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Methodology section: Post-Structuralism

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog


The next candidate methodology we shall consider is Post-Structuralism, a name give to a loose collection of (mainly French) ideas and authors by US academics. Related to Postmodernism and likewise lacking a ‘manifesto’, Post-Structuralism is a rejection of many schools of thought, including Structualism, Phenomenology, Analytical philosophy, and Marxism (although it is pro-Marx). The reasons for Post-Structuralism as a candidate methodology for this thesis are threefold. Firstly, the ‘subject forms the object’ – that is to say that the reader replaces the author as primary, with no one particular view being classed as ‘authoritative. Secondly, Post-Structualists avow practical expression rather than abstract arguments, Jacques Derrida’s (1985) anti-apartheid writing being an example of this. Thirdly, there is a close link between Post-Structuralism and Constructivism, a movement beloved of progressive educators.

Despite the insistence of Post-Structuralists that their focus is upon radical activity and practical expression, their writing is often fraught with complexity and nuance that translation into English can amplify. Here, for example, is Derrida explaining ‘deconstruction’ and the difficulty in translating the word (coined by Derrida) into languages other than French:

“[I]n spite of appearances, deconstruction is neither an analysis nor a critique… It is not an analysis in particular because the dismantling of a structure is not a regression toward a simple element, toward an un-decomposable origin. These values, like that of analysis, are themselves philosophemes subject to deconstruction. No more it is a critique, in a general sense or in a Kantian sense. The instance of krinein or krisis (decision, choice, judgment, discernment) is itself, as is all the apparatus of transcendental critique, one of the essential “themes” or “objects” of deconstruction.” (Derrida, 2008, p.4)

Indeed, Roland Barthes (who went through a Post-Structuralist phase) called for a ‘metalanguage’ whereby we could talk about the meaning and grammar of language(s) in a systematised way without prioritising the intentionality of the author. He talks of the author being “a modern figure, a product of our society… emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation” (Barthes, 1977). In this way Barthes and his peers rejected the doctrine of Structuralism – the idea that each domain of knowledge can be understood through a linguistic structure. Assister (1984) has identified four ideas common to the various forms of structuralism: (i) every system has a structure, (ii) the structure determines the position of each element within it, (iii) structures are real things that lie beneath surface meaning, and (iv) structural laws deal with co-existence rather than change. Structuralism appeals, therefore, to a ‘third order’, a reality external to that of reality and the imagination (Deleuze, 2002).

Post-Structuralism, in rejecting Structuralism, posits that the latter is synchronic (or ‘descriptive’) whilst the former diachronic (or ‘historical’). There is no rational way to evaluate preferences relating to truth, morality or aesthetics, argue Post-Structuralists – leading to what Michel Foucault (1976) terms the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’. Language and texts are not natural but are instead constructs which may be interpreted, and interpreted in an infinite number of ways.

In terms of this thesis, Post-Structuralism seems to be, at first blush, a useful methodology to employ. It rejects the binary opposition between, for example, signifier and signified meaning that we can use it to make sense of what has been termed the ‘Read/Write Web’ in which the reader is in some way also the author. Post-Structuralism also rejects the concept of a single, stable notion of ‘self’ and instead embraces the tensions between multiple personas and ways of being. This maps onto, and helps explain, the variety of ways in which we represent ourselves in both physical and digital worlds. Interestingly, some Post-Structuralists claim that the ‘truth’ of a population is located at the edges rather than the core, at the places in which it is changing rather than the places at which it remains static. “[Words] signify from the “world” and from the position of one who is looking” states Lévinas (2003, p.12), meaning that although the limits of knowledge are important they cannot be observed directly, only identified through their effects. Given that the debate around digital literacies presuppose that the practices they contain lie on the outer boundaries of what we know, the Post-Structuralist approach would seem suitable.

There are, however, some issues with Post-Structuralism which make it unsuitable as a methodology for this thesis. As we identified in the introduction to this chapter, there are three criteria for a methodology. Whilst Post-Structuralism certainly seems suited to the aims of the thesis, it is questionable as to whether it can fulfil the other two aims. The first criterion, that the methodology is ‘recognised and respected as sound’ would seem unproblematic to progressive educators and those embracing Constructivism (a theory that we generate meaning and knowledge through the interplay between the ideas we encounter and experiences we have), but would be rejected by more conservative colleagues.

Closely allied to this issue of recognition across the political and educational spectrum is the third criterion: that the methodology will allow for results making a difference to the research area. Post-Structuralism, emerging from France in a period when Cold War collaboration with the USSR led to a dissatisfaction with ‘Marxism’ (if not with Marx). Post-Structuralist authors define their approach almost entirely in negative terms, as a rejection of what has gone before and therefore, it could be claimed, define a philosophy that is more an expression of a problem than a method of finding a solution. Post-Structuralism has been attacked as relativist and nihilist by a range of critics and, lacking a clear manifesto and coherence of approach, certainly seems to be an amorphous collection of ideas difficult to apply in practice.

Finally, there is the issue of application. Although the concepts inherent in Post-Structuralism are appealing to those investigating New and Digital Literacies, the movement lacks the power of an epistemology that can make a difference in practice. Stating, for example, that the limits of knowledge play an unavoidable role at its core is more of a reminder to consider elements in their totality rather than epistemological bedrock.
Post-Structuralism is a programme that, although appealing, is defined too much in negative to be useful for this thesis. As with Critical Theory, it has no way to build its way out of a potential collapse into solipsism and subjectivism.


Assister, A. (1984) ‘Althusser and structuralism’ (British Journal of Sociology, Vol.35:2, June 1984, pp.272-296)

Barthes, R. (1977) The Death of the Author

Deleuze, G. (2002) ‘How Do We Recognise Structuralism?’ (in Taormina, M. (ed.) (2004) Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974, pp.170-192)

Derrida, J. (1985) ‘Racism’s Last Word’ (Critical Inquiry, Vol.12(1), Autumn 1985)

Derrida, J. (2008) Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume II (Kamuf, P. & Rottenberg, E.G. (eds.), Stanford University Press

Lévinas, E. (2003) Humanism of the Other (Chicago: University of Illinois Press)

 

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