Constructing and concealing difference in international comparative educational research

Year: 2012

Author: Clarke, David

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


The pursuit of commensurability through the imposition of a general classificatory framework misrepresents the way in which valued performances and school knowledge are actually conceived by each community and sacrifices validity in the interest of comparability. This paper illustrates the compromise that is central to such international comparative research studies in education and provide examples of how the production of complementary comparative accounts might honour both validity and comparability. In seeking to make comparison between the practices of classrooms situated in different cultures, the most obvious comparator constructs become problematic. In some studies, the power to make generalizations about national patterns of classroom practice has been bought at the cost of explanatory power related to the antecedent and consequent conditions by which the motivations and consequences of participants' actions might be understood. The “validity-comparability compromise” is proposed as a theoretical concern with significant implications for international cross-cultural research. The paper identifies seven “dilemmas” of cross-cultural comparative research, illustrates each and suggests approaches to their resolution.

Dilemma 1: Cultural-specificity of cross-cultural codes – the use of culturally-specific categories for cross-cultural coding.

Dilemma 2: Inclusive vs Distinctive – the use of inclusive categories to maximise applicability across cultures, thereby sacrificing distinctive (and potentially explanatory) detail.

Dilemma 3: Evaluative Criteria – the use of culturally-specific criteria for cross-cultural evaluation of instructional quality.

Dilemma 4: Form vs Function – the confusion between form and function, where an activity coded on the basis of common form is employed in differently situated classrooms to serve quite different functions.

Dilemma 5: Linguistic Preclusion - misrepresentation resulting from cultural or linguistic preclusion.

Dilemma 6: Omission - misrepresentation by omission, where the authoring culture of the researcher lacks an appropriate term or construct for the activity being observed.

Dilemma 7: Disconnection - misrepresentation through disconnection, where activities that derive their local meaning from their connectedness are separated for independent study.

The paper draws on current international research to illustrate a variety of aspects of the issue and its consequences for the manner in which international research is conducted and its results interpreted. The effects extend to data generation and analysis and constitute essential contingencies on the interpretation and application of international comparative research.