Unsettling Research

Using Critical Praxis and Activism to Create Uncomfortable Spaces

by Sherilyn Lennon (Author)
©2015 Textbook XVI, 225 Pages
Series: Critical Qualitative Research, Volume 14


Unsettling Research investigates what can be learned from the journey of an insider activist researcher seeking social transformations around issues of gender in an isolated rural Australian community. Unique and risky in its undertaking, the research evolves to create a new discourse in qualitative research. A seamless bricolage of autobiography/ethnography, narrative, feminist theory, critical theory, media literacy, critical pedagogy, and social theory, this work takes qualitative research to the next level. It enacts the notion of social justice, while creating a new lens through which to view action via research … research via action. The author allows the personal to establish positionality, and then works from within her position to create a meta-perspective on dialogue, action, and community manifestations of power. The analytic component of the research couples an ongoing process of coming-to-know with a need to address a community issue. By developing a conceptual framework and a process for disclosing and dislocating ideological hegemony and its associated power imbalances, the research adds to knowledge in the fields of gender and education, social justice, and nascent activist pedagogies. Whilst the particulars are located in Australia, the book creates a global lens for qualitative activist research.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword
  • References
  • Chapter 1: The Evolution of an Activist Study
  • Who Am I?
  • What Is? The Community
  • What Is? The Schools
  • A Gradual Shift in Thinking
  • Local Media Interpretations of Boys’ and Girls’ Schooling Performances
  • Research Evolutions
  • The Study’s Goal and a Brief Overview
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2: Blurring Boundaries and Converging Fields
  • The Gender Agenda
  • The Rural Context
  • Adding a Social Justice Lens
  • The “Post” Postmodern Era: Moving from Prediction and Prescription to Disclosure and Dislocation
  • Giroux and Theories of Resistance
  • Merging Theories of Resistance and Radical Pedagogies
  • Chapter 3: Mining and Morphing Theories to Conceptualize Complexity
  • Learning to Rethink
  • Crossing Physical and Conceptual Borders
  • Going Public
  • Conceptual Fluidity, Evolving Hybridity, and Paradigmatic Allegiances
  • Making Use of Bricolage
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4: Constructing a Study of Complexity
  • Framing the Research
  • A Set of Tools for Enabling Transformative Thinking and Action
  • Mining Cultural and Discursive Practices to Expose Their Ideological Seams: Two Approaches
  • Fairclough’s Approach
  • Wodak’s Discourse-Historical Approach
  • Using Forays into Autoethnography
  • Collecting Evidence from Media Texts
  • Collecting Evidence via Community Stories
  • Generating Transformative Thinking and Practices
  • Chapter 5: Deepening Understandings and Beginning to Unsettle Things
  • A Way of Drilling Beneath the Surface
  • Part A: In the Classroom
  • Part B: Looking Beyond School to the Wider Community
  • Discursive Constructions of Masculinity
  • Discursive Constructions of Femininity
  • Alternative Representations
  • Notes
  • Chapter 6: Using Activist Dialogues to Unsettle and Transform Thinking
  • The Letter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 7: Remining the Evidence in Search of Fresh Finds
  • Illuminating Ideological Gender Productions and Reproductions
  • Unsettling and Transforming
  • Positioning Others and Being Positioned by Others
  • Chapter 8: Blurring Boundaries, Reconceptualizing Research, and Self-Discoveries
  • Smoothing Over the Mess to Make Sense of Complexity
  • Revisiting the Chapters
  • Learnings: Personal and Epistemological
  • Being an Insider Activist Researcher: Risks and Rewards
  • Note
  • References


Figure 1.1. Articles that make use of a self-congratulatory discourse when referring to Wheatville (Wheatville Times)

Figure 1.2. A newspaper questioning the absence of boys at the local high school awards night (Wheatville Times)

Figure 1.3. A diagram capturing the evolutionary trajectory of the study

Figure 1.4. Bricolage Wordle

Figure 2.1. A purported extract from a mid-20th-century textbook

Figure 2.2. An interdepartmental minute paper from the 1960s

Figure 3.1. Image capturing my growth of consciousness and criticality

Figure 3.2. Cycle of inquiry, intervention, and self-discovery

Figure 3.3. Conceptual tenets underpinning this research

Figure 4.1. A pictogram representing the alignment of the cycle of inquiry, intervention, and self-discovery with three distinct paradigmatic shifts

Figure 4.2. Pictogram showing a process for addressing the research intent ← ix | x →

Figure 4.3. The second point of entry text

Figure 5.1. A front-page article from the Wheatville Times which uses a celebratory discourse but also hints at some of the gender issues existing in Wheatville

Figure 5.2. A photograph of the all-male local council, published in the Wheatville Times

Figure 5.3. Sport, youth, and the illusion of alcohol consumption combine to form a tradition

Figure 5.4. An article published in the Wheatville Times reports on an all-female group of students involved in early childhood studies at the local high school

Figure 5.5. An article published in the social pages of the local newspaper reports on the debutante ball

Figure 5.6. An article published in the Wheatville Times depicts local showgirls surrounding the show’s male president

Figure 5.7. A front-page article depicts an alternative representation of rural womanhood

Figure 6.1. My first letter to the Wheatville Times

Figure 6.2. “Mr. President’s” response to my letter

Figure 6.3. A supportive response to my letter

Figure 6.4. My second letter is published

Figure 6.5. Another alternative and a financial incentive for change

Figure 6.6. The debate continues ← x | xi →


Conducting an activist study and writing a book have much in common. They are both rather daunting yet highly rewarding experiences. They are also experiences shared and shaped by others. Jon (Austin), your sage advice, personal library loans, and enthusiasm for what I was doing gave me the confidence to believe that I too had a story worth telling. Thank you for this gift. Dorothy (Andrews), you are so wise and your guidance so gentle that I barely felt your touch. You seemed to know just when and how to redirect me whenever I started to falter. My sincerest thanks for your unconditional support and friendship. Robyn (Henderson), I have been privileged and honored to know you. You have such an incredible breadth of knowledge and give of your time so unstintingly. Your patience, willingness to listen, probing questions, and generosity have helped to take me on a most remarkable journey of discovery—a journey I know has been richer because you have been on it with me. A simple “thank you” just does not seem sufficient.

To my beautiful children, Will, Luke, and Lydia, thank you for your tolerance and patience whilst I have pursued my passion. I hope you have been inspired to challenge the taken-for-granted and believe that, with effort and commitment, anything is possible. To my husband, Peter, I know that there ← xi | xii → have been times when you have found my work challenging. Thank you for accepting that it is something I need to do.

I would also like to thank Rod (Gardner) and the team in the Office of Research and Higher Degree Research in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University for the financial assistance and support given in the preparation of this manuscript.

And finally, to all who were a part of this study in some way, thank you for allowing me into your lives. I am a richer person for it. ← xii | xiii →


The contribution formal education could and, indeed, should make to social betterment has been widely described, theorized, and urged upon those who would teach for at least the past 150 years. I encourage all of my students— undergraduate and postgraduate alike—to read George Counts’ (1932) Dare the School Build a New Social Order?, for example. Academic libraries are filled [thankfully] with the literature of critical pedagogy, radical education, feminist teaching, anarchist approaches, public pedagogy, and the like. If the university library to which I have easiest access is anything to go by, many of these volumes seem to be heavily used. One can only hope the intended inspiration to act that has presumably underpinned the work of these many authors has been ignited in those who have read, grappled with, argued against, and embraced [one hopes] the arguments and imperatives captured by theorists in the field.

One of the criticisms of much of the broadly described critical pedagogy literature is that it is very much theory-dense and practice-thin: that it is eloquent, if sometimes ponderous, in its description, diagnosis and directives regarding social change through alliances of educators, students, parents and the community as a whole, but that it leaves the question of How? to local consideration, development and deployment. What Sherilyn has succeeded with in this valuable addition to this library of liberatory, emancipatory, ← xiii | xiv → disruptive and unsettling texts is to show how an avid reader of these works has in fact been inspired to act, has taken it upon herself to find ways to change a situation that she saw as being profoundly unacceptable.

In documenting and analysing her experiences as a concerned, almost bewildered, teacher and member of a not untypical rural community attempting to contribute to change for social betterment, Sherilyn draws heavily on the intellectual work of others to formulate strategies of ideological disruption and reconstruction. In many ways, this book is a quasi-diary of the actions of what Gramsci envisaged as an organic intellectual: intellectualizing and theorizing troubling aspects of contemporary social and political life; engaging in consciousness raising work with the community affected; and working with, rather than leading vanguard-style, members of that community in their pursuit of a better state of being.

Sherilyn’s book is also an embodiment of what Brian Fay(1987) saw as the crucial aspects and stages of genuinely critical social science activity. A critical social science evinced three distinct phases: It would describe and explain the world, critique the world, and open possibilities for changing the world. Such an approach to community engagement with the world needed, in Fay’s view, to do far more than merely describe in a scientific sense. That, he said, would merely tell us what is the case. But a practical and critical science needed to be one that would also dredge up possibilities for what ought to be the case. This is the conceptual schema I took to reading the work Sherilyn has presented in this book: she has described gender-based inequities in her community; she has engaged in a deep critique of the sources and forces for maintenance of these inequities, and has proceeded to engage in actions to unsettle and redress these.

A further aspect of this work that I think is important is that it connects directly with Henry Giroux’s idea of teachers being intellectual workers and to his exhortation that they should see their role as that of transformative intellectuals and engage in a critical pedagogy in pursuit of the imperatives of that role (Giroux, 1988). The provocation for the project Sherilyn reports on in this book was the seemingly disparate educational outcomes along gender lines in her school. Rather than focusing on deficit discourse-based ameliorations [the short-sighted and highly technicist “solutions” underpinning much of the discourse surrounding a ‘close the gap’ policy orientation], Sherilyn’s research led her further away from the school and more deeply into embedded yet almost completely unnoticed practices of gender discrimination, ← xiv | xv → alienation, and oppression. It is through this deeper critique that genuinely transformative outcomes become possible.

The work of the activist insider researcher is by no means trouble free, as is evident throughout much of this book. Not only personal concerns about maintaining cordial relations within one’s home community but professional concerns about disrupting established practices, potentially corrupting relationships between school and community and the like are all present in some way, shape or form. In drawing out her own personal anxieties and concerns, Sherilyn has effectively dismissed any notion of the overly romantic view of Teacher as Saviour that tends to percolate through many popular cultural representations of teaching. This was genuinely distressing work, and the consequences of even commencing it are not yet fully apparent.

Perhaps Brian Fay captures best the dilemmas—personal, professional, social, and ideological—that attend the sort of work that Sherilyn has brought so passionately and articulately to this point:

It is possible for humans, through a process of education, to become enlightened as to the condition and, on the basis of this enlightenment, to create a new form of life in which their genuine interests are satisfied. This is not an easy process because it involves shedding illusions that are central to our very identity…Nevertheless, humans have the capacity to learn who they are and to refashion their existence on the basis of this learning. Those who develop this capacity have wisdom. (Fay, 1987, p. 12)

This book chronicles an educative process aimed at a community-based ‘getting of wisdom.’ It is a book that all those interested and concerned for social justice and general community well-being will benefit from and, hopefully, find succour within.

Jon Austin

July 2014



XVI, 225
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
community media literacy social justice critical pedagogy feminist theory
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 225 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Sherilyn Lennon (Author)

Sherilyn Lennon (PhD, the University of Southern Queensland) received, amongst other awards, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s award for excellence in research. This is her first book. She divides her time between lecturing at Griffith University and living on a remote rural Australian property.


Title: Unsettling Research
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243 pages