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Justice through service: An action inquiry

Through 2000 and 2001, I undertook an action research project with a group of staff in a church-affiliated social service agency in Aotearoa New Zealand. The purpose of the action inquiry was to work with the staff in the Agency during the establishment of a residential service for women and their children. In particular, the action inquiry involved working with the staff as they enacted their mission for 'justice through service' and their vision for 'empowering women'. As a researcher I drew on an epistemology of feminist post-structuralism, using particularly the concept of discursivity, as developed by French social theorist Michel Foucault and others. Much of the research came to be about reflecting with the Director of the Agency and other staff, on the ways a cluster of powerful discourses of Western individualism and neoliberalism, and closely associated managerialism, human rights and psychology, were threaded through their social service work in this country at that time. Many of the conversations, workshops and processes that emerged came to be about the ways in which managerial and psychological discourses seemed to provide dominant discourses within which social service and social justice work could be imagined and conducted. A number of us came to see an associated liberal discourse of human rights as being the site of considerable injustice for some women and children. We particularly noted the limited subject positions available to women discursively positioned as 'bad, sad or mad'. One of the most significant steps in the inquiry was to open up the possibility with the staff of thinking and acting differently, of challenging truth and knowledge claims. The action of the research came to be the intentional development of a local discourse of resistance, based on principles of connection, communion, conversation, bicultural development, inquiry, solidarity, participation, action and reflection, and reflexivity. These principles drew on discourses of Christianity and feminist theology, communitarianism and the discourse of action research itself. Social justice became imagined and enacted as resistance to neoliberalism, sometimes within the discourse of neoliberalism itself, sometimes through the invocation of an alternative discourse. Action research could and sometimes did provide that alternative. Provoking resistance to neoliberalism included creating and maintaining alternative subject positions for both staff members and the women they worked with. A number of theoretical questions emerged particularly around the intersections and tensions between feminist theory, post-structural theory, and action research. These questions led me to explore the potential and risks for action research to make truth-claims embedded within a neoliberal framework, particularly through invocations of first person research and reflection which instantiate a coherent and knowable self, able to be acted on through and as human development, and as transformation. Poststructural challenges to the humanist self, in contrast, enabled me to explore the subjectivities enacted in the various ways I was positioned and positioned myself in the research, and in the various positioning of others in the Agency. Exploring the interplay of power and knowledge with those subjectivities provided points at which other ways of being and acting could be imagined.
Type of thesis
Gatenby, B. I. (2004). Justice through service: An action inquiry (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/13264
The University of Waikato
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