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Leader paradoxes and critical ethnographies.


One way to develop critical and culturally reflective leaders is to wed critical theory with textual material rich in complex cultural meaning and ambiguity. In this essay, the author will discuss critical theory, leadership paradoxes imbedded in critical theory, and the use of narrative texts (ethnographies and cultural novels) that provide contextually rich opportunities for future leaders to understand complex groups and situations. Intended and unintended outcomes using narrative novels and ethnographic texts will be explained.


We are now at the point where we must decide whether we are to honour the concept of a plural society which gains strength through diversity, or whether we are to have bitter fragmentation that will result in perpetual tension and strife.

Earl Warren

Michael Kammen (1973) calls Americans "people of paradox." They have, he argues, "managed to be both puritanical and hedonistic ... peace-loving and war-mongering, isolationist and interventionist, conformist and individualist, consensus-minded and conflict prone" (p. 291). As a result, "polarities provide us with the potential for flexibility and diversity; yet too often chill our designs and historical development" (p. 297). One can observe the negative consequences of polarities from discussions about the education of future leaders. A paradox for school leaders, for example, is to maintain the status quo and educate for a complex society in order to serve a diverse clientele equitably (Dantley, 1990; Gallimore, 1989; Scheurich & Imber, 1991). The dilemma is echoed by Earl Warren, former Supreme Court Chief Justice, in the epigraph as he suggests that we must either support diversity or understand that tension and strife will continue to increase in our society. As the emphasis in administrator preparation programs shifts to an emphasis on preparing school leaders who can effectively negotiate diversity in schools and critically reflect upon their situations (Capper, 1993; Donmoyer, Imber, & Scheurich, 1994; Foster, 1986), a challenge for instructors in leader preparation programs becomes how to facilitate and foster the kind of critical thinking, analysis and reflection required of those leaders. One way to develop critical and reflective decision makers is to wed critical theory with textual material rich in complex cultural meaning and ambiguity. In this paper, the author will discuss critical theory, some leadership paradoxes imbedded in critical theory, and the use of narrative texts (ethnographies and cultural novels) that will provide contextually rich opportunities for future leaders to understand complex groups and situations.

Background of Participants

Graduate students in a Masters Degree program in Educational Leadership are being prepared to work in culturally diverse environments. The abundance of cultural knowledge a leader must learn is phenomenal as well as phenomenological. The future school leader works in an intercultural environment, diverse yet focused on common organizational goals, so the leader must understand how cultures and subcultures "work." The leader must also understand how organizations operate as cultures; one way to provide a common frame of reference to assess cultural understanding is to use the team ethnographic/novel project.

Purpose of Project

The are several overlapping purposes to the project discussed in this paper: students are to choose a text from a list (contained in Appendix A) and then work together as teams; after reading their chosen text, they analyze the culture based on cultural models (Barbour, 1999) and class readings on organizational culture and present their findings to classmates; finally a large group discussion ensues about lessons learned for leadership and critical change efforts for the ethnographic cultures as well as their own school cultures. Students demonstrate to the instructor their understanding of cultures different from their own, their use of the ethnographic method, and their understanding of critical theory and the leadership paradoxes imbedded in critical theory.

Critical Theory

Critical theory is based upon the scholarship of a group of German philosophers, who worked between World Wars I and II. According to this Frankfurt School of thought, social theorists and analysts, from any discipline, should not only record information, but play a significant role in changing the world by detecting existing social problems and promoting social transformation (Barbour, 2006a).

The Frankfurt School of philosophers, including Adorno and Horkmeimer (1947), Marcuse (1964), and Habermas (1984), as well as anthropologist Bourdieu (1965, 1977), opposed closed philosophical systems, rejected rationalism or the positivist understanding of research (although not scientific analysis as a whole), and embraced modernism and the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Husserl. Their contention was that the important questions of social processes and institutions are never asked, for example, do social processes and institutions originate in the activity of real human subjects, and if so, how? While offering a critique of other social theories, critical theorists provide tools for seeing anew ideas or processes taken for granted. Oppositional (dialectical) thinking is one of the keys for gaining such insight.

According to Barbour (2006a), critical theorists believe that oppositional contradictions imposed by varieties of social organizations often abuse formal rationality in order to deny power to classes of citizens. Since social reality is historically constituted, produced and reproduced by people, critical theorists recognize that the ability to change social and economic circumstances is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination. A chief hope of critical theorists, therefore, is that the explanation of the causes of oppression would result in practical efforts to eliminate that oppression. Thus, from the Frankfurt School, scholars in various social sciences have begun to pay attention to race, class, and gender issues that include issues of power and action research.

Leadership Paradoxes

According to Griffiths (1995), "... organizations and organizational behavior are complex phenomena and should be studied from a number of points of view. The most advantageous way of doing this is by using a number of theoretical approaches" (p.300). The paradoxes that develop from a critical approach to leadership study stem, in part, from critical theorists Freire (1970, 1971) and Schor (1986).

Authority and empowerment. Leaders with a critical perspective are encouraged to empower their constituencies, and to abandon the traditional notion of authoritarian leadership. Gore (1993) suggests it is difficult to offer nurturance and support when one comes from an authoritarian tradition. She adds that linking authority with power contradicts with "empowerer." When traditionalists continue to direct, they do little to model thinking practices; empowerment contains an agent of empowerment, leading to the paradox of the authority of the empowerer. The deeper one probes, the more complex the discussion becomes. The critical leader, to whom leaders ought to aspire, is the transformative leader, according to Gore "... the critical and active citizen" (p. 117).

Status quo and change. In order to transform individuals, "A good liberating educator," according to Freire (1971), "... must be convinced that the fundamental effort of education is to help with the liberation of people, never their domestication" (p.72). This thought challenges leaders and their constituencies "... to empower themselves for social change, to advance democracy and equality as they advance their ... knowledge" (Shor, 1993, p. 25). School leaders are faced with another paradox because administrators maintain the status quo, yet are expected to be change agents within the cultural milieu of the school and community.

Individual and community. Sarason (1990) poses the question, "How can we liberate the human mind to use its capacities in ways that are productively expressive of those capacities at the same time that they strengthen a sense of community?" (p. 1). A school leader is expected to build a community of learners; an instructor expected to develop the individual. A challenge is to grow an individual possessing a sense of community. One can liberate the mind by developing a leader who is a good thinker, whose mind, as Camus states, watches itself. Intellectual self-watchfulness is a learned ability, and learning to be self-watchful has much in common with learning to lead.

We/They Paradoxes. In order to build community, leaders must get beyond the notion of an elite group that looks to outsiders as the "other," a dilemma in schools with a dominant cultural population and leadership from that dominant group. Developing a language of inclusiveness and understanding how language can marginalize will help critical reflection.

Reflection and action. "Good managers in any setting share a similar craft--they tend to be astute observers, careful evaluators, and effective leaders" (Tishman, Perkins & Jay, 1995, p.65). One learns how to be a better thinker, in part, by practicing "thinking in someone else's shoes" and building skills of active observation and listening plus critical reflection and action.

Ethnographic Studies

Ethnography is an analytic description or reconstruction of cultural scenes and groups. Reading ethnographies helps students understand groups, interpret cultural behavior, discern patterning in the observed behavior, and understand the nature of culture itself. Discovering cultural knowledge governing behavior in social contexts, and making meaning of the cultural observations can help develop critical thinking in future leaders.

Originating in anthropology, the ethnographic endeavor contains several distinguishing criteria. Ethnographies contain phenomenological data; they are holistic and contextualized. Phenomena represent multilayered contexts, complex interrelationships among key actors, and various interpretations of the phenomena. Ethnographies are written with the understanding that data are collected and interpreted at a given point in time; life described in the ethnography is still a partial representation of the observed group. An ethnographic study, by nature, is partial and incomplete, as are statistical analyses of a group at a given point in time (Barbour, 2006b).

Critical social scientists urge ethnographers to consider issues of organizational power--use and abuse, the types of populations studied and not studied, and, for example, organizational elites and non-elites with respect to issues of leadership (Fetterman, 2000). There are several novels and ethnographic case studies one can use in coursework to provide both real and ideal settings and to help leaders begin to deal with paradoxes of leadership. There are two types of texts: ethnographic case studies that read like novels and novels that read like ethnographic case studies. (See Appendix A for a sampling of texts.) The texts were chosen because they share several characteristics (Barbour, 1994).

The studies are interesting to the graduate students and easily read. Once students begin to "observe" their cultural group, they begin to understand the group as they see the culture unfold. They begin to see their group as a viable, real subculture, not an idealized version of what a subculture looks like. When students are asked to make decisions about the cultural groups, they begin to think as future leaders of those groups. We discuss leading in terms of "we" working together for the good of the group, rather than "we versus they." Students learn to peel back the layers of a group or a situation to attempt to understand the reality. Getting beyond the surface takes time, skill, and practice, hence the assignment.

Intended Outcomes

The students need an arena in which to practice skills of observing, interviewing, listening and hearing. By reading the ethnographic studies and novels, they become focused on the concept of "cultural group." The future leaders begin to understand what is meant by culture and what one truly can discover when observing another group. By sharing with each other, students come to a greater understanding of what they have just read and learned.

Students critically reflect upon and discuss issues of meaning for the group under study. The aspiring administrators are given an opportunity to make familiar to others a culture that is "strange," a notion discussed by the anthropologist Geertz (1973). Additionally, they will transfer the skills of critical cultural understanding to their own environments to look at that which is familiar to them and make it strange in order to critically understand the culture in which they work, and the issues with which they should be dealing.

Students work in a small group with both specific and ambiguous guidelines. They receive practice in the processes of group planning, delegation of responsibilities and group decision making. They learn about the self, the other--their teammates, and the other other--the culture. Those who cannot deal with ambiguity are forced to work alongside those who dislike parameters; those who need specific directives work with amoeba-like minds who want no walls.

Unintended Outcomes: Enculturation

This instructor believes the ethnographies and novels work because of several imbedded notions. In classes for prospective leaders, instructors can model the enculturation process so that the future leaders learn about the culture, and learn how to transmit culture. Enculturation can occur in four overlapping ways. Students become acquainted with cultural "experts" or insiders by reading their cultural novels. Some students have experiences similar to those in the novels or ethnographies; others have visited the sites and add further insight to the cultures under observation. A third method of enculturation is through interaction. Enculturation is a shared, interactive experience so students work together in "communities" or teams to learn about teamwork, to share knowledge of leading, and cultural understanding of the novel group they are reading. A final method to enculturate students is accomplished through feedback. Instructors share norms and values when we provide evaluative or corrective information about classroom behavior and expectations. Feedback can be overt or explicit, for example, through overt criticism or comments. Feedback can also be tacit or implicit embedded in the norms of the class or the communities under study in the cultural novels. Students are faced with a complex web of several layers of explicit and implicit understandings. In order to be effective leaders, they must learn to understand each webbed layer and to work within those layers, as well as to change or reconnect layers as needed.


From grounding in critical theory and the use of ethnographies and cultural novels, future school leaders learn to face several leadership paradoxes. Groups within the cultural studies become the observed subcultures. Future leaders practice critical thinking, raising questions and concerns about leading the groups studied and concerns they will encounter as change agents. Finally, guided conversations that move to school sites about how to face critical issues of race, power, and equity, for example, are grounded in cultural language and understandings.

Appendix A

A Sampling of Texts to Teach Future Leaders to Think Critically about Cultures

Category I: Ethnographic studies that read like novels

Hostetler, J.A. and Huntington, G.E. (1992). Amish children: Education in the family, school, and community, 2nd ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Rosenfeld, G. (1971; 1983 reissue). "Shut those thick lips!": A study in slum school failure." Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press.

Tobin, J.J., Wu, D., and Davidson, D.H. (1989). Preschool in three cultures: Japan, China, and the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ward, M.C. (1971; 1986 reissue). Them children: A study in language learning. Prospect Heights, I11: Waveland Press.

Category II: Novels that read like ethnographic studies

Atkinson, R. (1989). The long gray line: The American journey of West Point's class of 1966. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Bissinger, H.G. (1990). Friday night lights. Reading, MA.

Conroy, P. (1994). The water is wide. New York: Bantam Books.

Kidder, T. (1989). Among schoolchildren. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Robinson, P. (1994). Snapshots from hell: The making of an MBA. New York: Warner Books.

Turow, S. (1977). One L. New York: Warner Books.

White, P. (1992). The idea factory: Learning to think at MIT. New York: Plume.


Adorno, T.W. & Horkheimer, M. (1947). Dialectic of enlightenment. Translated by J. Cumming. NY: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Barbour, J.D. (July 1994). A Novel Idea: Changing the Landscape of Administrator Preparation Through Literature and Ethnographics. Journal of School Leadership. 4(4), 366-381.

Barbour, J.D. (1999). Out of the field, into the field and back again: Understanding administrative theory development from a naturalistic perspective. In L.T. Fenwick (Ed.), The seventh yearbook of the national council of professors of educational administration: School leadership: Expanding horizons of the mind and spirit, (pp. 46-64). Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing.

Barbour, J.D. (June 2005). E pluribus unum: Cultures, subcultures, and teams at Alpha Middle School. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, Vol. 8(2), pp. 34-48 Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Barbour, J.D. (2006a). Critical Theory. In Sage Encyclopedia of Educational Leadership and Administration. Fenwick English, Editor. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Barbour, J.D. (2006b). Ethnography, Use of, Trends. In Sage Encyclopedia of

Educational Leadership and Administration. Fenwick English, Editor. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Bordieu, P. (1965). Academic discourse. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Tr. by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Capper, C.A. (Ed.) (1993). Educational administration in a pluralistic society. Albany: SUNY Press.

Dantley, M.E. (1990). The ineffectiveness of effective schools leadership: An analysis of the effective schools movement from a critical perspective. Journal of Negro Education. 59 (4): 585-98.

Donmoyer, R., Imber, M., & Scheurich, J.J. (Eds). (1995). The knowledge base in educational administration: Multiple perspectives. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Fetterman, D. (Ed.) (2000). Speaking the language of power: Communication, Collaboration and Advocacy: Translating ethnography into action. Bristol, PA: The Falmer Press.

Foster, W.P. (1986). Paradigms and promises: New approaches to educational administration. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1971). "To the Coordinator of a Culture Circle," Convergence 4(1), 61-62.

Gallimore, R. (1989). Unpackaging Cultural Effects. In H.T. Trueba, G. Spindler & L. Spindler, (Eds.), What do anthropologists have to say about dropouts? (pp. 67-77). New York: Falmer Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books.

Gore, J.M. (1993). The struggleforpedagogies. London: Routledge.

Griffiths, D.E. (1995). Theoretical pluralism in educational administration. In Robert Donmoyer, Michael Imber, and James Scheurich, (Eds.), The knowledge base in educational administration. (pp. 300-310). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action: Reason and the rationalization of society. Vol. 1, T. McCarthy (tr.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Kammen, M. (1973). People of paradox: An inquiry concerning the origins of American civilization. NY: Vintage Books.

Marcuse, H. (1964). One-dimensional man. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Sarason, S.B. (1990). The predictable failure of educational reform. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Scheurich, J.J. & Imber, M.I. (1991). Educational reforms can reproduce societal inequities: A case study. Educational Administration Quarterly. 27(3): 297-320.

Shor, Ira. (1986). Culture wars. Boston, MA: Routtledge and Keegan Paul.

Tishman, S., Perkins, D. and Jay, E. (1995). The thinking classroom: Learning and teaching in a culture of thinking. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

JoAnn Danelo Barbour, Texas Woman's University

Barbour, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Administration and Leadership
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Author:Barbour, JoAnn Danelo
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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