Seminar Abstracts

‘What might the articulation of the Logics of Critical Explanation and Material Semiotic Relationality do for critical policy analysis and radical democracy?’ Dr Karen West

This paper starts from the premise that new tools of critical policy analysis are needed, which are capable of overcoming what appear to be ideological impasses.  It argues that the ‘Logics of Critical Explanation’ (LCE) approach is potentially up this task, but that it falls short of its critical ambition in practice.  By way of response to the perceived deficiencies of the LCE, and in order to realize its critical ambition the LCE requires empirical reinforcements.  It argues that currents of thought from extended readings of Actor-Network-Theory, here termed ‘material-semiotic relationality’ (MSR) offer some useful empirical tools, but, conversely, have no solid (political) ontological basis for analyzing and articulating the political implications of their rich empirical findings.  The remainder of the paper examines how each approach both reveals and might respond to the deficiencies of the other and considers what is implied by their articulation.  Specifically it argues that articulating these two bodies of thought has three advantages:  1) it enables a fuller and more accurate characterization of social practices and social logics; 2) it may enliven radical democracy as an active intellectual and practical project; and 3) it would provide a more robust theoretical framework in which to work through the political and policy implications of MSR, which have so far been only obliquely and disparately articulated.

Institutional conversion in the UK NHS: the importance of organisational analysis' Dr Anneliese Dodds

This paper examines the planned transfer of the 'National Reporting and Learning System', a system set up to enable healthcare professionals to report accidents and errors, away from a quango called the National Patient Safety Agency (which is being abolished) to instead sit under the new NHS Commissioning Board. From a theoretical point of view, the case highlights the paucity of many existing theories of institutional change, which focus on the influence of power coalitions, and less on intra-organisational factors. Essentially, my argument is that internal factors within the NPSA (ambiguity over its role in relation to the internal market; unstable leadership; etc.) enabled the institutional conversion, not just pressure from external power coalitions. The case also highlights the importance of 'unintended consequences' of institutional design.  Institutional designers apparently failed to take into account the possibility of what I describe in the paper as 'quantitative rationalism' and 'negativity bias'. The fact that higher rates of reporting errors were consistently viewed as indicating that healthcare was becoming less safe (by politicians and the media), appeared not to have been anticipated (given that in reality, higher reporting rates generally indicated safer care, as healthcare professionals were becoming more interested in reporting incidents).

‘The meaning of critical cultural practices in the “transformation economy”’ Dr Sarah Amsler

‘To change the world’, wrote Pierre Bourdieu, ‘one has to change the ways of making the world’. For decades, critical theorists have regarded the world-making power of culture as a pivotal element of struggles against repressive power. ‘Transformative’ forms of knowledge and cultural work are thus often pitted as if naturally against practices of discipline, normalisation and symbolic violence. In recent years, however, the discourse of transformative culture has been captured and transvaluated by new regimes of management in neoliberal institutions. In the UK, for example, universities are adopting total quality management programmes of ‘culture transformation’, relying in some cases on new cadres of ‘cultural activists’, to radically realign higher education and academic research with the needs and values of business, the market and the neoliberal state. The world-making politics of such programmes are often legitimised through the use of ‘democratic’ cultural practices such as forums, pseudo-participatory talking circles, decentralised decision-making, and institutional blogging. Here, I am concerned about the effect of any forms of oppositional culture that are founded on idealist or generalised concepts of autonomy, spontaneity, creativity, fluidity, dialogue, criticism and transformative experience, in a place and time where capitalist productivity, organisational management and neoliberal identities are founded on precisely the same things. Whereas the transformative functions of culture were once pitted as if naturally opposed to the practices of discipline, normalisation and symbolic violence that characterised standardised mass culture and industrial management, the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ is itself creative, autonomous and flexible. I thus argue that what we still often assume to be critical potentialities in the idea of cultural transformation have been retooled to serve the productive machineries of creative capitalism and its managerial administration. This paper explores the difficulties that arise when attempting to critique programmes of ‘culture transformation’ with the languages of cultural transformation. It also aims to disentangle these discourses to disclose how critical cultural theory might contribute to making alternative worlds matter again.

‘University ranking as ideology: the consolidation of global elite power’ Dr Sarah Amsler and Dr Chris Bolsmann

While most university managers now desire what has come to be defined as ‘world-class’ status, few can say definitively what this means beyond the basic fact of occupying a superior hierarchical position in relation to other institutions, or what Pierre Bourdieu and others call a ‘positional good’. Nevertheless, the label is now ubiquitous, and the global ranking of universities has become a formidable machinery of symbolic and economic power that is contributing to the establishment of a ‘new order’ in education. The dominant discourse on ranking suggests that this is a natural, inevitable, progressive and necessary form of evaluating the quality of education. In this paper, drawing on the work of Bourdieu, Fairclough and others, we demonstrate how the practice of ranking may instead be understood as a politico-ideological technology that is central to understanding how universities around the world are being transformed from institutions of the public good into corporations and brands, and to the articulation of ‘transnational educational networks’ that serve the new, knowledge-identified, global elite rather than a wider democratic citizenry. We focus on explicating the cultural politics of the ‘rankings game’: how and why it naturalises capitalist ideology, and what implications this has for the future of humanist, critical and progressive education. The argument is organised into three parts: a discussion of the rise of the internationalisation of education and place of global university rankings within it; an explication of the cultural politics of university rankings, drawing on examples from the UK in particular; and a discussion of how we might challenge these new discourses of education within universities and articulate others from the perspective of radical democracy and social justice.


Employable Graduates; Exploitable Research