Why do I do what I do?
The I-level and the It-level
I’m often asked this question in relation to my profession as a development practitioner educated in economics, international development and gender, who has been living and working in developing countries for fifteen years. Simply put, my profession is to design policies and implement projects that focus on poverty-reduction strategies in developing countries, in the full respect of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Right at the beginning of my carrier, I started experiencing that the ‘poorest among the poor’ are women (The World Bank, 2012). In 1995 the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action has been adopted with the aim of promoting and protecting the full enjoyment of all human rights and the fundamental freedoms of all women throughout their life cycle (United Nations, 2015). However, in 2012 out of the 1.6 billion people who live in extreme poverty, the majority are women (The Word Bank, 2012). At the current rate of progress, the overall global gender gap can be closed in 61 years in Western Europe, 62 years in South Asia, 79 years in Latin America and the Caribbean, 102 years in Sub-Saharan Africa, 128 years in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 157 years in the Middle East and North Africa, 161 years in East Asia and the Pacific, and 168 years in North America (World Economic Forum, 2017).
As a consequence of the above, whilst I was working on those policies and projects, I found myself living and operating alongside discriminated women and girls and realized how much influence gender inequalities have on their personal and professional development. I started wondering how can I contribute to a ‘good change’ (Chambers, 2005) in the lives of those people. Hence, how can I do my job better, in order to help vulnerable women and girls in developing their capabilities and get out of poverty and oppression? I am lucky enough to have been directly discriminated against in terms of my gender only a few times in my life so far. I have therefore been in a position to look away and spare myself the frustration I feel every time women and men decry talking about gender issues as futile or worse anachronistic feminist talk, the remnants of the feminist movement of the 60’s. However, I embraced the decision not to look away, but rather to join the cause of millions of women who are struggling for freedom of choice.
When I discovered Living Theory research I decided to use it to find out the answers to my enquiries. I would like to use Connell’s definition of theory (2014), which she defines as ‘creating agendas of research, critique and action; conceptualizing, classifying and naming and developing methodology, paradigms of explanation and epistemology’. This methodology in fact gives me the possibility to create my own theory (living theory), namely my value-based paradigms of explanation and epistemology informed by my practice as a development practitioner.
It also strengthens my capabilities as a development professional who is faced with the conundrums of the international development sector, patriarchy and gender injustice. LT research enables me to generate my living theory in the international development sector, with the aim of being instrumental in the knowledge-base of development practitioners by engaging in self-reflexive practices that might be used to overcome limitations in the sector. Thanks to LT I focus on my unique constellation of values that constitute the core of both my living theory and international development in practice. In particular I bring my values of love and faith in humanity into international development and the idea of generativity in sustainable development (Briganti, 2016). By ‘sustainable development’ I mean the capacity of an individual to provide for themselves after having acquired the ability to assess and solve their own problems, without external support. The concept of generative sustainable development starts from the premise that sustainability matures into a self-perpetuating force which nurtures the blossoming of the next generation (ibid.).
This concept emerged from the many interviews I had with some female colleagues and beneficiaries I work with in Ethiopia and Afghanistan (Briganti, 2017). I also research into my values of gender justice and social justice (hooks, 2000, p. 3) in order to clarify how these, contribute to my work and influence me and the women I work with professionally, personally and interpersonally.
Analyzing my work in developing countries through the lens of a living theorist, led me to understand what constitutes my values in the cause of their emergence in practice (Feyerabend,1975), in the way these are changing over time (Laidlaw, 1996), namely my understanding of their evolution and how this is influencing my personal and professional life. My practice made me also aware that the evolution of my unique constellation of values is influenced by both my own socio-historical context (Habermas,1976) as well as the socio-historical context of the people I work with. These generate what I refer to as a global network of relationships, which lie its foundation on people’s unique constellation of values for the flourishing of humanity (Whitehead, 1998) that influence each other’s constellation, transcending geographical borders and human diversities. This methodology assists me in evolving from being a practitioner to a self-reflexive practitioner (Schön, 1991) while attempting to promote sustainable development from the perspective of those at the receiving end of aid. In Santos’ words (2014) those are the people who are on the other side of the line. The line Santos refers to is what he calls the Abyssal Line and divides social realities so that whatever lies on the other side of the line remains invisible or irrelevant (ibid.).
The We- level and EJOLTs LT made me also discover that there are many more people that are wondering ‘How can I improve my practice’ (Whitehead, 1998). It appears as a global social movement (Whitehead, 2018) interested in answering the question: why do we do what we do? My living theory is elucidating this process of reciprocal and positive ‘contamination’ of values, and clarifying my educational influences in my own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of the social formations (Whitehead, 1998) affecting my practice. By applying a LT methodology, which is also a non-derivative methodology (Santos, 2014) I generate new epistemological knowledge that fosters epistemological emancipation and acts as a counterforce to ‘epistemicide’ (ibid.) meaning in Santos’ words ‘the murder of knowledge’.
EJOLTs: Many researchers and practitioners look for a ‘safe space’ where to publish their accounts and discuss with peers on how to move their thinking and research further. EJOLTs provides me with the opportunity to connect with the global social movement of researcher and practitioners from different walk of life, and from all over the world with the common denominator of being committed to a fairer world. What I appreciate the most about EJOLTs is that its published research is not the result of a metropolitan (alias western) conceptualization, where the metropole is the main recognized site of theoretical processing, and the periphery (alias the global south) is only considered a source of raw material (Connell, 2014). EJOLTs is made of individuals who share their living accounts and experiences on how to contribute to flourishing of humanity regardless of race, gender, religion, economic status and place of birth.
Briganti, A. (2016). Creating a unified foundation for Generative Sustainable Development: research, practice and education: the perspective of a development economist and practitioner. Special Issue, Volume 5, Issue 4 of EJSD June 2016.
Briganti, A (2017). How can I improve my practice? A journey into my personal and professional growth as a development worker engaged with gender inequalities in Ethiopia.’ Paper presented at the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Gender Studies and the Status of women in Edinburgh on the 10th-11th October, 2017 http://www.womenbeing.co.uk/our-e-books/
Chambers, R. (2005). Ideas for Development. Earthscan, Taylor and Francis Group.
Connell, R. (2014). Rethinking Gender from the South. Feminist Studies, 40(3), 518-539. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.15767/feministstudies.40.3.518.
de Sousa Santos, B. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. London; Paradigm Publishers.
Feyerabend, P.,K. (1975). Against Method. 4th ed., New York, NY: Verso Books, 2010.
Habermas, J. (1976) Communication and the Evolution of Society. London; Heinemann.
hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is for everybody. Passionate Politics. South End Press, Cambridge MA.
Laidlaw, M. (1996). How can I create my own living educational theory as I account for my own educational development? (Doctoral Thesis, University of Bath). Retrieved September 14, 2015, from http://www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml.
Schön, D.,A. (1991). The reflective practitioner. How professionals think in action. Basic Books, Inc.
The World Bank, (2012). World Development Report- Gender, Equality and Development Retrieved from https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWDR2012/Resources/7778105-1299699968583/7786210-1315936222006/Complete-Report.pdf.
United Nations (2015). The World’s Women 2015 Trends and Statistics. Retrieved from https://unstats.un.org/unsd/gender/downloads/worldswomen2015_report.pdf.
Whitehead, J. (1989). Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve my practice?’ in The Cambridge Journal of Education, 19(1), 41-52.
Whitehead, J. (2018). Living Theory Research as a Way of Life. Bath; Brown Dog Books.
World Economic Forum, (2017). The Global Gender Gap Report, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2017.
This glossary has been developed by Prof Moira Laidlaw and it is very instrumental for comprehending some of the key concepts of Living Theory research:
Constellation of Values: Living-theorists’ work is unique in the sense that the living values exist as a rule within a constellation of values, i.e. a particular set of connections between living values. This again, contributes to the uniqueness of a living-theory account.
Dialogical Focus: Many living-theories contain examples of dialogue, either through text or on social media (Youtube). Dialogical focus is seen as a necessary inclusion of the voices of those most affected by the changes taking place in practice (Laidlaw, 1994).
Living Theory: Living Theory (LT) (sometimes called Living Educational Theory (LET)) is the name of the paradigm as a whole. Living Theory is a vehicle through which individuals can live out their values more fully in their practice in order to improve it for the benefit of themselves, others and the social formation in which that practice takes place. Each living-theory is unique, as it will contain insights chosen by the living-theorist into the improvement through practice of issues including some of the values of fairness, justice, equality, compassion, love, hope, tolerance. Most living-theories are conducted by a single researcher, working in a particular place with particular people (Whitehead, 2008; Gjotterud, 2009; Jauch, 2010; Delong, 2013; Mokhele, 2014; Parekh, 2016). Some living-theories are collaborative, in which people, regardless of whether they work in the same parts of the world, work with other like-minded people concerned about improving the quality of their work (Bognar & Zovko, 2008; Farrell, Vernaza, Perkins, Ricketts-Duncan, & Kimbar, 2012; Vidović & Bučević; 2013; Campbell, Delong, Griffin & Whitehead, 2013; Ramirez & Allison-Roan, 2014; Hanson & Cherkowski, 2015; Ukani & Rawal, 2016; McDonagh and Sullivan, 2017; Cunningham & Laidlaw, 2017; Boland & Romero Demirbag, 2017).
living-theorist: This is the individual undertaking their own living-theory enquiry.
Living Contradiction: This takes place when someone espouses particular values but doesn’t manage to live them fully. For example, I assert that democratic practices in education are liable to lead to improved learning (Laidlaw, 1994 - 2018). However, there have been many occasions in the classroom when I have used my own power to ensure particular behaviour without consideration for its educational impact on the student.
Living Standards of Judgement: Values are often seen as fixed points. In Living Theory values, which then become the standards of judgement by which one evaluates the quality of their achievement in a particular process, are perceived as alive and developmental; they are not static, or citadels to be aspired towards, but existing in an internal and external set of dynamic and dialectical processes. They develop over time (Laidlaw, 1996). Most living-theory accounts contain overt references to the development of the enquirer’s values over time in their own particular practice and social formation in which the researcher lives and works. Living Theory asserts that researching this the disparity between espoused values as living and dynamic, and the actions apparently taken on their behalf, is seminal to all living-theorists’ work.
Reflexivity: In Living Theory, this is not the same as reflection, which is often undertaken after the event. Reflexivity is the ability to be aware and reflect in the moment, whilst an action (or series of actions) is taking place. This requires often long periods of reflections-on-action as well as reflection-in-action (Schön) in order to move more closely towards the clarification of values being brought into the workplace. As values act as the living standards of judgement (in whole or in part) by which actions, processes and outcomes are judged in living-theorists' work, then a heightened ability to develop values directly in practice over time through reflexivity becomes a vital dimension of a living-theorist's enquiry.
Social formation: This describes the context and social constructs (organisations, institutions) in which the living-theorist’s practice takes place. The social formation is seen as exercising an influence over conceptualisation, social and cultural norms and assumptions.