Palimpsests, genealogies and historical epistemology: Jousting with ahistorical medico-sciences of disadvantage, education and university.

Year: 2012

Author: Harwood, Valerie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


In May 2013 one of the most profoundly influential books of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century will be released in its fifth edition. Yet, it is not unreasonable to speculate that this newest edition will pass largely unnoticed, even as new diagnoses (and the loss of current ones) seep into the everyday. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) will undoubtedly be influential in education - defining and re-defining student maladies.


Its list of extensive categories provides, so it is argued, a means to uniformly identify mental disorders. Applied in educational contexts, children and young people can thus be categorised by clinical experts, and teachers able to identify an individual's problems, and in theory, respond appropriately.


Criticism of the DSM includes debate over its application in cross-cultural contexts as well as the ways that socio-economic differences are, to put it bluntly, diagnosed differently. Although these issues of diagnosis do get attention, historical contexts can remain bereft in commentary.


In this paper I consider the value that historical perspectives can bring to an analysis of the contemporary effects of DSM-inspired readings of education and disadvantage. The paper draws on research on imagining university conducted with young people experiencing disadvantage and who had precarious relationships with education. In these excluded contexts, young people are far more likely to come into contact with diagnostic repertoires that originate from the DSM.


Drawing on Georges Canguilhem's work on historical epistemology, this paper will discuss how attention to both the historical contexts of the young people's communities together with awareness of the history of concepts are important to understanding the educational disadvantages that impact a young person's imaginings of university.