Education and enclosure: the lessons of historical agency

Yesterday, Brian Lamb tweeted that:

“I inexplicably find debates on CC-NC fascinating now… But I need a clearer sense on what “enclosure” means in practice, not just theory.”

The educational technology field is rife with emergent discussions of the connections between the idea of the Commons and that of enclosure, and the place of commodities or resources inside them. Thus, we see it in responses to the debates on MOOCs and open badges, in the alleged power of networks and network governance, in deterministic work that alleges the emancipatory potential of technology in-and-beyond the classroom, and in the relationships between habitus and hegemony that are revealed in work on the nature of soft/hard power and social media. The ideas of enclosure and Commons in educational discourse tend to reveal a set of deeper, more ideological positions that pivot around either emancipation, consent and freedom as witnessed in the open nature of the Commons, or the coercive, commercially-focused and closed-off world of enclosed, proprietary software and environments. This is a deeply political terrain.

I have previously written about the metaphor of the Commons and its relationship to enclosure as it is revealed through educational technology, taking on-board Nick Dyer-Witheford’s communist critique of the crisis of capital being reinforced through ‘a circulation of the Commons’ in which mass intellectuality or alternative forms of value can be developed and exchanged against the profit motive. Here the ideas of free and commoditisation are important. However, I have also written about the impact of such circulations and value-forms on individuals, in particular using the visitor/resident model as a pivot for an understanding of the complex relationships between the individual, specific (virtual/real) space, and technology. The interplay between the individual and the spaces in which she exists reflects the dominant forms/structures of the social relationships of the time. I picked this up in reflecting on the realities of eighteenth-century political history and how they might help us to understand the idea of a technological Commons.  In addressing the “practice” of actually existing enclosure in eighteenth-century politics, I wanted to address three questions that seem pertinent to education and technology.

  1. Against the neoliberal constraint on what can legitimately be fought for, how do we tell stories that reclaim our common history and our social relationships? How do we protect the richness of the technological ecosystems that help us to do this work?
  2. In the rush for technology-as-progress, can we identify how that progress is shaped in our stories of struggle? How do we recognise struggle in our use of technology?
  3. How do we struggle-in-common against the enclosure of our networked public spaces? How do we develop a politics of digital literacy? How do we develop a political digital literacy?

This idea of stories of struggles over the form and content of our social relationships is then important both historically and in terms of understanding how and why technology in education is co-opted. In this I was and still am attempting to reconnect my earliest research on property, the common and political power in Augustan Yorkshire, electoral mechanics, and profiling actual voters, to the idea of the Commons and enclosure in education. What do the actual historical struggles over the Commons and enclosure tell us about how we might view autonomy and agency in the present? Revisiting these historical struggles helps me to identify struggles-in-common over access to resources, be that physical land/cultural rights or immaterial spaces/rights held privately or in common.

In addressing Brian’s point about the actual practices and structures that are related to resources, the first question I posed above made me think less about enclosure and more about the complexities of individual agency and the structures that bind/coerce it or that enable it through consent. In terms of the use of technology in education I am forced to consider how we might uncover: what agency might actually confer on an individual or association or network; the structures of social relationships or the rules that bind individuals as agents; and the co-option or subversion of available techniques and technologies. By contrasting the structural critiques of enclosure/Commons with the realities of actually existing political action, it might be able to work through what it means to apply a CC-NC license, or to engage in a MOOC, or to create an open badge, or to scale-up learning analytics, or to build a personal learning network, or whatever. The purpose of this is to signal some mechanisms through which those engaged in curriculum innovation or educational technology might begin to re-frame how they might work practically with the ideas of enclosure/Commons, as they interact with the reality of personal and political agency, using one historical interpretation as a means.

So I just want to make five points about understanding historical practices as they actually existed, in relation to individual agency inside the structures of the Commons/enclosures. N.B. a useful historical starting point is E.P. Thompson’s Customs in Common, and Neeson’s excellent book on Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820.

FIRST: property and power in the real/virtual spaces inside which we actually operate.

Inside early modern capitalism landholding gave power, just as it does under late-modern capitalism. In the eighteenth century it was a mark of status, and the right to vote was generally based on land-as-property. The over-riding view of those men who voted for county or shire MPs has been that they voted by right of forty shillings worth of land held in fee simple, after taxes and local charges were accounted for, but that leases for lives, rent-charges, mortgages and annuities, and certain offices like clerical benefices were also a means of enfranchisement. These men were viewed as the bedrock of the county community precisely because of the eighteenth-century elevation of property to a sublime position within society. A share in the land of the county would show a higher political consciousness and entail a recognition of the importance of property and liberty. However, recent investigations have shown that one cannot make assumptions about who the voters were, or the nature of their right to vote. For a fuller understanding of the basis of political action in the early eighteenth century, there is a need to reconstruct the lives of individuals and communities. One might say the same about networks, the Commons and enclosure in educational spaces. The fundamental issue is about how one can develop an understanding of deeper, socio-political structures that inform our debates over agency, participation, association and motivation in education. What presuppositions about property and liberty are folded into our assumptions about MOOCs, networked Commons or proprietary software?

SECOND: mobility and motivation.

One of the problems with analysing the structures of and relationships between Commons/enclosure and agency relates to the geography of specific spaces. In analysing historical behaviours, there is a need to implement methodologies that integrate multiple, nominal data-sources, so that the relationships between the static and mobile members of a population can be addressed. Historically, in looking at the Commons there has been a tendency to introduce a bias in favour of those who were relatively immobile and whose behaviour it has therefore been easier to trace. This also creates a tendency to look at agency as emerging from a particular place or its immediate hinterland, and this ignores the possibility of a more divergent set of influences on an individual and her actions in enclosed or common spaces. The same may be true of educational networks or Commons or enclosures, and the spaces from which mass intellectuality might emerge. The complexities of landholding and mobility highlight the parameters of our knowing about power and social capital. The more one knows and comes to understand about individuals in the past, the less confidence one can have in generalisations based upon aggregate analyses of behaviour. Just because both John and Jane Doe act in a specific way, does not mean that their underlying motivations and agency are the same. Context-situated approaches indicate the worth of longitudinal studies, which highlight the complexities of peoples’ lives and how we might take a more holistic approach to understanding behaviours that are more nuanced.

THIRD: the complexity of space and time, and the depth of social relationships.

Divergent socio-economic influences were important in analysing political action in the eighteenth century because an individual voter might own freehold land against which he voted, but he might also be a tenant of an individual or a manorial court, or a local corporation. Eighteenth century tenures were often mixed and taken up from several sources, usually in order to create a larger, more unified block of land that itself gave a large measure of political autonomy. How individuals operated in specific spaces, and then accrued their social/economic capital into a measure of political power was/is subject to no simple, deterministic rules about the Commons or networks. The primary sources for understanding eighteenth century voting behaviour were poll books or canvass sources that could be linked. However, these still remain relatively skeletal, containing few nominal data. Only by locating specific voters in time and space can the electoral historian move beyond essentially unhelpful interpretations based on aggregate analyses. This second process addresses these issues by forging a methodology which can help examine politics at a local level. The historian needs to be able to recreate particular communities, to divine the types of forces which were impacting upon the electorate. Many voters were ductile and dependent, factors brought into sharper focus by the politics of their locale. However, the fact that such distinct contexts existed inside regions indicates the complexity of pressures which impacted upon the electorate. In many areas local elites were not a separate group, they were tied into a deeper nexus of community obligation. The key to our understanding of the relationships between structural forms and individuals in any context lies in reconstructing the depth of such ties.

FOURTH: the relationships between Common/enclosed space and time.

The relationships between common land, which was managed under specific rules for specific communities and the rights over which were defended earnestly, and between freehold land, or leasehold land that was rented, were complex. This also then suggests that we might wish to look at the inter-relationships between the networked Commons and enclosed or proprietary software/networks, and institutional networks, in a more nuanced way. Historically, the proximity of freehold land to major townships stimulated a demand for such land in those areas, as a sink for capital. Whether the rents and revenue produced by landownership helped to alleviate the problems of trade/economic fluctuations is unclear. However, for instance in the textile towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire, many clothiers saw the ownership of freehold land as important, and this indicates that these were independent men of relatively substantial means. One might ask then how is social capital or power developed and applied differentially inside and across open or closed networks, and who has the power to define how open or enclosed those networks and their resources (thinking of CC-NC) might become?

FIFTH: on power and autonomy.

Many of the voters in Hanoverian elections either owned, rented, and/or held-in-common substantial assemblages of land. Moreover, if any voters rented they were often wealthy and influential enough to act independently of their landlord. Very few men were compelled to poll as their landlords did. That so many owned their land, and that landownership was so fractured, made political control awkward. It simply was not possible for local landowners to brow-beat such men to the polls. This is not to say that some voters were not compliant out of ideological or socio-economic need. There is also a point to be made about the fact that politics was nothing without a clash of interests from those with status over political capital. However, the relationship between the politicians and a large subset of the electorate was fragile and conditional. Once the politicians drew the battle lines they were involved in a wider nexus of responsibilities. With this in mind it is hardly surprising that politicians had to expend so much energy and money to gain an election. A lack of awareness about the rights of the electors and local customs could hamstring a campaign just as it can our view of them. It was these local socio-economic and socio-cultural factors that emancipated individual voting communities, and which moderated the voters’ choices at the polls. In making sense of the Commons/enclosure inside education, it may be that local socio-economies and local customs/social relationships need to be related to the political structures/technologies that coerce, co-opt or give consent to specific forms of action.

Brian’s comment that “I inexplicably find debates on CC-NC fascinating now… But I need a clearer sense on what “enclosure” means in practice, not just theory”, is important then for two reasons. First, the content of our educational practices (CC-NC or whatever) reveals the complex structures of coercion and consent inside which we ask our students and staff to operate. Second, understanding other stories of coercion and consent, located inside-and-against the dichotomy of Commons/enclosure might offer us alternative ways to crack and push-back against the increasing privatisation of education.

One Response to Education and enclosure: the lessons of historical agency

  1. Pingback: on mutual values and open co-operativism | Richard Hall's Space

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