The potential of new materialist analyses of inequality in education

Year: 2016

Author: Hayes, Debra

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Does the endemic nature of inequality in education signal the limits of existing ways of understanding and responding to this problem? Are extraordinary measures called for? What happens when we jettison an ontological commitment to representationalism – either material of discursive? This provocation explores the potential of new materialism, emerging from the work of Karen Barad (2007), to provide new ways of understanding and redressing inequality in education. When applied to ethnographic studies in education, Barad’s work highlights the role of this approach in enacting a cut that delineates the object of study (inequality) from the agencies of observation (sustained detailed observations, interviews with key participants, collection and analysis of various artifacts, etc). The ontological implications of an indeterminate boundary between the researcher and what is researched is that inequality is not a thing but a doing that becomes meaningful, and is defined by the circumstances required to observe it. Research then is an ongoing working out and reworking of the object of study during which it is made what it is. Ethnographers of education have long recognised that they are implicated in their findings but new materialism requires an acceptance of an enhanced generative role in meaning making. Local sites, such as schools, are more than just material backdrops that provide closure to questions about meaning, and; research is not a process of revealing but of reconfiguring of the world. A new materialist perspective resists the imperative of scientific programs, and the scepticism of post-structural ones, towards defining and determining objects of inquiry. Barad’s conceptual framework treats the phenomenon of inequality in education as a materialisation of matter – not an independent object awaiting description, or something that is spoken or written, but a doing that emerges from the process of mattering. Hence, ethnography in education is boundary-making processes, and boundaries materialise through specific material arrangements. This provocation explores the ways inequality in education is made possible through specific material practices, such as discursive and knowledge making practices, and; how those that seek to redress inequality in education are enmeshed and enfolded in enacting what comes to matter, as well as what is excluded from mattering.