Constituting the principal– paradoxes of authority and subjectivity

Year: 2018

Author: Dolan, Chris

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper is derived from more extensive empirical and theoretical inquiry into paradox as an intervention in the constitutive politics of school principals. It works from the broader contention that, under the influence of global policy logics of neoliberalism, the constitution of principals and their work can be better understood in its paradoxy than in simplified and essentialist accounts of school leadership that currently proliferate. Further, it uses paradox to identify and illuminate a political struggle for the ‘soul’ of the principal – understood, after Foucault, as the product of various forms of power exercised around, on and within the principal subject.
The paradoxes in this paper gain initial impetus from the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler on the use of truth as a form of power. The regimes of truth given expression in prominent policy discourses are shown to form a political incitement for principals to recognise, constitute and confine themselves in specific ways. In practice, this means principals derive authority by speaking inside of dominant truth claims while, at the same time, understanding the limits imposed by the necessity that others validate their practice.
It is this productive function of power at a macro-political level that forms the basis of the first of the paradoxes; the paradox of politicised subjectivity. This pervasive and influential paradox is further expounded through the paradox of system membership which develops from conflict experienced by principals between system and local loyalties and the paradox of gender identity which identifies how managerialist leadership works to confound calls for a more diverse principal membership. The authority of the principal is also subject to the micro-political dynamics of the school. The other paradoxes in this paper – the paradox of team belonging and the leader/follower paradoxes – while still acknowledging powerful systemic influences, render as paradoxical some of the local forces that constrain and emancipate principal authority.
My use of a paradox lens in this paper is not directed to putting a different normative truth up against the status quo. Rather, it is to interrupt and counter the prevailing truth in ways that raise pertinent and often neglected questions about the constitutive politics of principals and which reveal their subjectivity, not as a fait accompli, but as a site of political struggle.