(Re)Imagining Utopias: Globalization, Post-Socialism, and Comparative Education

Iveta Silova, Associate Professor | College of Education, Lehigh University

The 2015 CIES conference has brought the philosophy of Ubuntu clearly into focus for education researchers, scholars, and practitioners in the field of comparative and international education. In its original context of Southern Africa, Ubuntu captures the essence of being human, the idea that one cannot exist in isolation. Going beyond the relations among humans, it also highlights the importance of the ways people connect to and interact with both the natural and metaphysical worlds. Ubuntu inspires a multiplicity of perspectives, worldviews, and epistemologies. And it re-centers indigenous knowledge(s) in our attempts to understand ourselves, the world, and humanity more broadly. In this respect, Ubuntu is most powerfully associated with alternatives to Western modernity and to the (neo)liberal restructuring of the global political economy, inviting us to (re)imagine the past, present, and future of education.

This is exactly where Ubuntu intersects with the study of post-socialism (and other “posts” movements such as post-colonialism or post-structuralism), challenging dominant metanarratives and enabling us to engage in theorizing divergence, difference, and uncertainty in the context of globalization. This task has been especially critical for the researchers and practitioners in the countries of Southeast/Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, which have embarked on a major restructuring of their political, economic, and educational systems since the collapse of the socialist bloc in 1989. Initially (although only momentarily), post-socialist transformations symbolized radically open future(s), holding the promise of new forms of social and political organization. Very quickly, however, the “post-” in “post-socialism” came to be associated with the rejection of the preceding political order and the valorization of the transition to market economy, including its logic of deregulation, privatization, and liberalization. At least rhetorically, capitalism became “the only game in town,” while the second world was hastily proclaimed “non-existent” and “almost nowhere at all” (Silova, 2014, p. 181). It is as if any alternatives to capitalism ceased to exist as the socialist bloc collapsed more than two decades ago.

Accounts about the transfer (and adoption) of Western political, economic, and social institutions - whether real or imagined - have become one of the central foci of research in comparative education among scholars doing research in the post-socialist region. In this context, the telos of post-socialist transformations was typically recast as ‘a return to Europe’ and to ‘normality,’ with the EU accession processes accentuating the westernization trajectory. In fact, any deviation from the Western ‘norm’ was often reflected in the emerging narratives of ‘crisis,’ ‘danger,’ and ‘decline,’ which widely circulated in the academic scholarship on political, economic, and social development in the former socialist region during the 1990s and 2000s. At the same time, some scholars have also pointed out the dangers and shortcomings of assuming a linear post-socialist “transition” to “Western liberal democracy” and a certain vision of “neoliberal free-market capitalism,” with all the political, cultural, and social requirements that accompany it.

While producing important accounts about the changing contexts of schools and communities, such research has primarily relied on dominant “Western” conceptual paradigms and research methods, invoking the complicated experiences of the post-socialist world merely as a lagging temporality in the processes of global educational convergence. Consequently, the difference, diversity, and divergence of post-socialist education have been systematically erased in the expectation that the region would eventually become (just like) the West. Although there has also been considerable scholarship on the ways that “Orientalization” or “Balkanization” have affected academic knowledge production about the region, concerted scholarly attention has not been given to generating theory and research methods that would allow for more complicated, authentic, and nuanced analyses of the post-socialist world.

Furthermore, an emphasis on the dominant ideas and ideologies to explain post-socialist education transformations makes what is outside the global (or the West) impossible to imagine, producing political and theoretical effects of closure (Silova, 2014). As Burawoy (1999) argued, when using ‘singular Western models’ as a yardstick for understanding post-socialist transformations, we ‘lose sight of alternatives, whether alternative capitalisms, alternative socialisms, or other utopias that offer novel lenses through which to interpret the present and the past, as well as future’ (p. 309).

In an attempt to (re)imagine utopias, the CIES Eurasia SIG has attempted to mobilize an interdisciplinary group of researchers and activists who have been grappling with these research dilemmas over the last two decades in order to critically reflect on theory and method in the context of post-socialist education. Collectively, this group has sought not only to expose the limits of dominant conceptual frameworks and research methods in understanding post-socialist education transformations, but to also engage creatively in challenging mainstream theorizing on education, post-socialism, and globalization. One of the outcomes of our collaboration is a forthcoming edited volume, Reimagining utopias: Theory and method for educational research in post-socialist contexts (Silova, Sobe, Korzh, Kovalchuk, forthcoming in 2015), as well as a series of CIES pre-conference workshops and panels, which include contributions ranging from self-reflections to methodological critique to theory building. Another related research project attempts to make visible to ourselves as researchers and individuals how we have mastered (and been mastered by) particular theories and understandings of (post)socialist transition, education, and childhood. Drawing on auto-ethnographies and collective biographies, this project has focused on the memories of (post)socialist childhood to critically re-examine the assumed monolithic nature of the socialist education system, while revealing contradictions and complexities inherent in (post)socialist education and childhood (Silova, Millei, Piattoeva, & Aydarova, forthcoming).  Combined, these efforts have the potential to propel what Kenway & Fahey (2009, p. 38) have called, “a defiant research imagination,” which is directed against the closure of meaning and towards emancipatory understandings of historical, political, and social realities.                         

In the field of comparative and international education, these collaborative research initiatives echo the spirit of Ubuntu, especially its attempt to articulate alternatives to the current global economic world order. They also converge with the agenda of post-colonial studies aiming to critically interrogate the complex outcomes of the dramatic changes forced on those who underwent them as they become “something other than socialist or other than colonized” (Chari & Verdery, 2009, p. 11). In other words, both “posts” - post-socialism and post-colonialism - provide political, cultural, and epistemological “emancipatory inspiration” aiming to disrupt the metanarratives of global capitalism, while envisioning alternative futures (Cernikova, 2012, p. 159). In the spirit of Ubuntu, thus, both “posts” open opportunities for us to engage in theorizing globalization and its effects on education in refreshingly new ways, enabling us “see” the world outside of (and beyond) the global.

In addition to providing important comparative accounts of issues specific to education in Southeast/Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, post-socialism as a conceptual category suggests a (re)reading of the global through the lens of pluralities, discontinuities, and uncertainties. It proposes a (re)reading of the global that is free of its predetermined finality. Rather than focusing on the study of already formed (neoliberal) policies and practices - or what Bakhtin (1986, p. 139) noted with regret as the ‘‘ready-made and finalized” - post-socialism enables us to examine what is constantly influx and shifting toward an open future. From this epistemological standpoint, comparative education has the potential to become more critically engaged with and open to new theoretical and methodological possibilities. The theme of the 2015 CIES conference “Imagining a humanist education globally: Ubuntu!” invites us to continue these important conversations in a broader community of CIES scholars, practitioners, and activists, challenging the familiar contours of globalization and (re)imagining education utopias – whether in the post-socialist region or beyond.                                                                                                                 


This essay draws on my previous work, including the  book, Post-Socialism is not Dead (2010), and a chapter, “The interplay of ‘posts’ in comparative education: Post-socialism and post- colonialism after the cold war” (2014). I would like to thank Noah Sobe, Alla Korzh, and Serhiy Kovalchuk for their valuable comments on this essay.                                                      


Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. (V. W. McGee, Trans.) and (C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Eds.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Burawoy, M. (1999). Afterward. In M. Burawoy & K.Verdery, K. (Eds.), Uncertain transitions: Ethnographies of change in the postsocialist world (pp. 301-313). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cernikova, H. (2012). Postcolonialism, postsocialism, and the anthropology of east–central Europe.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing 48(2), 155–163.