Hegemony – The elephant in the room of social process

In a tweet on May 5th 2011, Vickel said, “Hegemony has no place in a social process”. That made me reflect on social process in education in my experience.

Hegemony = “influence or authority over others”. (“Hegemony,” 2011)

Part of the Web 2.0 enthusiasm is based on the ideal that everyone can feel free to share, and it removes the traditional hierarchies. For example, Skiba (2008, p. 112) in a review of the use of Twitter in nursing education stated, “Students could immediately reflect upon their experiences and share them with others in the class and with the instructor.” However, people may not feel as free to share due to the social relations between social participants. For example, Reed (2005, pp. 232-233) mentions a number of examples of people modifying blogs or taking longer to post in them in the first place as a result of the visitors to their blogs.

The focus on the joy of sharing in technology mediated social environments does not acknowledge the numerous and inherent power imbalance that exists in educational contexts, for example between students and students, and students and instructors within a class. The elephant shaped word cloud lists many others. For example, assessment is imposed on many social processes in education and this directs students in ways that they may have little choice in. A common question students ask me about their assignment is “What does the teacher want?” not “What do I want?” Often a teacher will ask a class a question, but not actually give them enough time to think about it and answer.

There is pressure to get the ‘right’ answers – those held by the teacher. Many students I have talked with during my tertiary educational experiences knew that despite being offered intellectual freedom, that unless they aligned their eureka moments to the interests of the teacher, they could kiss their A goodbye! It was never spoken about openly in class, but it was always the elephant in the room.

It is harder to see this as a teacher. The other day when I was offering students the chance to look at a new online tool, they readily agreed. I felt like there had been full negotiation. I found out later that one of them was not really interested and did not see the use of it. I realised students are going to agree with my suggestions because it is very difficult to say no to someone in a higher position. I thought I was offering a real choice, and I was not even their teacher! The strange thing is that I am so aware of it as a student, and yet still often blind to it as an instructor.

I think many of the social processes that include power relations in learning contexts do not fade out because they are happening in an online environment. Power is embedded in the language we use.

As educators we have to be careful not to blind ourselves to our own influence and the existing influences in our contexts. Perhaps to increase our ability to see the elephant it would be useful to ask students what makes them feel less constrained by power, but would they feel free to answer? A colleague of mine commented on the achievement of social process free of hegemony between people of different positions, but it took years. I think social process can be free of hegemony eventually, but it takes work to get it there.


Hegemony.  (2011). Merriam-Webster. Retrieved May 18, 2011, from: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hegemony

Reed, A. (2005). My blog is me: Texts and persons in the UK online journal culture (and anthropology). Ethnos, 70(2), 220-42. doi: 10.1080/00141840500141311

Skiba, D. J. (2008). Nursing education 2.0: Twitter and tweets. Nursing Education Perspectives, 29(2), 110-112.


About kayhammond68

Academic Development Lecturer. Staff to one spoiled cat.
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5 Responses to Hegemony – The elephant in the room of social process

  1. townsendlm says:

    This is so true Kay, and I think at the moment, being the students we can see this first hand. How as the facilitator do we go about changing this thought process, when we know what the students have to submit, but there are so many ways of doing so?…

    • kayhammond68 says:

      Maybe a good start would be really getting to know the students and offering real choices. How much room for negotiation is in our lesson plans?

      A real obvious power imbalance is the question asked by the teacher and then not enough time given to answer it. I think we all fall into that one from time to time. I have found often that if I wait until the verge of awkward silence after an invitation for a question, a question will come. Or I actively ask for them and say how much I value them for what they teach me.

      Maybe someone should write a ‘test your elephant’ quiz. One question could be – are your best sessions …
      a) the ones that went to your plan
      b) the ones where you were so engaged that the boundary between teacher and student seemed to disappear?

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  3. Mike O'Dwyer says:

    I was discussing this same topic with a friend of mine who said that it was’t until his third year at university till he cottoned onto how to achieve good marks – by replacing his views with those of his lecturers, AKA ‘aligned their eureka moments to the interests of the teacher’.

    I just wonder if using these Web2.0 applications would improve this situation? Your paragraph about using a new online tool illustrates the difficulty you can have in a face-to-face situation. In a purely online environment this would be a nightmare to identify and remedy.

    I’m not sure there will be complete freedom from hegemony. For me it still has its place especially at the start of a course or activity however part of the structure would be a managed transition away from hegemony. It should be the goal of the lecturer or instructor to gradually take a back seat to the lesson once engagement has been reached.

    • kayhammond68 says:

      I have wondered whether a back seat or an equal seat is best. When I see teachers take a back seat, I feel they are taking the easy way out, especially when nobody else has the information / experience you seek. It’s a fine balance though of knowing when to let others step in and when that is not going to happen and stepping in before it becomes a negative experience. I’d love to hear some skilled teacher experiences on that one.

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