Social Theory and Educational Research: an interview with Dr Mark Murphy.

Social theorists tackle the ‘big questions’ facing human beings and their societies. They do so by employing various social theories as frameworks in order to understand complex and varied social phenomena. One such phenomenon is education. Education is, of course, a persistently ‘hot topic’, not just in Scotland, but internationally. Here to discuss the relationship between social theory and educational research is Dr Mark Murphy. Mark is Reader in Education and Public Policy and Co-Director of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow. He is the founder of Social Theory ( a space dedicated to providing an online platform offering researchers and all other interested parties a forum for discussing, exploring and sharing ideas with the aim of enabling its visitors to learn from each other.

Mark has published a number of books on social theory and educational research and he has, with Dr Cristina Costa of the University of Strathclyde, established the new Journal of Applied Social Theory. Most recently, Mark has announced his new book series with Bloomsbury, Social Theory and Methodology in Education Research.

PT: Mark. Why did you find yourself gravitating toward social theory rather than say, philosophy, or anthropology? And, how would you characterise social theory? What are its main concerns?

MM: Originally I was drawn to psychology and sociology – it was the intersections between these that probably turned me more in the direction of social theory, a field of endeavour determined to make sense of the social world, rather than say, the purely economic, or psyche, or state. Social theory is a world full of wonderful insight into the social condition, which manages to keep different facets of society in view simultaneously while not always having to genuflect before the disciplining force of sociology or any other discipline. The fact that social theory is not a discipline in itself but rather traverses disciplinarity, is especially beneficial, and attractive. Social theory can assist in efforts to transcend the everyday taken-for-granted understandings of education, while also reflecting erstwhile concerns in education around power, control, social justice and transformation. These are core issues for social theory generally.

PT: In your view, what are the most pressing issues facing educational researchers at this time?

MM: There is no doubt that education research, at least in the UK, currently faces a policy world shaped by the politics of austerity. Aside from the obvious impact on funding, there is also a greater desire to provide value for money when it comes to the outcomes of education research. This form of accountability to the public purse isn’t necessarily new, but does mean that the need to evidence ‘impact’ has become one of the drivers of education research. I think, however, that this offers as much opportunity to our field as it does a hindrance: researchers in the field of education are well placed to illustrate impact which doesn’t always come with the usual strings attached. It doesn’t mean that theory-led research has to take a back seat to more prosaic concerns over what works – we just need to rethink how a theory that aims to study the social can offer routes to societal impact that are already part of its DNA.            

PT: What is the relationship between social theory and educational research? How can taking a perspective informed by social theory help researchers in education?

MM: Slowly but surely a large community of education scholars has emerged which engages with socio-theoretical concepts, and this community has become a major presence in scholarly journals over the last couple of decades. These days you would be hard-pressed to read education journals without coming across mentions of Foucault and the like. My guess is that this development was obscured for a long time by the compartmentalised approach to so much theory-driven research, with Bourdieu-inspired scholars over here, Habermasians over there, and so on. I hope that we have moved on from the worst excesses of the theory war years; it would be great if this community has reached a level of maturity which allows it to see itself for what it is – a scholarly movement whose similarities far outweigh any differences over theoretical paradigm and research approach.    

When it comes to helping researchers, the use of social theory in education research has a key function – to make the familiar strange, a function that it delivers for numerous other fields of practice. It is a well-worn phrase at this stage, but rings true for education.  Let’s face it – educational institutions such as schools and universities are strange beasts: less like Goffman’s total institutions and more like half-way houses offering a form of suspended animation, for both staff and students. But this strangeness is forgotten and the institutions are viewed as almost part of the natural fabric of things. I think the use of social theory so far has only chipped away at this strangeness, and has some way to go in this regard.

I also take seriously the need to make the strange familiar – i.e., to make accessible the ‘strange’ world of social theory to those who are unfamiliar with its ways. Hence the website, the books and the new journal.

PT: You have been particularly influenced by Habermas, and Bourdieu. What is it about their work that you find so compelling?

MM: I was drawn to the work of Habermas for a number of reasons but mainly because I was intrigued by the complexity of his ideas and the fact that one of his key aims sociologically was to engage in a reconstruction of historical materialism. He was part of the Marxist tradition but maintained a respectable distance from it. In fact the first article I ever published was a short piece in Humanity and Society (back in 1995) which criticised Habermas for not being Marxist enough! But that was then and this now. Another reason why Habermas is compelling is his inter-discplinarity – in this regard he is second to none as he incorporates into his thinking ideas from philosophy, cultural and communication studies, linguistics, political science and history, psychology and psychoanalysis – no wonder he is a key figure in the Frankfurt School. He isn’t afraid to take on other thinkers or adapt their ideas for his own theoretical development. It’s a shame that the ‘ideal speech situation’ (which he has distanced himself from) has become his calling card in some education circles.   

When it comes to Bourdieu – well he is hard to avoid in education research, even if you wanted to. But anyone interested in social inequalities, power differentials and the role of education in social reproduction is immediately drawn to Bourdieu. I’m no different in this regard – I’m fascinated by his break with Marxist orthodoxy at a time, similar to Habermas, when this wasn’t the done thing (at least within the Marxist tradition). It all seems quite commonplace now but to talk about culture as a tool of domination while also transforming our understandings of ‘capital’ – that was revolutionary. Now we live in a time when cultural capital has become part of everyday language, or close to it at least.         

PT: What is the relationship between educational research and educational policy? And, in your view, how should both impact practice in the classroom or lecture hall?

Educational research and educational policy are essential components of a democratic culture that understands education as an agent of both socialisation and emancipation. Their relationship is crucial as to how these two agendas balance each other in a world of competing political agendas and ideological conflict. The relationship between research and policy isn’t taken seriously enough but it should also be pointed out that ‘serious’ research – i.e., ‘that to be taken seriously by policy makers’ – is not the sole preserve of quantitative studies of school effectiveness, educational attainment and the like. There is a vast world of education research of a qualitative and mixed-methods bent that often gets ignored, which makes me wonder sometimes why we bother having decades-long arguments about positivism only for positivism to march on regardless.

That said, post-positivist educational research, much of which tends to engage with social theory of various hues, should do more to get its own house in order – one of the things I would like to see happening via the Bloomsbury book series Social theory and methodology in education research. This is a grand ambition and obviously not an easy nut to crack, but my guess is the timing is right for scholars to cross theory boundaries and learn from each other, to think anew about how we deal with issues around ‘quality’ and also how we engage with policy makers who are more comfortable with a certain kind of ‘neutral’ language and presentation.

Regarding the question of practice … I would argue that education is currently gripped by a tyranny of practice, an overbearing focus on practice which itself needs theoretical interrogation. Having said that, the constant question you hear in education – what does this theory mean in practice? – should not be dismissed as the manifestation of a triumphal instrumentalism (however tempted I might be). You could argue that this emphasis on practice, whether classroom or lecture hall or wherever, can be viewed as a mechanism for keeping the world of theory in check. Ideally there should be a two-way relation between theory and practice, with policy providing the nuts and bolts keeping the relationship together, but I’m not sure how close we are to such a functioning machine at this juncture.  

PT: I mentioned in my introduction that you have recently launched both a Journal and a Book Series. What are your aspirations for these projects?

The first edition of the Journal has just been launched – it’s a special edition on Theorising digital scholarship, co-edited by myself and the co-editor of the journal, Cristina Costa and can be accessed here:

The objective in setting up this new open-access journal is to fill a gap in current academic debates regarding the treatment of well-established and sometimes revered theories, theories that can all too often inhibit discussion while shying away from more applied forms of theoretical work. I hope that, by providing this platform for debate around social theory and its applications, we can make a strong contribution to critical understandings of how theory can be applied to various forms of practice – professional research, policy, practitioner, etc. As I suggest above, all too often we find discussions of theory divorced from method and/or separated from practice. My ambition in the long run is that the Journal of Applied Social Theory can offer an online space where such troublesome boundaries and dichotomies can be traversed. I’m also very pleased to be part of an open-access publishing community which gears itself towards fostering spaces for democratic communication.

I’m very pleased to be editor of the new Bloomsbury book series, Social theory and methodology in education research – more detail about the series is available here (Bloomsbury will have their own series website probably in November). The key issues guiding the series are:

  • how best to apply concepts such as habitus, subjectivation and performativity in educational research contexts?
  • What are the ways in which methodological concerns meet theoretical ones?
  • In what ways does social theory shape the quality of research outcomes?

These questions require thoughtful responses and hence my development of the new series. I would like to help provide solutions to these issues, while also helping to develop the capacity, in particular of post-graduate and early career researchers, to successfully put social theory to work in research. This is especially important as theory application in method is a challenging and daunting enterprise. The set of theories developed by the likes of Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Bourdieu et al, could never be described as ‘simple’ or easy to navigate. I know this from my own work and that of my students. On top of that there are a variety of issues faced when applying such ideas in research contexts, a field of complex interwoven imperatives and practices in its own right. These challenges – epistemological, operational, analytical – inevitably impact on researchers and our attempts to make sense of research questions, whether these be questions of governance and political regulation, social reproduction, power, cultural or professional identities (among others).

The series launched in April 2016 and there is currently one book under contract and several others books either under review or about to go for review. The first book will be published in 2017. I hope the series will hold a strong appeal to the growing numbers of researchers who are keen to apply social theory in their research, as evidenced by the growing audience for, a website I created in 2013 and now co-edit. I want the series to act as a major resource for those who wish to use theoretical concepts in their research but are not sure how to do so, and that it will appeal to readers who have a strong interest in better understanding how theory can be effectively applied in research contexts, in practically realisable ways.


Dr Murphy, thank you!


Mark Murphy’s website at The University of Glasgow

The Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change

Social Theory Applied