Activist Discourses

Focus

Raising awareness of power structures, potential imbalances, and shared obligations

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … power to act
  • Knowing is … acting
  • Learner is … a citizen
  • Learning is … acculturation
  • Teaching is … awareness raising

Originated

1970s

Synopsis

Activist Discourses are concerned with interrogating the entrenched narratives and structures that infuse, lend support to, and help to perpetuate social norms and cultural institutions. Oriented by the conviction that there are no “neutral” acts or ideas, and critically attentive to the collective roots of personal convictions, Activist Discourses aim for deep understandings in order to inform and orient justice-oriented thinking and acting. In effect, Activist Discourses tend to reframe discussions of and in education by focusing on “Why?” more than “What?” or “How?”
Prominent Educational Foci
  • Disproportionality – a reference to the disproportionately high numbers of students from specific racial or ethnic populations who are assigned to special education, diagnosed with disabilities, referred for discipline, suspended from classes, and/or otherwise excluded from settings and opportunities available to “regular” students
  • Factory Model – a term of denigration, prompted at the structural similarities of Standardized Education and the early industrial factory
  • Gaps:
    • Achievement Gap – any instance of unequal attainment or inequitable distribution of educational benefits; usually used in specific reference to significant and persistent differences in educational achievement between learners of different races or with different socio-economic backgrounds
    • Learning Gap – the difference between one’s age/grade level and one’s achievement level – that is, the difference between what one should have learned and what one has actually learned, based on age and/or grade level
    • Knowledge Gap Theory (Knowledge Gap Hypothesis) – the suggestion that those with greater wealth and education afford greater benefit from media information because of faster and broader access to it
    • Opportunity Gap – ways in which differences that are outside the control of the learner – such as race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, bodily capabilities, language proficiency, and so on – adversely affect access to educational opportunities
  • Hidden Curriculum (Implicit Curriculum) – non-explicit and not-necessarily-intended learning consequences of schooling, typically seen to include norms, values, and beliefs that are implicit in curriculum foci, classroom resources, institutional structures, grading practices, and teaching methods. The Hidden Curriculum is often discussed in relation to:
    • Intended Curriculum – the overt program of studies that is expected to be taught in an educational institution … and that, it is hoped, students will learn
    • Learned Curriculum – as it sounds, what is actually learned by students
    • Mindless Curriculum (Charles Silberman, 1960s) – a term introduced to collect educational movements away from reflective and responsive emphases and toward teacher-proofing curriculum, deskilling educators, standardizing outcomes, and so on
    • Null Curriculum – that which is left out, whether deliberately omitted or simply not noticed, of theories and instantiations of curriculum
    • Taught Curriculum – as it sounds, what ends up being taught. More formally, the Taught Curriculum entails teacher interpretations of policies and content as well as their intentions regarding the purposes and possibilities of formal education.
    • Tested Curriculum – those aspects of programs of study that are formally evaluated – and, as a result, typically given more attention
  • Power – in simplest terms, the ability to do something – which is understood to entail both skill and freedom. Within education, critical discussions of Power tend to revolve around the inequitable distribution of power, framed by the question, “Whose interests are being served?” Most often, that concern is focused on of authority structures (Who decides?) and curriculum design (What is to be learned?).
  • Reproductive Learning – an umbrella notion that is applied to all forms of education that are focused on the reproduction of existing knowledge – both explicit (e.g., as defined by traditional school subject areas) and implicit (e.g., social structures, power relations, cultural norms). Associated discourses include:
    • Reproduction Theory (Pierre Bourdieu, 1970s) – the assertion that schooling systems reproduce social divisions and economic structures, contrary to the popular myth that formal education is an equalizer
  • Subtractive Education – policies and practices of schooling that operate to diminish or eliminate students’ culture, typically justified as necessary to academic success
  • Symbolic Violence (Pierre Bourdieu, 1970s) –non-physical acts of aggression and suppression visited by those with greater power on those with less. Such acts include the imposition of norms and the denial or ridicule of identifications (e.g., ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation). Symbolic Violence is often seen as a more insidious – but no less consequential – companion to physical acts and material forms associated with the exercise of power.
Prominent Cultural Foci
  • Deep Politics (Peter Dale Scott, 1990s) – a descriptor, usually associated with sinister intent, of the activities of those agents and agencies seeking to exercise clandestine control of governments and states for hidden reasons
  • Gender Studies (various, 1980s) – an interdisciplinary field focused on critique of social constructions and cultural manifestations of femininity and masculinity
    • Men’s Studies (various, 1980s) – a multidisciplinary field concerned with conceptions and enactments of manhood, thus engaging matters of culture, social roles, gender, sexuality, and so on. Subdiscourses include:
      • Masculinities (Critical Masculinity Studies; Inclusive Masculinity Theory; Masculinity Theories) (various; 1980s) – a collection of perspectives concerned with the roots, manifestations, and consequences of various forms of masculinity. Those perspectives are rooted in in discourses as diverse as Positivism and Social Constructionism – that is, caught between emphases on fixed physical biology and dynamic situated meanings
    • Women’s Studies (various, 1970s) – an interdisciplinary field concerned with women’s experiences, focused on social constructions and cultural manifestations of femininity, with emphases on power dynamics associated with those constructions and manifestations as well as their intersections with race, sexuality, social inequalities, and physical constraints
      • Femininities (Critical Femininities) (various, 1980s) – the study and critique of various social constructions and cultural manifestations of femininity, including matters of appearance, conduct, roles, and relationships
  • Identity Politics (Combahee River Collective, 1970s) – political attitudes (and, in some instances, associated anti-oppressive movements) based on some category of identification, such as race, gender, social class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation. Currently prominent categories of identification include:
    • BIPOC (formerly: POC) – an abbreviation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, which has come to replace POC (People of Color) in most uses
    • LGBTQQIP2SAA (LGBTQ2S; LGBTQIA2S+; LGBTQ2S+; with several other variations) – an abbreviation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Pansexual, 2-Spirit, Asexual, and Ally
  • Patriarchy – Technically, a Patriarchy is a society in which descent is traced through and inheritance is passed through males (i.e., father to son). Among critical discourses, Patriarchy is typically used to label cultures and social systems in which males have conceptual, social, economic, and political privilege over others, especially women.
  • Peace and Conflict Studies – a multidisciplinary field oriented toward bettering the human condition by attending critically to the triggers, causes, tendencies, and other structural mechanisms associated with social conflict. Subdiscourses include:
    • Conflict Theories (various, often traced to Karl Marx, 1950s) – a variety of perspectives on social and cultural conflicts that are focused on power differentials associated with economic, ideological, and/or political differences
    • Control Theory (in Sociology) (Walter Reckless, 1970s) – a perspective on human behavior that begins with the assumption that one would act badly if given the chance, because one’s actions are principally determined by one’s desires. Thus, external controls that are built into the social system are necessary to minimize and manage deviant behavior.
    • Labor Process Theory (David Knight, 1980s) – a subdiscourse of Marxism (see below) that examines relationships between capitalist employers and their employees. Foci include deskilling of workers, worker autonomy, and managerial control – all of which are seen as integrally tied to modern formal education.
    • Peace Studies (Irenology, from Ancient Greek eirḗnē + -logy “study of peace”) – a multidisciplinary field concerned with at finding peaceful, win–win resolutions to conflicts
    • War Studies (Polemology, from Ancient Greek pólemos + -logy “study of “war; battle”) (King’s College, London, 1940s) – a multidisciplinary field concerned with better understanding the psychological, social, cultural, political, economic, and philosophical dimensions of conflict. War Studies can also encompass the military and diplomatic strategies associated with both loss and victory.
    • Social Conflict Theory (Karl Marx, 1850s) – a perspective rooted in Marxism (see Activist Discourses) that is focused on the differential power associated with social class and access to resources – in particular, the brute-force and economic exploitations of the poor/disenfranchised by the wealthy/empowered
  • Whiteness Studies (various, 1990s) – the study of white privilege, including the structures that produce and maintain it, its manifestations as a racial and cultural construct, and its consequences in/for social, ideological, and other realms
Commonly Invoked Concepts and Principles
  • Acculturation – a psycho-social process that involves balancing the culture of one’s birth (or heritage) and the culture in which one finds oneself. Four strategies of Acculturation have been described: segregation, integration, assimilation, and marginalization. (See Cultural Psychology.)
  • Cultural Blindness – blindness to one’s own culture – that is, a failure to understand that one’s perceptions, understandings, and values are framed by one’s history and context, which contributes to an inability to appreciate and honor ways of being that are rooted in other histories and contexts
  • Discourse – In broadest terms (and as used in the title of this website), a Discourse is a system of mutually dependent and mutually supporting statements. Among Activist Discourses, the word Discourse is often used more specifically, to refer to worldviews and systems of thought that are entangled in social practices and power structures.
  • Hegemony – social and cultural means by which dominant groups maintain their power – through, e.g., positions of authority, manipulation of media, and influence on Discourse (see below)
  • Indoctrination – the assertion that all acts of teaching serve to privilege some knowledge over other knowledge while instilling particular values and perspectives
  • Intersectionality (Kimberlé Crenshaw, 1980s) – initially coined as a legal term to signal how race, class, gender, and other characteristics “intersect” (i.e., overlap, co-entwine) in one’s identity. Intersectionality has recently been associated with some Activist Discourses, where it is typically interpreted as a vital consideration in addressing disparities among individuals and groups.
  • Resource Theory (Edna Foa, Uriel Foa, 1970s) – a theory of interpersonal relationships based on metaphors of economic power and exchange, whereby those with greater control over resources (material, emotional, and informational) have greater power in the relationship.
  • Situationism (Situationalism) – most generally, a theory that asserts one’s behavior is determined by contextual factors, not by personal traits. Among Activist Discourses, Situationism is often equated with the oppressive and exploitative aspects of modern capitalist societies.
  • Socialization – developing the habits and attitudes appropriate to a culture or a specific cultural situation, such as an institution or a profession
    • Habitus – one’s way of being, typically reflective of one’s history and context, as manifest in everyday habits of thought and action
    • Socialization-Related Learning (Academic Socialization) (Thomas Reio, Jr., 2000s) – the learning of the behaviors, norms, and skills that are integral to functioning participants in a formal educational setting
Sites of Engagement and Associated Theories
  • Agency Theory (K. Eisenhardt, 1980s) – an umbrella concept out of business and economics that is focused on making sense of social dynamics associated with one person (an “agent”) being empowered to act on behalf of another. To our awareness, when Agency Theory has been invoked in education, it has been in direct association with Activist Discourses. Examples include:
    • Relational Agency (Contextual Agency; Distributed Agency; Ecological Agency; Situative Agency) (Anne Edwards, Gert Biesta, 2000s) – an activist discourse in which “agency” is framed in terms of context/situatedness and systems/networks
    • Radical-Transformative Agency (Anna Stetsenko, 2010s) – an activist discourse in which popular notions of “agency” are critiqued for their assumptions on human development, reality, learning, and related topics, aimed at a more enabling, empowered conception of agency
  • Anti-Ableism (Disability Rights; Equality of Access) – “Ableism” refers to any form of prejudice that favors able-bodied individuals. Anti-Ableism thus encompasses all attitudes and efforts to ensure equality of rights and access on the basis of bodily capabilities.
  • Anti-Oppressive Education – Starting with the realization that formal education is not (and cannot be) “neutral,” Anti-Oppressive Education calls educators, first, to be attentive to ways that practices and attitudes can contribute to or mask oppressions and, accordingly, to work with all involved to enact more just alternatives.
  • Anti-Racism – Whereas being “non-racist” mean not making discriminations based on race, being “anti-racist” entails actively identifying, challenging, and changing the structures, practices, attitudes, and privileges associated with racism. Among categories or distinct manifestations of racism, the following have been identified:
    • Colorism – biases based on variations in skin tone among persons of the same ethnic or racial group
    • Old-Fashioned Racism – overt and direct discrimination, often hostile, toward others perceived to belong a different racial or ethnic group
    • Modern Racism – covert and/or indirect discrimination of others who are perceived to belong a different racial or ethnic group. Modern Racism is typically expressed as criticism of cultural values rather than as clear discriminatory actions.
    • Aversive Racism (Samuel Gaertner, John Dovidio, 1980s) – a form of racist behavior that is manifest in avoidance of interacting with others perceived to belong a different racial or ethnic group, often while avowing opposition to racism
    • Radical Listening (Deep ListeningRhetorical Listening) (Joe Kincheloe, 2000s) – a mode of engagement associated with Anti-Racism that entails adopting the attitude of a learner, attending without judgment, and acting in a manner consistent with the speaker’s expressed needs and desires
  • Critical Race Theory (1970s) – Originating as a topic of academic interest among legal scholars, Critical Race Theory is attentive to the history of systemic racism and its manifestations in the contemporary world. In recent years, factions associated with ultra-conservatism in the United States have attempted to rebrand Critical Race Theory as a radical-left ploy to hijack schooling by distorting history and disparaging modern society.
  • Culturally Relevant Teaching (Culturally Responsive Teaching) (Gloria Ladson-Billings, 1990s) – curriculum emphases and teaching methods that are adapted to cross-cultural or multicultural settings and that are intended to enable all students to relate topics of study to their cultural situations
  • Distributive Justice (Adam Swift, 1990s) – having to do with the fair allocation of the costs and benefits of resources. Meanings and implications of Distributive Justice can vary considerably, depending on the frame in which the topic is engaged, especially across ecological and sociocultural perspectives.
  • Diversity Education – In the context of this phrase, “diversity” refers to every possible means that humans use to distinguish from each other – including (but not limited to) race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, class, wealth, gender, physical capability, cognitive ability, age, and body type. Diversity Education is thus about ensuring that diversities are not deployed to exclude or diminish.
  • Inclusive Education (Inclusion) – In education, “inclusion” refers to the right for each individual to be respected and involved, regardless of traits, abilities, or needs. Inclusive Education thus an ideological movement, articulated as a right for all children to be in the same classrooms and schools.
  • Marxism (Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, 1840s) – a method of analyzing social, cultural, economic, and political evolutions that is based on Historical Materialism (see below). In early texts, Marxism was associated with condemning criticisms of the social inequities and cultural corruptions associated with capitalism, which is likely why Marxism is now more often regarded as a counter-capitalistic ideology and why it is so strongly represented among Activist Discourses. Associated discourses include:
    • Historical Materialism (Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, 1840s) – a view of history that attributes major social and cultural change to shifting modes of production, along with the disruptions to political and economic orders that are triggered by these shifts (Note: This discourse is not conceptually related to other Materialisms reviewed on this site.)
    • Neo-Marxism (New Marxism) (various, 20th century) – the blending of Marxism with more recent discourses (e.g., Psychoanalytic Theories, Structuralism, or Post-Structuralism), typically resulting in perspectives that amplify concerns around social inequality, status, and power
  • School Integration (Desegregation) (United States, 1960s) – a cultural-political initiative to end race-based decisions, policies, and structures in American schools
  • Social Dominance Theory (Jim Sidanius, 1990s) – a perspective concerned with the creation and maintenance of group-based social hierarchies, in which three primary mechanisms of perpetuation (i.e., forces against subordinate groups) are proposed: institutional discrimination, aggregated individual discrimination, and behavioral asymmetry
Associated Methods and Emphases
  • Conscientization (Critical Consciousness; Consciousness Raising; conscientização, in Portuguese) (Paulo Freire; 1970s) – the development of the ability to recognize and the inclination to interrupt any type of oppression or contradiction – social, political, cultural, economic, and so on
  • Democratic Teaching – an attitude and/or approach to setting classroom norms that eschews teacher-centered practices (e.g., unilateral decisions, top-down management, pre-set curricula) in favor of rules, methods, and content that are negotiated among teacher and students
  • Empowerment ­– a metaphor of teaching that is commonly associated among Activist Discourses. Arising from concerns with hegemony and power, as inscribed in privileged disciplinary and educational structures, the teacher oriented by Activist Discourses seeks to alert learners to the structures that limit and enable their participation in society. The hope is that an awareness of these structures will empower learners to participate in the transformation of oppressive conditions.
  • Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI; EDIAEquality, Diversity, Inclusivity; Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility) – a policy focused on fair treatment and equal opportunity for all, across an array of specified identity categories. That array typically, but not necessarily, includes race, gender, culture, religion, sexual orientation, age, and (dis)ability).
  • Excellence and Equity – a notion that encompasses any educational policy or structure designed to address matters of inequitable access or experience
  • Humanizing Pedagogies (Paulo Freire, 1980s) – any classroom practice that is intended to advance social justice, especially through honoring a learner’s culture, parent language, and distinct personal experiences
  • Radical Education – an umbrella notion that reaches across any approach to formal learning that rejects traditional aims and practices while seeking social and political reform
  • Strategic Essentialism (Gayatri Spivak, 1980s) – a tactic of groups who do not identify with/as the majority and/or dominant population to essentialize (that is, overstate selected aspects of) their identities temporarily in order to achieve desired goals, such as official recognition or equal rights.
  • Survivance (Gerald Vizenor, 1990s) – the active maintenance of stories, histories, and sensibilities of Indigenous peoples in North America (and, since the late 2010s, also applied to the experiences of black, trans, and other marginalized groups).  There are at least three suggestions on the word’s origin: (i) switching the suffix of “survival” from -al to -ance shifts the meaning from passive persistence to active agency; (ii) it may be a portmanteau of “survival” + “endurance”; (iii) it may be a portmanteau of “survival” + “resistance.”
  • Voice – One's Voice is cultural, historical, social, racialized, class-based, and gendered. It arises in a weave of privilege and disadvantage. Voices are heard, ignored, and/or silenced  in socio-cultural contexts, and so the notion serves as a metaphor of power and agency and a focal point of analysis across many Activist Discourses.

Commentary

Almost all Activist Discourses are articulated in terms of power – to act, to sway, to take, to withhold, and so on. While it might be argued that they have had little impact on the day-to-day realities of schooling, they have had the major impact of peeking under the false narrative that schools are great equalizers. On the contrary, Activist Discourses argue and demonstrate, schools are complicit in perpetuating (and sometimes amplifying) unjust structures, biased worldviews, and oppressive habits. In effect, then, Activist Discourses might be better described as “theories of unlearning” than “theories of learning.”

Subdiscourses:

  • Achievement Gap
  • Acculturation
  • Agency Theory
  • Anti-Ableism (Disability Rights; Equality of Access)
  • Anti-Oppressive Education
  • Anti-Racism
  • Aversive Racism
  • BIPOC (POC)
  • Colorism
  • Conflict Theories
  • Conscientization (Critical Consciousness; Consciousness Raising)
  • Control Theories (in Sociology)
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Cultural Blindness
  • Culturally Relevant Teaching (Culturally Responsive Teaching)
  • Deep Politics
  • Democratic Teaching
  • Discourse
  • Disproportionality
  • Distributive Justice
  • Diversity Education
  • Empowerment
  • Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI; EDIA; Equality, Diversity, Inclusivity; Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility)
  • Excellence and Equity
  • Factory Model
  • Femininities (Critical Femininities)
  • Gender Studies
  • Habitus
  • Hegemony
  • Hidden Curriculum (Implicit Curriculum)
  • Historical Materialism
  • Humanizing Pedagogies
  • Identity Politics
  • Inclusive Education (Inclusion)
  • Indoctrination
  • Intended Curriculum
  • Intersectionality
  • Knowledge Gap Theory (Knowledge Gap Hypothesis)
  • Labor Process Theory
  • Learned Curriculum
  • Learning Gap
  • LGBTQQIP2SAA (LGBTQ2S; LGBTQIA2S+; LGBTQ2S+)
  • Marxism
  • Masculinities (Critical Masculinity Studies; Inclusive Masculinity Theory; Masculinity Theories)
  • Men’s Studies
  • Mindless Curriculum
  • Modern Racism
  • Neo-Marxism (New Marxism)
  • Null Curriculum
  • Old-Fashioned Racism
  • Opportunity Gap
  • Patriarchy
  • Peace and Conflict Studies
  • Peace Studies (Irenology)
  • Power
  • Radical Education
  • Radical Listening (Deep Listening; Rhetorical Listening)
  • Radical-Transformative Agency
  • Relational Agency (Contextual Agency; Distributed Agency; Ecological Agency; Situative Agency)
  • Reproduction Theory
  • Reproductive Learning
  • Resource Theory
  • School Integration (Desegregation)
  • Situationism (Situationalism)
  • Social Conflict Theory
  • Social Dominance Theory
  • Socialization
  • Socialization-Related Learning (Academic Socialization)
  • Strategic Essentialism
  • Subtractive Education
  • Survivance
  • Symbolic Violence
  • Taught Curriculum
  • Tested Curriculum
  • War Studies (Polemology)
  • Whiteness Studies
  • Women’s Studies

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Activist Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.


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