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Tribalism, oh no!

Published in Method, Theory by Mark Murphy on March 6, 2013

Image (c) Jenni Konrad

In Monday’s edition of the Guardian newspaper, John Harris wrote an article entitled ‘No mainstream party truly understands conservatism’. Harris was at pains to illustrate how British Tory voters were ill-served by either of the mainstream political parties. He was also at pains to illustrate the ordinary nature of these voters and how reasonable some of their opinions were – on marriage, immigration and the EU. But all this reasonableness couldn’t hide the sense that Harris was preaching once again to the long-ago converted. And just to confirm this, he then went and excelled himself with the phrase ‘they are not my tribe’.How I laughed. Frankly there was no need for such a statement – anyone familiar with Harris and his writings could never be under the illusion that Harris was a card-carrying conservative. And if I were a Tory voter I would have found Harris even more condescending than he normally is (‘Tories are human just like you’ – imagine!). There is no doubt that Harris is a dyed-in-the-wool member of the lefty tribe, a membership that easily manifests itself in his tendency to bear witness to what he clearly considers self-evident truths (I just wish he had stuck to indie music – now there’s a tribe I could be accused of belonging to).

As in life, tribalism is a scourge in the political sphere, reducing the opportunities for informed debate while damaging the real potential at the heart of pluralist democracies. A complacent sense of belonging, while understandable, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This tribalism is alive and kicking in the academy too, no more so than in the field of education theory and education research – some of this tribalism might even contribute to the ‘academic asshole’ culture identified by the Thesis Whisperer (check out this discussion – we academics do love a good moan, don’t we?). The tribes are easy to spot, usually accompanied by a binary divide just to make sure everyone knows where they stand – modernist v. postmodernist, structuralist v. post-structuralist, empiricist v. interpretivist, etc. I have to ‘fess up at this point – my own intellectual biography doesn’t exactly bode well for my anti-tribe stance. In my defence (your honour), one of the reasons why I established this website was to help overcome this tribal tendency in education research. I believe there is much more to be gained (intellectually and practically) by placing the educational question first and our theoretical affiliations second – the former should not be made to bow down to the latter.

To be fair, some of this tribalism is a challenge to overcome, given that much of it is based on disciplinary associations that are renowned for their durability. That said, even tribes such as philosophers, sociologists and psychologists are surely aware that no one discipline has a monopoly on intellectual truth (don’t they?). And even if post-tribalism proves a challenge too far, at least it would be good to try.

And on that note, I’m off to read some Judith Butler (properly this time) – Mark

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Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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