The Society for Research into Higher Education

Powerful knowledge in the fishbowl

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By Jim Hordern

A review of an SRHE South West Regional Network event on ‘Knowledge and power in higher education’

On 8 May 2018 an SRHE SW Regional Network event held at the International Centre for Higher Education Management (ICHEM) at the University of Bath examined ‘knowledge and power in higher education’. Two speakers, Michael Young and Melz Owusu (who also treated the audience to some rap), gave opposing views. This was followed by brief comments from David Packham and a ‘fishbowl’ discussion session, which offered audience members opportunities to voice their opinions on the topic.

Young, well known for his advocacy of ‘powerful knowledge’, outlined key tenets of his thesis: firstly, that the knowledge taught in schools and higher education should be specialised and differentiated from everyday experience, and secondly that the disciplines in higher education provide a reasonable means for organising that knowledge. Young emphasised that access to powerful knowledge should be an entitlement in a democratic society, and that this entitlement is undermined by the attack on collegiality in academia.

Owusu echoed aspects of postcolonial and critical theory to argue that the academy represents an ‘all-encompassing Eurocentric epistemology’, and that this implicitly and explicitly excludes non-European knowledges and cultural traditions. For Owusu, knowledge in higher education is not only Eurocentric, but also serves to marginalise the voices of all those who are ‘othered’ by dominant social discourses. The implication is that higher education needs a radical shift in what it considers to be valid knowledge – the academy needs a complete transformation. Owusu highlighted the example of Kant – should his  ideas be taught when he allegedly held racist views?

Young’s powerful knowledge has been robustly challenged by others along similar lines[1], and to some extent this event echoed elements of the Rhodes Must Fall movement and recent exchanges in Oxford around explorations of British colonialism[2]. There can be a tendency to move quickly towards binaries and oppositions: the ‘establishment’ conservatives entrench themselves in defensive positions while the radicals storm the barricades seeking justice, although Young would most likely not define his position as conservative in this sense at all[3].

In the fishbowl afterwards there were some compromise positions emerging. Packham raised Kuhnian questions about scientific paradigms and emphasised the socially constructed nature of scientific knowledge. Some audience members argued that knowledge in the social sciences and the humanities was undeniably Eurocentric and in need of decolonisation, but that science had some sort of special status, while other colleagues disagreed and argued that science was also ridden with injustices.

There were a couple of particularly interesting direct challenges to the notion of powerful knowledge. One contributor appeared to assert that powerful knowledge was responsible for global environmental destruction and inequality. This perhaps needed a more nuanced outworking of the relationship between the production and use of knowledge, and the relationships between scientists, industry and government. While the argument could convincingly be made that much ‘mode 2’ contemporary knowledge production is fuelling global problems, it is not clear how powerful knowledge, as outlined by Young, could be held responsible for the increasing dominance of such knowledge production in higher education, which largely seems to be a consequence of governmental and industrial influence on research priorities.

It could instead be argued that Young’s powerful knowledge prizes academic autonomy and collegiality, and these may in fact be undermined by external interference in disciplinary research problematics. Moreover, we might suggest that highly destructive ideas have risen to dominant positions of global influence (for example Taylorism and neo-liberalism) partly because of the failure to effectively challenge and expose such ideas within disciplines, and because of the ‘imperialism’ of certain dominant paradigms (ie neoclassical economics)[4] that happen to have the backing of corporates and governments.

Another contributor, using an example of a community group searching for ways forward to a crime problem in their neighbourhood, suggested that a burglar could offer particular insights (ie powerful knowledge about burglary) that a criminologist might not be able to. While this might hold more than a grain of truth, one couldn’t help consider that an individual burglar’s knowledge would be even more powerful if it was collected together with the voices of other burglars in some form of ethnographic or narrative study of burglary.

Furthermore, to ascribe one individual with particular ‘power’ of insight into burglary activities might be useful with solving a particular problem in a particular place, but this individual testimony offers insufficient basis for understanding crime more generally. The next burglar might use different tricks, and might confound the testimony of the first. How can we better understand the motives of burglars? Thus we return to a commitment to a form of research that acknowledges accumulated knowledge of the topic (in this case perhaps the sociology of crime, or … criminology?). Perhaps criminologists need to be better funded to do ethnographic research!

Young’s powerful knowledge thesis is as much about society and sociality as it is about knowledge per se, as a speaker towards the end hinted. It is the commitment of disciplinary communities to the pursuit of truth that gives knowledge its power. But these communities can easily be prone to conservatism if not welcoming to new colleagues and alternative points of view. Nevertheless, the disciplined commitment of such communities enables us to argue about what knowledge should be produced and taught in higher education – and such arguments may lead to different visions of knowledge in different societies and at different times.

Perhaps therefore Young’s most important point is that if we all want to live together there has to be some special knowledge that we (as society) can call upon to engage in conversation and debates amongst ourselves, as long as that knowledge does not become static or exclusively available to certain (privileged) social groups. This is what trying to differentiate between knowledge and everyday experience is all about – and here Young echoes Durkheim, Bernstein, and maybe to some extent Habermas – by implying that for collective communication in society there must be something (symbolic) which we draw upon to engage in such communication. Otherwise we are just talking across each other.

While the decolonialisation of science and the humanities may thus be an important part of exposing injustices and reconfiguring perspectives, this should not ignore the potential for accumulated knowledge, however Eurocentric (or Southern or Eastern), to contain some insightful representations of the world that are worth engaging with in higher education.  While the disciplines and their communities may need constant reform to ensure inclusion and social justice, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should ditch the idea of symbolic knowledge – or the processes in higher education which sustain it.

It is worth coming back to what the participants at the event seemed to agree on. Discussion about knowledge was considered important, as was inclusion, access and participation. There was a healthy questioning and challenge of the terms of the debate, but also a respectful acknowledgement of points of view. This suggested a consensus not only that discussion is important, but also that such a discussion could potentially ‘move forward’, people could make sense collectively of the topic, and at least come to a stronger awareness of points of view and tensions. Even if not explicitly stated, the participants appeared to believe in working towards a shared understanding, even if this is not always easy to achieve in practice. This seems to be what powerful knowledge is (or should be?) all about.

SRHE member Jim Hordern is a Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at Bath Spa University.

[1] Rudolph, S. Sriprakash, A., Gerrard, J. (2018). Knowledge and Racial Violence: the shine and shadow of ‘powerful knowledge’. Ethics and Education Online First DOI: 10.1080/17449642.2018.1428719


[3] Young, M. & Muller, J. (2010) Three Educational Scenarios for the Future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge, European Journal of Education, 45(1), 11-27.

[4] Allais, S. (2012). “Economics imperialism,” education policy and educational theory. Journal of Education Policy, 27, 253-274

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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