Atkinson - The Responsible Anarchist

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    The Responsible Anarchist: Postmodernism and Social ChangeAuthor(s): Elizabeth AtkinsonSource: British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 73-87Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1393098

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    British ournalof SociologyfEducation,Vol.23, No. 1, 2002 Q CarfaxPublishingTaylor Francis roup

    TheResponsiblenarchist:postmodernismnd socialchange

    ELIZABETHATKINSON, Sunderlandniversitychool f Education, K

    ABSTRACT In recentears, theadoption f postmodernheoreticalerspectivesithineducationalresearchaspromptedtrong ritical eaction. orsomecritics particularlyarxist esearchers),hegreatestault ofpostmodernisms that t lacksanagendaor social hange. hispaper akesssuewiththisargument,ndwithourassociatedrguments:1) thatpostmodernismisempowershose o whomit claims ogivevoice;2) that t appeals nly o intellectualsndhas nopracticalalue;3) that tdenies hepossibilityf theconstructionfa newsocialorder;nd(4) that t colludes ith the tatusquo n itsrefusaloact.Addressingachof theseointsn turn,heauthoruggestshat, ontraryo theviewof these ritics, ostmodernismffers powerfulorce or socialchange,hroughheacceptancefuncertainty,heacknowledgementfdiversitynd therefusalo seeconceptsuchas justice' r 'society'asfixed,or as governedyunassailabletruths'.

    Introduction: Postmodernists as Irresponsible Nihilists or ResponsibleAnarchists?In our view, 'postmodernism's a theoreticalvirus which paralysesprogressivethought, politics and practice ... postmoderneducationaltheory in fact hasreactionarypolitical consequences.(Cole et al., 1997, pp. 187-188)SurelyI knowwho I am or I can't ask the question'who am I?'. ('Reader', nStronach & MacLure, 1997, p. 164)

    In recent years, educationalwriting,particularly n qualitativestudies and philosophyand sociology of education, has seen heated debate over the value of postmodernthinkingto educationalresearch,policy and practice.While postmodernthinkershavegiven increasing attention to education (see, for example, Cherryholmes, 1988; Ball,1990a,b; Lather, 1991; Usher & Edwards, 1994; Blake, 1996, 1997; Stronach &MacLure, 1997; Atkinson,2000a,b), their critics have not been hesitantin mountingavociferous and heartfeltattack on postmodernismas a whole, and postmodernism neducationin particular see,for example, Skeggs, 1991;Cole & Hill, 1995;Hammersley,1996; Cole etal., 1997;Hill etal., 1999;Kelly etal., 1999;Bailey, 1999).This dichotomyis well illustratedn the uncertainstatuspostmodernismholdsin mainstreameducationalresearch.On the one hand,Mortimore(2000)offers Stronach &MacLure's 1997, p. 98)ISSN 0142-5692 (print)/ISSN 1465-3346(online)/02/010073-15 @ 2002 Taylor& Francis LtdDOI: 10.1080/01425690120102863

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    74 E. Atkinson

    concept of the postmodernist as a 'responsible anarchist', 'standing against the fantasiesof grand narratives, recoverable pasts, and predictable futures' as an example forresearchers to follow, or at least to heed. On the other hand, postmodernism's criticshave continued to deride this whole field of thinking as irresponsible nihilism whoseprotagonists, in Soper's (1991) terms 'refuse to do anything but play'. This has led, notsurprisingly, to a high degree of frustration among the critics of postmodernism, who findit hard to engage in meaningful argument with opponents who will not meet them ontheir own or any other ground.The term 'postmodernism' itself, of course, is open to numerous interpretations, whichsometimes makes it difficult to enter the debate over its usefulness. The term has sucha multiplicity of referents, and its proponents have such a resistance to definitions, thatit can feel almost impossible to pin it down at all. Blake (1996) and MacLure (1995) offervaluable syntheses of the ideas that postmodernism is frequently taken to encompass,while I have attempted to outline some of the characteristics of postmodern thinking(Atkinson, 2000a, pp. 6-7) while acknowledging the limitations of any attempt at definingsuch a diverse and ephemeral collection of ideas. I have summarised these characteristicsas follows:"*resistance towards certainty and resolution;"*rejection of fixed notions of reality, knowledge, or method;"*acceptance of complexity, of lack of clarity and of multiplicity;"*acknowledgement of subjectivity, contradiction and irony;"* rreverence for traditions of philosophy or morality;"*deliberate intent to unsettle assumptions and presuppositions;"*refusal to accept boundaries or hierarchies in ways of thinking; and"*disruption of binaries that define things as either/or.Notwithstanding my allegiance to postmodern irony and playfulness (see McWilliam,1999), my aim in this paper is to engage directly with those criticisms of postmodernismthat relate particularly to the social and political context of education, and specifically tothe concept (and possibility) of social change.

    Postmodernism and Social Justice: an Impossible Combination?Whatever the difficulties, we must find means of justifying some principlesagainst others; otherwise there is little point in continuing with research, orwith anything else. (Hammersley, 1996, p. 402)where most philosophers might use the idea of justice to judge a social order,postmodernism regards that idea as itself the product of the social relations thatit serves to judge; that is, the idea was created at a certain time and place, toserve certain interests, and is dependent on a certain intellectual and socialcontext, etc. This greatly complicates any claims about the justice of socialrelations. (Cahoone, 1996, p. 15)

    It has been argued (see, in particular, Hill et al., 1999; Kelly et al., 1999) thatpostmodernism can have no agenda for social justice, as it refuses to commit itself to anyone political standpoint or ideological position. Taking a Marxist stance, Kelly et al.(1999) argue that whereas Marxists give equal value to theory and action in order tochange the world, postmodernism privileges theory over action and achieves nothing.This view is echoed by Hartsock (1990, p. 172), although not from a Marxist perspective:

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    Postmodernismnd SocialChange 75the point is to change the world, not simply to redescribe ourselves or toreinterpret the world yet again.

    The view that it is essential to choose one theoretical perspective or course of action overanother also pervades Swann's (1999) Popperian view of change and improvement, andthis is the focus of Bailey's (1999) critique of postmodernism in the same volume. Froma postmodern perspective, however, such a choice is neither necessary nor automaticallydesirable. McWilliam (1999), drawing on the work of Rorty, refuses to countenance 'textsthat redeem', while Flax sees the recognition of the implicated nature of knowledge as'the end of innocence':Postmodernism calls into question the belief (or hope) that there is some formof innocent knowledge to be had ... By innocent knowledge I mean thediscovery of some sort of truth which can tell us how to act in the world inways that benefit or are for the (at least ultimate) good of all. (1992, p. 447)

    This view suggests that social justice agendas that do not deconstruct their ownunderlying assumptions and beliefs may succeed in deluding their protagonists into afalse sense of virtue: postmodern theorists therefore invite us to consider concepts suchas 'justice' as 'effects of power' (see, for example, Popkewitz & Lindblad, 2000). Theimplications of a viewpoint such as this for the prospect of social change are considerable,but they do not rule out the possibility of social change altogether. Far from invalidatingeither the context in which the concept of 'justice' is embedded or the dialogue regardingits meaning, postmodern thinking prevents us from t