Book Review: Doing Critical Research – A Conversation with the Research of John Smyth

Doing Critical Research: A Conversation with the Research of John Smyth (2014)
By John Smyth, Barry Down, Peter McInerney, and Robert Hattam


This book discusses in great detail the internationally recognised collaborative and critical nature of the educational research conducted by Australian Professor of Education, John Smyth. At a time when we may be disheartened because “rampant individualism, competition and commodification” (pxiii) are impacting upon global educational systems and thereby resulting in unpredictable policies and practices for students and teachers, this book comes as a timely and crucial reminder of how we can be inspired and inspire others to create a more “humane, democratic and socially just” (pxiii) system of schooling.

The authors state from the outset that this is not another ‘how-to-do-educational-research’ book, instead they have presented us with key pedagogical and political issues affecting contemporary educational research for us to better understand the richness and complexity of critical research in making sense of the social world. Furthermore, (like our sociological writings on The Sociological Imagination) Smyth has also been stimulated by the legendary C W Mills and his key anchor points regarding the intellectual craft of doing Sociology. As a result, we learn about the key ‘critical’ anchor points that Smyth deems important when doing critical pedagogy: active listening, advocacy, challenging power, representing with respect, committed praxis, and activism (p8).

The chapters contain in-depth analysis of what critical educational research looks like in contemporary society, for example how the politicization and de-humanization of teachers’ work due to “broader contextual, historical and structural forces” (p37)creates certain challenges we need to work towards resolving through employing critical consciousness and critical reflexivity. We also learn about the lives of students in neoliberal times, and how this affects how we do critical research: “the political imperative for researchers and educators is to create the conditions for dialogue and practice” (p74) to interact with students and represent their voices and experiences.

Community engagement and public sociology are advocated as very necessary to critical educational research – “taking an activist stance with/for excluded groups whose viewpoints are diminished, silenced or ridden-over by so called ‘experts’ whose technocratic knowledge is deemed to be superior” (p81). Thus, contemporary critical educational research involves collaborative journeys, examination of power/powerlessness, working towards social change, and engagement with communities. Educational policy and leadership are explored to highlight the need to move away from neoliberal policies and practices, and instead to promote a “socially critical approach” to enable educational reform (p107). The authors argue that educational policy and leadership need to be reinvigorated by working critically to “reassert the moral purpose of education and to restore ‘educational’ values and norms to the forefront of educational thinking, policy, and leadership” (p139).

The book perfectly and vividly captures the importance of doing critical pedagogy and critical educational research in neoliberal times by presenting the challenges faced by teachers, students and school management, and also by providing the readers with a real sense of hope and possibility (in the spirit of Freire), so that we can consider the various solutions and practices that will open up sites of schooling to be democratic and fair places for students, teachers, managers and researchers. The strengths of the book are that the detailed vision of John Smyth’s critical pedagogy is impressed upon the reader examples from his life and works, but also that these examples are explained in a concrete and engaged way so that we can take these on board in our work in education and research.


Sadia Habib is a doctoral candidate currently researching British identity in the Educational Studies Department at Goldsmiths, University of London.  Prior to this she taught English at Key Stages 3,4 and 5 in Manchester and London.

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