The concept in practice

Dr Matthew Bunn, CEEHE Research Fellow

As a sociologist, I have often heard the criticism of not being very practical. In many ways it is a very impatient critique – practical is something that can be applied almost instantly. It is fast, urgent, like patching a leaking roof during a storm. Continuing this analogy, I guess it would be unhelpful if I stood back and observed ‘the roof leaks because it needs to be rebuilt’ or ‘the structure of the roof is leading to some parts of the roof unequally bearing the burden, thus weakening quickly’, or even ‘rich ethically devoid developers built your house and cut corners, and there is no accountability for this lack of roofing integrity’. You patch the hole, and stop the immediate problem.

Labouring the analogy even further, however, it can’t be raining all the time. There must surely come a moment when greater care and planning can be taken to fix the roof properly. If it is raining all the time, living with the leak for a while might just have to happen to figure out the root problems and solve it in lasting ways.

Being ‘practical’ always seems to bear resonance with the status quo. Sure, you might have good ideas but no one would go for it. In our society we debate ideas and this often leads to substantial shifts in the way people perceive, and act. Maybe not immediately, but over time. The ideas that we go to work with are the ones that limit and open the world and the possibilities of action. Recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and debates about the 26th of January and combating misogyny and gendered violence are important examples. They are moments where fighting with ideas turns the tide, and ‘impractical’ things start to look much more possible.

The collection of ideas that underpin practice are no less ‘practical’. They are the things that inform the way that we understand, the things that we see and the things that are made invisible; the things that ‘make sense’ can quickly become nonsense, and vice versa. The fact is, there isn’t a ‘normative’ (i.e. practical) way of seeing things etched into the foundations of our societies. Rather, there is a struggle over what is normative. Normative is always about to happen, but only becomes normative in its contestation. It is in the moments of trying to convince someone that what is normative is normative. Equity work in higher education is a key area where this struggle resides. Ideas about equity and social justice, the ambition to produce parity of participation, these are things that have been built slowly, and far from a teleology, are in an endless process of contestation. Things shift one way, and back the other.

For me, a particular problem is the use of categories like low socioeconomic status and this is a useful example. This is a term frequently used to imply differences in earning, and access to material goods and assets. Yet what it does, in its ‘practical’ measurement, is bury the direct relationships between privilege and deprivation – that in a competitive struggle over scarce goods, some people have faired much much better, and have done so precisely because other people have been deprived. It means giving some people better access to higher education will deny such access to others.

If you take one of these positions on as a way to understand the world the way practice works changes. The things that appear practical become substantially different. A critical imaginary emphasises something bigger than the individual. It means that space is always open for a new explanation, but that fundamentally inequality is not caused by the marginalised, and that this opens new motivations and understandings to bring to practice.

A critical imaginary can mean that change seems difficult, and at times impossible. But this is sometimes a healthy thing: it means that we have to sit with the problem, of not expecting that our own individual power is enough to change the world. A sober, equanimous understanding of individual limits is not really in vogue in late capitalism, but modest intentions can make for monumental shifts: spending time on understanding, or at least improving our understandings can make big changes. A course of action isn’t practical if it is premature. And at the very least, ‘patient praxis’ as Matt Lumb and I have put it, might provide the basis to challenge some of the things that we take on as ‘practical’ measures, even though they sit uncomfortably – even if it is hard to place why. In the end, being prematurely ‘practical’ is not practical enough to provide answers to the problems of inequality that equity work in higher education confronts.

We acknowledge and respect the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People, traditional custodians of the land on which we work.