28 SES 09 A, New vocabularies for investigating education policy and practice
As researchers in education sociology we are used to hearing the demand to “place things into their wider context”. The trouble is that it is impossible to know when enough context has been described to understand the meaning of what is studied. The understanding of context is often embedded in realist, essentialist ontologies that assume both a separation between the subjects of research and their contexts, and imagine context as a pre-existing reality waiting to be re-presented and given explanatory power. The “doing” of contextualization is reserved for the detached analyst, while there is no interest in how the subjects of research themselves act as "context-makers" in their everyday personal and professional lives. Foregrounding the importance of context for sociological inquiry, I search for ways to go beyond realitist ontologies of context. I capitalize on the notion of contexting introduced by Asdal and Moser (2012) to explore contextualization as a resource employed to modify interests (Latour 2005 ). I claim that contexting not only offers an alternative to realist accounts, but also pushes to ask new research questions, such as how actors and contexts mutually constitute each other, how actors negotiate their ways through one another’s world-building activity, and how policymaking entails and produces contextual relations (see Nespor 2002).
This paper seeks to destabilize the notion of context as “neatly packaged matter-of-fact cubes” and discusses analytical ways through which we could move in the direction of imagining and working with contexts “as a confluence of practices and objects coming together and never permanently stabilizing” (Sobe & Kowalczyk, 2014). Building on Actor-Network Theory I examine how invoking context is performative and non-innocent. Moreover, I work with(in) the messiness and relationality of contexts producing and produced in research and the ways in which multiple contexts jostle against, and interfere with, one another (Asdal and Moser 2012).
I propose that a productive way to think about context is to deploy Actor-Network Theory’s (ANT) sensibilities towards the relationality and flatness of actor-networks. As Law (2004, 22) argues, there are “no natural, pregiven boundaries. Instead there is blurring. Everything is connected and contained within everything else. There are, indeed, no limits.” The distinction – the boundaries – between e.g. the phenomenon and its context, are precarious achievements that actors labour for various reasons and through diverse means. Moreover, according to ANT, despite the fact that much work is invested into demarcating science from politics, science and politics share the goal of enrolling actors in order to convince and wield influence, and can be investigated symmetrically with same analytical sensibilities. Thus actors – researchers, policy-makers and others - employ contextualization to put themselves in the position of spokespersons of pre-given realities by employing holistic images of contexts. Contexting offers an analytical possibility to focus on the precarious labour of contextualization.
Asdal, K. & Moser, I. (2012). Experiments in Context and Contexting. Science, Technology, & Human Values 37(4), 291-306. Callon, M. (1986). Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay. In J. Law (ed.), Power, action and belief: a new sociology of knowledge? London: Routledge, 196-223. Latour, B. (2005 ). ‘On Recalling ANT’, in John Law and John Hassard (eds), On Actor Network Theory and After. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 15–25. Law, J. (2004). And if the global were small and noncoherent? Method, complexity, and the baroque. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22, 13-26. Nespor, J. (2002). Networks and contexts of reform. Journal of Educational Change 3, 365–82. Sobe N. W. & Kowalczyk, J. A. (2014). Exploding the Cube: Revisioning “Context” in the Field of Comparative Education. Current Issues in Comparative Education 16(1), 6-12.
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