Colley, Helen (2012) Celebrating the work of Paula Allman: thinking through Marx in adult education. The impact of austerity policies on learning in human service work. In: Inaugural Conference of the ESREA Network on Policy Studies in Adult Education, 10-12th February 2012, University of Nottingham. (Unpublished)

In this paper, I work with Allman‘s dialectical conceptualisation of the social relations of production and the social forces of production (1999) to explore the learning of human service workers in a context of austerity policies. Social relations and social forces of production – if viewed separately as the human and the technical factors in production – may form a unity of opposites, reciprocally determining one another, and they are most often represented in this way (for example, in cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT)). However, drawing on Marx‘s own more fluid and dialectical thought, Allman notes that at times they also move into and form an identity with one another. Changes in the social relations of production, including through informal learning driven by dominant discourses, can become a social force in increasing productivity. This is particularly so in social reproduction work – including the ‗women‘s work‘ of human service – where the tools, materials, subject and object of labour are so often united in the practitioner herself (cf. Fortunati, 1995).
The paper illustrates this conceptualisation with findings from a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The research investigated the local impact on youth support workers of policy changes to service delivery in England, intensified by austerity policies in response to the global economic crisis. It generated 26 ‗career history‘ interviews with youth support workers, 9 of whom had quit their jobs because of their disagreements with service implementation, and interviews with 11 senior managers and stakeholders. Here, I consider the emotional and ethical implications of these policy and institutional changes, focusing on practitioners‘ learning (and unlearning) as they faced daily challenges to their practices, knowledge and beliefs. The findings demonstrate the inadequacy of theoretical models such as CHAT, which abstract the social forces of production from the social relations of production, and treat them solely as an inter-relation rather than an inner relation (Allman, 1999, 2010). Such a separation obscures their unity in the minds, bodies and emotions of practitioners in human service work. Learning generated by the localised unification of gendered social relations and forces of production cannot be understood, I will argue, without also seeing their relation to the global crisis of patriarchal capitalism. Nor can an appropriate response be developed without considering how such praxis may be reproductive or radically transformative.