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

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

Author: Dr. Judy Harris ( )

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