Dr Sarah Amsler

ISRF Mid-Career Fellow 2015-16

Dr Sarah Amsler

ISRF Mid-Career Fellow 2015-16

ISRF Sarah Amsler

My research explores a number of questions that tackle one big concern from different perspectives. This is: what kind of learning can help us to overcome the existing limits of modern/colonial ways of being, knowing, imagining, and relating to ourselves, nonhuman beings and the earth – in order to generate not-yet imaginable possibilities for deep social transformation? More specific questions include:

(1) How are boundaries/thresholds of personal and social im/possibility learned, unlearned and transformed in different educational contexts?

(2) How are different forms of hope and hopelessness mobilized to open or foreclose possibilities for, or ‘fronts’ of, paradigmatic transformation in educational relationships, policy and practice?

(3) What types of learning strengthen or weaken our capacity to be and become ‘otherwise’ to violent epistemic regimes, forms of social relationship, ways of being and social systems? How do educators develop the stamina to sustain transformative pedagogies in oppressive conditions and environments?

(4) What ways of knowing, pedagogical practices and organizational forms of learning nourish and repress relational, pluralistic and ‘possibility-enabling’ ways of being with others and the world?

(5) What does ‘learning hope’ look like in in the throes of ecological crisis and collapse, and what are educators’ response-abilities to those who must learn to engage with the complex uncertainties and challenges of this damaged world? What can we learn by experimenting with the ‘not-yet’ possible in ideas, bodies, relationships and materials?

Rationale | My research is motivated by a concern that while the roots of many local and global injustices lie in systemic problems of colonial and corporate domination, ecological violence, cultural oppression and epistemicide, there is little attention paid to how these globalized patterns of systemic injustice shape localised possibilities for educational change, or to how they can be recognized and collectively interrupted at multiple scales. I am especially interested in how the mobilization of different forms of hope and hopelessness contributes to the perpetuation or transformation of this problem and, geopolitically, how it manifests in colonial/imperial frames of possibility in British and international education, and in ‘neoliberal’ policies, practices and cultures.

Theoretical and methodological orientations | My transdisciplinary research in the politics of education draws on critical, feminist, queer and decolonial theory, critical and transformative pedagogy, and the sociology and politics of knowledge. I use methodologies of critical discourse analysis, ethnographic case study, and interpretive and relational phenomenology. With others, I am currently developing practices of affective, prefigurative, relational and speculative social research as part of inquiries into the ontological politics of making and resisting deep social change, and of being and becoming ‘otherwise’ within today’s dominating social systems: racialised capitalism, heteropatriarchy and coloniality.

Practices of Possibility in Neoliberal Social Systems

My Mid-Career Fellowship, undertaken from 2015–16, laid the conceptual and methodological groundwork for theorizing possibilities for fundamental grassroots social change in advanced capitalist societies. It began as a response to three problems. One was the struggle of individuals and collectivities (in this case primarily educators in the United Kingdom) to exercise autonomy from or moral and political agency within conditions of diminished democracy in neoliberal social systems, and – paraphrasing Theodor Adorno – to live rightly in a wrong life. A second was that while there is contracting space for practicing non-capitalist forms of life within social institutions, this condition generates transformation and experimentation in some contexts but acute political hopelessness in others. The third was that critical philosophies and theories of political possibility have to date given inadequate recognition to the significance of the latter spaces for both advancing theoretical understandings of neoliberal power and enlarging spaces of possibility for alternative futures. This project aimed to extend the radical imagination of the ‘politics of possibility’ into the institutional and normative systems of neoliberalism, and to resistant subjects and spaces which are not yet articulated as such in everyday life.

This study was designed as a philosophical, phenomenological and participatory project, based on theoretical review, dialogical interviews and participatory workshops. I interviewed and spent time with approximately forty school, college and university teachers; popular educators, socially engaged artists; and parents in the UK and Euro-Atlantic world who engage in projects of autonomous, critical, co-operative, democratic and/or social justice learning. I explored experiences of ‘closure’ and ‘opening’ of possibility in a range of contexts including formal state institutions; nonstate organisations; popular and adult education programmes; social movements and social justice campaigns; labour unions; social work; and artistic spaces. I also constructed corpa of discursive texts from professional and autonomous educational projects in these areas. As it progressed, the research necessitated and provided opportunities to explore new methods of critical analysis which enable ‘sociologies of absence and emergence’ (Santos 2014), to work in the realm of the ‘not-yet’ (borrowing from Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope, 1959), and to evaluate the epistemological significance of categories of encounter, receptivity, experimentalism, stuckness, novelty and hope. Attending an extended ‘unconference’ of radical educators from around the world early in the project also afforded unanticipated insights into the limitations of Eurowestern imaginaries, knowledges and knowledge practices and the value of epistemic border-crossing. As a result I am revisiting literature on the uses of dialectical phenomenology, exploring radical critiques of westernized social theory and research, and developing a series of conceptual and pedagogical tools to explore how people ‘learn’ and ‘unlearn’ possibility-enabling epistemologies and practices (a concept adapted from Nikolas Kompridis’s work) in everyday neoliberalism.

Research Outcomes

  • Amsler, S. (2019). Gesturing towards radical futurity in education for alternative futures. Sustainability Science14(4), 925-930.
  • Amsler, S. (2019). Disobeying reality: the value of concrete utopia in education. Post-16 Educator. 94 (March).
  • Amsler, S. (2017). ‘Insane with courage’: Free university experiments and the struggle for higher education in historical perspective. Learning and Teaching10(1), 5-23.
  • Amsler, S., & Facer, K. (2017). Contesting anticipatory regimes in education: exploring alternative educational orientations to the future. Futures94, 6-14.
  • Amsler, S. (2016). Learning hope. An epistemology of possibility for advanced capitalist society. In Social Sciences for an Other Politics (pp. 19-32). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Contacting Fellows

If you would like to contact any of our Fellows to discuss their ISRF-funded work, please contact Dr Lars Cornelissen (Academic Editor) in the first instance, at lars.cornelissen@isrf.org.