image (c) cathyducky

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?

Spread the love!