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The functions of Education and reflections on the role of researchers engaged in an academic collective

Alexandre da Trindade e Oliveira, Second-Year PhD Student, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

In October 2020, a group of PhD students from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge founded the Cambridge Latin American Research in Education Collective (CLAREC) aiming to make Latin America, its knowledge, and its needs more visible within the Faculty; contribute to the recognition of Latin American epistemologies; and support efforts to decolonise academia (Mignolo, 2018). As a member of this collective, I carried out this study to develop a clearer conceptualisation of the motives underlying the formation of this initiative (I explicitly recognise my position as a participant in the study). Moreover, since my doctoral research is itself an inquiry into the role of higher education, I was interested in how academics understand their role as researchers and what motivates them to join a collective such as this. The following reflections are based on interviews I conducted with CLAREC members and my analysis of the group’s publications and events.

Presentation by Alexandre da Trindade e Oliveira, Second-Year PhD Student, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge at the ESRC DTP Cambridge Conference 2021.

In this study, I explored two theoretical perspectives to inform my conceptualisations of the researcher’s role in this specific case and to formulate my investigatory questions. Since the collective is within the field of education, I ultimately aimed to understand how education is seen by members of the group. I drew on ideas from Freire (1987) and Gramsci (1999) to frame my questions. From Freire (1987), I borrowed the notion that education is never neutral but always has a political position and purpose. From Gramsci (1999), I employed the idea that educational systems can perform contradictory social functions. On the one hand, these systems may reinforce social order with an interested, instrumental, and utilitarian character and aim to produce individuals capable of occupying functional positions in society. On the other hand, educational systems might simultaneously be concerned with the intrinsic humanistic values of learning. They may aim to develop conscious citizens capable of defining their own paths – both individually and collectively – in society. Gramsci (1999) believes the latter, more humanistic approach is essential to education if we are to build truly democratic societies.

My interview questions for CLAREC members aimed to analyse: (i) how they understand their roles as researchers and the educational systems in which they perform those roles; (ii) what motivates them to organise and participate in a collective, and how those motives relate to their perceived roles as researchers; and (iii) how this initiative and their approach relate to the aforementioned notion of education’s contradictory functions – that is, as utilitarian–reproductive and intrinsic–transformational.

Based on my interpretation of the collected data and reinforced by my own vision as a CLAREC member, I identified three apparent conceptualisations of CLAREC, the functions of which were perceived as comprising varying proportions of the whole by different members. One such view held that CLAREC carries out activities such as seminars and reading groups; another defined CLAREC primarily as a social environment; and a third framed CLAREC as a utopian space, open to possibilities of actions that could achieve the transformative purpose aimed for by the collective. I concluded my analysis by arguing that CLAREC is predominantly conceptualised as an initiative that can be understood from the perspective of critical and transformative education as proposed by Gramsci (1999). However, my exploration was more focused on what CLAREC represents for its members than on its intended achievements as a body.

In this vein, I suggested the following based on my analysis: i) CLAREC members view the collective as a safe space that promotes valuable relationships among participants with common interests, identities, and values; ii) CLAREC is a space where doctoral students are able to flourish both as researchers and citizens; and iii) CLAREC enables its members to pursue relevant transformational contributions to education, bringing them closer to becoming the researchers and influential figures in academia they aim to become.

You can contact Alexandre on Twitter at @atroliveira, at, or view his web page at


Freire, P. (1987). Pedagogia do Oprimido (23rd ed., Vol. 21). Paz e Terra.

Gramsci, A. (1999). Selection from the Prizon Notebooks (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Eds.). ElecBook.

Mignolo, W. (2018). What Does It Mean to Decolonize? In W. Mignolo & C. E. Walsh (Eds.), On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis (p. 31). Duke University Press Books.

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