Issues In Educational Research, 2(1), 1992, 1-12.

Poststructuralism and educational research:
Some categories and issues

Alison Lee
Educational Services and Teaching Resources
Murdoch University

Poststructuralist theory allows, among other things, an investigation into relations between the individual and the social in specific sites. It does this through a focus on the centrality of language in the organisation of human experience. That is, there is no access to 'reality' which is not necessarily mediated through semiotic systems, the most powerful of which is language. Research questions concern the complex ways in which individual human subjects come to understand themselves and the world in specific locations. In terms of educational research, what poststructuralist theories and methodologies allow is an understanding of the necessary complexity of the school as an institution and a set of social practices.

This paper discusses just one methodological issue arising from the poststructuralist focus on question of language and discourse - that of the binary structuration of knowledge - through reference to research into the construction of gender relations in school geography.


The question I am most often asked by educational researchers is why on earth do you bother with poststructuralism? Poststructuralist work is "too complicated"; it's "too theoretical"; it "belongs in humanities"; it's "not relevant to education". Despite the fact that the human sciences in general have been revolutionised by the poststructuralist critique of knowledge during the last twenty years, poststructuralist theories and investigative methodologies are almost completely ignored in 'Education'. It is still acceptable in some quarters not to even know of the existence of poststructuralism.

The question I am most often asked by researchers working with poststructuralist theories and research methodologies is why on earth do you bother with 'Education'? There are many complex reasons for the dismissive attitude to educational research adopted by many researchers of other domains. I believe, however, that one important reason is that educational research is perceived by researchers working with new theories to be locked into older paradigms. These developments challenge many of the premises on which particular models of psychology and philosophy (which have come to dominate educational thinking) are predicated in their more orthodox theoretical configurations. Currently it is within educational sociology that the best opportunity exists to bridge perceived theoretical gaps, particularly the sociology of knowledge.

These preliminary points are not intended to suggest that educational research is merely an 'application' of research methods derived in their pure form from other disciplines. On the contrary, 'Education' as a site of research practice confronts very specific theoretical, ethical and methodological issues and has derived and developed a very specific corpus of knowledge and modes of knowledge production. Nevertheless, education is readily construed as a social practice. It is thus crucial to continue to look for better forms of social theory, better ways of thinking through what it means to be engaged in the massive project of schooling children in contemporary society.

The principal benefit of adopting poststructuralist perspectives in educational research is that poststructuralism attempts to work productively with, rather than against, the complexity of human existence. It seeks to avoid the various reductionisms which are an inherent part of other research paradigms. It lays claim to map something of what poststructuralist educational theorist James Donald refers to as the "daily struggle and muddle of education" (1985, p.242). In particular, while offering a theorisation of power, poststructuralist investigative methods seek to avoid the impression of a too-neat analysis of power - to avoid the impression that "the story is too pretty to be true" (Foucault 1980, p.209). It seeks to work with, rather than against, Schon's notion of "zones of uncertainty" within processes of inquiry (Schon cited in Doll 1988, p.116) in some of the ways now available in the contemporary physical sciences.

This paper investigates the question of poststructuralism's significance for education through a brief explanation of several of its key tenets. This is a difficult matter. Any body of theory which pushes at the boundaries of the conventionally sayable must, by definition, be difficult to explain and difficult to grasp. In order to deal with this problem of intelligibility and communicability, I have approached the topic of poststructuralist research by means of exemplification rather than technical explanation. This choice produces particular effects. On the positive side, it may be possible to gain a sense of how investigations into schooling from a poststructuralist perspective might look in practice and how they might be used. On the negative side, it is not possible to indicate very much at all of the technical means by which some of the categories were derived. The constructs cannot be validated. This paper is not, therefore, a primer in poststructuralism. For those who want to take the subject further, I have attached a brief reference list.

The power of the binary

The term 'poststructuralism' does not simply refer to a method. Indeed, 'poststructuralism' does not refer to any single body of theory or a methodology. Nevertheless, there are several general methodological points that can be made. First, researchers and theorists do engage certain techniques such as forms of discourse analysis and the critical reading practice known as 'deconstruction' in their investigative work. Secondly, as a logical consequence of poststructuralist theories of the centrality of language in the construction of meaning, the role of the researcher can be construed as a producer, rather than a finder of knowledge about the world. In this sense we can refer to the 'productivity' of research. Foucault (1980) refers to the process of research as a "fabrication". In a famous interview, he produced the following formulation (Foucault 1980, p.212):
J. A. Miller: Yes, you like to accentuate the artificial character of your procedure. Your results depend on the choice of reference points, and the choice of reference points depends on the conjuncture. It's all a matter of appearances, is that what you're telling us?

Foucault: Not a delusive appearance, but a fabrication.

J. A. Miller: Right, and so it's motivated by what you want, your hopes, your...

Foucault: Correct, and that's where the polemical or political objective comes in.

Although Foucault himself refused political engagement in his writings, many researchers, for example feminists, have found in poststructuralism a powerful political tool. Poststructuralism takes the notions of researcher 'interestedness' to its logical conclusion. Ulrike Gebhardt points to a fundamental principle behind the selectivity integral to the process of construction of a research project (Gebhardt, cited in Lather, 1988, p.576):
[W]hat we want to collect data for decides what data we collect; if we collect them under the hypothesis that a different reality is possible, we will focus on the changeable, marginal, deviant aspects - anything not integrated which might suggest fermentation, resistance, protest, alternatives - all the 'facts' unfit to fit.
The research I refer to in this section belongs in a tradition of feminist work in education drawing on poststructuralist perspectives. The methodological point I exemplify here is the analysis of a social site in terms of the structuring of meaning in terms of binary opposites. In the next section I will discuss the derivation of this method of analysis, the way in which poststructuralism works with binary structuration and the usefulness of this method for politicised research in education.

The study was a long and complex investigation into the ways 'gendering' happens through the daily discursive[1] practices of a senior secondary school classroom. The term 'gendering' is used to refer to an on-going process of students and teachers constructing and negotiating gender identities (or 'subjectivities') and gender relations in and through everyday practices, including those of the formal curriculum. The argument constructed through this investigation was that 'gendering' must be understood as a process, continually in renewal, continually at risk. It is a process of reproduction of global structures of social differentiation and relations of power but it is governed locally in very specific and piecemeal ways. Further, 'gendering' must be understood through a complex interrelationship between the individual and the social, since gender is both a form of social regulation and also an 'identity'. Poststructuralist theories and methods offer ways of investigating this relationship in daily practice.

The study constructed a view of a Year 11 geography classroom through the lens of feminist poststructuralist theories of gender and subjectivity. The investigation began by positing the gender categories of 'masculine' and 'feminine' as a binary opposition and attempted, through a range of methods of discourse analysis, to map the classroom and curriculum dynamics in terms of the number, range and complexity of ways in which these dynamics signified according to this binary. Ethnographic data collection methods were deployed as well as close textual analysis of teacher and student talking and writing to investigate the material processes of curriculum realisation in this classroom.

One outcome of the complex of methods deployed was the generation of a long list of further binary categorisations of classroom resources and classroom action. These signified in a paradigmatic way (albeit complexly and provisionally) in terms of the primary binary of gender. Here, I will simply list the binaries and then discuss what kinds of further analyses are made possible by means of this move.


This listing of oppositions might appear to be a straightforward matter, a clear lining-up of gender differences as they have been identified in this classroom site However, what the binaries signify according to the analyses performed on them is far from straightforward. On the contrary, the investigation of binary relations produced an account of the extraordinary complexity and contradictoriness of gender relations as they are negotiated moment-by-moment in specific locations. Here, the binaries might be best understood as initial points of structural intelligibility around which such an investigation could be constructed.

The list of binaries was produced from and grounded in the everyday discursive practices of the classroom which constituted the data corpus. The terms or categories in the list occur at different degrees of specificity and generality, concreteness and abstraction, and relate to very different domains and orders of knowing/being within this curriculum context. These domains include syllabus documents, textbooks, teacher and student talk in the classroom, interviews with teachers and students, student writing, geography curriculum analysts' commentaries and so on. The research study focused in part on a case study of two students, a girl and a boy, as they participated in the geography curriculum during Year 11. Of particular note is that some of the categories (such as 'speech/silence' and 'skills/content') refer to positions and orientations available within the curriculum, which are taken up by Karen and Rowan and the other students. These are analyses as subject positions which are central to the 'gendering' process in this specific location. Other categories (such as 'us/them' and 'subject/object') refer to oppositions in operation in an essay written by Rowan, a text which was submitted to detailed textual analysis. There are two reasons why these are included under the umbrella binary of 'masculine/feminine'. First, Rowan's writing was typically substantially organised around clear binary oppositions. This was characteristic of the boys' writing in the class, while the girls characteristically did not see things in 'black and white' but rather used language to construct meanings which occupied more complex and indeterminate positions with respect to polarised opposites. Second, in the case of opposites such as 'us/them' which appeared frequently in topics about other cultural practices, the relation between the categories being suggested is one of masculine knowing subject and feminised world-object.[2]

It is not possible to outline the extraordinarily complex set of relations that are put in play in this marshalling of binary opposites as a means of understanding the gender dynamics of the classroom. However, even without the detailed analyses which accompany them, they are very suggestive. One important outcome of producing the classroom in this manner was the homologousness among different scales of investigation from macro through to micro. For example, the split in geography between physical and human geographies (the fourth binary in the list) turned out to be a gendered split in terms of students' preferences in the classroom, where characteristically girls oriented to human geography and boys to physical geography in all aspects of their classroom activities. Further, this split was reflected in available demographic data on university geographers, school examination results in a study undertaken in South Australia, and trends in geographical research as read from the discipline's principal journals. Not surprisingly, physical geography is the privileged arm of professional geography, partly because it most closely resembles the physical sciences. Here, the masculinism of what might be termed 'physics envy', as it has been substantially researched elsewhere (for example Easlea 1983), becomes a focal point for the construction of gender identifications on the part of actual boys and girls in this geography classroom.

Perhaps the most striking outcome of the study was the complexity and contradictoriness of the relations of gender power and privilege which were played out within the terms of these binaries. It is not a simple matter of equating the masculine side with power and the feminine side with powerlessness, as so many studies of classroom interaction and curriculum processes have done. The day-to-day negotiating of a position in the classroom on the part of teacher and students was a function of complex interconnections among these different binary categories. For example, boys explicitly identified themselves as orienting to 'doing' and not to 'writing' (tenth binary). As a result, girls wrote much more elaborated and accurate texts . It was more complicated than that, however. For example, boys identified geography as a physical activity and a technical discipline. They constructed themselves as masculine subjects through large amounts of technical conversation and through their ability to draw on an apparently much greater first-hand knowledge of the suburban outdoors. Girls reported that they took to writing in part as a retreat from the intrusive speech practices of boys in classroom discussion. Boys did not do as well as girls in assessment but were considered brighter. Girls wrote the 'wrong' kinds of texts, often refusing the binary thinking valued in a technical discipline and refusing the 'fact/value' distinction. Often a boy's one page essay received the same mark as a girl's three page essay.

These binaries are categories around which critical aspects of a variety of discourses in circulation in the classroom were organised. These discourses include those of the written geography curriculum, those of classroom management, informal discourses of teenage self-identification, teacher discourses of learning and of gender and so on. Something of the complexity of the classroom as a social site can be mapped through this aggregation of multiple discourses. Through this process, it is possible to glimpse how different positions are set up for, and taken up by, girls and boys as they struggle to make sense of what is going on around them. This study illustrates one of the fundamental tenets of poststructuralism: that human subjects are not autonomous, unified wholes, separate or distinct from those discourses which regulate social activity. Rather, subjects are constituted in those discourses as they take up positions in different ways. That is, human subjects are identified and identify themselves according to the positions they occupy within discourses. There is no space outside or prior to discourse where the 'individual' can reside independently of the social institutions which give her/his life its meaning. And since any social site consists of a bundle of different discourses, subjects are multiply positioned at any one time or place. Hence, human subjects are multiple and fragmented entities, and social action is a complex process of negotiating a pathway through circulating discourses which produce the possibility of meaning - for the world as well as for the 'self'. The power of language in this process is central. Chris Weedon produces the following formulation:

Language is the place where actual and possible forms of social organisation and their likely social and political consequences are defined and contested Yet it is also the place where our sense of ourselves, our subjectivity, is constructed ... Subjectivity is produced in a whole range of discursive practices - economic, social, and political - the meanings of which are a constant site of struggle over power. (Weedon 1987, p.21)
Taking Foucault's notion of 'fabrication', the study set up what it was looking for - the complex and massive redundancy with which gender signifies across a range of practices not primarily concerned with gender. What emerged from considering the combinations and permutations among these binaries was a strong sense that masculine power and privilege was re-produced in this site but that it had to be worked against a multitude of contradictions. The method of assembling binaries and then closely investigating the relations of power and knowledge which are negotiated around these binaries demonstrated that patriarchy is not a monolithic category. There are always gaps and slippages in local sites. The political importance of this for feminist educators is that there is space for positive intervention on the part of teachers or curriculum planners, provided a sufficiently sophisticated account is available of how forms of social differentiation occur in specific sites.

Poststructuralism and the disruption of binary logic

In this section I make two main points. The first is a very schematic overview of poststructuralism as an historical and intellectual phenomenon, an attempt to situate it somewhat in the history of ideas. The second addresses the question of the usefulness for feminist research in education of locating and then disrupting and displacing binary logic in the structuring of social relations in sites such as school classrooms.

There is a problem with the term 'poststructuralism' in the sense of its implied singularity - the implication that there is any such single thing. On one level, in terms of the history and disciplinary-institutional location of poststructuralist work, what emerges most clearly is the bundle of different discourses, knowledge traditions and methodologies which come together under this umbrella term and its related term 'postmodernism'. The first point to note with respect to this multiplicity is that the two key figures of poststructuralism, Foucault and Derrida, take their work in two very different directions - roughly corresponding to traditional distinctions between sociology and philosophy of language (though subsequent scholars have brought their respective arguments together very productively). From Foucault we get the idea that knowledge is best understood as forms of discourse and an interpretive analytics which firmly emphasises history and power in the production of the present. From Derrida we get, among other things, the critical reading practice of deconstruction.

The second point to note is that feminist poststructuralist theorists such as Cixous, neo-marxists such as Althusser, and Derrida himself have engaged closely with psychoanalytic theory, and particularly with the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This work marks a radical shift away from the transcendent rationalism of many previously dominant knowledge traditions.

The third point is that poststructuralist work is carried out in different disciplines and research domains, most notably literary theory, but also within philosophy, anthropology, linguistic and cultural studies, and in the name of different political agendas: principally feminism and post-colonialism. What emerges from even a brief survey of research that goes under the name of poststructuralism is a vast wealth of discourses and practices which are by no means always commensurable, compatible or even always mutually intelligible.

On another level again, though, and very importantly, poststructuralist work is explicitly about the refusal of singularity and unit, of universality and transcendence, of foundational principles and of particular dominant notions of rationality. This is explicitly in conflict with dominant principles of structuralism, the pervasive, multi-disciplinary tradition of analysis which emerged this century from linguistics, specifically from the work of Saussure. This point is worth elaborating, if Cleo Cherryholmes (1988) is correct in his comment that educational research, particularly in the nineteen eighties, has been overwhelmingly characterised by structuralisms of one kind or another, acknowledged or otherwise.

What, then, is a poststructuralist perspective on structuralism? Among other things, it is Derrida's critique of structuralism that leads to the practice of deconstruction. Through complex arguments, poststructuralist theorists have established that language - understood as discourse - functions to produce (not merely to express) social difference. It is this term 'difference' which is crucial to the notion of deconstruction. Structuralism and poststructuralism begin, in many ways, with the work of the linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. According to Saussure's account of the production of meaning, language is a system of differences with no positive terms. That is, there is no necessary a priori correspondence between word and meaning. Hence, meaning is produced through the juxtaposing of binary oppositions. Concepts achieve identity only in their difference from one another.

Deconstruction is concerned to expose the workings of power through this binary structuring. That is, the binary organisation of meaning involves a process of centring and marginalising of one or the other of the two terms of the binary. One term is thus understood as the first, or foundational term, and the opposite is defined in terms of its 'not-being' that term. A poststructuralist reading of gender, for example, sees 'masculine' as the first term, while the second, 'feminine', is defined in terms of the first, in terms of 'not-being'. Gender is oppositeness, within an economy of the same. The female is 'the same' (that is, human) as the male, yet different (lacking). 'Difference' is thus always the 'other' of the dominant term within the binary. This position allows both a recognition and a disavowal of difference.


There is a great deal more to be said about deconstruction. Through various moves, the supposed fixity of meaning presupposed in binary structures is replaced with the possibility of a project of displacement of the systems of oppositions. But this brief account must end at this point. I would add only that as a social practice, education is vitally concerned with understanding the production of meaning and the negotiation of social relations and relations of power. I would suggest, then, that poststructuralism is valuable for educational research for the following reasons:
  1. because it takes social complexity seriously and attempts to work with it rather than reduce and marginalise it; that is, it addresses practice;

  2. because it refuses the opposition between the individual and the social and has ways of investigating the relation between them;

  3. because it theorises power and allows an explicitly politically informed research practice.
If social change is on the agenda - and particularly if we envisage the possibility of change to dominant and inequitable relations of power within our systems of education - then I believe we must do very much better than we have so far through our mainstream knowledge and research traditions in generating accounts of how power operates in and through social action and social life.

To return to those two questions with which I began this paper: I know why I bother with education; that's an argument I make to my colleagues in cultural studies. As to why I bother with poststructuralism, Patti Lather, poststructuralist-feminist educational researcher, puts her project this way:

What is sought is a reflexive process that focuses on our too easy use of taken-for-granted forms and that might lead us towards a science capable of continually demystifying the realities it serves to create. [I envisage] an altogether different approach to doing empirical inquiry which advocates the creation of a more hesitant and partial scholarship capable of helping us to tell a better story in a world marked by the elusiveness with which it greets our efforts to know it. (Lather 1991, p.15)

End notes

  1. The term 'discursive', deriving from 'discourse', is a central one for poststructuralism. Briefly, a discourse in Foucault's sense is a particular way of organising meaning and hence of ordering the world. Different 'institutions' (forms of social organisation) produce different discourses which set up positions for human subjects to occupy - things they can and must say and do and things they cannot and must not. Hence discourses are forms of regulation of social meanings and social actions. Given that the world is governed by a multitude of often competing and contradictory discourses, individuals are positioned in complex and multiple ways, some of which may be traced at particular moments through forms of analysis of these discourses.

  2. This is a complex point which draws on what is by now a large corpus of feminist poststructuralist critiques of knowledge and of ways of knowing. Briefly, the argument is that much knowledge which has traditionally been seen as neutral and ungendered is in fact strongly masculinist in its language and its orientation to the world. For a useful discussion of the masculinism of 'hard' science, see Easlea 1983.


Cherryholmes, Cleo H. (1983). Knowledge, power and discourse in social studies education. Journal of Education, 165, 341-358.

Cherryholmes, Cleo H. (1988). Construct validity and the discourses of research. American Journal of Education, 96.

Cherryholmes, Cleo H. (1988). Power and criticism: Poststructural investigations in education. New York and London, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Doll, William E. (1988). Beyond stability: Schon, Prigogine, Piaget. In William F. Pinar (ed), Contemporary curriculum discourses. Scottsdale, Arizona: Gorsuch Scarisbrick Publishers, 114-133.

Donald, James (1985). Beacons of the future: Schooling, subjection and subjectification. In Veronica Beechey and James Donald (eds), Subjectivity and social relations. Milton Keynes: Open University Press: 214-249.

Easlea, Brian (1983). Fathering the unthinkable: Masculinity scientists and the nuclear arms race. London: Pluto Press.

Foucault, Michel (1980). Truth and power. In Colin Gordon (ed), Power knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault. Brighton, The Harvester Press: 109-133.

Hall, Stuart (1985). Signification, representation, ideology: Althusser and the poststructuralist debates. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 2(2), 91-114.

Harvey, David (1989). The condition of postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Henriques, Julian, Wendy Hollway, Cathy Urwin, Couze Venn and Valerie Walkerdine (1984). Changing the subject: Psychology social regulation and subjectivity. London: Methuen.

Lather, Patti (1988). Feminist perspectives on empowering research methodologies. Women's Studies International Forum, 11(6), 569-581.

Lather, Patti (1991). Feminist research in education: Within/against. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Lather, Patti (1991). Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern. New York and London: Routledge.

Weedon, Chris (1987). Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Author: Alison Lee is Lecturer in Literacy Studies in the Educational Services and Teaching Resources Unit at Murdoch University. She researches in the field of feminist and poststructuralist theories of discourse and subjectivity, with particular emphasis on the implications of these theories for literacy and curriculum.

Please cite as: Lee, A. (1992). Poststructuralism and educational research: Some categories and issues. Issues In Educational Research, 2(1), 1-12.

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