Poststructuralism and Educational Research
reviewed by Todd Ream - 2005
Title: Poststructuralism and Educational Research
Author(s): Michael A. Peters and Nicholas C. Burbules
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0847691195, Pages: 111, Year: 2004
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As an intellectual movement, poststructuralism defied the boundaries of philosophy and worked its way into other academic fields of inquiry. On one level, poststructuralism’s influence is present in the knowledge base in almost all of the disciplines. On another level, poststructuralism’s influence is more acute in the methodological commitments that give rise to the boundaries that define a particular knowledge base. In Poststructuralism and Educational Research, Michael A. Peters and Nicholas C. Burbules assess the significance of poststructuralism within education on the second of these two levels. Their effort is the latest contribution to the Philosophy, Theory, and Educational Research series published by Rowman and Littlefield. Previous works in this series include Postpositivism and Educational Research (2000) by D.C. Phillips and Nicholas Burbules and Pragmatism and Educational Research (2003) by Gert J.J. Biesta and Nicholas C. Burbules. Burbules not only edits this series but serves as the second author of each contribution. In the end, perhaps the significance of Poststructuralism and Educational Research is found in the way Peters and Burbules assess how “poststructuralist researchers in education are now challenging existing research practices and experimenting with new ways of making sense of the world” (p. 100). By assessing the changing nature of research practices, one can estimate the future shape of the knowledge base defining education and the relationship it shares with other areas of inquiry in the academy.
Peters and Burbules are professionally well-situated to assess how the changing nature of research practices in education will impact the shape of the knowledge base of education. Peters is the editor of the journal Educational Philosophy and Theory and the author of several books that explore poststructuralism’s relationship to education. Burbules is the editor of the journal Educational Theory and the author of several books on pedagogy. However, poststructuralism’s impact upon the methodological commitments that define a particular knowledge base makes such an endeavor difficult for even these distinguished scholars. As a result, estimating the future nature of the knowledge base defining education is perhaps more a process of clarification than a process of prognostication. From Jean-François Lyotard, Peters and Burbules understand that poststructuralism raises questions such as “What kind of ‘knowledge game’ is educational research? What are the rules that constitute it? What are the stakes? Who are the players? What are their motivations and their purposes?” (p. 51). These types of questions prompt a reassessment of the very core of educational research. Assumptions left unquestioned by other philosophical movements are exposed and challenged by poststructuralism. As a result, any assessment of the future of educational research is as much, if not more, a matter of clarification than a matter of prognostication.
Moving from clarification to prognostication, Peters and Burbules divide their work into four chapters. First, an important distinction is made between modernism and postmodernism and then between structuralism and poststructuralism. Oftentimes, postmodernism and poststructuralism are used in an interchangeable manner. However, Peters and Burbules argue that “it is possible to distinguish between the two movements in terms of their respective intellectual genealogies and their theoretical trajectories and applications” (p. 29). Building upon this sense of clarification, Peters and Burbules inquire as to the impact of poststructuralism in two particular areas within education. In Chapters Two and Three, they “trace the specific influence of poststructuralist thought on the aims and the methods of educational research” (p. 30). As a result, they are able to identify trends in terms of how such trends have shaped educational research. In Chapter Four, Peters and Burbules offer an assessment of where they see educational research in the future. By focusing on matters of methodology, Peters and Burbules are able to focus on the commitments giving rise to the boundaries that define education as a discipline. As a result, they speculate that the future of educational research is invested in the development of “original and powerful critical practices of reading and writing—new ways of reading, writing, and analyzing texts, institutions, history, culture, and the self” (p. 81).
The strength of Peters’ and Burbules’ book is not simply in the way it moves from clarification to prognostication but also in the way the authors rely upon primary sources to make such a move. The language employed by some poststructuralists is cumbersome. When working with such material, the temptation is often great to succumb to needlessly clean and simplistic generalizations. Fortunately, Peters and Burbules directly introduce their audience to the “writings of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard, and many others” (p. 19). In addition to their willingness to work directly with the writings of poststructuralist philosophers, Peters and Burbules also work directly with the writings of educational researchers influenced by these philosophers. For example, Chapter Four includes a detailed yet concise assessment of how the efforts of Henry Giroux, Patti Lather, and Stephen Ball may offer some indication of the future shape of educational research. By citing directly from the works of these scholars, Peters and Burbules are able to demonstrate “that these researchers are as significant in their differences as in their commonalities” (p. 90). Giroux, Lather, and Ball all share some common commitments. However, the manner in which they reflect the influence of poststructuralism is as evident in these commitments as in the diversity of their interests. Such an important distinction would prove difficult to demonstrate if Peters and Burbules relied upon the simplistic generalizations of poststructuralism often found in secondary sources.
Despite the significant contribution Peters and Burbules make to educational research, one can read through their work and wonder whether poststructuralism has many adversaries beyond the diversity of interests represented by its own supporters. As is evident in the opening chapter of this book, the strength of poststructuralism is vested in its ability to challenge the basic assumptions that defined previous generations of scholarship. Poststructuralism’s assault on academe prompted a reassessment of the very core of research in general and educational research in particular. Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard, as well as Giroux, Lather, and Ball have their adversaries. However, these adversarial voices are generally not part of this text. For example, Peters and Burbules acknowledge that Derrida’s work is the subject of intense criticism. Instead of offering an assessment of these forms of criticism, they simply dismiss such efforts as the unfair remarks made “by people who have not carefully read his work” (p. 72). Asking an author or a set of authors to provide a neutral assessment of a particular subject may prove (for reasons suggested by poststructuralism itself) to be a philosophical misnomer. However, a more detailed assessment of the critics of poststructuralism would not only aid in the process of clarification but also in the process of prognostication.
Overall, Poststructuralism and Educational Research makes an important contribution to the field of educational research. Michael A. Peters and Nicholas C. Burbules are accomplished scholars who are well-positioned to offer not only clarification but also prognostication concerning how poststructuralism will impact the nature of educational research. Their efforts will prove to be of value to anyone who is interested in the differences between intellectual movements such as modernism and postmodernism obviously along with structuralism and poststructuralism. Time will tell how poststructuralism will fully impact educational research. Those who take the time to read Peters’ and Burbules’ important work will find themselves among those individuals who can anticipate the impending sense of change wrought by poststructuralism—regardless of whether their intention is to embrace such a sense of change or to resist it.
Biesta, G.J.J. and Burbules, N. (2003). Pragmatism and educational research.
Rowman and Littlefield, Inc.
Rowman and Littlefield, Inc.