International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
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Is ‘offering’ powerful knowledge sufficient? Epistemic and social concerns in the sciences

Karen Ellery and Chrissie Boughey, Rhodes University, South Africa


Melanie Mclean argues in her think-piece that ‘offering’ abstract, theoretical knowledge, which allows thought beyond current context and personal experience and is therefore a socially-powerful knowledge, is a matter of epistemic justice. This paper supports this contention, but we go further to suggest that the manner in which knowledge is ‘offered’ profoundly affects student access and success. This paper presents a single, in-depth, qualitative case study in which the educational practices of a science course, called Introduction to Science Concepts and Methods (ISCM), are characterised using Legitimation Code Theory (LCT). LCT is an explanatory framework that enables characterisation of knowledge and knowledge practices, elucidation of organising principles of the practices, and examination of their effects (Maton 2014). To examine ISCM educational practices qualitative data from curriculum documents, interviews, observations and critical reflections are analysed through the development of ‘external languages of description’ (Bernstein 2000), which serve to bridge the gap between abstract code theory and empirical data. Analysis of epistemic relations in ISCM reveals that four main categories of knowledge and knowledge practices are legitimated: disciplinary knowledge, scientific literacies knowledge, general academic practices knowledge and everyday knowledge. Similarly, a nuanced two-category differentiation of social relations are legitimated: an epistemic-context knower (or scientist) and a learning-context knower (or science learner). Student performance and interview data indicate that epistemic and social relations play an equally important role in science student access and success. We thus develop a generalised model of epistemological access based on both epistemic-context access and well as learning-context access. This provides a useful frame for considering the complexities of attaining epistemological access in higher education sciences, and possibly other fields. We argue for far-reaching transformative pedagogies that present a weakening of epistemic relations to create space for a strengthening of learning-context social relations. This is not a suggestion to remove powerful knowledge, but instead a shift in emphasis to better support previously educationally disenfranchised students in ways that better accommodate their backgrounds, norms, practices and identities, as well as better acknowledge the difficult process of ontological becoming and being, especially for those whose backgrounds have not prepared them well for a higher education context. This is an urgent imperative globally and, in light of the recent disruptive and angry student calls for decolonisation of the curriculum, is especially so in the South African context.


Epistemological access, epistemic justice, Legitimation Code Theory, science curricula

Link to Full Paper (If submitted)


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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