under de/construction

Habermas[1] once claimed that there were three different types of knowledge production:

(1)    work knowledge where the intention is to predict ( taken up in positivist and postpositivist research traditions),

(2)    practical knowledge about the sphere of human interaction where the intention is to understand ( taken up in research in the hermeneutic tradition)

(3)    emancipatory knowledge where the intention is to change patterns of social phenomena (taken up in critical and psycholanalytic approaches).

To this trio, Patti Lather has added a fourth, to deconstruct (post critical approaches including feminism, postcolonialism and queer theory).

Deconstruction begins with the understanding that language is a cultural artifact and does not correlate to the material world. All language is a representation and also a product of its time, place and means of production. Contemporary social scientists who work to deconstruct texts often draw on the work of Derrida[2] . His oevre of writings sought to establish a set of ‘rules’ that could be applied to the reading, writing and interpretation of texts to unearth their historical, cultural and social construction. Derrida argued that meanings could not be pinned down and that texts were subject to an endless play of what he termed ‘differance’. However it was possible and necessary to engage in processes of ‘desedimentation’ of texts in order to reveal the various possible meanings in play. Derrida is often accused of being relativist, having no theory which says that one set of meanings is preferable to another. Nevertheless, his work supported postcritical scholars to analyse the production of binary thought – such as the social structural binaries such as male/female; black/white; mental/emotional and so on – in order to reveal the commonalities and differences that existed within and between  the two sides of the binary classification.

Social scientists who deconstruct also often work with tools derived from the work of Foucault[3]. Foucault was somewhat critical of Derrida’s notion of text and offered instead the notion of discourse. According to Foucault, a discourse is material, social and expressed in language. It is a system of rules for thinking about and naming social phenomena. Discourse  is a system of representations which is productive, that is it produces and reproduces social relations and materialities. It is not neutral . It is produced from and productive of power relations. Through the processes of categorizing and creating norms, a power-knowledge system is (re) constructed. This assemblage denotes what counts as truth and as morality. In sum, Foucualt argues that discourse produces our everyday worlds, and creates rules about what it is possible to think , do and be. However there are multiple discourses at play in the world, they change over time, and there are specific assemblages that constitue specific aspects of the social world. In a Foucauldian sense one can think about disciplinary discourses as relatively discrete discursive assemblages which have their own rules, truths, power relations and subjectivities. Deconstructing discourse in the Foucauldian sense[4] involves looking for the inclusions and exclusions made possible, the subjectivities that are legitimated and made illegitimate and the social practices that are sanctioned and outlawed.

There is thus no easy way to explain what is meant by the term deconstruction –  indeed to offer a precise definition is to act oxymoronically, since the basis of deconstruction works from the notion that meanings proliferate and cannot be resolutely pinned down.  According to deconstructionists, any term, including deconstruction itself, cannot be reduced to an essentialised axiom which is universally understood and agreed. Of course, this statement is in itself an attempt to pin down a meaning which contradicts the argument being made. Perhaps this somewhat convoluted explanation begins to give a sense of deconstructive practice which is about the work of opening up meanings and interpretations, rather than closing them down.

Deconstruction attempts  to see what might be gained from the exercise of raising questions and seeking alternative understandings rather than rushing to assume that one reading – of data, of a text, an event, a series of social transactions and so on – is sufficient. It is also, in the hands of postcritical scholars, a means of reaching for the historical situatedness and partiality of a way of thinking and talking about a social phenomena. Deconstruction asks us to consider what we know, why we think this counts as knowledge, how this knowledge might have been produced, and in whose interests that way of understanding might work.


This is one way to think about deconstruction as method.

Establish the binary  at issue – for example black/white, mind/body, emotionality/rationality, male/female, risk/not at risk …


  1. What is common between the two sides of the binary?
  2. What differences exist, within each side of the binary, which are obscured by always seeing each as homogenous, with the only difference being between the two sides?
  3. What differences exist between the two sides that are obscured by thinking this is an either/or

Example = black and white are both colours, there are many shades of black and white, and there  are shades of grey between.

Now consider the binary as a power relation with one side more powerful/possessing more status/being the ‘norm ‘. How might the lesser side counter this power relationship? ( Example – black is beautiful).   And how might the power relationship be unpicked/disrupted?

[1] Habermas, J 1996 Knowledge and interest, Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 1 (4) 285-300.

[2] See Derrida, J. 1967/1978 Of Grammatology, trans. G C Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

[3] Foucault, M 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon; Foucault, M 1977 Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon

[4] Critical discourse analysis is strongly influenced by Foucault but also by other linguistic traditions, see for example Fairclough N .2003 Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London: Routledge.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in deconstruction, research methods and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to under de/construction

  1. Chris Bigum says:

    Maybe there is a fifth? Machine knowledge. Lots to say about it and I understand the language bearing actors may be a wee bit miffed to add mere machines but Moore’s law keeps trudging on, exponentials are a bugger. But even with the computational grunt that is there now there are examples of machines working with raw data and generating theories that humans don’t understand (Hod Lipsom’s work is instructive here). As Steven Johnson put it, it was a bit like trying to teach Shakespeare to a dog. Yes. The human is not doing the teaching. 🙂 Then there is the machine called Google, learning from every click each of us make etc etc. I’m not a fan of Kurzweil’s singularity but computational grunt (in calcs per second) will be equivalent to what is going on in the human brain around 2023, and by around 2049 the computational grunt of the human race. Would love to be around when that happens.


  2. Pingback: How to write your very first blog post | Kittnap

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