Working with your supervisor: follow-up 3

Your state that a concern you have is that your future supervisor may not be culturally aware of the Chinese situation well enough to advise you. I have entertained similar thoughts, but mainly in reference to the required reading resources rather than to the supervisory process itself. In particular, it may be of merit to discuss two facets of this question.

The first is the notion of granularity in dimensional theories. As an example, I’ll take Lingard’s (2009) discussion of Appadurai’s ‘vertebrate’ and ‘cellular’ political scales in which worldwide political systems could be characterised as ‘vertebrate, “that is, bureaucratic and hierarchical” in contrast with “cellular, networked and horizontal” systems (p. 226). Such a dimension seems to encompass all possibilities, and the analyst’s task is to judge where a particular nation-state’s system falls on the continuum. A supervisor who is aware of the dimensionality can advise matter-of-factly using the language of the base theory. Yet, this action is predicated on the theory being sufficiently granular, that is, being able to make distinctions between adjacently situated subtle aspects. Furthermore, depending on the rigour of the theory, its assumptions may not be appropriate for environments that fall at the extremes of the continuum. Lingard (2009) recognises positionality in educational policy research, an understanding gained after tutoring doctoral students from the Global South.

This brings me to the second facet: the notion of rationality that undergirds much of western research in higher education. Lingard (2009) drew upon Bourdieu’s call for the rejection of “epistemological innocence” (2009, p. 230) in regard to adopting western assumptions in global study, but he neglected to clarify what those assumptions may be. Possibly, the most pervasive of them is rationality. Rationality seems to mean something like ‘being based on reason, fact, or evidence’. Yet, each ‘reason, fact, or piece of evidence’ is itself a product of value-laden research (Greenbank, 2003). Western rationality comes down to (at least) three core tenets; a bureaucratic instrumentality that reduces the impact of any individual, the focus on scientific technical efficiency and a belief in the capitalist principle of capital growth (Ritzer, 2007). In Confucian Japan, for example, these tenets are at best only marginally appropriate. Many corporations, for instance, retain employees well beyond their usefulness to the corporate bottom line because the social expectation of life-long employment takes precedence over profit margins.

Much of the reading resources in Module 6 had very little relevance to Confucian heritage countries in terms of both a lack of granularity and their base assumptions. However, Ritzer (2010) argues that globalisation based on US values is being eroded. China and India have challenged the American hegemony, and subsequently, other values will likely increasingly inform global trends. Perhaps what may be challenging for the timing of the thesis stage is the co-incidence of changing values with extant but dated theoretical expectations. In other words, how much of the western-based literature will actually be relevant in 2017-8 in environments that need to adjust to very different social realities?


Greenbank, P. (2003). The role of values in educational research: the case for reflexivity. British Educational Research Journal, 29(6), 791–801.

Lingard, B. (2009). Researching Education Policy in a Globalized World: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 108(2), 226–246.

Ritzer, G. (2010). Sociological theory (8th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ritzer, G. (2008). Sociological theory (8th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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