EAS Disciplinary Identity at the Interface between Theory and Practice

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.



5 thoughts on “EAS Disciplinary Identity at the Interface between Theory and Practice

  1. Interesting. Thanks for that Olga. I’m not a Foucalt aficionado but based on what I’ve understood in your post, I’d posit that EAS lends itself well to a focus on practice in order to understand the identity of the ‘scientists’ in the EAS laboratory, as contrasted with some more traditional ‘sciences’ because there is less structure imposed on it, or as I might put it, people aren’t necessarily institutionalised yet. This may happen in time with more of a disciplinary feel about it rather than what currently comes across (to me at least) like a multi-disciplinary and relatively multi-perspective field of activity.

    So, for example, some of us come from the subject backgrounds that we’re teaching e.g. an Engineer or lawyer teaching English for Engineering or Law, while many others come from language or linguistics backgrounds: each will have been heavily influenced by the framework they constructed/received as impressionable and sponge like undergrads (not a reference to alcohol absorption). Will these disparate backgrounds construct a single framework for EAS? Would it be better if they didn’t, and we saw the productive conceptualisation never actually resulting in a product, but as you suggested, constantly making new ones. My concern is that without a separate fixed identity, EAS will to many remain perceived as a remedial service or similar.

    What am I saying of practical consequence? Perhaps that it’s a bit of double edged sword learning too much about our own identity?


  2. Olga

    Thanks Neil. These are thought-provoking comments. I will address some of the issues you have raised here.

    First, the issue of ‘fixed identity’ (ref. your sentence ‘without a separate fixed identity, EAS will to many remain perceived as a remedial service or similar’):
    Despite Foucault’s insistence that the subject and its identities are not fixed once and for all, and are in-flux, they should not be seen as indeterminate. In his 1980 Berkley interview, Foucault indicates that there is a need ‘to pin things down, even if in a provisional way’ and that we have to establish the points of fixity to develop the sense of ourselves and our identity. Foucault explains that his insistence not to accept anything as definite, obvious or immobile ‘does not mean that one must live in an indefinite discontinuity’; it means rather that ‘one must consider all the points of fixity, of immobilization, as elements in a tactics, in a strategy – as part of an effort to bring things back into their original mobility, their openness to change’ (both citations are from Foucault, M. 1988. An interview with Michel Foucault conducted by Michael Bess, San Francisco (3 November 1980). History of the Present 4, 1-2 and 11-13.). Inspection of practice helps reveal these points of fixity and thus, helps establish claims for distinction. Without critical reflection and ‘ongoing conceptualisation’ (Foucault, M. 1982. The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry 8 (4), 777-795) our practices will go unnoticed, and so perception of the EAS field as ‘remedial service’ will remain unchallenged.

    Another important issue you raise is a possibility of constructing ‘a single framework for EAS’. I would say that as EAS has been establishing itself as ‘a field’ (the metaphor of a field does imply that it has boundaries, a frame of some kind), central to this process has been the issue of positioning. The EAS field firmly locates itself within academia. Now, back to Foucault… Foucault insists that the practices can only make sense within their specific local historical (and institutional) structural context. It would make sense, then, to demarcate the boundaries of the field within specific academic sites. To illustrate the point, we may use the University of Glasgow as a specific site where the ‘mapping’ of EAS field can take place. I would further emphasise that if we are to gain a meaningful understanding of the field, we need to examine the field practices within their structural environment on specific academic sites. Mapping of the field cannot happen in isolation from specific sites-territories. To continue drawing useful metaphors from cartography, the specific structural setting of the field site provides a legend to the reading of the field map. So, the framework for EAS can rely on the site-based EAS maps.
    I see the value of this work as twofold. Positioning of EAS practices in relation to specific academic sites allows reflection on the field’s purposes in specific terms, and gives the discipline a sense of itself. At the same time, the discipline gives sense to the academic site, a university in this instance, as, through its disciplinary practices, it underwrites the site’s claims for academic distinctiveness.

    This, perhaps, does not provide a clear answer to your question ‘Will these disparate backgrounds construct a single framework for EAS?’ The intention was not to come up with an answer (frankly, I don’t have the answer) but, rather, to further problematize the whole notion of ‘a single framework for EAS’ or, indeed, a single framework for any other known field in the broader context of academia.


    1. Anneli Williams

      Thanks Olga, for reminding me that we can choose to engage actively with the ongoing process of defining who we are and what we can do in this context. This way of framing the task sparks the more playful and creative side of my working self…


  3. Steve McGill

    I’d like to begin by saying many thanks to Olga for introducing this particular perspective into the debate on who we are, where we came from and where we’re going (and possibly even why). I’ve always been a huge fan of Foucault (and Barthes, Gramsci, Derrida, etc. for that matter) and feel that they changed the way we see the world in ways which are currently propelling and channelling the debate on education in general and academic literacy in particular. I do feel, however, we need to be careful about both what this approach can tell us about ourselves and where it might lead us in finding out.

    This kind of ‘deconstructionist’ approach to culture was originally motivated by a need to illuminate the power relations underlying social and cultural structures and relations in general and social and cultural inequalities in particular. With the Prague Spring zeitgeist in full flow there was a clear sense of ‘historical inevitability’ about both the timing and the tone of the discourse and I firmly believe that it was not only a product of the time but also right for the time. I also believe that it sowed the seeds of a critical perspective on cultural constructs which is only now beginning to take on any kind of meaningful form. I remain a huge fan.

    However, we live in a different time now and whatever else Foucault et al might have been accused of (rambling obfuscation for example) I for one would never want to claim that they were guilty of philosophical or academic rigour. The ‘radical’ tone which they adopted was clearly programmatic and intended to destabilise as much as to illuminate. I feel that what is needed most right now is rigorous illumination but that the tone of the debate on identity in EAP too often drifts towards some kind of radical confrontational agenda which sites EAP on the periphery of a (possibly mythological) contested/negotiated space. I also detect a thin vein of this begin to creep into some areas of Olga’s posting.

    Olga first asks, “What structural contexts shape (constraint and enable) our activity?” which is certainly consistent with the need to illuminate the space within which identity might be established or negotiated. The next question, however, “Are there emergent new practices in our work which challenge and modify the set of structural constraints of EAS field?”, focuses exclusively on constraints. It also appears to represent the relevant space as essentially hostile and inhospitable, framing negotiation as threatening and confrontational and intrinsically in need of modification. It is not clear to me why this should be a priori the case.

    The next question (“Are there practices in our work which gain meaning within the structural constraints of the university?”) rightly addresses the pivotal issue of determining meaning and significance within the relevant context but references only the ‘constraints’ within this context. Finally, the question, “Are there practices in our work which allow us make claims for distinctiveness within a variety of structural contexts?” emphasises distinctiveness, no doubt another pivotal issue, but fails to address the key question of what might constitute critical areas of overlap and agreement. Let us not forget that, if the space in question is rooted in some way within the academy, then many of the key issues in EAP such as criticality and academic literacy are, and have long been, fundamental principles and practices within that space and that the ‘native’ practitioners tend to be very good at what they do. In a nutshell, let’s not forget that we are on their turf now and that we may have a lot to learn.

    I do not wish to suggest in this response that Olga is in any way pursuing any kind of radical programme of ‘destabilisation’. I merely want to suggest that the tendency towards what often appears to be a defensive confrontational approach to the issue of EAP identity appears to me to already be well established within the current discourse on the topic and that the adoption of ‘social theory’ perspectives has the potential to lead us, possibly subliminally, in directions which are neither healthy nor productive and should be handled with care.


  4. Olga Campbell-Thomson

    Thanks Steve and apologies for not responding any sooner. You raise a number of valid points and these help me clarify my further thinking and writing on the theme. I agree that any application of social theory, even if it is a ‘productive conceptualisation’, should be rendered with caution. This is precisely what I am trying to do when I engage with the practices in my ‘mapping’ exercise. I think that Foucault provides useful thinking tools, which help me frame my approach to such broad field of activities as EAS. It is possible that the entire approach to understanding, explaining and describing disciplinary identity of the EAS might take different routes if informed by different theoretical, conceptual and analytic underpinnings. We have to make choices and Foucault is my choice of conceptual framing precisely because his tools are applicable to the social activity that is not restricted by the historical conditions of the time when Foucault developed his scholarship. More later and thanks again for your provoking reading and analysis of my blog post.


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