Developing reading skills in relation to the Social Sciences
Developing reading skills in relation to the Social Sciences

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Developing reading skills in relation to the Social Sciences

1 Developing reading skills

John Clarke and course team member Ross Fergusson, look at developing reading skills in the context of Social Science resources, with suggestions on how to read such materials critically and effectively. The material is primarily an audio file, 11 minutes in length and recorded in 1998.

Participants in the audio programme were:

  • John Clarke Professor of Social Policy at The Open University;

  • Ross Ferguson Social Sciences lecturer at The Open University;

  • Gordon Hughes Social Sciences lecturer at The Open University.

Activity 1

To prepare for this critical reading of Social Science texts you should now listen to the audio file, Developing Reading Skills, in which Ross Fergusson talks to John Clarke about reading original texts and extracts.


On this audio programme, Ross Fergusson highlights three main kinds of questions that are worth keeping in mind as you work on Social Science texts and extracts. These are:

  1. What is the context in which the text needs to be understood?

  2. What assumptions does it make about the way society is organised, about appropriate forms of welfare, and so on?

  3. What discourses does it draw on – or contribute to?

Developing reading skills (11 minutes 5 MB)

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Transcript: Developing reading skills

John Clarke
In this programme we are going to be looking at developing reading skills in the context of Books Four and Five with some suggestions about how to read the sorts of materials that you will find in those books, critically and effectively. I will be talking to Gordon Hughes and Ross Ferguson, both members of the D218 Course Team. OK. If I can turn to you Ross, what are the skills that we need to make the best use of material like this?
Ross Ferguson
OK. Well I think what you need to do is to try and have in mind some kind of method by which you will approach any of these texts and adapt it as you encounter them. For me, I have come up with three questions that I found are helpful to me when you start looking at a text that you don’t know, and try and get behind some of the meanings that are there, read into it, read beyond the surface. Questions I ask myself are: what's the context in which this was produced; what are the assumptions that are underpinning it, and how does it use or even contribute to discourses in the Social Sciences?
Can I just stop you there one moment Ross. There’s that word again that we are becoming familiar with in D218. What do you mean by “discourses” in this context?
OK. I think a very potted version of it is to say: ‘Discourses are understandings and knowledges about the way in which the world is organised, that connect together quite powerfully; they make themselves into themes; they are often institutionalised; they define the ways in which things can be understood; they tend to cut out other ways of explaining and understanding; they are quite powerful ways of constructing meanings and understanding’. But if that all sounds rather a mouthful to you, and it's not familiar territory, you might want to go back and have a look at Section Eight of Chapter One in Book One, where that’s all set out, and it will probably mean rather more to you now, half way through the course, maybe than it did then.
OK. That’s very helpful. So let’s get back. You’ve got your three sets of questions about reading. What next?
OK. Well, I mean each of those gives rise to some more questions. So when I think about context, in which something was written, I think about what kind of text is it? What does it read like? What are the clues that help me to recognise it? What's it aiming to do? Who’s its audience? What are the circumstances and conditions in which it was put together? What prompted someone to write this? Then when I’m thinking about assumptions, I think well, OK what assumptions does this make about what people are like, or how societies are, or should be organised? Are there ideas about human nature lurking under this? Are there ideas about priorities, social priorities, economic priorities? Are there some kinds of people, some kinds of activities, which are valued more than others? Are there social norms built in here? Are there common senses? What things get defined as problems? What are thought to be good ways of dealing with them? All those have got a whole set of premises, assumptions. They carry a lot of ideas about the social world with them.
And then when I’m thinking about discourses, I might start looking first of all just for words or phrases which are very powerful ones, very resonant ones in our society. “Choice” would be a good example in the examples we’ll be looking at. Is there an appeal to shared views, which aren’t set out? Does this build up its case? Does this text kind of build up a case and try and persuade its reader to gloss over meanings, gloss over things quickly?
Well I think I see what you are getting at in terms of those three clusters, but I’d quite like to see how this works in action. So we’ve got the extract from Tony Blair in the course guide and how would what you’ve been saying help us to read that Ross?
First of all let me say I’ve chosen that extract partly because it fits in with one of the chapters on education but it's on a quite familiar issue of comprehensives versus selective education. But the point of this is not really to add to the substance of that chapter but to develop your way of tackling texts like this.
So, as I said, I would start off by thinking about the context. And getting a feel for what kind of text it is. What's its style? Well, to me this is a very persuasive piece. It lulls you along and it's got quite a seductive reasoning to it. It's quite difficult to disagree with it, and it's full of assertive statements and so on. And then you look at the way that it addresses its audience. You know there is a direct appeal. I feel it's talking to me and he talks a lot about “we” and “our” and I feel included in all this. In fact it's quite interesting to start unpacking some of that because if you look at the way in which he uses “we” in this it has two different meanings. Sometimes it means all of us, that makes me included, and sometimes it is actually just “we in the Labour Party – me and the rest of my colleagues”. So when you find words like “you”, “I”, “we”, “our”, “us” in text, think about them. Who does he mean? Why is this being used? Why that approach? OK. Other things about context: what are the clues that tell you what's going on here? Well, it's a speech. We are told it's a speech but you can get a sense of that. It's a political speech. It's attacking a Prime Minister. But it’s something that happens in a very particular context indeed. He’s talking to a specific audience. We are told it's a group of girls in a school. What we are not told is that it was also on television. What we are also not told it was, as far as I can recall, the point at which quite a significant departure in Labour Party Policy was launched to the world. So, that helps me think quite a lot about why he said this, exactly why he has put these things this way. And of course, remembering back – it’s always a useful idea in context to look at the date – when was it published – ’96. A year before the General Election, the Government was on a thin majority. Labour were high in the polls and they were repositioning themselves, and this is a re-positioning on Labour Policy on selection and selectivity. And it uses some very particular tools to talk about that.
That’s sketched some of the elements of the context. What about the assumptions in here?
OK. Well let’s just look quickly at two assumptions about what kind of society is being looked for in here? What kind is valued? First of all there are several mentions of equality. If you have a look at it it's quite qualified. “Equality mustn’t become the enemy of quality”. It's talked about in terms of “equal opportunity”. And that’s set against some other values about the kind of society that’s being pursued, which relates strongly to work, the economy, national prosperity. So you’ve got this tension between two sets of values that are underlying the whole thing.
Let’s move on then to the third cluster, which is: what about the discourses here?
Again, there are several that we could pick out but let me concentrate on two or three aspects of discourse. First there’s a lot of appeal to commonsense. Sometimes it's quite overt. Commonsense about people are different, their speeds at which they learn are different, their abilities are different, and if you want to think more about the questions about commonsense just go back to Book One and Chapter One and think about the “store house of assumptions” as it is described there, that commonsense often turns out to be. There’s an appeal to shared values, quite a similar thing. Meritocracy – we all understand that it’s preferable for people to advance by…on the basis of merit, achievement, effort, than having advancement on the basis of birth and privilege. Nobody much would disagree with that. A nice shared value.
There are also shared assumptions about what actually works, what we all understand will work. And this is where we get into a whole other area where there are some absolutes; there are discourses about truths and about other people’s ideologies. So he talks about “true equality”. He says, “it's absolutely wrong to say schools in poor neighbourhoods can't succeed”. There are absolutes but there are also political dogmas and educational dogmas that he wants to distance himself from. So things about comprehensive principal, things about mixed ability teaching are defined out as ideologies, whereas we are interested in what actually works, our visions, our missions.
There are some other significant discourses. There is the discourse of difference. Big theme of Book One. Stress on difference throughout. The vocabulary of differentiation is there, all the way through. There are people with special needs, people who need extra help. There’s the average. There are lots of ways of expressing bright children, “the best brains”, “high flyers”. It’s infused with the whole thing. And again we need to think about the consequences of this. How is difference being used here? Look back to Book One, particularly the Preface of Book One and think about what “difference” means. Is he arguing from difference in one sphere? Clearly people are different. The difference in another sphere about how people should be treated, organised, grouped, resourced, for the purposes of their own learning in schools.
But the really big discourse underpinning this whole extract is one about ability. OK. There’s a call to commonsense about differing abilities. We all understand people have different abilities. There’s an implication that these are fixed; that they are given by birth. And that recalls that idea of essentialism that’s there right back in Book One in the Chapter on sexuality. OK. Why is this a discourse? What makes it a discourse? Well, it's constructed a category. It's constructed a category of people who have high levels of ability and therefore by implication those who lack it. Just like happened with poverty in that example back in Book One. It makes ability the norm and it creates a sense of deficiency, lack of ability, that has to be addressed, that has to be treated in some way. And it picks up on a whole cluster of meanings like other discourses do. Powerful ones, connections to genes, birth, hereditary, difference, back to that discourse as well. So it all groups together. That shapes how we think, but it also shapes a whole set of policies about how we work with children and how some become defined as problems.
I found that an incredibly helpful way of thinking about reading. And it's an approach to reading that seems to me benefits from practice and the good thing about Books Four and Five of the course is they are going to provide plenty of material like that, to practice that sort of skill on.
For now though, thanks to Ross and Gordon. I hope this programme has helped you with your work on Book Four and TMA04. There are of course still other TMA’s to come. TMA06, linked to Book Five, is a fairly standard form. But TMA05 itself gives you the chance to practice exam technique. ‘Bye for now.
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