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La Educación
Número: (114) I
Año: 1993

Changing Representations of Knowledge

While comparative educators only began to explicitly discuss their theoretical framing dispositions following the appearance of Thomas Kuhn’s magnum opus, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, implicit knowledge perspectives can be identified in works of the field’s founding fathers. The 18th and 19th Century foundational texts of Berchtold, Jullien and Basset, for example, all advocate encyclopedic description and macro historical comparisons of public instruction in order to generalize on its efficiency in the then-emergent project of individual and social modernity. With the ensuing construction of national systems of education in the industrial, or modern world, and their transfer to the colonized world, comparative educators shifted their attention to the study of social forces and contexts in the shaping and differentiation of these systems. By 1950, the work of Sadler, Kandel and Hans—among others—helped to consolidate the functionalist paradigm as the dominant, even if implicit and unspoken, way of representing or modeling national and cross-national educational phenomena.

Figure 1 below seeks to capture textual knowledge orientations in exemplar comparative education scholarship during three major periods: i.e., in the 1950s and 1960s when functionalist and positivist orthodoxy dominated; in the contentious 1970s and 1980s when the radical functionalist, humanist, and radical humanist paradigms challenged orthodoxy and unresolved heterodox struggles prevailed; and in the emergence of a more heterogeneous period (with the somewhat reluctant acceptance of the complementarity of different paradigms) as we move into the 1990s. To facilitate comparison, Figure 1 distinguishes between eight kinds—or directions—of hermeneutic reference within the texts noted, i.e., knowledge control and organization; knowledge and ontology, framing, and style; knowledge and gender/emotions; and knowledge products.6 Textual representations in comparative education, it might be noted, have for over a century rather closely tracked the rise and fall of the functionalist paradigm in sociology, in social anthropology, in political science, and in modernization and human capital theories, as may be seen in the following chronology summarized in Figure 1.



Following World War II with the crises of decolonization and cold war competition, comparative education studies—and especially those in North America—continued to be framed in evolutionary and functionalist perspectives while moving closer to the social sciences and their concerns to explain and inform social and economic development using the vocabulary, if not the rigor, of the natural sciences. The florescence of comparative and international education studies during these decades of functionalist and positivist orthodoxy also drew strength from the creation of scholarly journals in the field, an increase in governmental and foundation support, and the founding of numerous comparative education centers in leading U.S. and European universities.

At the Comparative Education Center at the University of Chicago, for example, Arnold Anderson, the first director, argued in a foundational text that the ultimate aim of comparative education is—as with the social sciences—systematic knowledge of causation, i.e., the shaping of the results of analysis into law-like generalizations. Where earlier educational research and educational psychology programs had gained entrance and eventual methodological respectability in European and North American higher education using statistical and experimental methods, Anderson proposed that comparative education should seek acceptance with a strategy of: 1) integration with the social sciences; 2) the use of the natural sciences model of hypothesis testing and analysis of co-variation; 3) a commitment to theoretical explanation and generalization; and 4) a conservative, if implicit, political bias.7 Over a decade later, Anderson continued to predict progress in the identification of “functional equivalents for the basic structures and functions of educational systems.” He admonished, however, that the price of “progress” would require the exclusion of competing paradigms: “Perhaps, we should cease to speak of society as a ‘seamless web’ and see it rather as a matrix of .5 correlation coefficients. Accordingly, holistic conceptions of society should be espoused with heavy qualifications, even when we would do not put conflict at the center of our conceptual scheme.”8


By the early 1970s, functionalist theory and positivist methods had achieved the status of orthodoxy in comparative and education studies at the same time they came under attack in the social sciences and in development studies from a combination of emergent critical and interpretive knowledge communities. Reasons for the vulnerability and eventual decentering of functionalism in the 1970s and 1980s are suggested in the shift from a segregated to a plural society in the U.S. With cultural pluralism came epistemological and ontological pluralism. Functionalist theory, moreover, proved unable to adequately predict or control frequent development failures.9 Equally important, the rise of a global field with numerous new scholars and comparative education programs in Europe, Asia, and the Third World saw the emergence of antithetical neo-marxist, critical theory, feminist, and dependency perspectives, i.e., new ideas, to challenge the old ideas and legitimacy of functionalist orthodoxy.10

Emergent Heterogeneity

Representations of knowledge in comparative education texts began a shift away from ideological confrontation and heterodoxy in the late 1980s.11 While a few researchers still claim orthodox purity and remain within their exclusive paradigmatic utopias—and many continue unsuccessful partisan efforts to replace one world-view with another—the decline of grand theory in the social sciences means that today no one knowledge community can claim a monopoly of truth or claim to fill all intellectual space.12 Rather, a growing number of researchers and practitioners see all claims to universal, foundational knowledge—be they grounded in positivist “science,” or interpretivist “science,” or Marxist “science”—as incomplete and problematic.13

Husén, for example, has pointed the way past heterodoxy with his recognition that no one paradigm can answer all questions, that all serve to complement supposedly conflicting and incommensurable world-views.14 Paulston sees the field moving from paradigm wars to a new and confused terrain of disputatious yet complementary communities as the use of knowledge becomes more eclectic and reoriented by new ideas and new knowledge methods in, for example, interpretations, simulations, translations, probes, and conceptual mapping.15 Knowledge has also become more “textual.” It is increasingly seen as construction employing a conventional sign system where even non-book texts, such as icons, architectural structures, musical compositions, or graphic texts such as maps, are seen to “presuppose a signifying consciousness that it is our business to uncover.”16 With the appearance of feminist, post-structural, and post modern studies, among others, comparative education discourse has also begun this excavation17 with a shift in knowledge framing perspectives from foundational to antifoundational orientations.18