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Workshop 1 Report

Key themes from ‘challenging orthodoxies’ workshop 1, scoping the challenge

The objective of workshop 1 was for interested colleagues to come along and air their views, in a relatively unstructured way, about the nature of disciplinary orthodoxies and the grounds/possibilities for critique within and across disciplines.  This objective was amply met following a very vibrant morning’s discussion.   Inevitably, this session threw up a lot of questions for us to consider at the steering group and subsequent workshops. Not all the issues are a neat fit anywhere, but I have attempted to thematize the main questions below.  In my view, questions such as these could underpin any number of research projects; in their own right, or as conceptual problems in the study of issues and phenomena in contemporary governance.  Others may have different interpretations, of course!  At the steering group, I suggest we use this document in order to identify 2 or 3 key questions with which to tax our four plenary speakers on the 31st January.

The historiography of critique  

Critique and its potential for stimulating and facilitating social change tends to rise and fall like a fashion, intimately linked as it is to the wider political landscape.  Critical moments are strongly associated to available discourses and the ability to read, write and re-articulate existing “problems”. The ability to recognize and re-articulate problems and solutions involves the creative use, recombination and transcendence of existing practices and imaginaries. For example, in the field of criminal justice in the late 1980s and early 1990s a variety of critical perspectives emerged which had a strong impact in the re-articulation of the legal justice system in the UK. However, the current hegemonic order marginalized them to the extent where it is questionable whether constructive engagement with that order is presently worthwhile. A profitable way into critical study might then seek to develop an understanding of the history and the politics of critical events 2) the possibilities for recognising, and helping to bring about, new critical moments.

Key questions

  • At what times in history, and why, does a critical stance on governance issues become possible/impossible?
  • What are the sources of social critique?
  • How do we see/recognize “problems”? How do we know the ‘moment of opposition’ when we see it?
  • How/when does the subject of engagement emerge? What are the conditions leading from recognition to action?
  • What are the conditions in which orthodoxy/critique is constituted within specific disciplines (including the history of the disciplines themselves)?


Critical styles, dispositions, strategies and practices

When critique is intersubjective, a distinction may be drawn between propositional and oppositional criticism (and between each kind of criticism and critique or criticality as a disposition or practice).Critical engagement, particularly with a clear performative intent, may benefit greatly from an analysis of typologies of engagement. For example, it is pertinent to ask, ‘who is the critic’ in a disciplinary, or cross-disciplinary context? What kind of criticisms are present in a particular field? Injunctions and prohibitions are present not only in orthodoxies but also in critical positions and to this extent, the reflexive disposition may be significant. There was considerable debate about the role of scholarship as a means of intervening critically in the practice others, critical scholarship as a form of practice and critical scholars as practitioners/activists.  One element of this debate concerned the extent of the obligation on governance scholars to write in a manner commensurate with an engagement in public discourse.  

Key questions

  • Why criticize, for whom and to what ends?
  • Around what does the critical scholar focus?  The issues of the day?  The discipline? The cross/transdisciplinary?  On boundaries?  Is critical style a generational phenomenon? 
  • How does critical engagement involve strategy? For example, when should theories and practices of critical governance be a. inward looking, b. outward looking (propositional) or c. outward looking (oppositional).
  • When we speak oppositionally, to whom are we addressing ourselves?
  • Specifically, can New Labour orthodoxies be effectively challenged within a ‘propositional’ approach to critical research?
  • What are the most effective research strategies likely to be for reviving critique in the sphere of governance studies (e.g. disturb, participate and/or resist)?
  • Who controls critical discourse and practice and sets limits?
  • And, how do we manage the tension between challenging orthodoxy for the sake of autonomy, and closing down autonomy for the sake of action?
  • When/why/how do scholars study practice, engage in practice and/or engage as practitioner-activists?
  • What are the responsibilities of critical scholars, a. to those criticized or b. to those scholars/practitioners/activists alongside whom they are engaged in critique?
  • To what extent are governance scholars obliged to, or excused from, writing in a publicly accessible style?
  • What are the implications for scholarly integrity of direct engagement by academics in public spheres?


Appropriation and encroachment

Once critical concepts and terms have now been appropriated to the neoliberal lexicon.   E.g. ‘reflexivity’ has been torn from its traditional sociological mooring as ‘critical of context’, now meaning ‘adaptive to context’ and the critical language of human rights has been appropriated to a market friendly vernacular.  At the same time, universities have been adversely affected.  Neoliberalism has created conditions in which old disciplinary boundaries are being questioned, or attacked – and in which the IAS itself has emerged.  At the same time universities have become much more porous to the vicissitudes of powerful and wealthy ‘outsiders’, at the expense of their historic (though historically exaggerated) commitment to open knowledge and universalism. 

Key questions

  • What role can scholars play in resisting roll-out neoliberalism (or capitalist globalisation) in our day to day work? 
  • What role can scholars play in the spheres of public discourse and public policy? 
  • How do we create/revive/protect ‘the university’ as an autonomous institution and source of open knowledge?
  • How do we offset the costs of critique in a hostile polity (personal, institutional, financial, reputational, positional, psychological etc)?
  • When should we refuse to ‘play the game’ imposed on universities by neoliberalism?


Jonathan Davies

12th January 2008