It is more than axiomatic that every position contains assumptions; It is demonstrable. Even the simple assertion that “Today is February the 24th” contains the assumption of the Western calendar, the nuance of British English and, of course, the expectation of the comprehensibility of the English language and all of the implications that connates. The ability to see the assumptions in the scholarly works of others is a vital skill. I’ll elucidate a couple of reasons why this is so in terms of my doctoral study.
The first is that closer approximations of an author’s meaning cannot be reached if the inherent assumptions are overlooked. Both Max Weber and Karl Marx talk about the economy. If the reader assumes that the view of the economy is the same for both authors, or conversely it is completely different, much of the nuance of meaning that separate the authors will be lost. In English as a foreign language studies, words like ‘fluency’, ‘ability’, understanding’ are complex and value-laden. Readers need to look for clues as to the precise meanings of such terms if the writer has not provided them.
The second questions issues of validity in the research design itself. If, for instance, a researcher devises a study based on grounded theory and simultaneously has a priori categories for investigation, there may be an issue about the purpose, techniques and uses of grounded theory that can leave a question mark over the study. Or if the quantitative study sets up some variables that expect the reader to accept, for example, that English as a foreign language ability can be represented by scores on a grammar-translation test.
The third reason is to do with the creation of new knowledge. If the layperson’s (or standard dictionary) meaning of any term is the one assumed to be the current in-use meaning in a set of given texts, the overlay of usages, meanings, connotations, implications and so on between different writers will be exact. However, this is rarely the case. How I use the term ‘fluency’ will be different from you in subtle ways. Most of the time, our differences will not be generative or productive. We’ll just clarify our boundaries and move on. However, there will be times when subtle differences appear and through the questioning of the assumptions in the usages, meaningful separations that may be generative of new theoretical positions emerge. Without a mindset that looks for assumptions, much of what is written in an article may seem almost irrelevant (or even verbose) and the production of new knowledge is hampered.
With this in mind, week three was the time to ‘reverse engineer’ a few articles to uncover the assumptions within.
The three articles here represent very different approaches to research into types of participation in higher education (HE). Gray’s (2009) sequence of epistemology, theoretical perspectives, methodology and methods in conjunction with Guba and Lincoln’s (1994) taxonomy they created to analyses cross paradigm positions, together comprise a powerful framework to reverse engineer the articles in order to uncover key aspects in each article.
Anderson (2010) presented a quantitative study whose inquiry aimed to measure the correlation between student engagement in academic content and student retention. A literature review had indicated the possibility the role of at-risk characteristics is less important in student success than student engagement. This generated the hypothesis that higher student engagement in courses lead to higher academic success as measured by course pass rates. The evidence to test this hypothesis was of two kinds: a survey and data on course pass rates. Both kinds of evidence were quantitative, and the method of analysis was statistical. The hypothesis was not given; their espoused question related only to the student survey instrument. Anderson’s objectivist epistemology formed the base for the positivist theoretical perspective. The survey instrument method was concordant with the underlying survey research methodology (Gray, 2009). The construct of student engagement was operationalised with three variables (but c.f. Creswell, 2009, who conflates these terms). A key assumption is that the variables relate closely to the emerging phenomenon of engagement. Anderson’s voice is disinterested, an “informer of decision makers” (Guba & Lincoln, 1994, p. 112), indicating the hegemonic desire to maintain the status-quo and retain the agentive power over retention with academic administration without recourse to the student’s voice.
In contrast, the student’s voice is the primary instrument in Crozier et al.’s (2008) study. This ethnographic work utilised participant observation as well as a questionnaire in order to investigate reasons for student retention problems in the “research site” (Gray, 2009, p. 167) of four kinds of HE institution. In accord with ethnographic practices, the unit of observation is the social class category (Gray, 2009), describing “an account of the social norms that govern the actors in that setting” (Alexander, 2014, p. 15). Although grounded theory prevents pre-formulations of theory prior to the data analysis stages, Crozier et al. had Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’ as a co-ordinating structure. Using this, differences in experience between students from the different social classes was explained. No recommendations for policy change were offered beyond the very general call to recognise the issues that were discovered.
Barnett (2009) analyses a philosophical distinction to present implications for curricular and pedagogic action. No direct action is called for, and the paper serves to inform its readership of HE (classroom, curriculum planning, academic management) practitioners of how the distinction can impact on future decisions. His is a critical inquiry aiming to question western universities prioritising skills over personal characteristics. This “dogma of knowledge … dogma of skills” (p. 438) has occluded any focus on “capabilities with which the graduate can engage purposively with the world” (p. 439), i.e. personal dispositions and qualities. These attributes represent “series of structural/ historical insights that will be transformed as time passes” (Guba & Lincoln, 1994, p. 113) and add to the accumulation of knowledge which “grows and changes through a dialectical process of historical revision” (p. 114). Barnett’s strong attachment to particular dispositions and qualities resonate with Guba and Lincoln’s recognition that values “are seen as ineluctable” (p. 114) in forming Barnett’s decidedly non-disinterested position. Barnett, however, displays a normative aspect, a behaviourist sense. Barnett is looking for environmental pressures to act on passive participants. Barnett discusses a tension between being and becoming. This supposes a non-fixed, fluid. Barnett is predicated on a non-essentialist ontology, that is, on the belief that categories of quality are not immutable but can be altered towards normative values.
Alexander, H. A. (2014). Traditions of inquiry in education: Engaging the paradigms of educational research. In A. D. Reid, E. P. Hart, & M. A. Peters (Eds.), A Companion to Research in Education (p. 13). Dordrecht: Springer. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6809-3
Anderson, H. (2010). Student engagement: A case study of the relationships between student engagement and student persistence. Teaching & Learning Research Initiative, 1–11.
Barnett, R. (2009). Knowing and becoming in the higher education curriculum. Studies in Higher Education, 34(4), 429–440. http://doi.org/10.1080/03075070902771978
Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research Design Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Approaches (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage. http://doi.org/10.1002/1521-3773(20010316)40:6<9823::AID-ANIE9823>3.3.CO;2-C
Crozier, G., Reay, D., Clayton, J., Colliander, L., & Grinsted, J. (2008). Different strokes for different folks: diverse students in diverse institutions – experiences of higher education. Research Papers in Education, 23(2), 167–177. http://doi.org/10.1080/02671520802048703
Gray, D. E. (2009). Theoretical perspectives and research methodologies. In Doing research in the real world. Los Angeles: Sage.
Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2, 164–194.