Derrick Armstrong, Felicity Armstrong and Len Barton
The suggestion that a theory of special education is 'needed' should not strike us as all that surprising. If nothing else, it does give us academics some self-legitimating acts to indulge ourselves in. Of course, it might also be argued that there is a pressing need for a theory of special education, because in recent years the education system of the UK has changed dramatically. In addition, there is evidence that increasing numbers of children are being excluded from schools, either because of 'troublesome behaviour' (Bourne et al., 1994; Hayden, 1996; Parsons et al., 1995) or because they have been identified as having special educational needs and consequently 'in need' of specialised provision, often outside the mainstream sector (Norwich, 1994). In this context 'theory' may have some explanatory value, yet, as the editors of this volume acknowledge, it is far from clear what a theory of special education should look like, or why it should make any difference to anything if one was developed.
The central contention of our chapter, therefore, is that research is itself a form of social engagement, it involves the construction of experience and as such necessarily constitutes a form of theorising that is informed by a whole set of assumptions and experiences which contextualise the nature of its critique and therefore its stance in relation to political action. In our own work this has led us to challenge the atheoretical assumptions that characterise much of the research in special education which is loosely and perhaps misleadingly centred upon unexplicated and unproblematised humanitarian values such as 'care', 'equal opportunities', 'access', 'school improvement'. On the other hand, we have become increasingly aware of the institutional pressures academics work under and how these operate structurally to inhibit critique by separating researchers from the subjects of inquiry, which can lead to a separation of theory and research.