Seminar 1

Launch Event: Critical perspectives on Social Realism

Friday 25th September, 2015: 12.00 – 14.30
Venue: Owen 941, Owen Building, Sheffield Hallam University

Dr Lew Zipin, and Professor Marie Brennan, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia;
Can Social Realism do Social Justice? Debating the Warrants for Curriculum Knowledge Selection

Professor Michael Young, UCL, Institute of Education, London
Knowledge, Social Justice and the Future of the Curriculum; a Response to Zipin et al.

Abstracts and Resources

Can social realism do social justice? Debating the warrants for curriculum knowledge selection
Dr. Lew Zipin, and Professor Marie Brennan

Social Realism (SR), as a movement that argues for ‘bringing knowledge back in’ to curriculum (Young 2008), is significant in Commonwealth nations and globally. In this paper we agree with SR critique that decades of focus on learning as process has taken needed attention away from what knowledge should be learned. However, through social-philosophical inquiry, we question SR arguments that curriculum selection should privilege ‘powerful knowledge’ of specialised disciplines against ‘everyday knowledge’. We begin by examining how SR argumentation hinges strongly on Durkheim’s binary distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ social bases for differentiating between – in Bernstein’s (1999) terms – ‘vertical structures’ of expert knowledge (preferred by SR for curriculum), and ‘horizontal structures’ of everyday knowledge (not preferred). We question the viability of this strong binary; and we analyse how it induces SR proponents to levy what we see as undue charges of ‘relativism’ against ‘social constructionist’ attention to how all knowledge is implicated in power-relational partialities.

We then pose the question of whether SR-based curriculum knowledge selection can do social-educational justice to the needs and aspirations of culturally-historically diverse population groups, particularly those from power-marginalised positions and ‘postcolonial’ geographies. In addressing this question, we stage debates between SR and three counter-logics. First is standpoint theory (Harding 1992) that all knowledge, including that of scientific disciplines, is situated and thereby limited to ‘partial objectivity’; however, putting partial objectivities into ‘power-sensitive conversation’ leads to ‘stronger objectivity’ rather than relativism. Next is Vygotskian argument for curriculum that, dialectically, joins systematising powers of specialised knowledge with rich funds of knowledge from learners’ everyday life-worlds (Moll 2014). Finally, we consider SR’s philosophical framing in relation to Fraser’s (2009) criteria for robust social justice in globalising contexts.

We find that SR binary thinking, and associated warrants for curriculum selection, limit SR – in Fraser’s terms – to a ‘redistribution’ dimension of justice, lacking ‘recognition’ and ‘representation’ dimensions that, Fraser argues, are crucial for robust justice. We also find that SR stresses cognitive purposes for schooling in ways and degrees that marginalise ethical purposes. We conclude that ‘bringing ethics back in’, as inseparable from ‘taking knowledge seriously’, is vital for addressing educational needs and aspirations of power-marginalised groups seeking better lives through schooling. The paper thus joins contemporary debates about social justice and curriculum that have significant implications for future educational theory, policy and practice in diverse nations and regions.

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

Knowledge, the curriculum and social justice; a response to Zipin et al.’s ‘Can social realism do social justice?’
Professor Michael Young

Social theories and social justice
Theories and policies are developed in an unjust world. None have privileged claims to be more just than others; theories are not judged on how just they are. Social realism (SR) is a theory of knowledge, not a theory of education. Its importance for education and the curriculum depends on the extent to which you see access to knowledge as the crucial role of schools. If you do then the ‘funds of knowledge’ that pupils bring to school are a pedagogic issue and often, like a ‘culture of dogmatic belief’ a pedagogic hindrance as much if not more than a resource.

In my presentation I will respond to the arguments of Lew Zipin and his co-authors and their representation of social realism as they understand it. They claim that an emphasis on knowledge differentiation under-emphasises power relations. My response is that under-emphasising knowledge differentiation fails to ‘privilege’ access to specialised knowledge and as a consequence denies those without power, the tools for overcoming their powerlessness.

Does standpoint theory stand anywhere?
Standpoint theory ST is presented by Zipin et al as an alternative to social realism. Like social realism some versions of ST argue for the partial objectivity of all knowledge, but for different reasons. However ST does not follow through the location of this partial objectivity and so end up with relativism by default. Unlike standpoint theory, SR, for me, accepts the implications of some knowledge being more objective than others and that the possibility of objectivity depends on the object of the knowledge; history is not physics but this does not mean that history does not have rules for evaluating concepts. Truth is always the provisional product of debates within specialised ‘communities of enquirers’.

The privileging of specialised knowledge
Zipin et al take issue with SR’s emphasis on specialised knowledge because it implies hierarchical power relations. However, knowledge is not specialised because specialisation favours some groups. Powerful groups select specialised knowledge because it is powerful. Why would they not? Knowledge has become more specialised historically because specialisation leads to more powerful knowledge. The issue for curriculum theory is how to make specialised knowledge accessible to the ‘marginalised’. But as Durkheim pointed out, while specialisation is a progressive force- what he called the ‘normal division of labour’, it can take pathological forms. One of which is that it can be appropriated by the powerful- the forced division of labour in Durkheim’s terms- as a political problem for left policy makers. Another ‘pathological ‘(in Durkheim’s terms) form is that specialists can lose contact with each other and the whole and become fragmented- the theoretical problem of ‘intellectual anomie’ that he like Gramsci in a different way, grappled with.

Knowledge and ethics
Zipin and his co-authors claim that the SR focus on knowledge ‘marginalises ethical purposes’ and so ‘we must bring ethics back in’. This misunderstands what a social theory of knowledge is. A social theory of knowledge is also a social theory of ethics. It states:

  1. that the basis of truth and knowledge is trust in the norms governing truth that are shared with others in the ‘community of enquirers’ using Pierce’s term and
  2. trusting in others as if they were oneself is the primary ethical value. So the search for the truth is a moral issue of trust as well as a cognitive issue of ‘best available knowledge. Durkheim was a sociological Kantian – instead of locating truth in the mind (metaphysics), he located it in social reality- hence truth was a sociological problem for Durkheim not a philosophical problem (but this does not mean we cannot learn from philosophy too). This leads to a different conclusion than Zipin and his co –authors in addressing SR and the issue of social justice. They start from ‘the educational needs and aspirations of power-marginalised groups ‘ as an ultimate value; however they do not address what these needs are and why they are not universal needs. In contrast, SR starts from what is common to all humanity and all knowledge- that both are social and both have become differentiated. It uses these assumptions to trace the origins of schooling, the curriculum and the growth of knowledge. Knowledge then is potentially universal but historically differentiated and specialised.

 Education and the problem of recognition

Zipin et al suggest that SR’s over-emphasis on knowledge and cognition means that it   neglects the problem of recognition as discussed by Nancy Fraser. I understand recognition not a passive process – as in ‘I recognise you for who you are’- but a process concerned with the issue of developing an identity over time- the sense of someone fulfilling their potential. In today’s societies, identity is multi-dimensional and different institutions and communities are sources of different aspects of anyone’s identity. Schools (and formal education generally) are institutions which specialise (i.e. this is their primary role) in supporting the development of young people as learners- their learner identity. The boundaries which characterise schooling – for example between subjects and between school and everyday life and between teachers and pupils- are resources for students to develop their identities as learners as they come up against them and sometimes move beyond them- as neophyte chemists, historians etc. Developing identities in the holistic sense that I assume Fraser is referring to is not the specialised role of schools. SR focuses on the specialised identities of pupils as learners. Any attempt to broaden this role can lead to a weakening of their specialised role as in the English policy ‘Every child matters’.

 Questions for the future
It follows that for SR, the, political, theoretical and educational project is to identify and support the specialisation of knowledge and grapple with its pathological potential – these are the promise and the dilemma of mass schooling since it began. There are three social justice questions for SR based educational researchers- one is curricular, one is pedagogic and one is evaluative.

The curriculum question is ‘what are the routes to universal knowledge? – from the disciplines of specialised knowledge communities to the subjects of the curriculum. We know very little except from tradition about this process that Bernstein described as ‘re-contextualisation’.

The pedagogic question is ‘what do teachers need to know to help learners to progress? The evaluation question is ‘how do you use assessment to (a) hold teachers democratically and professionally accountable and (b) provide evidence to pupils of their progress, but resist allowing outcomes to dominate both.


 Dr Lew Zipin lectures in sociologies of education at Victoria University, Melbourne. He is known for research and scholarship that pursues social-educational justice in schools of power-marginalised regions. In recent projects he has mobilised a Funds of Knowledge approach, collaborating across school, community and academic stakeholders to build intellectually challenging curriculum that engages learners’ life-world knowledge. Dr Zipin also publishes on issues of university work and governance.

Marie Brennan is a professor of education at Victoria University, Melbourne. Her current national projects focus on teacher education in regional and remote areas, problematising ‘aspirations’ as an educational policy focus, and developing alternative forms of accountability. She publishes on curriculum, policy sociology, and contextual studies of education sectors.

 Michael Young is Professor of Education at University College London Institute of Education. He is currently involved with David Guile (UCLIOE) and colleagues in the Faculty of Engineering in developing a MSc in Engineering Education. His forthcoming book with Johan Muller (University of Cape Town) Curriculum and the Specialisation of Knowledge will be published by Routledge in early 2016.


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