Theory Rant

I have been doing a lot of thinking about my research interests and my theoretical understandings of the world. I came to Penn State with this view of the world that I had developed over time through studying anthropology and conflict, working in educational contexts (mostly university settings, all formal, all admittedly in the western educational culture), and living in diverse places.

I came here thinking I would focus on non-formal education and I defined that as the training that NGOs provide, the trainings that I have worked on professionally. These trainings were intended to provide some sort of skill to better equip the trainee to do their job or increase their social mobility between jobs. The concept was grounded in neoliberalism and human capital theory. Despite my ability to identify that the system that the trainings perpetuate is flawed, I am not able to identify just what I think education can do about that.

I wanted to focus on the Global South and, particularly, conflict affected environments because of my own convictions towards social justice and my observations of the great, structural disparity in our world today. I also see potential in the Global South and especially in conflict affected environments that I do not see in the Global North. I see a yearning for change throughout society. As conflicts end, everyone knows that the old way wasn’t working and they want to see change. There is a sense of urgency and a feeling of possibility. I would argue this is true of much of the Global South, due to a common characteristic: States in the Global South have less influence and control over the neoliberal international system.

I assumed the human capital perspective. That we need training and education in order to make money. And that the purpose of learning is to be more productive at making money. If everyone is able to make money, I thought, than this capitalist game that we are all required to play will be slightly more fair. Though the game will not have changed drastically, these small changes would allow people to have more and more ability to make more diverse choices in their day to day life.

I also assumed that non-formal education was the golden ticket in developing and conflict affected environments because it did not presume primary, secondary, post-secondary models which arguably are ineffective in resource constrained environments. But non-formal training or “alternative education” continues the same game that I set out to work against, the game that entrenches disadvantage, that institutionalizes poverty.

So now, as I develop my theoretical positions, I see that I understand the world through context. I want to know more about Tanzanian colonialism to understand Nyerere’s educational projects. In this way, I am a post-colonial scholar. I believe in equality of peoples as a humanist, drawing on human rights and universalisms to define a moral code. That being said, I know that universals are only useful to guide thoughts, not to analyze, and I am feminist in my respect for individual experience and positionality. As an anthropologist, “education” is the object of study, culture is the framework. Finally, as a scholar distrustful of discourses of “progress,” that there is some objectively “good life” and that all peoples should work towards it, I am, somehow, postmodern and post structural.

And that’s my understanding, briefly so far, of my theoretical positions.


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