This article was published as a chapter in:
Rata, E. (2020). The History of an Intellectual Dispute at Auckland’s School of Education. In Bonal, X., Coxon, E., Novelli, M.& A. Verger. Education, globalisation and the state: Essays in honour of Roger Dale. (pp. 153-164). New York: Peter Lang.
The History of an Intellectual Dispute at Auckland’s School of Education
The article has three aims. The first is to trace the origins of the knowledge/power orthodoxy in New Zealand’s educational studies to the influence of Critical Theory and postmodernism in the School of Education during the 1990s. The second is to justify both my opposition to the orthodoxy and my claim that kaupapa Māori is an ideology in the interests of the retribalising elite. This is contrasted with my claim that neotribal capitalism is an objective theory of elite emergence. The third is to locate the potential objectivity of knowledge in the accountability procedures of the scientific method. I conclude by identifying a foundational flaw in kaupapa/matauranga Māori theory. This is the confusion of the ethical relation between the researcher and the research subjects with the scientific method of investigation, analysis, and theorising.
Knowledge, Objectivity, Neotribal Capitalism, Kaupapa Māori, Matauranga Māori
Elizabeth Rata is a professor of education in the School of Critical Studies, Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. She is the Director of the Knoweldge in Education Research Unit (KERU) where she leads the international Knowledge-Rich School Project. This project is trialling the usefulness of the Curriculum Design Coherence Model for teacher professional development and pre-service teacher education. Roger Dale supervised her masters thesis about the establishment of kura kaupapa Māori and her doctoral thesis about neotribal capitalism.
The ‘culture turn’ from a class explanation of inequality, one grounded in political economy theory, to a culture explanation is now the orthodox explanation for social divisions in New Zealand. The School of Education at the University of Auckland was a major contributor to the ‘culture turn’ during the 1990s when Roger Dale was a professor in the School. It was a period of intense intellectual activity and served as the convergence site for two sets of ideas about the knowledge – power relation which were used to justify the class to culture shift. Both sets of ideas, Critical Theory and Postmodernism, conceptualise knowledge as always and necessarily ideological, as subjective, and tied to the knower and their interests in what became known more broadly as standpoint or identity approaches (Maton and Moore, 2010).
Although I initially shared this knowledge/power orthodoxy; that knowledge is always ideological (Rata, 1991), I have increasingly developed an alternative position. I now argue that it is possible for knowledge to be separated from the ‘knower’ and, as a consequence of the separation, to become objective and no longer serve as the ideology for a group’s political and economic interests. The separation occurs in processes both of disciplinary accountability and of objectification, generalisation, and universalisation (Rata, 2018). My intentions in this chapter are threefold . One is to trace the origins of the knowledge/power orthodoxy to the influence of Critical Theory and Postmodernism in the School of Education during the 1990s. The second is to show how my opposition to the orthodoxy did in fact emerge out of Marxist Critical Theory although it has now taken a different turn. The third is to locate the potential objectivity of knowledge in the accountability procedures of the scientific method.
Knowledge of the powerful and the powerless
One set of ideas which supported the knowledge/power conflation was centred on the New Sociology of Education (NSOE), specifically the ideas of Critical Theory. Roger Dale’s arrival at the School of Education in 1988 cemented the centrality of Critical Theory in the School’s burgeoning growth, an influence seen both in academic publications and in postgraduate theses. His appointment as Professor and Head of School generated a sense amongst us (I was one of those postgraduate students) that the School was part of the progressive NSOE movement rejuvenating the discipline and connecting us to advocacy educational approaches worldwide. The assumption that academic knowledge was in the service of political advocacy was not only taken for granted but we believed that it gave us moral authority to use our scholarship for the social justice ideals we claimed for ourselves.
We postgraduate students assumed that Critical Theory and Postmodernism were bedfellows, despite the absence of class analysis in the latter, an assumption based on the idea shared in both that knowledge is ideology, created and used in the interests of the knowers. According to our analysis, if knowledge and power are intimately connected then that logic also applies to knowledge of the powerless. Furthermore, the knowledge of the disadvantaged is rendered powerless in the oppression visited upon the subjugated by those whose knowledge is used in their own interests. In New Zealand’s case, these were the interests of the coloniser, interests justified by ‘Western’ knowledge. The ‘knowledge of the powerless’ versus ‘knowledge of the powerful’ approach was the seed for kaupapa/matauranga Māori theory.
The phrase ‘in whose interests’ had became the guiding question in our postgraduate studies. We took the knowledge/power mantra into the academic careers which opened up for us as teacher education moved into the universities in the early 1990s. Positions in the newly created Ministry of Education and in the NZ Centre for Educational Research also provided opportunities. This brief period of significant structural change in higher education enabled us to move into these influential positions where we (and our ideas) have remained. It was a heady time for those of us who acquired academic employment in that brief window of opportunity, one that may explain the confidence we had that our ideas were justified, if not by their logic, then by the good intentions which drove them. We were the new professional class ‘doing well by doing good’ (Rata, 1996a). Underpinned by the moral authority of social justice ideals, knowledge/power theory was protected from critique, not least because it advocated for the ‘knowledge of the powerless’ against the ‘knowledge of the ‘powerful’. For working class Māori who suffered from the decade’s neoliberal reforms, the scholarly advocacy of kaupapa Māori was timely. Inequality was to be understood as colonial-imposed oppression and not as the effects of contemprary politics.
Roger Dale’s Critical Theory credentials caused considerable excitement amongst postgraduate students in the School. Many of us, including myself, Tuakana (Tuki) Nepe, Linda Smith, and Graham Smith were involved in the establishment of kaupapa Māori education within the broader Māori revival movement (Nepe et. al, 1989 ; Rata, 1989; 1991). Here was the opportunity to acquire the theory with which to inform our politics. We used the ideas of ‘praxis’ from Critical Theory and of ‘knowledge/power’ from Postmodernism to justify our research. We insisted that knowledge can never be objective, that it is always and necessarily the ‘knowledge of the powerful’ acting against the ‘knowledge of the powerless’. In this way, kaupapa Māori theory was able to position itself as the praxis of the powerless.
Following the completion of our masters’ degrees (mine supervised by Roger Dale was an account of the Kaupapa Māori schools’ establishment [Rata, 1991] with Tuki Nepe’s (1990) describing kaupapa Māori theory, three of us went on to complete doctoral degrees also under his supervision. These are neotribal capitalism theory which I developed in my PhD thesis in 1996 (book 2000), Linda Smith’s decolonising methodologies theory (1996, book 1999) and Graham Smith’s 1997 PhD thesis about kaupapa Māori theory and practice.
Neotribal Capitalism and Kaupapa Māori
Neotribal capitalism (Rata, 1996b, 2000) theorised the production of the conditions of social life in Māori society using Marxist economic determinacy. (In that, I was true to Critical Theory’s premise.) I identified three main themes. The first is the global-local dialectic which characterises capitalism. Local versions are characterised by their own particular racial, ideological, and historical circumstances but are structured by the class relations of that economic system. The second theme concerned the emergence of localised elites as access to resources and power was enabled by changing material conditions. The third theme identified the ideological character of local versions of global capitalism where I argued that, however strong the idealistic forces of pre-figurative movements such as cultural revivalism, they are ultimately compromised by class relations.
Localising politics, in New Zealand as elsewhere, contributed to capitalism’s neoliberal regulation by weakening the universalist democratic nation-state. The response was the turn to populist ideologies which promise the social belonging of the past. I used the shift from 1970s’ pan-Māori cultural revivalism to retribalisation to illustrate this theme, adopting from anthropology the term ‘culturalism’ to refer to neotraditionalism as the justifying ideology of retribalisation (Rata, 2003). The contemporary tribe is presented as the restoration of the traditional socio-politicial order, rather than, as I maintain, an economic corporation like any other, but one with political, even constitutional, ambitions. In contrast to my thesis, kaupapa Māori theory moved from its Marxist origins to provide the justification for retribalisation as a progressive political movement on behalf of all Māori. Critical Theory’s class analysis was abandoned but kaupapa Māori theory retained the Marxian emphasis on ‘praxis’, holding that “Kaupapa Māori contains the necessity of political action” (Smith, 2012, p. 12).
That political action was the retribalisation strategies which acquired momentum following four significant events. The first was the 1985 Treaty of Waitangi Act which enabled reparation claims to be back-dated to 1840 re-casting pan-Māori revivalism as retribalisation. The second was the State-owned Enterprises (SOE) Act 1986 (Section 9). “Nothing in this Act shall permit the Crown to act in a manner that is inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi”. The history of Treaty principles in policy began at this time with the transfer of government assets to the new SOEs. Discussions between the Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Hepi Te Heuheu of Ngati Tuwharetoa produced section 9. “However as Parliament did not indicate what the principles of the Treaty are, it fell to the Courts to discover them.” (Berthold in Rata, 2003)
The 1987 Court of Appeal decision was the third significant retribalisation event. The Chief Justice referred to the Treaty relationship as “akin to a partnership” (TPK, 2001, p. 78) not that it was a partnership (Round, 2002). However the word ‘partnership’ quickly became a central retribalising strategy. “This so-called partnership concept came into common parlance after a Court of Appeal case in the 1980s. The judges were attempting to describe the duties the parties to the treaty owed to each other. They likened it to the obligation partners in a partnership had, but they did not say that the treaty actually created a partnership nor did it”. (Graham, 2000, p. 13). With the fourth significant event, the 1991 Resource Management Act, which incorporated newly written Treaty principles into legislation, the corporate tribes and their interests moved into public institutions, a process which laid the foundation for constitutional claims.
It is unsurprising that the neotribal capitalism theory and Kaupapa Māori theory were developed in this political context. Both were responding to retribalising politics, albeit with opposing explanations. What may be surprising is that the opposing theories were developed in doctoral studies under the same superviser at the same time. I was developing the case for retribalisation as a process of elite emergence, one common to capitalism and initiated by the transfer of economic resources to the tribes and their political interests in the neoliberal climate. In contrast, kaupapa Māori theory was developing the justification for retribalisation as the restoration of traditional tribal governance. Retribalisation politics were seen to resist capitalism’s exploitative ‘logic of the commodity’ by providing an alternative ‘logic of the gift’. The logic of the gift idea, despite its origins in Mauss’ very ‘Western’ anthropology, is an attempt by indigenous academics to justify the ‘communal capitalism’ or ‘collective capitalism’ idea promoted by retribalising elites (Iwi Investment Wananga Report, 2010).
‘Communal or collective capitalism’ however is a contradiction in terms. Capitalism is a system which creates surplus value from the unpaid labour of the worker, surplus which, as profit, is taken by the capitalist. That exploitation, and with it the resulting class inequality, is built into the system itself. Political regulation may well be used to offset the resulting inequalities, and democratic governments seek to achieve this with various redistributive policies, but the inequalities are already created for political regulation to be required. However, the kaupapa Māori explanation of retribalisation is of the revival of a traditional system, with communal social relations carried into the new tribal corporations. In contrast, I argue that the contemporary tribe is structured according to the class relations not according to the communal relations of traditional tribal society. It is for this reason that I describe kaupapa Māori as an ideology, one which conceals the new structuring principle of the contemporary neotribe. However, establishing continuity to the past using discourses of traditinal revival (Rata, 2011) is an effective strategy used to access economic resources and political governance. It is not for nothing that the term whakapapa (genealogy) has assumed a significant discursive function .
The orthodox and largely uncritiqued view of retribalisation and its justification in kaupapa Māori theory that was laid down in the 1990s has been carried into the education system by a small but highly influential group of politicised graduates. It is to be found in Ministry of Education policy, the Teacher Graduating Standards, the localised national curriculum, and the shift to culturally-responsive pedagogies (Lynch and Rata, 2017). It influences social relations and practices at a daily level – operating as Foucault’s microtechnologies in naturalising the ideology. Even among academics and policy makers there appears to be little or no historical consciousness of contemporary Treaty interpretation, despite ‘partnership’ and ‘principles’ being as recent as the 1980s.
At the time of my PhD, I had not identified the knowledge/power conflation as a central problem to my work. In fact, identifying retribalisation as a culturalist ideology in my PhD merely reinforced my use of the conflation, although in my case, it was an emergent elite using the justification of powerless Māori to serve its political strategies. It was not until my 2000 reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason did I understand that a logical explanation for objective knowledge existed. Alternatives had not been provided when I did postgraduate study. Two years later I published a short monograph, Democratic principles in teaching and learning: A Kantian approach. Professor James Marshall sent me a courtesy pre-publication copy of his critique, one intended for publication in Access . He made it clear that I was in error; that knowledge was to be considered subjective, not objective as I was claiming. The ideas about knowledge in that monograph lay dormant until 2012 when I published The Politics of Knowledge in Education. By then I was increasingly dissatisfied with the taken-for-granted assumption that knowledge is always ‘in someone’s interests’ . What was the case for the opposite – that knowledge may become objective under certain conditions? If so, what are those conditions?
I identify four possible ways of responding to these questions. The first is the rationalist approach, the idea of a categorical apparatus identified by Kant as the means by which our cognition develops as we begin to classify and categorise in order to impose meaning on our experiences. Systems of presuppositions build human intelligence as the individual’s mental apparatus becomes increasingly more sophisticated with the abstraction of its contents (thoughts) from experience. Cognitive architecture theory and evolutionary educational theory (Geary, 2002) support this understanding of intelligence belonging to the individual but built as the individual is socialised into rationalised symbolic systems. In other words, individualising and socialising processes occur interdependently. It is a universalist view of human reason which allows for the unity of humankind given that cognitive processes (e.g. memorising, classifying, categorising and so on) are available to all. In turn these instruments of thought produce the thought itself. That objective ‘product’ is available to all through its generalisable capacity and because thought products can be shared using the symbolic system that is simultaneously the instrument of thought (individualising) and the means of communicating that thought (socialising).
A second approach regards knowledge as always subjective, that is always tied to the thinker. Its function as the means of communication within and for social relations is emphasised over its function as the individual’s thinking instrument. The source of thought is located in, and remains tied to, the myths, religions, languages, arts, and sciences of traditional knowledge and not in individual cognition. The knowledge to be valued and considered disciplinary may be the folk (Geary, 2002) or traditional knowledge of socio-historical groups as with kaupapa/matauranga Māori. It may be Hegel’s national spirit (as with ‘blood and soil’ nationalisms) or Marx’s class consciousness. Today, we see this knowledge in the ideologies of contemporary populist movements where traditional beliefs are harnessed to revived exclusive nationalisms.
This is the understanding of knowledge found in post-1970s’ revival of ethnicity as a structuring socio-political category (retribalisation in New Zealand) (Rata, 2017). It is the point I make in the introduction where I locate the impetus occurring in the School of Education for identifying the ‘knower’ as the ethnicised/racialised or indigenous subject. The subjective knowledge the group has of itself is considered to be the truth about the group, making any claims for objectivity redundant. Knowledge about the group by non-group or non-authorised members, especially when that knowledge makes claims to be objective (as I do with neotribal capitalism theory) is considered to be the use of knowledge to oppress the group. Only those within a group (or with the group’s permission [Rata, 2013]) can have a true understanding of the group’s experiences and interests. Because this knowledge is relative to the group, it can only be judged in terms of accountability criteria it sets for itself. This forecloses the requirement for accountability according to a discipline’s procedures concerning the scientific method. Indeed, disciplinary knowledge with its claims for rational objectivity is seen as just another cultural story, hence the rapid development of the indigenous versus Western dichotomy by the promoters of this approach.
In the past decade a third approach has emerged which seeks to reclaim the epistemological integrity of disciplines, that is, to recognise that scientific disciplines have developed ways to investigate and explain social and natural phenomena and procedures to ensure the rigour of those methods. This Durkheimian inspired response, referred to as ‘social realism’ (seminal writers include Rob Moore, Johan Muller, and Michael Young) locate the source of knowledge in the socio-historical conditions of power, as does the second approach above. But social realism argues for the possibility of objective knowledge as a consequence of the separation of the knower and the knowledge. The issue is how that separation occurs. Concepts that are central to a discipline can become separated (abstracted) from the conditions of their creation and used as the tools for both the creation of the research object (epistemology) and for its analysis and theorising (methodology) (Rata, 2018). An example is my use of class theory in neotribal capitalism. However, disciplinary concepts are insufficient to guarantee objectivity. The researcher’s selection of these concepts may be biased by her politics. This makes accountability to a discipline’s procedures, to the use of the scientific method, of crucial importance.
The central role of the scientific method is the main idea in the fourth approach. Creating knowledge that is objective depends on this method. Popper (2003) refers to the processes “of trial and error, of inventing hypothesis which can be practically tested, and submitting them to practical tests” (p. 241). Procedural accountability includes the use of recognised disciplinary concepts and of peer review in academic journals that are themselves accountable. That accountability moves the ideas outside the discipline to the public where their implications as well as their methods are available for scrutiny. Such openness to public criticism holds the discipline as well as the researcher to account. This can only occur if the knowledge is seen to be in the interests of humankind and not of the research subjects. That requires its objectification, its separation from the research subject. In Popper’s words, objective knowledge is “a product of the social or public character of scientific method” (p. 243).
My purpose in this paper has been to describe the development of two fundamentally different theories, neotribal capitalism and kaupapa/matauranga Māori in Auckland’s School of Education in the 1990s. Roger Dale’s doctoral supervision at the University of Auckland contributed to the ways in which his students (Linda Smith, Graham Smith, and myself along with many others), took very different paths in seeking the truth about knowledge. While my argument has taken me a long way from my doctoral colleagues, at that time our opposing ideas were just being developed. There was not the clarity about what was occurring that hindsight provides therefore it is timely to revive the discussion.
I continue to regard kaupapa Māori theory as the justifying ideology of retribalisation politics. Moreover I also continue to claim that neotribal capitalism is not ideology but an objective explanation for retribalisation. This claim is likely to add to the outrage already levelled at my research (and at me because for my critics the research and the researcher are tied). Surely neotribal capitalism is ideological, a theory in the interests of ‘Western’ knowledge, representing the politics of this researcher? My reply lies in the difference in accountability between the two theories.
For knowledge to be objective science, researchers must be accountable to their respective disciplines for the rigour of the method, and following that, the disciplines which guarantee that rigour must be accountable to the human society that their science serves. In contrast, the indigenous methodologies approach of kaupapa/matauranga Māori is that research methods are accountable to the people being researched. If that is the case then it is true that the research cannot be objective because it is always tied to the research subjects.
This argument for accountability to the researched is flawed. The ethical relation between the researcher and the research subjects is confused with the scientific method. However, the ethnical conduct of the research concerns the moral relationship between researchers and their subjects (human and non-human). For this moral relationship the researcher is accountable to those being researched using ethical guidelines developed within disciplines and institutions. But the scientific method used in the research is another story. For those methods of investigation, analysis, and theorising, the researcher is accountable to the discipline and to society.
My neotribal capitalism theory is an example of such disciplinary methods. My investigation into retribalisation processes and the way I theorised those processes are made available in a range of disciplinary journals (Li, 2010; Rose, 2017; Schroeder, 2003). In addition, anyone else can join the criticism in terms of how the theory may be a useful (or not) contribution to understanding society. Only ongoing criticism will tell if the theory stands up to scrutiny. But indigenous methodology will not recognise the validity of external criticism (although it does of course occur, e.g. Widdowson and Howard, 2008). For example, my critique of retribalisation is rejected on the grounds that I am not ‘authorised’ by the group. Because it is the ‘knower’ not the ‘knowledge’ which is held to account, a non-authorised researcher is troublesome. In Popper’s terms, the theory of neotribal capital is ‘open’ while kaupapa/matauranga Māori is ‘closed’ (Munz, 1999). The former remains science while the latter is belief.
A final note
It has been a deeply rewarding intellectual path since I began my postgraduate studies under Roger Dale’s supervision at the University of Auckland. We, his students, Linda Smith, Graham Smith and myself, have taken very different paths in seeking the truth about knowledge. What is more important than our different explanations about the society we live in is how we have used the scientific method. My first commitment is to the method’s accountability procedures. These ensure that ideas are continually ‘put on trial’ to be judged by everyone. The task of science is the ongoing search for truth but ironically it is a search that can never end because scientific ideas must remain provisional, must never become ‘truth’ for them to be science and not belief.
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Knowledge Dispute at the University of Auckland
This article was published as a chapter in: