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A Spanish version of this talk will be made available shortly
Invited talk, University of La Coruna, Spain
23rd October 2009
My thanks to Concha Sánchez Blanco for inviting me to the University of La Coruna.
For me, the issue in my everyday life is always about the relation between my freedom to think, to speak and to act. And when I do research I am looking at how people address their own freedoms and sense of self-value in relation to others.
Let me illustrate this with a story from my research student days, back in 1980 when I was involved in doing an ethnography of a large school in the North West of England. My 1983 book, ‘Maladjusted schooling’ was based on this study. One evening, during a conversation between several senior members of staff following a parents evening, one recounted his story of recently visiting the parents of a pupil. He talked of the appalling state of the block of flats ‘urine running down the walls due to blocked pipes in the flats above’, toilet waste being thrown out and buried in the backyards. I was, of course, shocked, particularly when this was seen as a common problem around the area. Why does no one complain and make this known, say, in the news papers? The answer was, because ‘round here, people don’t just write letters’ there would be revolution in the streets. So, the job of the school was to ‘keep the lid on the dustbin.’ (1)
What we have here is an image of the role of public education in the containment of young people within their immediate territories. What sort of territories are these? They are seen as poor, as full of the kinds of social problems that need to be closed off. At the time of the study, it was the period when Margaret Thatcher had just come to power. It was a time of struggle – and in her terms - it was a struggle to re-write public space as private space. Listen to this. She said in an interview with a women’s magazine in 1987 “there is no such thing as society”. This was not an accidental statement. Her concern was to destroy any sense of people being a part of a collectivity, of having a sense of solidarity with each other. If there is no society there is no one but one’s self to depend on. And in a market of self-reliant individuals there can only be competition to amass the wealth necessary for one’s own security and essential needs. Society presumes a public space. The market, to create wealth for individuals presumes a private space of ownership. That in turn means that democracy, if it can be called that in such a space, becomes identical with the demand and supply mechanisms of markets. Each purchase is a vote. The role of governments is then to ensure the protection of private space and the workings of markets to deliver wealth to those who possess the capital necessary for all the institutions and mechanisms through which markets operate.
In my story of the dustbin we have an image of what happens when the decisions and actions of government and private businesses combine to construct private space that disregards the needs of people who have little or indeed no means to enter the market in order to enrich their lives legitimately. We also have an image of what Murray (2005) called custodial democracy. This is a democracy for the few and custody for the many, in particular those that Murray (1990) called the underclass. This for me sets up the main problem for those researchers who are committed to making a contribution through their research that can make a difference to the lives of people. It is the issue of creating the conditions through research where people can freely and equally express their needs and interests in terms of demands for change. It is this issue that begins to divide research that has a radical orientation from research that reproduces and reinforces the conditions for the control of the many by the few. The choice of orientation is, of course, a political choice. It is also a choice between schooling and education. The teachers in my story saw their role as keeping the lid on the dustbin, that is, of controlling, managing dissent, disappointment, frustration. This I call a function of schooling. The educational alternative to schooling, however, involves opening spaces for voices to be heard, to count as valued contributions to a debate and to engage in critical reflection on the circumstances of their lives. The educational alternative involves a different concept of the curriculum and of pedagogy to that of schooling. I will argue that both education and radical research are coextensive with the creation of the conditions for public space and the formation of creative associations for social organisation and action. And I will argue that schooling and reproductive forms of research are coextensive with the organization and management of private spaces that are hierarchically structured and policed for the benefit of elites. Each have their different courses of action to bring about desired outcomes. Power is critical to each.
For many, it is powerlessness that is felt in the face of situations that they would like to change but cannot. Understanding how power and powerlessness are constructed is essential to forming radical research strategies. Take the following example from an interview with some 11 year olds who had participated in a curriculum project in their school focusing on the theme of their ideal community. Here they talk of their actual community:
(They … start talking about the teens who hang around the streets, how they’re always asking for cigarettes, threatening people, doing graffiti, making noise late at night and fighting and so on.)
Girl: and like bonfires, that’s the worst thing round our street. Cos once there was a car that was in front of um there’s our house and there’s a pavement there, so then the car’s there and someone stuck um a firework in there and it started blowing up (…) but the fire brigade came just in time.
Girl2: and then there’s like, near our fields where they ride their motorbike, there’s like these little blue pole, bollards I think, and they’ve like got robbed cars and they’ve like smashed into it so that they can still get (…) And the police are all there and you can hear it like. So you wake up in the middle of the night you can hear police sirens all the time. And I don’t know why. We used to live in (another place) and that weren’t even worse, it was a little bit better. But then there was this family who threatened my mum and then they put our windows through so we moved away from there. Then they followed us to (the new place). So we’re going to move again. But it’s just teens and like people that, are like bad influences. We ‘ad a really good school but we had to move about six times just because of people round it. And every time we’re like playin’ outside all happy and then the boys come down the road. It’s just like they rule when they don’t. They don’t live near there. They’re always playing loud music and its just not on, I don’t think anyway. (2)
(CAPE project 2005 – see Schostak et al 2005)
The focus for the children’s work had been to describe and then make a model of their ideal community, that is, in broader terms their conception of the good society. For them, in the extract above, this involves being able to play happily outside without fear. In their descriptions of the ideal community it also included a concept of collective organization based upon their experiences. For example,
one group did a story about a gang that came from another city called the rotten rebel gang. They burnt down the museum to steal things. A group called the cool gang informed the police.
In this brief example collective organization is described in terms of a bad gang, a good gang and a higher authority, the police. There is, of course, a kind of wish fulfillment here but in essence it gets to the heart of the politics of living in community. It raises the question: How does one resolve disputes and create a sense of safety, fairness and justice? Here is a final example from the project:
we wrote a script where there was a family who came from Jamaica (…) there was a racist person who was in the scrapyard (…) the police warned him and he continued being racist and he tried to capture the children and then at the end the police just arrested him, then he felt lonely at the end. But near the end it said what they had in the perfect city
What is interesting in these examples is the role of quite traditional forms for the organization of power whether as families, gangs or police. Each organizational form aggregates and thus amplifies the powers of each individual member. However, some forms are more powerful or more threatening than others. And, except in the imagination, these appear to be outside of the powers of these individual children and their families to use them strategically for their benefit. Just as interestingly, during conversations with the teachers, it was clear they felt there was little if anything they could do about the circumstances of the communities around the school. School at best was a temporary safe haven and a place that might open the eyes of the children to alternatives. The clash between the ideal and the actual was hard to manage. A video was made of their actual community. The children complained that it only showed the ‘bad things’. So I asked:
Interviewer: What would you have shown?
Jimmy: Well I’d have shown the good bits, like the park and …….. (laugh) hmmm, there’s a point.
Emily: The good parks, the local parks are all trashed up so we don’t get anywhere to play.
This in a sense returns me to my initial image of the dustbin with the question, is there a realistic response, a realistic course of reflection leading to realistic courses of action that can educate young people in the means by which to make real changes to their lives? Implicit in this question is a different way of thinking about a curriculum, that is a curriculum as a course of critical reflection upon the circumstances of ones life in order to formulate courses of learning that in turn inform judgment, decision making and courses of action. This almost sounds Cartesian. Recall Descartes’ approach to his own quest for knowledge. This involved reflection on what he could hold as certain after doubting all prior knowledge and sense experience. It is an extreme - a radical you might say - reflection on the circumstances of one’s life that contributed to the inauguration of modern scientific method. Rather than dwell on the strengths and weaknesses of Descartes’ writings, it is his motive that interests me: that is, the determination to use one’s own resources of critical thinking. For me Kant said it best in his answer to the question: ‘what is enlightenment?’
Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.” (3)
It is here, I think that are to be found the essential features of radical research; freedom, reason and public space. And for the final ingredient as it were, as Balibar (1990, 2006) has pointed out, it makes little sense to talk about freedom without also equality as a necessary co-dimension. To emphasise the point of the co-existence and co-extensiveness of freedom and liberty he uses the term ‘égaliberté’ (equaliberty). (4) In brief, the argument is that in any hierarchical situation, the subordinate has less freedom than the superior. Thus, freedom can only be attributed to all in the public use of reason if all members of the public are equal. In short, we are all equally co-dependent: my freedom depends on your freedom and everyone else’s. And for that to happen, there has to be equality. These then provide the key criteria of any research methodology that claims to be radical in the sense that I want to use the term.
Methodologically, freedom, equality and the use of reason in public are inextricably linked to the furtherance of social justice and democratic practices. Research design that has as its object the use of reason to explore, interpret, understand and engage in productive and creative action to form social realities to the mutual, public benefit of all must include these within its formative and framing principles. This then provides all forms of research radically committed to égaliberté in the use of ‘reason publicly in all matters’ a key criterion for critique both of its own research design and in its examination of social, cultural, political, economic issues. Without criteria statements concerning what counts as ‘data’, ‘theories’, or hypotheses concerning causal relations or what is ‘natural’, cannot be assessed.
Take for example David Goodhart’s statement that ‘Bill Gates has not amassed a fortune of $150 billion by exploiting the poor of Seattle’. (5) How can this be evaluated? In Callinicos’ view:
If Gates has accumulated his billions thanks to a nation – and indeed worldwide process of economic restructuring, in which the introduction of information technology has contributed to the large-scale destruction of jobs and constant pressure on wages and conditions, then he is implicated in a process of exploitation. …. Moreover, the places that exploiters and exploited have in the structure of exploitation give them interests in, respectively, maintaining or reducing inequality: to that extent, exploitation is directly relevant to the political processes through which injustice can be corrected.
(Callinicos: 2000: 69)
An individual – whether Gates or some unknown worker - is valued differently according to the political, ethical, religious, spiritual, political, economic, cultural, legal, educational viewpoints that may be in play at any one time. Contemporary social worlds are pluralistic, thus there is not simply one framework for judgement. How are rights to be conceived, asserted, realised in relation to the multiple ways of determining ‘values’ in any given social context? This is an issue explored by Walzer (1985) in terms of what he calls spheres of justice. It is an idea that draws upon the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, and can be seen in James’ and Schutz’s ‘multiple worlds’ of social life. In short, we do not live in a single homogeneous ‘world’ having but one law and one set of values. Rather, there are different spheres such as business, politics, academic life, sport in which individuals may excel in at least one but unlikely in all. There is no overriding principle of justice that can be used to distribute fair or just rewards across all the spheres. Moreover, people are not identical when it comes to their various abilities and characteristics. If a person is better than others in spiritual matters this does not mean that the individual will also excel in sports or business or politics. Sports is governed by a different ‘sphere of justice’ than business. Walzer considers that in pluralistic societies there should not be a simple approach to the concept of equality saying that we are all equal in every single sphere of social life. Instead, there should be a concept of ‘complex equality’ where:
no citizen’s standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good. Thus, citizen X may be chosen over citizen Y for political office, and then the two of them will be unequal in the sphere of politics. But they will not be unequal generally so long as X’s office gives him no advantages of Y in any other sphere – superior medical care, access to better schools for his children, entrepreneurial opportunities, and so on.
(Walzer 1985: 19)
This passage expresses values of citizenship in the language of ‘him’ and ‘his’ that already suggests the degree to which a discourse of equality must go in order to disturb the taken for granted habits of representation and of possession. For Walzer there must be a strategy of ‘blocking’ that prevents the value, the reputation, the eminence that a person has gained in one sphere from influencing success in any other sphere. Thus the rich person is blocked from gaining influence in the sphere of religion, or the sphere of law, or the sphere of education. However, in order to ensure that this occurs there must be clear and robust mechanisms of blocking. Unfortunately:
The idea that distributions should be regulated on normative grounds, by reference to different communities of value, is denied by individualists, who assert that entitlements and claims exist prior to their sanction by a political community (‘This property, these possessions, these freedoms are mine and no one else has any claim on them’). Community, in this frame of reference, comes post facto, as a way of clubbing together to protect individual rights, not as the source of the justification of those rights. The story of the American settlement of the West is a mythical legitimation of this idea: first individual claims were asserted by force, then a law-enforcing structure was constructed to defend them. First the pioneer, then the sheriff, not, as in Europe, first the King’s law, then the citizen. It is characteristic of a certain kind of individualism that it denies its actual social origins, and defines the individual as the source of all value. In this way private property, the rule of the strongest, and individualism, have been able to pre-empt social critique by denying the legitimacy of any supra-individual values which are necessary to formulate such critiques.
Indeed, as I mentioned at the beginning, the attitude was well summed up in an interview in 1987 by Margaret Thatcher (6) who was prime Minister of the UK at the time. This is what she said in detail:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!
The task as she saw it, along with Regan, the US President of the time was to reduce the Public Sector and the role of government and unfetter the market because, as she repeated, “There is no such thing as society.” Such views were underpinned by the arguments of Freidman’s and Hayek’s monetarist, free market economics and in particular the views of Carl Schmidt and Leo Strauss (c.f. 1988) many of whose students made their way into positions of power in the Regan and Bush governments (Norton 2004). Indeed, Carl Schmidt’s (1996) conception of the political as formed in terms of friends and enemies can be seen in Huntington’s (1993, 1996) clash of civilisations and most notoriously in Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ (7) referring to those primarily middle Eastern, Islamic countries seen as the sponsors of Terror that had led to the destruction of the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001.
Of significance in the research context is the antagonism, the mutual exclusivity of viewpoints that give each other no space for yet another alternative, or a possible shared public space of debate. How the ‘public’ is conceptualised is methodologically critical for radical research purposes.
The idea of the public use of reason, of course presumes the existence of a ‘public’ and of a ‘public sphere’. How we define these two terms is critical to radical research. If, at one extreme, the ‘public’ is a phantom (Lippmann 1927) and if “Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses” (Bernays 1928:127) then effectively the public is the elite, the ‘intelligent minority’ who manipulate the voting citizenry, which in turn is less than the total number of people of all ages and all nationalities living and working in a given State. If, however, the public is conceived as the totality of people living in a given territory, then the range of views, of interests, of values, of demands necessarily increases. Different kinds of social arrangements for the accomplishment of debate, negotiation, decision making and action to those of elite forms of management will have to be found if all people are to be included equally. And this is where research has its radical focus in the formation of those spaces where the multiplicities of voices can act to create their public fora of debate, decision and action. The politics through which public space is generated and sustained as a space of inclusivity is thus critical.
The radical democracy of Laclau and Mouffe explored in their various writings provides a further attempt to understand and propose the necessary political conditions under which the multiplicities of demands, opposing views, and conflicting values can be brought into a public space in such a way that the antagonisms do not break out into violence and war but are managed in a political framework where voices are treated equally and thus no elite is able to dominate, lead, or regiment the ‘public mind’. In the variety of ways that people organise their relations, the design of research must take into account what is at stake for people when terms like ‘value’, ‘knowledge’, ‘truth’, ‘agency’ are constructed, expressed, recognised, asserted, realised; or, indeed, when they are denied, rendered invisible, or made inaudible in political, social, and cultural contexts. Thus how the research design is constructed is critical if we want to take fully into account the voices of all in order to make what they say and do visible and audible, as 'data’ or 'evidence', in public domains (c.f. Rancière 2004).
In this sense then, the public is defined by those who have access to and are not prevented from entering into all the decision making arenas of all the social organisations and institutions that impact on their lives. This is a very large and all inclusive definition. It means that public space requires a political arrangement that creates the conditions through which definitions of validity reliability objectivity and generalisation can be agreed upon as the basis for the use of reason publicly in all matters. It is to be noted here that reason does not precede the public, it emerges from engagements between people who mutually create the conditions for and produce the public domain. In this approach then reason cannot be made into some kind of transcendental tool for the domination of people and the regimentation of the public through pre-existing rational laws. Reason emerges through a play of contesting voices who seek to ground their assertions, interpretations and demands in ways that are valid, objective, reliable and generalisable for all. The ground, it could then be argued, is formed through the resistances and acceptances made by others to my assertions, my interests, my whims and fancies. Through such resistances and acceptances limits are conceived and certain propositions concerning the proclaimed realities of the world are given the status of being ‘objective’, at least, for a given public domain.
It can easily be seen that these kinds of emergent definitions of the public and its powers of constituting what are to be counted as real, objective, valid, true and so on, are dangerous to those who would maintain their control of resources for the production of private domains of wealth. It is at this point that the contest for the control of the boundaries between the public and the private take place. Neoliberal practice has been to increase the power of the private and reduce access to the spheres of public decision making. Rather than a given population having direct access they are represented by various ‘experts’ and elected representatives. Thus the management of the public by elites is of vital concern and a fundamental research focus for radical research of every kind.
The private has a fear of the public, or rather, the extension of the public to all the population. At one extreme is the command of a population by a tyrant. At this extreme there is no public space for collective decision making. As Walzer put it:
How to deal with brutal and tyrannical regimes like Saddam Hussein’s, how to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing, how to promote freedom and democracy - these are the hardest questions facing the left today.
(Walzer 2008: xi)
These questions are no less valid for neo-liberal market democracies where decisions are made by elites – where the elite substitutes for the ‘tyrant’. In both cases, these are the big questions that seem out of the hands of ordinary people to deal with – we are positioned like the children of my examples as either powerless dreamers of ideal communities or as potentially dangerous people to be contained. Yet, who else can deal with them? Structurally, both the existence of and the de-construction of the institutions upon which such globally organised Power depends is the compliance, if not agreement of people, that is, the masses, the multitude of individuals.
The names of tyrants and the forms that domination take, of course change, but Walzer’s questions that face us as ordinary human beings are the critical questions that research in the social and psychological sciences have as their ‘object’. That is, the object of radical research must be the nature of the regimes underlying social organization and the extent to which they promote the freedom and equality necessary for the creation of a public space where all can be equally heard and equally taken into account. This is a space that, alongside Laclau and Mouffe (1985), I want to call ‘radical democracy’.
Radical democracy at least sounds as if it ought to go with radical research! But what I want to propose is that the acts of people engaged in radical research precede the accomplishment of radical democracy. What I mean by radical democracy and its relation to radical research involves considering how the powers of individuals are expressed or organised and contained in contemporary societies. So, there are two forms of power to consider. These two forms of power are usefully distinguished by Negri (1991). The first refers to the powers of individuals as living beings. As an individual I have my powers of thinking, imagining, perceiving, of talking, of running, jumping and undertaking actions of many kinds. The second form of power occurs when the powers of individuals are aggregated and organised in such a way that power seems to be external to the individual. In this sense it is impersonal in the form of, say, a business or governmental corporation or it is amplified in the figure of the Leader, the President, the King, the Tyrant and so on. To distinguish it typographically from the powers of individuals as individuals, institutionalised Power is written with a capital ‘P’. For Hardt and Negri:
In general, Power denotes the centralised, mediating, transcendental force of command, whereas power is the local, immediate, actual force of constitution. It is essential to recognise clearly from the outset that this distinction does not merely refer to the different capabilities of subjects with disparate resources and potentialities; rather, it marks two fundamentally different forms of authority and organisation that stand opposed in both conceptual and material terms, in metaphysics as in politics – in the organisation of being as in the organisation of society.
(Hardt 1991: xiii)
This distinction is critical to research methodology because of its focus on the ways in which Power is constructed through the organisation of the powers of individuals. as well as on the way in which Power is de-constructed, liquidated or reconfigured through the mobilisation of the powers of individuals to dissolve as well as create associations and undertake collective action.
Again, recall my two earlier research examples. In the first, the powers of professionals were organised ‘to keep the lid on the dustbin’. There was a fear of what would happen if the powers of individuals were released from containment. We have here an example of Power in the institutional sense (capitalised P). In the second case, there was an attempt to explore the imaginative powers of children to think about their ideal community. In each case the real power for individuals to act was blocked. In the first case, the teachers saw their role to ensure that the young people did not act. In the second, the children saw a complete disjunction between their ideal community and the real community and so could not act. In each case, the powers of particular individuals were experienced as separated from the ways in which instutionalised Power operates in contemporary market democracies. This, of course, is quite deliberate.
It can be seen in the history of education where for example the politician Robert Lowe, after the extension of voting rights to certain of the working classes in 1868 is reported as saying ‘now we must educate our masters’. It can be seen in the media where in the early twentieth century the emergent social and psychological sciences were brought into the service of public relations to aid in the ‘regimentation of the public mind’ (Bernays 1928:). As a pioneer in public relations, Lippman (1922) focused on the formation of habits of mind, stereotypes, and taken for granted values. That is to say, research expertise was employed to manufacture or engineer consent (Bernays 1947). As Bernays, known today as the Father of Spin (Tye 1998), put it:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
(Bernays 1928: 27)
Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses.
(Bernays 1928: 127
These were the views of the architects of the public relations industry of twentieth century capitalism. In effect, ‘we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons – a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million – who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.’ (pp 37-8) More specifically, as Bernays said, it is propaganda that is ‘the executive arm of the invisible government’ (p. 48)
And where such invisible government fails, at the back of it is the Power of the state to enforce its laws, in the last resort through the use of violence. Contemporary neo-liberal market democracies manipulate through what Bernays calls the ‘invisible government’ composed of leaders in business, the professions, sports, show business, the media and so on. It wants free unregulated markets to make money with a minimum of government to ensure strong enforceable laws to protect private ownership. The invisible government requires the transformation of a real public into what Lippmann (1922) described as the phantom public. That is, it is a public that has no power of decision making, leaving all real decision making in the hands of ‘experts’ whose role is to manage and administer the workings of social institutions. Furthermore, the role of the experts is to shape the opinions and behaviours of the phantom public through the media, the institutions of education and the workplace to ensure there is no realisable radical alternative to the global dominance of liberal market democracies.
Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Block, the triumph of western liberal market democracies was hailed by Fukuyama (1992) as being the End of History. That is to say, it was claimed that all the great contests between political ideas have ceased and there is now only the process of perfecting the administration of the emergent global capitalist market based ‘democracy’. As Badiou (2008) succinctly puts it, following the election of Sarkozy as president of France:
The underlying logic is after all the logic of the single party. This is exactly what our president has in mind: to gather everyone under his wing. It’s only natural. Once the whole world accepts the capitalist order, the market economy and representative democracy, these facts being equally objective and indubitable as universal gravitation, if not more, why carry on the fiction of opposing parties?
(Badiou 2008: 28-9)
Or indeed, why carry on the fiction of there being a ‘public’. All can be decided by experts. Against such a conclusion, it could be said that the purpose of radical research is to revive and restart the process of history through the production of publics. But that, of course, would be claiming too much. History has not ended. Radical research of all kinds finds and engages with people’s histories of conflict to assert social justice in the continual processes of critique required for the formulation and reformulation of what is to count as the good society. Where noeliberal markets and leadership democracies seek to reduce the public to a phantom and government to a minimum necessary to guarantee the protection for the wealth of the private sector, radical research seeks to create the conditions for the emergence of public space and thus to realise the public as a decision making reality. This leads me to the creative role of disobedience.
The imperative for radical research, in the re-assertion of history is to return to the political moment. Badiou provides a definition of politics as:
organized collective action, following certain principles, and aiming to develop in reality the consequences of a new possibility repressed by the dominant state of affaires.
If research is to be emancipatory, there can be no uncritical conclusion, no final resting place at the end of history. Each change in circumstances, each new viewpoint, demands a creative response for new beginnings. However, we cannot underestimate the difficulties. Back in the 1550s La Boetie wrote his analysis of the power of tyrants. He wondered then, just as we might do now, how it is that many millions of people can be commanded by one relatively small individual. He saw that the reason was in the strength of hierarchical forms of organisation where each level in the hierarchy is dependent on the level above for their livelihood, their privileges and their wealth. However, the whole structure, in the end, depends on those at the bottom giving their powers in the service of those at the top. If the multitude should suddenly decide to disobey the whole pyramid would collapse. The counter to the politics of obedience is a politics of disobedience. Of course, it is never as simple as that because it depends upon millions collectively engaging in such disobedience as a basis for changing society.
What can this look like in practice, what are the kinds of strategies to be employed?
The overarching strategy involves creating the conditions for the existence of a public. As already described, I use the term public to mean all those people who are able to engage freely and equally with others in voicing their experiences, their demands in a context of critical debate where their views are effectively counted and their judgements are included in decision making and courses of action that are undertaken. Given that there are many communities, many different social organisations and institutions, in Nancy Fraser’s words, the result of this means that there will:
necessarily be a society with many different publics, including at least one public in which participants can deliberate as peers across lines of difference about policy that concerns them all.
(Fraser 1997 :84-5)
And (Fraser 2007)
justice requires social arrangements that permit all members to participate in social interaction on a par with one another. So that means they must be able to participate as peers in all the major forms of social interaction: whether it's politics, whether it's the labour market, whether it's family life and so on.
Although this sounds like a massive undertaking, it is also something that is perfectly within the grasp of each individual as they engage with the circumstances of their lives. How is that possible? It is possible to the extent that each individual pushes the issue of freedom with equality into the everyday personal relationships that they have with others at home, work, and play. To the extent that this conflicts with traditional practices and values it becomes a disruption to the taken for granted realities of everyday life. And to those in authority they may be seen as a form of disobedience. Public space in the description that I have given it is not about command, surveillance and control but rather about the free creation of co-dependencies in the production of mutually, equally beneficial social organisations.
The research question then is how to promote the conditions under which such publics can be created. I’ll give an example of what I mean. In the 1960s and 1970s there were many radical approaches to education that adopted democratic, child or person centred strategies. These included Summerhill’s democratic community for children, Kohl’s shift of the curriculum towards the interests of the children, Freire’s critical pedagogy for cultural action, Roger’s child centred approach and indeed Illich’s de-schooling. Each of these and many others together with varieties of anarchism, Marxism, feminism and antiracism created a mood, a belief in the possibility for change.
A particular curriculum research programme in the UK led by Lawrence Stenhouse caught the mood for change (Stenhouse 1975. It was called the Humanities Curriculum Project (HCP for short). In this project the teacher was to act as a neutral chair ensuring rational rules of debate. Indeed, the teacher was to act as a researcher reflecting upon their own practice, a strategy that developed as the Action Research movement in the UK and to the CARN network. But returning to HCP, the young people were to debate with equal voice across a range of controversial issues drawing upon evidence to support their views. In this respect a minimum public space had been created where views could be expressed and each person had a valid right to be heard. Barry MacDonald led the evaluation of this project. In order to respect the democratic nature of public debate he proposed a democratic form of evaluation (MacDonald 1987). In brief, the role of democratic evaluation was to create the conditions for the inclusion of the range of all voices equally regardless of their status in a given formal organisation or community. As a doctoral student, first with Stenhouse and then with MacDonald, such ideas appealed to my values and contributed to my ideas concerning freedom and democratic change. Reflecting back on this early period, and recasting it in the context of my current research experience, it seems to me that objectivity in the public arenas of debate can only be defined in terms of the inclusion of the effective voices of all individuals (c.f Schostak 2006; Schostak and Schostak 2008, 2009). Rather than objectivity based only upon standardization, commonalities and invariance, objectivity as a public commitment requires the inclusion of difference, incommensurability and variation if freedom and equality are to be the basis of the production of new forms of social realities. In an action research based innovation I undertook with a colleague, Charles Sarland, in two First Schools (children aged 5-8) in East Anglia in the UK, a radically democratic approach to education was adopted. It involved all the children, teachers and other school staff. It began with children talking to each other as a basis for resolving their problems. If there was a disagreement, the children were asked to talk about their feelings, the reasons why they behaved as they did and then to work out a solution that each could agree to. The teachers adopted a similar strategy with each other and with the children. The strategy included the development of curricular activities, the structure of lessons and general behaviour throughout the school. It unleashed an immense creative energy that re-drew the whole school both physically and socially as children moved freely and created their curricular activities. It became known as the listening and talking project, or as the children called it: “sorting it out”. Each school developed as an increasingly radically open public space where people of all ages engaged in the decision making that affected the quality of their lives at school. It could be argued that the children and the staff became the citizens of their school. Through participation they became members of a ‘public’ and the school was their territory. Each year, of course, there would be new voices to contend with as new children arrived to start school. The children decided to make a video, with the help of my associate Charles Sarland, to explain their way of life for the new children and for their parents.
This brief description of the project goes to the heart of radical research as I and Jill Schostak see it (see Schostak 2002, 2006; Schostak and Schostak 2008 and 2009). It is not enough for research to capture a range of voices and to represent them. More is required. It is about research creating the conditions for effective voices. It is about writing research into the lives and practices of communities not just in journals and books. It is about forming a disobedient writing and social practice that draws upon the realms, voices, objects, structures and processes that are ignored, denied, repressed, outlawed and forbidden by Power. It is about research creating the practices through which people learn to transform their temporary associations into more persistent forms of democratic social organization through which resources can be allocated for the creation of a mutually beneficial ‘good society’
Finally, then, rather than the deep surveillance and the deep regimentation of minds so typical of contemporary everyday life, the vital programme for critical and radical research has to be the creation of the conditions for the emergence of public space as the precondition for deep democracy. This means that research needs to engage directly with the conditions under which public space is continually created and sustained in every social interaction involved in the formation of desire, demand, judgement, decision making and the will to action. If radical forms of research are always directed towards freedom and thus towards equality it is therefore always disobedient to all forms of hierarchical control and unequal social, economic, political and cultural arrangements. This disobedience is the initial creative act required for the promotion of a public rather than a battle to the death.
And ultimately, if research is to be emancipatory, there can be no uncritical conclusion, no final resting place at the end of history. Each change in circumstances, each new viewpoint, demands a creative response for new beginnings. Radical research is always, necessarily unfinished and unfinishable. There is always a new voice to be included, a new public to be created to construct new more inclusive forms of the good society.
1. It is important to note that the teachers involved were not uncaring. They impressed me with their care and commitment to the children and the community. Unemployment locally was massive. Many children knew no adult who was in employment. The area was known nationally for its violence. The teachers faced incredible odds as they tried their best to help the children where they thought they could.
2. The girls talk of the behaviour of local older boys who light fires, vandalise make a lot of noise, steal cars, race motorbikes and threaten people.
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4. This collapses into one word the two words: égalité and liberté; or, equality and liberty.
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