Theory, User Relevance and Feminist Research in Education
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Rosemary Deem,

Centre for Women's Studies, Cartmel College, Lancaster
University, Lancaster, LA1 4YL, UK
Tel 01524 594190 or 01524 65201 ext 2883, fax 01524 592914

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference,
Lancaster, September 1996


The paper explores some of the issues arising from exploring the connections and discontinuities between feminist theory, research carried out by feminists in educational settings and the potential uses (including political uses) and users of that research. It is suggested that whilst writings concerned with feminist theories are often highly abstract, sometimes inaccessibly written and also frequently detached from empirical research as well as political concerns, the relative absence or rather passive use of feminist theories in feminist research on education is also problematic. However, incorporating theory into research does not necessarily mean that the research will lose either its political impact or its potential relevance to a wide range of audiences. The paper illustrates this by using two examples of feminist research in education which are theoretically informed, have a clear political message and yet can potentially appeal to a wide range of potential users. It is also argued that feminist research in education sometimes fails to grasp or to develop positions on major issues and concerns which are important to the future shape of education and educational institutions themselves, issues on which it is important that feminists have both views and appropriate research and theorising.

Research in a changing environment

To say that theory and research are often distant from one is a familiar observation in the social sciences, since huge gulfs between theory and research are very evident across different historical periods and in different disciplinary traditions and paradigms. So it is not only feminist researchers who find themselves debating the nature of the theory/research/practice relationship and it is not just a contemporary problem.

There are, however, a number of relatively new elements in the environments in which social science research is conducted, which are shaping the context of debates about the relationship between theories, research and research-related practices and uses. These include the rise to prominence of post-modernist and post-structuralist theories, the difficulties of obtaining research funding (something which varies across disciplines but is especially acute for inter-disciplinary studies), and the pressure in many western countries for research to be user-relevant or applied rather than basic research. This final element may have risen to prominence for two important and interrelated reasons. First because as Becher and others note, science models often drive higher education policy (Becher, Henkel, & Kogan, 1994; Tapper & Salter, 1995) and there has been increasing focus in many western societies on the 'need' (although it is actually about political will and decision) for academic science to relate to industry and national and international competitiveness. Second, increased scrutiny of and reductions in, public expenditure on educational institutions and services, driven by national factors, and global economic pressures, have led to greater demands for value for money from academic research and researchers and those demands often centre on requiring immediate or rapid applicability and utilitarianism in research. . Such a model of scientific research is then applied to all academic research but may also privilege the idea that research is based on large scale data collection and the production of generalisations and rules.

In the UK, all of these features of the environment in which research is now conducted are compounded by the university funding councils' Research Assessment Exercise, whereby the research of academic subject units in each higher education institutionis regularly graded and those units funded accordingly. Such exercises pressurise academics into undertaking and publishing the kind of research which can be executed relatively quickly and which may not always engage with complex theoretical issues. Research assessment may also encourage forms of research and scholarship which fit within mainstream rather than more radical or less central paradigms of research. Although there is no overt pressure for research which is assessed to be applied research, this may be the only way in which less generously funded units can afford to undertake research, leaving blue skies research to a smaller number of better funded higher education institutions

Uses and users of research - narrow and inclusive definitions

Academics in different disciplinary traditions respond differently to these pressures. Indeed one could argue that researchers in more applied areas such as education are less affected by them than those whose main concern is theoretical advance. However, it is evident that the notion of educational research being useful or applied is a complex and contested one, as evidenced by debates about research quality (Bassey, 1995; Deem, 1996e; Deem & Troyna, 1994) It will also be suggested that concepts of users of research and user-relevance are themselves quite complex. Firstly, though governments and industries may define use as being related to immediate and instrumental purposes, the uses of research also include economic, political, cultural and social change in a much wider sense. If we view use and users in this broader context, then we cannot simply define users of research as though they were largely detached from the producers of research and located in different institutional contexts. Just as consumers of education in one context such as parents can also be producers of it in another context (eg parents may also be teachers), those who undertake research have uses for research and can therefore also be constructed as research users. Nor can we assume any kind of homogeneity amongst research users, in respect of their social locations and cultural identities, motivations and purposes and attittudes towards research. Thus there is an enormous difference in the orientation to research of, say, politicians and school teachers, even before we examine social and cultural differences within those categories.

Invoking the concept of the 'user' of research also implies that research must be both instrumental in design and immediately useful in relation to its findings. Thus theory might well be excluded from such research or its presence deliberately understated. However, not only do these assumptions rest on the narrow definition of research users rather than the wider one suggested earlier. It is also the case that immediate applicability or usefulness may not always be either possible or desirable. In order to 'know' in advance whether research will be useful, whether it is politically, instrumentally or otherwise (one of the assumptions increasingly made by funding bodies, it is necessary to have some sense of what are the likely findings. But this is the very antithesis of research.

Finally, research itself comes in many different forms; it can be constituted by the outcome of some kind of quantitative or qualitative data collection process or it may be the product of analytic thinking. Of course these are all questions which confront academic researchers in a range of disciplines. What is considered here is how they impact upon feminist researchers in the field of education.

Feminist theories, research and politics

All of the issues so far considered have a particular resonance for feminists researching in educational settings. The relationship to theory is particularly pertinent, even though as Griffiths points out, some feminist researchers in education play little or no attention to current trends in social theory at all (Griffiths, 1995b). Whilst this is undoubtedly so, it is also the case that many other feminists have been particularly attracted to new social theories; as McNay notes ' the crossover between feminist theory and poststructuralism has been particularly vibrant and productive. The poststructuralist philsosophical critique of the rational subject has resonated strongly with the feminist critique of rationality as an essentially masculine construct. Moreover, feminists have drawn extensively on the poststructuralist argument that rather than having a fixed core or essence, subjecitvity is created through language and is, therefore, an open ended, contradictory and culturally specific amalgam of different subject positions. This argument has been used in various ways by feminists - particularly socialist feminists - to criticise the tendency amongst certain radical feminists to construct women as a global sisterhood linked by invariant, universal feminine characteristics i.e. essentialism.' (McNay, 1992) p. 2. Indeed such is the attractiveness of these theories that at some international conferences it has now become common for feminist researchers to begin their papers with a ritual denunciation of previous theories before explaining the details of their own research or analysis.

How can we explain this range of attitudes to theory in feminist research in education, from pieces which pay little or no attention to theory to those which see reference to theories which are currently in vogue as a kind of entry fee? Feminist research has had to fight to justify itself in a number of different arenas, both in terms of legitimating its presence in the academy and also in order to try to gain access to research funding (Morley & Walsh, 1995). This has been resolved differently in different areas. Thus in sociology and cultural studies emphasis has often been placed on making a theoretical contribution, since it is there, rather than in the field of empirical research, that status and recognition lie. In more applied fields like education, where research in more positivist traditions has been a long standing feature, empirical research has more status but it is often a particular kind of largely atheoretical empirical research. Only in a minority of sub-fields like educational policy has theory development come to be seen as important but it has rarely been feminists who have led the way in such development.

However, as already noted, it is now more evident than three or four years ago that some feminist researchers in education have discovered contemporary social theory. For those working in education, searching for ways in which to explain the relative failure of equal opportunities policies and more radical feminist initiatives to address both the range of gender identies and gender power relations found in educational settings and the relationship between school success labour market positioning and household divisions of labour, post-modern and post-structuralist theories which purport to explain the reasons for such failures are indeed of great interest. Despite this, however, it is not on the whole feminist researchers in education who have contributed to theoretical development from the vantage point of that research itself, though there are some exceptions (Gore, 1993; Griffiths, 1995a); rather they have more frequently simply utilised post modernism and post structuralism as a kind of tool kit which is taken out when necessary but is neither extended or modified; 'what you see is what you get'.

Post-modernism and post-structuralism are not without their problems for feminists. Though they can be seen as optimistic theories they can also overwhelm with a sense of pessimism (Griffiths 1995). Many feminists have a commitment to change and political activity arising out of their research, despite Hammersley's argument that this renders their research problematic because of its lack of detachment (Hammersley, 1992), a charge which was fully refuted by Ramazanoglu and others (Ramazanoglu, 1992). Political commitment is likely to be particularly strong amongst feminst researchers in fields like education, as compared to those in some other academic areas. However, this commitment is inevitably in respect of particular social or cultural groups and has sometimes meant that theoretical concerns have had, in any case, to take second place to more practical matters. Issues of the quality of feminist research have not been the subject of much (any?) explicit debate between feminist researchers, though such debates by non-feminists about feminist work are not uncommon. However, there are hotly contested debates between feminists about the relative merits of different theoretical positions. In education such debates do not rage with the same intensity as in literature or sociology but are nevertheless significant (Griffiths, 1995b; Lather, 1991; Weiner, 1994).

There is undoubtedly a potential tension between those who are predominantly theorists and those whose main concern is the pursuit of empirical research or analysis; if the requirement to provide user-relevant research is added to this for those who seek funding and/or legitimacy for their work, then the potential conflicts for feminist educational researchers are evident, since many of the potential users (even in the political sense) of feminist research are neither feminists nor even those who are particularly sympathetic to research of any kind. Thus there may be pressure on feminist researchers to minimise their attention to theory, or to use it in a relatively superficial way, which may lead to a widening of the gap between themselves and feminists working in other academic areas.

Using theory accessibly in feminist research

Is it possible for feminist researchers in education to use contemporary social theory, not just as a mantra which is recited ritualistically at the beginning of every paper or presentation but as an integral part of their research? Furthermore, to what extent can we assume that theory is only of interest to feminist academics? Here I want to concentrate on just two examples of feminist researchers whose work has made a theoretical contribution to research on education and to feminist analysis but which research cannot be seen as theory for theory's sake. If feminist work is to be capable of appealing to a range of possible audiences, it has to be both accessible and grounded in concerns that both academic and non-academic audiences recognise as important. Whilst it might be argued by some that this is impossible if meaningful theoretical analysis is to take place, I want to argue that there are a variety of users of feminist work but that most, if not al,l of those users can engage with theoretical issues if they are carefully presented.

The first example I want to refer to is an article by Blackmore, Kenway, Willis and Rennie, based on Australian research on gender equity policies in educational settings, (Blackmore, Kenway, Willis, & Rennie, 1994), a topic which has already been extensively researched (Cunnison, 1990; Farish, McPake, Powney, & Weiner, 1995; Jayne, 1987) What makes this article different? Firstly it does not simply offer a descriptive account of an aspect of a larger piece of empirical research. Instead, it tries to interpret the research in relation to post-structuralist and cultural studies perspectives on feminism, in a way which does not involve merely bolting that theory onto research findings but instead uses theory to inform the research design as well as the interrogation of the data. Thus, for example, the intention of the article is to look at how teachers and girls in two schools 'read' and respond to gender initiatives. The article examines gender equity policies not merely from a critical stance, which might be expected but from a vantage point which makes positive suggestions about how such policies might be changed. There is also a real endeavour to engage with issues of fundamental concern to those interested in the future shape of schooling - student identities, student responses to teacher iniatives, boys' concerns as well as those of girls. Thus the article (and the wider research project) are potentially of interest notonly to feminists who want to know more about post structuralism and feminists who want to achieve changes in schooling but also non-feminists concerned with school level education. Thus, one issue tackled relates to the central importance of dealing with female/male power relations and problematising masculinities in gender reform programmes whilst another addresses possible hostile reactions to gender reform from boys and girls. 'The question therefore is how to produce policy at the macro level which provides both a useful legitimating framework informed by research and also takes into account the circuit of production, circulation and consumption which operates at the micro level of school practice ... Those concerned with producing educational change within a specific context need to be sensitive to the level of receptivity to particular discourses, working with those of greater legitimacy and currency whilst seeking to shift the discourse in more radical directions, reconstructing new situationally specific discourses which gel with the more concrete experiences of students and teachers' (p. 199).

None of the insights in the article is new in itself but their presentation in relation to a coherent theoretical perspective and the constant reference back to the actual responses of pupils and staff and the attempt to map on a sense of the organisational cultures of the two schools analysed do mark the research out from much of that already carried out in a field which might be considered unpromising material for an overtly post -structuralist approach. Furthermore, unlike many feminists using a post structuralist perspective, these writers manage not to lose sight of the social dimension in their pursuit of the cultural, so that there is an awareness of social collectivities as well as the values and beliefs of individuals. Of course, the fact that the article is in an academic book means that not all potential users will hear of it but it would be possible to transmit much of the same material in a more popular form. Furthermore, feminists educational researchers and teachers have a responsibility to transmit such research findings to a wider audience than is reached via academic publications.

The second example is very different in focus, though it trades on somewhat similar theoretical preconceptions about post-structuralism. This is a paper by Bensimon, which provides an original, refreshing and feminist critique and reading of doctrines of total quality management (TQM) in organisations and its application to higher education in periods od funding and other crises (Bensimon, 1995).

Though other feminists have drawn attention to the extent to which issues of equality can be subsumed within and tackled by notions of quality in education (Riley, 1994), Bensimon's analysis goes well beyond this. By focusing on the language of TQM, Bensimon is able to suggest that one of the problems with TQM is that it takes for granted a universal definition of concepts like customers, quality and satisfaction. It therefore makes assumptions such as 'customer satisfaction defines quality' (cited p 595), without realising the contested and contextual nature of such statements. Nor is it always evident that consideration has been given to the importance of re-defining customers on the basis of varied subjectivities such as women staff, lesbian students, or to the extent to which social practices shape the meanings of TQM.

Bensimon argues that proponents of TQM rarely seem to understand that 'meanings change according to the discursive positions from which they are interpreted' (p. 597). As she notes, far from higher education institutions being integrated and collegiate gatherings of scholars, they are often better understood as 'communities of difference' in which notions of collegiality are premised on 'ideologically patriarchal and culturally ethnocentric' (p. 601) institutional contexts and conceptions of knowledge which assume that 'the European western male experience is the embodiment of human and universalexperience' (p. 601). The article points out that employing TQM strategies in higher education can lead to de facto discrimination in recruitment (by concentrating on certain kinds of schools and colleges), strengthen opposition to multiculturalism and 'can also reward scholarly and intellectual conformity' (p. 603). Similarly, the author argues that quality defined in measurable terms and dedicated to uniformity or lack of variability, is 'based on a logic of sameness justifies sexism and racism' (p. 606). Furthermore, TQM is rarely related to teaching and learning. Bensimon suggests that 'from a feminist perspective, characteristics of what is not a quality culture might include ... a reward system that discourages feminist scholarship, the absence of women as holders of ... chairs, violating affirmative action standard operating procedures, departments in which none of the tenured faculty are women, lack of benefits for homosexual and heterosexual domestic partners' (p. 607). As with the Blackmore, Kenway, Willis and Rennie paper, there is an attempt to blend theoretical analysis with a more practically oriented analysis which not only takes on theoretical debates but policy ones too and policy issues which are very much part of the organisational research mainstream. Though the article appears in an academic outlet, the potential for using its insights more widely are considerable, and not just confined to higher education.

The examples I have chosen are specific instances of ways in which feminist research may both include theoretical analysis but also accessible and rigorous empirical analysis, which is applicable to a range of audiences or users, whose own interpretations of that research will undoubtedly vary considerably. Users come in many guises - they may be individuals, groups, or more widely dispersed communities and networks. They may be commissioners of research, producers of research, transmitters of research, policy makers, interested by-standers, those intent on subversive and radical change or those who discover a piece of research serrendipitously. They may use the research soon after it is produced or after many years (since contrary to some popular beliefs, research does not always have a quick expiry date).

Communities of users and feminist research

There are three remaining issues in relation to research uses and users which arise from the examples chosen and which are worth drawing to the attention of feminist researchers in education. First, educational research can incorporate feminist theory without being dismissed as irrelevant, though some attention has to be paid to the expected or intended audiences. Thus material intended for other academic researchers may well be couched in a form different from that aimed at a more lay or sceptical audience. Second, it is perfectly possible for feminist research to be regarded as having user-relevance, since as with all research, it has a variety of possible applications and interpretations, many of which may be quite unknown to the researchers themselves but others of which firmly reflect feminists own political concerns. The users and user-communities at which feminist educational research is deliberately aimed may include ourselves, our students, other educationalists, politicians, and a range of policy makers, as well as more general interest audiences (eg (parents). Thus, the Blackmore, Kenway, Willis and Rennie paper might appeal to feminist teachers struggling with poorly constructed equal opportunities policies or resistant pupils, and education policy makers concerned to find ways of respecting divesity in educational settings whilst not rejecting attempts to eliminate sexism or racism. Yet it would have been difficult in advance to specify the usefulness of such research and nor can it be regarded as applied research with instant applicability. The uses range from theoretical development and methodological advance to teachers' classroom practices, the equal opportunities policies of many different organisations and quite fundamental changes in the nature of secondary schooling.

Bensimon's work also appeals to a range of users. Though it would probably be rejected by some of those who are proponents of TQM, those who have doubts about some of its tenets or who like to be aware of the weaknesses of organisational change mechanisms and systems as well as their strengths might find it helpful. The 'use' of the article is not rendered less by its feminist credentials and nor are its potential users confined to feminists working in higher education.

Finally, we ought to recognise that many of the debates in which feminists engage about the political relevance of their work are in fact debates about users. Because users come in many guises, they may not themselves always recognise when they are being interpellated as users. Just as 'customer' is a term with a variety of meanings so is 'user', even though in certain cultural contexts (eg UK government research funding councils) it has become synonymous with those working in private sector organisations. If we work with wider definitions of users and realise that 'usefulness' is a rather vague concept itself, which does not apply to particular time/space segments, then we begin to see that there are fewer limitations placed on research which can be so described, though of course research funders may not always recognise this.

Feminist researchers as users

Examining the issues surrounding the user-relevance and user-orientation of feminist educational research does not just serve to point out that user communities come in many guises or to underline the point that we can think of our research and our theorising as having both political and theoretical ends and more utilitarian purposes. The analysis also raises questions about the extent to which we and other feminists actually call on feminist theory and research both in our own professional and personal lives and in relation to wider political, social and cultural change. Feminist educational research often seeks to bring about some kind of change, sometimes in a very specific location or specific purpose as in the case of action research (Griffiths & Davies, 1993) or, more often, in a more general and often unspecified context and time frame. In this sense it is often no different from other arenas of feminist endeavour.

In a previous paper I raised concerns about the possible disjuncture or separation between feminist educational researchers and other feminist scholars (Deem, 1995f). This disjuncture involves more than feminist researchers in education not being or being seen as part of wider communities of feminist scholars, which in itself relates as much to institutional location as to theoretical or political orientations . Other feminist scholars, often by virtue of their academic position supposedly interested in questions of pedagogy, organisation and management of teaching and learning, curriculum and assessment, have not always turned to feminist research in education as a way of starting to answer such questions. This may be both because they have not thought of doing so or because appropriate research does not exist. However we also need to think about how much use we as feminist educational researchers make of other feminist research on education and if the answer is, very little, give some consideration as to why this is.

If we do not make use of our 'own' research (in the collective sense of feminists who share certain assumptions based around theoretical analysis or political convictions), and that means going well beyond using it on our reading lists for students or citing it in a paper, then it should not surprise us if no-one else does. However our experiences of trying to use feminist theory and research may also tell us something important about how what topics we and other feminists research.

Here I want to draw on my own experience to emphasise that user relevance in the wider sense is not a concept which feminists should actually reject without seeing if they can interpret it in ways which are meaningful to them . Furthermore, I want to suggest that whilst feminist theory is helpful in certain contexts, unless it is related to more practical issues, then it remains something to be drawn on only in academic discourses of teaching and research rather than in other aspects of our lives, including political change. Finally, I want to ask about why certain areas of research in education have largely been ignored by feminist researchers. We are, of course, accustomed to drawing on others' research and writing for specific academic purposes such as preparing research bids or writing conference papers. Thus in recent research I have been doing with Jenny Ozga on feminist academic managers in higher and further education (Deem & Ozga, 1997). we have drawn on a range of previous research on women academics, women managers and engendered organisations, both in developing our research design and in interpreting our data. This has been helpful in illuminating many issues and debates and in clarifying our own thinking.

But my interest in the management of higher education institutions is not confined to studying the management practices of other women academics since, like a lot of other people who work in universities, I now spend increasing amounts of time engaged in management and administration. In common with some other UK higher education institutions, Lancaster has been experiencing considerable financial problems, which although arising through particular local circumstances, are also in part attributable to the severe cuts imposed on higher education funding by successive government decisions and changes in higher education policy. In both asking how, if at all, gender relations and gender identities are relevant to organisational change and financial crisis and in trying to decide how my feminism can inform the kinds of strategies and decision making processes I want the organisation to adopt, I have found it much more difficult than in the academic managers research to make use of feminist literature and research. This is not because no-one has written about the problems of feminists in the conditions of existence of higher education institutions in a period of financial stringency. They have done (Evans, 1995; Skeggs, 1995) and such writing is important - but what I am actually looking for goes well beyond experiential accounts. Experiential and auto/biographical material allow us to confirm or interpret our own experiences now or in the past but do not necessarily provide a good basis for future political and other action on an organisational basis. Neither have I found contemporary feminist theories particularly relevant - since most of this is couched at a level of abstraction which makes it hard to apply to organisational cultures and changes.

Some useful material does exist. Bensimon's article is helpful because it provides a fresh way of looking at organisational change and how it may be made relevant to concerns about equity. Research on organisational cultures can explain how and why gender relations are invoked in organisations of different kinds (Itzin & Newman, 1995) But very little other feminist literature engages with such practical problems as how institutions in a downward spiral of financial cuts can preserve any concern with equity issues or whether there are practical ways of re-organising an institution's teaching or committee structure in a way informed by feminist thinking and research. I have been reading some of the literature on teaching methods for large groups of students but have not noticed a feminist input to most of that literature. Similarly there is an extensive literature on the management of change in educational organisations but little or none of it engages with feminist debates. There are parallels with the literature on school improvement which is another arena of debate which feminists have not really engaged with. There may well be good reasons for staying out of some of these fields but unless feminist researchers engage with more of the major political issues ofthe day, including those happening in their own workplaces, to the extent of thinking through tactics and strategies rather than simply offering a critique, we are in danger of focusing so much on the development of theory, and methodology that we lose sight of the notion of feminist users of research as political operators in their own context as well as in others. Theoretical analysis can contribute to this process but it rarely seems to do so in feminist work in education. By choosing only topics which are outside the main thoroughfare of educational life and organisations, we also remove ourselves further and further from academic mainstreams and sometimes from funding opportunities, when with more skillful manipulation of themes and approaches we could beat the malestream at its own game and become both producers and users of our own research as well as drawing it to the attention of a wider group of potential users and user communities.


What I have tried to do in this paper is to explore some of the problems arising from the troubled relationship between feminist theory and research in educational settings and to do so by re-examining the concept of user relevance to see whether feminists can capture some new meanings for this which allow them to make their work appeal to a variety of audiences including other feminists, whilst not losing sight of their political objectives. I have suggested that it is possible for feminist researchers in education to produce work which builds on theory rather than being parasitic on it, which is methodologically interesting and which also has political messages and policy implications but is at the same time of significance to wider audiences. It is particularly important at the present time that feminist research in education recognises the diversity of possible audiences for its findings, including feminists themselves. However this alone is insufficient. Feminist research in education also needs to engage with issues which are crucial to the survival and development of our educational institutions themselves. That way, feminist researchers can link theory, research, political purpose and the concept of users together in ways which enhance both our research and our educational futures.


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