Distorting into clarity

Jean-Micheel Basquiat, Untitled (Two Heads on Gold), 1982


John Law, After Method, is one of those books I’ve skirted around for years. I never quite understood Actor Network Theory and now I fear the moment has passed. We are all posthuman now. I’ve had another too quick look at it this week. And like one phrase Law uses in connection to the research process

‘Distorted into Clarity’.

An aspect of educational research involves developing a coherent narrative based on the data we have generated. And then presenting (or noticing) only those bits and pieces of our data that appear consistent with that narrative. The data overall, never presents a distinct, coherent, free from contradiction narrative in and of themselves. It is something we create. A device. This I think is in part what Law means when he refers to ‘distorting into clarity’.

The study of education policy, leadership and ethics is fraught with examples of this kind of clarifying distortion. It is hard for any analysis of the social world to do otherwise.

This is how he introduces the idea.

If we start to make a list [of the things our research is unable to to do justice] then it quickly becomes clear that it is potentially endless. Pains and pleasures, hopes and horrors, intuitions and apprehensions, losses and redemptions, mundanities and visions, angels and demons, things that slip and slide, or appear and disappear, change shape or don’t have much form at all, unpredictabilities, these are just a few of the phenomena that are hardly caught by social science methods. It may be, of course, that they don’t belong to social science at all. But perhaps they do, or partly do, or should do. That, at any rate, is what I want to suggest. Parts of the world are caught in our ethnographies, our histories and our statistics. But other parts are not, or if they are then this is because they have been distorted into clarity. This is the problem I try to tackle. If much of the world is vague, diffuse or unspecific, slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct, changes like a kaleidoscope, or doesn’t really have much of a pattern at all, then where does this leave social science? How might we catch some of the realities we are currently missing? Can we know them well? Should we know them? Is ‘knowing’ the metaphor that we need? And if it isn’t, then how might we relate to them? These are the issues that I open up in this book.

Any attempt to explore organisation conflict, is confronted with these sort of difficulties

Even conflict is too string a word since this sounds like something clear, unambiguous, contradictory perceptions that emerge from or lead to antagonism. I’m thinking of something gentler, that passes by almost unnoticed.

Professional aspiration vs policy demand

The conflict between professional aspiration and policy demand (Ball’s seminal text about the struggle for the soul of the teacher is the perfect example of this); this is a tension that causes great discomfort and needs to be resolved. It results in a loss of illusio (Bourdieu), and or what might be referred to as a schizoid professionalism. It is a state that has devastating consequences for professionals. Its antidote may be found in Keats’ negative capability.

This type of contradiction can be clearly articulated though it may take some time to define and understand. My sense is that professionals may experience it as a general ill-ease; a discomfort. But, once they are offered a broad outline of its shape and implications – it is a tension that makes immediate and obvious sense.

Pot – tay – to vs. Po – tah – to

There is also the contradiction between different research participants accounts of the same event or phenomenon. A manager’s perception that their policies are experienced by staff as ‘a chocolate fountain’, an outpouring of sweet delight that staff may dip into at the pleasure, is an evocative example of this. The staff may experience managers as remote, out-of-touch, unwilling to listen …

policy as espoused vs. policy as lived, rhetoric vs. reality

We all know the organisational that’s detailed policies around equity and inclusion, That *aspires* to be an equal opportunities employer. That strives to maintain its investors in people tag but somehow even though it’s an inner city college seem not to employ any ethnic minority lecturing staff, and has an all male senior management team.

We can all think of teachers who if asked will insist that their pedagogy is based on the broad principles of Socratic questioning. But when we see them teach what we see is an extended monologue punctuated by a few ‘guess what I’m thinking’ questions thrown out every time their student audience seems to be wilting.

In less anecdotal terms an example of this from research data is a participant who says: ‘we will never let a colleague fail’ a few moments before describing how some colleagues were ‘performance managed out of the building’. (Is it just a coincidence that those from marched out of the college were also active unionists?)

Is this a simple stunning lack of reflexivity. Or worst still – a deliberate attempt to deceive. Or – thinking with Goffman – a front of house presentation of self. That is, does my interviewee ‘conduct himself [sic] during our encounter so as to maintain both his own face and the face of the other participants.’ Where the self who participates is understood as both

*an image pieced together from the expressive implications of the full flow of events in an undertaking; and as *

*a kind of player in a ritual game who copes honorably or dishonorably, diplomatically or undiplomatically, with the judgmental contingencies of the situation?’*

There is however – another source of contradiction, ambiguity, contestation and conflict. And this is one that I like a great deal: doublethink

Doublethink: the capacity to hold two contradictory ideas together simultaneously with little apparent awareness that they cancel each other out and with little sense of ill ease.

This might seem like something of an affectation.

*The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function*.

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1956: 69)

What is distinct about doublethink is that participants seem to hold views which negate each other once placed side by side but they are apparently oblivious to the contradiction.

The concept emerges from Orwell’s 1984:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget what it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.


Dan Mask, 1989
 Image is Rotimi Fani Kayode, Dan Mask, 1989.




(Yep, this is part of my brief attempt to read texts that I should have read 20 years ago but didn’t or did read and promptly forgot about them. 1984 is on audible and when I take a break from reading (listening) to gruesome crime novels, 1984 is a bit of light relief.

Is there any ethical issue over which you would resign from your job?



While the conflict between managers / leaders and lecturers in FE is interesting, it is not the focus I wish to explore just now. It is the conflict captured by Stephen Ball’s ‘struggle for the soul of the teacher’ that captivates me.

This is an internal conflict that has practical implication for how people conduct themselves in the workplace and how they feel about what they do.

As with so many research interests, it is best illustrated with an anecdote. In this post I consider an extended quote from a College Leader in response to the question of whether there was an issue over which she would resign from her post.

When framing the question, I had in mind a straightforward conflict between a government insistence that Colleges deliver a particular programme or implement a specific policy coming into conflict with College Leaders’ judgement about what it means to Do the Right Thing. I wanted to know if there was any programme or policy so badly conceived that College Leaders would feel there was no scope for compromise and resignation appeared the only acceptable option.

The recent imposition of GCSE English and maths retakes is an example. Teachers (and College Leaders)  are compelled to act in ways that they know to be against the best interest of their students. Its an uncomfortable, debilitating compromise.

There are studies that have explored this conflict in teachers:

Dunn, A. H., Farver, S., Guenther, A., & Wexler, L. J. (2017). Activism through attrition?: An exploration of viral resignation letters and the teachers who wrote them. Teaching and Teacher Education, 64, 280-290.

but I am unaware of any who have explored this issue with College Leaders.

College leader C1N responds to my question: Is there an issue over which you would resign? 

I think if it got to the stage where there were … no funding for anyone over the age 19 unless they were in work.

The issue than of austerity and cuts to funding is one that has a clear ethical impact on College Leaders. College Leader CIN goes on to elaborate on this particular issue and its implications for her college.

I’m thinking about all the work we do with young people with learning difficulties and disabilities, everything, because we are quite low performing county. So, students come out of their school with a very low base. Actually a lot of them are over 19 by the time we start to get them into sustainable employment. Lots of them miss a couple of years because they’ve just had enough and I think if it got to the stage where it was, well, actually you run academic programmes for two years post 16 and then everything else is in the workplace or higher education … start to think there’s probably not the kind of sector that I came to work in …

[… her voice trails off…]

This is a difficult question and some of our interviewees were so bright eyed with cheerful enthusiasm, I felt a deep guilt asking a question laced with such cynicism. But College Leader C1N has a clear response and a clear rationale for her response.

I’m focussing on conflict, contradiction and ethical compromise. After openly admitting that being in a position where the college was only able to help adult learners if they were in work, this is what College Leader C1N says only moments later – in an extended answer to the same question.

We (College Leader C1N and her Deputy) had (to stand there during open day and say, “We have nothing for you” over and over again). We lost a lot of the adult funding. And to see, particularly young men I think were affected, come in age, 20, 21, 22, who’d got themselves into a dead-end job after they left school because they hated it. And, they get to that stage that perhaps thinking about family and settling down and realising that they haven’t got the skills they need and coming back – we’ve just got nothing for them – is really difficult.

So, having said cuts to provision meaning she had nothing to offer 19+ learners is an issue over which she would resign, College Leader then describes having to tell 19+ learners over and over agin that the college has nothing to offer them. This sounds like a contradiction to me. She clearly did not resign. As she continues to talk of her non-resignation she does not acknowledge the contradiction but does seem to want to explain how she responds to the lack of funds for adult provision.

She talks about how she gets around, through project funding, the college’s inability to offer meaningful provision for the post 19 student.

But it is the apparent tension between these two apparently contradictory positions – one following almost immediately after the other, that I think needs to be explored and explained.

Engineering compliance


One of the many things I enjoy is reading about FE from a disciplinary space or field that I would not normally encounter. A perfect example of this is the work of Kim Mather et al.

Kim Mather, Les Worrall, Graeme Mather, (2012),”and worker resistance in UK further education: The creation of the Stepford lecturer”, Employee Relations, Vol. 34 Iss: 5 pp. 534 – 554

I tend not to include this journal on my reading lists. This is hardly surprising. A search through 255 volumes, 4 issues per volume each with issue publishing between 7 and 9 original research papers – returned 4 papers with “Further Education” in the title. (Two of which have been written by Mather et al.)

But employee relations is a key question for FE. FE has traditionally been a volatile area to work in – with regular and recurring restructures, an active union and volatile industrial relations. FE lectures are the most strike prone professional workforce. In the last few years, the demands of policy have changed what it means to be an FE lecturer beyond recognition. The literature abounds with discussion of this nature. Yet, Mather et al are one of the few authors who explore the changes from an explicit labour relations perspective.

I have an abiding interest in conflict just now. Hence my re-reading Mather et al

Here is an extract from “Engineering compliance …”

Senior managers dealt with perceived lecturers’ recalcitrance by drawing on a range of metaphors that both reified the dominant managerial view while also reinforcing the positional power of senior managers and the downward nature of communications. These sound-bite metaphors revealed a senior management mindset that appeared to be far removed from many of the lecturers. […] in one College a senior manager explained his approach to strategy formulation and getting staff on board: “what I’m doing is putting a story down, the model I see is that [he drew a diagram on a scrap of paper] – this is a chocolate fountain”. The allusion to the chocolate fountain is suggestive of a top-down cascade of good ideas that are dipped into, and one assumes, enjoyed by staff lower down the hierarchy. 

The quote represents a particular view of not only leadership but organisational communication: one that is deeply hierarchical: leaders talk / followers listen.

But the quote is also delusional. This leader’s idea that staff on the receiving end of management communications experience them as nicely flowing sweetness suggests a disturbing disconnect between the head and the rest of the body.

To add to this desperate situation, in an earlier interview, the senior manager had castigated lecturers for refusing the live in the ‘real world’. So, from his fantasy world of management communications being something like a chocolate fountain, he accepts as real a world in which austerity is a necessity and There Is No Alternative.

FE Leadership and ethics in a time of precarity – an invite




Ethics and Leadership in FE

Research Presentation, Tuesday 10th May, 2.00pm – 4.00pm, Room G20, 55 Gordon Square, London


A good metaphor ‘makes us stop in our tracks and examine it. It offers us a new awareness’. In this sense metaphors are ‘category errors with a purpose, linguistic madness with a method’. Metaphors must be approached and understood as if they were true at the same time that we are aware that they are fictitious – created and artificial.

Alvesson & Spicer (2010)

In this seminar we aim to present initial and tentative conclusions based on research undertaken between June 2015 – March 2016 with FE college leadership teams.  This is an ongoing research project for which data is still being generated. What is presented here are some emerging themes and ideas.

The project has explored how FE managers retain ethical integrity – a frequently neglected area of leadership research and policy thinking that goes beyond narrow considerations of competence. We wanted to understand the practical strategies FE leadership teams deploy to enact their ethical values within the institutions they lead against a context of precarity when reductive policies appear to narrowly define the range of choices open to them.

While we did not start the project with a fixed sense of what ethics means – seeking instead to allow those conceptions to emerge from what people said, we broadly conceive of ethics as incorporating: Conduct – what actions are regarded as right and wrong?  The good society – in what kind of society do we want to live? Character – what moral qualities are regarded as good and bad?  Relationships – what responsibilities attach to people’s relationships with each other, individually and in groups?

Several interesting and unexpected ideas have emerged around this. Our preference it to frame the issues in terms of leadership metaphors. This is a well-rehearsed and accessible approach to understanding the complexities of organisational life.

A few of the metaphors we suggest include:

  • The Steward
  • The Banker
  • The Philanthropist and
  • The Entrepreneur

Each of these leadership metaphors suggest particular ethical approaches to FE.

During the Institute of Education seminar we would like to present some of the data that has led us in this direction and to invite a critical overview of our approach and tentative conclusions.

Further Education Trust for Leadership, Ethics and Leadership in FE Research Team

Dr Carol Azumah Dennis and Elizabeth Walker

If you would like to attend or require any further information, please contact

carol dot dennis at hull dot ac dot uk