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Moral Entrepreneurs, Folk Devils and Pasteur’s Quadrant: Hints for Producing Compelling Scholarship

(Welcome to the blog Glenn Regehr, an education scientist from the University of British Columbia, who will be well known to many readers.  This is the first in a series -Jonathan (@sherbino))


By Glenn Regehr

In his talk at the first THESIS conference at the Wilson Centre in 2014, Simon Kitto raised a compelling dilemma for health professions education scholars. He started by describing the distinction between “moral entrepreneurs”1, who aim to stabilize ‘normal’ behaviour in a community by creating rules for appropriate behaviour and structures to support these behaviours, and “folk devils”2 who are identified as promoting instability and challenging ‘normal’ by acting, and thereby modeling behaviour, outside the range of established norms (sorry, Simon, if I have distorted these concepts beyond recognition). He then raised the question: As a health professions education scholar, did he want to be a moral entrepreneur or a folk devil?

I can certainly resonate with the sentiment behind this question, and found myself struggling right along with him.

But as I continued to reflect on his story and question, I was reminded of the conundrum that Donald Stokes identified in his book, Pasteur’s Quadrant.3 In that book, Stokes described the error of placing research aimed at advancing theory and research aimed at advancing practice at two ends of a one-dimensional continuum. He argued that to do so places these aims in opposition to each other, implying that doing more of one requires doing less of the other. He suggested, therefore, that we should think of advancing theory and advancing practice as two orthogonal dimensions. This reconstruction creates a two-dimensional plane, with the advancement of theory on one axis and the advancement of practice on the other (resulting in four “quadrants”: High Theory/Low Practice; Low Theory / High Practice; Low Theory / Low Practice; High Theory / High Practice). Thus, one’s scholarship can advance theory or not AND it can advance practice or not. What is exciting about this reconstruction is the possibility that one can advance both simultaneously (represented by the High Theory / High Practice quadrant, which he named after Louis Pasteur who he felt epitomized this “use inspired basic research” paradigm).

As I thought more about Simon’s question, I started thinking about what might appeal to me about the role of the ‘moral entrepreneur’ and why I might see value in the role of the ‘folk devil’. What I decided is that I like the challenging nature of the folk devil, and the supportive structuring of the moral entrepreneur. So I found myself, like Stokes, thinking that these valuable qualities might not be opposite ends of a single dimension, but rather two separate dimensions, each of which can be high or low in our work as education scholars. To be high on structural scaffolding but low on challenging the status quo (the moral entrepreneur) feels overly prescriptive. To be high on the challenging dimension but to offer little in the way of support for doing something about it (the folk devil) may amount to mere unhelpful critique. But to be both challenging of the status quo and supportive in ways that allow others to rise to those challenges seems like not only a good description of the ideal educator (see for example, Mezirow, 19914) but also a pretty nice first approximation for what would make for valuable educational scholarship.

The analogy between good education practices and effective scholarship is a compelling one for me. If we think of our papers not as scientific treatises, but as educational pieces, then similar constructs apply. A mere recitation of facts and findings is insufficient to be valuable and compelling (like the worst form of lecture we have all experienced). Instead we must challenge our audience with a compelling problem and we must provide the conceptual supports needed to help them work through the problem and as a result think differently about the issue at hand. A good piece of scholarship, in short, must be in the audience’s conceptual zone of proximal development. If the ideas are not a compelling challenge to current understanding, no learning occurs. If there is insufficient support for the reader to own that challenge and rise to it, then again, no learning occurs. Thus, as scholars, we do not need position ourselves as either the moral entrepreneur or the folk devil. Rather, we can (in fact should) combine the best of both in each piece of work in order to make our scholarly work both compelling and valuable.

**As a coda to this set of reflections, it has struck me that there is a larger lesson in this story to be considered. Perhaps whenever we find ourselves on the horns of such dilemmas, whenever we see two “opposites” that seem to be desirable, the right question to ask ourselves is not which we should choose, but whether we have the dimensions right. Are these two states really opposite ends of a single dimension? Or are there, in fact, two dimensions with the “opposites” simply representing the two quadrants that each have only one of the two desirable characteristics? I am left to wonder now how many of the dilemmas of my own past were simply a failure to apply a Stokesian transformation on the dimensional structure of the options.



  1. Becker HS. Moral entrepreneurs: The creation and enforcement of deviant categories. In NJ Herman (Ed.) Deviance: A symbolic interactionist approach. General Hall: Lantham, MD. 1995. Chapter 19 (pp 169-178)
  2. Cohen S. Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. 3rd Ed. Routledge: New York, NY. 2002.
  3. Stokes DE. Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic science and technological innovation. Brookings Institute Press: Washington, DC. 1997.
  4. Mezirow J. Transformative dimensions of adult learning. Josey-Bass: San Francisco, CA. 1991.
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