Power in action: Possibilities and restraints in ESD practice

2008-06-27 20:39:39

Marie Öhman & Johan Öhman

The debate concerning the pros and cons of ESD has mainly been conducted on the grounds of principle. The question is how, and to what extent, misgivings about ESD and its expectations are actually manifested. The purpose of this paper is to suggest an approach that can contribute empirical knowledge to this debate. The suggested approach is related to the research field of governmentality and Foucault’s ideas about power and knowledge. It focuses on the way students are governed in ESD practice and explores which understanding of future development is privileged in this practice.


In recent years, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has been launched as a new comprehensive educational programme (see for instance UNESCO, 2005). But the concept of ESD is not uncontroversial. The critical debate has pointed to an unambiguous ideological tension in the combination of the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’ (see Bonnet, 1999 and Stables & Scott, 2002). Sauvé (1999) claims that the rhetoric of sustainable development in political policy documents like Our Common Future and Agenda 21 is intimately tied up with basic ideas of modernity. Elliot (1999) implies that the concept of ‘development’ is associated with an economic market philosophy and constant economic and technological growth as a necessary precondition for the improvement of people’s lives and happiness. In addition, it has been pointed out that the policy documents that form the basis of ESD are clearly anthropocentric in that they focus exclusively on the well-being of humans and ignore the intrinsic values of nature (Bonnet, 1999). In short, these debaters draw attention to the risk that ESD could become a political instrument that supports a specific ideology created by politicians and experts in power, and that education will accordingly become indoctrination (see Jickling & Spork, 1998; Wals & Jickling, 2000; and Jickling, 2003).

This debate has mainly been conducted on grounds of principle, however. The question is how and to what extent these misgivings are actually manifested. We argue that these aspects can be studied in terms of power and governance. But studies of power and governance have mainly been accomplished as textual analyses. The purpose of this paper is to propose an approach that allows for analyses of power and governance in educational practice More precisely, we would like to suggest an approach that is designed to facilitate analyses of the ways in which certain educational approaches, such as ESD, govern students in specific directions – that is, an approach that involves the study of power in action.

Foucault and the Research Field of Governmentality

The suggested approach is related to the research field of governmentality. This field occupies a central position in French philosopher Michel Foucault’s later works (1978/1991, 1982). Foucault understood the term ‘government’ as “A form of activity aiming to shape, guide or affect the conduct of some person or persons” (Burchell et al., 1991, p. 2). With the aid of this term, Foucault sketches a pathway for analysing power in practice. Power in this sense is transfixed neither by the image of the state nor by conventional political sociology, both of which are concerned with who has and holds power. Foucault (1980) states that power does not necessarily mean any actual exercise of power in the form of oppression by specific peoples or groups within society. Power is rather understood as actions that enable us to act in specific ways. This means that attention is directed towards how actions can serve as guidelines for other actions, how certain actions become possible and how others are limited. One of the most important general methodological conclusions one can draw from Foucault’s work is that it is possible to understand our everyday life activities in terms of power relations.

Power and Knowledge

Studies in the field of governmentality are mostly related to historical studies of political power, where questions about comprehensive governing processes in modern society are in focus. Our intention is to shift the focus from studies of general political ideas to the practical arena of education in general, and of ESD in particular.

In doing this we take inspiration from Rose (1998, 1999), who claims that studies of power and governance can be carried out as studies of a particular layer of knowing and acting within a given practice. For this purpose, Foucault’s ideas on power and knowledge are particularly helpful in that he argues that power is actually produced in the uttering of truths, in what is indicated and in what is decided upon.

In this perspective, knowledge does not stand for the representation of reality, but has a productive role in relation to its shaping and configuration. In this sense,knowledge and power are integrated. It is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge and it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power (Foucault, 1980, p. 52). This implies that, within a specific activity, certain types of knowledge are offered and certain given assumptions are created around what is to be said or done. Research in the field of governmentality therefore puts the focus on how conceptions such as sustainable development emerge and the effects they have on people, their lives and the environment. In other words, it pays attention to the consequences of the production of knowledge itself.

The suggested approach is therefore concerned with knowledge, or regimes of truth, and the space for possible actions created in educational activities. ESD can, in this perspective, be viewed as an educational setting that constitutes certain sets of practices, where specific ways of acting and speaking about future development are chosen and included, while others are excluded.

In institutional contexts, and over a period of time, such inclusions and exclusions make a regular appearance and create a specific pattern in language use – a specific discourse. In this way, power relations become particularly deeply rooted in educational activities such as ESD. Discourses are, however, both productive and restraining: productive in that they facilitate certain ways of thinking, acting, discussing, valuing, etc., in relation to sustainable problems, and restraining in the sense that they exclude possibilities that do not fit into the particular framework.

Specific norms are thereby created that regulate the ‘correct’ way of understanding and valuing sustainable development. These norms constitute something that the students must relate to by orienting themselves in choices of whether to follow the mainstream, or contradict, challenge, refuse, ignore, etc. The power and knowledge relation can thus be seen as a normalisation of a specific rational and ethical way of relating to a sustainable future.

Some Methodological Implications

In order to identify governing processes in ESD it is necessary to make observations of ongoing educational activities. Here, video recordings are an invaluable resource, because they enable significant episodes to be selected and transcribed and analysed in detail. Video recordings also make it possible to take the specific setting of an analysed lesson into consideration, for example how artefacts are used, as well as facilitate the interpretation of utterances, by including gestures and facial expressions.

We suggest that the analyses are carried out in three principal steps, as follows.

The first step of the analysis procedure is to identify what specific kind of knowledge dominates the activity. Important questions to ask here are: What counts as truth? Which knowledge is explicitly referred to? Which knowledge is taken for granted? What kinds of activities are privileged by the dominating kind of knowledge? This aspect is analysed in terms of regular patterns in language use, primarily by the teacher.

In the second step, focus is put on teachers’ ways of governing the students. How do the teachers refer to the privileged knowledge? What means, tools, manners, etc., do teachers use to guide the students in specific directions in their learning and help them to act and think in the prescribed way? These analyses focus on the interactions that take place during the educational activities. The analysing units consist of whole events, for instance, when a group of students are occupied with a certain exercise, come up against a problem and the teacher gives instructions that result in the students’ activities taking a new direction.

The third step concentrates on students’ reception of the offered discourse. This analysis focuses on sequences where students act without the direct influence of the teacher. What is analysed here is the internalisation of specific ways of reasoning about sustainable development as shown in students’ actions. For instance, the use of discursive tools provided in discussions among students is investigated. In other words, this can be said to be about how students govern themselves in the specific educational setting.


An important aspect of Foucault’s concept of power is that knowledge always produces possibilities and restraints. This means that no matter what kind of educational approach we use, we will privilege some perspectives, values, world views, etc., and exclude others. However, with the aid of studies of power and government it is possible to clarify the consequences of the inclusions and exclusions. In this way, such studies can create spaces for critical thought and provide possibilities to discuss and evaluate which consequences we find reasonable and morally acceptable. Studying power and government can thus be seen as “a matter of introducing a critical attitude towards those things that are given to our present experience as if they were timeless, natural, unquestionable” (Rose, 1999, p. 20).

Approaches similar to the one suggested here have been developed and applied in research on physical education and health and yielded fruitful results (see Öhman, forthcoming). The suggested approach is now being used in several ongoing Swedish research projects related to ESD. It is our hope that this approach will provide a clearer picture as to how ESD might be practically manifested, and in this way contribute empirical knowledge to the debate on ESD as well as to the progress of ESD practice.


Marie Öhman, Department of Health Sciences, Örebro University, Sweden e-mail: marie.ohman@hi.oru.se and Johan ÖhmanDepartment of Health Sciences, Örebro University, Sweden e-mail:  johan.ohman@hi.oru.se