||Volume 24, Number 7, May/June 2012
Mapping desire and power within the field of education policy in BC
By Tobey Steeves
In their overview of qualitative interviewing (QI) as research methodology, Kvale & Brinkmann (2009) insist “…knowledge is power. The social practice of research interviewing may become a form of democratic practice that can be used to help create a free democratic society.” With this generalized goal in mind, I initiated an interview-based research inquiry into education policy in British Columbia. Beginning with the question: What desires are privileged by education policy in BC?, I solicited the participation of a well-established policy maker/ analyst and organized a series of questions that were designed to elicit a rudimentary outline of education policy in BC as a field of power. Phrased more succinctly, I used targeted questions to map the winners and losers within BC’s education policy-making arena.
In this article I will share the fruits of my analysis. I will begin by contextualizing my choice of an interviewee—Dr. Charles Ungerleider. From here I will describe the methodologies used in analyzing interview data, and summarize key aspects of my analysis. To conclude, I will consider the study’s generalizability, and return to the question of QI as a means of “creating a free democratic society.”
Ungerleider served as BC’s Deputy Minister of Education from 1998–2001, and currently splits his time between UBC, where he is a professor specializing in the sociology of education and Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group, LLP where he is director of Research and Managing Partner. In 2003 Ungerleider published a book-length analysis of education policy in Canada titled “Failing our kids: How we are ruining public schools,” he has been widely published in academic journals, and he is a frequent contributor to local and national media. As a result, I felt confident in drawing on his expertise to map the desires structuring education policy in BC. After some organizing, I compiled a series of targeted questions, and we scheduled a 60-minute interview at his office. Our discussion was recorded, and 20 minutes were transcribed for analysis (see http://ow.ly/a5Exy).
For the purposes of this study I combined two complementary lenses of analysis: narrative analysis and positioning analysis. To simplify and summarize, narrative analysis assumes that “…through live stories individuals and groups make sense of themselves; they tell what they are or what they wish to be, as they tell so they come, they are their stories.” (Cortazzi, 2001). Positioning analysis, on the other hand, assumes that “…selves are located in conversations as observably and subjectively coherent participants in jointly produced storylines…” (Davies & Harré, 1990). Taken in conjunction, narrative analysis provides a means with which to analyze interview data as a story (i.e., with actors, a plot, and genre), and positioning analysis makes it possible to use interview data to construct a stratified field of power.
In a very meaningful sense, applying narrative analysis to interview data can be understood as analogous with translating a conversation into a script for a movie. My transcription and translation revealed that Ungerleider had foregrounded protagonists and antagonists, and scripted them within a particular genre. It should be no surprise that the principal actors in Ungerleider’s “movie script” were teachers, BC’s Liberal Party, the BCTF, and BC’s Supreme Court. From here, Ungerleider casts the BCTF as inspired by moralistic idealisms and marginally dishonest (lines 184-191). On the other hand, the Liberal Party was cast as adamantly anti-labour, and scripted as British Columbia’s version of the United States’ Republican Party (lines 324-366). BC’s Supreme Court, meanwhile, was cast as an external arbiter of legitimacy, and was more or less scripted as a bystander in the ongoing dispute between the BCTF and the Liberal Party (lines 157-171). It is also worth mentioning that Canadian society itself was cast as a vulnerable body, under threat from atomistic forces unleashed by the diminution of the state (lines 24-25; 99-104). These actors fit together within a plot that is more or less a “rigged game”—Teachers ask and teachers fight, but government reserves the ultimate monopoly on legitimacy (lines 302-303). As a result, interview data foregrounded two distinct genres: action and political affairs. Whereas an action story is one that has some risky decision linked with the experience of conflict and resolution, political affairs are those that involve governance and the desires of the state. To sum up, in Ungerleider’s script, teachers made the risky decision of challenging the state, but they appear to have little to no chance of gaining legitimacy within the eyes of the state.
By filtering transcript data through the lens of positioning analysis, I was able to tentatively locate actors within a field of power. For instance, Ungerleider positioned the state as simultaneously under attack (lines 99-109) and dominant (lines 302-317; 285-290). It is important to emphasize, however, that the state is—to some extent—held in check by the Supreme Court (lines 302-312), and yet the Supreme Court is positioned as a more or less disinterested actor (lines 195-196). Teachers, meanwhile, are positioned as feminized victims of state policy (lines 285-317). The element of feminization is critical, and was contextualized by Apple & Jungck (1992) as an attempt by state legislatures, departments of education, and educational managers to rationalize and standardize the process and products of teaching as a collection of measurable “competencies” and so on [; and] is related to a longer history of attempts to control the labour of occupations that have historically been seen as women’s paid work.
In this way, teachers in BC may be understood as under attack, and the instrumentalist state—as embodied within BC’s Liberal party—takes on a misogynistic and tyrannical hue. Against this backdrop, society is positioned as an effect of the state’s desire: Given that the state has affirmed the construction of the common good as a privatized experience, society lacks “glue” or a “common set of values” (line 411). As a result, according to Ungerleider, society itself is at risk of fragmenting into a chaotic mass of self-interest and selfish desire. Here Ungerleider implicitly links the impacts of education policy in BC with broader socio-cultural trends. In particular, a growing chorus of research has foregrounded the effects of neo-liberal policy as imbricating a “narcissism epidemic” (Twenge & Campbell, 2009) and “Generation Me” (Twenge, 2003). Taken together, Ungerleider constructs an asymmetrical field of power in which a pitched battle is being fought, and the outcome most singularly at stake is our collective future.
To conclude, my interview with Ungerleider provided the resources for diagramming the field power that regulates education policy in BC. It should be stressed, however, that the results of my study are unquestionably un-generalizable, (i.e., if I asked a dozen different actors, I’d get at least a dozen different diagrams). Nevertheless, I would suggest that the map provides a tentative answer to the question, What desires are privileged by education policy in BC?, and may be useful in the fight to achieve a “free democratic society” (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009).
Tobey Steeves, Vancouver TTOC
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