ERG SES D 14, Communities and Education
Recognition of the interrelated causes of deprivation, social exclusion and academic underachievement has given rise to an intensifying call for partnership working and multi-agency approaches to education, both at supranational and national European levels (Edwards and Downes, 2013). In the process, partnership working has produced new challenges, dynamics and opportunities, many of which are reproduced across national contexts.
‘Killoch Homework and Cookery Club’ (KHCC) in the West of Scotland brought together public and third sector agencies (from within and beyond the education sector) to deliver community education for adults and children. This research project investigated the street-level dynamics of the partnership, posing the questions:
How do multi-agency working practices at KHCC compare with those documented in the extant international literature? How might these practices challenge or augment current theoretical understandings of street-level multi-agency working and inform future implementation of education partnerships in Scotland and elsewhere?
It was found that initially, partners at KHCC employed novel multi-agency practices, particularly in relation to the conception and management of risk. For three years, KHCC operated (stably and successfully) according to three principles of ‘informal solidarity’: i) the collectivization of risk; ii) an understanding of partnership as a constellation of personal, trusting relationships; and iii) the importance of a ‘social lubricant’ figure who informally cultivated a culture of responsive collaboration. Risk and uncertainty were accepted and adopted as organizing principles of community education work, rather than an unwelcome phenomenon to be managed and mitigated.
However, as the project became more established it fell under greater scrutiny from city agencies and a creeping discomfort and altered conceptualisation of risk developed. Following intervention from strategic actors, partnership working practices at KHCC underwent transformation, shifting from ‘informal solidarity’ to a phase of ‘structure and distrust’ characterized by rationalized, instrumental risk management processes.
Habermas’ theory of lifeworld colonization (1987) was used as a framework for understanding this transformation. KHCC brought the communicative realm of community, family and personal connection into contact with the rationalism and managerialism of formal education and large-scale state agencies. Frequently, the habits, languages and organizing principles of these two ‘worlds’ feel alien or are at odds with each other. Community education must sit on this very boundary and negotiate processes and outcomes that will be positively received from each side. Thus, partnerships become a helpful, yet highly complex and potentially contentious, tool for organizing intervention.
Learning from KHCC suggests that attention to risk narratives and the possibility for lifeworld colonization are crucial for understanding education partnerships. This rich case study offers refinements to Habermasian theory which help account for the complexity of community education partnerships, conceived as occupying a liminal space at the borderlands of the system and lifeworlds. Crucially, it renders visible the lifeworld of education partnerships themselves, which are not barren of agency, but populated by street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 1980), capable of producing and promulgating (potentially competing) discourses of risk. This offers new tools for understanding and anticipating impediments to the implementation and success of education partnerships in the many European states where they are now a priority. Thus, this paper makes a strong and novel contribution to theoretical understandings of partnerships in community education while also advocating for greater attention to risk discourses when considering their implementation and evaluation.
A mixed-method, case study approach was used in the research. Eight semi-structured interviews of 40-70 minutes were conducted with project partners who represent key agencies involved in the formation and running of KHCC. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Two separate, two-hour participant observations were conducted at KHCC to produce qualitative field notes on the activities, atmosphere and interactions between partners. Prompting notes collected during observations were used to write up extended field notes immediately after the observations, focusing on key questions. This was recorded in a reflective fashion, incorporating notes on the researcher’s interpretation of events. Where observation data was collected prior to interviews, any relevant findings were used to inform and prompt interview questioning. Four 50-minute non-participant observations were used to quantitatively measure the duration and frequency of interactions between different KHCC partners. The content of interactions was not recorded. Again, where observation data was collected prior to interviews, any relevant observations were used to inform and prompt interview questioning. After completing the majority of data collection, one semi-structured, qualitative, non-participant observation of a partnership meeting was used to triangulate data previously collected and to corroborate initial findings. 10 months of voluntary activity at KHCC supported the co-production and refinement of research questions, improved knowledge of the research context and the informal corroboration of research findings. As a result, there is a semi-ethnographic component to the research. Odena’s (2013: 366) ‘generative model of social knowledge development’ structured the data analysis, with all forms of data coded thematically using an inductive analytical approach guided by findings from the literature review. An initial stage of immersion was used to produce detailed transcriptions of interviews and observations. Categorization began before data collection was complete, which allowed more explicit testing of hypotheses in later interviews in order to confirm or contest ‘hunches’ as the research progressed. Once all the data had been collected, transcribed and re-read, categories were reduced to key themes by triangulating interview and observation data.
It is concluded that partnership practices at KHCC underwent a process of transformation, shifting from ‘informal solidarity’ – characterized by a constellation of trusting relationships and the collectivization of risk – to a phase of ‘structure and distrust’ – characterized by rationalized, instrumental risk management processes. These changes represent lifeworld colonization (Habermas, 1987) in action: communicative reason was de-legitimized through particular risk discourses to produce one-sided rationality, and the primary task of KHCC shifted from community engagement to service delivery. In the process, opportunities for the lifeworld interests of community members and operational partners to influence multi-agency practices were diminished. However, Habermas’s (1987) theory of colonization alone cannot fully account for partnership dynamics that sit at the borderlands of the state. The example of KHCC demonstrates that the liminal spaces and activities occupying the boundary between the system and lifeworlds (or state/community) such as community education partnerships are not unpopulated zones devoid of action and agency. Murphy’s (2018) hybridization of the works of Lipsky and Habermas offers a fuller theoretical picture. Acting as street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 1980), partners become active agents in negotiating the seam between the system and lifeworlds as they ‘make’ policy at the street level. Furthermore, the case of KHCC suggests that greater attention should be paid to assessments of risk when applying colonization theory, particularly in partnership contexts. By constructing and anticipating specific forms of organizational catastrophe, an instrumental reaction became justified at KHCC (Beck, 2014). Attention to the role of risk in this case cannot be separated from an analysis of lifeworld colonization; indeed, the two are deeply intertwined. Analysis of how risk discourses are socio-culturally produced, employed and acted upon in trans/national European education partnerships could be used to disrupt the neutral framing of system imperatives and reveal colonization dynamics hitherto underexplored.
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