Helene Ratner on School Management, Social Theory and Smørrebrød

What brings a Danish PhD student to study in the English countryside? Chris Sugden sat down with Helene Ratner and asked her a number of carefully prepared questions. Helene is based at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy at Copenhagen Business School and just finished a two-term visit to InSIS.

Helene, a lot of your work is about schools in Denmark. How did you get interested in schools?

That was really a coincidence. The education system is the focus of my PhD grant. So it was really an obvious choice, and a good one, too. The political debates about schooling really are a window into how we imagine the future: what kind of society, which competences, which values do we think are necessary in tomorrow’s society? The school in this way is a great way to explore how we apprehend and construct problems, solutions and futures in a Scandinavian Welfare context. Also, very importantly, one of the benefits of doing fieldwork in schools is that you get invited to delicious smørrebrød during examination times.

Helene doing fieldwork in Danish schools

Helene doing fieldwork in Danish schools.

So what is your PhD about?

I am doing an ethnography of school managers in socially marginalised areas of Denmark, who work in an inclusive school context. I’m particularly interested in three things: one is how they work with knowledge, because the knowledge models they use are very much inspired by social constructionism, and I find it very interesting to see the organising properties if working with knowledge which is defined by being socially constructed and therefore changeable. They work with that through various reflection technologies for instance. So that’s one thing I’m interested in.

Second, I am interested in the performativity of knowledge and in doing away with the distinction between theory and practice. A curious thing I found during fieldwork is that my own institution and department is very much involved in producing certain ideas of reality and certain concepts. Many of my colleagues’ texts are in school managers’ diploma projects and one of my case schools uses Niklas Luhmann, Ulrich Beck, and Lyotard to argue that the world is contingent and complex and that we should all be more reflexive as a response to that. I use this circularity to explore how sociological knowledge is performative and translated in practice – both through document analysis and ethnographic observations at the schools.

The third interest regards the chaos I experienced, at least from my perspective, during the fieldwork. Organising, in the conventional sense of clear roles, tasks and boundaries, would be the thing that constantly broke down, so the school managers would spend most of their time stitching up, fighting fires, solving conflicts and such. In that respect, what one would think are the exceptions to managers’ work, at least if you look at more official descriptions and discourse, would actually take up the majority of their time. I try to tie these three interests together in a metanarrative which will hopefully end up as a PhD thesis.

What have you found so far?

At the moment I’m tracing one particular model for reflection, called the SMTTE. I’m tracing its history, and it’s really interesting: it comes from an action research project. It’s hugely popular in Denmark, even though there only exist few official publications describing it. If you google it you find more than 13,000 hits, ranging from the Ministry of Education to municipalities and individual institutions and consultants etc. It’s maybe 15 years old in the Danish context, and I’ve traced the history of that. It’s been imported from Norway, where it had less success, and it comes out of this action research project, where it was not that successful but what was successful were the books that emerged from that research project. As a consultant explained to me very cynically, when you make an action research project you have to be a success, you have to come out with a result which can be seen and perceived as if you’ve produced knowledge which you can give to the domain of practice. So it was not so much about having an accurate representation of what works and how this model works; rather, it was about having a good example even though it was quite marginal. The example was so successful that it’s all over the Danish school system today. So I’ve been tracing the history of this and I’m tracing how it’s being enacted and what sort of challenges there are with working with this social constructionist model in Danish schools.

How did you find Oxford and InSIS?

I really enjoyed it. Of course Oxford University has this mythical status, both because it’s Oxford University, the place of old and solid knowledge, and because we’ve been bombarded with seductive images in various Harry Potter movies which I admit to having seen at weak moments. So it was quite exciting to go there.

And I also chose to go there because it seemed to be one of the few places where you could find STS in a business school, and I am myself from a department which fits somewhat oddly with a business school in the more conventional sense. In that way InSIS seemed to be a very natural place for me to go to. What I really enjoyed about it was the ethnographic sensibilities that I met there, both among my fellow PhD students but also among the more senior staff.

Where I work, the majority of my colleagues – maybe they do interviews but it’s mainly document studies, so in some way I felt at home in terms of the methodology and the experiences we could share about getting lost and finding your way again in your empirical material, which I think happens through different trajectories. And secondly, I found it extremely exciting to see that even if most of the people work empirically in very different areas, we would have a lot in common because we were interested in some of the same analytical issues. You could explore your own research challenges within a colleague’s field, by virtue of us having similar analytical questionings and engagements and concerns. And I found that quite fruitful.

Thank you for your time, Helene.