Addressing questions of justice and inequality in educational research requires a deep understanding of the social, economic and historical forces that connect us to one another and of the difficulties of intervening in complex and dynamic systems. For example, if people saw children drowning in the rapids of a river, their first impulse would probably be to try to save them or to search for help. But what if they looked a bit further and found out that there were boats with people throwing the children in the water and that these boats were multiplying by the minute? How many different tasks would be necessary to address this situation of emergency? I suggest there are at least four inter-related tasks: rescuing the children already in the water (e.g. enhancing praxis), stopping the boats from throwing the children in the water (e.g. creating/ improving/ implementing policy), going to the villages of the boat crew to understand why this is happening (e.g. generating theory/analysis/new thinking), collecting the bodies of those who have died and documenting and raising awareness of what has happened (e.g. describing phenomena and relationships). In deciding what to do, rescuers would need to be mindful that rescuing techniques may unintentionally harm the children they are trying to save and that some strategies to stop the boats may prompt more boats to join the fleet - they may even realize that they are actually in one of the boats, throwing many children in the water with one hand while benevolently trying to rescue some of them with the other hand.
This (often ignored) connection between our benevolent intentions to stop harm and our systemic complicity in harm in relation to poverty interventions can also be metaphorically represented through the image of a heavy Caucasian man sitting for a long time at the back of a skinny black woman, she is sinking under the burden and he is genuinely concerned as he continuously repeats: “I will do anything to help you, except get off your back”. This image (inspired by a sculpture by Jens Galshiot) captures a common pattern of representation of poverty and the impulse to eliminate it that disconnects poverty from the mechanisms that create it, and that we benefit from. Concepts of poverty and wealth, based on modernist constructs of progress and development, are often represented as universal givens in educational policies and practices, especially in global initiatives that aim at addressing poverty, such as ‘Education for All’ and the ‘Millennium Development Goals’. In particular, poverty is commonly studied in isolation from processes of exploitation/accumulation, political polarizations and epistemic violence, reproducing intervention packages that regulate the impoverished Other, while leaving un-problematized the position of the dispensers of help and rights. Similarly, calls to ‘make a difference’, appeals to a ‘common humanity’ and slogans of sympathy, pity, charity and/or benevolence often foreclose the complicity of benefactors in the production of inequality and injustice. This creates the conditions for a self-interested altruism that may be effective in alleviating the effects of structural and cultural violence, but that does not change the conditions of production of this violence as this would necessarily go against individual and collective investments and interests. As a result, historical patterns of engagement with those at the receiving end of interventions are usually:
Therefore, our ethical commitment as educational researchers should be extended to addressing and changing patterns of analysis, representations and engagements that reproduce epistemic and material injustices, which requires that, to different degrees, all research should engage with ‘up the river’ work (i.e. theories and analyses of the economic, cultural and historical roots and mechanisms of the production of poverty). Going up the river involves asking essential, difficult and often disturbing begged questions that may implicate rescuers in the reproduction of harm. Questions such as: How is poverty created? How come different lives have different value? What are the relationships between social groups that are over-exploited and social groups that over-exploit? How are these relationships maintained? How do people justify unequal divisions of wealth and labor? What are the roles of schooling in the reproduction and contestation of inequalities in society? When do institutionalized initiatives, such as the human rights declaration or military interventions, become helpful in promoting justice and addressing inequalities and when do they worsen or create different problems? How would people respond if they realized that bringing justice to others meant going against national or local economic and cultural interests? How have cherished humanist ideals contributed to the dispossession, destitution, exploitation and extermination of peoples and the destruction of ecological balance around the world? How are hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses implicated in the proliferation of divisions, fragmentations, fundamentalisms and inequalities?
Hopefully, if we go up the river together we will be able to come down with enlarged referents and tools of analysis that will better equip us to perceive and address the complexities, contingencies, uncertainties, pluralities and inequalities of our contexts, so that the intervention strategies ‘down the river’ can be better informed in the hope that one day no more boat crews will throw children in the water. This may also help us to address the issue of justice as an on-going agonistic and difficult conversation that we cannot afford to ignore. Going up the river is necessary for substantially committing this conversation to a form of radical democracy that moves beyond the limits of dominant forms of political engagement and representation and that can become affectively and cognitively accountable for the new and old problems our poverty solutions may engender. This means complicating further the questions we ask, for example:
I hope the meeting in 2013 will offer invaluable opportunities for addressing these (and other) contemporary dilemmas.
This text was based on the article: Andreotti, V. (2012). Education, knowledge and the righting of wrongs. Other Education Journal, 1(1): 5-18. Available at: http://www.othereducation.stir.ac.uk/index.php/OE
Vanessa de Oliveira (Andreotti) is a professor of global education at the University of Oulu in Finland. She is the author of Actionable postcolonial theory in education (recipient of an AERA Division B book award in 2012) and Post-colonial perspectives of global citizenship education. She has extensive experience in international cross–sectoral and interdisciplinary research in the areas of development, cultural and indigenous studies. She is the chair-elect of the AERA Postcolonial Studies in Sducation SIG. Most of her published articles can be found at http://oulu.academia.edu/VanessaAndreotti