What is the ‘knowledge turn’ and why does it matter?

Over the past couple of years geography educators in the UK have become increasingly interested in some developments around the ‘sociology of knowledge’. In particular, they have taken up some of the recent writing of Michael Young, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education (London) and especially his 2008 book Bringing Knowledge Back In. Others have engaged with Young’s work, so my purpose here is to place the recent ‘knowledge turn’ in a slightly broader context, and raise some of my own concerns about this development.

A significant aspect of the move to ‘bring knowledge back in’ is that it represents an ‘about turn’ on the part of sociologists of education who were part of the influential ‘new sociology of education’ in the early 1970s. At that time, writers such as Michael Young were influential in popularizing the idea among teachers that the knowledge found in school subjects was ‘socially constructed’ and, crucially, the selections of knowledge that comprise such subjects reflected the interests of powerful groups in society. The implications of this are profound, since it suggests that (a) the poor performance of particular social groups can be accounted for by the fact that ‘their’ knowledge doesn’t find representation in the curriculum, and, (b) school knowledge can be constructed otherwise.

Given the context of a society that was becoming increasingly ‘de-traditionalised’ and a teaching that was made up of the socially progressive middle classes, it is understandable that these ideas gained interest and widespread acceptance. Indeed, by the time I came to teach geography in London schools in 1988 it was not ‘radical’ to argue that ‘traditional’ school geography was a conservative representation of the geographical world-views of white, middle-class, men and that, accordingly, there was a need to recognise and make visible ‘other’ geographies. As the books on my shelves from the 1990s remind me, the ‘postmodern’ and ‘cultural turns’ that geography experienced reflect the wide range of ‘local’ geographies that exist (e.g Places on the Body, Body Spaces, Mapping Desire, The globalization of sexuality, Mapping Men, The geographies of disability, Animal Geographies, Mind and Body Spaces, The geography of children and young people, Spaces of Hate etc.) 

It is this shift from “Geography’ to ‘geographies’ has led to moves to ‘Bring Knowledge Back In’. For Michael Young and colleagues  the celebration of ‘local’ knowledges, the relativism that is implied by this, and the refusal to accept the notion of accepted ‘Truth’ amounts to the rejection and loss of faith in the established and accepted ‘Truth’  – or powerful knowledge – that is offered by academic disciplines. The knowledge found within subjects may be socially constructed, but it has a durability, stability, and existence independent of any social interest; it is social realist.

This ‘social realist’ stance is particularly valuable for geography educators who, over the past decade or so, have been struggling to ensure that discussions of curriculum (the what of teaching) are not lost in the drive to ‘improve learning’ through pedagogical innovations. The difficulty though, as far as I can see, is that discussion of the ‘knowledge turn’ in school subjects very quickly leads to a retrogressive ‘return to tradition’ or what Stephen Ball a long time ago described as the ‘curriculum of the dead’. I write as someone who, in the 199os wrote a thesis called ‘Postmodernism and Geography Education’, which, as I re-read it, celebrated the de-stabilising of school geography and the potential for celebrating previously marginalised and ignored ways in which people construct and re-make space. This is an important gain. However, there is a danger of seeing all this flux and flow as inherently liberating (‘cool places’, as some geographers would have it) whereas a harder, more material geography is where power and control lie, and it is these ‘real’ social processes that are so often missing from geography lessons.

This reminds me of what was so exciting about discovering the key geographical texts of the 1980s (The Limits to Capital, Spatial Divisions of Labour, Arenas of Capital, Uneven Development); they offered a version of geographical knowledge which was powerful because it allowed us to explain the world in new ways. Though as a discipline geography has become increasingly ‘post-structural’, there are important challenges for geography educators in taking the notion of ‘social realism’ (at present little more an interesting angle to take in dinner party conversations) and turning it into a robust and defensible basis for curriculum-making.


3 Responses to “What is the ‘knowledge turn’ and why does it matter?”

  1. 1 David Lambert December 12, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    It seems to me that what we need is a way to bridge between the hard-edged powerful knowledge of structures and process you mention and the rather more contingent a fluid worlds in which we (and or students) live. In other words a model of ‘curriculum thought’ – and planning and development – appropriate for the age.
    You appear to have interesting dinner parties in your part of the world!

  2. 2 DJ December 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    This is a comment from Michael Young:

    First re David’s comment. The problem is solved for me at least analytically, by the curriculum(hard)/Pedagogy(soft) distinction. (see my paper in the Pacific Asian Consortium paper – reference at end)
    Second John. I really liked your note , although wondered with David where the dinner parties were- in Auckland? maybe you will invite me to one next time I come!!

    More seriously, I have some issues from paragraph 4. I am aware of the possibility of retrogressive slippage from Future 3 to Future 1 although in practice, there is not much sign of Future 3 yet as I see it. Secondly, I do not find the concept ‘the curriculum of the dead’ a useful way of describing Future 1, not the least because for all its limitations, Future 1 supported significant new educational opportunities in the post ww2 period as part of the expanding grammar school tradition. We draw on it and transform it for Future 3 so it cannot be dead!

    What we are experiencing in England is a Future 1( via Gove) critique of Future 2 which has dominated the curriculum and educational culture (Young and Muller 2010) . For those committed to developing Future 3 we are are combating two theses- Future 1 and Future 2(which is also the anti-thesis to Future 1); Future 3 is the synthesis- somehow thanks to Hegel!!

    My other point is that I too remember the destabilising effects of the precursors of post modernism- cultural marxism and social phenomenology – all like post mod and post structuralists they imply versions of a social constructivist anti-realist approach to knowledge and its inescapable relativist implications. What they did positively in sociology( maybe parallel to your examples in your final paragraph) is to open up new fields of enquiry- specifically around gender and sexuality; they offered descriptions of these phenomena- hence the overlap and attractiveness to cultural studies, but no explanations; indeed they were against explanations because explanations (strong or weak) depend on shared epistemic rules and the idea of a world to be explained which they disavowed as social constructions. As all posties say”we are only telling a story’(R Rorty)

    As in your reference to flux etc, these trends also led to a damaging fragmentation of the discipline and the denial of some of its core concepts such as social structure and social institution. At best a marginal gain!

    Geography has clearly spread its wings in terms of its scope and topics- whether the new ideas are post structural with all that is implied above, I am not so sure. What I do find in our field is that the social realist thesis about knowledge leads to much more than dinner party conversations; as someone said to me after a lecture in Brazil “the audience felt unsettled”- progress I hope.

    (Young and Muller 2010) Three Educational Scenarios for the Future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge EJEd Vol. 45, No. 1, 2010, Part I

  3. 3 DJ December 17, 2012 at 12:27 am

    Thanks David and Michael, I’m beginning to regret the ‘dinner party’ quip – seriosuly, haven’t been to any here where social realism is discussed.
    Those clarifications are very helpful for me. The ‘curriculum of the dead’ term was recently ‘resurrected’ by Stephen Ball in an article in the Guardian and for me represents the failure of many policy-sociologists to take seriously the question of curriculum. Another example is David Hartley in his new book ‘Education and the Culture of Consumption’, whilst he provides a excoriating critique of the ‘Future 2’ education system around personalisation and technology (underpinned with an analysis derived from Daniel Bell’s The cultural contradictions of capitalism), he doesn’t grapple with curriculum (there’s a comment on Michael and Johann’s ‘Futures’, but its not developed)
    I’m attracted to a historical-sociological analysis of school subjects, which I think has the potential to see how the broad shifts Michael outlines play out in different subjects at different times. For instance, i’m not sure that many geographers (at both school or universities) could accept the notion of core concepts (maybe place, space, environment – but as soon as they ‘work’ with these any consensus disappears). The most successful attempt to define concepts in school geography came with the ‘new geography’ of the 1970s. For example, Ambrose (1969):
    “A concern with the patterns made by phenomena on the earth has long been central to the geographer’s interest. But only recently, it seems, has the spatial pattern made by some phenomena been reen recognised as the normal point of entry fo research work. Only recently has such systematic attention been given to the problem of measuring and interpreting distributions..It may soon be appropriate to define human geography as the science of the location and spatial distribution of man and his works”.
    Ambrose identifed 4 key concepts as central to such geographical study: these weree gradient, network, least-cost location and cumulative causation. Each of these ‘sums up some universally operating aspect of the total process of man’s interaction with his social and physical environment’. Each concept could be found in ‘the first year of secondary school’ or appear in a doctoral study.
    This ‘new geography’ spawned an impressive bout of curriculum development in schools. However, almost immediately university geographers rejected these concepts and methods. The issue of the ‘recontextualization’ of the subject is important here.
    These seem to me to be really crucial themes for geography educators to engage with, and this blog is part of the process of engendering discussions. One subtext in my post was the unwilingness of an earlier generation of geography educators to seriously engage with developments in the sociology of education. Two ‘classic’ texts – Norman Graves ‘Geography in Education’ (1975) and Bill Marsden’s ‘Evaluating the Geography Curriculum’ (1976) both note the critiques of knowledge found in Knowledge and Power but quickly dismiss them as not relevant to the busy geography teacher. I hope we are making more of an effort this time around.

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