections of a participant in seminar 2

Sam Hillyard, Durham University, UK. https://www.dur.ac.uk/sass/staff/profile/?id=4408

Bourdieuvian ubiquity and theory ‘lite’.

I heard Bourdieu speak in London many years ago and, as a sociologist working in the Sociology of Education and associated fields, I have retained an interest in his work. Bourdieusian ideas are rampant in contemporary British sociology at the moment, to the extent that one attendee at a recent BSA conference quipped that Bourdieu’s name should be barred from next year’s abstracts. With ubiquity comes the risk of superficial citation without the engagement. As Reay nicely paraphrases Hey, a theory ‘lite’ use that is akin to intellectual hairspray, is one which bolsters through adding superficial gravitas. Reay’s paper (‘It’s all becoming a habitus ...’) exposed the habitual use of the term and David James now makes a similar case that misrecognition has become misrecognised. Such a background informs SHU’s Seminar Series, Critical Perspectives on Theory and Methodology and it offered a timely and welcoming environment in which to explore how we can use Bourdieu’s ideas both critically and constructively.

Principles in practice

The seminar used newly-published work as a springboard to discussion and follows an excellent format that we have used to good effect at my own university – Roger Burrows presented on the h-index paper followed by BSA President John Holmwood, which made for a very lively Q&A afterwards. SHU’s Andrew Morrison’s paper offered a three-part theoretical exploration of perceived barriers to employment in teaching. Using focus group data, Morrison faced the challenge to empirically operationalise concepts such as habitus. Do, for example, focus groups reveal only articulated anticipated reactions to behaviours (what they say they do), rather than what people actually do (that may be accessed and studied via ethnography)? He concluded that the majority of his participants articulated discourses that could serve to further reproduce misrecognition processes. This echoed Cardiff’s David James argument that Bourdieu’s meaning of misrecognition was that the hidden injuries of class remain very firmly hidden. That is, they are entirely naturalised.

A theory of what?

The panel discussion that followed revealed that there are differences in how Bourdieu’s work can be viewed and used. Morrison’s argument suggested that differentiation processes – enacted through accent – were internalised. Questions arose, appealing to Foucault, as to the extent that agents are complicit in their domination. I asked, also, using a definition of the situation approach, whether such anticipation would produce this actual effect – that, in believing a situation to be real, it becomes real in its consequences. For example, as Goffman argues, shaming processes (such as those Morrison articulates in his data and analysis) are anticipated and steps to alleviate it are taken by the actor during the situation – with the potential to over-compensate as a result. This means that shame is anticipated before such practices may have occurred: in other words it is pre-cognitive, but nevertheless internalised on the basis of earlier negotiated interactions.

The agent and Bourdieu

Morrison’s reading of Bourdieu was that he offers a normative political theory. This implicates the very autonomy and status of the agent in, for example, that, as James argues, Bourdieu was no determinist (no ‘closet Marxist’ as Cresswell concurred). It is rather, that coming to an understanding of circumstances for agency (by understanding of misrecognition in the agent’s work) can lead to a pessimism. That is, pessimism regarding the possibility and scope for change and, too, a pessimism arising from an awareness that the optimism that educators often hold is itself a form of misrecognition. The very potential to offer acts of resistance – that agency could act as a means to rectify misrecognition seems a tall ambition, in the same way James noted that Willis’ (1977) Learning to labour had been critiqued for being overly romanticised.

On avoiding theory ‘lite’

The research seminar demonstrated the vibrancy of debates on the best use of seminal ideas and James offered useful guidance with which to conclude:

  • Bourdieu’s ideas are a diagnostic tool/ analytic device for understanding social relations;
  • Habitus is best used alongside the concept of field;
  • It is important to understand the tradition from which ideas emerge (his paper is great for signposting further readings);
  • Remember that some terms lack conceptual hygiene, i.e. social capital differs for Putnam and Coleman;
  • Other theoretical ideas are available too: Bernstein/ Foucault and offers opportunities for bricolage and synthesis.

Future directions

The SHU event demonstrated how theoretical ideas could be fruitfully used in practice. It showcases work inspired by such seminal work and debates within the Sociology of Education and sociology more broadly, seeking to analyse enduring social inequalities. The application of misrecognition to unlocking the ‘hidden injuries of class’ is useful, but not the only theoretical line. For example, Cardiff graduate Mike Ward’s monograph, From labouring to learning, applied Goffman’s ideas to explore working-class masculinities via an ethnography and, my Durham University colleagues (Boliver and Tummons) and I have used Robert Dingwall’s adaptation of occupational boundary work and issues of superiority and assurance elicitation to explore access barriers to elite universities (see http://www.ethnography.webspace.virginmedia.com/Ethnography_Conference/Ethnography_Conference_Home_page.html). Scholars at SHU have, too, also applied used Goffman in different lights to problematized internalisation (see https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.420758!/file/Vygotsky-versus-Goffman-paper-summary.pdf ).

In sum, the Seminar Series was an excellent opportunity to critically think about how theoretical idea can work in practice. It can be revisited, as I have done, here https://theometho.wordpress.com/seminars/seminar-2/. James observed in his paper that the very unit of analysis is itself too often taken-for-granted and that soft reflexivity is too easy. As Bourdieu himself argued, Goffman was the master of the infinitely small and, if we pursue the importance that Goffman’s dramaturgy places upon the audience (as opposed to the actor), it is uncomfortable and disquieting. However, what is good practice empirically is not as clear-cut as Reay’s discussion implied and this seminar demonstrated. Both agree, as does Cresswell, that ideas are best engaged through the challenges of empirical practice, rather than abstraction alone: “reality is fuzzy – our job is to make it fuzzier” (Bourdieu, quoted in Cresswell 2002:379).


Bourdieu, P. (1983). Erving Goffman, discoverer of the infinitely small. Theory, Culture and Society 2(1), 112-113. (Orig. in Le Monde, 4.12.82, trans. Richard Nice.)

Cresswell, T. (2002). Bourdieu’s geographies: in memorium. Environment and Planning D abstract20(4), 379-382.

James, D. 2015. How Bourdieu bites back: recognising misrecognition in education and educational research. Cambridge Journal of Education 45(1), 97-112.

Morrison, A. (2014). ‘I Think That’s Bad’: Lay Normativity and Perceived Barriers to Employment in Primary Teaching in the UK. Sociology, 49(4), 643-659.

Reay*, D. (2004). ‘It’s all becoming a habitus’: Beyond the habitual use of habitus in educational research. British journal of sociology of education25(4), 431-444.

Ward, M. (2015) Labouring to learn: working-class masculinities, education and de-industrialization. London, Palgrave.

Reflections on the Zipin, Brennan, Fataar paper and Young’s response

Author: Dr. Judy Harris ( judithanneharris@yahoo.co.uk )

Having attended the first seminar in the series, Critical Perspectives on Social Realism, I thought this exchange was a superb example of critical intellectual engagement. It has been a privilege for me to play a role in bringing the seminar to fruition, and hopefully to the continuing dialogue on its ideas and themes. Having worked in South African higher education since 1994, I have grown up (so to speak) with questions of knowledge: what knowledge counts? whose knowledge counts? what is the societal value of formal knowledge? how can we understand disciplinary knowledge and educational curricula? Questions that are not usually asked in relation to my area of research – RPL (the Recognition of Prior Learning) in South Africa (see Cooper and Harris, 2013), or APEL (the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning) in the UK. But to my mind important questions in terms of really being able to investigate opening pathways from informal and non-formal knowledge to formal knowledge for adults wishing to access and succeed in higher education.

Over the last couple of decades academic debates around these questions have become more and more refined, and scholars with an interest in them have refined their arguments. Michael Young’s book Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education (2008) was crucial, as were debates with philosophical roots in standpoint theory, feminist theory and critical race theory. The idea of ‘social realism’ enjoys a powerful and pivotal position in post-apartheid South African educational theorising. This is not uncontested.

I was therefore very heartened to meet Lew Zipin and Marie Brennan through a mutual friend Maureen Robinson who is Dean of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. We met for a very informal breakfast in the sumptuous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town earlier this year. As Lew and Marie told me how (with Aslam Fataar) they had launched a critique of social realism on the grounds of social justice (see Zipin et al., 2015), it soon became clear that we had research interests in common. I was intrigued and pleased to hear about an informed and robust challenge to some of the fundamental tenets of social realism i.e. that ‘powerful knowledge’ can provide the most reliable explanations and new ways of thinking about the world and a language for engaging in political, moral and educational debates (Young, 2008). This had the making of a good debate!

The problem was finding an appropriate location for such a debate during the time that Lew and Marie were to be in the UK. There was no easy solution until I happened upon a posting on the LCT (Legitimation Code Theory) website advertising a Social Realism Symposium in July 2015 at SHU entitled ‘International perspectives on knowledge and the curriculum’. That symposium comprised presentations by Professor Sue Clegg and Dr. Richard Pountney from the UK, and Professor Elizabeth Rata and Dr. Graham McPhail from New Zealand. Hot on the heels of the Cambridge Conference and an LCT conference in Cape Town, the presentations spoke directly to my own interests in a way that had hitherto been rare in the UK.

SHU was an obvious venue for Lew and Marie to present their paper, even more so because the newly formed Sheffield Institute of Education was about to launch its public seminar series exploring critical perspectives on the use of theory and methodology in educational research. With mounting excitement, I also proposed that I invite Professor Michael Young to respond to their paper. I have known Michael for many years, as a friend and colleague who has always shown an interest in my work. Indeed, he wrote the Endword for Re-theorising the Recognition of Prior Learning (2006), a collection edited by myself and Per Andersson from Linking University, Sweden.

On the day, both presentation and response were bold and forthright. The debate was conducted respectfully, even though there were many areas of political and theoretical disagreement. For me, these disagreements centred on: what exactly do we mean by social justice in education? what knowledge should form the basis or goals of school curricula? what role can ‘everyday knowledge’ play?

A key point for me which I put out for discussion here hinges on social realism’s privileging of the social nature of disciplinary communities and related claims to objectivity, and standpoint theory’s privileging of the ‘partial objectivities’ of knowledge produced in collectively defined social locations, when mapped and carefully accounted for, can  it is claimed offer even stronger objectivity. What do you think?

Dr Judy Harris

Anderson, P. and Harris, J. (Eds.). (2006). Re-theorising the recognition of prior learning. National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, Leicester, UK, 2006,
Cooper, L., & Harris, J. (2013). Recognition of prior learning: exploring the ‘knowledge question’. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 32(4), 447-463.
Young, M. (2007). Bringing knowledge back in: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education. London: Routledge.
Zipin, L., Fataar, A. & Brennan, M. (2015) Can Social Realism do Social Justice? Debating the Warrants for Curriculum Knowledge Selection, Education as Change, 19:2, 9-36