Developing a concept of ‘refraction’: exploring educational change and oppositional practice

Ivor Goodson, Timothy Rudd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Article outlining concept of 'refraction' developed as part of the RIAIPE3 study – an inter-university programme exploring equity and social cohesion policies in higher education. In much of our experiences of, and research in, educational policy we see how global and national policies are often reinterpreted and redirected at local and classroom level. In this paper, we highlight some initial thoughts relating to the development of the concept of ‘refraction’ as a lens for both theoretical development and for informing methodological approaches and empirical investigation that may provide rich and contextualised understandings of schools and practice. As an emerging concept ‘refraction’ draws on a range of existing traditions and approaches in the social sciences with several key areas for exploration and investigation. Broadly however, refraction in education may be seen as a change in direction arising from individuals’ and groups’ own beliefs, practice and trajectories that are at odds with dominant waves of reform and policies introduced into the field. This type of ‘bending’ or mediation occurs in various ways and for numerous reasons and must be viewed as crucial elements for analysis, as not only do they highlight alternative and pre-figurative antecedents, forms and models of practice, they also illustrate the interaction between ideology and structures and individual and collective practice and action. Firstly, from this perspective, we suggest that research in the field should be contextualised and analysed in relation to historical periodisation and the broader movements, cycles and waves of reform. Secondly, in researching current practice within a broader social-historical context, we can better understand and illuminate the effects of ideology and power and how these are exerted through policies. However, such analyses alone would imply a sense of determinism, with power and ideology as totalising and actors as merely passive and subject to its effects. Analyses therefore, need to account for and examine alternative discourse, movements and practice and the conditions under which they occur. Moreover, in attempting to address the dichotomy of structure and agency, there is a need to elicit qualitative accounts of practitioners in order to explore how, and to what extent, their own trajectories, life histories and professional identities influence their practice, mediate policies and negate the effects of ideology and power. Furthermore, approaches that elucidate pre-figurative practice, politics, discourse and language through narrative inquiry, and the ways in which actors make meaning of their own lives and professional practice, not only offer us detailed pictures of subjective realities but also allow us to highlight alternative practices and oppositional discourses that are often overlooked, or brushed aside, in official discourse. Set against the current period of significant social and political upheaval and uncertainty, we are witnessing threats to the prevailing and dominant perspectives and related policies that have orientated the form of education in the neo-liberal era. Whether the current financial crisis will result in the continued reassertion of more efficacious forms of neo-liberalism and privatisation, or whether competing discourses, ideologies and traditions will begin to influence the organisation and form of education remains to be seen. However, given such unprecedented changes, it is vital we develop conceptual tools that will enable us to investigate and explore changes in policy and practice and the conditions that inform acts of refraction between them, thereby placing context and history as central to explorations (Goodson & Norrie, 2005). As we shall see, the historical periodisation depends a good deal on cultural factors and these are refracted in very different ways in different continents and cultures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-24
Number of pages20
JournalEducational Practice and Theory
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2012

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2012 James Nicholas Publishers Pty. Ltd. All Rights Reserved


  • educational change
  • education policy
  • globalization
  • hegemony
  • ideology
  • refraction


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