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Open education content disclaimer

July 30th, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

I’m thinking about prefacing any open education materials I make available with some sort of a statement concerning the context and values that have influenced the development of the content. We are encouraged to see authoritatively endorsed ‘expert’ knowledge as something we can build upon and use confidently without doubting or examining its providence, for instance the agendas that informed its development and the interests it was intended to serve. Although rarely obvious,  ‘expert’ forms of knowledge exude a common sense and a way of looking at and understanding the world that shape the ways it is subsequently developed and applied. This a complex process that tends to ‘work behind the scenes’ and can be difficult to expose. For instance, accepting expert knowledge means accepting the unstated assumptions and values that inform it. Accepting and applying expert knowledge therefore tends to unwittingly reproduce and reinforce (continues to ‘naturalise’) these unstated assumptions and values. Examples would be the methodological individualism and impoverished model of human nature and behaviour that informs some  sociology and social policy, or the model of the rational consumer and ‘satisficer’  that much economic theory is based upon.

I would like anyone interested in making use of open education content I publish to have a pretty good idea of the values and objectives that have informed it. Knowledge will hopefully be presented in a way that invites people to engage with it, critique and challenge it, and in the process help develop it. I would not want  people to take it as a finished authoritative product to be passively consumed or uncritically applied. Unfortunately we tend to expect experts to give us the right answers in the same way that pupils and students look to their teachers for the right answers. This is reinforced by our culture and our education system.

With this in mind I have been drafting a sort of disclaimer to preface open education materials I design. This is what I have come up with so far for the sociology lectures I will be publishing:

This course is an exercise in critical sociology. Many have argued, and I agree, that sociology is intrinsically critical. But there are still many that would argue against this and claim that sociology should aim to be ‘value free’ and objective. As a science, sociology should describe the world as it is and not presume to make moral or political judgements. Sociology simply describes the ‘way it is’ and it is a different sort of exercise when politicians use objective sociological knowledge to inform strategies and policies. However, an apparently neutral value free sociology is not in practice value free or neutral at all. ‘Neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ are themselves values. They are the values of a form of science and knowledge that does not question the status quo. Rather it provides tools for its reproduction, tools for prediction and control. To put it somewhat dramatically, Adorno likened social sciences that try to be neutral, objective and value free “in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.” (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 365 quoted in J Holloway 2002 page 10).

The approach taken in this course does not strive for the impossible; to be value free and politically agnostic. Since value freedom is impossible, a discussion about values and value choices should be an important epistemological consideration for sociology. It is an explicit reflection on this question of values and how they underpin and shape the way knowledge is gained and constructed that makes a sociology ‘critical’.


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