More than we know

This essay was originally written back in the Spring of 2013, when I was still getting to know Comparative Education at Teachers College. I took this course as one of the electives for the MA I was doing at that time. Fun fact: the other two electives I took were “Intro to Special Education” and “Concerts as a Learning Space”. My lecturer for the former had a new yawk accent and was a practitioner at heart, and I spent the better part of the latter attending many permutations of concerts all over NYC. But I digress.

It’s strange how this essay, 5 years on, seem as relevant as ever for me. Notwithstanding the fact that I decided to return to graduate school because I took this elective all those years ago; now, as an aspiring researcher in Comparative Education–and while I am in the thick of writing my dissertation–research orientation is something that’s always percolating at the back of my mind. Ideally I should be able to clearly articulate to others what my research paradigm is, though I often find myself oscillating between different poles depending on the day of the week. I find positivist-based research a tad dry and unsatisfying, though cool statistics is cool. Increasingly, I am fascinated by works arising from constructivist paradigms. But today I am a pragmatist. Check back again tomorrow!

The gist of this essay (in case TLDR*): I argue that the diversity of research strategies adopted in Comparative Education should be celebrated as a crucial part of its identity and a strength of the field.

*Read the quotes, at least!


Comparative Education: Methodology and Identity

Over the course of comparative education’s development and expansion, approaches to research and scholarly work in the field have diversified immensely.

In an attempt to foster a sense of cohesion, Rust, Johnstone and Allaf (2009) arrived at a common understanding that the field is one which is dedicated to research that enables societies and countries to define their educational systems for societal benefit.

Owing to the centrality of research in constructing the body of knowledge and identity of comparative education, does the strategy with which research is conducted have any bearing on how the field perceives itself? To position this curiosity as a research question: Should comparative education restrict and adopt a unified research strategy?

The four levels of research strategy elucidated by Rust et al. (2009) provide a clear depiction of the scope of this essay, and they are as follows: “(1) research design, (2) methods of data collection, (3) analysis of data, (4) interpretation and implication of the analysis” (p. 127).

The case for research strategy and how it relates to identity is a crucial discourse in any academic field. In view that research is a core element of comparative education, the product of research in the field reflects its priorities, and subsequently its identity. However, the product of research is largely determined by how research is carried out. It is interesting to note that a study examining the trends and boundaries of comparative education revealed methodology/epistemology to be one of the most important—though ironically most neglected—themes in the field (Cook, Hite, & Epstein, 2004). To provide a sense of this neglect, Rust, Soumare, Pescador and Shibuya (1999) reported that within three major journals in the field, only 3.3% of the total of 1,969 articles dealt primarily with research methodology.

Another important issue regarding the importance of research strategy is how it relates to the external forces that influence the field. Smith (1999) observed that research is closely linked to political structures, whereby government funding is channelled through institutions of higher education, development programmes, policies and national organizations. Owing to this dependent relationship, comparative education as a field is susceptible to external pressure in carrying out its research.

Ginsburg and Gorostiaga (2001) observed that while researchers may be perceived as apolitical and objective, they also “serve the interests of political actors, in part by allowing government officials or other groups financing their research to define the questions to be addressed” and that the research approach may also be specified and restricted by the sponsor (p. 180).

In the face of this reality, the question of research strategy is no longer simply a matter of choice for the field, but more critically one related to its ability to even specify its own rules for doing research, when external funding comes with strings attached. This also circles back to the broader discourse around the field’s capability to fully determine its identity on its own terms.

Research Strategy: Singularity or Diversity?

 In the 1960s, there was an expectation that comparative education would “develop its own research tools and theories in order to identify regularities characterizing educational systems in the world” (Stromquist, 2005, p. 90). We can gather that the notion of a unified research strategy is not a new concern for the field and its identity. There were many movements in the field attempting to position some strategies as more desirable or representative of the field than others. For example, Rust et al. (1999) observed that in conducting their research, comparative educators relied mainly on the natural setting, as opposed to designed or controlled experimentation. However, Cook et al. (2004) argued that over time, some scholars have perceived the development of the field to be a “Darwinian” one, noting the progression from “older, less rigorous methods of study to newer, more scientific approaches” (p. 124). The discourse around propagating a scientific approach in comparative education research is an enduring one; it bolsters the perceived legitimacy of this field as a social science. To demonstrate this point, Ginsburg and Gorostiaga (2001) contend that researchers in comparative education believe in the need to be faithful to the employment of social science methodologies in order to yield findings that are factual and objective.

However, the notion of the unified research strategy does appear to be more pressing now more than ever in the wake of concerns that the field has begun to gyrate out of control and become fragmented in its geographic focus, theoretical orientation and methodology (Rust et al., 2009).

In the wake of scientific methods which are seen as objective and thus generalisable, and the nascent popularity of postmodernism that further dismantles the field by legitimising multiple realities, the vertical case study can be seen as a proposition to stabilise the field by adopting a balanced stance on the continuum between the universalist and ultrarelativist extremes (Vavrus & Bartlett, 2006). Could this be the unifying research strategy the field needs to reconcile its identity?

Cook et al. (2004) argue that it is crucial for the field to possess unifying points of reference which depict a sense of community, in order to transmit and disseminate its body of knowledge. The field as a whole would face a disorganized challenge in transforming its plethora of research into a congruent body of knowledge if there is no shared understanding of how data is to be interpreted and what mechanisms are to be used to articulate the implications. Consequently, transmission of research and hence knowledge in the field will become disparate, resulting in a fragmented view of the field overall (Cook et al., 2004). With this in mind, it appears of the utmost importance that the field decides on a unified research strategy that enables the cohesive formation of a knowledge base for the field.

Meanwhile, other scholars persist in making the case for diversification in research strategy. Rust et al. (1999) offers Issac Kandel’s stance on the matter: “The methodology of comparative education is determined by the purpose that the study is to fulfill” (p. 89).

By this logic, it is impossible for the field to adopt a unified research strategy if it intends to embark on a wide variety of studies with context-specific purposes. Adopting a single research strategy that is accepted as superior and normative in the field can have damaging consequences, particularly when the research findings are then used to legitimise particular agendas. Samoff (2007) reflects this concern regarding the prevalence of quantitative studies to justify policy decisions, arguing that favouring clarity by constructing mutually exclusive categories may result in the exclusion of ambiguity and inconsistency, hence obscuring more information than it reveals. This clearly indicates how multiple strategies are important to consider, so as to ward off misrepresentation and enable the production of comprehensive research outputs.

Rather than perceiving diversity as sign of the field losing its identity, Rust et al. (2009) considers the plural nature of the field—both methodologically and theoretically—as a strength that “indicates a break from the stifling orthodoxy that characterised the field in the 1950s and early 1960s” (p. 132). In practice, it would be difficult to stifle the heterogeneous make-up of the comparative education community of today, and it would appear to be a step backwards for the field. Ginsburg and Gorostiaga (2001) observed the variation in approaches undertaken by researchers today, and they noted the following:

Researchers subscribe to different epistemologies (e.g., positivism, interpretivism, and critical science) and perform different rituals to collect data (e.g., experiments and quantitative survey research, participant observation, and ethnographic interviewing) (p. 182).

Consistent with the above, in his review of publications in the field, Wolhuter (2008) noted that the expansion of the author pool could be indicative of the increasing diversity in terms of topics, methods and paradigms in research. It is comforting that the methodological eclecticism prevalent in the field can be viewed as a positive sign. This is a healthy indication of the dramatic expansion of the field’s institutional and intellectual boundaries (Cook et al., 2004).

Conclusion

The above findings provide substantial input to answer the research question: Should comparative education restrict and adopt a unified research strategy? I am of the opinion that comparative education does not require the adoption of a unified research strategy. While the concerns of the loss of identity under the weight of diversity is valid, diversity should instead be perceived as an asset for the field. Employing a wide variety of research strategies is necessary to ensure that the field remains flexible in its pursuit of knowledge and in corroborating and refining its theories. Confining the field to a unifying strategy means sheltering itself from different ways of thinking and approaching problems, as well as addressing research problems from multiple angles. The field can still have a robust identity while straddling a multitude of research strategies. Rather than anchor the notion of identity on how it achieves its purpose through research, the field should instead delineate what its purpose is.

With this in mind, I concur with previous comparative educators who remind us that “while comparative education remains a loosely bound field, it is held together by a fundamental belief that education can be improved and can serve to bring about change for the better in all nations” (Cook et al., 2004, p. 149).

With this goal in mind, this field should be able to weather the revolving door of theoretical fads, cutting-edge methodologies and the ever-changing global landscape.

Agenda for Further Research

There are claims that contemporary comparative education is more preoccupied with methodological issues than with actual social action and activism (Wolhuter, 2008). Is this a valid criticism? Should we abandon the debate surrounding methodology and broader research strategies in general? Instead of scraping the discussion altogether, one can argue that the direction of the discussion has to proceed in a more productive and actionable manner.

If comparative educators can agree that diversity in research strategy is inevitable and is here to stay, then the intellectual energy of the scholars in the field must be channelled into the ways in which we prepare future comparative educators to employ appropriate strategies in the course of their research.

How are institutions of higher learning preparing students of comparative education to conduct research that is both rigorous and contextual? Are there specific courses in research strategies tailored to the field’s landscape and direction? These are just some questions comparativists should ponder. Perhaps then the training modules that are developed based on a shared understanding of the field could just be the unifying element needed to fortify the identity of comparative education.

References

Cook, B. J., Hite, S. J., & Epstein, E. H. (2004). Discerning Trends, Contours, and Boundaries in Comparative Education: A Survey of Comparativists and Their Literature. Comparative Education Review, 48 (2), 123-149.

Ginsburg, M. B., & Gorostiaga, J. M. (2001). Relationships between Theorists/Researchers and Policy Makers/Practitioners: Rethinking the Two- Cultures Thesis and the Possibility of Dialogue. Comparative Education Review, 45 (2), 173-196.

Rust, V. D., Johnstone, B., & Allaf, C. (2009). Reflections on the Development of Comparative Education. In R. Cowen, & A. M. Kazamias, International Handbook of Comparative Education (pp. 121-138). Dordrecht: Springer.

Rust, V. D., Soumare, A., Pescador, O., & Shibuya, M. (1999). Research Strategies in Comparative Education. Comparative Education Review, 43 (1), 86-109.

Samoff, J. (2007). Institutionalizing International Influence. In R. Arnove, & C. A. Torres, Comparative Education: The Dialectic of the Global and the Local (pp. 47-78). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People. London: Zed.

Stromquist, N. (2005). Comparative and International Education: A Journey toward Equality and Equity. Harvard Educational Review, 75 (1), 89-111.

Vavrus, F., & Bartlett, L. (2006). Comparatively Knowing: Making a Case for the Vertical Case Study. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 8 (2), 95-103.

Wolhuter, C. C. (2008). Review of the Review: constructing the identity of comparative education. Research in Comparative and International Education, 3 (4), 323-344.

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