Removing human agency from educational research

I’m struck by how often education researchers use the passive voice. Instead of describing how person A does something to person B, they write that something “was done” to B. Or, to move up the scale a bit, instead of saying that a collective actor (such as the very rich) are exploiting other collective actors (such as the very poor), they say that the poor “were exploited”. And instead of identifying people who are very rich or powerful, it is quite common for researchers to write about forces such as neo-liberalism, that are impersonal and abstract.

Here’s an example, from the editorial of a special journal issue on neo-liberalism and education. In his third sentence, the editor states that “Neo-liberalism can refer to a set of propositions and applications consisting of dynamics drawn from what are sometimes considered separate spheres of activity and knowledge”.

I’m not criticising the language or the definition, but rather want to note that phrase “drawn from”; what it does is set out an action, but not an actor; no one is actually doing the drawing, rather it is done. Later on, the same writer urges readers to make sense “of the politics and struggles through which neo-liberal forms are imbued with socio-cultural and institutional force”. He says that during the 1970s, Keynesian economic strategies “underwent intense scrutiny”, and so on.

What’s interesting for me about the pervasive use of the passive voice in research papers is that it avoids the question of human agency. But it does this not as a logically argued way of removing human agency from the equation, but by a linguistic device that seeks to render agency invisible, while neither acknowledging or problematizing it.

At least the author of my example is explicit about this. He states clearly that “neo-liberalism lacks agency, a core or final authority because power is exercised through the character of networks, figurations and flows”. And this intellectual honesty was one reason why I chose his editorial as my example. He has taken Foucault’s decentering of the subject to its logical conclusion.

This brings us the nub of the problem. If things happen because of impersonal and abstract power, and not because people make them happen, then no one can be brought to account for these things happening. And equally, no one is resisting things happening, or trying to propose alternatives, because resistance and alternatives – if they exist at all – must also reside in “networks, figurations and flows”.

As I say, this particular author is open about his framework. Others simply use the passive voice, and refer to abstractions as actors, without being so clear or explicit. I see this as a form of withdrawal from the world, a refusal to engage with the processes that they describe, and a refusal of any responsibility for securing change.