Learning from and for Community: Participatory Action Research and Post-Apartheid Education

By Salim Vally and Carol Anne Spreen.

Published by The Learner Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Over the past decade socially engaged researchers and activists in South Africa have deliberately conceptualized and conducted research in and through communities where the challenges of poverty, oppressive conditions and social exclusion are pervasive. In doing so, they have explicitly set out to stimulate discussion about these conditions and their underlying causes, to mobilize responses to these and to raise public consciousness about the issues confronting such communities. This has also led to the emergence of stronger links between socially committed researchers based in academic institutions and community activists. It has stimulated the development and uses of research in communities, having direct effects on the accountability of public representatives about the use of public resources and by implication on how academic scholarship is viewed.

There has been a realization that often social research “objectifies” communities and reduces complex theoretical and practical issues to data gathering and produces outcomes which are patronizing and even offensive to such communities. This is largely because, especially in regard to communities which are bedeviled by egregious poverty and its social effects, research regards such communities as being in “deficit”, devoid of history, knowledge, thinking and struggle. Often this means the intervention of researchers and consultants with little or no orientation to the deeper social characteristics of such communities, the diversity of its composition, its history, language, culture, traditions and experience of resistance, and even less to its reservoir of knowledge and experience and social consciousness.

This paper will examine these arguments in the light of research conducted during the education leg of the Poverty and Inequality hearings held in 1998 and its legacy as well as the more recent and ongoing synergy of a university based research entity (the Education Rights Project-ERP) and mass based community organizations in South Africa. The paper will emphasize the importance of transcending the limitations inherent in superficial survey data and the case for richer and complex qualitative data which moreover recognizes the categories of gender, social class, “race” and identity necessary for meaningful social analysis.

This paper argues that approaches to social enquiry based on solidly grounded information and knowledge can also have value for engaging with the policy and decision-making agencies of the state and with public representatives. It will also explain why research conducted by the ERP and social movements has value for the mobilization of strategies and for planning and organizing of local education and other campaigns to both inform local action and democratize issues relevant to educational struggles in communities while demystifying research and yet enriching the academy.

The International Journal of Learning, Volume 15, Issue 11, pp.127-136. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 563.525KB).

Salim Vally

University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Salim Vally is a Senior Researcher/Lecturer at the Education Policy Unit, School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He worked as a teacher and trade unionist before joining the Wits Education Policy Unit. He is active in social justice and solidarity movements and is a board member of various professional organizations. He also serves on the editorial boards of various academic journals and is a regular commentator in the mass media. Vally is involved in scholarship that combines interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to critically examining education policy and practice. His abiding interest is in encouraging his peers and community activists to collaborate on socially engaged research. Vally is also the co-ordinator of the Education Rights Project which works with poor communities in many townships and informal settlements around the country

Carol Anne Spreen

Department of Leadership, Foundations and Policy, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, USA

Dr. Spreen received her Ph.D. in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She also holds an M.Phil. in Educational Policy Studies from Teachers College, an M.Ed. in Instructional Leadership from the University of Illinois, and a B.Ed. in International Education Development from the American University. Dr. Spreen’s research centers on political and socio-cultural studies of educational change, particularly the influences of globalization on teaching and learning. Her current scholarship focuses on teacher’s lives and work in rural South African schools, using participatory/action research to study the long-term impact poverty and inequality on educational access and outcomes.

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