Identifying and Disrupting Deficit Thinking

by Lori Patton Davis and Samuel D. Museus

A community of scholars who study “at-risk” populations focuses on how students’ family values might hinder their success in education. An educational researcher utilizes evidence of racial inequities to justify their work on how racial and cultural contexts cause barriers for students of color. An education scholar conducts an analysis to show how policy discourse is perpetuating ways of thinking that detract from efforts to address core systemic barriers to success for low-income students. Which of these constitutes deficit-thinking? How does one accurately make this assessment?

Because education is a problem-based field, doctoral students are encouraged to use problems to justify the urgency of their research. To be sure, there are numerous problems plaguing education, but how problems are identified and named is just as important to the research process as efforts to actually address them. Research itself becomes problematic when framed with deficit thinking, and researchers are not immune to using deficit frames to respond to educational issues. Despite some of the most conscious efforts, even the most critical scholars — the authors included — have the potential to produce research laced with deficit thinking. In addition, researchers have recently begun to apply the concept of deficit thinking to critique any discourse that discusses challenges or disparities, making it difficult for anyone to know what actually constitutes deficit thinking.

Education scholars and researchers are often socialized into deficit thinking. In this article, we highlight a few common ways — among many — that deficit thinking emerges in educational research. We also offer recommendations to encourage colleagues to actively disrupt deficit thinking by understanding what it is, addressing it in their own research, and offering helpful critiques to disrupt the spread of deficit narratives. The theme that runs through each of our examples is that deficit thinking is rooted in a blame the victim orientation that suggests that people are responsible for their predicament and fails to acknowledge that they live within coercive systems that cause harm with no accountability. In a forthcoming brief, we discuss how deficit thinking is not only a symptom of…



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