Sunday, 19 March 2017

Problems in the Sociology of Education

One of the most forthright predicaments of the sociology of education in the age of neoliberal economics is how to devise a critique of capitalist-ideological aspects of school curricula without collapsing into epistemological relativism, or how to take issue with the historical emergence and framework of schools without rejecting altogether the emancipatory power of teaching children academic knowledge. This problem has beset Marxist sociologists of education, who more often than not take up a relativist position which ends up disavowing the possibility of objective, universal knowledge and insists on the formation of a curriculum around a ‘class standpoint.’ This position is influenced by Georg Lukács’ (1971) theory of the ‘standpoint of the proletariat’ and consolidated in Louis Althusser’s (1984) claim that the sole function of the school is as a unit of social control that disseminates ideological content designed to produce ‘little capitalists.’ The rejection of any kind of divisions within the category we would call ‘knowledge,’ as well as those divisions which separate ‘knowledge’ from ‘opinion’ or ‘belief’ which we would see in certain variants of analytic philosophy, or, for example, in Badiou (2004), is a radical form of relativism designed to attack capitalist modernity which I am obviously sympathetic to and is well-intentioned. But what I am highly unsympathetic to is the attack on expression of universality delivered to us by objective knowledge. The denial of the existence of objective knowledge and the proliferation of postmodern attacks on it has, as Elizabeth Rata (2012) describes, led to a return to pre-modern levels of re-racialised social inequality due to relativism’s effects on education policy and the education system.

I claim that the prevailing Althusserian-Bourdieusian currents of the Marxist sociology of education, borne out of a social constructivist ontology and epistemology, must be rejected, and in its place a critical realist alternative be considered that entails Marxist principles (mainly a more systematic critique of ideology that did not fall into subjectivism). The positions influenced by social constructivism are merely derivations of postmodernism and ‘standpoint theory’ which conflates knowledge that is objectively derived with doxic knowledge (received common-sense) that is bound to a particular group. Standpoint theories are currently commonplace in the sociology of education and have several dimensions, including class, race, and gender. These theories insist that what is taught at schools is socially constructed in a way that is inexorably classist/sexist/racist etc. and the ‘knowledges’ of the marginalised groups must be elevated to rectify this apparent problem. Such theories often do not discuss the curriculum in any great detail, however. Constructing an ‘authentic’ curriculum of the working class, women, or a particular racialised group involves a high degree of essentialism that is problematic. There appears to be no distinction in any discussion of these theories between context-independent knowledge and context-bound knowledge that early educational thinkers such as Emile Durkheim and Lev Vygotsky made. Contemporary race theories (such as ‘critical race theory’ and ‘indigenous perspectives’) have proven particularly inimical to an emancipatory theory of knowledge, as the racialisation of knowledge not only entails a legitimation of the category of ‘race,’ but has allowed the proliferation of spuriously revisionist and traditionalist ideologies in the form of ‘indigenous’ or ‘Third World epistemologies.’ The development of these relativistic theories is linked to the Karl Mannheim-influenced Strong Programme in the sociology of science, initialised in the late 1970s, as well as the ‘cultural turn’ which impacted the social sciences around the same time.

Critical realism, as a generalised scientific-theoretical enterprise, seems to be the logical parent to the social realists’ sociology of education. It is largely devised from the work of Roy Bhaskar (1979, 2008), which is itself influenced by predominantly Hegelian and Marxist thought, and is constructed in opposition to both positivist and hermeneutic approaches to epistemology and knowledge. The five properties of social phenomena for critical realists, as pointed out by Tony Lawson (Fullbrook, 2009) are: produced in open systems, possessing emergent powers, ‘structured,’ internally related, processual. The failure of social constructivism lies in both its fundamental linkage to positivism and its inability to provide an account of knowledge which is universal yet provisional, conceptual, emergent, and culturally unbiased. The social-realist sociology of education is opposed to the constructivist faction I mention above and is promoted by such figureheads as Roy Nash, Karl Maton, Rob Moore, Michael Young, Elizabeth Rata, and others. I am particularly influenced by the works of Young and Rata for this contribution: Young’s specific work in curriculum theory and Rata’s theory of ‘localisation’ which includes how the academic Left abandoned universalism for a relativist and reactionary politics of localism. Social realism relies primarily on a social theory of knowledge developed from both Durkheimian and Marxist terms as well as the pedagogical framework developed by Basil Bernstein. The process of ‘symbolic production’ is theorised in an ‘emergent materialist’ fashion which analogises it to the production process of economic goods (Moore, 2007). Intellectual or aesthetic fields are universalised through abstract concepts that are created in this material process. This conception may come as a surprise to the many sociologists who dismiss Durkheim as simply ‘positivist’. Durkheim’s social theory of knowledge does not deny the fact that those who create knowledge have their own interests, beliefs and values or are at any stage making value-judgments. What is not interrogated by the social constructivists is the possibility of the separation of self-interest from the knowledge product. Knowledge-claims have repeatedly been subjected to rigorous scrutiny and criticism.

As the social realists well know, relativism and the instrumentalisation of knowledge under post-Fordist capitalist regimes have been quite compatible with each other. Neoliberal economies have sought a policy programme of privatisation, financialisation of the economy and trade deregulation, which (with technological acceleration) has led to a process of globalisation by way of what David Harvey calls ‘time-space compression’ (Harvey, 1989). Yet, as Bob Jessop (2000) argues, a process of localisation he calls ‘time-space distantiation’ has also effected itself. The combination of spatio-temporal fixes for capital and opposition to capitalist globalisation in the form of localist preservation has created a new politics of local competition as well as new nationalisms. With this double movement emerges a ‘local imaginary’ (Rata, 2012) which is premised upon seemingly outmoded mythologies, traditional hierarchies and customs, some of which are being revived in response to globalisation. It is fundamentally reactionary in character yet seems to be a globally unfolding phenomenon. The general tendency of de-racialisation collapsed around the 1980s as the Left abandoned class politics for an increasingly separatist and re-racialised identitarian form of politics which became affirmationist in character rather than materially antagonistic and ruptural. Relativism and the disappearance of context as the distinction between the various forms of academic knowledge has impacted the New Zealand school curriculum, most notably the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) which has suffered greatly from its broken administration format, the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). The further development of the NCEA, as I shall demonstrate, has led to the entrenchment of educational underachievement among particular groups and a considerable widening of social inequalities.   

Knowledge structures and the dialectic of social realism

What we claim to be able to know is first dependent on the composition of objects in the world, or answers to ontological questions. These must be satisfactorily answered before posing epistemological questions about knowledge. José López and Garry Potter (2001) argue that the failure of positivism and empiricism to ask ontological questions that did not have incoherent answers was what brought it down. Positivism and empiricism for them commit ‘the fallacy of actualism’ (p.10). Actualist ontology is represented by making a Kantian-like distinction between the ‘actual’ and ‘empirical’ where the ‘empirical’ is the basis of all knowledge. The idea is that like the Kantian noumena, the actual world beyond the artifice of the empirical is unknowable. The error is that this unknowable realm is posited as existing without actually being able to be known. This is philosophically incoherent. How can one know there is an ‘actual’ world beyond the empirical if the ‘actual’ itself cannot be known? Because this ‘actual’ world cannot be empirically verified, empiricism is reduced to what López and Potter call ‘the ontology of invariance’ (p.11). This is because when empiricists observe something repeatedly in an experiment they see a causal relationship which (factors considered) appears to be invariant. Scientific laws are generated through the generalising of this invariance towards a universal law of causation. Andrew Collier (1994) refers to this as the ‘epistemic fallacy,’ which he argues takes several forms:

(1) the question whether something exists gets reduced to the question whether we can know that it exists; (2) the question what sort of thing something is gets reduced to the question how we know about it; (3) the question whether A has causal/ontological primacy over B gets reduced to the question whether knowledge of A is presupposed by knowledge of B; (4) the question whether A is identical to B gets reduced to the question whether our way of knowing A is identical to our way of knowing B.

In the empiricist scenario of scientific investigation, the experiment is the means by which we come to know; apprehending events in the world by observation. The experiment is thus the answer to the epistemological question ‘how do we come to know?’ But the ontological question of ‘what is there to know?’ has been inadequately answered due to the fallacy of actualism. The experimental method suffers from a problem that emanates from the empiricist answer to these two questions. In an experiment, the scientist aims to control variables which would hinder an investigation of an event. The controlling of such variables that occur ‘in reality’ means that the result of such an experiment may occur less frequently or hardly at all ‘in reality’ because reality is uncontrolled, unlike a laboratory. There are many possible other causes of events which experiments necessarily have to leave out to investigate those events. This is why López and Potter call realism ‘thing-centred’ (placing increased importance on ontology) as opposed to the positivist focus on events. The reality of the world is independently existing of the knowledge we have of it (Joseph, 2002). This does not mean there is a dimension of finitude or an invariant barrier to further knowledge of the world like the Kantian noumena, but it recognises that the knowledge we have of the world at present (and probably forevermore) is not all there is to the world. There is always more to know and reason with. This independently existing reality is referred to by Roy Bhaskar as the ‘intransitive dimension’ (Bhaskar, 2008).  

The establishment of a distinction between the ‘transitive’ dimension of knowledge about the world and the ‘intransitive’ dimension or the world-itself (an independently existing reality) means that the idea of thought as a direct reflection of reality must be rejected (Joseph, 2002). There is still, however, a dialectical relationship between the transitive and intransitive dimensions: there is no transitive dimension without an intransitive referent, and there is no comprehension of an intransitive world without making verified statements about it (knowledge). Such a separation means that the social character of knowledge in the transitive dimension is recognised; that knowledge is socially produced and to an extent socially mediated. What this means is the taking on of a weak relativism: knowledge is produced in social contexts but is capable of becoming independent of those contexts (Rata, 2012). This extremely weak form of relativism that critical realism allows is harshly contrasted by that of standpoint theory, which utilises a radical form of relativism that destroys any helpful distinctions between types of knowledge. Critical realism reduces the deleterious effects of epistemological relativism to an awareness of knowledge’s emergent properties. Knowledge ‘emerges’ for the critical realists from the ‘social relations of symbolic production’ (Rata, 2012) but for those versed in standpoint theory, knowledge arises from individual experience; an identitarian approach. What standpoint theory (usually allied with forms of postmodernism) aims to do is uncover the interests that lie concealed beneath knowledge and expose the power relations that result from such a concealment. This project is deeply influenced by the relativism of ‘power/knowledge’ [pouvoir/savoir] developed by Michel Foucault (1981). These ‘interests’ however are individualised or particularised and hardly seem to reflect knowledge as it is structured by the construction of intellectual fields, in and through universities and schools. Sandra Harding (1991) for example states that ‘female’ knowledge is epistemologically superior to the knowledge of white men. However, she has used the relativist approach of standpoint theory to claim this epistemic privilege: a theory which takes as its starting premise that all ‘knowledges’ are the same and because these knowledges are antagonistic, there is no ‘objective’ way of knowing which one most reflects the independently existing reality we attempt to apprehend.

The social-realist school of the sociology of education pays close attention to differences between the types of knowledge produced in the social context (including the degree of context-dependence – some types of knowledge are far more independent of context than others). Emile Durkheim’s social theory of knowledge production has been influential in explaining how conceptual knowledge differs from that of individual experience. Michael Young (2008) explains how Durkheim’s theory is organised around the concepts of ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ ideas. This is taken from his general exegesis on religion in small-scale societies. The ‘profane’ broadly relates to mundane experience and how people respond to it. The ‘profane’ is ordinary and individualised. By contrast, the ‘sacred’ refers to a collective order of representation that extends beyond individual perception and achieves objectivity through its shared character. For Durkheim, religion was the model of ‘sacred’ experience: an abstract layering of concepts that are unobservable yet have immense explanatory power (Durkheim, 1995). This is a synchronic theory of how knowledge is produced: collective representations are distilled when people in a society share and congregate. Critical realism, however, is dialectical and diachronic in the way it understands knowledge production and structure. Young explains that the approach of Lev Vygotsky, the Russian Marxist psychologist who wrote extensively about education, is an approach that meets these diachronic standards. Vygotsky’s materialist dialectic is concerned primarily with the ‘transition from sensation to thought’ (Vygotsky, 1987: 17). The division of sensation from thought is concomitant with Vygotsky’s later distinction between ‘scientific’ and ‘everyday’ concepts.

Like Durkheim, for Vygotsky the difference between scientific/sacred and everyday/profane relates to both the degree of experiential influence (or lack of) and the systematisation (or lack of) on the particular knowledge claim being made. Claims that relate to an order of meaning that is systematised (concepts that are internally related) are claims in the ‘scientific’ order. Everyday concepts are those without a system that draw on individual experience. It is the systematised, ‘scientific’ concepts that Vygotsky argues should be incorporated into educational pedagogy as they can be thoroughly developed through the learning process, whereas those based on experiential knowledge are prone to confusing students (Vygotsky, 1962). Yet, also, the two orders of concepts are interrelated in the process of learning. The teacher, already actualised by scientific knowledge, draws the learner into the realm of abstraction from oneself, engaging what Vygotsky calls the zone of proximal development, or the gap between the teacher’s knowledge and the student’s knowledge. The curriculum is structured in such a way that invites not only conceptual acquisition, but conceptual progression as the person moves through stages of psychosocial development. Young learners begin to understand their place in the world through repeated dialectical moves from the abstract to the concrete and back again. Disciplinary fields are thus understood as internally ordered, just as the scientific programme of critical realism understands conceptual knowledge in the same way. If this were not so, conceptual knowledge would be disorganised; a confusing mess. For example, the New Zealand Curriculum describes the disciplines but not the conceptual knowledge to be learned within those disciplines. This is a problem because conceptual specification and progression are obscured or less obvious in the curriculum, putting the development of students’ abilities to grasp concepts and make logical sense of them at risk.

The internal and external differences of a body of knowledge have been excellently prescribed by Basil Bernstein (1990). Bodies of knowledge are either amassed in a horizontal or vertical structure depending on how the concepts are internally related. Vertical knowledge structures occur when theories build in a cumulative and progressive way whereby one theory is subsumed by another, more developed or precise theory. The natural sciences are a clear example of this vertical kind of structure. Vertical structures are essentially context-independent. Horizontal knowledge structures are based on theories amassing in parallel form due to their context-bound nature. External differences as an evaluative criteria for a body of knowledge refer to its explanatory power ‘outside’ of itself i.e. aspects of the intransitive dimension. For horizontally organised knowledge structures, this explanatory power is ‘measured’ in terms of its ‘grammaticality’ (Bernstein, 2000) or grammar. Bernstein differentiates between ‘strong’ grammar and ‘weak’ grammar. ‘Strong’ grammar is where a conceptual apparatus has an internally related grammar that supports its meaning; indeed, is vital to it. For example, ‘voltage’ as a concept is measured in watts by particular devices. This signals an inseparable relationship between grammar, theoretical explanation and reality. ‘Weak’ grammar occurs when such a relationship cannot be established. Such is the case in the social sciences (although they may not necessarily be regarded as forming horizontal knowledge structures) and where the natural sciences attempt to overstep their capacities, as in neuroscience (Young and Muller, 2014).

This idea of grammar is of prominent importance for hierarchically organised knowledge structures but of lesser importance for horizontal structures. However (or perhaps as a consequence of this qualification) this does not mean that the social sciences or humanities are lesser forms of knowledge, less powerful, less emancipatory or able to be eventually subsumed by the hierarchical structures. This is because the humanities and social sciences have their own knowledge bases and methodological approaches that are required to be known in order to make inferences or deep contributions (Young and Muller, 2014). The social sciences and humanities may also, though, be considered vertical knowledge structures, just of a different kind to the natural sciences. The natural sciences, for Bernstein (1981: 157), have explicit and systematically organised principles, whilst the social sciences and humanities have specialised languages and modes of interrogation that are also organised conceptually. As Rata (2012) contends, the production of knowledge about a situation must be and is detachable from the ‘directly acquired facts’ in order to be considered an accountable project. Otherwise knowledge claims are reduced to an identitarian statement of affirmation: ‘I know because I was there,’ ‘I know because I am,’ ‘I know because this is what I believe in.’ All these statements challenge the democratic project of universal education by devalorising universal, objective knowledge for not only that acquired through experience and belief, but a new relativism that can potentially entail a dangerous authoritarian seizure of knowledge claims. This is an anti-dialectical notion of knowledge production that turns knowledge into a ‘struggle for hegemony’ in the agential, Gramscian sense. It is conceptual abstraction, progression and the ability of critique that avoids the extremely limited conception of knowledge as rooted in one’s own experience.

‘Voice discourse’ and tribalism

The idea of knowledge that has just been outlined, developed by a combination of those calling themselves ‘critical realists’ (in philosophy), ‘social realists’ (in the sociology of education) and more objectivist or ‘scientifically’ inclined Marxists, has been challenged by postmodernism and identity-based particularisms in a radical way. Instead of seeing knowledge as the dialectical movement of social relations of symbolic production, knowledge is presented as a completed effect of power or ‘discourse’ that is reduced to a particular ‘culture,’ gender, ethnicity or class background. The curriculum thus becomes an object of ideologically malevolent power relations that reflects a particular perspective. Often descriptions in this vein use Gramscian terms (‘dominant’ or ‘hegemonic’ and ‘counter-hegemonic’/’resistant’ knowledges) or post-structuralist/Foucauldian terms (‘discourse,’ ‘power/knowledge,’ ‘regime of truth’). Postmodernists often use a fusion of ‘discourse’ terms and Lyotardian statements about the end of ‘grand narratives’ (Lyotard, 1984). These perspectivisms offer a sociology of ‘knowers’ but very little or zero when it comes to a sociology of knowledge. Knowledge is a category that is denied altogether. For these postmodern approaches, knowledge is always distorted or ideological which is an effect of the perspective the knower is speaking from.

The postmodern practice of defining knowledge (or, rather, discounting it) as a game of ‘who is speaking’ has been consolidated for criticism in an influential paper by the social realists Rob Moore and Johan Muller (Moore and Muller, 1999). In this paper, the practice is referred to as ‘voice discourse,’ a playful joke on the language the postmodernists use. In Usher and Edwards (1994), ‘discourse’ is defined in the generally accepted Foucauldian frame: an exclusionary story whose mechanisms of exclusion are taken for granted. The politics of ‘voice’ popularised by Usher and Edwards intends to expose the ‘discourses’ for what they are and return the ‘voices,’ or ability to ‘speak,’ of the marginalised back to them. An example of this trend in social theory more generally is the essay by Gayatri Spivak called ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (Spivak, 1988), an essay which, it appears, contains fundamental assumptions about knowledge related to subalternity that are now disavowed by Spivak herself. Postmodern ‘voice discourse’ attempts to paint a picture of modernity which feels threatened by diversity and attempts to eclipse all human beings under the sign of the totalitarian. Knowledge is also rejected as totalitarian because of its universalising tendencies, which is understood as an insidious ruse of power because knowledge is not conceptualised by the postmodernists in terms of intellectual fields but groups of knowers. Instead knowledge is substituted for the diversity of ‘language games’ or, in other words, a multiplicity of voices which, either in the Gramscian frame, battle for hegemonic representation, or in the post-structuralist, Foucauldian or Deleuzian frame, attempt to ‘deterritorialise’ the dominant regime of truth or establish parallel regimes. The consequences of such an understanding of knowledge are that epistemology appears to be ‘debunked’ by sociological analysis. It becomes questionable whether we can or should ‘know’ at all, or whether what we know is contaminated by the totalitarian impulses of modernity.

Moore and Muller (1999) argue that the postmodern tendency strings together epistemological concerns, ‘traditional’ forms of education, and the ‘dominant’ social group in oppressive social relations to create a highly assumptive straw-man for the purposes of sociological critique. One may see how I showed earlier that it is a mistake to view a knowledge-based curriculum as essentially entailing a return to ‘traditional’ education or a ‘transmission model’ of pedagogy. The social realists are seen not to advocate for either of these for two reasons, one reason for each: (1) because their theory of knowledge production is dialectical and ongoing rather than based in tradition (and consequently so must be the curriculum); and (2) because conceptual knowledge and a reflexive understanding of progression necessitates an interest on the part of the learner and consequently involves careful curriculum design away from the drab teaching of stultifying, disembedded facts. The postmodern approach of Usher and Edwards (1994) and the constructivism of the identity-based particularisms do however have slight differences in their theoretical application and discursive strategies. Postmodernism as a theoretical construct is utterly confused (and, additionally, revels in this confusion), not only about the nature of the world, but its own self-construction as well. Linda Nicholson (1990), a broadly postmodernist feminist, defines postmodernism as such:

Postmodernism must reject a description of itself as embodying a set of timeless ideals contrary to those of modernism; it must insist on being recognised as a set of viewpoints of a time, justifiable only within its own time. (p. 11)

Unfortunately, here, Nicholson disavows postmodernism’s role of critiquing modernity, just as that is exactly what postmodernism is designed to do. Usher and Edwards (1994), although citing the above quote by Linda Nicholson, nonetheless proceed to engage in an uncompromising attack on the precepts of modernity. Their critique of the features of modernity is duly noted as aspects of it are correct (for example, deindustrialisation and the response of capital, financialisation), however, labelling knowledge and the project to know the ontology of the world as ‘totalitarian’ is not. Postmodernists are against ontologising the world because they have collapsed Kant and Hegel’s distinction between ‘reason’ and ‘understanding’ into the latter and created a relativist field of discourse. The ‘scientific attitude’ (Usher and Edwards, 1994: 10) is falsely characterised as the belief that the scientific method is upheld as the only appropriate model of investigation. This ‘attitude’ is used interchangeably with positivism, which of course has been well surpassed by the critical realists, who have criticised it for committing the fallacy of actualism as well as being subjectivist and individualist. It is right for postmodernists to critique positivism, but they are off-key when they label this as the ‘scientific attitude,’ and such labelling produces a critique that altogether misses the mark.

As Rob Moore (2007) argues, the postmodernist relativisation and denial of truth is ironically premised upon the acceptance of foundationalism (the position common in analytic philosophy that defines truth as a linguistic statement which reaches a status of ‘justified true belief’) as the method of establishing truth-claims. This means postmodernism or various forms of post-structuralism becomes continuous with positivism. The ultimate disagreement between the two schools of thought is whether a foundationalist truth-claim is possible – the positivist is affirmative but the postmodernist is negative. Moore says this is a “second-order disagreement” (p. 24) rather than a fundamental subversion. It is here that the postmodernists/constructivists are actually on the correct side (it is impossible to establish a truly ‘infallible’ knowledge-claim). However, their ‘critical’ conclusion is to then state that truth is not attainable, or its pursuit is not worthwhile. This is because postmodernists, through the denial of positivism’s monolingual theory – a single language of logicised sensory experience – arrive at the answer that truth is relative to the socially constructed discursive position that one occupies in the field of power relations. Several universal claims are thus made in the so-called anti-universalist theory of postmodernism:
·         Power relations, in the Foucauldian manner, are construed as all-encompassing and inescapable. The knowledge a person has is tied to the position they occupy within these relations (considered ‘fluid’ and mobile in the linguistic postmodernist sense, or, more often, tied to ascriptive categories rigidified into social identities in the identity-based particularist sense).
·         The claim that knowledge is completely relative to both time and place (the claim of the postmodernist), as well as social identity (the identity-based particularist claim) is a universal claim of relativity. The social relations of symbolic production caricatured as ‘totalitarian’ knowledge is substituted for an understanding of knowledge defined simply by who is speaking. This, in fact, leads to consequences that are more anti-democratic than the theory of knowledge the constructivists are criticising.
·         Knowledge production is formulated as a circularity. ‘Knowledge’ is tied to standpoints which are created by the knowledge that makes up that standpoint. What is not interrogated in this tautology is where that ‘standpoint’ comes from; how that particular ‘knowledge’ comes to be (unless it emanates from the individual by which case it is simply a person’s ‘voice’ that matters, and a sociohistorical theory of production is not needed beyond an individual’s subjective experience).    

The identity-based particularisms are, unlike the more linguistic postmodernist approaches, aware of the boundaries of their discourse, which are based on ideological ascriptive categories that are socially constructed, such as race and gender. However, the imagined nature of these boundaries is often reified. Approaches that do this include feminist epistemologies (e.g. Harding, 1991), the neo-Freireian “critical pedagogy” (e.g. Giroux, 1992; De Lissovoy, 2008), critical race theory (e.g. Gillborn, 1990; Gillborn, 2008), and “indigenous methodologies” (e.g. Smith, 1999). Such particularisms are prone to systematic incoherence as a consequence of the constraints of the theory they have set up. Each of them suggests that in some way, educational knowledge hegemonises and reproduces the perspective of the dominant group; i.e. it is a form of indoctrination. The politics of ‘voice’ suggests that, allied with the ‘voices’ of groups broadly labelled as marginalised, oppositional knowledges to the dominant group need to be valorised in education in order to empower those groups and provide a means of resistance against the ‘dominant’ viewpoint. Under this constraint, knowledge becomes fully relative to context and always partial and particular. Knowledge is reduced to a battle of ideological positions through the Foucauldian prism of “power relations,” which are always stacked in favour of dominant groups. The politics of ‘voice’ allows marginalised groups to claim a kind of epistemological privilege and make claim to specialised areas of knowledge which fragments the intellectual plane not along disciplinary lines but identitarian ones.

What does this epistemological privilege allow in terms of political resistance, if nothing else? As Karl Maton, Rob Moore, Johan Muller, and Elizabeth Rata (among other scholars) have noted, the apparent epistemological privileging of a marginalised subject-position has not been politically efficacious. Moore and Muller (1999) show that although the standpoint theory line of critique is based on the point that all pedagogy is ‘symbolic violence’ and an authority relation (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990), it seeks to replace this falsely caricatured ‘violence’ with a new kind of authoritarianism that privileges ‘authentic’ voices. In the realm of “indigenous knowledges,” this has led to the edification of a new tribal elite who are largely self-appointed as ‘authentic’ representatives of such a body of knowledge (Rata, 2011; Rose, 2015). In the case of Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand, this has led to an ideological concealment of class relations between groups of Māori as the ‘authentic’ voices of this group claim to speak for a homogeneous Māori collective. As Meera Nanda (2003) shows, race, caste and religion as forms of radical sectarianism are beginning to re-emerge and consolidate in powerful new ways around epistemic relativism – she shows how all three operate in tandem through the example of the Hindu nationalist Right and its similarities with postmodern theory in its formulation of “Vedic science”. The endorsement of this revived sectarianism as a trend emerging in academia, first popularised during the ‘cultural turn’ in the 1970s, has oddly captivated many on the Left, as Nanda says responding to the issue of epistemic relativism and ‘decolonisation’:

Given the history of colonialism and racism, there are plenty of liberal White guilty consciences on the one side, and plenty of anti-imperialist thin-skins on the other side to take comfort in this epistemological egalitarianism. The even-handed ascription of rationality serves as a poultice for both the victors and the vanquished. […] It feels radical, also, to turn the tables on the West by challenging “its” science with that of the victims of the West’s colonialism. (p. 131-132).

Nanda identifies the class politics inherent in much of Indian postcolonial theory (produced largely by those of high castes, most often Brahmins) and its prescriptions for what the colonised subject must do: take refuge in institutionalised beliefs or pre-modern mythologies, or at least disavowing the intellectual heritage that the colonising West has left them with. Notwithstanding the false characterisation of science as ‘Western’ that tends to be supplied in such critiques, this quickly becomes a politics that despite a disclaimer of ‘de-Westernisation,’ is radically dislocated from emancipatory class politics. The undertaking of such a neo-traditionalist identity, which is rendered primordial and timeless, affords sociopolitical capital to the ascendant elite but becomes a trap for those who are excluded. It has led, although in my view not willingly, to a Left liberalism common in identity politics that Adolph Reed has labelled the “left-wing of neoliberalism” (Reed, 2016): that of the professional-managerial and new intellectual class which seeks to erase disparities in various societal outcomes but altogether naturalise those outcomes in a new form of identity-capitalism. This is a politics that is largely self-defeating (due to its disparity-focused reformist agenda), but nonetheless allows the entrenchment of a new class of people understood to be ‘marginalised’ along identity lines as the authorities of knowledge. Consider the advent of new racialised elite classes, the emergence of a gay petit bourgeois ethic and identity, and the embourgeoisement of feminist movements by corporate representatives such as Sheryl Sandberg. The creation of an indigenous elite class, through the politics of brokerage with the settler-colonial state, is described below as a contextually significant example of the dangers relativism poses to the secularism and anti-authoritarianism of knowledge structures in Aotearoa New Zealand. The destination of Left liberalism seems to be the proliferation of such ‘diverse’ classes rather than the elimination of class itself, although the consolidation of the Māori elite is made more difficult by dissenting voices from inside, such as Hone Harawira and Annette Sykes (Rata, 2011).

Indigenous politics is now recognised by the rhetoric-heavy ‘critical pedagogues’ and even serious radical Leftists as an unquestionably radical politics continuous with the movements for emancipation secured in the 1970s and beyond (e.g. the efforts of Nga Tamatoa), despite its now apparent class interests. This is especially vile for the Left to do in the age of neoliberalism, characterised by a celebration of elite power as successful self-actualisation of personal responsibility. Māori scholars in this emerging mode of theorising who have written or made claims about the sociology of knowledge include Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Rāpata Wiri, Te Kawehau Hoskins, Mason Durie, and Leonie Pihama (to name a few). The claims these scholars make about the incommensurability and homogeneity of Māori and Pākehā “ways of knowing” are not only spurious but conveniently cover over the class positions of some (not all) academics who charge the ‘authenticity’ of those claims as a kind of elite, as well as the positions of other institutionalised authorities of knowledge. The claims they make about the mechanical, seemingly unipolar operation of colonial dynamics in the country they reside are not consistent with the complex issues that have arisen in the ‘management’ of indigenous affairs by governments. In Aotearoa New Zealand this has taken the form of the re-establishment of the (now non-spatial) tribal form through the ancestral realignment and corporatisation of iwi tribal structures, and the suspension of the former dynamism of tikanga Māori by the professed voices of authenticity (Rata, 1999; Barcham, 1998). As Roger Maaka (1994) argues: “[t]he freezing of tribes at the signing of a treaty with a European power is concomitant with the colonisation process” (p. 314). Not only is this action of the Waitangi Tribunal concomitant with this process, it legitimates the interests of the newly emergent comprador Māori bourgeoisie to effect themselves as representatives for the entire Māori population through a process of brokerage (Poulantzas, 1976; Rata, 2000) with the New Zealand Government. Brokerage, for Nicos Poulantzas, is the mechanism through which a local capitalist elite becomes established as an intermediary class between the circuits of global capital and the bounded spatialities of local capital. This process in Aotearoa New Zealand was inflected by a neo-traditionalist ideological push (largely supported unintentionally by arguments of decolonisation and cultural revival made since the Māori Renaissance) to integrate global capitalism with a new corporatised conception of tribal society. This creates an entrenched class divide which is now legitimated by traditionalist orthodoxy as well as corporate-legal authority. As Elizabeth Rata argues, the indigenous episteme “maintains the illusion that elites who justify their power and wealth with reference to tradition are somehow different from other elites” (Rata, 2011: 374-375).

Neotraditionalist ideology has been supported uncritically by the cultural Left, and indeed sheltered from criticism as it falls under the jurisdiction of relativist identity politics. It is no surprise that those tribal leaders who are keen practitioners of this ideology represent barriers to class politics and remain one of the most depoliticising forces in this regard. Neotraditionalism elevates a person’s tribal status as their paramount social identification and obfuscates those antagonisms inherent in capitalist relations that are present in the form of social organisation and the struggle over means and products of production. These relations are instead figured as communal social relations within the tribe itself. This revivalism, based on primordial racial identity, and the absence of private ownership of the means of production (instead owned by the tribe in partnership with the state) helps to obscure those class relations. This is what Elizabeth Rata calls the “neotribe,” which behaves like a corporation and does not mimic redistributive social arrangements despite claims to the contrary (Rata, 2004). Samuel Rose discusses the Native American neotraditionalist movement which has established separate Native governments, often constructing themselves in opposition to the trade union movement. The tribal form of government of the Navajo, the Navajo Nation, for example, attempted to ban union organisation on its reservation (Rose, 2015: 225). Neotribal governments in the United States have had to tactically incorporate partial labour laws somewhat favourable to unions or risk having their sovereignty on the matter superseded by the federal government who would subject them to the federal worker relations board. Failure to do this would also weaken the power of their ideology – the tribal enterprise would be seen as just like any other capitalist corporation. Neotribal capitalism, then, is shown to still be capitalism. As Elizabeth Rata points out:

[E]thnic and tribal consciousness is a mechanism in the depoliticization of the worker. The worker-in-community of late capitalism, as a communal-self, becomes merely one of the productive forces to be regulated and managed in the non-democratic modes of regulation of neotribal capitalism, rather than an antagonistic protagonist in the political contestation for the rewards of capital accumulation. (Rata, 2003, p. 54). 

Such a complex political problem relates to epistemic relativism and knowledge production in the sense that the aim of academics who work in the field of ‘indigenous knowledge’ is to establish this immobile and racialised form of knowledge as having existed for all time (concomitant to racial primordialism), allowing further entrenchment of their position. Māori experience is linked to a global network of experiences all characterised in the same way which further naturalises the category of indigeneity as an eternal consistency, enduring across both temporal and spatial dimensions. For indigenous urban planning theorist Hirini Matunga, “indigenous planning has always existed… [it] predates colonialism” (Matunga, 2013: 5). Matunga’s statement is of course incorrect because the category of ‘indigeneity’ has only been required for political purposes after the emergence of the colonising project. Fellow scholars in this area, Hibbard et al. (2008), note that indigenous peoples’ relation to land and planning ideas have changed since compulsory land acquisition and the birth of the colonial state took effect. Given the violence resulting from forced acquisitions that took place, to suggest indigenous peoples’ ‘relationship’ to land changed between the period prior to coloniser involvement and that afterward is not a novel statement, but one that sits in contrast to Matunga’s conception of indigenous planning. This is not to say that the theory itself is wrong because of such errors (it can be scrutinised like any other) but that the temporal basis outlined by Matunga for such a discipline is incoherent and dishonest.

Similarly, Rāpata Wiri (2011) aims to distinguish a “Māori way of knowing” from a “Pākehā way of knowing”, the former of which includes various forms of knowledge that have a special character which turns out to be authoritarian. These include oral histories, whakapapa (defined with support of the Foucauldian term ‘genealogy,’ which is described as viewing science as “subjection”), waiata, whakataukī, and the rights of tribal communities. I take issue with the supposed special character of each of these forms Wiri describes. Firstly, oral histories do not constitute a way of knowing that is specific to Māori history. They are commonplace both as a way of recounting history and in their transcribed form, of important speeches and proclamations, throughout the study of world history. For Wiri, the practice of kōrero (speaking) includes both “our everyday conversation to whaikōrero or formal oratory that is practiced on the marae” (p. 46). This definition collapses everyday knowledge and a more ‘formal’ knowledge (which is not necessarily representative of disciplinary knowledge) and presents each as undifferentiated. Secondly, waiata and whakataukī can be established as aspects of universal knowledge as forms of art and verbal literature, but several forms are spurious and deserve being subject to scrutiny just as all other knowledge claims are (e.g. kupu whakāri or the prophecy-telling elements, p. 50). It is not clear in Wiri’s work how these relate to systematised intellectual fields. Clearly they are not intended to be objects of study but artifacts of authority, as Wiri’s theory of knowledge is subjective and culturalist. Thirdly, the concept of whakapapa is exclusionary and dictates not only who can access knowledge but land as well. Ranginui Walker (1996: 169) claims that whakapapa is the founding paradigm of Māori sovereignty, but it is unclear exactly who benefits from it in the new tribal system Wiri aims to establish as a “Māori epistemology” based on social capital and authoritative might rather than scrutiny and criticism. In Wiri’s recount of tribal land custom (also here included as part of matauranga Māori), land is owned and taken under coercive rules, just as it was under British colonialism and in regimes of enclosure which heralded the beginning of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation,” the stage of transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production (chapter 26, Capital Vol 1). Anyone, including Māori, must be able to cite their whakapapa to claim land, which poses problems for those Māori disconnected from their families or for who those do not know them. If a tribe abandons their land for three generations, land can be forcibly taken. Tribes also have the right of conquest over others (take raupatu, Wiri, 2016: 47) which appears to be an endorsement of the violence and war of the tribal era. Whakapapa, for Wiri, “is subjective and history is retold from the perspective of the living person reciting that history” (p. 48). This is a relativist claim which entails that the person telling the story becomes the sole authority over that historical account, and that it must be accepted without the powers of scrutiny or criticism that make knowledge powerful. Instead this knowledge, masked as egalitarian, always ends up being a form of “knowledge of the powerful” – knowledge that is conserved by elites, for elites, and possesses exclusionary qualities that create intellectual divisions between people.  

What Melanie Wall (1997: 43) calls the “stereotype of the quintessential Māori” is the strategic deployment of an imaginary of the internal coherence of Māori and their subjection to stereotypes of romanticisation and exoticism common in the imperialist era such as closeness to nature, deep spirituality, and a ‘vanishing race’ or traditional way of life that must be protected, such as what one does in conservation for endangered species. Hirini Matunga illustrates the reactionary corollary to this notion when he says social contact with non-Māori, including miscegenation, is damaging to the “essence of [Māori] indigeneity” (Matunga, 2013: 18). Similarly, Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues that the project of decolonisation is about “coming to know and understand theory and research from our own perspectives” (Smith, 1999: 39). She is, however, unable to explain what ‘decolonisation’ is or what those perspectives required to reach it are that are seemingly inaccessible to non-indigenous researchers. The term ‘decolonisation’ in Smith’s case thus has little substantive meaning other than a Foucauldian one which attempts to “reclaim history” (p. 30). History as a discipline is seen as patriarchal, progressivist, and binary. History being “reclaimed” essentially means being reduced to perspectives where the ability to critique is hierarchically organised based on the position one takes in an amorphous field of ‘power relations.’ Smith’s methodological project is designed to raise a monolithic indigenous “national consciousness” (p.73), which obscures the class differences within that category of indigeneity, and again raises the questions of Meera Nanda I discussed above, about the politically regressive consequences of such a project (i.e. contributing to the growth of new ethno-nationalist movements and new Right-nationalist tensions).

As Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks (2000) says, “Race identity is about the sense of one’s exclusiveness, exceptionality and uniqueness. Put very simply, it is an identity that… can only be about pride, being better, being the best” (p.7). Smith uses a variety of nativist stereotypes as the premises for her ‘indigenous epistemology’: a focus on spirituality as a central part of social science research (just paragraphs after chastising Pākehā for associating Māori with an authentic, essential, spiritualist self), and an assumptive irrationalism of the indigenous perspective as it is located in individual experience and opposed to universal knowledge (predictably viewed as ‘totalitarian’). Indigenous politics as conceptualised here thus completes the circle of colonial logic described by Homi Bhabha in his theory of “mimicry and menace” (Bhabha, 1994). The epistemic relativism of “indigenous epistemology” is underpinned by a culturalist political position that is continuous with the assumptions of race science and theory in the imperialist and pre-Nazi eras. Indigenous epistemology secures its consistency as paradoxically epistemologically ‘privileged’, yet always subordinate and marginal, through the hypostatisation of traditional, pre-modern structures of customs, beliefs and ideas for the purposes of advancing (1) an epistemic relativism that homogenises Māori as a marginalised population using an ironic combination of decolonial rhetoric and nativist stereotypes and (2) the entrenchment of the Māori managerial and intellectual stratum comprised of those self-imposed or elevated ‘authentic’ voices and leaders in indigenous politics, including the politics of that ‘knowledge’ produced in this vein.

Relativism, instrumentalisation, capitalism – sociological impacts on New Zealand education

The cultural turn, with its emphasis on the politics of difference, identity and hybridity, led to the gradual abandonment of class politics by the Left. Before this, class consciousness-raising was the ascendant political agenda of the Left, which was universalist in character (although this universalism was not always adhered to in practice). The primary project of Marxists was to build an international working-class movement of emancipation from capitalist control of their labour as well as the means of production of economic goods and reproduction of livelihoods. The breakdown of Left institutional structures, including trade unions and socialist parties, as well as the production of new inequalities through globalisation, was supported by the retreat to localism that the arbiters of the cultural turn advanced (Rata, 2012). This turn back to Romanticism by the New Left and the culturalists is demonstrated powerfully by Kenan Malik (2008) in his book Strange Fruit. Amidst the struggle for black rights in the United States of America in the 1960s, black Americans received negligible support from the liberal Left (albeit plenty from the Marxist and communist Left) which strengthened the argument for ‘self-organisation’. The Black Power movement gave rise to a symbolic black identity which was affirmationist in character. That idea of an ‘identity’ constructed from group membership (of a group which is itself constructed) proliferated along lines of race, gender and sexuality. Each group was understood as having its own particular ‘culture’ and epistemology. Malik concludes that although “the right has adopted the language of diversity, liberals have adopted the idiom of racial identity” (p. 188), which explains the perverse reversal of positions seen in the political landscape today in terms of a general theory of social organisation. The repoliticisation of race in such an identitarian manner (particularly given the very public alliance of new racialised elites with global capital and inclusion in the political class) has led to a ‘resistant’ construction of a white racialised identity that is in some respects class-bound to lower economic strata and defensive against the proliferation of such elites (as well as being racist and supremacist in nature). This supports the claim I cited earlier by Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks that race identification is premised upon exclusion and the privileging of certain aspects of groups over those of other groups.

This relativist development in epistemology, that each marker of social disparity can be mobilised into a homogeneous group, and that each of those constructed groups have their own epistemologies that are organised horizontally, has had a deleterious impact on the sociology of education. However, the social constructivists’ point that knowledge is ‘socially constructed’ is important and well taken. The social realist account argues that the sociality of knowledge is inherent in its mode of production (i.e. the ‘social relations of symbolic production’) that enables its universality. Knowledge here is understood as ‘socially constructed’ in a structural context (often called ‘power relations’ after Foucault in the postmodernist literature) yet is able to establish an autonomy which is independent of that context. Conceptual knowledge is universalist, enduring, and allows us to systematise the known and think about the not yet known. In contrast to the celebratory partisanship of postmodernism, this universality is “not an end in itself but only a means of attaining to the true purpose of the concept, which is precision” (Cassirer, 1980). It is not, as Kant theorised, produced through an individual’s mental labour. Knowledge has a fundamentally social character, emergent through the relations of symbolic production. This social character, for the social constructivists, is demonstrative of the impossibility of objective knowledge as it is always tainted by human interests. While the constructivists argue that knowledge simply reflects a positional relation of different ‘standpoints’ (which conflates what is known with who knows it), the social realists argue that knowledge is organised and structured into disciplines and intellectual fields independent of such ‘standpoints’ which necessitates the understanding of how such boundaries formed and where the social inequalities of knowledge acquisition may occur. The social realist argument not only opposes and moves beyond the shibboleths of positivism and constructivism but provides a much-needed parry to technicism, utilitarianism, and conservative traditionalism. Current waves of policy tend to broadly utilise the assumptions of the first two of these three checked ideological positions (conservative traditionalism is currently peripheral in debates on educational policy). Social constructivism appears to be the more common affiliation for sociologists of education, in response to technicism and utilitarianism. Social realism is still consolidating itself, and thus is generally marginalised in the discipline.

Since the 1980s, a decisive shift has taken place in the New Zealand education system which has its roots in political and economic systems. The election of the Fourth Labour Government brought the introduction of a market ideology known as ‘neoliberalism,’ popularised by the Mont Pelerin Society and the Austrian School of Economics. This ideology ushered in widespread deregulation to resolve the Keynesian dual burden of inflation and unemployment (Hipkins et al., 2016). However, these reforms heavily impacted the labour market, particularly in the public sector, which suffered a significant downsizing and led to even worse levels of unemployment. Young people could no longer leave school early to enter the labour force. An ensuing ‘qualification inflation’ and a rapid rise in tertiary education fees in the 1990s produced a skill squeeze where students were locked out of the institutions they were increasingly required to access to avoid being terminally unemployed. The processes which would serve as precursors to the development of New Zealand’s current education system were also initialised by the Fourth Labour Government: the Education Act 1989 changes which established the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), and later the business-led Picot task force and ‘Achievement 2001’ (Fiske and Ladd, 2000) which would give birth to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). Prior to this, the system of awarding high school diplomas was norm-referenced. Similar to Britain’s ‘Eleven Plus’ tripartite system (Floud et al., 1956; Bellaby, 1977), a certain number of students were ‘destined’ to fail each year’s examinations as they fell below the established indexical mark which indicated a pass. The NCEA changed this with its criterion-referenced design, allowing any and all to meet the requirements for being awarded the diploma. However, the sheer complexities of NCEA and the NQF have allowed inequalities to be maintained in rather subtle ways.

The New Zealand Curriculum/Te Matauranga o Aotearoa was not completed until after the implementation of NCEA (Hipkins et al., 2016). The curriculum is split into a ‘front end’ and ‘back end,’ where the front end says very little of note about what is to be learned and why, instead taking refuge in the vague language of ‘values,’ ‘principles,’ and “a vision for our young people” (Ministry of Education, 2007: 8). It is largely structured around five “key competencies (p. 12-13): ‘managing self,’ ‘using language, symbols and text,’ ‘thinking,’ ‘relating to others,’ and ‘participating.’ Such sweeping categories facilitate a distillation of education into broad and vague ‘skills’ that mean very little to students on their own. Information about the actual concepts intended to be taught is unsurprisingly evanescent. This is left for the ‘back end’ of the curriculum. Wood and Sheehan (2012) note that these “inquiry-based learning” or “student-centred pedagogy” approaches emphasise the ‘how’ of learning (the process) over the ‘what’ of learning (the conceptual and content-based knowledge). This distinction becomes particularly forceful when one considers the implications that constructivism and relativism has had on the design of the NCEA.

The NCEA has three levels of assessment, taken during Year 11 (Level 1), Year 12 (Level 2), and Year 13 (Level 3). It is split into dual tracks, ‘achievement standards’ and ‘unit standards’ (Hipkins et al., 2016). This standards-based system is very similar to the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in the United Kingdom (Young, 2008). In the NCEA, achievement standards are reserved for ‘academic’ subjects whilst unit standards exist for ‘vocational’ fields and are designed to scaffold students toward passing them. Students’ learning programmes consist of all achievement standards or a mix of each. Each standard represents an individual ‘skill’ in a subject. For example, a mathematics standard might involve solving problems using algebraic equations. The certificates are designed using a credit-based accumulation system, where each standard passed confers a certain number of credits towards the certificate. Assessment becomes the primary mechanism of transferring knowledge, not teaching and learning (McPhail, 2013; Rata, 2016). This system has produced extraordinary irregularities. Achievement standards are often worth 3 or 4 credits, but some unit standards in employment skills and employee ‘risk management’ are worth 10 credits. Students can now even earn NCEA credits for passing a driver’s license test (Parata and Foss, 2015). Under these standards-based systems, conceptual knowledge (which is abstract and generalizable) becomes no more important than instrumentalised forms of knowledge (not abstract and generalizable, and often reliant on immediate experience), which elides their fundamental differences (Young, 2008). Or, as Leesa Wheelahan (2010) describes, the distinction between “esoteric” and “mundane” knowledge is collapsed in the new vocational programmes into the singular prism of empirically-observed competencies. The relativism inherent in social constructivist approaches to knowledge is compatible with and perhaps intrinsic to standards-based curriculum models. But, as demonstrated by Wheelahan, this conception of knowledge is continuous with the instrumentalised positivist approaches that are slowly creeping in to vocational programmes of instruction.

I partake in this critique not to demonise vocational knowledge (more, in fact, to save it from instrumentalisation) but to highlight the educational inequalities that the NCEA system inevitably serves when it treats such knowledges as undifferentiated. In a report by Kirsty Johnston for the New Zealand Herald, a clear correlation was identified between a school’s socio-economic decile and the proportion of NCEA entries into academic subjects vis-à-vis vocational subjects (Johnston, 2016a). Students from poorer schools were far less likely to pass academic standards and far more likely to be enrolled in vocational standards. Some of these standards include four credits at Level 2 for “preparing espresso beverages under supervision,” taken by 18,000 students over five years, “purchasing household consumables” in which 700 were enrolled, and “solving issues at rental properties” with 8,000 students (Johnston, 2016b). Such arbitrary credentialisation of manual labour tasks serves to homogenise and instrumentalise knowledge in a process of commodification. Indeed, Johnston quotes Manukau Institute of Technology staffer Stuart Middleton, who says that the proliferation of such standards is part of a “quiet revolution” and critiquing them amounts to “snobbery” (Johnston, 2016b). The key, for Middleton, is creating standards that would lead to “employment”; i.e. reproducing the class divide of capitalism that Johnston’s investigation into NCEA has revealed is directly reinforced by the system. The irony is that this deleterious situation is partly related to social constructivist, particularly postmodernist, formulations of knowledge as power wielded and exercised over curricula by dominant groups. These formulations imagine mundane knowledge as no different from conceptual, abstract, generalizable knowledge. This has the effect of legitimising a unipolar capitalist curriculum that either directly satisfies the labour-force requirements of those dominant groups, or, as it happens, produces legions of unskilled workers who may not have achieved the constantly shifting prerequisites for employment. It is this linguistic and epistemological closure of the codified realm of disciplinary knowledge for the working classes which Basil Bernstein identifies as “restricted code” (Bernstein, 1981) that enables the continual reproduction of the class divide, along not only lines of income inequality but also of educational attainment.

Using the language of Bernstein as well as Leesa Wheelahan (2010) we can broadly describe the knowledge formulated for and taught in vocational programmes as ‘mundane’ knowledge, or what Lev Vygotsky called ‘everyday’ knowledge. This knowledge takes the form of a ‘horizontal,’ context-dependent structure which is fragmented by social contexts, and those contexts become the site where learning takes place, for example the workplace or the home. However, as Wheelahan shows through the example of vocational ‘training packages’ in Australia, this has not always been the case. These ‘packages’ are also broadly equivalent to the United Kingdom’s NVQs. Their introduction was resisted by teachers because they neglected the “underpinning knowledge” (p. 104) which implies that underneath the surface of ‘mundane’ knowledge there is a deep layer of ‘esoteric’ knowledge or a foundation afforded by knowledge from the disciplines. In the spirit of critical realism, the particular knowledge covered by the training packages designed for specific workplaces is theorised as ‘emergent’ from abstract concepts and principles preceding it. But in Australia’s new vocational system, this conceptual knowledge is now removed. My example of the NQF in New Zealand demonstrates the same movement away from conceptual knowledge in vocational programmes (notwithstanding the fact that NCEA treats all knowledge as if it were vocational competencies in its broken standards-based design). Indeed, Wheelahan says that the programme she once taught had students study academic subjects, with the intention that the knowledge from those subjects could be translated to the sphere of practice (i.e. the workplace).  

Students without the knowledge of the disciplines are stuck in highly context-bound ways of thinking and do not have epistemic access to a means of transcendence from that context without pedagogical interference. Knowledge here is decontextualised and the accumulation of disciplinary knowledge is largely stripped of its purpose. It is the absence of this “powerful knowledge” (Young and Muller, 2014) that lessens the degree of control and capacity an individual is able to possess in order to externalise oneself from that context and interrogate the forces that structure their life. Improvements in the ways we come to know things result from and in specialisation and the intellectual division of labour. This is also related to the division of work although of course not necessarily in a capitalist context (in my case, decisively not). As Wendy Brown (2015) argues, “knowledge is not sought for purposes apart from capital enhancement, whether that capital is human, corporate or financial” (p. 177). This reinforces the ‘correspondence theory’ of Bowles and Gintis (1976) that the school resembles a capitalist factory. The structure and epistemological understanding of knowledge becomes technicised and fragmented, as well as technicising and fragmenting of persons and their understanding of disciplinary fields. Bowles and Gintis identify these processes of fragmentation as the major structuring factors of school purpose and life (preparation for, as well as part of, the division of labour into increasingly unspecialised tasks). The streamlining of capitalist processes as a consequence of technical developments that preceded and influenced globalisation has its flow-on effects: the entrenchment of the elites, widening of social inequalities, and intensification of uneven development. As the new private relationships brokered with neoliberal governments around the world increased the role of business interests in education, knowledge began to change in the ways that I have described up to this point. The new rhetoric is that we live in a ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘knowledge age’ and that knowledge is produced by way of a one-way ‘process’ of development (akin to a conveyor belt). The continuing proliferation of this relationship between business elites and educational knowledge, which produces demonstrable class inequalities in epistemic access to powerful knowledge, is why I argue for the enduring relevance of a ‘Marxist’ sociology of education complete with an epistemological foregrounding in critical realism.


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