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Academic Cherrypicking; and ‘Lensification’

Published in Research Students, Theory by on April 1, 2013

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I only noticed it at editing stage, but an important debate had threaded itself through some of the chapters in my recently published book on Social theory and education research. This debate related to the appropriate use of social theory in applied settings. Unwittingly I had set the scene for this debate in the introductory chapter, suggesting that education researchers should not remain too apprehensive about stepping on academic toes:

… it often proves tempting when applying theory to research to try and stay true to the ‘authentic’ version of the theory being applied. … Nowhere is it written that researchers cannot choose how and in what contexts they apply the work of theory. And while the overzealous might demand the ‘pure’ use of someone’s work, regardless of context, it should not be forgotten that all of these theorists under discussion, have at various stages in their careers, cherrypicked from those who have influenced them. To suggest that there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to understand and apply these theorists is to misinterpret the role of theory in research – the latter should never be made to bow down to the former.

However, Julie Allan in her chapter ‘Foucault and his acolytes: discourse, power and ethics’, suggests that some education researchers would do well to hang back on their appropriation of theorists such as Foucault, given their penchant for what she terms ‘lensification’:

The ideas of the philosopher Michel Foucault have proved seductive to many researchers in education. Alongside the serious scholars who have produced significant analyses of education there are many more who have presented their work with a Foucauldian lens. Whilst this latter – often somewhat lazy – appropriation of Foucault’s thought is to be regarded with disdain, it is nevertheless remarkable how appealing making reference to Foucault has seemed to so many.

Interestingly, this issue of theoretical application hadn’t escaped the attention of Foucault himself – a fact brought to our attention by Andrew Hope in his chapter ‘Foucault, panopticism and school surveillance research’:

After all, Foucault and Deleuze (1980, 208) note that social theory should not be approached as something to genuflect before but rather as a tool kit that is used selectively depending on the analytical task at hand.

If we take both of these positions as worthy of consideration in our quest to apply social theory in education settings – i.e., yes to considered cherrypicking (a better class of cherrypicking, as it were), then the question becomes – what constitutes ‘good’ cherrypicking that avoids falling into the trap of lensification? How best to apply social theory in education research without diminishing or over-simplifying the ideas that are being applied?

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About the author /

Mark Murphy

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.


  1. Dave Talbot
    Dave Talbot

    This is something I have considered a lot myself of late (as you will recall from my own post here on the early researcher side of the same issue). Above all other considerations, I would agree that social theory is still just a secondary data set like any other in research and policy work, and like any other secondary data set some parts can be split off and used in isolation, some lose their meaning entirely if separated from the intended context or surrounding data, and some applications may be too far removed from to original purpose to be justifiable.

    Domain general critical reasoning is probably the most important aspect of figuring out what can and cannot be applied remotely or split from its context. Simply being able to justify that the context you are applying something to is sufficiently like the context the theory was designed around, or that a part of a particular theory really does make sense without the rest.

    Best bet, I’d say, is don’t go it alone. Ask someone else who knows the subject, or the theory, or who is just a solid thinker. It’s good to get a second opinion about doctors’ advice and mechanics’ advice, should it be any different for application of social theory?

  2. Mark Murphy
    Mark Murphy

    Yeah you’re right Dave, it is good to get a second opinion, especially when you’re not wholly convinced that your ‘take’ on the theorist in question is accurate. This is I think where some of the anxiety kicks in around applying social theory – do you know enough to theorise with some level of credibility? And let’s face it, credibility matters. At the same time, theory anxiety shouldn’t be a paralysing force – you don’t need to have mastered the whole of someone’s oeuvre to apply one part of it. And honesty always helps too in research design – a bit of the ‘overly-honest researcher’ approach can go a long way.

  3. Avatar
    Steve Harris

    Hi Mark, I’ve ordered the book and look forward to discussing it with you.

  4. Avatar

    Few! What a relief. I now know that i have “Theory anxiety”! I also now know that I am not alone in the terror that Foucault’s work can bring as i attempt to apply to my research. Academics/supervisors always say “ah yes, but if you are using Foucault, you need to make sure you know your stuff”. How can anyone ‘know’ Foucault’s work in it’s entirety especially given that opinion differs vastly regarding interpretation. Off to order your book and thank you for a (perhaps momentary) boost to my confidence. Onwards……..

  5. Avatar
    Cherie Woolmer

    The term ‘theory anxiety’ certainly resonates with me too! I’ve found many helpful posts on here (I’ve spent most of this morning just losing myself or, perhaps more accurately, ‘finding’ myself in many of the discussions. Great resource!).

    I’ve recently discovered Habermas’ and Honneth’s work. Mark’s edited book has been a really useful way in to some of the major ideas relating to Habermas and it is great to feel like I’ve had a bit of a lightbulb moment with my PhD research. I’m relatively comfortable dealing with the iterative relationship between my data and theory. My supervisors have been very supportive about ‘going with’ this process. However, it doesn’t stop the feeling of terror (!) when I imagine my viva and being asked a question about my choice of a particular aspect of social theory. How do you navigate knowing enough about the major contributors to justify your choice (i.e Habermas over Bourdieu) without getting bogged down in endless reading?

    I guess part of this worry is just normal in the PhD process. However, I often ponder whether this concern is something more fundamental about locating yourself as a new researcher within the Field of Education Research…it is so vast, with many different lenses to choose from that it can be hard to make a claim about your own position as an educational researcher when you sometimes can’t see the boundaries within which your research exists. I haven’t seen a post on this yet..interested to know what other students think about this.

    All that said, I feel reassured by the commentary in Mark’s book about ‘considered cherrypicking’. As Liz says above…onwards!

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