Youth Conceptualizations of Evil: Implications for Social Studies Education

  • Author / Creator
    van Kessel, Cathryn A.
  • Youth conceptualizations of evil are an important part of social studies education, particularly how the use of the term “evil” can evoke images, feelings, and thoughts in teachers and students. Students in high school social studies examine historical events that can be easily labelled as evil (e.g., genocides) and politicians continue to use evil in their rhetoric. All too often, such labels lead to a simplification of complex people and processes. Given this situation, examining conceptualizations of evil serves a pedagogical purpose of challenging the simplistic binary of good and evil, thus uncovering how we might productively discuss evil in social studies classrooms in ways that enhance students’ sense of agency. For this exploratory study into how youths conceptualize evil, phenomenography was employed as the research approach at a non-denominational independent school in Western Canada. The procedure included individual semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and follow-up individual interviews with 15 participants from the 2014-2015 Grade 11 (junior) class, as well as an optional final group interview with eight of the original participants. The initial interviews began with a participant-generated stimulus regarding what first comes to mind when they hear the word “evil.” Then, the participants were asked follow-up questions and as well as pre-planned questions. The next stage was a task-based focus group during which two to four participants collaborated to place images and snippets of text along a continuum of more to less evil. The point was not to arrive at a particular answer, but rather for the researcher to record the conversations that ensued around particular items. After all the focus groups met, each participant participated in another individual interview as an opportunity for member checking and clarification of ideas from the first two stages. Participants requested an unanticipated fourth session, which consisted of a group interview where they could see the work of the other groups and discuss their views. The outcome space revealed five referential aspects: evil as images, evil as affects (bodily) and effects (cognitive), evil as something that is abnormal and/or extraordinary, evil as in the domain of humans, and evil as subjective. Nested within these themes are a variety of interconnected subthemes. Political theory and philosophy that shaped this research and its implications included Hannah Arendt, Alain Badiou, Jean Baudrillard, as well as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Arendt and Badiou illuminate the idea that ordinary people and processes have immense power through their interconnected actions. Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualization of order-words highlight the power inherent in naming evil, which has particular implications for political rhetoric and hate speech. In a more general context, Baudrillard provides a unique definition of evil that can help us rethink how society, and thus education, might function. The most salient implication of this study is that teachers, textbook authors, and curriculum designers need to more explicitly engage with naming and describing evil in the context of social studies education. In particular, an education attending to evil would include the information and skills needed to counter both the politics of evil, the invocation of evil in political rhetoric that stifles democratic debate, and can promote hate speech, and villainification, the process of creating a single villain as the face of systemic harm, with that villain losing their ordinary characteristics.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2016
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Lewkowich, David (Secondary Education)
    • Thomas, Greg (Secondary Education)
    • Wallin, Jason (Secondary Education)
    • Garrett, H. James (Elementary and Social Studies Education, University of Georgia)