Practices of Possibility in Neoliberal Social Systems

Funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation (July 2015 to July 2016). For more information, see here.

This project explores how certain kinds of educational practice have the capacity to create new possibilities for transformative political agency within neoliberal social institutions. In recent decades, many critical theorists have argued that neoliberal rationality is harmful to human well-being, democratic life and ecological futures. They also argue that it is increasingly difficult to challenge. These theories reflect both the experiences of educators and the philosophical claim that we live in a time of ‘contracting possibilities’. However, while this contraction seems to create acute hopelessness in some contexts, it generates political experimentation in others. This contradiction is pronounced in education, where we have seen both extreme neoliberal reforms and radical struggles against them, but have little research showing how neoliberal rationality itself becomes powerful or is transformed. This project works with teachers in compulsory and alternative educational institutions in order to understand how spaces of possibility for agency concretely ‘contract’ and ‘expand’ in their work. By combining the conceptual rigour of critical philosophy, the empirical texture of phenomenology and the co-operative meaning-making of action research, this project will apply an interdisciplinary methodology to work through barriers between these sources of knowledge to deepen our understandings of (a) how neoliberal rationality is produced and challenged through educational work, (b) the nature of ‘possibility-enabling practices’ in neoliberal society, and (c) the influence of social context on such practices.

Education and/for/of radical democracy 

I have recently published a book called The Education of Radical Democracy, which is about two things: first, the centrality of learning to all projects of radical democracy, particularly in its counter-capitalist and prefigurative forms; and second, the educative character of radical democracy as a mode of political and ethical life. It explains why radical democracy is so difficult and so possible, and why understanding it as a critical educational process greatly increases our chances to make it work. It brings the insights of critical philosophy, critical pedagogy and popular education to bear on one another as mutually constitutive voices within what is in fact a common political project: the democratisation and humanisation of everyday life in the face of formidable power.

The pedagogies and politics of popular higher education 

My writing on radical democratic education is grounded in and emerges in part from my practical work with the Social Science Centre, Lincoln and the network of free university projects in the UK and internationally.  Here, I am interested in understanding the limits and possibilities of the new forms of autonomous (non-state, non-corporate and self-organised) higher education and knowledge practices that have emerged in response to the aggressive neoliberalisation of existing cultural institutions. In practice, I am exploring with others the nature of the relationships, epistemologies, pedagogies, languages, texts and spaces that make practical-critical intellectual work possible in democratic modes beyond the university, and considering the connection and tension between these activities and collective political action in the spirit of traditional popular education.

The politics of transformative culture in popular arts and education

Funded by the British Academy (2009-2012)

This project explored the transformative potential of culture in late capitalist society. In response to popular discourses of despair about the inevitability of ecological catastrophe, economic crisis and the erosion of democratic participation, many cultural workers insist that the ‘world-making’ practices of art and education can create space for alternative perspectives and empower people to take action for social change. At the same time, the future of these very practices is threatened by the commodification of cultural work itself. When authenticity has market value, creativity is cultural capital and reflexive dialogue is good public relations, how does culture function as a critical force in social life? To answer these questions, this project explored the motivations, experiences and impacts of cultural workers who lead projects for social change in the arts and education, and who define their work as essential not only for creating spaces of political possibility, but also challenging the cultural logic within which such practices are themselves devalued or suppressed.

Democratizing schools

I am developing work with others to strengthen the presence of critical theory, pedagogies and professional practices in schools. Inspired in part by Michael Fielding’s research on radical democratic education in Britain and the strong traditions of school-based critical pedagogy in the US, I am exploring the potential for teacher action research, public space-making and the cultivation of radical-democratic professional identities to facilitate resistance against neoliberalisation and collective work in democratising schooling.

Understanding Educational Effectiveness and Equality in England’s Rural and Coastal Communities: An Exploratory Analysis of State Secondary Schooling in Lincolnshire

Funded by the University of Lincoln (2015)

Since the 1970s, educational researchers have emphasised the importance of analysing the social, economic, and political contexts of education. In the English county of Lincolnshire, however, there are few systematic datasets or analytical resources that offer teachers, schools, parents and policymakers informed insight into the socio-economic structure of secondary schooling, and few opportunities for schools to co-operate with one another and academic researchers to build such knowledge from the ground up. This project aims to gather and analyse existing but presently diffuse quantitative data about this situation to establish a basic picture of educational equality in Lincolnshire and lay a foundation for future research.

Politics of knowledge, social science and higher education in Central Asia

From 1998 until 2007, my research was heavily focused on the politics of knowledge in Central Asia, and in Kyrgyzstan in particular. In different projects and pieces of work, I explore issues of educational neocolonialism and academic imperialism in post-Soviet societies, the cultural meaning of scientific knowledge in contexts of rapid social change, the relationship between indigenous and hegemonic knowledge, and the history of sociology in Kyrgyzstan. I also conducted early sociological studies on the practice of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. More recently, my work in the region has shifted to an analysis of the different modalities of neoliberalisation in contexts of higher education in Central Asia.

Pedagogical research

I have also led a number of projects in pedagogical research, including:

Critical pedagogy as hidden curriculum (2012)

Critical media literacy and student empowerment: the possibilities and limitations of film in university classrooms (with Sarah Hayes) (Aston University, 2009–2010).

Critical inquiry-based learning in Sociology (Kingston University, 2007–2008).