Month: February 2015

Being critical, being present

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An EdD student asked me today, during a tutorial – what precisely  does it mean ‘to be critical’ and how can I be present and critical in my writing. There are so many answers to this question, but actually the most definitive answers I was able to offer – it seemed to satisfy – was, it means using the type of sentences in your text that go something like this:

  • A major criticism of Smith’s work is that or
  • The key problem with this explanation is that
  • However, there is an inconsistency with this argument; it is that …

As referee, being present and visible as a writer – means that you start your sentences with your own voice. The authorities may be referred to in named, dated brackets to support your line of thinking, at the end of what you have said. But, as referee – your direct voice is what leads. The other voices are there as a choral support or challenge for what you have to say.

Manchester Academic Phrasebook is an excellent resource here. They list a series of sentences (as above) that hint at how the visible scholar is both present and critical, representing themselves on paper.

There is a danger. The sentences they suggest offer a hint at how it might be possible to tread that cautious line between being overly respectful or unnecessarily ‘umble in your writing. It is also important to avoid being caustic as if you desire to annihilate your adversary. After all, if you pummel your giants into the ground, their heads and their shoulders – made that much lower, diminish your own capacity to stand to the fullest possible height.

There are several colleagues who suggest the conceptual paper might be like hosting a dinner party. My colleagues at LiteratureReviewHQ elaborate upon this in detail.

You have the choice about the scholars and ideas you wish to invite. Invite those guests that will make the dinner an entertaining success, who will have interesting things to say to each other that are not so similar that they become repetitive. Nor are they so different that all they d is shout at each other.  The good host may well be critical of her company but certainly does not poison her guests. You make the choice about who can speak when – without being intrusive. You set the tone and theme of the sessions. The guests are there to help you accomplish what it is you have set out to do.

There is of course a very real danger of using something like the academic phrasebook – someone else words might well sound uncomfortable and odd in your text. So – as always what matters is that you explore the idea but not necessarily the specific detail.

Question everything

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No wonder there is so much contestation and ambiguity.


essentially contested concepts: yes, but is it art?

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There are few points of agreement in social theory. Most concepts have a ‘ramshackle transportability’ which requires them to remain in a state of perpetual motion. They are argued over, disputed with the occasional temporary settlement – which is too soon set in motion again when yet another theorist arrives – compellingly – at a different set of conclusions or indeed asks a different set of previously unasked questions. This is a creative tension that provides a ‘prophylactic as well as a provocation’ to generate new thinking.

In 1955 Gallie developed the notion of essentially contested concepts, defined below:


Gallie, W. B. (1955, January). Essentially contested concepts. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian society (pp. 167-198).

In order to count as essentially contested, a concept must possess the following characteristics:

(I) it must be appraisive in the sense that it signifies or accredits some kind of valued achievement.
(II) This achievement must be of an internally complex character,for all that its worth is attributed to it as a whole.
(III) Any explanation of its worth must therefore include reference to the respective contributions of its various parts or features; yet prior to experimentation there is nothing absurd or contradictory in any one of a number of possible rival descriptions of its total worth, one such description setting its component parts or features in one order of importance, a second setting them in a second order, and so on. In fine, the accredited achievement is initially variously describable.
(IV) The accredited achievement must be of a kind that admits of considerable modification in the light of changing circumstances; and such modification cannot be prescribed or predicted in advance. For convenience I shall call the concept of any such achievement ” open ” in character.’ These seem to me to be the four most important necessary conditions to which any essentially contested concept must comply. But they do not define what it is to be a concept of this kind. For this purpose we should have to say not only that different persons or parties adhere to different views of the correct use of some concept but
(V) that each party recognizes the fact that its own use of it is contested by those of other parties, and that each party must have at least some appreciation of the different criteria in the light of which the other parties claim to be applying the concept in question. More simply, to use an essentially contested concept means to use it against other uses and to recognize that one’s own use of it has to be maintained against these other uses. Still more simply, to use an essentially contested concept means to use it both aggressively and defensively.
(VI) the derivation of any such concept from an original exemplar whose authority is acknowledged by all the contestant users of the concept, and
(VII) the probability or plausibility, in appropriate senses of these terms, of the claim that the continuous competition for acknowledgement as between the contestant users of the concept, enables the original exemplar’s achievement to be sustained and/or developed in optimum fashion.

I have used Gallie’s (1955) notion of an essentially contested concept a great deal, particularly with reference to defining educational quality:

Quality: an essentially contested concept

Introduced in 2001, the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) provided an authoritative account of quality. It did not, however, end contestation, but is an aspect of continuing contestation. Prior to the CIF, teachers and managers worked within frameworks that determined the conduct of their professional lives. They had (and maintain) long-term views of quality, driven by their motivations for entering and remaining in the profession. These versions of what the sector is for, its purpose, are quite distinct from the short-term view of a government appointee professionally committed to a large-scale political project. My suggestion is that quality is a suitable exemplar of Gallie’s (1955) ‘essentially contested concept’. Gallie was concerned with what could and what could not be considered as art – yet the framing he provides is of enormous value in developing a line of thought. An ‘essentially contested concept’ – to achieve its status – must convey desirable connotations. It must be internally complex with the weighting attached to its various components varied, yet desirability attributed to the whole. The desirability of this contested state can remain constant, but its features are required to change in the light of experience. Different stakeholders must be prepared to assert that their version, their interpretation of the term as more truthful than other versions. To maintain its contested momentum, the desirable state requires an original exemplar whose authority is acknowledged by all contestants.

Dennis (2012) Quality: an ongoing conversation over time, Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 64:4, 511-527,