Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Thoughts on Methodology in Comparative and International Education

Copyright © 2006 by José Cossa


By nature, Comparativists engage in explanations of why educational systems and processes vary and how education relates to wider social factors and forces. The comparativists’ interest in explanations leads to the use of epistemologies in order to study issues and the comparativists’ preference of a particular epistemology over another lead to distinctions between the methodological schools of comparative education.


In academia, the common distinctions in methodology are the dichotomies of qualitative and quantitative under which fall all sorts of methods or research designs, i.e., historical analysis, content analysis, discourse analysis, phenomenological, hermeneutical, case study, statistical analysis, ethnographic, grounded theory, survey research, experimental studies, etc. While acknowledging the distinctions qualitative and quantitative, Comparative education adds distinctions based on mode of reasoning that are unique to its field; these distinctions cannot pin-pointedly be matched with qualitative and quantitative, i.e., nomothetic and ideographic. The tendency of equating ideographic with qualitative and nomothetic with quantitative is to be avoided because a study can be ideographic and use quantitative elements or nomothetic yet use qualitative elements. Therefore, while appropriate to use qualitative and quantitative, comparative education approach is better characterized as ideographic or nomothetic.


Nomothetic approach, initially associated with Marc-Antoine Jullien, is rooted in the Latin nomo, which means law or rule; while ideographic approach, initially associated with Sadler, is rooted in the Latin ideo, which means individual or particular unit.


Nomothetic approach isolates a few social factors to identify underlying trends and patterns and apply these trends and patterns to schooling in order to arrive at a general explanation of a class of educational actions or events. It depends on the idea that if phenomena are regular, then there is a possibility of prediction; and on the assumption that phenomena are related, or correlated, and influence one another. Here the researcher seeks to find a predicting stream of social phenomena through hypothesis testing or generating cross-national generalizations.


Ideographic approach analyzes the special social and cultural circumstances that differentiate schooling in one society from another. It seeks to yield deep understanding, or verstehen, of issues related to education through an acquisition of special insight deriving from intensive study of school-society relationships within particular contexts, thus hinges on socio-cultural expertise. Ideographic scholars, e.g., King, Sadler, Maseman, advocate that everything is relative to context, particularly to cultural context. This school is often addressed through the perspectives of relativism, phenomenology, postmodernism, and hermeneutics. An example of the ideographic perspective is seen in Sadler (1900) whose major discontent with nomothetic generalizations was embodied in the metaphor of a child strolling through a garden and picking off flowers from one bush and leaves from another with the futile hope of planting a tree from the gathered ingredients.


Nomothetic scholars, e.g., Arnold Anderson, Psacharopoulos, Patrinos, Philip Foster, Eckstein, Noah, etc., advocate that everything is related independent of context. For example, the studies of returns to investments in education by Psacharopoulos (e.g., Returns to Investment in Education: A Further Update) are strictly based on numeric indicators (e.g., statistical comparison of level of education between men and women) of various countries across the world and uniqueness of context is not a concern in describing why returns in education are higher in some countries and low in others nor why are they different within one country and between men and women in view of cultural considerations. I am reminded of an example found in Hanlon’s book entitled, Mozambique: Who Calls the Shots?, in which Hanlon describes a visit of the World Bank to Mozambique during the administration of Samora Machel (in the 80s). In the example he mentions that when he asked a WB representative whether the man was familiar with Mozambique and its current context, the man replied that he had no knowledge of Mozambique, but that his knowledge of other African countries was sufficient to help Mozambique solve its current problems because African problems followed a particular pattern therefore the solutions to one’s problems could apply to another.


Turner’s Models of Social Ascent Through Education: Sponsored and Contest Mobility in which he makes the generalization that the two ideal-typical normative patterns of upward mobility in his study can be readily applied to comparisons other than the United States and England. Usually, comparativists associated with this positivistic school are in the fields of economics and sociology (this is not to say that economists and comparativists are all nomothetic scholars because as with every rule there are exceptions). Another example is found in Sharpe’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Catholicism: Ideological and Institutional Constraints on System Change in English and French Primary Schooling. Sharpe studies primary schooling in France and England from two theoretical frameworks, which are the causal factors of the distinctions in the two systems. Without the understanding of the cultural phenomena one would not be able to clearly see the reasons for the distinctions between French and English education. However, Sharp used a nomothetic platform to advance his argument.


On the other hand, ideographic scholars, e.g., King, Saddler, Maseman, etc., advocate that everything is relative to context, particularly cultural context. This school comes close to relativism, phenomenology, postmodernism, hermeneutics, etc., and is predominantly characterized by comparativists working in fields related to history and anthropology and the like. An example of this is Kandel’s work (though labeled by Epstein as Eclectic), The Study of Comparative Education, in which he claims that educational systems cannot be transferred from one cultural environment to another, but ideas and principles can be studied, modified to suit new conditions. If an ideographic scholar, working in the WB, would study the same problems of Mozambique in the Machel administration and had to be asked the same question that Hanlon asked his interlocutor, the answer would have been a discourse of socio-cultural issues related to the change from colonialism to independent Mozambique through the civil war and the social problems it was causing even before mentioning other countries in Africa – and in all this dialogue the uniqueness of the Mozambican context and its contrast with other countries in Africa would have been either mentioned or inferred.


Ultimately, I am of the opinion that when combined, both approaches generate a formidable study. When we manage to back up our socio-cultural versthen with hypothesis testing (not necessarily testing a complex relationship between independent and dependent variables), our findings not only become less susceptible to criticism by one camp or another, but they become enhanced with a cross-field appreciation and respect.

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