Bringing Knowledge Back In
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Bringing Knowledge Back In

From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education

Michael Young

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eBook - ePub

Bringing Knowledge Back In

From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education

Michael Young

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'This book tackles some of the most important educational questions of the day... It is rare to find a book on education which is theoretically sophisticated and practically relevant: this book is.' From the Foreword by Hugh Lauder

What is it in the twenty-first century that we want young people, and adults returning to study, to know? What is it about the kind of knowledge that people can acquire at school, college or university that distinguishes it from the knowledge that people acquire in their everyday lives everyday lives, at work, and in their families?

Bringing Knowledge Back In draws on recent developments in the sociology of knowledge to propose answers to these key, but often overlooked, educational questions. Michael Young traces the changes in his own thinking about the question of knowledge in education since his earlier books Knowledge and Control and The Curriculum of the Future. He argues for the continuing relevance of the writings of Durkheim and Vygotsky and the unique importance of Basil Bernstein's often under-appreciated work. He illustrates the importance of questions about knowledge by investigating the dilemmas faced by researchers and policy makers in a range of fields. He also considers the broader issue of the role of sociologists in relation to educational policy in the context of increasingly interventionist governments. In so doing, the book:

  • provides conceptual tools for people to think and debate about knowledge and education in new ways
  • provides clear expositions of difficult ideas at the interface of epistemology and the sociology of knowledge
  • makes explicit links between theoretical issues and practical /policy questions
  • offers a clear focus for the future development of the sociology of education as a key field within educational studies.

This compelling and provocative book will be essential reading for anyone involved in research and debates about the curriculum as well as those with a specific interest in the sociology of education.

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Didattica generale

Part 1
Theoretical issues

Rescuing the sociology of educational knowledge from the extremes of voice discourse


This chapter is based on my response to a widely cited paper by Moore and Muller (Moore and Muller 1999). They argued that both the early sociology of knowledge which drew on ideas from Max Weber and the symbolic interactionists and informed the new sociology of education (Young 1971) and the later post-structuralist variants influenced by writers such as Foucault and Lyotard were both forms of ‘voice discourse’ which reduce knowledge to knowers, their standpoints and interests. Reading their paper was a formative experience for me as it challenged the basic assumptions of my earlier work. It forced me to ask what exactly I meant by the claim that knowledge is ‘social’. Does it, as Moore and Muller appeared to argue in that paper, inevitably lead to relativism and therefore have no implications for the decisions that are made about the selection of knowledge in curricula? The chapter begins to develop an alternative social theory that does not reduce knowledge to the practice of knowers. It represented my first attempt to articulate a social realist view of knowledge and to work out some of its implications. Later chapters of this book take this argument much further by drawing on the much neglected social theory of knowledge first proposed by the great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, and later developed in the second half of the twentieth century by Basil Bernstein.
In their paper in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Moore and Muller (1999) mount a powerful attack on those strands in the sociology of education that have rejected any epistemological grounding of knowledge or truth claims in favour of a sociological approach that treats such claims as no more than the standpoints or perspectives of particular (invariably dominant) social groups. Their argument is important, and much of their critique is justified. However, whether intentionally or not, what begins as a critique of the extremes of what they refer to as ‘voice discourse’ becomes, in effect, a rejection of the claims of any sociological account of knowledge that sees it as more than a ‘field positioning strategy’. The result, though I am sure not their intention, is to limit the sociology of education to the problems and approaches that it was concerned with until the late 1960s, when it was little more than an extension of studies of social mobility, stratification and the distribution of life chances.
In responding to their paper and, I hope, building on it, I seek to accomplish a number of things. First, I summarize their argument against voice discourses. I then go on to point to a number of problems in their argument, and suggest that they arise from their over-polemical stance, and are not intrinsic to the case against voice discourses that they want to make. Finally, I shall build on some points that are hinted at in their paper, to suggest the kind of positive contribution that a sociological approach to knowledge could make to the sociology of education, and to the study of the curriculum in particular.

Moore and Muller’s arguments against ‘voice discourses’

In their paper, Moore and Muller trace what they refer to as the debunking of epistemology in the sociology of education from its early expression in the 1970s, with its theoretical basis in the phenomenology and pragmatism of Alfred Schutz and C. Wright Mills, to its more recent postmodernist forms which draw on the writings of Foucault and Lyotard (Usher and Edwards 1994). They rightly point to the links between this sociological approach to knowledge and various traditions of radical politics that I and others endorsed and which in the 1970s were largely socialist and populist (Young and Whitty 1977; Whitty and Young 1976).
More recently, the sociological critique of epistemology has taken two paths: one largely eschews any specific politics at all (Usher and Edwards 1994) and the other has been taken up by feminist and postcolonial writers, who use it as a basis for de-legitimizing what they see as the unjustified dominance of western, white, male knowledge and expertise (e.g. Lather 1991). Moore and Muller argue that these approaches, which they refer to collectively as ‘voice discourses’, are based on a number of untenable assumptions. The first is the claim that there can be no epistemology or theory of knowledge because fundamentally, it is only experience, not knowledge, science or expertise that we can ultimately rely on in judging whether something is true. Second, Moore and Muller argue that ‘voice discourse’ approaches misuse the writings of historians of science such as Kuhn (1970) in claiming that they have shown that scientific truths are no more than what scientists at the time say is true. Third, they argue that those such as Usher and Edwards (1994) who adopt a postmodernist position misunderstand science in equating its claims with the widely discredited philosophy of positivism. As Moore and Muller point out, such writers appear ignorant of the recent work of philosophers of science (Papineau 1996; Toulmin 1996) who are well aware of the issues raised by postmodernists, but reject their relativist conclusions.
Moore and Muller argue that the result of these errors is that proponents of ‘voice discourses’ find themselves in two related kinds of contradiction, one theoretical and one practical, both of which have profoundly negative consequences for research in the sociology of education, and its possible influence on educational policy and practice. They point out that the theoretical implication of ‘voice discourse’ approaches is a relativism that leads to the rejection of all epistemologies; at the same time, these approaches are far from relativist about their own position, which denies the possibility of any objective knowledge at all. The practical and political implications of such a rejection of all knowledge claims is that voice discourses are self-defeating. They deny to the subordinate groups, with whom they claim to identify, the possibility of any knowledge that could be a resource for overcoming their subordination. There is no knowledge for voice discourses, only the power of some groups to assert that their experiences should count as knowledge.
Why then do these ideas persist if, as Moore and Muller argue, their flaws are so obvious and have long been known to be so, and in practice they offer so little to the groups that they claim to identify with? Moore and Muller suggest that the debunking of epistemology does not find support because it has any intellectual or political merit; for them it self-evidently does not. The reason it is supported, they claim, is sociological. Their general argument is really about ideology – that essentially flawed ideas persist because they have powerful social functions in society. Any ideas, however flawed, may, like fascism and racism, have a function for certain groups in society. Equally, in the narrower context of education, ideas and methodologies can persist because they reflect the professional interests of members of particular intellectual fields. Debunking dominant knowledge claims is one way for members of the younger generation in an intellectual field to assert themselves, and even to displace existing leaders. Moore and Muller point out that the weak intellectual basis of sociology of education, together with its relative insulation from intellectually stronger sub-fields within sociology, has made it particularly vulnerable to this type of positioning strategy.
There is no doubt that, as Moore and Muller argue, this kind of sociological account of knowledge did play an important positioning role in the sociology of education in the 1970s, and that it was related to the location of the emerging generation of sociologists of education in colleges and university departments of education with their responsibility for training teachers (Young 1971; Young 1998). The sociological approach to knowledge that came to be associated with what became known as the ‘new sociology of education’ not only challenged the old sociology of education and its association with the political arithmetic tradition of policy-oriented educational research; it also challenged the knowledge base of the liberal academic curriculum that had long dominated the grammar and public schools and the universities. The radicalism of this sociological approach to knowledge was well expressed in its interpretation of the continuing school failure of large numbers of pupils from working-class backgrounds. As was argued at the time, it was not working-class pupils who were failing in terms of the academic curriculum, as was maintained by mainstream researchers; from the perspective of the sociology of knowledge, it was the academic curriculum, historically constructed to preserve the status quo of a class society, that systematically ensured that the majority of working-class pupils were failures.
I have commented elsewhere (Young 1998) on the oversimplification of such conspiracy theories and the misguided nature of arguments that equate the legitimacy of knowledge solely with the social position of those who produce it. Moore and Muller offer a valuable extension of this argument by pointing to the episodic character of the debunking of epistemology. Such sociological critiques of knowledge, they point out, have recurred regularly over the past decades, appearing at different times and using quite different and often opposing theories. They cite the case of how postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s served a similar social function as the Marxism and phenomenology of the 1970s; at the same time, each tradition mounted a devastating critique of the other. Moore and Muller draw on the work of Usher and Edwards (1994) in adult education as an example of a sociological approach to knowledge which has quite different intellectual roots and political concerns from the earlier ‘new sociology of education’ of the 1970s. Indeed, from Moore and Muller’s position, by claiming no particular political commitment or policy implications for their position, Usher and Edwards adopt a position that is more logically consistent than that of the ‘new’ sociologists of education of the 1970s, who saw their attacks on epistemology as having, at least in principle, a politically emancipatory role. As Ward (1996) points out, some postmodernists such as Baudrillard take the position of Usher and Edwards on knowledge even further, and argue that there is no point in any social science or philosophy; one might as well write novels or poetry. However, what such positions never seem to account for is both the practical efficacy of scientific knowledge (and even, in a more limited sense, of knowledge in the social sciences) which makes it materially different from knowledge based solely on experience, and that writing good novels or poetry is difficult, and arguably more difficult than writing postmodernist critiques. In other words, postmodernism provides no escape from the familiar dilemma of any relativist position. Regardless of the relativist arguments, people in all societies make judgements about good and bad literature as well as about different explanations of natural phenomena, and debate the criteria for making such judgements. This, of course, is also what scientists and social scientists do, though their judgements and criteria are not of the same kind.
Moore and Muller’s critique of voice discourse approaches, and how they tend to reduce knowledge to varieties of experience, has a compelling power and a basic common-sense appeal. Many examples would serve to illustrate the force of their main argument that some kinds of knowledge are, without question, more powerful than others and that asserting that all knowledge claims are no more than an expression of the claimant’s experience is absurd. Here are two such examples:
1 Try designing a domestic lighting system without relying at least implicitly on Ohm’s Law, or designing an aeroplane without knowing the laws of fluid dynamics. All the experience in the world will not help you, unless it is guided by rules that are not generated by experience alone.
2 How do we account for the problem of the two scientists who, some years ago, claimed that they had discovered how to create energy by the ‘cold fusion’ of hydrogen in a test tube? Their results could not be replicated when the experiments that they claimed to have carried out were repeated, and they were exposed as either fraudulent or bad scientists. We have to treat their claims in some sense as false, like that of the alchemists before them, and the existing scientific view that cold fusion of hydrogen, however desirable, is, for good reasons, impossible, as knowledge.
Moore and Muller are correct to point out the flaws in the postmodernist arguments. They show how writers such as Usher and Edwards construct a ‘straw man’ account of science; this they label as positivist and as representing the pinnacle of claims to objectivity, in order to show its untenabilty. The fact that science does not operate and indeed could not operate in the way positivists claim it does in no way detracts from the explanatory power of scientific concepts. Postmodernist attacks on positivist concepts of science say little about science. They say more about the attackers themselves. At best, they offer objections to those types of social science which take over the mathematical form of the natural sciences, but lack its conceptual basis; hardly a new thought.
The other powerful argument that Moore and Muller make is against the way that voice discourses invoke experience as the foundation of all knowledge, and therefore the basis for claiming that all knowledge or truth claims are equivalent – whether they derive from common sense, folk tradition, laboratory-based scientific research or systematic, disciplinary knowledge. One does not need to denigrate the knowledge that people gain from experience, or even to deny that there is an experiential element in all knowledge, however abstract, to recognize that experience is often an extremely unreliable basis for deciding whether something is true.
Moore and Muller’s argument, that voice discourse approaches, whether wrapped in the obscure jargon of postmodernism or in a political correctness that identifies uncritically with the experience of subordinate groups, have been a cul-de-sac for the sociology of education, is important. However, in providing a constructive basis for a way ahead for the sociology of education, their paper does not take us very far. In the next section of this chapter I want to try and explain why this is so, and then to develop an alternative approach that begins to rescue the sociology of knowledge from both the relativist excesses of voice discourses and the limitations of the kind of a-social epistemological realism which Moore and Muller seem to slip into. I shall develop this alternative by commenting on three issues that arise from their paper. These are (i) the role of the sociology of knowledge as a ‘field positioning strategy’,1 (ii) the implications of the relative insulation of the sociology of education from other ‘stronger’ fields of academic study, and (iii) the question of theory and practice in educational studies.

Beyond the extremes of ‘voice discourses’ ...


  1. Contents
  2. Foreword
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. Introduction
  5. Part 1 Theoretical issues
  6. Part 2 Applied studies
  7. Part 3 Next steps
  8. Endword
  9. Notes
  10. References
  11. Original sources of previously published papers
  12. Index
Estilos de citas para Bringing Knowledge Back In

APA 6 Citation

Young, M. (2007). Bringing Knowledge Back In (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2007)

Chicago Citation

Young, Michael. (2007) 2007. Bringing Knowledge Back In. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Young, M. (2007) Bringing Knowledge Back In. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Young, Michael. Bringing Knowledge Back In. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2007. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.