Thinking with Bourdieu’s notion of the firm

The work of Pierre Bourdieu is regularly used in the scholarship of educational leadership, management and administration. Frequently this involves the use of the key concepts of fields, capital and habitus. Bourdieu does however offer many more intellectual resources for thinking through the organisation and administration of educational institutions.

In a recent paper – Administration, policy and education: mobilising the firm – published in the Journal of Educational Administration and Foundations, I examine the question of whether the social theory of Bourdieu can be mobilised to understand the contemporary relationship between administration and policy.

Although this may seem like an odd question to pose given the frequency of use of Bourdieusian thinking in education policy and administration. However, I argue that some of the most potential in Bourdieu’s work may not lie in the usual places. In particular, I contend that it is in Bourdieu’s writing on the social structures of the economy, and especially the conceptualisation of the firm.

My argument is that the contemporary policy conditions have blurred the boundaries of traditional institutions and shifted previous relations between the state and education. The institution that is ‘education’ owes a number of its most distinctive properties to the set of relations it holds with other institutions and society at large.

These relations are not static, but rather, complex and ambiguous. This makes it impossible to represent them in neat frameworks. What is required is a sophisticated discussion of the situatedness of the social space, grounded in temporality. Bourdieu’s concept of the firm provides this.

To read the paper in full (it is open access) – click here.

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More publications with students

Continuing a productive start to the year, doctoral candidate Gladys Asuga (UoNewcastle) has a paper appearing in the latest International Journal of Educational Management.

In School leadership preparation and development in Kenya, Gladys, in combination with Jill Scevak (UoNewcastle) and myself, continues her analysis of the programs available to Kenyan school leaders through universities and other leading institutions.

While there is growth in provision, consistent with international trends, this provision is more recognised for its standardisation than points of distinction; there is minimal attention to identified dimensions of leadership leading to higher student outcomes which raises questions regarding the universality of school leadership preparation and development curriculum; and the high course costs of current provision is an inhibiting factor in assessing the return of investment in school leadership preparation and development.

The analysis of educational leadership preparation and development in Kenya will continue in future papers where the utility of content will be questioned which will then reframe an analysis of the literatures emerging from African based research.

This work continues to build on papers already published in Educational Management, Administration and Leadership (EMAL) and International Journal of Educational Administration and Policy Studies (IJEAPS). There is also another paper not far off, and two more soon to be submitted. A very productive project.

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Student research grant success

Rachel Gallagher (2013-2014 ELMA Summer Scholar) has been successful in securing a New South Wales Institute for Education Research (NSWIER) Student Research Grant. Rachel is successful in the under-graduate research category.

The grant is to work on the Relations, Organising and Leadership in Education (ROLE) project with Dr Scott Eacott. The project description reads:

The Relations, Organising and Leadership in Education (ROLE) scoping study explores the extent of research available on relations, organising, and leadership in education. It will provide a rapid overview of this research area, outline gaps in existing literatures and, most importantly, provide recommendations for further research. This will be achieved by identifying what work has been done already, drawing out current and potential intersections, highlighting emerging trends, and suggesting themes that may be under-researched. As a capacity building exercise, it will showcase emergent findings during a workshop and solicit further input in shaping ongoing scholarship.

As this work progresses, resources will be added to this website (e.g. list of references, a discussion paper, workshop materials) and the outputs from this grant, in combination with other ongoing work, will be the basis of a special issue or edited book proposal.

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New Frontiers in ELMA

Educational leadership, management and administration (ELMA) as a field of study has a rich history of epistemological debate. The latest Educational Philosophy and Theory is a Special Issue edited by myself and Colin Evers (UNSW) that explicitly engages with the onto-epistemological principles of scholarship in the ELMA.
Recognising that debates are underway, but very much peripheral, this collection seeks to bring together a mix of scholars to raise important questions. Specifically, we aim to:

  • foreground the ontological/epistemological preliminaries of ELMA; and
  • sketch areas of relevance and possible theoretical/methodological developments that serve to extend current debates on the leadership, management and administration of education.

We interpreted these aims widely, consistent with our goal of promoting creativity and innovation. Importantly, we asked our contributors to respond to the following guiding questions:

  1. What are the theoretical/empirical problem/s from which ELMA are based?; and
  2. How can we engage them?

These questions, we believe, are vital as the field of ELMA faces increasing questions of its relevance and status with education – and as education itself faces increasing challenges from beyond. Our goal was not to bring a series of like-minded contributors together to outline the virtues of a particular position. Such an activity would do little more than provide legitimation for our existing theorisations. Instead, we sought to bring a diverse group of scholars together to engage in rigorous debate around our two guiding questions.

This is a significant move. Instead of pursuing a singular, stable and standardised knowledge base, we explicitly embrace the dynamism of contradictions, multiplicities and antinomies of a vibrant field of theories and practices.  We believe that the collection of papers delivers, but as always, in the spirit of the intellectual endeavour, interested in your thoughts. Check out the issue here.

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Doing literature work

This post comes from some work I am doing with research students currently.

I want to start by acknowledging that you do not need to have a separate ‘literature review’ chapter in a thesis. While most do, this is not a requirement. Instead, what is required is a demonstration of disciplinary embeddedness. The simplest way to demonstrate this disciplinary embeddedness is a literature review that shows you have read both widely, but more importantly, deeply, in your chosen discipline.

There are other creative and innovative ways of using the literatures in your discipline to demonstrate this embeddedness, but this is a challenge that not all are willing to take on – but it is an option. In short, what I am arguing is that there is no one way to engage with the literatures.

That being said, what I am going to do is focus on the ways in which you can build a quality literature review chapter that demonstrates to an examiner – or any reader for that matter – that you have a grasp of the discipline.

A common approach adopted by apprentice researchers is what I would label as editorialising dressed up as a literature review. This is where a researcher selects and engages (to varying degrees) with literatures that support a priori assumptions about what is important. Even if done well, this approach often results in a narrow engagement with the literatures and in doing so misses one of, if not the key aspect, of demonstrating disciplinary embeddedness, locating the work.

In the social sciences, more so than in the natural sciences, research traditions matter. In many disciplinary spaces, for example the area in which I work – educational leadership, management and administration – there is a well recognised lack of inter-tradition engagement. The work of the literature review is to locate the research in a tradition and this can only be done in relation to other traditions.

Below I outline an approach presented by Karen Locke and Karen Golden-Biddle  in a pivotal paper in The Academy of Management Journal concerned with positioning one’s work to make a contribution to the discipline. For me, if adopting the traditional approach of a separate literature review, this approach allows for a meaningful engagement with the literatures of the discipline and providing a generative foundation for research.

An initial task in working with the literatures of a discipline is to establish your stance on the ‘coherence’ of the literature. This selection of literatures is both shaped by, and shaping of, your question generation. It is also central to locating your work within a research tradition. In the case of educational leadership, Helen Gunter provides a summary of the major research traditions and Martin Thrupp and Richard Willmott  do interesting conceptual work around the nature of literatures in the field. For the most part – although such artificial partitioning is rarely useful, but in this case serves a specific pedagogical purpose – your work with the literature falls into one of three categories:

Synthesise coherence: In this case, you are bringing previously unrelated work together to highlight points of agreement in order to demonstrate the need for further investigate. In many cases this is about identifying ‘gaps’ in the literature. This is a common approach.

Progressive coherence: This approach, particularly common in the natural sciences, the literature is depicted through the cumulative knowledge in the field and your work is the next logical step in this growth of knowledge.

Non-coherence: In what is arguably the most challenging and complex approach, you identify points of disagreement within a research programme whose importance is commonly accepted. This means locating your work within a contested disciplinary space and the explicit purpose of your work is to contribute to ongoing debates.

The degree of coherence is only one part of working with the literature. Having established a position on coherence, the next task (although to imply a distinct temporal ordering is problematic) is to problematise the literature as a body of work. The literature can be problematized in many ways, but three common means are – and somewhat aligned with the previous coherence categories:

Incomplete: As it stands, the corpus is not yet fully finished and your work is explicitly designed to ‘fill a gap’.

Inadequate: Alternative ways of doing and being have been excluded and your work either maps the terrain with a novel approach, or more significantly, extends and improves on what is already in existence.

Incommensurate: In this case, your argument is built on the premise that not only is existing work incomplete, but it is either wrong or misguided in some way. Your work seeks to overthrow existing views or paradigms in the discipline and to posit an alternative. To avoid being purely descriptive, potential things to consider are: historical evolutions in the pattern of ideas; conceptual threads (issues, questions, themes), theoretical and methodological issues; disciplinary perspectives; and the positions of different groups.

As noted above, there is no ‘one right method’ in working with the literature. That being said, I hope that what I have provided in this short presentation provides you with something productive in beginning to think through your approach to engaging with the literature.

A printable text version of this entry can be found on my page by clicking here.

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Welcome 2014-2015 Summer Scholar

It is that time of year again. We welcome Matthew O’Shea as the 2014-2015 ELMA Taste of Research Summer Scholar. He will be working on the Relations, Organising and Leadership in Education (ROLE) project.

This scoping study explores the extent of research available on relations, organising, and leadership in the specific disciplinary space of education. It will provide a rapid overview of this relatively indistinct research area, outline gaps in existing literatures and, most importantly, provide recommendations for further scholarship. This will be achieved by identifying what work has been done already, drawing out current and potential intersections, highlighting emerging trends, and suggesting themes that may be under-researched.

In addition to making resources available on this website, the outcomes of this project will be presented at the ELMA Theory Workshop 2015 which has the theme of: Relational approaches: New frontier or latest fad?

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#ELMA15 Call for Papers

Relational approaches: The next frontier or latest fad?

2-3 July 2015 – ACU (North Sydney)

Relational approaches have been around since the earliest years of leadership, management and administration scholarship, and contemporary rhetoric stresses the importance of relationships. Despite this, notions of a relational turn are relatively recent.

At the turn of the century James Hunt and George Dodge (2000) argued that relational approaches were at the forefront of emerging leadership scholarship. In the time since Hunt and Dodge’s claim, relational approaches have solidified a place in the intellectual space of broader leadership scholarship (Dinh et al., 2014). The significance of relational approaches is often argued for as a means of generating scholarship that has more relevance to the world of practice (Bradbury & Litchenstein, 2000).

Key recent texts include: Mary Uhl-Bien and Sonia Ospina’s (2012) Advancing relational leadership research; David Giles, Martin Bell, John Halsey and Carolyn Palmer’s (2012) Co-constructing a relational approach to educational leadership and management; and Scott Eacott’s  (2015) Educational leadership relationally.

We invite proposals that critically question the construction and role of relations, relationships or relational leadership in the scholarship of educational leadership, management and administration. This can include, but not exclusively, the construction of the research object, the explanatory power or descriptive value of relations/relationships, or the centrality of relationships to educational leadership, management and administration. If relational approaches are at the cutting-edge of contemporary thought and analysis, how can we theorise and understand relationships and relations in the organising of education and educational labour?

We further intend for our theme to raise searching questions about just what counts as relations/relationships in the first place. We encourage proposals that query, for example, entity or relational ontologies. We invite discussions about the scholarly value of relational approaches. And we remain open to proposals that offer innovative insights or critiques of relational approaches.

Submission details: Abstracts of up to 400 words are due by 5:00pm 28 February 2015. Working papers for the accepted abstracts of 3,000-6,000 words are due by 31 ay 2015 and will be distributed to registered participants prior to the workshop to enable pre-reading and meaningful engagement with ideas. For all enquiries and abstract submission please email Associate Professor Scott Eacott –

Further details about the Annual ELMA Theory Workshop can be found here.

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Reponse to Thomson, Lingard and Thrupp

Today, Jane Wilkinson (Griffiths), Richard Niesche (UNSW) and I acted as respondents to papers from Pat Thomson (Nottingham), Bob Lingard (UQ) and Martin Thrupp (Waikato) during an Educational Leadership SIG symposium on the ‘Dismantling of public education‘ at the #AARENZARE2014 conference. As a means of sharing, I thought I would write up my response. In my short response, I sought to outline three things:

  1. Some general comments on the arguments of the papers;
  2. Key theoretical challenges I see coming from these arguments; and
  3. Bring this back to the ‘educational leadership’ as a productive contribution to the SIG.

Here goes:

What I see across the three papers is the notion that public education is under revision. This is a significant argument as schooling is a canonical institution of modernity. This is what makes education, and specifically schooling, a key lever for policy makers (a.k.a. administrators). Mindful that public education is one of the greatest achievements of governance. Why? Because of its ‘universality’.

This reminds me of Michael Oakeshott’s argument that ‘education is the introduction to the conversation of the world’ [Oakeshott actually uses ‘mankind’]. Most striking about this is that Oakeshott’s argument breaks down the rather unhelpful binary of ‘individualism v collectivism’, or to use the language of our time, ‘competition v collaboration’.

The revision of public education, over an extended period of time, is shifting the articulated uses of education from ‘public’ to ‘private’ purposes. Social mobility is the dominant argument in recent times. [Neil Cranston and colleagues have written about this here and here]

A challenge for educational leadership studies is how can we theorise anew? This means going beyond mapping the existing terrain with new or different ways of thinking (e.g. great thinkers) and actually thinking differently, arguably an ontological shift.

Two key challenges I see:

Temporality: While we often discuss many of these matters following a touchstone event (e.g. the Education Reform Act, 1988), references to Taylorism highlight a much longer history. Raymond Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency empirically supports such claims. The final chapter of that text, ‘An American tragedy‘ is timely as much today as ever.

Spatial relations: The choice / market agenda asks questions of ‘the local’. What does it mean to have affiliation, or a nostalgia for, for a geographic marker (e.g. a local public school) during a time of ‘consumer sovereignty’ and a ‘fluid society’. This also speaks to work on policy borrowing and traveling practices.

In bringing this into conversation (and debate) with educational leadership studies, I see a few matters:

As highlighted, there is a sense of urgency if educational leadership is to contribute to this dialogue and debate. There are of course, some reservoirs of hope.

A serious matter is the dipping in and out of scholars in the space. While I am more than happy to identify as an educational leadership scholar, many in the room are less so. There is a need to break down the boundaries of educational leadership and draw from a broader set of foundations in engaging with issues that go beyond any single classroom, school or community.

This breaking down of boundaries will enable scholarship to go beyond the partitioning of systems thinking, that which has led to a proliferation of de-contextualised models, frameworks.

The papers in this symposium have raised a number of issues, I thank Pat, Bob and Martin for sharing their papers, Jane and Richard for their responses, and most importantly, the dialogue today fills me with ample belief that educational leadership studies are engaging with big issues and there is much work to be done, but momentum is building.

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This week I am attending the combined Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) and New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) conference in Brisbane. To follow the conference see #AARENZARE2014

On Tuesday I am presenting a paper entitled ‘The principalship, autonomy, and after‘ (you can find a copy of the slides here). During the same session, which also includes papers from Richard Niesche (UNSW) and Howard Youngs (AUT), I am co-author on a paper with Gladys Asuga and Jill Scevak (UoN).

The central argument of my paper is that while policy rhetoric of autonomy has advanced in recent decades, the theoretical resources of educational leadership, management and administration have not. That is, we require alternate ontologies for understanding to bring educational administration theory face-to-face with contemporary challenges.

Despite work at the periphery of the discipline, for the most part, educational leadership studies have failed to move beyond the entity based thinking inherent with systems thinking. Although this enabled the partitioning of the social world and the ever expanding articulation of ‘variables’ that can be the focus of interventions, I contend that this position has reached its limits.

These ideas are further articulated in a forthcoming paper in Journal of Educational Administration and History, and in far greater detail in my latest book Educational Leadership Relationally.

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New frontiers in ELMA

Continuing a recent run of publications coming out, the papers from a forthcoming special issue of Educational Philosophy and Theory edited by myself and Colin Evers (UNSW) are now available as OnlineFirst.

This collection, which substantially builds upon a symposium at the 2012 Australian Association for Research in Education conference, includes papers from: Colin Evers and Gabriele Lakomski; Jane Wilkinson and Stephen Kemmis; Richard Niesche and Christina Gowlett; Paul Newton and Augusto Riveros; Jae Park; Stephanie Chitpin and Ken Jones; and myself.

The papers build upon the rich history of epistemological debate in educational leadership, management and administration. Despite this history of debate, including the Theory Movement, Greenfield’s intervention, Critical Theory through Bates and Forster, and natural coherentism from Evers and Lakomski, just to name a few, has in recent times such matters have been peripheral at best, and marginalised or ignored at worst.

In this special issue, we provide an elaborated and coherent discussion from fragmented discourses to deliver an innovative and provocative dialogue. Our coherence comes not from the adoption of a single theoretical lens (as is common in special issues), but rather in our engagement with epistemology, ontology and methodology. It is in the diversity of approaches taken by the contributors that as a collective we make a contribution to contemporary thought and analysis in educational leadership, management and administration theory.

Importantly, this special issue is not a critique of the field – something that is already frequent enough. Rather, our attention is devoted to sketching new possible alternatives for advancing scholarship. The choice of the plural ‘alternatives’ is deliberate and its use is to evoke the message that there is more than one way to advance knowledge. That being said, the approaches adopted across the papers we believe offer fruitful directions for the field and hopefully, will stimulate dialogue and debate in the interest of advancing knowledge.

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