Olga Campbell-Thomson follows up on her earlier blog post about specific activities undertaken in the Speaking in Arts and Humanities course by providing a wider background discussion of the construction of disciplinary identity which draws on the work of Michel Foucault.
The report included in my previous blog post prompted the following questions:
- How can our engagement with the broader context of academia help construct our disciplinary identity?
- How do we, EAS practitioners, understand and shape our professional identity through practice?
- How our practices help shape the disciplinary identity of the EAS field?
These are important questions because they, in words of Gunter (2002), ‘enable a productive conceptualisation of the interplay between the agency of the individual knowledge worker to make choices about research and teaching and the structuring context in which this activity is shaped and controlled’ (p. 7). Interest in the interplay between the activities of EAS practitioners and the structuring context of such activities relates to interest in EAS disciplinary identity. The basic assumption underlying this connection is that disciplinary identity, indeed any identity, is a social construct. As a product of social activity, disciplinary identity is a fluid construct and reflects the ever changing social contexts.
The involvement of social theory in the process of describing, understanding and explaining EAS disciplinary identity is thus warranted because analytical frameworks and paradigms, categorised as social theory, aim to examine social processes and to make sense of the social world. These analytical frameworks help us engage in ‘productive conceptualisation’ (Gunter 2002) of EAS discipline and of ourselves as EAS practitioners. Thus, theory does not undermine our practice; it helps reveal the dynamism of the field. As Gunter (2002) notes, ‘theory is good “to act from” in order to improve practice, and competence comes from this broader intellectual capacity of understanding about practice’ (p. 16).
I would like to offer my reading of Foucault’s theorising on the process of knowledge construction as a useful framework for examining the process of construction of EAS disciplinary identity. Any inquiry into the process of social activity, and this includes the process of identity construction, requires capturing whether prominence is given to agency, activity, or to structures which enable, shape and constraint activity. What is appealing in Foucault’s theorising is that he avoids dichotomy between structure and agency. He views the social process of knowledge construction as the constant interplay of the two and emphasises that one does not exist without the other. He also insists that this complex interplay can only be revealed through a set of practices within a specific historical and institutional context.
As I indicated earlier, this is MY reading of Foucault and I should make a note that Foucault himself does not use the term agency in his writings. Yet, the main focus of his intellectual interest – that is on the constitution of ‘the subject’ – is nothing other than investigation of the social processes where the conduct of individuals is examined within their structural environment. In his later work, in particular, Foucault explicitly articulates his increased interest in how individuals act, make choices, and modify their structural environment to make sense of their lives.
Reading of Foucault’s later lectures and interviews, which offer synopses of the author’s lifework, reveals that his attempts at the systematization of his work produced a number of conceptual sets. Those are ‘centralized and centralizing power – individualizing power’ (Foucault 1994: 300), ‘the social entity – the individual’ (Foucault 1994: 408-410), ‘technologies of power and domination – technologies of the self’ (Foucault 1988). Each set is a way of describing existing relationship between organized social and institutional rules and the behaviour of individuals, and Foucault’s own historical critical analyses of such relationships suggest that there is always a complex interplay of constraint, choice and action.
The kinds of relationships Foucault discusses in his work can be conceptualised in the terms of the interplay of structure and agency. Anonymous structures, networks of knowledge, social and cultural institutions all embody, as well as produce, the structural environment of the subject. At the same time, an individual is not a passive product of existing power relations who merely follows the model set by the structures. A person is capable of choosing how to act and what choices to make among the models available in his or her environment. It is the agency of individuals which ‘permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and the way of being, so as to transform themselves…’ (Foucault 1988: 18). The points of interaction of structure and agency can be only revealed in practices and the inspection of these practices can gain meaning only within their specific historical and institutional context.
This brief summary of Foucault’s theorising suggests, as a possible way of ‘productive conceptualisation’ of EAS disciplinary identity, that our practices are the focal point of our identity, which is constantly in the making. This approach challenges the very possibility of viewing our work as finite and limited by an existing set of rules. This makes the inspection of our practices worthwhile, as it suggests that emergent new practices have validity within the constraints of the field and that the constraints, or structures, are shaped by our teaching, scholarship and our own critical evaluation.
What remains positive in the practice of our work is that we understand and value what we have to offer. This means that we, as practitioners of the field, need to make sure we are shaping the field of our profession and remain assiduous in monitoring the quality of our own work. This also means that it is up to us to ensure that we remain relevant in the context of academic environment.
The aim of this writing is not only to underpin the rationality of the entry of social theory into the field of EAS, but also to provide an important intellectual resource for examining who and what we are. Theorising through Foucault’s conceptual tools provides an opportunity to describe, understand and explain who we are through what we do. Our disciplinary identity can be better understood by giving attention to our practices. So I will leave you to ponder on the following:
- What structural contexts shape (constraint and enable) our activity?
- Are there emergent new practices in our work which challenge and modify the set of structural constraints of EAS field?
- Are there practices in our work which gain meaning within the structural constraints of the university?
- Are there practices in our work which allow us make claims for distinctiveness within a variety of structural contexts?
Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the self. In Martin, L., Gutman, H. & Hutton, P. (Eds.) Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault, pp. 16-49. The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.
Foucault, M. (1994). Interview with Michel Foucault conducted by Michael Bess, San Francisco (3 November 1980). History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988): 1-2, 11-13.
Gunter, H. (2002). Purposes and positions in the field of education management: Putting Bourdieu to work. Educational Management & Administration 30 (1): 7 – 26.