Theory and Practice

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By June Terpstra, 2004

According to Hans Georg Gadamer, our past influences “everything we want, hope for, and fear in the future” and only as we are “possessed” by our past are we “opened to the new, the different and the true” (1976). Yet university-based research has been slow to acknowledge the legitimacy and importance of personal history as a way of understanding the adult educator’s world (Renner 2002).  


Multiple Methodologies

This essay provides a summary review of the theories influencing my work as an activist educator. It is a reflection on the theories and people who have actively worked for social justice, reform, transformation, emancipation and revolution in and out of the academy.

My understanding of praxis methodologies, methods which attempt to change the social and economic conditions of oppressed people, shows that liberationists, radicals, feminists, and criticalists in the West have at least three basic assumptions in common about methodologies in the social sciences and education: (1) education and research are not neutral; (2) society can be transformed by the engagement of politically conscious persons; and (3) praxis connects liberatory education with social transformation. Traditionally qualitative research attempts to describe and interpret discourse, symbols, behaviors, culture, environment, and relationships of participants or subjects under observation. The qualitative interpretive process is described as inductive as the researcher theorizes from specific examples observed to general examples observed attempting to make the strange familiar or the familiar strange (Renner 2002).

Emancipatory, critical and feminist theoreticians generally focus their research and pedagogical efforts toward the ways in which class, race, gender, sexual orientations and systems of power influence our conceptions of knowledge, the knowing subject, and practices of inquiry and justification. One common aim of engaged methodologies (emancipatory, liberationist, critical, radical, social justice, action-oriented, activist, and feminist) identifies ways in which dominant conceptions and practices of knowledge attribution, acquisition, and justification systematically disadvantage subordinated groups. Conceptions of objectivity criticized by activist researchers identify objectivity with a single point of view that dismisses all other points of view as false or biased. These claims of objectivity consistently benefit specific power holder interests.

Engaged educators strive to reform these conceptions and practices so that they serve the interests of social justice and social equality. Various practitioners in academic engaged fields of the study argue that dominant knowledge practices disadvantage subordinate groups by (1) excluding them from inquiry, (2) denying them epistemic authority, (3) denigrating their cognitive styles and modes of knowledge, (4) producing theories that represent them as inferior, deviant, or significant only in the ways they serve elite interests, (5) producing theories of social phenomena that render their activities and interests, or power relations, invisible, and (6) producing knowledge (science and technology) that is damaging at worst and not useful at best for people in subordinate positions, thus reinforcing subjugation, exploitation and other social hierarchies.

Some engaged researchers trace these failures to flawed conceptions of knowledge, knowers, objectivity, and scientific methodology. They offer diverse accounts of how to overcome these failures. They also aim to (1) explain why the entry of alternative epistemic scholars into all academic disciplines, especially in biology and the social sciences, has generated new questions, theories, and methods, (2) claim that inclusion of diverse epistemic scholars across class, race, and sex has and will play a causal role in the transformation of academic disciplinary approaches, and (3) defend these changes as fundamentally cognitive, not just social, advances.

 One of the basic problems that engaged theoreticians in educational and social science research pose and expose is the manner in which the academy in the USA is a foundational site for the maintenance of social and economic inequalities. Both academic women’s programs and ethnic and race-focused programs were established to grapple with these problems focusing on institutional reforms. That university were developed historically excluding women and people of color is a historical fact. Inequality is an inescapable outcome and an essential condition of the successful economic functioning of capitalism (Panitch and Gindin 2004).

Today’s version of advanced or late capitalism is a social and economic system based on geographic, class, ethnic, culture and gender labor competition. Such a society guarantees not just inequality of result, but insofar as the results of inequality are passed on through the institution of the family and the spatial divisions of uneven capitalist development, the inequality is reproduced inter-generationally and interregionally (Panitch and Gindin 2004).  In a recent book entitled Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies and the Entrepreneurial University, sociologists Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie analyze what they term the “global knowledge economy.” This economy is structured by rapidly proliferating partnerships between public universities and the corporate sector. In case studies of universities in Australia, Canada, the U.K., and the U.S., Slaughter, and Leslie demonstrate that public universities increasingly court corporate money to offset the loss of government block grants. This has occasioned a cataclysmic change in the way public universities operate. The faculty are no longer able to occupy the tenuous space between capital and labor they have held since the Industrial Revolution (Slaughter and Leslie 1997). Instead, they are increasingly becoming direct participants in the market in order to fund their research. As a result, a new breed of academic players has been bred, “academic capitalists” or “state-subsidized entrepreneurs” who “act as capitalists from within the public sector” (Slaughter and Leslie 1997). They must compete in the public sector in order to make their areas of research or individual departments viable financial entities. This has had numerous ripple effects.

 Many corporations have closed their research and development departments, using public universities as their state-subsidized laboratories (Slaughter and Leslie 1997). In, Notes Toward an Understanding of Revolutionary Politics Today, James Petras says that intellectuals, including academics, are sharply divided across generations between those who have in many ways embraced, however critically, ‘neo-liberalism” or have prostrated themselves before “the most successful ideology in world history” and its “coherent and systematic vision” and those who have been actively writing, struggling and building alternatives (Petras 2001).The active struggle to resist oppression and build alternatives occurs when a person reflects upon the theory in the light of praxis or practical judgment; the form of knowledge that results in personal or tacit knowledge. This tacit knowledge can be acquired through the process of reflection (Grundy 1982). The following chapters are offered in the interaction of theory and practical judgment through the process of reflection, with the input from critical intent that leads to critical theorems (Grundy 1982).

Reflexive Methodologies: Gramsci

Much can be said about Antonio Gramsci, simply, however, Gramsci’s contributions to critical pedagogy derive from his propositions of a powerful (but not seamless) hegemonic control of society and subjects that possess common sense, dialectical thinking, and intellectual possibilities . . . Although dominated, critical subjects can find sites (or spaces) for counter-hegemonic practices and solidarity. Universities can be such spaces. Schools and universities are sites in which intellectuals can develop a critique, articulate values of dominated groups, amplify stories of subordinated experience, and practice resistance and solidarity. (Boyce 2003 )

 Activist researchers and educators using engaged methodologies found in emancipatory, liberationist, critical and feminist theories identify the writings of Gramsci as foundational guides for praxis. Although Gramsci is not well known or studied much in the USA it is fair to say that he greatly influenced social justice movements and activist educators in the West whether or not they are aware that their ideas historically originate from his writings. Refusing to separate culture from systemic relations of power, or politics from the production of knowledge and identities, Gramsci redefined how politics bore upon everyday life through the force of its pedagogical practices, relations, and discourses (Giroux 1999).

Perhaps it was Gramsci who first posited that the “personal is political,” a slogan much used in the 1980s by feminist academics in the USA. Gramsci offered a theoretical paradigm combining the social world and the economic world. He stressed the complexity of social formations as a plurality of conflicts. Politics was assigned a constitutive role in direct relation to ideology as a key prerequisite for political action in so far as it served to ‘cement and unify’ a “social bloc’. Without this consciousness, there was no action (Martin 2002).

One of the most important and the most complex concepts that Gramsci analyzed, is “hegemony.” The concept of hegemony is crucial to Gramsci’s theories and to understanding the critique in this study. By ‘ideological hegemony’ Gramsci means the process whereby a dominant class contrives to retain political power by manipulating public opinion, creating what Gramsci refers to as the ‘popular consensus’ (Boyce 2003). Through its exploitation of religion, education, and elements of popular national culture a ruling class can impose its world-view and have it come to be accepted as common sense (Boyce 2003). So total is the ‘hegemony’ established by bourgeois society over mind and spirit that it is almost never perceived as such at all. It strikes the mind as ‘normality’ (reification) (Boyce 2003).

To counter this Gramsci proposes an ideological struggle as a vital element in political struggles. In such hegemonic struggles for the minds and hearts of the people, intellectuals clearly have a vital role (Boyce 2003). Gramsci taught that the key index for analyzing a social formation was the interaction of economic relations with cultural, political and ideological practices or the ‘historical bloc’. As such, the interconnections between state and economy and society were viewed processionally, as a mutually determined whole (Martin 2002). By emphasizing the configuration of the social formation Gramsci was able to dwell on the points at which the element of the social was linked. For example, Gramsci showed how intellectuals in Italy were engaged in the enterprise of legitimizing the bourgeoisie state’s power to the agrarian elite, in other words at the service of or as agents of the bourgeoisie state (Martin 2002).

In the same manner that a historical bloc could serve elite interests, Gramsci posited that a historical bloc could counter an historical bloc. Revolution was conceived as the gradual formation of the collective will, an intellectual and moral framework that would unite a diverse range of groups and classes through an organic relation between leaders and the praxis of subjects. This was a conception of revolution as issuing from the immanent will of the people wherein praxis constituted the very process of history itself (Martin 2002).

 Revolution would gradually form as women and other counter-historical blocs such as African-American, Latino/Latina, indigenous and gay/lesbian would unite through an organic relation between leaders and praxis. Using Gramsci’s innovation to abolish the liberal distinction between public and private that he applied to the praxis of factory production through workplace solidarity was a concept extended by some feminist activist researchers applying it as counterhegemonic work in educational and social science studies. Feminist theorists incorporated it as a fundamental tenet in analyzing research, policies, and practices.

Where Gramsci posited a worker’s “higher consciousness” as integral parts of an organic whole early feminists posited a women’s consciousness-raising process that would unite them in sisterhood. Gramsci’s theory posed that domination by an economic class grows as they successfully embed economic activity (e.g., profit before people) as a universal principle (Martin 2002). He identified how domination was accomplished in conjunction with what he called ‘organic crisis’ in which the various points of contact between the dominant economic class intersected with other classes, specifically with the help of intellectuals in institutions of education that link the classes in a common identity (e.g., a nation) (Martin 2002).

Gramsci believed this same program could be countered using similar methods within the non-dominant classes and groups. Thus a popular identity could be fostered by using an organic crisis to link groups with the help of organic intellectuals guiding and guided by vanguard intelligentsia creating a community with a popular identity such as “the party” as Gramsci hoped to maintain and “the sisterhood” of a particular theoretical branch of what is sometimes referred to as third wave western feminism. Using this model would mean building a universalizing identity drawn from the praxis of the proletariat, by which to supplant the bourgeoisie (Martin 2002). Or, in a feminist version, building a universalizing identity drew from the praxis of “sisterhood,” by which to supplant patriarchy. From this basic Gramscian framework one can see the theoretical groundwork for not only the early slogan “Sisterhood is Global” of some white middle-class feminist programs but also early academic praxis in poststructuralism, identity politics, critical race theory, feminist multiculturalism, and queer theory.

Both theoretically and practically, the terms and phrases such as “organic intellectual,” and “historical bloc” are Gramscian. Gramsci’s organic intellectual is someone whose knowledge is derived through firsthand experience, and whose life-learning is complemented by self-education and other alternative forms of learning. The organic intellectual emerges from a social class to speak against the established order in a manner directly connected to the goals of a political movement and a community (Martin 2002).

Gramsci identified how the various cultural and economic structures force and reinforce people’s consent to subjugation.  Methodologically, Gramsci proposed education as a process of dialogue that would bring the working classes together in projects and organizations politically and would develop a base of worker intellectuals who would inform the intelligentsia of the Vanguard Party. Did the practices developed in these programs bring working classes together or develop a base of worker intellectuals informing praxis?

Gramsci advocated reflexivity as a mode for counter-hegemonic discourse and identified its importance as foundational for cultural revolution (Gramsci 1971). Yet, ideals such as liberation from oppression, self-determination and social justice have not materialized commensurately with the growth of reflexive practices (Yong-Kim 2000). One of Gramsci’s insights was that the freedom dimension of the critique within a study posits that within the cultural discourse in which the researcher resides, an organic step toward self-realization of the researcher’s position can occur.

In an abbreviated version of a lengthy explanation, Gramsci summarizes this important concept: Consciousness of a self which is opposed to others, which is differentiated and, once having set itself a goal, can judge facts and events other than in themselves or for themselves but also in so far as they tend to drive history forward or backward. To know oneself means to be oneself, to be master of oneself, to distinguish oneself, to free oneself from a state of chaos, to exist as an element of order—but of one’s own order and one’s own discipline in striving for an ideal. And we cannot be successful in this unless we also know others, their history, the successive efforts they have made to be what they are, to create the civilization they have created and which we seek to replace with our own . . . And we must learn all this without losing sight of the ultimate aim: to know oneself better through others and to know others better through oneself. (Gramsci 1971) 

Gramsci held that each individual was the synthesis of an “ensemble of relations” and also a history of these relations . . . the constitution of the subject, then, is the result of a complex interplay of “individuals” and larger-scale social forces (Hartsock 1998). The process by which the observations that we make are dependent upon our prior understandings of the subject of our observations—that they ‘refer back’ to past experiences based on class, culture, etc. are of central importance in engaged research approaches. The centrality of reflexivity in the research process parallels its centrality in academic philosophical, social-scientific and psychological constructivism (Siraj-Blatchford 1997).

Reflexivity is said to be as relevant to the macro-contexts of knowledge production as it is to the micro-context of research design. As such, we must acknowledge the double hermeneutic nature of social science. When we learn about people and about social events, the process is complex (Siraj-Blatchford 1997). The Gramscian leitmotif of reflexivity served as a counterhegemonic method fostering liberatory alliance among oppressed and exploited people. It has devolved in contemporary usage as formulations of reflexivity as a self-referential analytic exercise (Macbeth 2001).

The past intent of the reflexive methods of revolutionaries and radicals was to give voice to the lived experiences of exploitation and to expose and incite action against oppressors (Fanon 1963). Today the emphasis is on the analysts’ position and positioning in the world he or she studies for its own sake as a research consumer product. At times it is expressed with vigilance for unseen, privileged, and exploitative relationships between analysts and the world yet it most often erodes into academic stylistic storytelling and narcissistic end games for tenure clad in the garb of academic social justice advocacy (Macbeth 2001).

Reflexive methodologies were intended to focus on the experiences and interpretations of the oppressed toward the aims of increased understanding of people's relationships to power structures as they play themselves out in social relations. Historically the ruling class and appointed privileged class intelligentsia have defined and constructed meanings and interpreted the world for the poor, the labor class and the middle class. In its literal sense, the term reflection derives from the Latin verb reflectere, which literally means “to bend back.” Reflexive emancipatory methods require that people in the roles of researcher and subject claim the positions they already occupy and account for what working from and for such positions means—in particular, in terms of what ends these positions advance and what interests these positions serve (Campbell 2001 ).

Researchers represent positions, ends, and interests as is evidenced in their individual articulations and actions in and out of the field. Engaged methods such as reflexive ones are intended to produce conscious participation in praxis advancing aims as effectively as possible for direct, immediate and relevant ways that end oppression and exploitation. Simultaneously they have provided a sophisticated and well-established basis for understanding the learning processes employed by hegemony and “empowerment” processes the exploited have developed to counter-hegemony. This information, in the hands of the oppressed, is liberating but in the hands of the oppressors is another weapon against the oppressed.

Emancipatory reflexivity is a methodology wherein people take up the complexities of place and biography; deconstruct the dualities of power and anti-power, hegemony and resistance, and insider and outsider constructs revealing the variety of experiences and interpretations across class, race, and gender. Reflexive methodological trends have described and ascribed representations of the worlds of the exploited. Yet there is some danger in these methods because they also supply more information about the workings of interior and exterior mechanisms for social control. For example, Fanon’s work revealed much of the psychological oppression instilled by colonizers in Algeria and Africa which when exposed for the colonized was used in liberating psycho-educational processes for oppressed people around the world (Fanon 1963). However it works both ways, Fanon’s in-depth information about internalized oppression also supplied those interested in the psychological operations of social control and domination with a deeper understanding of the jealousy and resentments of the oppressed. Additionally, postmodern academic interpretations have often invalidated systematic exploitation with relativistic interpretations about oppression thus re-enforcing the status quo (Yong-Kim 2000).

When confronting the problems and issues of social and economic justice praxis in education, reflexive methodology invites us to explore and analyze while hearing the voices and understanding the thinking of the marginalized, exploited, and oppressed. An engaged analysis requires our thinking as researcher and educator to be challenged—to be made problematic so that we can locate that which in material relations gives rise to various interpretations and points of view. In this mode, we are called to assess relations in the context of whether they are liberating or dehumanizing.

As a resistance strategy reflexivity can expose cultural programming or what Orwell called Doublethink, the brainwashing of hegemonic discourse which promotes false realism and reification of oppression by exposing what is, at times unseen and unacknowledged. However, as a capitalist exercise reflexivity can become a method to make money. To underscore my point about the uses to which the oppressor puts methods such as “reflexivity” I offer a lengthy, but worthwhile example, I offer excerpts from a speech given by the “progressive capitalist” George Soros, given at MIT on his theory of reflexivity, his “new morality” and his “new epistemology” rationale for the manner in which he historically manipulates markets and societies in the new world order.


Soros writes; "I want to discuss a subject which fascinates me but doesn’t seem to interest others very much. That is my theory of reflexivity which has guided me both in making money and in giving money away . . . The key feature of these events is that the participants’ thinking affects the situation to which it refers. Facts and thoughts cannot be separated in the same way as they are in natural science or, more exactly, by separating them we introduce a distortion which is not present in natural science because in natural science thoughts and statements are outside the subject matter, whereas in the social sciences they constitute part of the subject matter. If the study of events is confined to the study of facts, an important element, namely, the participants’ thinking is left out of the account. Strange as it may seem, that is exactly what has happened, particularly in economics, which is the most scientific of the social sciences . . . Reflexivity is, in effect, a two-way feedback mechanism in which reality helps shape the participants’ thinking and the participants’ thinking helps shape reality in an unending process in which thinking and reality may come to approach each other but can never become identical. Knowledge implies a correspondence between statements and facts, thoughts and reality, which is not possible in this situation. The key element is the lack of correspondence, the inherent divergence, between the participants’ views and the actual state of affairs. It is this divergence, which I have called the “participant’s bias,” which provides the clue to understanding the course of events. That, in very general terms, is the gist of my theory of reflexivity . . . The theory has far-reaching implications. It draws a sharp distinction between natural science and social science, and it introduces an element of indeterminacy into social events which is missing in the events studied by natural science. It interprets social events as a never-ending historical process and not as an equilibrium situation. The process cannot be explained and predicted with the help of universally valid laws, in the manner of natural science, because of the element of indeterminacy introduced by the participants’ bias. The implications are so far-reaching that I can’t even begin to enumerate them. They range from the inherent instability of financial markets to the concept of an open society which is based on the recognition that nobody has access to the ultimate truth. The theory gives rise to a new morality as well as a new epistemology. As you probably know, I am the founder-and the funder-of the Open Society Foundation. That is why I feel justified in claiming that the theory of reflexivity has guided me both in making and in spending money . . . In all these cases, the participants’ bias involved an actual fallacy: in the case of the conglomerate and mortgage trust booms, the growth in earnings per share was treated as if it were independent of equity leveraging; and in the case of the international lending boom, the debt ratio was treated as if it were independent of the lending activities of the banks. But there are other cases where no such fallacy is involved. For instance, in a freely-fluctuating currency market, a change in exchange rates has the capacity to affect the so-called fundamentals which are supposed to determine exchange rates, such as the rate of inflation in the countries concerned; so that any divergence from a theoretical equilibrium has the capacity to validate itself. This self-validating capacity encourages trend-following speculation, and trend-following speculation generates divergences from whatever may be considered the theoretical equilibrium. The circular reasoning is complete. The outcome is that freely fluctuating currency markets tend to produce excessive fluctuations and trend-following speculation tends to be justified. I believe that these examples are sufficient to demonstrate that reflexivity is real; it is not merely a different way of looking at events; it is a different way in which events unfold. It doesn’t occur in every case but, when it does, it changes the character of the situation. Instead of a tendency towards some kind of theoretical equilibrium, the participants’ views and the actual state of affairs enter into a process of dynamic disequilibrium which may be mutually self-reinforcing at first, moving both thinking and reality in a certain direction, but is bound to become unsustainable in the long run and engender a move in the opposite direction." (Soros 1994) 

This is an important indicator of the direction that reflexive methodologies have taken in the past century. For Gramsci, to know self and others was a revolutionary act to resist oppression and totalitarianism. For Soros, it’s a dynamic disequilibrium which can engender a money-making moment for the dominant economic class or counter-counter-hegemony? For Gramsci to know self meant to come to an understanding of the ways you and your people are debased into conditions of servitude, which maintain subjugation, exploitation and misery. For Soros the theory of reflexivity guides him both in making and in spending money off the backs of the people while calling it democracy.

Knowledge of how the ruling class obtains peoples, consent to servitude provides the initial steps in the process of emancipation when the people use the knowledge. It is also knowledge used to perfect the master’s techniques of oppression. Such knowledge through dialectic processes may produce the possibilities for new sites of struggle and resistance or shape consumerism and the capitalist futures market. For Gramsci, social theory at its best expands the meaning of the political by being self-conscious. To focus on self-consciousness was to examine the way pedagogy works through its own cultural practices in order to legitimate its own motivating questions, secure particular modes of authority, and privilege particular “institutional frameworks and disciplinary rules by which its research imperatives are formed” (Gramsci 1971).

For Soros the focus is on a self-validating capacity encouraging trend-following speculation, and trend-following speculation generates divergences from whatever may be considered the theoretical equilibrium toward outcomes that are freely-fluctuating currency markets producing excessive fluctuations where trend-following speculation tends to be justified (Soros 1994).

Liberation Theology and Liberation Psychology

I applied to Loyola University Chicago to complete a graduate degree in my late forties because of its stated social justice mission gave the appearance of a space where a liberationist positionality would be welcome and encouraged. It was the theoretical and methodological base of liberationists that I was most interested in as a focus for my studies.

The increasing disparity between rich and poor along with increasing global control through overt and covert wars in Latin America led to dialogues in the Catholic church about faith, transformation and liberation. The Second Vatican Council produced a theological atmosphere characterized by creativity influenced by the times (decolonization, independence struggles, and a proliferation of socialist ideologies, Marxism and revolutionary and liberation theorists post WWII) (Boff and Clodovis 2001).This creative theological atmosphere could be seen at work among both Catholic and Protestant thinkers with the emergence of the group Church and Society in Latin America (ISAL) taking a prominent role.


This movement led to intensified reflections on the relationship between faith and poverty and the gospel and social justice. In Brazil, between 1959 and 1964, the Catholic Left produced a series of basic texts on the need for a Christian ideal of history, linked to popular action, with a methodology that foreshadowed that of liberation theology. They urged personal engagement in the world, backed up by studies of social and liberal sciences, and illustrated by the universal principles of Christianity. (Boff and Clodovis 2001) The foundational work defining a liberation theology praxis came from Gustavo Gutiérrez who described theology as critical reflection on praxis.

I can trace these theological preferences for the poor even further back to my Waldensian ancestors of Europe, today liberation theology today should be understood as a family of theologies—including the Latin American, Black, and feminist varieties (Boff and Clodovis 2001). All three respond to some form of oppression: Latin-American liberation theologians say their poverty-stricken people have been oppressed and exploited by rich, capitalist nations. Black liberation theologians argue that their people have suffered oppression at the hands of racist whites. Feminist liberation theologians lay heavy emphasis upon the status and liberation of women in a male-dominated society (Boff and Clodovis 2001).

Liberation theology begins with the premise that all theology is biased—that is, particular theologies reflect the economic and social classes of those who developed them. Accordingly, the traditional theology predominant in North America and Europe is said to “perpetuate the interests of white, North American/European, capitalist males.” This theology allegedly “supports and legitimates a political and economic system—democratic capitalism—which is responsible for exploiting and impoverishing the Third World” (Gutierrez 1971). Liberation theologians say theology must start with a “view from below”—that is, with the sufferings of the oppressed. Within this broad framework, different liberation theologians have developed distinctive methodologies for “doing” theology (Boff and Clodovis 2001).

Gustavo Gutierrez rejects the idea that theology is a systematic collection of timeless and culture-transcending truths that remains static for all generations. He views theology as a fluid process, a dynamic and ongoing movement of human beings providing insights into knowledge, humanity, and history. Emphasizing that theology is not just to be learned, it is to be done he says that “praxis” is the starting point for theology. Praxis involves revolutionary action on behalf of the poor and oppressed—and out of this, theological perceptions will continually emerge. The theologian must therefore be immersed in the struggle for transforming society and proclaimed his message from that point. In the theological process, then, praxis must always be the first stage; theology is the second stage. Theologians are not to be mere theoreticians, but practitioners who participate in the ongoing struggle to liberate the oppressed (Gutierrez 1971).

In this context, an academic liberation praxis must be immersed in the struggle for transforming society as revolutionary action on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Using methodologies such as Gutierrez’s and Baro’s, liberationists interpret sin not primarily from an individual, private perspective, but from a social and economic perspective. Gutierrez explains that “sin is not considered an individual, private, or merely interior reality. Sin is regarded as a social, historical fact, the absence of brotherhood and love in relationships among men” (Gutierrez 1996). Liberationists view present-day capitalism as sinful specifically because it has embedded systems of oppression and exploitation encompassing the majority of the world’s people.

Capitalists have become prosperous at the expense of impoverishing people. This is often referred to as “dependency theory”—that is, the development of the rich depends on the underdevelopment of the poor (Gutierrez 1996). There is another side to sin in liberation theology. Those who are oppressed can and do sin by acquiescing to their bondage. To go along passively with oppression rather than resisting and attempting to overthrow it—by violent means if necessary—is sin (Gutierrez 1996). For academic liberationists going along passively takes many forms but certainly the most consistent form is by participating in the production of knowledge that benefits the production of both material and psychological weapons of mass destruction. However, another form of destructive knowledge production is the contribution to mass media and educational propaganda which “dumbs down” the people’s development as critical thinkers and critical knowers.

The use of violence has been one of the most controversial aspects of the liberation theology and liberation psychology of the 1960s through the 1980s. Such violence is not considered sinful or psychologically damaging if it is used for resisting oppression. Indeed, certain liberation theologians will in some cases regard a particular action as sin if an oppressor commits it, but not if it is committed by the oppressed in the struggle to remove inequities (Gutierrez 1996). The removal of inequities is believed to result in the removal of the occasion of sin as well” (Gutierrez 1996). This praxis too has seen some shifts in the past two decades from radical to pacifistic approaches.

Like Gutierrez’s influences on my praxis, Baro’s methodology was also foundational to my praxis. Jose Ignacio Martin Baro was strongly influenced by Gutierrez, and lived and worked in El Salvador. He developed a praxis model described in his book, Writings for a Liberation Psychology. He used the term “de-alienating social consciousness” as a core focus for dialogue. There are three aspects to this process in the theoretical paradigm of Liberation Psychology: (1) Dialogue—human beings are transformed through changing their reality. This is a dialectical process that only happens through dialogue, conversation about our thoughts and feelings in relationship to our world and our history. (2) Decoding—through the gradual decoding of their world, people grasp the mechanisms of oppression and dehumanization. This crumbles the consciousness that posits a situation of oppression as natural, and opens up the horizon to new possibilities for action (Baro 1994).

The individual’s critical consciousness of others and the surrounding reality brings with it the possibility of a new praxis, which at the same time makes possible new forms of consciousness (Baro 1994), and, (3) Social Identity—people’s knowledge of their surrounding reality carries them to a new understanding of themselves and, most important, of their social identity (Baro 1994). They begin to discover themselves in their action that transforms the problematic and in their active role in relation to others. Thus, the recovery of their historical memory offers a base for a more autonomous determination of their future (Baro 1994).

Baro says that liberation theory asks us to respond to oppression on the social level in three specific ways: (1) by promoting a critical consciousness of the objective and subjective roots of social alienation (like the socioeconomic mechanisms that cement the structures of injustice) and the fatalistic thought processes and accompanying behaviors that give ideological sustenance to the alienation of the popular majorities such as women, children, elderly, the impoverished and colonized peoples of the world (Baro 1994). (2) By breaking down the machinery of the relationships of dominance and submission through dialogue and relationship. The dialectical process that fosters individual self-knowledge and self-acceptance presupposes a radical change in social relations, to a condition where there would be neither oppressors nor oppressed, and this change applies whether we are talking about formal schooling, production in a factory, or everyday work in a service institution (Baro 1994), and (3) by reclaiming our past, by experiencing the present and by projecting that into a personal and national plan we cast ourselves in our social and national context, thereby setting forth the problem of one’s authenticity as a member of a group, part of a culture, a citizen of a country (Baro 1994).

For the oppressed, Baro says, this undoubtedly yields adequate food, housing, health, work, personal development and humanizing relationships, for love and hope in life (Baro 1994). It means questioning the basic schemata of how social roles are determined for people. Baro says that this is achieved by aiming directly at: (1) social identity worked out through the prototypes of oppressors and oppressed, (2) learning to confront the reality of existence through critical thinking, and, (3) a new identity for people as members of a human community, in charge of history shaped by consistently questioning the historical consequences of activity produced (Baro 1994).

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire also understood poverty from first hand experience and was influenced by Liberationist methodologies in Latin America. His life and work as an educator was full of hope in spite of poverty, imprisonment, and exile. He was a world leader in the struggle for the liberation of the poor and a great teacher to many who are teaching using the model he developed. Paulo Freire worked to instill the strengths and skills necessary for men and women living in poverty to overcome their sense of powerlessness to act in their own behalf. Freire said: I do research so as to know what I do not yet know and to communicate and proclaim what I discover . . . It’s really not possible for someone to imagine himself/herself as a subject in the process of becoming without having at the same time a disposition for change. And change of which she/he is not merely the victim but the subject. (Freire and Faundez 1989)

 Freire believed that freedom through critical literacy necessitates carefully conceived ethnographic research of a given community, and this means, again, becoming one with the people. That is, the ethnographer must learn to “respect the reality” of the people in order to minimize the distance between the people and him or herself so as to be positioned to effectively work in their reality. He gave practical instructions for educational praxis with his insistence that dialogue involves respect (Olson 1992).

Freire observed and experienced intense repression and oppression in Latin America (Brazil, Chile, and Nicaragua). He developed and practiced a radical approach to education that, as Gramsci had also identified as necessary, must be linked to social movements. Paulo, starting from a psychology of oppression influenced by the works of psychotherapists such as Freud, Jung, Adler, Fanon and Fromm, developed a “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” He believed that education could improve the human condition, counteracting the effects of a psychology of oppression, and ultimately contributing to what he considered the ontological vocation of humankind: humanization.

In the introduction to his widely-acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he argued that: “From these pages I hope at least the following will endure: my trust in the people, and my faith in men and women and in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love.” Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which has been influenced by a myriad of philosophical currents including Phenomenology, Existentialism, Christian Personalism, Marxism and Hegelianism, calls for dialogue and ultimately conscientization as a way to overcome domination and oppression among and between human beings. Interestingly enough, one of the last books that Paulo wrote, Pedagogy of Hope, offers an appraisal of the conditions of implementation of his Pedagogy of the Oppressed in our days. (Godotti 1997) 

Freire also was concerned with praxis. He thought that dialogue isn’t just about deepening understanding—but is part of making a difference in the world. Dialogue in itself is a co-operative activity involving respect that has the potential to foster a community of people who work together for community well being. Freire’s attention to naming the world has been of great significance to those educators who have traditionally worked with those who do not have a voice and who are oppressed (Smith 2001).

The idea of building a “pedagogy of the oppressed” or a “pedagogy of hope” and how this may be carried forward has formed a significant impetus to those of us seeking ways to develop a consciousness that is understood to have the power to transform reality. Freire’s insistence on situating all educational activity in the lived experience of people has opened up a series of possibilities for the way activists and educators can approach practices in research and pedagogy (Smith 2001). Several generations of educators, anthropologists, social scientists and political scientists, and professionals in the sciences and business, felt Freire’s influence and helped to construct pedagogy based in liberation. What he wrote became a part of the lives of an entire generation that learned to dream about a world of equality and justice that fought and continues to fight for this world today.

Many continue his work, as Freire leaves us with roots, wings, and dreams. (Godotti 1997) For Freire, naming one’s experience and placing that voiced experience in context is the essence of dialogue (Freire 1970). Freire distinguished discussion from dialogue which is characterized as a kind of speech that is humble, open, and focused on collaborative learning. It is communication that can awaken consciousness and prepares people for collective action. A generative theme is one that emerges from the lives of learners as they engage a course of study. It presents a point of entry for learning that has meaning and relevance to a particular group of learners at a particular time.

Freire had seen the effects of vanguardism and elitism in the academy and even community organizing and felt very strongly that dialogue was about people working with each other (Smith 2001). He was concerned with praxis—action that is informed (and linked to certain values). Dialogue wasn’t just about deepening understanding—but was part of making a difference in the world. Dialogue in itself is a co-operative activity involving respect. The process is important and can be seen as enhancing community and building social capital, and to leading us to act in ways that make for justice and human flourishing (Smith 2001). Third, Freire’s attention to naming the world has been of great significance to those educators who have traditionally worked with those who do not have a voice, and who are oppressed.

The idea of building a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ or a ‘pedagogy of hope’ and how this may be carried forward has formed a significant impetus to those seeking ways to develop consciousness, the consciousness that is understood to have the power to transform reality (Smith 2001). Fourth, Freire’s insistence on situating educational activity in  the lived experience of people has opened up a series of possibilities for the way activist educators can approach practice (Smith 2001).  Dialogue occurs when people appreciate that they are involved in a mutual quest for understanding and insight.

Ethnography and Thick Description

Historically, the transition to qualitative research in the British sociology of education was heralded by Young’s (1971) ‘new sociology of education’. This foregrounded neo-Marxist and interactionist perspectives in the analysis of education and schooling. For interactionists, ethnography posed the possibility of an opening for reforming the assembly line model of education (Taylorism) and focused on revealing the ‘content’ of education to critical examination. (Macbeth 2001) 

The attraction which ethnography has for me as it emerged out of the Marxist tradition is twofold. First, it allows the exploration of social relations and practices of contemporary capitalism as these materialize within the everyday world, whether in schools, hospitals, prisons, gay bars, factories, or coalmines (Macbeth 2001). Second, ethnographic research has a unique capacity to get close-up to sites of exploitation and oppression, thereby endowing the researcher with not only first-hand experience of what forms these take and how they are organized but also a privileged standpoint in respect to constructing emancipatory practices (Lather 1986 ).  In general ethnography has been an often-used research methodology of academic feminists and criticalists.

Thick description is another ethnographic research method. In her analysis of culture and morality entitled, “Fieldwork in Familiar Places,” Michelle Moody-Adams expands on anthropologist Geertz’s development of philosopher Ryles’s view about “thick description.” This is a good example of how things work in knowledge production as people take each other’s ideas and expand upon them. Moody-Adams posits that thick description means going beneath the surface, showing the complexity behind social “facts” (or fictions) and social actions. Thick description is commentary on more than just the facts themselves. Thick description involves interpreting intentions and expectations, and especially the intricate public structures of meaning within which it is possible to form intentions and actions on complex expectations. Thick description is thus interpretation of those structures that constitute the complex contexts within which meaningful action become possible (Moody-Adams 1997).  Geertz says that the principle tasks of ethnography should be defined by reference to just such interpretive efforts to identify intentions and expectations. Ethnography in his view is interpretive science “in search of meaning” (Geertz 1973).

 In this context the thick version of a research question is: has praxis, as defined in the study facilitated the production of oppositional theoretical knowledge in research and pedagogy necessary to engage and participate in collective struggles for the emancipation of oppressed and exploited people?  Thus, the purpose of the analysis is the development of a cultural criticism revealing power dynamics within social and cultural contexts. The intention is to build bridges between reader and text, text and producers, describing the historical context about past and present praxis in the specific cultures within academic environments (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000).

Feminist Research

We agree with Antonio Gramsci that the philosophy of each person “is contained in its entirety in political action (Hartsock 1998)  Feminist ethnography as developed from both interactionist and neo-Marxist ethnographic models combines methods such as participant observation, interviewing, questionnaire research and archival document analyses.

Feminists assert the need to situate social location based on ethnicity/race, gender, class, and sexuality vis-à-vis the community under study (Knight 2000). A focus on self and positionality urges the researcher to confront and consider the processes of situating oneself in a conscious manner that examines the nuances of relationships of power (Fine 1994). Feminism itself is sometimes identified as a mode of analysis. It is said to be a method of approaching life and politics rather than a set of political conclusions about the oppression of women. Connecting personal experience to the structures that define our lives is the clearest example of method basic to feminism (Hartsock 1998).

 I first met Hartsock in my work at the NU women’s center and it was not surprising that her work appealed to me as it emerged from Marxian and Gramscian foundations.  Her work posits that groups (e.g.. white women, black men, Arab young men) are structurally situated in the social order experiencing unique and specific forms of exploitation and oppression. Like the divisions of labor, exploitation and oppression on the plantation where the house slave has a variety of life experiences different from that of the field slave or the overseer, dialogic decoding of phenomenologically specific experiences engenders understanding and knowledge about features of the plantation world that remains obscure, invisible, or merely occasional and secondary for other groups such as the plantation “owners” (Jameson 1988).

An example of this in Western feminism is the manner in which interpretations about the wearing of the veil (hijab, niqab, and burqua) and the covering of the face, head and body is viewed as a form of oppression against Muslim women. Yet, when reading the variety of accounts available about how and why Muslim women choose to cover there is a whole world of experiences unknown to most Western women.

Today, Muslim women in France are fighting to wear hijab in public schools. Their deep faith in religious and cultural traditions along with basic rejections of western capitalist objectification and sexualization of women are two major reasons they give for choosing hijab. The liberatory role of an engaged understanding of standpoint and positionality is critical. The main feminist claims Hartsock identifies in standpoint theory are as follows: (1) Material life structures and set limits on the understandings of social relations. (2) If life is structured in opposing ways one can expect similar oppositions in the visions of different groups. (3) The vision of the ruling group structured the material relations in which all parties are forced to participate and therefore cannot be dismissed as simply false. (4) The understanding available to the oppressed group must be struggled for and represent an achievement that requires both systematic analysis and the education that grows from political struggle to change social relations. (5)

As an engaged understanding, a standpoint exposes the real relations among human beings as inhuman and carries a historically liberatory role (Hartsock 1998) In developing a revised and reconstructed standpoint theory Hartsock describes these essential features: . . .Oppressed groups need to engage in the historical, political, and theoretical process of constituting ourselves as subjects as well as objects of history . . . building an account of social relations as seen from below . . . not suggesting that oppression creates “better” people; on the contrary . . . rather it is to note that marginalized people are less likely to mistake themselves for the universal “man.” And to suggest that the experience of domination may provide the possibility of important new understandings of social life. Second, it is important to do our thinking on an epistemological base that indicates that knowledge is possible—not just conversation or a discourse on how it is that power relations work to subject us. We will not have the confidence to act if we believe we cannot know the world. This does not mean that we need to believe that we have absolute knowledge, but rather that we need to have “good enough” certitude. Third, we need an epistemology that recognizes that our practical daily activity contains an understanding of the world—subjugated perhaps, but present. Here I refer to Gramsci’s argument that all men are intellectuals and that everyone has a working epistemology . . . we must not give up the claim that material life not only structures but also sets limits on understandings of social relations and that in systems of domination, the vision available to the ruling groups will be partial and will reverse the real order of things. Fourth, our epistemology needs to recognize the difficulty of creating alternatives . . . Oppressed groups must struggle to attain their own, centered, understanding, recognizing that this will require both theorizing and the education that can come only from political struggle. Fifth, the understanding of the oppressed exposes the real relations among people as inhumane: thus there is a call to political action (Hartsock 1998).  

Sandra Harding, another feminist philosopher (1993) argues that the objectivity of a representation is greater the more reflexive is its process of generation. General principles of reflexivity in feminist contexts as I learned them were to make explicit the social positions, interests, background assumptions, biases, and multiple perspectives that shaped the questions, methods, interpretations, and modes of presentation of the claims the knower accepts as knowledge (Harding 1993). These versions of feminist reflexivity affirmed a partiality of representations without denying possible claims to truth. A representation can be true without being the whole truth about the object represented. It avoids a narcissistic confusion of one’s own partial perspective with a comprehensive view, and by highlighting contingencies of representation that could be questioned.

Harding argues that inclusion of marginalized groups into inquiry will improve reflexivity, because the marginalized are more likely to notice and take issue with features of accepted representations that are due to the unquestioned adoption of the perspectives of the dominant group (Harding 1993). In Harding’s view democratic inclusion is therefore an implication of reflexivity (Harding 1993). Harding’s ideal of “strong objectivity” includes both reflexivity and democratic inclusion as the key features of more objective processes of inquiry. She casts this ideal as a reconfiguration of standpoint theory, because it accords the standpoints of marginalized groups an indispensable role in producing objective knowledge.

However, strong objectivity does not accord epistemic privilege to the standpoints of the oppressed, considered by themselves. Rather, it prefers representation produced by communities that include them over representations produced by communities that exclude them (Harding 1993). To claim a bias in research does not make the research erroneous. In fact, in engaged methodologies it may serve a positive generative function by producing new concepts, methods, and hypotheses that open up new aspects of the world for understanding. These “biases” are seen by many feminist researchers as resources for understanding multiple meanings attributed to the workings of the world. The point in exposing the androcentric and sexist biases lying behind certain research theories is not to show that they are false (they might in the end be empirically vindicated), but to make room for alternative interpretations toward engaged understanding. Today, feminist social scientists and researchers use multiple methodological approaches that have been academically legitimized over the past three decades directly corresponding with praxis as documented in this study.

Legitimized fields of study using feminist methodologies now include multi-culturalism, racism, globalization, colonialism, child-rearing, gay and lesbian studies, feminist social work, cancer, abuse prevention, media analysis and countless other topics that are now funded with federal, state and private resources. In every major discipline in the Western academic world there are now legitimated methodologies using gender analysis in theory building. This shift occurred in a little more than four decades in direct relation to the development of academic women’s programs.

Critical and Radical Research

Critical researchers claim that Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is fundamental for critical research (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000). I agree.  Gramsci understood that dominant power is exercised by physical force and through social psychological attempts to win people’s consent through cultural institutions like schools (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000). Criticalists claim that the formation of hegemony cannot be separate from the production of ideology, a highly articulated world view, master narrative, discursive regime, or organizing scheme for collective symbolic production (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000). 


Criticalists claim that hegemony’s subordinates, to which I include radicals, criticalists, and feminists themselves, developed a set of tacit rules about what can and cannot be said, who can and cannot speak and who must listen, whose social constructions are valid and whose are erroneous and unimportant (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000).  In fact, some “alternative epistemic knowers” became gatekeepers in the power structure. Academic institutional gatekeepers became “agents of the state” given the power to provide academic sandboxes in which activist educators and researchers are allowed to play. This provides an illusion of academic free inquiry while maintaining the status quo.

Kincheloe and McLaren state that the key to successful counter-hegemonic cultural research involves (a) the ability to link the production of representation, images and signs of hypereality to power in the political economy; and, (b) the capacity, once this linkage is exposed and described to delineate highly complex effects of the reception of these images and signs on individuals located at various race, class, gender, and sexual coordinates in the web of reality (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000).


Pedagogy of Process/Praxis in Process

My life experience as an activist educator has influenced my work profoundly and this in turn influences my research and scholarship. Hoffman (1975) has suggested that in demanding that praxis should be focused at the center of our scientific concerns, the champions of praxis insist that we are a part of the world we study and cannot be expected to theorize in some detached, neutral manner. Or as one of my teachers always said, “We are the people we serve” and I would add, “We are the people we study.” Where positivism preaches resignation and acceptance praxis demands commitment and change: for conformity, it puts criticism, for passivity, it calls for concrete practice. It rejects therefore—in its manifesto of protest—all the self defeating antitheses which are the hallmark of positivism, the supposed ‘gulf’ between Ideal and real, concrete and abstract, fact and value, the world of is and the world of ought. Thinking is a praxical activity, it insists, and its role is not to contemplate the universe, but to transform it. Educational researchers committed to praxis would thus intervene in whatever areas of scholarship and professional influence they find open to them. They would accept whatever opportunities arise to encourage change. The sort of change pursued may vary according to the life experiences of the researcher involved (Siraj-Blatchford 1997).



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