Comparative and International Education: Development of a Field and Its Method and Theory

Comparative and International Education: Survey of an Infinite Field

ISBN: 978-1-78743-392-2, eISBN: 978-1-78743-391-5

ISSN: 1479-3679

Publication date: 26 August 2019


This chapter looks at how various scholars have attempted to structure the “infinite field” by defining the appropriate theory and methods. These efforts have centered on a conception of what it would take to make comparative education a “science,” and how one could achieve “objective knowledge.” While these concerns were important for comparative educationists throughout the nineteenth century, who mostly favored a historical approach, the debate became more heated and more urgent in the 1960s when a number of key players published competing positions. This coincided with a time when the claim to a basis in science was being used to introduce a range of new subjects to higher education and establish disciplines like sociology on a firm institutional footing. Subsequently some of the heat went out of the debate about theory and method. A number of possible causes can be identified, including (i) that it became apparent comparative education was not going to achieve disciplinary status on a par with sociology; (ii) de facto comparative educationists handed the palm to Bereday, and carried on doing comparative education as he had described it; and (iii) the appetite for global theorizing waned to be replaced by partial theories, many of them based on general concerns for social justice and drawing on a broadly Marxist definition of “science.” The chapter concludes with reflections on the fact that healthy debate about methodology and theory can drive the development of the field, and that in the absence of explicit debate there is the danger that certain assumptions, especially assumptions that do not recognize the importance of context, can come to dominate the field by stealth.



Turner, D.A. (2019), "Comparative and International Education: Development of a Field and Its Method and Theory", Wolhuter, C.C. and Wiseman, A.W. (Ed.) Comparative and International Education: Survey of an Infinite Field (International Perspectives on Education and Society, Vol. 36), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 11-28.



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The first question that any scholar of comparative education faces, and perhaps the last also, is, What is comparative education? Answers to such questions normal hinge on managing the boundaries of the field in question; if we know what comparative education is not, then we are well on the way to defining what it is.

However, as the title of this volume suggests, comparative education is an infinite field. If we take, as a first approximation to what comparative education is, the way in which education fits into its social and cultural context, then almost any content can be included in comparative education. Formal, informal, and non-formal processes of inducting novices (and not necessarily only young people) into cultural mysteries will certainly be included. Almost anything can be included under the heading “education.” And if we include anything that might be the social and cultural context of education, then almost anything will quickly extend to cover everything.

As Maria Manzon (2011) has noted, once the attempts to delineate the boundaries of the field in terms of content had failed, scholars attempted to set boundaries to the field by describing what is and what is not an acceptable method to apply in comparative education. I will argue that, ultimately, such efforts were also doomed to failure, but before that end is reached, it is valuable to explore how different scholars attempted to define the field in terms of methods and theory. Those attempts, as I shall describe them here, focused on the effort to describe a science of comparative education. But what exactly was intended and implied by the word “science” is the content of the disputes between scholars that lasted over decades.

Although by no means the first to whom the term “comparative educationist” has been applied, the first generation of academic scholars who consciously and determinedly presented themselves as such were the scholars who, in the first half of the twentieth century, occupied teaching positions in universities in Europe and North America. Although not necessarily employed as comparative educationists, these historians of education, for the most part, represent the beginning of the institutionalization of the field in universities. We might include among their number Schneider, Brickman, Rosello, Hans, and Kandel, in no particular order. As I stated, they were mostly historians, and took it for granted that the methods of history were to be the methods of the field.

This may seem to present the first difficulty for my thesis that it was the aspiration to form a science that was a key driver in methodological discussion. However, Vygotsky (1997) offered a valuable distinction between a history and a science. A history is that unique sequence of events that a person (or institution) experiences that are formative, and which can only really be known from the inside. In that sense a history is uniquely situated in time and is unrepeatable; its meaning can only be guessed by the external observer. In contrast with this, as soon as we start looking for generalizations that can be applied across various histories, then we are seeking a science. A science deals with regularities and generalities, and therefore ignores much of the experiential specificities that make up histories.

The trouble is that as soon as we start speaking in general terms, and making generalizations, then we are necessarily moving from history into science. Thirty people in a room may have unique and unrepeatable experiences, but as soon as we designate them as a teacher with pupils, then we make present implications about the power relationships and processes that we expect to see in operation. In this sense all description reaches away from history and toward science. With a kind of unself-conscious confidence, the early historians of comparative education assumed that a science of comparative education would be the inevitable outcome of their efforts. However, the distinction between a history and a science is valuable because it concentrates attention on the tension between the specific context and the general principle which is always at the heart of methodological discussion in the field.

To make the point more concretely, Hans (1958) deduced or induced certain principles that applied to the field of comparative education. To say that a system was a country implied homogeneity on a variety of dimensions. At the same time, the dispositions of certain people, specifically freemasons, could be seen to have a reforming effect on educational systems. We might also indicate Kandel’s (1955) induction of certain principles about which aspects of education were appropriately determined at the institutional level and which at the national level.

But while the efforts of these scholars can be seen as a tendency toward a science of comparative education, it was a relaxed and unhurried approach. That seems to have changed in the immediately post-war period, when the clamor of contesting views of what counted as a science of comparative education reached a crescendo.

Toward a Science of…

The 1960s saw that debate achieve a maturity as a series of eminent scholars in comparative education made competing claims as to how the infinite field might be tamed by the application of scientific method. George Bereday set out his approach in Comparative Method in Education (1964), Harold Noah and Max Eckstein in Towards a Science of Comparative Education (1969), Brian Holmes in Problems in Education (1965), and Edmund King in Other Schools and Ours (1958). While each of these approaches laid claim to being scientific, they adopted different perspectives when it came to what it means to be scientific. By the same token, each has been criticized for being positivist, but the way in which they exhibit positivism is quite distinct. In what follows, therefore, I will address the ways in which each might be presented as both scientific and positivist.

George Bereday made two specific claims to being scientific. The first, subsequently endorsed by Martin Carnoy (Steiner-Khamsi & Johnson, 2006), is that a comparative educationist should first have a strong disciplinary background in one of the “contributing” disciplines, such as economics, sociology, ethnography, and so on. The concepts and methods of comparative education were, therefore, dependent on external reference to other, foundation disciplines for their legitimacy.

The second claim to scientific method made by Bereday was in the form of a structured process of comparison, through stages of description, juxtaposition, analysis, and interpretation. Little more was said about how the science of comparative education would develop, arguably because nothing more needed to be said. In the inductive method which Bereday adopted, based fairly rigidly on Mill’s (1843) method of similarities and differences, it was assumed that the accretion of evidence would necessarily lead to the progress of the field.

Bereday expected an integrated and comprehensive understanding of educational systems to emerge only after an extended period in which his method had been applied, and consequently not much more needed to be said in the 1960s. The comparing and contrasting of interpretations of scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds would lead to wisdom, without the need for direction. When I met Bereday in the early 1980s he observed that he could see the seeds of such wisdom beginning in Holmes’ (1981) book, Comparative Education: Some Considerations of Method. And one need hardly add that the ability to spot such early augurs of wisdom relied on the assumption that he had already achieved that wisdom himself.

Insofar as the inductive method has been described as “positivist,” Bereday’s approach was certainly positivist. Bereday’s methodological approach has the twin virtues of being simple to understand and based in an inductive philosophy which has centuries of prominence as the philosophy of science – a position that it continues to occupy in the guise of Bayesian probability, despite the efforts of David Hume and Karl Popper, among others.

Noah and Eckstein offered a variation on Bereday’s method. Philosophically, their approach was also inductive, but relied less upon the contributing, foundation disciplines, to the extent that it relied more on statistics. I have examined this in more detail elsewhere (Turner, 2017), so will not dwell upon the difficulties that arise when the tabulation and correlation of statistics is possible, while in the past it was merely a distant ambition.

It should be noted that Noah and Eckstein added a narrative which was certainly positivist in a different way. The philosopher of positivist science, Auguste Comte, suggested that sciences pass through life stages, from ignorance, through mythology and pseudoscience, to fully developed sciences which progressively approach astronomy and physics in their certainty (and methods). While this raises the possibility that anybody who looks to astronomy and physics for methodological lessons will be categorized as a positivist, Noah and Eckstein used this framework to retell the history of the field, from myth and “travellers’ tales,” to a well-developed science in which it would be possible to talk about systems with higher or lower levels of industrialization, urbanization, literacy or religious belief, rather than labeling systems with the names of countries.

Tracing the origins of scientific comparative education back to Marc Antoine Jullien de Paris, Noah, and Eckstein presented a story of the inexorable progress of the field toward the goal of science. No great effort was required to push the field in that direction, which would result naturally, again, from the application of induction. One further complication is added to the use of the word positivism, in the sense of quantification and measurement, and the creed that that which can be measured is that which matters. This move toward quantification is the hallmark of a different strand of positivism, and is particularly objectionable to those who feel uncomfortable around statistics. Thus Noah and Eckstein are implicitly positivist, by advocating quantification, as well as implicitly positivist, by telling a story of a field that advances toward science.

For Holmes and King positivism had a very different meaning. Both had an eye on the scientific revolution brought about by the introduction of relativity at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the resulting repudiation of induction and historicism by the philosopher Karl Popper (1957, 1959).

For Holmes, the key thrust of Popper’s work was the critique of the idea that there are trends in history which unfold with inevitability but without any conscious effort or steering. Popper criticized Marx’s view that history followed laws of development and evolution. In Holmes’ hands, as will be seen from the comments above, it became a critique of Bereday, Noah, and Eckstein, and their belief that the field of comparative education would necessarily develop toward a science. Holmes believed that the field could progress toward scientific status, but only as a result of the decisions of scholars and researchers and as the outcome of determined efforts.

Holmes saw “sociological laws,” or patterns and regularities in the institutional world, as the basis of a scientific comparative education. But such laws were not to be confused with those that feature in the work of Bereday, Noah, and Eckstein, and perhaps more importantly in the works of J. S. Mill. For the latter, the laws emerged from the data and the analysis of events. For Holmes they were the result of the mental effort and speculation of individual researchers. Or perhaps to make the point more starkly, it was a moral methodological imperative that researchers should formulate their views as laws that were capable of being overthrown by experience, or refuted. But the corollary of this position is that we should expect these laws to be refuted, because our ignorance is more extensive than our knowledge.

King drew different lessons from the philosophy of Popper. If all “sociological laws” are destined to be refuted in the long run, formulating such laws is pointless. Perhaps more importantly, since a general law or regularity can be refuted by a single counter example, the focus of study should be on the socially contextualized observation of the particular. This view of what it means to be a science is perhaps more relevant today than ever, when the randomized, controlled trial is seen as the gold standard of research, and anything that cannot be verified by a large scale survey is considered worthless. These developments push the professional experience of teachers and educators to the margins of research, and policy becomes the province of professional policy analysts. King’s work offers a welcome balance to this view, insisting that understanding can be derived from the minutia of everyday life, and methodologically insisting that a single case can be more powerful than a library of generalizations. The title, Other Schools and Ours, implies a focus on the local context which is not conveyed by reference to educational systems or education in general.

What we see in the debates of the 1960s is a complex interplay of different interpretations of science, and of how the field might be structured and organized so as to make its infinite variety more manageable. In that discussion we see the tensions between theory and practice, between the general and the specific, between objectivity and subjectivity, and between qualitative and quantitative methods. Those themes remain central to the discussion of method to the present day, but the debate is less personal, less animated and less colorful than it was in the 1960s, or even when I started to study comparative education, to the accompaniment of the last echoes of those debates in the 1970s.

The Rest is Silence

The debate and discussion of methodology, which was such a feature of the 1960s and the period immediately after, has largely disappeared. It is not immediately obvious how we should explain this.

There is a pragmatic account which looks at the role such debates played in academic politics in the 1960s. At that point, in a period of rapid expansion in higher education, when new fields of study were being developed, it must have seemed a realistic possibility that a methodologically consistent study of comparative education could take its place alongside other new fields such as sociology, cultural studies, and graphic design. The calls for specific methodological approaches can therefore be seen as proposals for institutionalizing comparative education in academia in powerful ways. In this context, the idea that the field could be systematized was perhaps more important than the idea that it should be systematized in a specific way.

By the 1970s and the beginning of austerity, any hope that comparative education could command the resources that would make it a powerful player in the academic pantheon had to be abandoned, and the debates lost their urgency.

While that seems a perfectly sensible explanation to me, it does not seem plausible that it is the whole story. Anthony Welch (2013) suggests that the debates lost importance because the ideal of a science was itself tarnished, and as a result all of these positivistic approaches to comparative education were discredited. Welch points to the work of Feyerabend as having delivered the final coup de grace to Western science, although the body scientific was badly wounded by debates between Kuhn, Lakatos, Popper, and Adorno as to whether there could be a formulaic method of science. For Welch, the discussion was about the supposed “unity of method” of the sciences (including the social sciences) and the debates in comparative education, together with the parallel debates in science, sociology, and philosophy, dismissed once and for all the notion of a unity of method. Had such a unity been possible, developing the field would have been the routine work of technicians with no morality and no imagination.

It seems to me extraordinary, and not a little disingenuous, that Hans, Schneider, Kandel, Bereday, Noah, Eckstein, Holmes, and King should all be grouped together to be dismissed as “positivists.” But Welch is by no means alone in using this argument. Comparative education, we are told, repeats colonial structures by restricting its vision to a narrow, positivist ideal, when it should be recognizing and celebrating difference. Yet this argument is only sustainable if one ignores the very major differences between the theorists whose work I have very briefly summarized here. Science is only a unity of narrow perspectives if one accepts that Einstein and Faraday were methodologically similar to Davy and Dalton. Which I think means that science is only a unity to those outside science who have only a tentative grasp of the issues.

It may, of course, be argued that I have made the situation worse by suggesting that all the main theorists of comparative education who were arguing for positions in the 1960s were arguing that comparative education should develop as a science. This might be assumed to be a narrow segment of the spectrum of possible approaches. I do not believe that is the case, because, as I have noted, it meant very different things to different protagonists. And if we look beyond comparative education to those advocates of alternative views that Welch mentions, Marcuse, Schutz, Horkheimer, Adorno, Husserl, and Dilthey (Welch, 2013, p. 29), I would argue, to the extent that they advocated a generalized method, they were also in favor of developing a science.

But unable to resolve those difficulties, the field seems to have given up on the idea that a single method could be established. Perhaps the best description of methodology after the debates is given by Derrida (1967, p. 360); methodology is a bricolage, taking whatever tools are to hand in order to try to improve our understanding.

For whatever reason, the debates inside comparative education subsided, in parallel with developments outside the field. In intellectual circles in general the taste for “meta-narrative” and “grand theory” was in decline, to be replaced by post-everything. And it is notable that most of the milestone works in comparative education from 1980 onwards were edited volumes (e.g., Altbach, Arnove, & Kelly, 1982; Arnove, Altbach, & Kelly, 1992; Arnove, Torres, & Franz, 2013), and not written by single authors. The time of the methodological monograph written by one committed individual was past, at least for the time being.

I will come back to some of these more recent debates in comparative education before the end of this chapter, but before I do that I want to make a diversion into the methodology of comparative education that, I believe, can help to make sense of these debates, and also point to some of their failings.

The Social Origins of Educational Systems

Before going any further it will be helpful to devote a little time and attention to one of the most widely neglected texts in comparative education. Margaret Archer’s (2013) work, The Social Origins of Educational Systems, first published in 1979, receives only one rather dismissive comment in the other texts on comparative education that I have cited here (Boli & Ramirez, 1992), although it features centrally in Epstein’s (1983) analysis of ideology in comparative education, to which I shall return later. Indeed, having tried to read it a long time ago, I have ignored it myself for many years. Yet I am pleased to see, coming back to it in a new edition, that Archer has added a preface that fills in the context of the work.

I have been interested in Archer’s morphogenetic approach to social systems. For those who are not familiar with it, the morphogenetic approach posits that sociological theory must acknowledge that individual agents can shape social structures, although there is no necessary connection between any agent’s decisions and actions and the eventual social outcomes. Similarly, or in a complimentary way, the morphogenetic approach must acknowledge that the actions of individual agents are shaped and constrained by the social systems which they inhabit, without being determined by those structures.

Through these two tenets, Archer identifies two tendencies in sociological theory; toward upward or downward conflation. Upward conflation denies the autonomy of individual agents; we are so constrained by the discourse that we are unable to think the things that our social position denies us. Downward conflation denies the existence and power of social institutions; there is only the sum of actions of individuals. The morphogenetic approach seeks to avoid upward or downward conflation (or indeed central conflation) and to make space for influence without determinism.

It is my view that Archer has correctly identified the central methodological problem of the social sciences here. Her solution is to separate out the processes, mainly temporally. Individual agents are shaped and constrained by the social institutions that they are born into, and they shape the subsequent development of social institutions by their choices and actions. I am less convinced by Archer’s solution, but that would take me beyond the scope of this chapter.

The Social Origins of Educational Systems is not an exposition of the morphogenetic approach. As Archer notes in the new preface, the volume predates the full development of the morphogenetic approach, and in a way it can be seen as the laboratory where the morphogenetic approach was developed.

The first important question which this raises is why Archer, primarily a sociologist of repute, should use comparative education as the basis for her development of an essentially sociological theory of change. If I understand her correctly, the main reason was because comparative education was not sociology. In sociology the pressures toward methodological consistency led to a division between upward conflators and downward conflators.

Upward conflators placed the emphasis in their studies on macrotheory, to the point where individual actions were of no consequence whatsoever. It would be possible in the future to account for all social developments in terms of movements of capital, class hegemony, instruments of state coercion, and so on. Such theories would be able to trace the progress of mankind, but would have only minimal contact with people.

Downward conflators placed the emphasis on the actions of individuals, and on the immediate social context in which they made sense of their intentions, needs and purposes. The result was a kind of decontextualized ethnography in which one could study the curious behavior of this or that group of people, but without needing to take into consideration the broader social context, or the reasons why the researcher had access to these subjects in the first place.

In comparative education, while upward and downward conflation are doubtless possible, there are also natural and ever-present correctives to those two tendencies. The range of content that is germane to the field stretches from policy-making in ministries to teaching methods classrooms. But policy-making that does not connect with what actually happens in schools is pointless, and classroom activity that does not transmit the values of the broader society is ineffective. At both extremes, upward and downward conflation attempt to offer a universal account of the human condition, an overarching understanding that is applicable in all social contexts. Experience of more than one culture, the experience that comparative educationists have, tends to inoculate them against the easy acceptance of such decontextualized theories.

It should perhaps be noted that the same tendencies toward upward and downward conflation exist in psychology, although they are expressed rather differently. Downward conflation focuses on the individual experiences and the personal histories of each of us, while attempting to go beyond that to find universal explanations, of brain structure, of personality, or of developmental psychology that can guide the integration of those experiences into a science. Upward conflation focuses on universal features of the human mind, accounts of that which is “natural,” to explain the reactions of any individual in any social context. Social psychology is a more recent development, and may perhaps be an attempt, similar to that of the morphogenetic approach, to escape from conflation of any kind.

Which brings us to the second important question: If comparative education embraces natural correctives to upward and downward conflation that were necessary for Archer to develop the morphogenetic approach, why has Archer’s work been almost universally ignored by comparative educationists?

It may be the ubiquity of the struggle to avoid (especially) downward conflation that makes it almost invisible. We can see that the historian/comparative educationists, such as Hans, started their investigation from the actions of individuals, and sought to build those individual understandings, through the aggregation of broadly personal factors, such as language, religion, and attachment to place, to understanding nations.

I think that a similar account might be offered of Holmes’ problem-solving approach, or perhaps more correctly his critical dualism. Holmes emphasized the fact that a person’s values can be changed more or less at will. Generally speaking a methodological individualist, he saw a possible source of social change in the fact that you or I could wake up tomorrow with a completely different perspective on crime and punishment, dungeons and dragons, or angels and demons. But he recognized that such an understanding was completely inadequate as a basis for comparative education. In order to move beyond the stage where the researcher simply asserts that Germans are romantics and French people are rationalists, he sought a way of characterizing collective norms, which, while theoretically capable of arbitrary change, are more stable than mere whim. The result was a system of ideal typical models based on constitutions, national texts of reference and religious scriptures. In other words, we see Holmes struggling to overcome his natural tendency toward downward conflation to create a system that he thought appropriate for comparative education.

Something similar may be said of King, except he struggled less against downward conflation, not much wishing to arrive at any generalization, save only that generalizations are impossible.

Noah and Eckstein are clearly attempting an upward conflation, describing systems in macrostatistical terms. But while that is the main thrust of their methodological work, among their prolific output we can also find accounts that come back to classroom practice and the educational development of individuals, not least in a long-running concern over examinations and qualifications.

As for Bereday, one can only speculate. I have already noted that much of the future development of the field is presaged in Bereday’s method, although its exact future development is left unspoken, to be determined as it unfolds in that future. The same is also true for upward and downward conflation. One can imagine what kind of wisdom will develop as the sociologist with a disposition for upward conflation tries to arrive at a synthesis with the psychologist with a tendency to downward conflation. The injunction to bring the various disciplines together in the study of comparative education hides an incendiary that will only become evident further down the road.

Seen through the lens that Archer provides, we could perhaps say that the debates in the 1960s were not only about contests between comparative educationists who adopted different positions on what makes a science; each of them was also attempting to strike a personal balance between upward and downward conflation, or perhaps to find their own way of avoiding conflation.

In the context as I now describe it, the critique which Welch offers of the debates in the 1960s might be understood as a complaint that too much emphasis was being placed on upward conflation. I do not believe that case can be consistently maintained either, as noted above, but the field as a whole seems to have reacted in the 1980s and 1990s as though the complaint that upward conflation was dominant were true. Noting a swing away from what he characterizes as mainstream comparative education in the late 1970s, Welch singles out the work of Richard Heyman, noting that,

[his] application of such precepts to the renovation of comparative education led him to press for a focus on the microprocesses of school life via intensive study of audio- and video-taped interactions. (Welch, 2013, p. 34)

Welch goes on to note that such an approach sometimes “lost focus on the wider world.”

There is, however, an important lesson here in the sense that Archer was able to address her questions and issues adequately in comparative education, but not in her home discipline. Rather she took her solutions from comparative education and moved them into sociology. This should be a useful corrective to the idea that comparative education is parasitic on the foundation disciplines. If Archer is correct that the mission of social science is to address the microscopic aspects of the social while engaging with the macroscopic structures of society, a recipe that is reminiscent of Wright Mills’ (1959, p. 3) prescription that, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both,” then fields like comparative education that necessarily bring the macro and the micro into contact are essential to the growth of the disciplines on which it is supposedly parasitic.

And Then…

What follows is not merely that the debate over method went silent. As I have observed, the key texts on comparative education after the 1980s are edited volumes. No one person took responsibility for bringing together the macro and the micro as those who contested the debates in the 1960s had done, and as Wright Mills (1959) and Archer (2013) claim is the core business of the social sciences. Instead, prominent comparative educationists became specialists in their specific fields. A lot of good work was done, of course, but one can identify key players with either specific content, specific methods, or both.

Mark Bray has developed a field of study in shadow education systems; Colin Brock and Michael Crossley have developed studies relating to the specific conditions pertaining in small states; and David Philips and various collaborators have developed studies of the transfer of policy from one system to another, to pick out only a few examples. How those were to be brought together into a comprehensive theory of comparative education has been left for posterity to resolve. In that sense Bereday’s approach has become the de facto method of preference for comparative education. Each study takes a single aspect and picks away at it, and the hope is left in abeyance that one day this will add up to something more substantial. And in the meantime we are treated to conference papers that employ a mechanically descriptive approach to comparison.

This development in the field occurs at the same time as the rise of post-modernism and its polemic against over-arching theory, but whether these developments are causally linked is less clear. Given the obvious difficulties involved in avoiding upward conflation and downward conflation when the macro and micro are brought together, post-modernism and post-structuralism may simply have offered an excuse for dropping the endeavor, willingly taken up by a field that was exhausted by methodological debates that appeared to be beyond resolution.

Studies that really made a consistent effort to bring the micro and macro into the development of a seriously comparative approach were so rare that Welch thinks it worthwhile to draw attention to exactly that feature of the work of Vandra Masemann. He remarks that,

For Masemann, critical ethnography offered not merely a renewed emphasis on “participant observation of the small scale … with an attempt to understand the culture and symbolic life of the actors involved” but also “insists upon a level of agency which is persistently overlooked or denied.” (Welch, 2013, pp. 34–35)

But in general the macro and the micro separated, with the majority of empirical studies focusing on microlevel ethnographic studies of classroom practice or educational operations within specific institutions.

Macrolevel studies certainly occupy a prominent place in the literature of comparative education, many influenced to some extent by a Marxist analyses of power relationships, but the authors who took up this line of analysis seem not to have felt the need to avoid upward conflation. The result was analyzes that offered explanations of the macro, without ever indicating how that macro structure is brought about by activity at the microlevel.

The classical Marxist analysis so depends upon upward conflation that it renders comparative education impossible. Since society is developed upon the economic base of relationships with the means of production, and education can only be understood as superstructure that reflects and is determined by the base, it makes no sense to compare schools in advanced socialist countries with schools in benighted capitalist countries. This form of analysis renders microlevel studies irrelevant, or worse, because microlevel performance is not equivalent. For example, if a school in a capitalist country obliges children to devote productive labor to a school-based enterprise, the profits from which supplement the school’s resources, it raises all kinds of questions about child labor and exploitation arising from the expropriation of their labor. In a socialist state, where there are no capitalists to expropriate the labor, those concerns cannot arise, and the children can be seen as contributing to society at the same time as developing valuable skills.

A failure to bring the micro and the macro together, and a dependence on upward conflation, produces an analysis that is completely inadequate, as becomes obvious when states have moved from a planned economic model to a market capitalist model, and children have been caught between two sets of norms. But in general, so long as socialist states and capitalist states were distinct, direct comparison was rendered pointless. Consequently, and perhaps ironically, comparative education on the classical Marxist model was extremely limited, and did not provide a framework for examining change.

Something similar can be seen in the case of theories that have been influenced by neo-Marxist approaches. While neo-Marxist approaches have been more concerned to avoid upward conflation and to locate a role for agency at the microlevel, much of that subtlety has been lost in simplified versions that have influenced comparative education. Post-colonialism, post-structuralism, and the analysis offered by Freire emphasize the persistence of relations of domination, of center/periphery, oppressors/oppressed, and so on. While one might recognize the emotional appeal of such positions, they provide an inadequate framework for analyzing change, simply because there is no theoretical drive to understand how human agency can be efficacious in producing new structures. And if structures cannot change, and what a person can do or say is determined by who she or he is, then we are doomed to remain frozen in an unchanging world, which hardly seems an adequate description of the world we actually inhabit.

At this point we can look in more detail at two of Welch’s specific complaints about the body of comparative education that resulted from the debates of the 1960s. It was, he says, “scientistic” in the sense that it proposed a science of comparative education that was amoral, or by implication immoral, and separated from values and value judgments. It was unitary, and excluded the voices of those from outside North America and Europe.

If we take an extreme example of what such scientism involved, we might consider Roland Paulston’s account of his early work in Chile. The developers went with a model of the ideal education system (as practiced in the United States), subtracted what actually happened in Chile, and the result was the development project which would bring Chile “up to the standard” of the United States. While it is true that Paulston describes his entry to the field in those terms, he makes it very clear that he quickly came to understand and reject that model, and that he sought ways to subvert it (Steiner-Khamsi & Johnson, 2006). And I see absolutely no evidence that Bereday, Holmes, Noah, Eckstein, and King regarded such a simplistic approach to development, or were uncritical of the idea that development involved a single track in which some countries and cultures were above or ahead of others.

Of course, there were others who did advocate just the kind of development that Paulston criticized, and no doubt did so on the basis of moral judgments that they believed to be fully justified. But in order to be able to engage in debate effectively, we need to be able to draw distinctions. Using the idea of a perfect market to analyzes what is happening in a system is not the same as advocating that the system should be organized on market lines, any more that trying to understand the impact of religion on certain social practices makes one an evangelist. By the same token, being an advocate of markets as the appropriate way to distribute benefits does not necessarily invalidate any understanding of market mechanisms that one might produce.

The criticism that Welch and others offer of comparative education method as immoral or amoral is wrong because it compounds two different areas of morality. If I advocate, on the basis of evidence and experience of what works, the use of corporal punishment in schools, I may be a thoroughly despicable person and my moral compass may be very badly out of adjustment, but that is not a criticism of the science that I produce. The appropriate questions are how I conducted the empirical studies that were involved, and whether those conditions were moral. And even then I might find scope for drawing a distinction between the ethical treatment of subjects in experimental conditions, and my moral obligation as a researcher not to make claims that are not fairly based on evidence. But what Welch seems to be doing is dismissing all comparative education before 1980 on the grounds that it was used by some other people to justify the adoption of rather limited models of development that perpetuated certain inequalities. As I have noted, I do not believe that such a sweeping generalization about a large body of scholarship is justified, and I do not see that much of that body of scholarship actually provides support for the actions that Welch criticizes.

In fact, I think that the position is much worse than that, in the sense that confusing the morality of theorists as theorists with the morality of theorists as activists and policy advocates invites hypocrisy in theory formation. If only theories that I accept as moral are acceptable, and morality is determined by the consequences of those theories, then theorists will be obliged to position themselves on the side of the angels. I recently attended a session at a conference devoted to a Freirean analysis of adult education, in which every participant was keen to parade his or her credentials as oppressed, on the grounds of gender, race, class, religion, language, and so on. Not one mentioned that he or she was a member of a privileged group, namely a person who lived and worked in the United States. So long as who says something is more important than what they say, the ethical development of theory will be impossible.

On the question of whether voices from outside North America and Europe are being excluded, I have already noted that scholars in the Soviet Union had, to all intents and purposes, already excluded themselves from the debates of comparative education by adopting a framework of analysis the precluded comparison. The official position embraced upward conflation, so that it was unwise to speculate further about the relationship between the micro and the macro. If microlevel studies were to be conducted, they should be framed in such a way as not to raise questions about the impact of macrolevel considerations. I think that comparative education in China still suffers the hangover of a legacy that was based on very similar assumptions.

But, of course, the situation more broadly is more complicated. Voices from Africa and Latin America have been deeply influenced by strands of North American and Western European thought, as one would hope they would have been. Moreover, North American and Western European thought have been deeply influenced by ideas from Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is hardly possible to provide a reliable provenance of a developed theory. Sorting mainstream knowledge from indigenous knowledge is difficult, if it is achievable at all.

Before closing this section on the ramifications of the 1960s debates on subsequent generations of comparative educationists, it would perhaps be sensible to look at the influence of Noah and Eckstein. Their approach found most immediate expression in the studies developed under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), starting with the studies of science and mathematics achievement in 20 or so countries. These initial studies were based on the upward conflationary model that performance in educational systems could be, and should be, understood in terms of system variables.

The results were disappointing, in the sense that in practice relatively little of the variance could be attributed to system level variables. As time went on, additional efforts were made to include variables that were more closely tied to the behavior of individuals, such as classroom performance, school curricula, and so on. In this way the studies began to look more interesting, and more closely approximated to the ideal put forward by Archer, of understanding the actions of individuals in the context of the social systems in which they live. In a practical sense the results were still disappointing, as the main conclusion seems to have been that a child was more likely to learn something if they had been taught it, but at least that made some sense.

Just when the IEA studies were beginning to have some sociological substance, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) introduced the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) project, and theoretical understanding was put back at least 30 years. While that is undoubtedly sad for the theory of comparative education, it perhaps makes a relevant point about which theories get adopted by policy-makers. Policy-makers, left to their own devices, will pick the very worst and most simplistic of comparative education to inform their decisions. That may suggest that we need to work harder to educate policy-makers, but I do not think that we should hold Noah and Eckstein culpable.

What Is To Be Done?

The debates that took place in the field in the 1960s had many sources – academic politics, personal rivalries, differences of philosophical position, and so on – and by no means everything that went with the argumentation was positive. However, I believe that there was something very vital about those discussions which contributed to the field, and not only for those who love to watch accidents as they happen.

Using the framework of theory that Archer provides, I think that it is clear that each protagonist in those methodological debates was attempting to put together a comprehensive position the struck a middle way between biography and history, between the macro generalization and the micro context, without falling into either upward or downward conflation.

With the end of those methodological debates, we have entered into a much more relaxed atmosphere. We have come to accept that there may be many ways of conducting research in comparative education, and the most important aspect may be to recognize where we fit in the field, rather than trying to change the whole field. We can recognize what kind of study we conduct, or prefer, perhaps using a framework like that provided by Bray and Thomas (1995, p. 475), while recognizing the value of the work of others who labor in some other part of the field. In general, this kind of openness to other perspectives is in keeping with the overall spirit of the field. “Comparative” implies a level of relativism, recognizing that one point of view may not capture the whole, three-dimensional scene.

On the other hand, we need to consider what is lost in that more relaxed atmosphere. I think that Archer’s diagnosis is absolutely correct; a full account of any sphere of social action, and perhaps education more than others, needs to take account of the freedom of human agents at the same time as recognizing how social structures shape and constrain those actions and what they mean. We need to recognize and analyze two important connections between the micro and the macro. We need to recognize that individual’s choices will be shaped and restricted by their background, their experiences, and the resources they can control, while never being fully determined by those background elements. A proper social theory will need ways of anticipating that freedom-within-constraint. At the same time we need to recognize that those individual actions and choices are actually what construct social structures – institutions, classes, nations, and so on – but not in a way that means that social structures are merely the sum of individual actions. How individual actions add up to make something more and something different, something that no individual or group may actually want, is also a central topic for a proper social theory.

Where I think that Archer is wrong is in her solution to these difficulties. She chooses to separate out structure and agency using time; past structures shape, but do not determine, present actions, while present actions shape, but do not determine, future structures. There is certainly something wrong with the way that we conceive time in comparative education, and in educational research more broadly. But Archer does not escape from the main difficulty. She argues that present choices are shaped by previously established structures, which is to say that the past shapes the present. But much of what we do in education is future-oriented; I choose to study this because of the vision I have of myself in the future. The future and the past are inextricably bound together in the present processes of education. Archer’s cycles of structure shaping agency and agency shaping structure are going on concurrently, not sequentially.

For me, the solution is not the one that Archer presents, but an understanding that draws on complexity science and chaos to understand how these different levels can interact with each other at the same time as being partially independent. But the full working out of what that would mean, and how it would mean recasting our concepts of cause and effect and the way that we think about policy interventions is beyond the scope of this chapter and will have to wait for another occasion.

Since the 1970s we have seen a greater acceptance of diversity in terms of method in the field. Notably, in 1983 Epstein offered an analysis of the field, and presented an argument that ideology underpinned all approaches to comparative education, and that it was not an adequate response for a comparative educationist to complain about the ideological underpinnings of the work of other scholars.

In making his case, Epstein (1983) refers extensively to the work of Archer, and her debate with King, in order to illustrate the difference between a positivist position (Archer’s) and a relativist position (King’s). I am not absolutely sure that I agree with Epstein’s classification of either Archer or King, but that is secondary to his main argument, which is absolutely convincing, that all methodological positions are based on something that is prior to methodology, some sort of basic understanding of how we come to know things, or more formally an epistemology, which he describes as an ideology.

What we do next depends on how we address the question of relativism. Most commonly, relativism is seen as a reason for not engaging with studies from a different camp. Neo-positivists, neo-Marxists, and relativists (as Epstein maps the field) will continue in their own way, developing their own comparative education, and the field remains forever fragmented. This seems to be the generally accepted conclusion, and to have framed the lack of debate for the last 40 years, although I do not mean to imply that Epstein argued that this was a desirable state of affairs. Indeed, in a later statement of his position (Epstein, 2008) he describes the field as a continuum between positivism and relativism, with most comparative education studies positioned somewhere between in a space he describes as “historical functionalism.” I think that Epstein was arguing that we should embrace, and then transcend, our necessarily ideological foundations.

To that end I think that we need to do two things. The first is to disrupt the categories that Epstein used to describe the field. He offers a classification based on what individual scholars believe about how we come to know things, their epistemology. In those terms it makes sense to categorize theorists as neo-positivists, neo-Marxists, and relativists. But ideology can extend far beyond epistemology. Holmes always advised his students to be clear about their methodology (or in this context their ideology) on three dimensions, what counts as knowledge, what sort of entity is a person, and what society is. Epstein addresses only the first of these, while it has been my intention, in looking at the work of Archer, to explore something about the other two dimensions or areas of ideology in comparative education.

The second thing that we need to do, in order to avoid the field remaining forever divided into camps separated by relativism, is to come to a different understanding of relativism itself.

Einstein’s theory of relativity is sometimes cited as evidence that the perspective of the viewer/researcher influences what can be seen. While that is true, it is important to remember that Einstein actually said something more, and something more important. He said that general descriptions of events (he used the term scientific laws) should be framed in such a way that all viewers can assent to them. That is to say, while the differences of perspective are inevitable, what remains as an important methodological principle is the need to try to bring them together into a common understanding.

The metaphor that comes to mind is the story of the traveller who arrives at a fork in the road, one road leading to heaven the other to hell. The fork is guarded by two identical guards, one of whom always tells the truth, and the other who always lies. The traveller may ask one question to know which way to go. The solution is for the traveller to ask one guard which way the other guard would advise him to go (and then go the other way). Whether the traveller is dealing with the culture of lying or the culture of telling the truth, reflecting on one culture through the eyes of the other will always produce the same answer.

Finding such intercultural understandings in naturalistic settings is much more difficult, but it is worth keeping the aspiration in mind when engaging in comparative education, always trying to see how the microscopic part of the study links to the macroscopic, whole, infinite field.


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