Chain of Equivalence

In response to my post on ‘interest aggregation,’ Ajay Sharma wrote the following:

I guess interest aggregation could need some sort of (Laclau’s) chain of equivalence so that different yet non-competing interests can comingle and aggregate. Getting such chain of equivalence to form and endure is a perennial challenge

I just thought another post was warranted to clarify the idea of chain of equivalence.  The idea is rooted in the discourse theory outlined by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their seminal work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I won’t bore you with the theoretical formulations of the idea, but will provide an example to highlight its relevance to the ways in which individual demands, say demand for quality education, are [or aren’t] articulated on a populist level.

A chain of equivalence is formed when a particular demand transcends its particularity.  Let us consider particular examples.  In 1992, a group of parents in the Palo Alto county in California, started a protest against changes in the state’s mathematics education policy.  They felt that the interests of their kids were dislocated.  Whereas their protest was a particular protest, i.e it was related with their perception of the effects of the instructional and curriculum reform on their kids, their rhetoric made it sound as if it was a larger issue affecting all children in the state of California. The larger [universal] dimension derived from the fact that the reforms were not just intended for the kids of this particular group of parents but for the entire state.

The changes in state policy were hurting different stakeholders in different ways.  For instance, the textbook publishers were in a quandary because they would suffer huge losses as the policy called for textbooks with new and different content.  In fact, the NYSE registered a decline in the share price of some notable school textbook publishers in the early 1990s when California implemented its new mathematics education policy.  Some mathematicians were unhappy with the policy for their own reasons.  The right wing politicians had their own beef against the policy.  I am not going into the detail of the rudiments of the policy and if you are interested in them just google “math wars.”  Suffice it to say, that the parents, the mathematicians, the right wing politicians, all had their own and mostly unrelated reasons for protesting against the policy.  Each of these demands were, in their particularity, unrelated to all the other demands; what united them was that they constituted between themselves a chain of equivalence in so far as all of them were bearers of an anti-system meaning.

This chain of equivalence is not created spontaneously, but through active politics in which usually one particular demand overdetermines the rest.   Another example of this is the marxist movements in which the class bore the anti system meaning, and the emancipation of working classes [the particular] was projected as the emancipation of the entire society [the universal].  The ensuing political alliances suppressed the ethnic and religious differences and projected the working class as a monolith struggling for the emancipation of the entire society.

The ways in which language works to texture such relations of equivalence is described in more detail in Laclau’s paper on populism, available online here.

What is the relevance of the idea of chain of equivalence for education reforms, especially in the developing countries.  Since, as a lot of visitors have observed on this blog as well, there is a great deal of demand for quality education, it goes without saying that there must also be a simmering discontent among the parents.  If everyone had a similar discontent toward the state, a chain of equivalence could perhaps become potentially possible, and the demand for education could become a populist demand.  However, this does not happen.  So the question is that in situations, where the state constantly fails to provide quality education to all children and where the parents must surely be unhappy about this failure–i.e. if it is true that there is great demand for education–why is it that no robust chain of equivalence is formed between different stakeholders.

A hypothetical explanation for this could be found in the growth of private sector in education.  One consequence of this growth may have been a strong differentiation between the rich and influential parents and others in terms of their demands to the state, thus dampening the possibility of development of a larger chain of equivalence needed for articulation of the demand for quality education for all children.  Parents, who send their children to the private schools do not demand much from the state in terms of education and are, therefore, impervious to educational failures of the state.

Is this a useful way of explaining the absence of ‘interest aggregation’?  Will look forward to your comments


About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

7 Responses to “Chain of Equivalence”

  1. Have been following the posts and find them very interesting. In the case of Pakistan there is a huge demand for quality education across all sections of society. All my fieldwork and my countless focus groups with parents over the years point in that direction. You ask why is it that there is no robust chain of equivalence? In order to answer your question I think we need to go back to the role of the state and the relationship between the state and the individuals – i.e. citizenship. I have argued before (and will here again) that there is no social contract in Pakistan. It is easier to opt out and provide for yourself if you have the means to do so. Consequently the growth of private provision, even for the poor. This is of course not only Pakistan’s problem – however it is particularly pronounced in Pakistan.

  2. Wow! Such a lucid explanation of the ‘chain of equivalence’ idea! Thanks, Irfan. I also find Marie’s response very thought provoking. The idea of social contract between citizens and the state certainly needs to be explored further in order to better understand the quality and nature of social sector in a country.

  3. Dear Irfan, Thank you for explaining “Chain of equivalence.” If you can similarly explain “Nodal Points” too, I will be really thankful.

    • The signifier…one that becomes the surface of inscription for the demands of disparate groups of people..and so they rally around this signifier temporarily forgetting their differences…the terms signifying their differences are, in other words, temporarily trumped…So in 1947, you could argue that the signifier Pakistan became a surface of inscription for the demands of otherwise disparate groups of Indian Muslims…understood in this way, Pakistan was a ‘nodal point’….I am be off with my interpretation though, and if you think so, please do write back

      • My understanding is that ‘nodal points’ and ’empty signifiers’ are more or less the same. Because, at times ‘nodal points’ can become ’empty’ too. The difference is that a ‘nodal point’ performs a quilting function in a discourse. It remains at the center of a cluster of signifiers to stabilize a discourse. That’s why a ‘nodal point’ is also called a ‘privileged’ sign around which other signs in a discourse are ordered. The other signs acquire their meaning from their relationship to the ‘nodal point.’ Different discourses have different ‘nodal points.’ For example, in Muslim religious discourse ‘Sharia’ works as a ‘nodal point,’ because terms or concepts like ‘morality,’ ‘honesty,’ and ‘responsibility’ change their meaning when they are quilted by ‘Sharia’ as a ‘nodal point.’


  1. ‘Corruption,’ the empty signifier? | Just questions! - 22/08/2011

    […] in India.  Empty signifier are terms that are empty enough to draw disparate people together in a chain of equivalence.  Any term can become an empty signifier.  When it does, it works as a surface on which otherwise […]

  2. MQM, the empty signifier? | Just questions! - 10/09/2011

    […] is yet another case of an empty signifier at work [See my earlier posts on empty signifiers here, here, and here]. What does that mean? Well, this becomes more comprehensible if you take your focus […]

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