Learning from Habermas

Ann Lawless, independent scholar:

In my doctoral thesis ‘Activism in the Academy’, I integrated case study methodology and critical ethnography with the somewhat intellectually challenging theory of Jurgen Habermas, in particular his work on the communicative turn in sociology and his work on the public sphere. I investigated how activists in the workforce, including general and academic staff, physical scientists and human scientists, take up activist stances in the neoliberal academy. I found that they do this in a duality of purpose between activist goals and university goals for teaching, research and community engagement. They also align collegiality with activist goals of building community and alliances.  I investigated how space and place in the academy mobilise the life-affirming functions still possible in the corporate university through, for example, public lectures and seminars which make activism possible.

During the first year of my candidacy I had to accommodate the development of acute periods of a mobility disability and chronic pain and this required changes to the planned study. I rejected an early idea to do quantitative and possibly mixed-methods work and instead designed a qualitative study. I reduced the scope from nationwide to one state of Australia and limited the size of the sample by using snowballing and stopping sampling as soon as saturation was reached. The restrictions ensuing from the acute cycles of my disability also meant that I exceeded the fee-free period allocated to Australian citizens undertaking higher degrees by research and incurred a financial debt. The methodological approach, the entwinement of theory and methodology, had to be reconsidered very early in my candidacy but ended up working well.

I am currently developing publications from the study (see, for example, Lawless 2017). I undertook the doctoral candidature to take up and develop my understanding of Habermas’s theories, and I never swerved from that aspiration. Consequently, the research design followed that aspirational decision about theory. I deployed a methodological approach that integrated and entwined theory with methodology and revealed key research decisions. For me, learning Habermas was an embodied experience. He turned lights on shadowy and dark spaces in the academy, and left me enthused with the potential of the academy to address the concerns of the lifeworld both to affirm life and to resist its colonisation and domestication by the system world. His work, and those hard years of learning his theory and aspiring to develop a way to use it in critical higher education research, has influenced my values, my aspirations, my strategic approaches to the challenges of life and my focus and passion for social justice. Theory can become more than theory – it can inform praxis and inspiration.


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