chapter  15
15 Pages

(research-based) Beyond Epistemological Essentialism: Academic Tribes in the Twenty-First Century


This chapter concentrates on change in higher education, in particular the enhancement of teaching and learning there. The approach adopted is rooted in policy sociology, whose interests lie in looking at policy formation and policy “implementation”2 and in exploring the relationship between them and any gaps between expectations and outcomes. Underneath the specific discussion of the chapter lies one of the classic issues of sociology: the interplay between structural and agentic factors in social reality and social change. On the structural side lies the power of disciplines to condition the behavior of academics, their practices, values and attitudes. On the agentic side lie questions of narrativity, identity construction and power plays. Social worlds are both constructed and enacted, both agentic and structural in character. Janet Donald notes in Chapter 3 that students bring their world to the lecture theatre. This chapter emphasizes that faculty also bring their worlds to teaching contexts. It is true that the epistemological differences between disciplines are important: disciplines have different ways of thinking and practicing (see in particular Chapters 6, 7 and 8 in this volume), different tribes inhabiting the different disciplinary territories, and in this sense the structural power of discipline is important. But so are other structural factors such as educational ideologies and the influences of early socialization. As well as structure though, agency is important and for this reason we should be wary of making generalizations about the inhabitants of disciplinary territories: agency means that the regularities imposed by social structures are always provisional. This is especially true when we attempt to generalize about practices and attitudes less closely tied to the knowledge characteristics of disciplines such as some of those associated with teaching, learning and assessment.