Nusssey, Charlotte (2017). 'Negative capability, corrosive disadvantage and education against the odds' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The aim of this panel is to examine aspects of the concept of negative capability and consider its usefulness to understand education settings, intersecting inequalities, injustice, and frameworks of analysis linked to the capability approach. This panel builds on the work of Unterhalter (Unterhalter 2014; Unterhalter 2015; Unterhalter 2017a; Unterhalter 2017b) in reflecting on ways in which aspects of education associated with ‘beings and becomings’ are absent from policies and practices associated with much research on education and international development and approaches to measurement, such as PISA, EfA, the MDGs and SDGs. The politics of aid, evaluation and disciplinary development have had some perverse effects, often limiting what is valued to what is measurable, and to that which provides clear evidence of what works. However, ‘beings and becomings’ associated with education, and all the multiplicity and uncertainty that these signal, are a key facet of capabilities that are concerned not only with ‘doings’ but also ‘beings’ and the many facets of opportunities. The concept of negative capability, an idea discussed in some depth in literary theory and psychoanalysis, has been used by Unterhalter (2017) to highlight education as a space of possibility, creativity, multiplicity and uncertainty, as well as emotional and embodied experiences. It builds on the discussion of educational capabilities concerned with future orientations, agency and freedom noted in both empirical and conceptual work (Hart 2012; Maddox 2008; Walker and Wilson-Strydom 2017; Wilson-Strydom and Okkolin 2016).

The papers proposed for this panel develop reflections on the concept of negative capability in education and consider some of its potential and drawbacks. All three papers in this panel deal with aspects of inequalities and capability deprivation, and the way this plays out in education settings. These comprise historical auto-biographical narratives of island prisoners, and two ethnographically informed studies, the first in in two secondary schools in Tanzania and the second in an adult education campaign in a community in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Through drawing on the detail of the analysis of ethnographic field data, these two empirical papers illuminate aspects of fear, shame and symbolic violence evident in education settings.

All three papers consider how to name the education space in relation to a lexicon from the capability approach, when the education setting is marked by constraints on opportunity, that are structural, symbolic and material, experienced through emotions and embodied suffering, and where education is multi-faceted, both a space of promise but also hardship. In these sites questions of the constructions of socially and relationally shaped educational capabilities are explored, with reference to different aspects and intersections of inequalities associated with race, class, gender, age, political affiliation and language. The first paper looks at the experience of students in two Tanzanian secondary school to explore how students’ determination and hopes for being educated, despite material and structural obstacles, are constrained by negative emotions, namely fear and shame. The second paper examines published accounts of the work of campaigners for human rights and social change, incarcerated on prison islands, and using these spaces for education projects against the odds. Thus, the notion of negative capability in which experience is not driven into a single channel, but remains richly textured and diverse, is considered as a useful frame in which to explore these settings and experiences. The third paper considers how education comes to represent both instances of structural and symbolic violence, at the same time as being constructed as a site of hope and aspiration, and asks what attendance to symbolic violence might mean for our understandings of capability deprivation.

All three papers draw out how concepts deployed in discussions of the capability approach, concerning constraints on the capability set, the place of emotions and the imagination, and the corrosive potential of disadvantage at the relative, structural and symbolic levels might help expand our understandings of inequalities in educational settings. From different angles, all three consider the notion of negative capability, discussing both meanings of negative (as destructive and demeaning, but also an empty space) and ask what this does for our understanding of capability. Through this process of analytical exploration, we aim to use the panel to consider how reflections on negative capability might help deepen insight into education as a site both of difficulty but also hope.

Key words: education; capability constraints; hope and emotions

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