Towards a Theory of Pedagogy, Learning and Knowledge in an 'Everyday' Context: A Case Study of a South African Trade Union


This thesis aims to document and theorise processes of learning and forms of

pedagogy and knowledge in the trade union organisational context. It seeks to

establish how these vary across sites within the union and in the context of

broader historical changes in trade unions’ social and political role. The thesis

also aims to contribute to the development of a conceptual approach that will

allow processes and forms of learning, pedagogy and knowledge in informal or

non-formal, collective, social-action contexts such as the trade union to be

compared with those in specialised education domains.


The study adopts a critical, interpretive, qualitative case study methodology, and

is based on a single case of the Cape Town branch of the South African Municipal

Workers’ Union. Research was carried out in three organisational settings: the

union’s organised education programmes, sites of everyday organisational

involvement, and the occasion of a national strike of the union. Data was gathered

through two cycles of field work: the first cycle relied on ethnographic

observation; in the second cycle, data was gathered through in-depth, individual

and focus group interviews with shop-stewards. Observations afforded insights

into patterns of interaction and participation indicative of pedagogy, knowledge

and learning. Interviews gave insight into workers’ changing experiences of

education and learning, and allowed participants’ views on the emerging analysis

to be gauged.


Evidence from the case study is presented and analysed, drawing on the

classificatory power of Bernstein’s sociology of education; the sensitivity to

context of the Situated Learning and Activity theorists; the dialectical logic of

Vygotsky; and Bakhtin’s notion of dialogicality and the ‘everyday’ as

simultaneously an alienated and potentially liberated state.


A central finding is the strong, ideological directedness of union pedagogy that

expresses itself across different sites not only in visible, performance modes of

pedagogy but also in invisible, competence forms of pedagogy. In contrast to the

assumptions normally made about radical pedagogy, union pedagogy is a ‘mixed

pallet’ where a radical, competence pedagogy has been inserted into a more

dominant performance model of pedagogy. However, the hierarchical relations

normally associated with performance pedagogy are moderated by other key

elements of union pedagogy: the distributed and shared nature of the educator

role; the extensive use of oral-performative tools of mediation that are embedded

in the culture and history of participants of this activity system, which enable

them to contribute to the form and content of the pedagogic message; and the

hybrid forms of knowledge which allow participants to articulate their own

experiential knowledge in a dialectical way with knowledge derived from more

formal sources of epistemological authority. The ways in which these features of

pedagogy are enacted is influenced by internal relations of power within the



The ‘directedness’ of union pedagogy is linked to its counter-hegemonic social

purpose. Despite its espoused goal of social transformation, union pedagogy is in

practice an ambivalent combination of resistance, transformative vision and

accommodation, and in certain contexts it reproduces some of the key lines of

social inequality which it aspires to transform.

The thesis concludes by proposing an analytical model involving the combination

and extension of existing theories of pedagogy and knowledge. This model is

intended to facilitate a dialogue between research across different education

domains in a way that acknowledges pedagogic and epistemological difference

and diversity in a non-elitist way.

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Linda Cooper
School of Education, Graduate School of Humanities, University of Cape Town