How do I contribute to the transformation of epistemological hegemonies for sustainable social evolution?

A paper to be presented at the symposium

‘How do we explain the significance of the validity of our self-study enquiries for the future of educational research?’

at the

British Educational Research Association Annual Meeting,

University of Warwick, 8 September 2006.

Jean McNiff

This paper is about understanding and transforming epistemological hegemonies into sustainable forms of social evolution. Well, that is what the title says. The paper is actually about much more than that. It is more about my journey into understanding, as I confront my ever-present tendency towards establishing my own hegemonic position-power, grounded in my knowledge, and what I do to combat those tendencies, and why. The paper becomes, in fact, a story of struggle and redemption, as I outline how I have struggled to understand the motives that drive my practice, to the extent that I can now say that I can justify my practice – I am theorising my practice, by offering descriptions and explanations for it, and I am validating my claim to know my theory of practice, and thereby justifying it. Being prepared to say that I can justify my practice, however, means explaining how I have deepened my understanding about the need to show the validity of my claim to know my theory of practice, by identifying appropriate standards of judgement against which the claim and the practice can be judged. Coming to these understandings has not always been easy. An original idea that emerged through the writing of this paper is that I can justify my work by showing how my values are tested through their own potential defeat, and how the transformation of potential defeat then comes to act as a living standard of judgement. The transformation of the denial of my values can come to act as a living critical standard of judgement to show how I justify my work and my claims to knowledge.

These are some of the issues that emerge in the unfolding of my story. But to begin at the beginning, I need to tell you some of the concerns about epistemological hegemonies that set these recent trains of thought in motion.

I will begin by talking about knowledge, and about my serious concerns around how knowledge is often used as a means of social division, and how people are frequently categorised into those who know and those who don’t. I am concerned that these categorisations tend to be understood as hierarchical, with some forms of knowledge deemed as more worthwhile than others. Consequently, some people come to be regarded as worthwhile people and others as not so worthwhile. My concerns deepen even further when what comes to count as elitist forms of knowledge are used to preserve social hierarchies. Those at the top look down on those beneath them, while those at the bottom, believing the stories that those at the top tell (because, after all, they are at the top), come to believe that the bottom is where they deserve to be in the given order of things. For many, the bottom is a miserable place to be.

My concerns reach breaking point when I see how those at the top deliberately use their hierarchically ascribed position-power as recognised knowers to keep those beneath them in subjugation, and how knowledge is then also lined up with other human properties that designate worth, such as gender, skin colour, ethnicity, or level of intelligence. My concerns extend from how such spurious practices are used systematically to maintain normative categorisations of privilege, to how these forms of power are rooted in a logic of binary divides, that assume that categorisation is the correct order of things, and that assume that a logic of having is superior to a logic of being (see Fromm 1979; Marcuse 1964). So normative has this view become that it simply does not make sense to question it, on the basis that there is no other way of thinking, and that anyone who thinks in a way other than in terms of a binary logic is not quite right in the head, and needs to be rendered silent in some way, for fear of contaminating right thinking people. This view has been perpetuated by generations of philosophers of the likes of Popper, who, in spite of his commitment to keeping conversations going rather than rendering people silent, nevertheless maintained that any theory that involved contradiction was ‘useless as a theory’ (Popper 1963: 317). It is also perpetuated by many higher education academic practitioners, the likes of those that you and I work with, people who ground their identities in normative epistemologies, and communicate those identities through the canonical orthodoxies of refereed journal writing, itself of a form (because it tends to be maintained by the very academic practitioners it is meant to serve) that is also rooted in a logic of binary divides and excludes the living ‘I’ (Whitehead 1989) from its normative discourses.

I have come to understand such epistemological practices as grounds for the maintenance of some of the more violent aspects of many contemporary social orders, and I understand how the epistemologies themselves are held in place by divisive and exclusionary logics. The violence of a social order dooms it to disintegration, evidenced by deep social unrest, much of which can be directly attributed to a divisive form of logic. The ‘You are either with us or against us’ logic of binary divides cannot fail to maintain hierarchical forms, ably abetted and supported by top academic people who ought to know better, but who often choose to use their own epistemological and social capacities for personal, institutional and social gain.

I do not hold with such tendencies. I believe that the use of position-power to subjugate others is wrong. I believe that the situation in which some people are seen as better than others is wrong, although I recognise that some people’s actions are judged as better than others in terms of the values of those who are making the judgements. My work is committed to challenging and transforming the underlying epistemological base that frequently leads to the sustaining of privilege and power. I have in fact chosen to go back into institutional life, after twenty years of professional independence during which I challenged such practices from without, so that I can challenge such practices from within, and I also choose to work in places where the outcomes of the use of privilege can be seen to have the most egregious consequences, places like Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, and in recent times, South Africa.

To set the scene for why I choose to work in places like South Africa, I will draw on a paper by an as yet unknown author(1), ‘ “Mrs Palmer gave me scholarship to Sterkfontein”: narrative resources in action research’. The paper draws on the work of Shula Marks’s (1989) book Not Either an Experimental Doll – the separate worlds of three South African women. This book tells a story of the changing relationships between three women, including a young black African woman, Lily Moya, living in rural Transkei, and Mabel Palmer, an elderly white woman academic, living in Natal, who had done much for providing university education opportunities for black students in Natal, and now offered patronage to Lily in the form of supporting her education. Initially, Mabel Palmer was supportive and caring of Lily, encouraging her to develop confidence in their relationship, but, when it appeared that Lily was becoming too confident, wrote the following:

… And now for more personal matters, which it is even more difficult to speak of, but which I feel must also be made plain. You say that one of your reasons for wishing to be in Durban is that you want to see more of me, but have you ever asked yourself whether I wish to see more of you? As a matter of fact I do not. Your romantic and self-centred imagination has built up for you a picture in which you are to be my devoted and intimate friend. Now you must forgive me for saying this is all nonsense. Even if you were a European girl of your age it would still be nonsense. What basis of companionship could there be between a quarter-educated girl like you of eighteen and an experienced old lady like myself? And of course the racial situation in Durban makes these things more difficult …’ (Marks 1989: 236–8).

Shula Marks then goes on to outline how, intrigued by the correspondence, she went in search of Lily, and found her, twenty-five years later, thin, wasted, and living with her family in Johannesburg. She looked ‘drugged, almost absent’, says Marks. Lily explains: ‘I was transferred from St Cuthberts to Shawbury, from Shawbury to St Matthews, from St Matthews to St John’s, from St John’s to Adams, and from Adams to Sterkfontein … Mrs Palmer gave me scholarship to Sterkfontein’ (Marks 1989: 209).

Each place mentioned is an educational institution, but Sterkfontein is an institution for the mentally ill, where Lily had been a frequent inmate. The story shows how the efforts of a misguided white woman had, by the very nature of their underpinning motives, and grounded as they were in specific epistemologies, ruined a life by offering, and then withdrawing hope. Lily’s scholarship had turned out to be a scholarship to the destruction of her self.

Reading the story brought many things home to me. I saw how racist attitudes are deeply implicated in ontological and epistemological values and practices, and how the ‘them and us’ of hierarchical relationships in education easily maps onto hierarchical social relationships. I saw how dominant groups justify their supremacist attitudes by recourse to normative social relationships within a given social order, and how these social relationships are frequently justified by recourse to what is trotted out as epistemological supremacy. And I realised how the work of professional educators such as myself, who wish to offer educational opportunities, especially to those who have been positioned as marginal, carries deep responsibility, to be prosecuted relentlessly. For me, it means that while my blue train may occasionally risk derailment by political pressures as it chugs into uncharted mountainous territories, I must never risk its safety by giving into my own demons of frailty and fear. So strong is this conviction that it has become a living critical standard of judgement as I ask, ‘How do I justify my work?’, and the question itself has become a personal mantra as I deliberately engage in political action through educational research.

I return to these issues later, but for now, let me outline how Shula Marks’s story, as I have just told it, encapsulates some of the issues that inform the writing of this paper. Let me also show how, as an action researcher, and, drawing on the ideas of Whitehead (1989), I organise my ideas to show the development of my action enquiry.

What is my concern? Why am I concerned? What kind of examples can I produce to show why I am concerned?

I work in a range of contexts. My main practice is as an educational researcher. My main professional location is St Mary’s University College, a higher education institution in London, where, among other things, I am a member of a team that supports a staff development programme through which members of staff can achieve their masters and doctoral degrees through studying their own practices as they ask questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve my practice?’ (Whitehead 1989). I also work in Ireland as an adjunct professor, with the University of Limerick, where I support the doctoral enquiries of five classroom teachers (one recently graduated – see Sullivan 2006), who also study their own practice with a view to improving it. I also work in South Africa, with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, where, as a research associate, I contribute to the development of a professional education programme for members of the Faculty of Education as they also study their practices as professional educators; and I work with a group of fifteen African teachers from the township of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town, as they study their own practices for their masters degrees, which will be awarded by St Mary’s. A key point, as noted, is that I have now chosen to go back into institutional life, after twenty years of working as an independent consultant, specifically to exercise my educational influence, through the institutional power that my position provides, in the learning of the different social formations with which I am involved, and with specific political intent, as I now explain.

My political intent is to work with others in transforming what I have come to see as epistemological hegemonies that legitimate the perpetuation of normative institutional practices that in turn legitimate the perpetuation of normative social orders, given that the academy is the highest legitimating body for what counts as knowledge. The epistemological hegemonies that I speak about are those epistemologies that understand theory as a set of propositional statements, whose validity can be demonstrated by the nature of the formal relationships between the statements. In relation to the nature of theory, Pring (2000), for example, has this to say:

‘Theory’ would seem to have the following features. It refers to a set of propositions which are stated with sufficient generality yet precision that they explain the ‘behaviour’ of a range of phenomena and predict what would happen in future. An understanding of those propositions includes an understanding of what would refute them – or at least what would count as evidence against their being true.

(Pring 2000: 124–5)

This is a definition of ‘theory’. More specifically, it is one kind of definition of one kind of theory, a definition offered by a recognised expert in the field. A further assumption of normative epistemologies is that theory is formed through the systematic accumulation and testing of research-based evidence by appointed researchers, so it can then justifiably be applied to practice, a situation with which practitioners should agree. Slavin explains:

The most important reason for the extraordinary advances in medicine, agriculture, and other fields is the acceptance by practitioners of evidence [offered by people like me] as the basis for practice. In particular, it is the randomized clinical trial – more than any other single medical breakthrough – that has transformed medicine.

(Slavin 2002: 16)

Furthermore, says Slavin, this medical model should be applied to educational practices: ‘… the experiment is the design of choice [of people like me] for studies that seek to make causal connections, and particularly for evaluations of educational innovations’ (Slavin 2002: 18, cited in Thomas and Pring 2004: 11).

It is everywhere assumed that propositional theory, grounded in Aristotelian notions of causal relationships, should be applied to practice. This view has become normative in the social sciences, in spite of stringent critiques such as those by Habermas (1993), who explains that, given ‘the irreversible shift in philosophical concern from individual consciousness to language’ (Cronin, in Habermas 1993: xii), it is necessary to abandon a ‘view from nowhere’ in relation to human affairs, and to recognise that human affairs are negotiated discursively among people who are politically, historically, and economically situated, and who bring their own situatedness to their dealings with one another. However, the dominance of an abstract form of theory, created through philosophical debate by those whose worlds are more frequently situated in an academy that is often divorced from the real-life messiness of human living (see Law’s 2004 comments on the messiness of human enquiry; see Schön’s 1995 comments on the abstracted nature of much academic work), has come to act as a kind of enforced economy in which the currency is the publication of abstract papers dealing with abstract philosophical debates. Such is the normative status of this economy that many in higher education do not question its hegemony, recognising perhaps its potential power in closing down opportunities for themselves, and choose to play safe, as explained by Bourdieu: ‘… there is something desperate in the docility with which “free intellectuals” rush to hand in their essays on the required subject of the moment’ (Bourdieu 1993: 43). Abstract theory, underpinned by specific views of knowledge formation and its communication, and as it transforms into hegemonic knowledge-constituted practices, has come to be a form of intellectual terrorism (Lyotard 1984). And, because a dominant form of knowledge itself tends to strengthen the self-reproducing processes of the society that forms it (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977; Foucault 1980), the social situation becomes one in which the underlying form of epistemology strengthens the social practices of the society that practises that form of epistemology, including the knowledge-generating practices of practitioners, especially those in the academy, that then reinforces the underlying epistemology. Dyrberg (1997) is right to speak of ‘the circular structure of power’, as he explains how politics shape identity, which shapes community, which shapes policy….

These are the concerns that occupy my mind, and lead me to experience myself as a living contradiction (Whitehead 1989), because my values of freedom and equity are denied by so many epistemologically-constituted hegemonic institutional practices; and so lead me to find ways of transforming the social situation, grounded as it often is within the kind of circular power-constituted structures mentioned above, into a form of living such that delivery on promises of hope of the kind made to Lily can be carried through.

What can I do about my concerns?

My response to any form of injustice is to find ways of putting it right. As a child and young adult I was consistently bullied, because I was small and plain, had a speech impediment, and lacked self-confidence. Today I recognise that I brought much of my misery on myself, by withdrawing into myself and learning how to become self-sufficient. I also learned specific coping strategies, as so many children do, as in the story that Caitríona McDonagh tells (2006), about how a ten-year-old girl with specific learning difficulties (dyslexia) learned to cope in a classroom situation, as do many people who are not given due regard for their frailties.

The pupil had stated that she could not recall answers when a lesson had been conducted orally because she needed visual supports such as diagrams, sketches, mind-maps or cue words to help her recall. The pupil said to her class teacher,

‘I avoid eye contact with you. I hold my hand and arm up straight. When my arm is up, you think that I know the answer. I don’t wave my arm. You think that I am confident, that I know the answer. I don’t make eye contact. You look past me and pick on somebody else to answer.’

(3 March 2003, tape recording and transcript in data archive, Appendices 2.4.4 and 3.1).

The teacher agreed that the pupil was correct in her understanding of the teacher’s techniques for selecting pupils to give oral answers. The pupil’s coping strategies demonstrated a perceptiveness and innovative reasoning which would be uncommon at her age.

(McDonagh 2006)

In my case, the experience of being bullied and the humiliation attached to the need to develop appropriate coping strategies led to a resolve that, whenever possible, I would in future never stand by and watch someone else being bullied. This has been the case for most of my adult life, and is now the case in my professional life. I have deliberately taken my present job so that I can do something about epistemologically-grounded institutional bullying, as it then travels to contexts of social bullying. Within an institutional context (as is frequently the case), where abstract objective knowledge is still regarded as epistemologically superior, and working with working with others who have the same educational and political commitments (see below), I have contributed to putting in place programmes whereby people can explore their own potentials for learning and knowledge generation through conducting their own personally-grounded self-enquiries. These studies can then go forward for accreditation, and so interrupt the dominance of normative institutional epistemologies, firmly rooted as they are in epistemologies and methodologies of normative hierarchically-constituted relationships of power. They interrupt by introducing new forms of democratically-constituted relationships of power, where each and every individual is able to realise the power of their own knowledge and their own voice as they exercise their agency within institutional settings by addressing the question, ‘How do I improve my practice?’ I work relentlessly with others within my institution to find strategies that enable people to find opportunities to exercise their agency in their own institutional contexts, and to celebrate and make public their potentials to influence their own learning and the learning of others. I work not only to influence the development of new institutional practices through the establishment of new forms of institutional epistemologies, as Schön (1995) said was a necessary condition for institutional change, but also to find new forms of theorising practice to strengthen the legitimacy of the new epistemological traditions that I am promoting. Consequently, a key political strategy I use to influence new organisational practices is to work with others to provide opportunities for the voices of practitioners to be heard as they explain how they hold themselves accountable for what they are doing; and a key theoretical strategy is to contribute to the refinement of the underpinning theoretical base of practice-based research so that the practitioners in question have appropriate intellectual resources with which to fight their corner and establish their own epistemological equity. This can go some way to ensuring parity of esteem in public debates about what counts as knowledge, who is to be seen as a legitimate knower, and who makes decisions about these things.

A key theoretical resource I am developing, with Jack Whitehead of the University of Bath, who has the same kind of political aims and uses similar strategies, is to find ways of communicating the validity of practice-based self-study enquiry. This issue of validity has long been a sticking point for practice-based work. Furlong (2000) spoke about the need for the practitioner research community to strengthen its theoretical base by establishing appropriate criteria and standards of judgement for their accounts. The importance and significance of this call to action was highlighted in the 2005 British Educational Research Association annual meeting, when President Geoff Whitty emphasised that the social sciences should still be seen as the way forward for educational research (Whitty 2005). In my experience, the methodologies of the social sciences can frequently lead to the maintenance of an epistemological foundation that justifies the social practices of providing Lily with a scholarship to Sterkfontein. While the methodologies of the social sciences provide inestimable services for humankind, ensuring that our technologies and our social infrastructures work to best advantage, they are not always the most appropriate for enquiries whose focus is the development of democratically-informed social practices, since they are so often rooted in the divisive objective relationships of the knower as an ‘I’ and the known as an ‘It’ (Buber 1937). For the development of democratically-informed social practices, other methodologies and epistemologies are required, that position all participants in the enquiry in relationships of epistemological and social equity, that see all people as of equal worth, and that recognise that people talking together do so inevitably within normatively-constituted social relationships where epistemological and social equity has not always been the case. This is now my reality. I work in London with people who until recently perceived themselves as teacher trainers and now perceive themselves as research-active professional educators. People like my colleagues have traditionally been excluded from public debate, even about their own futures, and have accepted normative institutional practices of being talked about and of having other people speak on their behalf. Working with far-sighted progressive colleagues such as Dr Patricia Wade, Head of the School of Education, Dr Richard Fisher, Vice Principal, and Mrs Barbara Bryant, Senior Administrator of the School of Education, I am doing something about that, and a significant knowledge base of accredited accounts now exists as evidence of this claim – see for example Aston (2006), D’Urban Jackson (2006), Purser (2006). Yet nowhere has this understanding been borne in on me more forcefully than through my work in South Africa, where I have come face to face with my own responses to the brutalities of social exclusion, as a tangible outcome of divisive epistemologies that see knowledge as the right of people with skin of a particular colour, to be kept away from those with skin of another colour. To give a flavour of the nature of these brutalities, I draw on Wieder (2003), who outlines the kind of policies that ensured white supremacy in South Africa at the beginning of the apartheid era:

… each of the education acts sought to ensure white supremacy in South Africa. The curriculum stressed white superiority and black inferiority, and the academic curriculums for each group of people were differentiated so that schools corresponded with the occupational and economic reality of a racist South African society. In 1954, the Minister of Native Affairs and future president of the country, Hendrik Verwoerd, spoke of the non-white before the Senate:

There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. Within his own community, however, all doors are open. For that reason it is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim absorption in the European community, where he cannot be absorbed. Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his own community and misled him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was now allowed to graze. (Soudien 1998, p. 9).

(Wieder 2003: 3)

And such policies have led to practices such that many black people, having received an education that was acknowledged as deliberately inferior to the education offered to whites, are left with a legacy of a frequently lesser factual and procedural knowledge-base and a frequent lack of confidence in their own capacity to come to know, and a frequent lack of confidence in their own traditional epistemologies that do not conform to the norms of traditional Eurocentric epistemologies.

Furthermore, I have had to confront my own devils that whisper sweet nothings in my ear about how I can also move into a position of supremacist power through the exercise of my privileged institutional positioning as a white professor of a white university. These allurements have been hard to resist, not because I am consciously vain, but because they appeal to the psychological security of a lifetime of having been born into and now existing within a normative habitus that is held in place by the institutional and social state apparatuses of epistemological and social apartheid, in which I am positioned as belonging to the ruling class. So I need to take action in relation to breaking up my own potentially solidified logics, because the exercise of those logics and the development of commensurable epistemologies prevent me from understanding that I am an other in other people’s spaces, as much as they are in mine, and I have a responsibility to maintain my own values-based integrity, as do they.

I have taken such action, and recount elsewhere (McNiff 2006) what this has involved. Here I will briefly say that it has meant enormous ontological and emotional destablisation, including the rejection of myself by many, and including some of those for whom I am undertaking this work. This has been my experience in other contexts, too, as it has no doubt been for other professional educators, where practitioners whose studies you support, giving unqualified amounts of attention to their work, accuse you of paying too much attention to others who also need your attention; or do not produce work on time; or grumble about the effort needed to produce high quality assignments. It was also problematic experiences such as going to Palestine, and publishing a paper from the visit, only to receive subsequent hate male from Israelis who accused me of being anti-Semitic; and then, a year later, when I visited Israel and published papers from that visit, I was accused by my very same Palestinian hosts of betrayal and cowardice for visiting Israel. It was countless numbers of experiences like this, and all within a personal context of being betrayed by people I loved dearly, and who died without any opportunities for reconciliation. The hurt has been such that at times I have kept on doing the work, in different locations and now in South Africa, simply because I have refused to give in to the surface cognitions about the difficulties of the work and the sweet blandishments about how sensible it would be to give it up, and have remained committed to the deeper intuitions about its commensurability with my own ontological and epistemological values, and the methodological need to show how I strive to live in the direction of those values in order to live with myself as maintaining my integrity and not seeing a hypocrite every time I look in the mirror.

How do I show that any conclusions I have come to are reasonably fair and accurate? How do I demonstrate the validity of my claims to knowledge?

I said earlier that one of my political strategies, as well as taking social action to combat the horrendous visible injustices of invisible epistemological hegemonic forms, is to find ways of contributing to the strengthening of the knowledge base of practice-based research. One of the main strategies involved is to establish appropriate methods for demonstrating the validity of knowledge claims, so that research accounts can be acknowledged in the Academy as methodologically rigorous and therefore to be taken seriously by the wider educational research community. In recent years, working with Jack Whitehead, I have developed ideas about methodologies and epistemologies of freedom (McNiff 2000, 2002), where I have explained how freedom-oriented values need to be seen as the grounds for freedom-oriented practices; and Jack and I have produced texts, collaboratively and individually, that explain how claims to practice-based experiential knowledge need to be tested against the values that inspired the research and its questions, and how these values can then come to act as the living criteria and standards of judgement against which knowledge claims can be tested (see McNiff and Whitehead 2006; Whitehead 2004; Whitehead and McNiff 2006). Jack Whitehead continues to intensify and refine the work in relation to how values can come to be understood as transforming into living critical standards of judgement (see Whitehead 2006).

My focus has recently shifted, especially as driven by the recent experiences of working in South Africa, where I have had to confront my demons, as noted above, and where I have become acutely aware of the need to justify my practice. The social and political nature of the contexts of this work is varied. Some agencies regard my work as valuable. The Southern Sun group has begun to offer me free accommodation during my visits to South Africa, because they see me as supporting the intellectual emancipation of fellow South Africans. The High Commissioner in London, Dr Lindiwe Mabusa, has written a letter of free passage for me, so that I do not encounter any problems of access into South Africa. The False Bay College has offered premises for the delivery of the masters programme I am developing with other St Mary’s personnel. Of great delight was the following note sent to me by Tsepo Majake, one of the participants on the masters programme, on Women’s Day, 9th August:

Today we are celebrating the women who have contributed in the liberation of South Africa, within and without our national borders. It is for this reason that I thought, your contribution will go a long way in the intellectual emancipation of my people in the next few years. Thank you for making opportunities for people like myself to attempt to acquire a higher degree.

(Majake, personal correspondence, 9th August 2006)

Yet I know that my efforts are not always regarded approvingly by some people in higher education institutions, and conversations about possible collaborative working have ceased in some quarters. And this is why it is now essential for me to find ways, for myself as much as for the public dissemination of the ideas, to show how I justify my work, even though it is problematic, within a context whose power relations are not only politically and racially constituted, but also epistemologically and logically constituted, and in which the hegemonising logics and practices of traditional epistemologies are deliberately used to perpetuate positions of privilege.

As I understand it, in methodological terms, I can justify my practice by demonstrating the validity of the knowledge claim that I can do so, and the criteria and standards of judgement most appropriate for the task are the embodied values that animate the research. Through a series of transformations, these values come to assume life as they change from abstract linguistic items such as ‘freedom’ and ‘equity’ into living practices in which freedom and equity are evident throughout all personal and social encounters (see Sullivan 2006). On this view, establishing the validity of a practice can be complex and multi-faceted. However, from recent thinking, I have imagined an analysis that suggests that demonstrating the validity of a practice can be understood as constituting three parts, all of which are embedded and in dynamic transformational relation with one another.

First, it involves showing that my claim to be acting in a just and equitable manner is grounded in the values of freedom and equity, and that my claim can be validated provided I show that I am living in a way that is commensurable with my articulated values. I thus aim to show the methodological validity of the claim. A good deal of work is now available to show the legitimacy of this conceptual position (see Whitehead 2005, 2006).

Second, it involves testing my claim within a communicative context of discursively-constituted relationships, where others weigh the validity of my claim in relation to how I communicate it. I therefore also aim to show the validity of the communicative processes against which the claim is tested. Here the work of Habermas (1987) is instructive in showing the need to foreground the values of clear communication, those of comprehensibility, sincerity, honesty, and acknowledgement of a normative background. Again, considerable work is being undertaken in this regard to legitimise the conceptual position (Whitehead and McNiff 2006).

Third, and this is new territory, I need to test my claim that I am able to justify my practice. This extends the domain of enquiry from establishing the methodological validity of a claim to knowledge, to a justification of the practice that leads to the claim. And to do so, I return to Africa, this time via a book by Rian Malan (1990), a South African journalist who fled South Africa because of his inability to cope with the dissonance of living a life of a so-called Just White Man, while not fully committing to what a black experience of apartheid meant for black people. This has been similar to my experience of getting involved in developing and delivering a masters programme. I have had to question myself deeply about my own motives. Did I think that I was going to act as a saviour? Was I a new missionary? Was I trying to make a bold statement that would turn me into some kind of public heroine, a champion of the disadvantaged? Was I, underneath it all, also offering scholarships, that would turn out to be scholarships to places like Sterkfontein, when I would abandon those I had deliberately chosen to support when the going got rough, as it most certainly would?

Malan tells the story of Creina Alcock, a white South African who, with her husband Neil, lived with black Africans, and how Neil was murdered by the black Africans he devoted his life to. Creina went through every kind of hell of despair, including death-threats to herself, yet found redemption in the very fact that she kept on loving and refused to give in. She says this.

I felt utterly betrayed by loving. All the things I had ever been told about love just weren’t true. It was all full of false promises. I understood that love was a safety and a protection, and that if you loved you would be rewarded by someone loving you back, or at least not wanting to damage you. But it wasn’t true, any of it. I knew that if I stayed, this was how it was going to be: It would never get any better; it would stay the same, or get worse. I thought, if you’re really going to live in Africa, you have to look at it and say, This is the way of love, down this road: Look at it hard. This is where it is going to lead you.

I think you will know what I mean if I tell you love is worth nothing until it has been tested by its own defeat. I felt I was being asked to try to love enough not to be afraid of the consequences. I realized that love, even if it ends in defeat, gives you a kind of honor; but without love, you have no honor at all. I think that is what I misunderstood all my life. Love is to enable you to transcend defeat.

You said one could be deformed by this country, and yet it seems to me that one can only be deformed by the things one does to oneself. It’s not the outside things that deform you, it’s the choices you make. To live anywhere in the world, you must know how to live in Africa. The only thing you can do is love, because it is the only thing that leaves light inside you, instead of the total, obliterating darkness.

(Malan, 1990: 409)


This has to be for me, this realisation that my redemption lies in my capacity to keep on loving, to keep on doing, driven by the deep conviction that there is something useful for me to do here, without expectation of reward or recognition, just to live my life by the values that define it, and not to expect reciprocation, which in itself I have come to see as a key value. What drove me to develop the programme I now understand as a chance to do something for myself, in return for the years and years of unmitigated love for people who chose to scorn it, and that left me feeling of little value and of little that was worth loving. Now I understand that my capacity for love is not defined in terms of whether it comes back, but of how much I am prepared to continue to give without expectation. I am healing through Africa. This is part of me. This is who I am.

And this is now how I understand how the transformation of the denial of my values can come to act as a living critical standard of judgement to show how I justify my work. I can justify my work by showing how my value is tested through its own potential defeat, and how the transformation of potential defeat then comes to act as a living standard of judgement. I am prepared to go to jail to live my value of freedom. I am prepared to suffer abuse to live my value of peace. I am prepared to stay in Africa, with the potential penalties of not being loved, to live my value of love.

As I understand it, issues of demonstrating the validity of claims to knowledge, within a context of demonstrating the validity of the communication processes through which the claim to knowledge is made, have to be understood as located within a context of demonstrating the transformation of the potential defeat of the value that underpins the claim to knowledge into a form of living through which the value can be shown to be alive and well within the context of the life of the person who claims the value.

This is how I justify my practice. I overcome my own propensities toward the allure of my own epistemological hegemonising by explaining how I make a conscious decision to maintain my epistemological and moral integrity to honour my commitments. Such honouring is, in my view, an act of love, an act of faithfulness, a prayerful act, in B. J. Macdonald’s (1995) terms.


I set out to write a paper about how epistemological hegemonies can close down opportunities for sustainable social evolution. I have ended up writing a paper about how I create and develop opportunities for other people, and myself, to contribute to our own sustainable personal evolution, and find ways of transforming that into a form of social evolution. I began writing out of a sense of anger, and I complete my writing with an ironic sense both of sadness and joy. My work in South Africa was undertaken out of a sense of righting a wrong, a naïve position that assumed that I knew what was right and others did not. One short and intensively painful year on, it continues out of a wiser understanding that I must take care to do no harm, in relation to ensuring the wellbeing of the people I work with, just to continue loving what I do in relation with people I have grown to care for, and not to expect anything else other than my own growth and spiritual wellbeing.

I am delighted to report that it is paying off. Fifteen teachers have submitted their first assignments, and are now about to be enrolled as masters candidates on a St Mary’s programme (see for example Gungqisa 2006; Malgas 2006; Mgqweto 2006; Nongwane 2006). Fifteen lives are being enriched, and fifteen teachers will possibly find ways of strengthening new epistemologies in their own institutions, with the political intent of contributing to new forms of social sustainability. I take sheer delight in knowing that I am in there too, working with people in whose country I am a welcome guest, and who value who we are as we work together.

To end, here is a note, slightly edited to preserve confidentiality, from the same Tsepo Majake mentioned earlier, and received just as I was finishing this paper.

Thank you very much for letting us know of the latest developments in the masters programme. It is encouraging to know and see progress in what almost became a failure. Thanks for your courage to continue in spite of the difficulties involved. I personally borrowed from you strength to do this.

(Majake, personal correspondence, 27 August 2006)

Such is the nature of the influence of educational intent, when educational intent triumphs over its own potential defeat.

Note 1

The ideas are taken from an article I received for review for the journal Educational Action Research. The author is as yet unidentified. As soon as I know the author’s name, I will acknowledge them as having inspired me with new ideas. I have in the meantime acquired the book by Shula Marks, and it is becoming a key point of reference.


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Jean McNiff is Professor of Educational Research, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham.

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