PUBLISHED: Comparative Education Research Framed by Neo-institutional Theory

Explaining and interpreting comparative education phenomena needs a theoretical framework to make sense out of the chaos and complexity of these phenomena. Some critics of neo-institutional approaches to comparative education research confound theory with ideology, but there are problems with this: (1) espousing ideology is not necessarily the same as applying theoretical frameworks to empirical research; and (2) critical ideologies are as much a product of world culture as are the theories, research, policies and practices they critique. Instead of making political and ideological critiques of theoretical frameworks, it might be more useful to recognize the contributions of multiple and contrasting theoretical approaches to comparative education research (Wiseman, Astiz, & Baker, 2013, p.15).

These are among the final thoughts in my just-published article in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education titled, “Comparative education research framed by neo-institutional theory: a review of diverse approaches and conflicting assumptions.” While much of the research I publish has a much more empirical component to it, there has been a surge of interest in institutional approaches to comparative education research lately. A previous post addressed the “controversies.” That post is linked below:

I firmly believe that the best research is framed by relevant and solid theoretical foundations, and that educational theory and policy development go hand-in-hand. I also believe that atheoretical research is rarely understood by the researchers themselves, and is therefore much more difficult to translate to either policy or practice. But, being aware of one’s own theoretical framework and critical reflection on it is part of being a responsible, professional in the field of comparative and international education. So, thoughtful attempts to sincerely and professionally think through theories that frame comparative education research are needed. Unfortunately, in my opinion, some recent critiques of neo-institutional theory seem more sensationalist than sincere. After all, human nature likes a good fight, crash, accident…etc.

There are times when it is necessary to re-orient the discussion.

Instead of simply adding to the controversy, the goal of this article is to re-orient and re-focus the scholarly discourse on the constructive and reflective approaches to critique. To begin the process of constructive critique and professional reflection, this article examines several misconceptions (some might even say incorrect assumptions) and attempts to re-orient the discussion about theory in comparative education research in a way that contributes to the development of the field and strengthening of our research paradigms field-wide. We hope this will be a much more fruitful approach, which can integrate and ameliorate divisions in the field rather than simply criticize without any solutions or alternatives being offered.

In particular, this article addresses two problematic misconceptions about comparative education research framed by neo-institutional theory: (1) the belief that the ‘world culture’ strand is the only neo-institutional perspective that is applicable to comparative education research; and (2) the assumption that the global homogenization of society, culture and schooling is a goal of researchers applying this theory to comparative education phenomena. Using these misconceptions as the foundation for a wider discussion of the application of neo-institutional theory to comparative education research, we also address strengths and weaknesses of some of the core issues and concepts associated with institutional theory.

This article has been published on the Compare website: Please do read and comment on it. Our hope is that our assertions will resonate with readers. In particular, we hope that readers are left with an understanding that neo-institutional frameworks for comparative education research are useful, but that complementary approaches and methods are also necessary. The recognition of these two points could significantly transform the theoretical discourse in the field of comparative and international education from one of contentious critique to one of constructive criticism, research collaboration, and productive contribution to comparative education research worldwide. At least, that is the goal.

coverWiseman, A. W., Astiz, M. F., & Baker, D. P. (2013). Comparative Education Research Framed by Neo-Institutional Theory: A Review of Diverse Approaches and Conflicting Assumptions. Compare: A Journal of International and Comparative Education, DOI: 10.1080/03057925.2013.800783.