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Forthcoming in Feb 2001 Journal of Continuing Education (Australia)
Grif Foley (1999).  Learning in Social Action: A Contribution to Understanding Informal Education, London: Zed Books.  ISBN: 1 85649 684 8.  163 pages.

Rachel Gorman,
Department of Adult Education
Community Development and Counselling Psychology
Ontario Institute of Studies in Education
252 Bloor Street West

Foley’s goal in Learning and Social Action is to document the ways in which people learn informally through social action, and to “attempt to understand and portray the connections between learning and struggle” (p.1).  Foley advocates a broader understanding of education and learning, which he illustrates by describing his family spending the evening together talking about workplace politics, cooking, and gardening.  From the beginning, he includes notions of incidental, tacit and embedded learning, regardless of whether people recognize it as learning at the time.  Two of Foley’s case studies- a campaign to preserve the Terania Creek rainforest in Australia, and women’s groups in neighbourhood centres in an Australian city- focus on learning that is tacit or implicit, and that may only be recognized by the respondents much later, often during the interview process.  Out of this all-inclusive understanding of learning, Foley recognizes that everyday experiences reproduce status quo ways of thinking and acting, but these same experiences may produce “recognitions which enable people to critique and challenge the existing order” (p.4).

Foley adopts Sonia Alvarez’s (1998) framework for understanding learning in struggle.  The framework identifies political economy, micro-politics, ideologies, and discursive practices as the elements to consider in order to understand the connection between learning and struggle at each site.  Foley understands ‘ideology’ in terms of Gramsci’s idea of hegemony, and ‘discourse’ as it is theorized by Foucault.  Foley offers three case studies to “demonstrate how central the struggle between insurgent and dominant discourses is to emancipatory learning in social action” (p.26).  They are: a group of women trying to keep a gynecological clinic open in the US in 1977, a Philadelphia coalition fighting to have a new high school built in 1979, and striking clerical workers in the late 1970s.  Foley explores concepts of contestation and critical learning starting from the assumption that “contradiction and conflict are embedded in social life” (p.49).  Foley incorporates Mechthild Hart’s work (eg: 1992) on consciousness-raising as emancipatory learning, and cites Hart’s enabling conditions for consciousness-raising: similar social positions and assumptions of participants, a structure of equality, and motivation, time, and theoretical distance for reflection (p.50).

Foley devotes Chapter 5 to a theoretical piece on adult education and capitalist reorganization, describing in detail how the ‘restructuring myth’ informs conventional theory and practice of adult education.  Foley uses a case study of workplace change in a coal mine to explore how “workers political learning is determined by their place in the capitalist mode of production” (p.82).  This broader political economic analysis paves the way for a review of Sonia Alvarez’s 1990 study of Brazilian women’s organizations from 1964-1989.  This Chapter offers the most structuralist analysis in the book, although Foley adopts Alvarez’s framework that uses ‘micro-politics’ and ‘discursive practices’ for phenomena that could be described as macro-political or ideological, such as: male domination in Church and Left organizations, the 1974 political liberalization of Brazil, liberation theology, and international feminism.  Foley concludes that oppositional discourses and organizations created a space for critical learning in which the learner is moved beyond her current understanding, and emancipatory learning which generates emancipatory action (p.105).

Foley’s final case study uses his own research on political education in the Zimbabwe liberation struggle to contemplate the role of education and learning in the process of building “a democratic and socialist politics beyond the local level” (p.109).  The education Foley describes in this section is, as in the Brazil study, mostly non-formal learning within political movements.  Former liberation fighters recall their own communist training in Cuba, China and the USSR, and reevaluate the mass political education projects in Zimbabwe during the later stages of the liberation struggle.  Foley concludes that the mass education “did not give the peasantry attitudes and skills that would enable them to participate in transforming the unequal and oppressive society that was Zimbabwe’s inheritance at independence” (p.127).

In his conclusion, Foley contrasts his framework of contestation and class struggle with mainstream adult education theory.  Foley includes a critique of Michael Welton’s focus on the oppressive state without a radical critique of capitalism, and John Holford’s focus on the adult educator as an intellectual leader, rather than on collective critical learning.  Foley warns against conceptualizing adult education as a discursive practice, which diverts attention from the roles that adult education plays: both its instrumentalist, ‘human resource’ role in global capitalism, and its emancipatory role in social action.

A great strength of the book is that Foley takes a very broad perspective of social action.  His approach goes against the tendency of adult education theorists to exclude socialist struggle in favour of a focus on the ‘New Social Movements.’  Foley’s theoretical approach is a Marxism that is “reflexive and empirical” (p.12) and because his methodology begins with real people’s experiences, the race, class and gender dimensions of each site are allowed to surface.  This Marxist approach to informal learning is very valuable, given the way that learning is increasingly commodified and compartmentalized in the global capitalist economy.  Informal learning is not a topic that can be written about neutrally- and Foley shows how individualized, depoliticized adult education theory and practice play an important role in capitalist reorganization, through constructs like human capital theory and competency training (p. 74).  Foley’s book adds another voice to the call for an adult education theory and practice based on a radical critique of capitalism.

Foley’s highly readable, interview-based case studies “give voice to the previously unheard” (p.12), and the placement of the literature review at the end helps to keep the work grounded.  Foley succeeds in describing informal learning in a broad range of social action sites, and in so doing makes a significant contribution to this area of study.  However, the book is mostly descriptive, and draws only the most general links between the armed socialist liberation struggle, unionized workers, environmentalists, neighbourhood groups, and the feminist movement.  Beyond recognizing that learning is contested and complex, the work does not offer a way for us to understand the connections between learning and struggle.  Rather than approaching a learning experience as an indistinguishable whole in which some learning is critical and some reproduces the status quo, it might be useful to look at the disjunctures and contradictions in the political consciousness of various groups.  Thinking about circumstances in which critical learning stops or regresses can shed light for the reader on what makes emancipatory learning and action possible (Ollman, 1993).

Foley notes that “[a] vital analytical task for ‘radical’ adult educators is to sift the recognition from the reproduction” (74).  Throughout the book, Foley notes that there is a complex relationship between learning that reinforces the status quo, and learning that challenges it, but he misses many opportunities to distinguish one from the other.  After his introductory passage describing informal learning at a family gathering, Foley does not distinguish between a mine worker’s critique of management practices, and two women sharing a recipe for cake.  This account of informal learning shows that it is a highly gendered process, and indicates that there is a dialectic between what things are learned, and the time and space (physical and intellectual) available to the learner.  The male mine worker in the account has retreated to a safe place to reflect on his work experiences, while the women in the story are still ‘at work’- they are not free for critical reflection on their own workday, instead they are learning to make cake.  As adult education theory emerges from the undifferentiated mass that is socialization, tacit learning, incidental informal learning, intentional informal learning, and political consciousness raising, it is crucial that we keep a materialist understanding of how constructs of gender, race, ability and sexual orientation play out in people’s daily lives.

While Foley has kept people’s stories and lives sharply in focus, he is applying a framework that gives too much weight to discourse, and confuses political economy with ‘micro-politics’.  Foley uses discourse as the framework to understand cases in which respondents were explicit about how gender, race, and sexual orientation were dimensions of the struggle.  Although the struggles are clearly about women up against the state, or women in labour disputes, Foley’s theoretical analysis dwells on how language is deployed between the activists and the power structures they encounter.  At the same time, he chooses a political economy framework for male mine workers, even though a flash point of their dispute with management is dismissive and patronizing language.  The overarching, endemic, and deadly nature of race, class, gender and ability constructs are glossed over, individualized, and diminished when they are understood through a discourse framework.

Deconstructing hegemonic discourse certainly can be a learning tool in social action, and Foley successfully demonstrates how, but it is only one of several types of learning detailed in the case studies.  Foley recounts people’s stories about finding space, time and resources for projects, but these learning activities do not become a significant part of his theoretical interpretation.  In order to theorize social action and learning, we need a clear understanding of how social location guides and constrains people’s choices about social action, and the learning that is attached to it.  Starting from a feminist standpoint approach (see Hartsock, 1997) or with Hart’s parameters for consciousness raising, will help us theorize which structures allow social action learning to flourish.

Disability studies, post-colonial theory, Queer theory and feminist literature all contain descriptions of the different social barriers that differently located people face, and the different solutions that people have found in order to organize politically.   Underpinning all of that is the question of who controls the time, space and resources of the group.  In the group funded by the state?  Is it sponsored directly or indirectly by a corporation?  Are there paid social workers, educators, or union staff involved?  A theory of learning in social action must take into account  the difference in risk involved in, and credibility accrued to, the struggles of groups in different locations.  The story of middle class environmentalists occupying Terania Creek is different than the story of a First Nations community occupying Oka .

For a developed theory of informal learning in struggle, we need to integrate learning from feminist, anti-racist, and disability studies writing that describe the choices and constraints people are faced with, and how they struggle, learn and organize from these locations.  Some questions for further inquiry into learning and social action are: Who has the authority to speak for the group, and why?  Who is more at risk of police or military violence during direct action or political organizing?  Who has time, money and access to participate in public debate, and who does not?  Who has the time and space to ‘volunteer’ for the cause, and who does the invisible labour that keeps the movement going?  Answering these questions will go far in helping to untangle why so many issue-based movements emerge from, or become identified with the middle class, while radical working class or anti-poverty groups are so rarely heard.

This book will benefit adult education researchers interested in social action, union education, radical education and community development.  It will also bring a necessary breadth to those interested in informal learning, and will help shift the discussion away from the commodified work-skills discourse.  The book makes a strong case against ‘neutrality’ in adult education theory, by showing how adult education functions within capitalist reorganization.  Because it does not include a ‘how to’ organize or raise consciousness, or even a description of what factors or structures increase a community’s capacity for critical learning, the book may not be useful to activists. The book provides nothing beyond Hart’s criteria- it is rather a report of what learning has occurred in different very broadly defined social movements.  Activists may already know that learning happens in social action, or they may wonder why it is necessary to recognize such learning.  While it is often interesting to read about different sites of struggle, the book does not provide enough new theory about the connections between learning and struggle to be required reading for activists.


Ollman, B.  (1993). Dialectical Investigations, London: Routledge.

Hartsock, N. (1997). The Feminist Standpoint Revisited & Other Essays, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.


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