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A multi-site ethnography exploring culture and power in post-secondary education partnerships Harper, Lynette Alice Anne

Abstract

Partnership is perceived to be a means for democratizing educational institutions, and a panacea for organizational difficulties. This multi-site ethnography examines how partnership development influences power and social relations. It traces political, social, and cultural dimensions of a partnership project to explore the complexities of developing partnerships within and between post-secondary organizations. My study focuses on a distance education project involving two B.C. colleges and a First Nations education organization. I collected data through participant observation and in-depth interviews at all three organizations during two years of partnership negotiations. The data is analyzed with a multifaceted framework constructed from critical planning, cultural production, and practice theories. I examine how participants understood the partnership, and how their understandings and activities affected partnering relationships. My interdisciplinary framework links the particulars of this partnership project with broad cultural and political processes. I learned that partnership involves crossing boundaries through complicated, dynamic, and fluid interactions. Relationships, assumptions, and activities within each partnering organization affected boundary encounters that took place within organizations as well as between them. Partnership development reproduced social relations at the same time as it produced new possibilities for cultural, political, and social change. My study concludes that a plurality of loosely linked interests, structures, discourses and practices provided options for the participants to strategically transform relationships by mobilizing cultural elements, and by negotiating power relations. Even practices that maintained boundaries, or appeared to be tightly integrated with hegemonic discourses, held the potential to transform unequal relations through a creative and productive form of agency. My study has practical implications for planners and those involved in partnership work, because it illuminates critical political and cultural dynamics that inform decision-making. It illustrates that the boundary zone of partnership is fertile ground for developing theory, and for revealing new possibilities in political, cultural, and social relations.

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