Paper 1

Peace education and other stories of violence

Notes for meetings at Jordan Valley Academic College, 8 February 2003, and The Israeli Center for Qualitative Methodologies, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 17 February 2003

Jean McNiff with Jack Whitehead, Caitríona Mc Donagh and Bernie Sullivan

(Download Word Version)

Your invitation to talk about my work was offered in the context of peace education. This was a new experience for me. I have seldom formally located my work in peace education, and writing this paper has made me ask why this is the case. It has also inspired me to reconsider what it would take for me to locate my work within peace education, because it seems that this is what my work is about, although until now I have used other forms of words to explain it, such as the idea of a good social order.

Through thinking about these things, I have come to some new understandings about the nature of my work and how it is related to the idea of a good social order. I have also come to see that my work is potentially in conflict with a good deal of mainstream thinking about the nature of peace education and its contributory disciplines (Personal, Social and Health Education, Citizenship Education, Relationships and Sexuality Education, and so on; what is often termed ‘affective education’). I have taken heart however from the words of Geoffrey Warnock (in Magee, 1987) who, speaking about the genius of Kant, says that what is necessary for progress in intellectual and social development is people’s capacity to see a problem where no problem is generally seen to exist. This is what your invitation has done for me. Whereas in the past I have resisted the idea of peace education simply because it did not feel right for me, now I have been forced to think why it does not feel right for me. However, if I am committed to peace, as I am, and if I see that peace can be encouraged through education, which I do, then I need to understand the nature of the slippage and articulate that understanding for myself and for others. So here is my story.

Methodological frameworks

Increasingly these days I am focusing on uncovering the hidden assumptions underpinning established orthodoxies of ways of knowing and being, because these ways are doing active harm to people I care for. I want to expose the lies and tell the truth, as Chomsky consistently urges us to do, and work with others towards a social order that does justice to the values of peace and justice that I try to live by.

I draw on two methodological frameworks to help me make sense of it all. The first is the one developed by my friend and colleague Jack Whitehead. You can see this framework throughout his writings (see

What is my concern?

Why am I concerned?

What do I think I can do?

What will I do?

How can I show the situation as it is?

How can I produce evidence to show the impact of my educative influence?

How can I be sure that any conclusions I draw are reasonably fair and accurate?

How will I modify my practice in the light of my evaluation?

(see Whitehead, 1989, 1999, 2000)

The second framework was inspired originally by Noam Chomsky’s (1986) ‘Knowledge of Language’, where he explained how linguistic enquiry focused on the questions:

What constitutes knowledge of language?

How is knowledge of language acquired?

How is knowledge of language put to use?

(Chomsky, 1986: 3)

I have applied these questions to education, also adding a few questions of my own, as drawn from attending the annual conferences of the American Educational Research Association. My questions take the form:

What do we know?

How do we come to know?

How do we test and validate our knowledge?

How do we legitimate our knowledge?

How do we disseminate our knowledge?

How do we use our knowledge?

(see McNiff 2000, 2002)

Because an aim of my ongoing practice-as-research is to generate my own theories of practice, I use these frameworks to help me make sense of my contexts, to expose and challenge what is going on, hidden and silent and powerful, and to work with others to promote new ways of thinking and being in an effort to make this a better, more beautiful life for us all.

Here I want to set out how I understand what is going on in mainstream peace education, specifically in terms of what the assumptions are that inform the formal curricula of peace education and its contributory subject matters in schools, universities, and summit conferences, and suggest ways in which they might be reconceptualised to inform sustainable forms of personal and social living.

Part I: What is my concern? Why am I concerned? Where is the evidence that provides the grounds for my concern?

What do we know? How do we come to know?

Many postmodern thinkers use the metaphors of grand narratives to communicate and critique the ideas of established orthodoxies of belief. These grand narratives are communicated through a culture in terms of its discourses. What people do and say communicates what they believe, and the very doing and saying reinforces the belief and the way of life it inspires. Over time, systems of belief and ways of life are taken to be not only the way things are, but also the way things should be, that is, they become normative. They also get reified, turned into things in themselves, so people tend to talk about systems of belief and systems of living as if these systems existed in a world separate from the experience of the people who are talking about them. Consequently, domains of experience, including the domain of experience of education research and theory, come to be thought about in particular ways. It can be an uncomfortable surprise to realise that these ways might be informed by the kinds of values that actually go against the values they seek to promote. More of this later.

The metaphors underpinning conventional thinking about peace education curricula are those of dominance and control. These are in conflict with my own values of freedom and justice. (I shall explain later how my values of freedom and justice themselves are always and inevitably in conflict.) I see how the values of freedom and justice that constitute the rhetoric of peace education are consistently betrayed through its practice (see Berlin, 2002). I see how the little narratives of the experience of living people are distorted and wiped out by the hegemonising force of the grand narratives of ways of knowing and being that are informed by the values of self interest, and how these grand narratives are themselves held in place by those political and intellectual elites whose interests they serve. Let me explain.

Dominant values and assumptions of peace education

The values and assumptions of peace education are embedded in the values and assumptions we subscribe to in terms of the nature of knowledge, how we come to know and how we legitimate our knowledge for particular uses. People think about these things in different ways. In post-industrialised (usually called western) societies we are trained to think in terms of the following:

  • That every question has an answer;
  • That the answers are ‘out there’, waiting to be discovered;
  • That all answers are commensurable.

(see Berlin, 1997, 1998)

These assumptions are themselves premised on other assumptions about the nature of knowledge, its acquisition, and its use:

  • That knowledge exists as a coherent body;
  • That the body of knowledge is ‘out there’, waiting to be discovered;
  • That bodies of knowledge are internally unproblematic and mutual compatible.

This explanation does not match my experience, nor, I believe, the experience of many with whom I work. Sometimes questions arise that have no concrete answer, particularly when people are exploring areas to do with the practicalities of everyday living. Answers tend to be created from within the practice, rather than found within established bodies of theory. Frequently any answers that are arrived at are contested, because answers about practice are produced within the contexts of real life where different people have different interests, and these people find ways of reinforcing their own position about what is right and wrong.

In terms of ethics and moral conduct (to do with the rules for living and how we should live) which are at the heart of peace education, certain assumptions are generally held to be true:

  • That there is one right form of living;
  • That this form of living is given and can be discovered;
  • That this form of living is right for all people in all situations.

The work of major theorists such as Kohlberg and Habermas (see note 1) is premised on these assumptions. The assumptions are further compounded by other assumptions about the nature of social development:

  • That humanity is working towards an ultimate goal;
  • That this goal is given and may be discovered;
  • That the goal is the same for all people in all situations.

This is an historicist view, well critiqued by Popper (1962), Gray (2002) and others, who maintain that there is no grand design to human living, no ultimate goal. We live in today as best we can according to who we are and who else we are living with.

I have to say that coming to these insights has been an uncomfortable experience for me. I tended to think teleologically up to about 10 years ago. The book ‘Creating a Good Social Order’ is interesting because at that time I was beginning to challenge my own ideas about the knowledge and ontological base of human living. The years since then, because they have been so violently conflictual, have helped me to get to grips with these ideas and articulate them.

One of my most problematic, yet educational, insights is about the nature, genesis, and use of conflict. I used to think that conflict automatically meant violence. I no longer believe that. Today I understand that conflict is an everyday experience, part of ordinary human living. It is not a pathology. ‘Conflict’ is a value-free term, a description of people in disagreement, neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. What is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is how people are when they disagree with others. Do they act towards one another with understanding or with violence? Do the reactions differ given the different situations they are in and the depth of the disagreement? The idea of conflict is not the problem in human living. People are. Conflict can be the base of critique, the essential aspect that keeps us free and able to think for ourselves. Just consider: if you are responding to these last sentences with some concern, that means your ideas are in conflict with mine. In my opinion, this is a healthy position, symptomatic of the idea of an open society, because agreement is not always a basis for renewal, and consensus is frequently a form of dumbing down of critical engagement. Conflict can be the grounds for engaged critique and creative living. Too often it is used as an excuse for venting one’s spite. How people act when they respond to those with whom they are in conflict is always the issue.

What is important for this present discussion is how conflict is understood within dominant forms of peace education and its associated disciplines. Dominant assumptions are

  • That conflict is disruptive of human living and is therefore bad;
  • That conflict needs to be resolved, and can be resolved (frequently the term ‘Peace education’ is accompanied by ‘Conflict resolution’);
  • That the resolutions will be acceptable to all people in all situations.

These assumptions go against much of what I believe in. I believe in the originality of mind and spirit of each and every human being. I believe that people come to know in their own way, and that what they believe is a good way of life needs to be respected by others who do not share that form of life or that view of the good. I believe that ideas of the good need to be relevant to all members of a society, and it is the responsibility of all to hold themselves personally accountable for what they do in relation to others. I hold other beliefs, but these are sufficient for my present argument. The assumptions underpinning dominant forms of peace education also go against my idea that people need to take responsibility for their own lives. It is all too easy to avoid taking responsibility by, for example, shifting one’s own responsibility elsewhere. The focus in dominant forms of peace education is not on how people conduct their relationships, but on this thing called ‘Conflict’, in the same way that, throughout history, people have shifted the responsibility for their evil doings to external or internal forces that they reify as a thing called ‘Evil’. If there is such a thing called ‘Evil’, it is in the actions of people behaving in ways that can be described as evil.

My main point is that dominant forms of peace education, and of education in general, are premised on the ideas of the uniformity of what we know, the uniformity of how we come to know, and the uniformity of how and why we use our knowledge. To represent human living as uniform is, in my opinion, contrary to most real life experience, which is characterised by diversity and individuality, a case of countless thousands of different persons and groups living together in ways which they hold as good for themselves. Uniformity, as a form of life that does not recognise diversity, goes against the values of freedom and justice that are central to my life.

My learning is further supported by the ideas of Lyotard (1986), who, drawing on the work of Wittgenstein (1953), explains how human diversity can be characterised in terms of little narratives. He says that each community engages in its own language game, on its own terms. These little language games are like different areas of a town, with their own houses and streets. I think of towns in Northern Ireland – Derry and Belfast – where you can see the kerb stones and lampposts in some Protestant areas painted red, white and blue, or in other areas, the tricolour flag that denotes Catholic residents. Sometimes these communities represent small enclaves within a wider community whose residents are primarily on the other side, and sometimes, in times of trouble, the small ‘different’ communities within the larger ‘established’ communities suffer dreadfully. In these cases, the language games of one grouping are foreign to those of another. Yet all language games, special and unique, constitute the larger town of human living. Later I shall develop the metaphor to suggest that what holds the little language games together is the relationships between people, both in their smaller bonded communities through which they draw their identity, and in the larger, more amorphous communities that embed the smaller ones. What holds people together is not, I believe, a uniform striving towards consensus. Consensus, according to Lyotard (and I agree), is not the final horizon; arrival at consensus through dialogue is a staging strategy that might or might not help in the struggle for successful human living. To present consensus as a final aim is to introduce a grand narrative that obliterates the small narratives, because grand narratives tend to be totalitarian in nature.

This learning drives me to raise questions about the form of, and legitimation of, the kind of theory that supports practical actions in the world. Indeed, it has become a focus of my work to investigate, as Lyotard says, the legitimation processes that authorise the grand narratives of conceptual theory in wiping out the little narratives of human experience. I have come to understand that, while uniformity and consensus constitute a grand narrative, so also does the form of theory used to legitimate grand narratives. This form of theory is abstract and conceptual, not necessarily related to real people, but produced by theorists at desks, and takes the form of what those theorists believe should be the case. They produce their imagined scenarios and offer them in terms of models for other people to accept and follow, often failing to validate their theories by following the required rigour of their own paradigm by testing their theories against human experience. The truths they put out are the outcomes of their own self-legitimated theories. Bourdieu (1990) warns that the model is not necessarily the reality of those for whose consumption it is intended. My concerns these days are to make explicit the totalitarian nature of dominant theories of education and show the untold damage these often do to human lives, and also to expose the totalising nature of dominant forms of theory and their far more subtle and insidious nature. My work is not in mainstream peace education, because the assumptions of mainstream peace education deny my values of freedom and social justice. Mainstream peace education is, for me, a story of injustice. My work is squarely located in challenging authoritarian forms of theory and practice, challenging the kinds of entrenched assumptions I am talking about, and working to develop new forms of theory and practice that celebrate the freedom and dignity of the individual. Freedom and dignity, I believe, are necessary conditions for successful human living. The task of education research, I believe, is to generate the kind of theories of peace education that will avoid the grand narratives of reconciliation through consensus, and aim for engaged living through recognition of human dignity and committed engagement to understand.

My aims are not only to make totalitarian forms of theory and practices explicit, to help people to see what is happening to them, and to support them in resisting the imposition of totalising forms of discourse, but also to work with those people to create new forms of theory, to encourage them to do the same, and to support them in the struggle for legitimation (see note 2). These days, my question ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ increasingly takes the form, ‘How do I learn how to put in place processes of social engagement that will legitimate the personal educational theories of the educators I support?’

I now want to explain how I am doing that, and show how I believe I am contributing to the evolution of a good social order through education. Further, if I am to critique dominant forms from within what I understand to be the legitimate parameters of legitimacy, I need to produce evidence for what I am saying here, and then suggest how my own forms of living are manifestations of what I understand to be a good social order. I am doing this out of a sense of responsibility to hold myself accountable for my own theories and practices. If I am to avoid double talk, I always need to show how my ideas are rooted in an ethical practice that is consistent with the values base that I try to live by.

Part II: How can I produce evidence to show the impact of my educative influence? How can I be sure that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?

How do we test and validate our knowledge?

Creating a good social order through education

I said in the introduction to this series of papers that my current main practice context is Ireland, where I support the professional learning of educators to doctoral level. This is a development of previous work in Ireland since 1992. During the period 1994–2000 I supported the development of professional education programmes that led to masters degrees. You can access many of the masters dissertations from my web site. The dissertations are housed at the University of the West of England, the university that supported and accredited the work, and also at the University of Limerick, where copies of the dissertations now form the beginning of a national knowledge base in Ireland. The form of these programmes reflects the values-commitments I hold. These commitments are to do with the nature of social living, as outlined above. They are also commitments to do with education.

I believe that the values that inform educational practices are the kinds of values that are foundational to a form of social living that manifests as non-violent forms of contested engagement. Social living, in my understanding, is more often than not contested to some degree. It is easy enough to live successfully with those we love. It is not so easy when others, even those we love, choose to go their own way. And the process of people choosing to go their own way is the basis of a society that is constantly critically open to its own process and not content to slip into stasis. So my educational values involve the celebration of the originality of mind and uniqueness of each individual, a celebration of the fact that all people are capable of learning (I agree with Habermas, 1975, that we are incapable of not-learning), and a celebration of how that learning is the grounds for their understanding that other people’s learning is also to be celebrated, in the same way that applies to themselves. On this view, each person can recognise, if they wish, that other people also are learning. Such recognition, however, implies that they have to learn to accommodate other people’s learning, even if is contrary to their own. And on this view, my own theory of how education can contribute to a good social order (peace education by any other name) holds agonistics and contradiction as its basic principle, the idea that human endeavour is always premised on the contradictory nature of human experience, a theme which I develop later. The capacity of individual knowers to come to know in their own way can transform into their individual theories of learning within practice settings. While these might be personal theories, the theories are offered with universal intent (Polanyi, 1958), in the hopes that others can learn from them, and adapt or adopt the theories for themselves. These theories are not presented coercively, as prescriptions for practice, but discursively, as descriptions and explanations of practice. The capacity of groups of individual knowers can then transform into collective theories of learning that hold the potential to inform wider social practices. This is now the focus of my present work.

If you look at the existing dissertations you will see the following:

Margaret Cahill (2000) asks: ‘How can I encourage pupils to participate in their own learning?’

Caitríona Mc Donagh (2000) asks: ‘How can I improve my teaching of pupils with specific learning difficulties in the area of language?’

Thérèse O’Riordan Burke (1998) asks: ‘How can I improve my practice as a learning support teacher?’

Bernie Sullivan (2000) asks: ‘How can I help my pupils to make more effective use of their time in school?’

A feature of these dissertations is that they constitute personal enquiries as the people concerned addressed issues of how they were positioned, often in authoritarian settings that aimed to close down opportunities for learning for the children in their care, and how they created opportunities for those children to celebrate their own ways of learning in spite of the external constraints of totalising systemic narratives. The voices of the children and the teachers are heard throughout, offering their own critical analyses of their learning.

It has to be emphasised that a consistent feature of all these accounts is struggle. The struggles are between the practitioner-researchers and their organisational contexts, usually in the form of competing values systems. The practitioner-researchers recognise their students as independent, creatively thinking individuals. Their organisational contexts however are frequently driven by the values of economic competition and systemic efficiency. These clashes of values, and the kinds of conflictual scenarios that often arise when people try to live out their beliefs, are not only characteristic of individual accounts of practice but are also evident at organisational levels, in terms of the dissonance that is set up when the ‘oughts’ of the technical rational theories in the literatures of school effectiveness collide with the realities of lives that do not judge their worth in terms of technical rational forms of effectiveness. Further, it has to be recognised that values themselves are frequently in conflict. Realising the value of freedom needs to be off-set against realising the value of fairness or the value of truth. We simply cannot have it all ways. If I believe in freedom, I necessarily have to curtail my own freedom to allow others to exercise theirs. If I believe in fairness, I will, as John Gray says (1995), accept legislation that requires all people with healthy kidneys to donate one kidney to another person who needs it. Social living does not work like this. It is characterised by varieties of human interests and experiences, different wishes and wants, many of which manifest as the drivers of conflict, and some of these drivers are legitimated by violence. I do not offer my healthy kidney because I also have a sense of responsibility to myself. There is no easy way out on this, no easy way to translate a theory of ethics into moral forms of life.

I am saying this to show how the work I support is characterised by complex matrices of conflict and disagreement. My aim is not to resolve the disagreement, either by personal intervention or by enabling others to do so. My aim is to find ways myself, and enable others, to learn to live within the conflict and negotiate ways through. My hope is not to contribute to a social order somewhere on the distant horizon that can be understood in terms of consensus. My aim is to enable people to recognise the contested nature of human living as the social order, and to hold themselves accountable for how they live within it as they help others to do the same. Nor should this theory be trivialised only as learning to live with difference, or agreeing to disagree. It goes further. It is grounded in a commitment to hold oneself accountable for one’s actions in the world. It is grounded in a commitment that all people are not capable of not-learning. We must learn; we can do no other. This means that all must mutually recognise one another as learners. The realisation of the potential for learning occurs with and through one’s environment, as mediated through the originality of mind and creativity of spirit of each individual. An individual’s learning is mediated also through the original experience of living with others who are similarly occupied.

This is the grounding of my theory of peace education. It is a theory of personal accountability within the agonistic context of conflictual forms that resist closure through reconciliation, and aims rather always to keep the conversation open by saying, ‘Yes, but …’. I am not aiming to develop a theory of a good social order as something that we strive towards, nor is the form of theory only abstract and conceptual. I am aiming to develop my own living educational theory (Whitehead, 1989) of how I can enable people to live with dignity while committing to the right of others to do the same, while always recognising that my own ‘living’ theory, because it is part of my social living, necessarily comes into conflict with the living theories of others and is open to contestation. At the end of the day, I do not aim for closure or consensus, either of theory or practice. I aim for ongoing questioning, ongoing critique, ongoing conflict. Trying to find a way through without resorting to terrorism is, in my opinion, a form of social practice that can be understood at least as peaceful, if not good. The good social order is not ‘out there’, to be worked towards. It is here, within the struggle to find ways of living together in disagreement.

To support these ideas, I turn to my own practice as the grounding of my theory, to show how I am able to develop forms of pedagogy that support the learning of others, recognising that their learning is their property. To do this, I will focus on the accounts of two women whose doctoral studies I support, Caitríona Mc Donagh and Bernie Sullivan. Both are in highly contested areas in their school-based work. Caitríona works with young people who have difficulty in perceiving written words. Bernie works with Traveller children. Both work in the primary sector in Ireland.

For her masters dissertation, Caitríona studied whether her own classroom pedagogies supported the learning of the students. She came to the profoundly significant conclusion, ‘since my pupils didn’t learn to read and write in the way in which I taught, could I learn to teach in the way in which they learned?’ (Mc Donagh, 2000, cited in McNiff, 2002: 144). She is now developing this question for her doctoral studies. In recent writing, she says:

‘In doing this piece of research I transformed my own capacity as a critical educator by showing how practitioners’ knowledge – my own and that of the people I teach – can stand as a legitimate form of theory that has considerable implications for future educational practices. … I aim to challenge the idea that educational theory is created within academia and want to gain accreditation for the craft, expert knowledge and wisdom gained from hours of contact with children in the classroom. … The initial question, “Can I, as a resource teacher, improve the learning experience for children with specific learning disabilities?” has developed into higher order questions of developing pedagogies and reconceptualising curriculum during the course of my research. I move from examining “How do I value the learning of children with specific learning disability?” to “How do I develop appropriate learning theory?” In reporting and disseminating my research findings I build up the knowledge base which can influence policy making and teacher education.’

(Mc Donagh, 2003)

This is a powerful situation to be in, and not easily achieved.

By the same token, Bernie Sullivan explains how she has transformed her thinking and questions. Her question for her masters dissertation was: ‘How can I help my pupils to make more effective use of their time in school?’ (Sullivan, 2000) in which she positioned herself as someone who had responsibility for ensuring children obeyed the rules allegedly for their educational advantage. Her working papers, as part of her doctoral programme, focus on the issue: ‘An investigation into how, as a Traveller Resource Teacher, I can help Traveller children to overcome institutional prejudice and bias that act as barriers to their educational progress’ (Sullivan, 2002). She writes:

‘The values that inform my work include a belief in equal educational opportunities for all, the right of all people to self-determination and a desire for social justice for all. I believe that the predominance of one culture as the legitimate one in school hierarchies has an adverse effect on those who do not subscribe to that culture and reduces significantly their ability to benefit from the education system. In my opinion, the denial of recognition to minority cultures impacts negatively on participants in these cultures to the extent that they do not have access to the choices that are freely available to members of the dominant group. Such inequality results in the marginalisation of minority groups and leaves them at a disadvantage socially, politically and culturally. Consequently, I aim to show how I attempt to portray Traveller culture as of equal value with the dominant culture, how I encourage Traveller children to make educational choices for themselves, and how I try to situate them centrally, rather than on the periphery, in the school setting.’

(Sullivan, 2002: 3)

Both researchers show how they understand how they also are positioned in the struggle, how they are subjected to the same kind of retribution from colleagues as are normally reserved for the children they teach, and how they aim to transform their experience into a form of post-retribution theorising that can contribute to wider educational theorising.

Caitríona says:

‘In this research I document how, as a teacher, I am as disadvantaged as the children I teach in the sense that I am not seen by those in power in education as a legitimate knowledge generator. I show how, through critical reflection, I transform my understanding of my practice and explain how this results in helping children to see themselves as knowledge generators and so claim the same right for myself.’

(Mc Donagh, 2003: 9)

Bernie says:

‘In my research report I document instances of institutional prejudice and bias encountered in my workplace, and demonstrate the limitations such bureaucratic exigencies place on the educational opportunities of minority ethnic groups. I show how, through critical reflection on my practice, I transform a capacity for prejudice into a possibility for inclusion, and explain how this results in a positive influence on the lives of Traveller children. … The theories I generate from my practice-based research around the issues of equality of educational opportunity and social justice for minority groups should have significance for others involved in similar situations by raising awareness of the effects of structural prejudice, and of the imposition of normative systems, on the life-chances of an oppressed and marginalised group.’

(Sullivan, 2003: 6)

I am making my claim that I have enabled others to come to a situation in which they can engage with the problematics of their own circumstances and transform them into new forms of pluralistic social living. My claim is supported by the evidence in the reports of people like Caitríona and Bernie and others whom I support, that I have helped them to engage with the contradictions within their own thinking, as well as within the oppressive structures of the institutions in which their studies are located. I am claiming that I have enabled them to find ways of revisioning their experience as a form of theorising that rejects the imposition of dominant forms of theory in favour of the development of their personal transformative theories of education. This has been achieved through my investigation into my practice of how I can develop forms of pedagogy that value the individual learning of those I support and of those whom they support in turn. I am claiming that by honouring the originality and creativity of the minds of the people whose learning I support, I have enabled them to do the same for those whose learning they support.

This leads me to claim validity for my theory of education that is rooted in the experience of contradiction, and to claim that engaging with the experience of contradiction with a view to transforming it into new forms of social living is a realistic grounding for theories that aim to inform social practices. This, to me, is the nature of a good social order. While my claim is spoken in an individual voice, it is made with universal intent. I am also emboldened to put forward a theory of peace education that is grounded in the experience of contradiction, that accepts agonistics as its first principle. Peace can be peace only if it is founded on the freedom of all to think for themselves, and on a celebration of different voices as they tell their different stories. Otherwise it is becomes a subterfuge of the greatest magnitude, that uses the idea of peace theory to beat others into submission.

Part III: How do I modify my practice in the light of my evaluation?

How do I disseminate my knowledge? How do I legitimate my knowledge?

Promoting a form of peace theory that contributes to a good social order

I do not think for a moment that my influence will extend directly to politicians or social activists. I do not think this meeting will stop a gun being fired or a rock being thrown. Nor is that my short-term aim, though it would certainly be a longer-term one.

I support people’s practical work, but I work primarily at the level of ideas. Ideas are what influence practices. I have this idea that the metaphors we use to describe and explain our knowledge get transformed into the realities of social actions. We are taught these metaphors from birth. They permeate the culture, and we learn those, rather than others, because they confront us at every turn. They constitute a grand narrative we live by without being conscious of its existence.

My aim is to work with others to put new metaphors in place, those that at present do not confront us at every turn. I want to communicate their importance so that people can see their value as informing new kinds of social practices, and then to promote them using any means I can. In my case, this means writing and working with others who share the ideas.

The dominant – i.e. publicly legitimated – underpinning metaphors of knowledge are those of closure and stasis. These metaphors are used and promoted deliberately by people whose driving values are to do with dominance and control. The metaphors of closure and stasis are complementary to a wish to maintain the status quo. The methodology most favoured is that of traditional scientific enquiry, a form of technical rationalism. According to Finn (1996), science itself can be seen as a form of violence, a form of the imposition of control, doing unlimited harm to those who think in non-linear relational ways. To a certain extent I agree. While I believe that traditional scientific enquiry should be recognised as providing the foundation for technological achievement, I do not believe that its methods are appropriate as a form of human enquiry that aims to explore the reasons and purposes for human interaction. The metaphors of closure and stasis are not commensurate with the realities of ongoing emergent life. Here is another case of language games in conflict, and another case of how, given the aim of many social scientists to maintain the hegemony of their own forms of enquiry, they exercise their existing power base to legitimise the grand narratives of their own ideologies, and, by implication, their own status and positioning in the world. The very fact that they have the status maintains the status. The very fact that their status supports the maintenance of their ideas continues to contribute to the maintenance of the social practices that their ideas inform. Rocks and guns.

My aim is to influence the world of ideas, in particular, to work with others to promote new forms of theory and theorising, and that means, in the context of this meeting, new forms of peace education and new theorising about its nature, origin and use. I then hope to show how the ideas can transform into social practices, to disseminate and promote the ideas, and work with others to build a knowledge base to show their validity and use value for their practices. The validity will be further legitimated through the critical engagement of others as they come to see the value of the ideas for their own social practices. The knowledge base will contain the accounts of practitioners as they show how the ideas have helped them to transform their own thinking and practices in ways that are socially beneficial to themselves and others.

My aim is to establish a new grand narrative, not totalising, but transformative. My aim is to promote new metaphors to inform new kinds of social action. These metaphors are those of the generative transformational nature of organic processes. These ideas were first systematically articulated in the 1992 book ‘Creating a Good Social order through Action Research’, and have been further refined in the books ‘Action Research in Organisations’ (2000) and the second edition of ‘Action Research: Principles and Practice’ (2002). I am now clearer about their importance and their potential for informing new kinds of theory, what Jack Whitehead calls ‘living forms of theory’. I want to show how metaphors of organic evolution that embrace the ideas of metamorphosis, of the unending nature of life, of openness to new possibilities, can inform relational practices that are informed by the values of recognition and mutuality. These metaphors of evolutionary processes are not smooth or unproblematic. From the work of Stephen Jay Gould (1996) and others I have learnt that evolutionary processes are full of contradiction and interruption, and take creative improvisation as a first principle of their development. Nor are they teleological. They do not communicate movement towards a given end. Their process of unfolding, of transforming into new forms is the end. This is where I am. My aim is to work with others to establish a grand narrative of openness, of engagement with the possibilities of life, to celebrate the untold joy of living. The grand narrative itself is open and transformative, a narrative of people creating their own open societies that celebrate the freedom of all to do so.


Is it possible to establish a new form of grand narrative that is transformational in nature and that embraces new problematics? I think it is.

In a sense, my own life is the grand narrative by which I live. In the overall driving ambition to encourage others to take responsibility for themselves as they engage in creative, improvisatory ways of living, I also respect the fact that other people do not think as I do. I have to recognise that the stories they live by are right for them. I try however to engage not at the level of the stories, but at the level of the person. When I meet a person, I meet them, not their history, although I recognise them as being constituted by their history. I meet them as another person, like me, who is trying to make sense of it all and find a way through. I try to learn from them, as they are when they tell their stories (see note 3). And the fact that I am prepared to learn means I am always questioning my own knowledge, and the rightness of that knowledge.

This I believe is my saving grace, the idea that I need constantly to revise and develop my own thinking. It is this that rescues the grand narrative of my life, and the grand narrative that I am seeking to promote in the world, from being totalising or coercive.

I take very seriously the idea of critique, as it applies to myself and others. Philosophers throughout the history of philosophy have placed this commitment at the heart of ideas of educational enquiry. ‘How will you know if you are wrong?’ asks Pring (2000). How will I know if I am wrong?

I think I will know I am wrong when I stop asking the question. Once I stop asking, ‘How will I know if I am wrong?’, and stop my commitment to producing authenticated evidence in support of my own claims to knowledge, and stop insisting that the people I support do the same, then my research programme will stop being a research programme and start being a prescriptive form of discourse. I will move from exploration to consolidation, from standing on the brink, screwing up the courage to take the next step into the unknown, and start standing back, considering where I have come from, and pausing sufficiently long that the energy to continue the struggle dissipates into comfortable existence.

The danger signs are comfort and stability. A culture of contentment (Galbraith, 1992) is a dangerous place, as it gives rise to the fundamentalism of consensus and totalising grand narratives. I am happy to live in the contested territories of transformative ideas and social practices. The idea of contestation in itself is exciting, not dangerous. It is what people do with the idea of contestation that matters. My aim is to work with others to develop new forms of theory that will inform new forms of social practice that are grounded in commitments to living non-coercively with oneself and the people next door.


Note 1

Habermas has this to say:

‘But how can the transition to a post-traditional morality as such be justified? Traditionally established obligations rooted in communicative action do not of themselves reach beyond the limits of the family, the tribe, the city, or the nation. However, the reflexive form of communicative action behaves differently: argumentation of its very nature points beyond all particular forms of life. For in the pragmatic presuppositions of rational discourse of deliberation the normative content of the implicit assumptions of communicative action is generalized, abstracted, and freed from all limits - the practice of deliberation is extended to an inclusive community that does not in principle exclude any subject capable of speech and action who can make relevant contributions. This idea points to a way out of the modern dilemma, since the participants have lost their metaphysical guarantees and must so to speak derive their normative orientations from themselves alone. As we have seen, the participants can only draw on those features of a common practice they already currently share. Given the failure to identify a shared good, such features shrink to the fund of formal features of the performatively shared situation of deliberation. The bottom line is that the participants have all already entered into the cooperative enterprise of rational discourse.’

Habermas, J. (2002) The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory. Oxford; Polity (pp. 40–41)

Note 2

I wrote: ‘My aims are not only to make totalitarian forms of theory and practices explicit, to help people to see what is happening to them, and to support them in resisting the imposition of totalising forms of discourse, but also to work with those people to create new forms of theory, to encourage them to do the same, and to support them in the struggle for legitimation.’

When I speak about new forms of theory, I have in mind forms such as living educational theories that are characterised by generative transformational processes (see paper 2). These new forms of theory require a different philosophical imagination to the ones that can only see ‘theory’ in terms of sets of propositions. A good example of a mindset that holds ‘theory’ in terms of sets of propositions is this:

‘ “Theory” would seem to have the following features. It refers to a set of propositions which are stated with sufficient generality yet precision that they explain the behaviour of a range of phenomena and predict which would happen in the future. An understanding of these propositions includes an understanding of what would refute them.’

Pring, R. (2000) Philosophy of Educational Research. London; Continuum,

2000 (p. 124–5)

As the accounts of my web-site show, I and the practitioner-researchers I work with have integrated insights from such propositional theories into our own enquiries. Our educational theories are offered as descriptions and explanations of our learning with explanatory principles that are grounded in our embodied values rather than held within interconnected sets of propositions.

Note 3

These ideas are resonant with ideas articulated by Said:

‘As a poet indebted to and friendly with Mallarme, Valery was compelled to assess originality and derivation in a way that said something about a relationship between two poets that could not be reduced to a simple formula. As the actual circumstances were rich, so too had to be the attitude. Here is an example from the “Letter About Mallarme”.

“No word comes easier of oftener to the critic’s pen than the word influence, and no vaguer notion can be found among all the vague notions that compose the phantom armory of aesthetics. Yet there is nothing in the critical field that should be of greater philosophical interest or prove more rewarding to analysis than the progressive modification of one mind by the work of another.

It often happens that the work acquires a singular value in the other mind, leading to active consequences that are impossible to foresee and in many cases will never be possible to ascertain. What we do know is that this derived activity is essential to intellectual production of all types. Whether in science or in the arts, if we look for the source of an achievement we can observe that what a man does either repeats or refutes what someone else has done – repeats it in other tones, refines or amplifies or simplifies it, loads or overloads it with meaning; or else rebuts, overturns, destroys and denies it, but thereby assumes it and has invisibly used it. Opposites are born from opposites.

We say that an author is original when we cannot trace the hidden transformations that others underwent in his mind; we mean to say that the dependence on what he does on what others have done is excessively complex and irregular. There are works in the likeness of others, and works that are the reverse of others, but there are also works of which the relation with earlier productions is so intricate that we become confused and attribute them to the direct intervention of the gods.” (Paul Valery, 'Letter about Mallarme , in Leonardo, Poe, Mallarme, trans. Malcolm Cowley and James R. Lawler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972, p. 241).

Valery converts “influence” from a crude idea of the weight of one writer coming down in the work of another into a universal principle of what he calls 'derived achievement’. He then connects this concept with a complex process of repetition that illustrates it by multiplying instances; this has the effect of providing a sort of wide intellectual space, a type of discursiveness in which to examine influence. Repetition, refinement, amplification, loading, overloading, rebuttal, overturning, destruction, denial, invisible use – such concepts completely modify a linear (vulgar) idea of “influence” into an open field of possibility. Valery is careful to admit that chance and ignorance play important roles in this field; what we cannot see or find, as well as what we cannot predict, he says, produce excessive irregularity and complexity. Thus the limits of the field of investigation are set by examples whose nonconforming, overflowing energy begins to carry them out of the field. This is an extremely important refinement in Valery’s writing. For even as his writing holds in the wide system of variously dispersed relationships connecting writers with one another, he also shows how at its limits the field gives forth other relations that are hard to describe from within the field.’

Said, E. W. (1997) Beginnings: Intention and Method. London, Granta (p. 15)

What's New






Go to to order and to see further information about the book and its contents. 

September Books



Read about the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conference at York St John University, Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th June 2015. Go to for further information.
Keynote speakers: Dr Tina Cook, Northumbria University

Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Anglia Ruskin University

Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




© 2017 Jean McNiff |
site design: plexus © 2009-10