Resistance is Futile?

Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but refuse what we are. (Foucault 2002a, p. 336)

As leaders, one of the main roles we undertake is to develop specific strategies to improve performance against our own data and the national data. It is at this level, the level of our daily practices, that we can see how power operates through the accountability regime.

What has become apparent from the previous posts is that there is a tension, between our undertaking of particular practices in pursuit of measurability and the subversive  day-to-day resistances to these practices, resistances that we use in our quest to attempt to be more authentic to the needs of our college and students.

Various academics claim there is an increasing need to consider leadership as a form of resistance (e.g. Ryan 1998, Zoller & Fairhurst 2007, Thomson 2008) to intense compliance structures and expectations in education. These forms of leadership are in contrast to the pervasive influence of the accountability agenda, the reliance on heroic representations of leadership, and also what Nigel Wright calls “bastard leadership” (Wright 2001, 2011).

According to Foucault, power is a relation between individuals or groups of individuals, not a thing held or owned by individuals to be used. Power is something that is exercised, or is “a set of actions upon other actions” (Foucault 2002a, p. 341), the “conduct of conduct” (note that Foucault preferred the term “counter conduct” to resistance).

Power, as Foucault stated:

… applies itself to immediate everyday life, categorises the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him that he must recognise and have others recognise in him. It is a form of power that makes individuals subjects. (Foucault 2002a, p. 331)

We can conclude that we have been subjectified (become subjects) by our use of and compliance with data driven accountability. For Foucault, one can become subjected to someone else’s control and dependence and maybe more importantly, to one’s own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge (Foucault 2002a, p. 331). So while we can aim to be authentic to the needs of our college and students, maybe we ought to start with ourselves.

How do we fight this subjection and participate in the “art of not being governed quite so much” (Foucault, 1997e, p. 29)? Foucault argued that this could be achieved through a form of critique, a “care of the self” and “care of others” through truthful discourse and self-reflection.

A critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based…to do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy (Foucault, 1981, p. 456).

I hope that your participation in this blog so far has provided a space for that form of critique, which can work

“as an act of defiance, as a challenge, as a way of limiting these arts of governing and sizing them up, transforming them, of finding a way to escape from them” (Foucault, 1997, p. 28),

a space within and between the accountability discourse which allows you to exercise a form of counter-conduct and develop advocacy for our students and be more authentic to yourselves.

To do this, there has to be engagement in discourse and practice that

“will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing or thinking what we are, do, or think” (Foucault, 1997f, pp. 315-6).

However, there are costs to be considered here, the costs of constant vigilance, the costs of a commitment to a kind of “permanent agonism” (Burchell, 1996, p. 34), the possibilities of ridicule and precarity – what Lazzarato calls the “micro-politics of little fears” (2009, p. 120).

Over and against these however, there are the costs of silence and who bears them. If we take Foucault seriously we must confront the problem of standing outside our own history, outside of ourselves, and do the ethical work on ourselves to bring authenticity and moral purpose back to our profession and practice.

For the penultimate question then:

If we are being ‘‘disciplined’’ by data into being particular types of people, and at the same time our ethical practice is determined by institutionally defined process and procedure, how do we reconcile ourselves as moral subjects of our own actions (Foucault 1984d), tell the truth and care for our selves and each other?

7 thoughts on “Resistance is Futile?

  1. I found this question almost impossible to answer… Continue to find ways of working to improve education within ‘the system’? Work harder to emphasise ‘human’ relationships and interactions in our discussions with managers, teachers and students about learning? Continue to contextualise, and re-contextualise, data to remind ourselves that statistics can lie. I genuinely look forward to hearing what other people have to say…

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    1. Perhaps the point is the perceived impossibility of thinking otherwise? As Stephen Ball says “discourses are about what can be said, and thought, but also about who can speak, when, where and with what authority” (Ball 1993, p.21). Our autonomy and authority has been stripped away rendering us voiceless.


  2. I find this very difficult to answer too. The second part of the question says “our ethical practice is determined by institutionally defined process and procedure . . . ” Power in institutional management and governance includes having the ability to shape the values of the college, and what is valued. Clearly it is suicidal to ignore data and sensible managers will always seek to maximise performance as it is revealed by such data. But they can also ensure that the processes by which data is analysed are supportive of staff rather than punitive, and they can also give value to things that are not easily quantified or apparently valued by external agencies. Power includes the power to choose and to give weight to internal as well as external drivers

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  3. The potential cost of non-compliance is often to great a burden to consider. The voice that we perceive we have, is too quiet to be heard in the discourse required to change. Those at the very top of the data tree have too much ‘care of the self’ to imagine anything else. If ‘care of others’ is contemplated, it is often too challenging, or dangerous for others playing that game, and is manipulated out.


    1. Perhaps we do take part in ‘care of the other’ as leaders when we try and secure the best outcomes and best inspection grade for the college so that staff do not get landed with the hassle of improvement regimes etc. But maybe it’s an unethical ‘care of the other’ driven by a ‘care of the self’?


    2. I agree with Eddie, perhaps some of us fear being non-complaint and those who do not fear are not heard, so what is the point of even trying to change the system? The hierarchical data-feeding chain is too long to sustain ‘care of others’ and therefore it diminishes by the time it reaches to the top level.


  4. It is important for senior leaders to be courageous as and to do what is right for learning, rather than act out of fear. Education was not meant to be a ritual but a life changing experience for young people. Having happy and healthy teachers is essential to ensure that remains the case.


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