DR SARAH AMSLER

PRACTICES OF POSSIBILITY IN NEOLIBERAL SOCIAL SYSTEMS
MID-CAREER FELLOW: JULY 2015 – JUNE 2016
Sarah Amsler

Sarah earned a first degree in Education from the University of Delaware (1994), an MA in Sociology from George Mason University (1998) and a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science (2005). She held academic posts at Kingston and Aston universities before joining University of Lincoln in January 2012.

She is interested in three questions. First, how does the political and economic organisation of cultural work, particularly in education and art, impact upon the nature and possibility of transformative social action? Second, how do cultural practices work to open democratic and emancipatory political forms and possibilities, and to close them down? Most importantly, what roles do different forms of education play in these processes?

Sarah’s ISRF project explores the thesis that certain kinds of educational practice have the capacity to create new possibilities for transformative political agency within neoliberal social systems. Sarah will investigate this problem by interviewing teachers in formal and alternative educational institutions in order to understand how spaces of possibility for agency concretely ‘contract’ and ‘expand’ in their work.

Abstract

This research explores the thesis that certain kinds of educational practice have the capacity to create new possibilities for transformative political agency within neoliberal social systems. In recent decades, many critical theorists have argued that neoliberal rationality, which is the dominant form of politico-economic reason in late-capitalist societies, is harmful to human well-being, democratic life and ecological futures. They also argue that it is increasingly difficult to challenge (Brown 2003). These theories reflect both the experiences of educators and the philosophical claim that we live in a time of ‘contracting possibilities’ (Kompridis 2006). However, while this contraction seems to create acute hopelessness in some contexts, it generates political experimentation in others (Graeber 2009). This contradiction is pronounced in education, where we have seen both extreme neoliberal reforms (Ball 2012) and radical struggles against them (Coté et al. 2007), but have little research showing how neoliberal rationality itself becomes powerful or is transformed. This project will explore this problem by interviewing teachers in formal and alternative educational institutions in order to understand how spaces of possibility for agency concretely ‘contract’ and ‘expand’ in their work. Interviewees will then be invited to apply preliminary findings about the relationship of educational practice, neoliberal power and possibility in their work and participate in a series of research workshops to reflect on the consequences of this activity. By combining the conceptual rigour of critical philosophy, the empirical texture of phenomenology and the co-operative meaning-making of action research, this project will apply an interdisciplinary methodology to work through barriers between these sources of knowledge to deepen our understandings of (a) how neoliberal rationality is produced and challenged through educational work, (b) the nature of ‘possibility-enabling practices’ in neoliberal society, and (c) the influence of social context on such practices.

The Research Idea

The thesis to be interrogated in this project is that theoretical and practical resources for democratising contemporary social institutions – for a ‘politics of possibility’ – exist in everyday thinking and practice, but that we need interdisciplinary methods of philosophical, sociological and action research in order to disclose them. This project develops an interdisciplinary methodology of ‘practical philosophy’ that is designed to deepen understandings of how particular forms of power and powerlessness in neoliberal institutions foreclose possibility, and to identify practices through which they can be challenged and transformed. While we now have a good understanding of how neoliberal rationality is learned in institutions, this has not been matched by philosophically credible studies of the limits and possibilities of how it may also contribute to the formation of alternative forms of reason. Most conceptual studies of neoliberal rationality are therefore separated from the strategies and struggles of professionals and activists to generate new possibilities for action in everyday life. This project will bridge these bodies of work by examining how different articulations of neoliberal rationality create and inhibit specific forms of possibility, and will evaluate the claim that ‘philosophy, critical theory, critique…have been and can still be possibility-disclosing practices…that can facilitate the renewal of utopian energies, the regeneration of confidence and hope’ (Kompridis 2006, p. 277). The thesis is that such research can contribute to ‘making hope practical’ in contexts where political despair is regarded as inevitable in ways that none of these disciplines achieves in isolation (Williams 1980).

The Focus

This project responds to public and scholarly calls for empirically grounded and philosophically robust research that can illuminate not only how possibilities for political agency are foreclosed in neoliberal institutions, but how they can be opened and multiplied as well, and why some practices have more potential than others to challenge the dominant rationality. This problem is pervasive in neoliberal social systems and manifests in a variety of ways. In many schools and universities in England, for example, educators struggle against the (real and perceived) foreclosure of possibilities to teach and learn in autonomous, critical, creative and/or democratic ways. In the Social Science Centre, a selforganised, higher education co-operative to which I belong, there are tensions between the generation of possibilities for transformative learning outside dominant institutions and the difficulty of integrating these into broader movements for institutional change or into everyday life beyond the localised project. As a mother in regular association with other carers, conversations about routine activities often invoke both utopian fantasies of empowerment and a ‘dimly perceived process of self-restriction and accommodation’ (Kompridis 2006). Across a range of contexts, in other words, there is now a need to understand why possibilities for agency contract in this society and to learn how reopen and create them. This project is designed to build bridges between such scholarship and the work of formal and informal educators so that the critical theory of society both benefits and learns from the majority of people who are neither academics nor activists.

Background

This research grew out of a concern that social science, philosophy and action research are more successful at diagnosing the ‘crisis of hope’ in contemporary society than enabling active responses to it, particularly amongst people who work in key socialising institutions. It develops work by critical theorists who attribute the contraction of human and environmental possibility to the expansion of neoliberal and technological rationalities throughout everyday life, especially Nikolas Kompridis (2006, 2011), and who argue this has created a social ‘machinery of hopelessness’ which structurally forecloses spaces for political agency (Graeber 2011). While hope is thus recognised as a factor in contemporary politics, there is little theorisation of this in relation to concrete contractions and expansions of possibility as such (Amsler 2010; Bloch 1959; cp. Dinerstein and Deneulin 2011). This research also builds on a rich tradition of educational research which suggests that critical pedagogies can be possibility-enabling practices, but rarely explores what possibility actually is or focuses on how specific practices generate specific kinds of possibility within particular neoliberal contexts (Freire 1973; McClaren 1999). Finally, much work in these traditions is divorced from co-operative empirical research into lived experience and practice, and while critical theorists implore us to ‘recover the everyday’ as a space of hope, little research illuminates how or why this is transformative in practice (Kompridis 2006). This project will thus press these limits to advance our knowledge of the nature of power, powerlessness and empowerment, and of ‘possibility-enabling practices’, in these complex systems.

Theory & Evidence Base

The research will produce an integrated philosophical and empirical picture of how possibilities ‘contract’ in neoliberal society, and evaluate the effects of this knowledge-in-use in its application in different institutional contexts. It interrogates the widely accepted but under-researched claim that critical theory and other kinds of cultural work are ‘possibility-disclosing practices’ (Kompridis 2006) by gathering evidence of how they are materialised and mediated in everyday life. Its methodological challenge is to produce empirical data about a diversity of ‘possibility-enabling practices’ within diverse educational and everyday contexts which will allow refinements of the general philosophy of possibility and bring seemingly disconnected practices of freedom into a single comparative field (Tully 2002). While some research on this theme exists, it focuses on processes within counter-capitalist struggles and post-capitalist movements rather than formal or informal social institutions (Dinerstein and Deneulin 2012). This project, however, argues that such activities are only parts of more socially prolific desires for democratisation, that these movements have important philosophical dimensions which are often neglected, and that the ‘machinery of hopelessness’ remains a space ‘where transformative forms of rationality and cultural practices may be undertaken’ (Kompridis 2006). The project will contribute to a more textured picture of the nature, extent and potential of such practices in everyday life as well as in politicised educational work.

Methodology

This research brings philosophical concept development, empirical sociological research, and methods of participatory action research together into an integrated study which is designed not only to produce new knowledge in each dimension, but to understand the knowledges that we use to connect them in practice. This methodology will allow me to go beyond the exploration of existing conditions for possibility-enabling practices within neoliberal contexts to identify those which are ‘not-yet’ and in states of emergence (Bloch 1995), and to understand, experimentally and reflexively, how they are cultivated and learned. The research will be undertaken in three stages. Following a month of preparation, the first stage (months 2–4), will consist of a series of twenty dialogical interviews with educators working in compulsory and alternative educational institutions across the UK. These interviews will explore these individuals’ experiences and perceptions of ‘foreclosure’ and ‘possibility’ in their educational work and everyday lives, and through this data seek insights into how possibility concretely ‘contracts’ and ‘expands’ in different circumstances. Month 5 will be dedicated to initial analysis of the interviews. In the second stage of the research (months 6–8), interviewees will be invited to apply preliminary findings pertaining ‘neoliberal rationality’ and ‘possibility’ in their practice and participate in a series of three monthly workshops to reflect together on the consequences and emergent potentialities of this activity. In the final stage (months 9–12), I will concentrate on analysing the cumulative data and preparing work for dissemination and publication.

Output

To make the project findings public and strengthen their use, impact and development, I will:

  1. organise a research conference at the University of Lincoln (month 8), using the findings to facilitate dialogue between formal and informal educators, philosophers, and critical theorists of neoliberalism (with reports for local, academic and educational media);
  2. present key findings at conferences in critical theory (e.g., the London Conference in Critical Thought), formal education (e.g., the British Educational Research Association annual conference), and informal education (e.g. International Critical Pedagogy);
  3. publish two academic papers summarising the findings of the research and the implications for the philosophical study of neoliberal rationality (e.g., Critical Horizons, a major journal publishing work on this theme) and for the development of possibility-enabling practices in education (e.g., Pedagogy, Culture and Society, for the formal sector, or Cultural Studies<->Critical Methodologies, for the informal);
  4. summarise key findings in a series of practical resources for ‘enabling possibility’ in teaching and/ or organising educational work, to encourage experimentation and inquiry amongst educators who are neither academics nor activists, and circulate these via international critical education organisations (e.g., Education for Liberation, Rethinking Schools, Cultural Activism).

To extend the reach of these objectives, I will document the project on a monthly blog which will explain the purpose of the research and serve as a platform for disseminating the papers, conference proceedings, reports and resources.

The research will further inform a new monograph to follow my forthcoming book, The Education of Radical Democracy (Routledge, Spring 2015).

Relevance

This project challenges the segregation between philosophies of possibility, theories of political rationality and everyday practice in neoliberal institutions order to address two ‘real-world’ problems. One is that educators working in neoliberal institutions who are not academics or activists have little access to philosophically and empirically robust knowledge about how possibilities for critical agency are foreclosed and enabled in this context. The second real-world problem is that while theories of power, powerlessness and empowerment in neoliberal systems are shaped largely by academic social scientists, many lack insight into (or experiences of struggling with) how this conceptual work is confirmed, mediated by, or challenged in practice. This project therefore does not so much challenge incumbent theories as seek to heal their broken relationships, and to strengthen the potential of their cross-fertilisation for enabling praxis. Its methodology unites the conceptual rigour of critical philosophy with the empirical texture of qualitative methods and the emergent, practice-oriented methods of action research to create practical-critical knowledge about the ‘contraction’ and ‘expansion’ of possibility in neoliberal institutions. This project is situated on the borders of academic critical theory and informal education, and is therefore ‘unlikely to be funded by existing funding bodies’. If funded, however, precisely this capacity for translation will enable me, and participants, to contribute to the construction of what Ernst Bloch once called an ‘architecture of hope’ which can challenge the ‘machinery of hopelessness’ in neoliberalised social institutions today.

Publications

Journal Special Issue: ‘Beyond Instrumentalism: The Dynamic Co-Constitution of Education and the Future’, with co-editor K. Facer, Futures: The Journal of Policy, Planning and Future Studies (forthcoming 2016).

Peer-reviewed Article: ‘Emergentist pedagogies and anticipatory regimes: educating the return of the future in British education’, Futures: The Journal of Policy, Planning and Future Studies, forthcoming 2016.

Peer-Reviewed Book Chapter: ‘Learning hope: an epistemology of possibility for advanced capitalist society’ in Social Sciences for An Other Politics: Women Theorizing without Parachutes, ed. by A. C. Dinerstein (forthcoming 2016 with Palgrave Macmillan).

Talks & Lectures

‘The role of the imagination in the future’ at Hope in the City, Sheffield University Festival of the Mind, 15 September 2016.

‘Pedagogies of pluriversality’, Universities in the Knowledge Economy, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, 14–17 June 2016.

‘Other learning is possible,’ Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne, 12 May 2016.

‘Possibility-enabling research: methodologies of absence and emergence’, College of Social Science Research Seminar, University of Lincoln.

‘Learning for a “world in which many worlds fit”’, University of Bath Sociology Seminar Series, 30 March 2016.

‘Educating radical democracy? Theorising counter-capitalist possibility in neoliberal social systems,’ University of Warwick, 2 March 2016.

‘Pedagogies of autonomy, self-management and cooperation,’ Marx in the Key of Hope,’ University of Bath, 29 January 2016.

‘Other learnings are possible: autonomous education, decolonization and radical democracy,’ Plymouth Institute of Education Research Seminar Series, 16 December 2015.

‘Neither colonising nor abandoning the future: democratic education in an age of anticipation’ with K. Facer, Anticipation, University of Trento, 4–6 November 2015.

‘Unlearning impossibility: forms and methods of advanced counter-capitalist education,’ Beyond the Neoliberal University: Critical Pedagogy and Activism, Coventry University, 15 September 2015.

Summary

My Mid-Career Fellowship, undertaken from 2015–16, laid the conceptual and methodological groundwork for theorizing possibilities for fundamental grassroots social change in advanced capitalist societies. It began as a response to three problems. One was the struggle of individuals and collectivities (in this case primarily educators in the United Kingdom) to exercise autonomy from or moral and political agency within conditions of diminished democracy in neoliberal social systems, and – paraphrasing Theodor Adorno – to live rightly in a wrong life. A second was that while there is contracting space for practicing non-capitalist forms of life within social institutions, this condition generates transformation and experimentation in some contexts but acute political hopelessness in others. The third was that critical philosophies and theories of political possibility have to date given inadequate recognition to the significance of the latter spaces for both advancing theoretical understandings of neoliberal power and enlarging spaces of possibility for alternative futures. This project aimed to extend the radical imagination of the ‘politics of possibility’ into the institutional and normative systems of neoliberalism, and to resistant subjects and spaces which are not yet articulated as such in everyday life.

Methods

This study was designed as a philosophical, phenomenological and participatory project, based on theoretical review, dialogical interviews and participatory workshops. I interviewed and spent time with approximately forty school, college and university teachers; popular educators, socially engaged artists; and parents in the UK and Euro-Atlantic world who engage in projects of autonomous, critical, co-operative, democratic and/or social justice learning. I explored experiences of ‘closure’ and ‘opening’ of possibiity in a range of contexts including formal state institutions; nonstate organisations; popular and adult education programmes; social movements and social justice campaigns; labour unions; social work; and artistic spaces. I also constructed corpa of discursive texts from professional and autonomous educational projects in these areas. As it progressed, the research nececessitated and provided opportunities to explore new methods of critical analysis which enable ‘sociologies of absence and emergence’ (Santos 2014), to work in the realm of the ‘not-yet’ (borrowing from Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope, 1959), and to evaluate the epistemological significance of categories of encounter, receptivity, experimentalism, stuckness, novelty and hope. Attending an extended ‘unconference’ of radical educators from around the world early in the project also afforded unanticipated insights into the limitations of Eurowestern imaginaries, knowledges and knowledge practices and the value of epistemic border-crossing. As a result I am revisiting literature on the uses of dialectical phenomenology, exploring radical critiques of westernized social theory and research, and developing a series of conceptual and pedagogical tools to explore how people ‘learn’ and ‘unlearn’ possibility-enabling epistemologies and practices (a concept adapted from Nikolas Kompridis’s work) in everyday neoliberalism.

Further research

The project is ongoing. In 2016–17 I will be organising a series of participatory workshops which explore the uses and limits of these frameworks with educators in practice. I am also preparing essays on the politics of possibility in neoliberal social systems from a phenomenological perspective, an assessment of critical philosophies of possibility from the perspective of everyday life and educational practice, articulating the sociology of absence and emergence from a methodological perspective, and considering the implications of this work for critical pedagogy.