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Epistemic violence: Conceptualizations of learning for subjugation,
marginalization, and compliance
Jonan Phillip Donaldson
Donaldson, J. P. (2020). Epistemic violence: Conceptualizations of learning for subjugation,
marginalization, and compliance. Paper presented at the American Educational Research
Association Annual Meeting, April 17 – 21, 2020, San Francisco, California.
Abstract: What we think impacts what we do, and how we conceptualize learning impacts
how we go about the work of teaching and learning. This study was an empirical investigation
of conceptualizations of learning among learning scientists and STEM educators, and how
their conceptualizations impact their practices. This study found that the Transfer/Acquisition
conceptualization of learning is a form of epistemic violence which contains mechanisms for
subjugation, marginalization, and compliance. The Construction/Becoming conceptualization
is compatible with critical pedagogy and can be a powerful starting point, but critical
educators must engage learners in actively and purposefully interrogating and disrupting the
What we think impacts what we do, and how we conceptualize learning impacts how we go
about the work of teaching and learning. This paper is an empirical investigation of
conceptualizations of learning among learning scientists and STEM educators, and how their
conceptualizations impact their practices. Critical analysis investigated the structural impacts
these conceptualizations and practices have on learners’ development of critical
consciousness, empowerment, and authority as agents of change for social justice.
Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy
Critical theories suggest that conceptualizations of learning are inextricably related to
practices in teaching and learning (Freire, 1970/2005; Kincheloe, 2003). Paulo Freire
(1970/2005) developed a theoretical framework to investigate the ways in which the
“banking model” of education functions as a mechanism of oppression and reproducing
systems of oppression. Subsequent work on this framework has led to a critical theory of
teaching and learning known as critical pedagogy (Apple, 2014; Giroux, 2001, 2013; Sandlin
& McLaren, 2010). Critical pedagogy positions learners as agents of social change and
activists for social justice (Apple, 2014; Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016) and places emphasis on
helping learners develop the ability to investigate the lived experiences and unique
perspectives of those who are oppressed and marginalized (Giroux, 2013; Kincheloe &
Steinberg, 1998). Empowered and civically active learners understand themselves and their
learning contexts as sites of agency, autonomy, and authority (Freire, 1970/2005, 2009;
Giroux, 2010). This can only arise when they engage in critical analysis of systems of power,
particularly regarding questions about who exercises the power to create, curate, and certify
knowledge and “truth” (Apple, 2014; Giroux, 2013).
Conceptualizations of Learning
Learning is often seen as the acquisition of commodities as bits of knowledge (Goatly, 2007;
Labaree, 1997). Such a conceptualization of learning can be traced back to a positivist
paradigm and an objectivist/empiricist worldview (Kincheloe, Steinberg, & Tippins, 1999).
The logic of the “common sense” conceptualization of learning as commodity acquisition is
entrenched in our society (Hager & Hodkinson, 2009). On the other hand, the construction
metaphor of learning has origins in the work of Piaget who saw learning as the construction
of meaning within learners’ individual minds (Kincheloe et al., 1999). Vygotsky and Bruner
added complex social and contextual dimensions to the construction metaphor of learning
Metaphors are at the core of conceptualizations from which actions and practices
emerge (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). Our conceptualizations of learning are so deeply rooted in
metaphor that we mistake the metaphor for the “reality” or “truth” regarding learning: “The
people who get to impose their metaphors on the culture get to define what we consider to be
true—absolutely and objectively true” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 160).
This study used the Iceberg Framework for Conceptualization Analysis (Donaldson,
2019) as the theoretical and methodological framework in which conceptualizations are
complex dynamic systems with interdependent elements including analogies, metaphors,
experiences, conceptual metaphors, conceptual stories, worldviews, and paradigms.
Conceptual metaphors are clusters of many surface metaphors and analogies. Conceptual
stories are clusters of experiences and analogies. Worldviews are sets of epistemic and
ontological stances regarding the nature of knowledge and reality in relation to social
structures and relationships. Paradigms are sets of epistemic and ontological stances within
the frame of a community and its practices. Emergent from the interactions between elements
within the complex system are a set of potentials (action potentials, linguistic potentials,
perceptual potentials, and valuation potentials) which lead to practices, use of terminology,
cognitive filtering, and value statements and enactments.
This study involved in-depth semi-structured interviews with influential learning scientists
(n=10) and professors in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields (n=10)
eliciting participants’ experiences, practices, and beliefs regarding the nature of learning, the
purpose of education, and high-impact practices. The transcripts were coded for metaphors
and non-metaphorical characterizations of learning, teaching, mind, knowledge, and
education as well as value statements, purposes of education, practices endorsed, and
practices condemned resulting in 581 codes and 3,837 coded segments. Metaphor co-
occurrence frequency tables were created and network analysis (Borgatti, 2002; Borgatti,
Everett, & Freeman, 2002) was used to identify and visualize clusters of surface metaphors.
Conceptual metaphor analysis (Cameron & Maslen, 2010; Deignan & Semino, 2010) was
used to describe the underlying conceptual metaphors. The same process was used to analyze
non-metaphorical characterizations, value statements, and statements regarding the purposes
of education and then describe the underlying conceptual stories, as well as to describe
worldviews and paradigms. Relationships between conceptual metaphors, conceptual stories,
worldviews, and paradigms were then analyzed to describe the conceptualizations of
Two conceptualizations of learning were found. Figure 1 shows the complete network map
and the differentiation between two conceptualizations of learning. The STEM Professors
group conceptualized learning Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization of learning (96.7%).
The Learning Scientists group conceptualized learning primarily through the
Construction/Becoming conceptualization of learning (95.7%), as indicated in interactions
between the elements in this complex system including a Construction, Becoming, and
Apprenticeship conceptual metaphor, a Situated Becoming conceptual story, an
Interpretivist/Constructivist paradigm, and a Collaborative/Cooperative worldview. See Table
1 for details.
The elements within each conceptualization of learning were intricately connected
(see Table 2). In the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization, the Acquisition and Object
Manipulation conceptual metaphor was related to the Object Possession conceptual story.
These were related to the Positivist/Post-Positivist paradigm and Individualist/Competition
worldview. In the Construction/Becoming conceptualization the elements were the
Construction, Becoming, and Apprenticeship conceptual metaphor, a Situated Becoming
conceptual story, an Interpretivist/Constructivist paradigm, and a Collaborative/Cooperative
The Transfer/Acquisition Conceptualization
Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization of learning (see Figure 2) was related to practices in
teaching and learning including lectures as primary modality, exams, grading, textbooks,
teacher-directed problem solving, homework, and lecture interaction technologies such as
clickers. Also emergent was communication about teaching and learning using terms such as
transfer, acquisition, transmission, assessment, and explaining. Value statements in this group
included logic and reasoning ability, building a foundation of basic knowledge, and
The Construction/Becoming Conceptualization
The Construction/Becoming conceptualization (see Figure 3) leads to practices such as
interest-based learning, learner agency, collaboration, making or building things, real-world
impact work, perspective taking/framing, self-evaluation, identity exploration, and
community of practice building. Other emergent phenomena included communicating about
teaching and learning using terms related to construction of meaning, situated learning,
becoming, and apprenticeship as well as value statements related to respecting and honoring
learners, learners engaging in authentic work, and democratic engagement.
Disrupting, Leveraging, and Transforming Conceptualizations of Learning
The Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization assumes that teachers, schools, districts, etc. have
the authority to make decisions regarding what students will learn, how they will learn it, and
how they will be assessed. Only knowledge which is observable, measurable, and the result
of scientific methods is authorized. All other knowledge and ways of knowing are dismissed.
The gatekeepers and certifiers of this knowledge are positioned in society, and their
positionality imbues the knowledge they produce and curate with positionality. Those
without authoritative positions are seen—and come to see themselves—as having inferior
knowledge claims in relation to authoritative sources such as teachers, textbooks, and experts
Practices in which learners share agency with teachers or are put in positions of
primary agency are incompatible with the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization of learning.
When they are introduced into learning environments dominated by the Transfer/Acquisition
conceptualization, they can only be applied in forms superficially resembling the intended
practices. If the positivist position remains intact, learners can never come to see themselves
as having the authority and agency to construct knowledge or to problematize knowledge
claims. Educators in the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization define critical thinking as the
analysis of knowledge claims based on logic, rational thinking, accumulating evidence, and
constructing arguments to accept or reject the knowledge claim. However, in critical
pedagogy critical thinking is the analysis of knowledge claims through problematizing
assumptions, analyzing power, questioning authority, and investigating the interactions
between the many other elements in the complex system related to that knowledge claim.
Furthermore, the authority structures emergent from the Transfer/Acquisition
conceptualization determine who has the authority to construct or question knowledge, and
learners who exercise the authority to problematize knowledge and authority tend to be
silenced or marginalized.
Learning in the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization is primarily about explaining
reality and functioning effectively in relation to reality. Physical realities are generally not
subject to change, and social realities can only be changed by those in power. Critical
pedagogy makes transformation of realities the responsibility of learners and teachers and
insists that all learning—no matter the subject—involve reflection and action through which
learners have an immediate impact on the world around them. The primary focus is
investigation, analysis, and design work to alleviate the suffering of the most oppressed and
marginalized people within the learners’ sphere of influence. This often involves work to
disrupt or destroy systems of oppression. Such transformation of realities is in direct
opposition to the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization of learning.
In the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization of learning the learners are seen as
lacking the knowledge and skills that will be given them by the teachers, content materials,
and educational institutions. Rigid hierarchies of power are emergent from this
conceptualization and become institutionalized in society as common sense—the way things
are naturally ordered. Practices emergent from this conceptualization around measuring and
assessing learning further enforce the power structures in which learners have little or no
agency. Critical pedagogy practices which disrupt the norms of practice in the
Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization are not only seen as a waste of time because they do
nothing to improve test scores, they are sometimes seen as a threat to the stability of existing
In the Construction/Becoming conceptualization, not only do learners have the
authority to make decisions regarding what they will learn and how they will go about
learning, learners are the locus of knowledge creation and transformation. Students are
expected to create their own meanings and shape their own learning experiences. However,
because in the current socio-historical moment the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization of
learning is dominant and entrenched, the Construction/Becoming conceptualization may not
be inherently disruptive to the dominant conceptualization. Therefore, critical pedagogy
requires not only that elements of the Construction/Becoming conceptualization be made
explicit, but also that elements of the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization be intentionally
analyzed, interrogated, and problematized.
In the Construction/Becoming conceptualization of learning there is an emphasis on
real-world impact work, engaging in authentic practices of a community of practice,
immediate relevance of learning, and interest-based learning. Although these features align
with critical pedagogy, they do not necessarily lead to critical reflection and action on the
part of learners to transform realities. Many of the activities in this conceptualization may
engage learners in work which improves their communities or society, but the focus is often
not on alleviating the suffering of others and rarely on destroying systems of oppression. This
conceptualization is compatible with critical pedagogy, but the design of learning
environments for critical pedagogy requires going beyond the practices emergent in this
conceptualization to intentionally engage learners in social justice work through the praxis of
critical reflection and action upon their worlds.
The alignment between the Construction/Becoming conceptualization of learning and
critical pedagogy in situating learners in positions of agency is clear. This conceptualization
sees practices such as lectures, exams, and textbooks as minimally effective but not as
mechanisms of oppression to be disrupted. Therefore, designers for critical pedagogy in
learning environments grounded in this conceptualization must be intentional in design
moves to make explicit the nature and purpose of learner agency.
Bourdieu described education as symbolic violence (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1970/1990). This
study found that the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization of learning is a form of epistemic
violence which contains mechanisms for subjugation, marginalization, and compliance. The
Construction/Becoming conceptualization is compatible with critical pedagogy and can be a
powerful starting point, but critical educators must engage learners in actively and
purposefully interrogating and disrupting the Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization.
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Tables and Figures
Figure 1: Complete network map of conceptualizations of learning
Table 1: Percentage of Coded Segments by Case and Coding Category
Acquisition and Object Manipulation
Construction, Becoming, and
Table 2: Worldview, Paradigm, Conceptual Story, and Conceptual Metaphor Correlations
Situated Becoming Conceptual
Object Possession Conceptual
Construction, Becoming, and
Acquisition and Object
p-value: 1-tailed; Valid cases: 20; Missing cases: 0 (0.0%)
Figure 2: The Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization of learning
Figure 3: The Construction/Becoming conceptualization of learning