Cultural Constructions of “Progressive” in Educational Politics

Panel organizer: Amanda Lashaw (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Recent calls for the critical study of morality and value in anthropology (Fassin 2012; Robbins 2013) have emphasized the ways that people organize their personal and collective lives in order to foster what they think of as good or just. Many studies of this ilk have found promise in shifting the central focus of ethnography from subjects of suffering and violence to actors and practices that imaginatively conceive and enact a better world, beyond what is present in their lives and social relations (Bornstein & Redfield, 2011; Lashaw, Vannier & Sampson, 2017). Related shifts in educational anthropology include insisting on the agency of subaltern youth (Willis, 1977), ordinary policy actors (Levinson & Sutton, 2001), and community-based organizations (Nygreen, 2017), as well as moving from damage-centered to desire- centered research (Tuck 2009). This panel seeks papers that build on these lines of scholarship by exploring how people understand, experience, and construct what it means to be “progressive” in contemporary educational politics. Papers may address practices concerned with school improvement or pedagogical processes in other settings. Of particular interest is research that captures multiple or contested meanings of social justice, equality, prosperity, freedom, democracy, and progress as such concepts take shape in daily life, within and across left-leaning worlds. Dominant progressive discourses suggest that most of what people on the left are fighting for is preserving or restoring the social welfare state–i.e. fighting against privatization and for public education. Yet, this panel argues that struggles over the meaning of “progressive movement” in educational fields are increasingly important for individuals and collectives engaged with responding to neoliberal and neoconservative hegemony. The aim of the panel is to create space to talk up the heterogeneity of political-cultural practices forming under the “progressive” sign.

Possible themes include:

  • In what different ways do people identify themselves and their projects as representing a more just future?
  • How do people conceptualize racialized and class-based suffering in educational terms?
  • How do they express visions of morality and moral order as they debate educational changes 
(Rosen, 2001)?
  • What sorts of educational memories, rituals, affects, resources, and strategies are mobilized in pursuit of progress?
  • How do progressive actors imagine the recovery of social losses and the establishment of new 
freedoms? What roles do they see for private groups, institutionalized schooling, and the state?
  • How/do familiar progressive labels—liberal, radical, leftist, reformist etc.—show up in daily discourse? What new categories are in use as people make sense of distinctions among progressives?

Please send a paper title and abstract of no more than 250 words to by April 1.


Bornstein, E., & Redfield, P. (Eds.). (2011). Forces of compassion: Humanitarianism between ethics and politics. Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press.

Fassin, D. (Ed.) (2012). A companion to moral anthropology. Malden, MA: Blackwell

Lashaw, A., Vannier, C. & Sampson, S., (Eds.). (2017, in press). Cultures of doing good: Anthropologists and NGOs. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Levinson, B. & Sutton, M. (2001). Introduction: Policy as/in practice—A sociocultural approach to the study of educational policy. In M. Sutton & B. Levinson (Eds.), Policy as practice: Toward a comparative sociocultural analysis of educational policy (pp. 1-22). Westport, CT: Ablex.

Nygreen, K. (2017). Negotiating tensions: Grassroots organizing, school reform, and the paradox of neoliberal democracy. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 48(1): 42-60.

Robbins, Joel. (2013) Beyond the suffering subject: Toward an anthropology of the good. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19: 447-462

Rosen, L. (2001). Myth-making and moral order in a debate on mathematics education policy. In
M. Sutton & B. Levinson (Eds.), Policy as practice: Toward a comparative sociocultural analysis of educational policy (pp. 295-316). Westport, CT: Ablex.

Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review 79(3): 409- 428.
Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.