British Educational Research Asociation Annual Conference

University of Leeds

13–15 September, 2001


Contested territories: the struggle for knowledge, power and identity

Setting out some preliminary ideas for a new research programme

Jean McNiff

[Word version available]

I would like to share with you some learnings from the experience of working in recent years in contexts which can be seen as contested in a variety of ways. I would like to invite your critical response to my learning, because I believe learning can be enhanced when it is a shared process between persons who are committed to finding and telling the truth as they see it (Polanyi, 1958). These ideas form the basis of a new research programme for new scholarships of educational enquiry in politically contested contexts.

This paper is a progress report in terms of some recent learnings about the nature of conflict. It is easy enough to describe conflict. Understanding it is something else, and means living engagement with its realities.

The geographical territories that constitute my learning contexts are the island of Ireland, North and South, and Palestine. The work in these places is to support educators as they undertake their personal enquiries into their practice and make their findings public. Like other researchers, I have become caught up in the struggles for identity in those territories. Many of us have seen TV images and newspaper reports which show the often fierce and bitter struggles for identity of all involved, how one side tries to colonise the other, tries to control their identities. This desire to control another’s identity can be extreme and can employ extreme measures. Witness the horrific experiences of Catholic children last week in Belfast as they tried to go to school. One community felt they had the right to make judgements about the legitimacy of the identity of others. This kind of self-granted right by some to make judgements about others can even be extended to decisions about claims to life. A comment from a colleague in Palestine stays with me: when he attempted to talk to a young Jewish woman who was carrying a gun and pushing a pram she responded to him: ‘The problem is not that you are here, Professor. The problem is that you exist.’

Now let me travel to another geographical context – Seattle 2001. The scene is the American Educational Research Association annual meeting. The topic is the questions, ‘What do we know? How do we know it?’ I have taken these questions as the basis of new work (2001) and added a few more: ‘How do we validate our knowledge? How do we share it? How do we use it?’ I have come to understand, from the experience of working in contested territories, how the basis of the contestation is in the minds of individuals as they address these kinds of questions. I agree with John Hume, leader of the SDLP in Northern Ireland, who says that peace processes begin in the minds of individuals. So do learning processes. What we know is shaped by how we know it. This is a very basic issue, yet I have not clearly understood it until now.

What we know is shaped by how we know it.

Here is an example to illustrate the point.

Teacher Ros Frost (in the delightful ‘Doing Practitioner Research Differently’ by Marian Dadds and Susan Hart, 2001), tells how her interpretations of the behaviours of a young boy, Eddy, changed depending on her own level of stress. She observes in her field notes:

Action: ‘Eddy tells friend the colour of his eyes.’

Ros’s relaxed interpretation: ‘Helping his friend.’

Her stressed interpretation: ‘Lack of concentration.’

Action: ‘[Eddy] [p]ropels rubber using ruler with description of mechanical catapult.’

Relaxed interpretation: ‘Understanding technology.’

Stressed interpretation: ‘Throwing rubber – disruption.’

(Frost, in Dadds and Hart, 2001: 21).

What we know is shaped by how we know it.

I began working in the Republic of Ireland in 1992, developing teacher education programmes which encouraged teachers to research their own practice and produce accounts of practice to show how and why they felt they were influencing the quality of their students’ learning. I wanted to contribute to contemporary reconceptualisations of educational theory, to turn it from an abstract discipline to what Whitehead refers to as the generation of living forms of theory (Whitehead, 1989, 2000). From the beginning the aim was to have this practical epistemological base legitimated by the Academy. This has now been achieved. Some seventy educators have received their masters degrees for studying their own practice; and I have accepted an invitation by the University of Limerick to work with them in developing the approach as the basis of new doctoral programmes. This is a particularly significant development, given that the still dominant knowledge base in Ireland one of technical rationality.

While I was actively developing this new epistemological base out of a deep intuitive belief in its appropriateness, I was not yet aware of the reasons or purposes of my actions. I was not yet articulating how I was coming to see that people think in different ways, actually use different mental models. My intellectual understanding around these issues began to grow through working with a colleague, Anne Fleischmann, in the area of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983). I began to understand, at a cognitive level, that there are many different ways of knowing and coming to know (Fleischmann and McNiff, in preparation). This view is illustrated by another teacher’s story from Dadds and Hart (op. cit.). Joe Geraci recounts how, as a child, he asked his mother why it was that ‘some cars’ windscreen wipers went back and forth in the same direction together, while the wiper blades on other cars went opposite each other’ (p. 49). He says, ‘I’ve forgotten the exact wording, but I do remember using my hands to show the direction of the windscreen wipers so that my mother could better understand my question’ (p. 49). Our mental models are informed by our embodied knowing as much as by our cognitive capacities.

Working with Anne and others, I began to see how different ways of knowing actually influence what we come to know and hold as truth (Pickstone, 2000). My own knowing did not emerge until I began practising; my cognitive knowledge began to emerge from the embodied knowledge of my practice (Varela et al., 1999). In the same way, in writing this report, my experiential learning from practice is being articulated in a refined way by the cognitive process of organising my ideas in a coherent fashion. Anne and I work in contexts in which only one (propositional) form of knowledge and one (propositional) way of knowing have, until recently, been regarded as valid. Any other ways of knowing have been eliminated from most educational debate. In recent years, however, new ways of knowing are being recognised, particularly in the wide-ranging curriculum reform of present times. This has led to a new exit examination, the Leaving Certificate Applied, which recognises and values non-cognitive ways of knowing. However, while the concept of different forms of knowing might be accepted at school level, still, in the Academy, in the most powerful contexts of what counts as valid knowledge, elites continue to exercise control in terms of what is known and how it comes to be known. Access to the Academy is still tightly controlled by a points system, as the following passage explains:

‘We recommend that the existing Points system not be fundamentally changed as it has proven itself to be scrupulously fair, efficient, cost-effective and appropriate. Importantly, the system has also acquired public validity and credibility at this stage.’

(Conference of Heads of Irish Universities, 1999

cited in Dodds, 2001: 27)

The situation becomes even more complex when the issue of the contested nature of knowledge is located within politically contested territories.

While continuing to work in the south, I also began working in Northern Ireland, with the same commitment to contribute to a reconceptualisation of the knowledge base of teacher education. The project I was involved in then was informal and unfunded, and went nowhere in the public domain other than the production of a report and a paper for a BERA conference (McNiff and Neill, 1998), and the changed thinking and practice of some of the teachers who had been involved. It did however focus my own thinking on the contested nature of knowledge and its contexts, and how to begin to combat the autocratic control of knowledge and its acquisition.

During the last two years I have developed the work in Northern Ireland, supporting a small teacher education initiative called Time to Listen (McNiff, McGeady and Elliott, 2001). This project was located in the Craigavon District area, which includes Portadown, Drumcree and Lurgan, an area of acute political sensitivity. In the project, a small group of teachers began to investigate their practice within the contexts of Education for Mutual Understanding, a strand of the Northern Ireland curriculum. The Education Reform (Northern Ireland) order of 1989 introduced Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) and the related theme Cultural Heritage (CH) as part of the statutory curriculum in all state-funded schools (Morgan and Dunn, 2000). The aims of EMU embrace the core values of pluralism, pursuit of social justice, acceptance of human rights and responsibilities, and democracy (Department of Education for Northern Ireland, 1999).

As my learning has developed I have become increasingly aware of how our thinking and practices are influenced by the kinds of mental models we learn to use. Jenkins (1992: 56) says: ‘There are all sorts of cognitive devices – metaphor and analogy are good examples – which we use to structure and produce our knowledge of the world.’ I am fascinated by how metaphor is used in this way. Different metaphors describe and inform different ways of knowing. Technical rational approaches, for example, hold that propositional knowledge exists in reified form, external to knowers. Methodologies for its validation involve tight control. Its metaphors are those of fragmentation, alienation and control (Bohm, 1996; Marcuse, 1964). Commitment to this propositional knowledge base informs and justifies the kinds of attitudes contained in the statement above by the Heads of Irish Universities.

The permeating metaphors of the education enterprise in Northern Ireland are those of fragmentation, alienation and control. You might recognise this also as part of your own experience. Dominant forms of initial teacher training and teacher continuing professional development are largely didactic and coercive. Teachers’ professional knowledge is assessed in terms of a competences model (Department of Education, 2000) which emphasises the performative skills base of teaching. The curriculum for Northern Ireland, which has become increasingly controlled and manufactured by central government, is ‘delivered’ in a standardised fashion. Children’s achievement is judged in terms of normative tests, and children are allocated to schools within a largely segregated system of schooling on the basis of their achievement in cognitive logics. The metaphors of fragmentation which characterise education and schooling in Northern Ireland are the same metaphors which characterise much of social life. We live in a containered society, talking much but saying little. It is considered by some impolite to mention the divided nature of the society or its practical manifestations.

Embedded deep within this matrix of complexities is the idea of knowledge, what we know and how we know it.

The metaphors of alienation and fragmentation sustain lack of social cohesion, encourage binary divisions, ‘them and us’ attitudes. Forms of teacher education in Northern Ireland operate largely from this perspective, and systematically rule out the values base of teaching. They are considered by many to be inadequate for helping teachers to understand the problematics of practice, especially in politically contested territories (Smith and Robinson, 1996).

Time to Listen set out to try to provide the kind of professional learning experience for a small group of educators which would help them raise their awareness of the values which inform their lives, and how they might develop appropriate standards of judgement to test the validity of their claims to educational improvement in terms of how they were living their values in their practices (Whitehead, 1999). In terms of policy frameworks, the research would show how educators were living out the core values of EMU (see above, DENI, 1999), and how they were revealing through their self studies how those practices embodied the core values. The project adopted an action research approach, which encouraged the teachers and their supporters to study their own practice as they were trying to improve the quality of relationships within their classrooms. They hoped that such improvement would lead to enhanced self esteem on the part of teachers and pupils, so that they would bring the values of care and compassion to their practices in the wider world.

Participants monitored their practice over the 12-month period of the research, and produced accounts of their work for limited public dissemination at a celebratory conference on June 13th, 2001. They showed how they had worked collaboratively with children, parents, educational agencies and policy makers in creating the kinds of contexts and methodologies of care that would encourage personal self esteem and improved social relationships. They showed how they were able to reflect on the process of generating their own educational knowledge, and reflect critically on how they were able to identify their values as their living standards of judgement (Whitehead, 1999). These claims were widely validated by participants at the celebratory conference, and also later by no less a personage than the Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness, at another seminar in July 2001. The evidence is contained in the report of the project (McNiff, Mc Geady and Elliott, 2001), which is not yet available for public dissemination because it has not been cleared by the teachers involved (the report was written over the summer and teachers have received their copies only on return to school in September). Sadly also for this presentation, a video produced by a group of six boys is also not available, to show that they were able to make critical judgements on how they had improved their own understanding of their capacity to develop quality relationships. The evidence also exists in people’s lives as they practise in new ways.

While working on this project I was invited to begin work with a small group of educators in Ramallah, Palestine. I came to see many similarities in the underlying problematics for both societies, although I believe there are as many differences as there are similarities.

In Palestine, as in Northern Ireland, I saw how ‘them and us’ scenarios have escalated to the extent that many people do not see the other side even as people. They are ‘the Other’. Lasting images remind me of the experience. A visit with my hosts to Jerusalem, where I saw how the very identity and livelihood of Palestinians are eroded through tight fiscal and political control. Travels around the country where I saw how standards in the quality of living among communities differ according to the amount of money invested – shades of the economic privilege which tends to be afforded to dominant groups in Northern Ireland at the expense of those who remain subordinate. I saw also the blindness to acceptance of responsibility when, three times in the same day we drove around the police station in Ramallah, and I was told by three different drivers of how it had been bombed by Israelis, but no one mentioned that two Israeli soldiers had been murdered in the same place.

What we know is shaped by how we know.

Dominant systems of knowledge and their metaphors of fragmentation and control lead us to see people as over against one another – them or us, Protestant or Catholic, Arab or Jew, gay or straight, This or That. What happens when we come to know differently, when we deliberately nurture other ways of knowing?

In recent work (McNiff 2000) I have explored ideas of developing different metaphors, of moving away from seeing phenomena as objects of enquiry, and focusing instead on the invisible relationships which connect them (see also Capra, 1996). If we develop metaphors which foreground the relationships between phenomena, rather than the phenomena themselves, we might develop a focus on relationships as the basis of sustainable social orders (Elliott, 1994).

This is what happened in Time to Listen. People came to see that the quality of learning can be encouraged by educative relationships in which care and concern become the main units of enquiry. They came to see that it was their responsibility to work at relationships so that the potentials for their educative influence could be enhanced. They held a commitment to the idea that getting the relationships right was the first step in finding ways of influencing the quality of learning. This work is about to be written up for publication, and we hope to produce clear evidence that educators and children came to value one another as learners, each contributing to the educational welfare of one another.

I have learnt a great deal about the meaning of conflict and non-conflict through working in situations of conflict. I have learnt that it is easy enough to describe conflict and what might be its resolution, but very difficult to understand it. Perhaps my most valuable understanding so far is that peace is not a situation to be worked towards. Peace is in the working through of conflict. One cannot know what peace is until one knows what peace is not. Peace is not the opposite of conflict; it is embedded within conflict and involves a creative working through. Logically and experientially, it is necessary to go through despair in order to reach a state of hope. Engaging with one’s own state of despair is the source of one’s self renewal. Victory narratives (MacLure, 1996) always and inevitably have their genesis in pain. These are the learnings I bring with me now to all my contexts, which, I have come to realise, are all contested, simply because people are different, we think in different ways, and we have different ideas of what constitutes a good life.

I want to finish by telling of a learning episode which happened right in the middle of the events I am recounting here, and which I carry with me always. I had experienced a close bereavement, and out of a sense of seeking comfort, I decided finally to read the Bible, cover to cover, one chapter per day. I still recall the immense excitement when I came to Psalm 22, an excitement that remains a constant. Given my faith commitments, I had always been troubled by the story of when Jesus was dying, and cried, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ I took this, if the historical record was correct, to mean that he was human and had resigned himself to the most terrible despair, trusting in the mercy of God. I came to the psalm, and read those words. To my joy, I saw that the words are the opening lines of what becomes the most incredible hymn of triumph, a triumph which acknowledges the wonders of creation while acknowledging that the whole of creation is in a state of creative tension and emergence. I do not know whether the historical record is accurate. I do know that here I found a new inspirational literature which is reflected in the work of philosophers such as Frankl, Tillich and Fromm, that, in devoting our lives to the pursuit of loving relationships and productive work, we have to engage with the troublesome nature of relationships that this will inevitably involve, acknowledging that other people have the right to be the persons they wish to be and that we need to create a world which is learning to live with its own contested nature in mutually beneficial ways.

What conflict has come to mean for me is not necessarily the disintegration of the human spirit, but a site for the creation of social hope (Rorty, 1999). I ground my hope in my faith in my own capacity to develop and sustain educative relationships. Educative relationships are not formed easily. They take hard political and emotional work, for an educative relationship means all parties must honour the right of the other to speak and act for themselves, while also trying to encourage them to develop a critical awareness of their own knowledge and how they come to know. Such relationships are full of risk for all. Relationships are deeply contestable. They involve issues of ownership of identity and its potential colonisation. The inherently conflictual landscapes of relationships can manifest as the real-life conflictual landscapes of Ramallah and Belfast. The form relationships take as they emerge in practice depends on the commitment of the participants. A commitment to the formation of educative relationships requires a commitment to work through the potential conflict in a way that safeguards the integrity of the other and their capacity to know. Our knowledge is enfolded within our capacity to know, and emerges in realised form through the struggle to live out our commitments. We judge the validity of our work as educators in terms of whether we can show that we have influenced the quality of learning for others’ benefit.

What we know is shaped by how we know it.

In two weeks I return to Ireland, and then to Palestine. These contexts are no more potentially hazardous than the contexts of BERA, for it is in how we are with one another that we come to understand our reasons for living.

© Jean McNiff

Dorset 2001


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Jean McNiff


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