One turn too many?

One turn too many?

In the social and educational sciences, it is common to talk about different turns, which means that the research community, or at least parts of it, begins to move in a new direction. One example is the qualitative turn. The qualitative turn meant that many researchers began to get interested in meaning creation and the social agent.

Previously quantitative research had dominated. In this research, one tries to find law-like relations between variables. Phonological training improves learning to read is one example from the educational science field of such relations.

I will briefly describe the most important turns from the second half of the 20th century until today in the educational sciences before returning to the question in the title. It should be noted that the different turns are expressed in different ways in different national contexts and my point of reference is primarily the Swedish research context. However, I believe that the reasoning and distinctions made are relevant to many other national contexts. So let us start with the qualitative turn.


The qualitative turn

I believe that a strong argument for a qualitative turn was that human agency and morality were to a large extent ignored within the framework of quantitative research. Human beings were seen as objects among other objects in a mechanistic worldview. When the view of the human being as an acting and morally responsible subject was increasingly established, the interest in this human being and her/his meaningful interpretation of the world was established. Interpretation to a certain degree replaced measurement.

I believe this shift was not primarily about methodology (quantitative/qualitative) but rather about differences in worldviews, objectivism was to some extent replaced by subjectivism. However, the qualitative turn has been criticized for being too uncritical of society and schooling, not least from those who advocated a critical turn.


The critical turn

Already Marx developed a critical social science. When talking about the critical turn in the educational sciences, one often implies sociologically oriented research which is based on the assumption that society and education are deeply unfair. Thus, it became the researcher's task to criticize the society and the education she/he studied and, at best, also to try to initiate some change.

The critical turn gained momentum through the leftist student movement during the latter part of the 1960s. The class society and colonialism were the main enemies and with time the patriarchal social structures and other power systems have come to be criticized. Sometimes the critical turn has gone hand in hand with the linguistic turn.


The linguistic turn

A basic starting point in the linguistic/communicative turn is that the language is not a transparent tool that reflects the outside world of objects and their relations. On the contrary, language and language use make an active contribution in recreating and renewing the world we live in. Some within the linguistic turn even went so far that it seemed that almost everything was language and / or that the world was created in interaction.

There is a particular risk with the concept of language because it has such a huge metaphorical potential. It is almost too easy to see everything as language, for example, as in the terms "soccer is a language", "the language of clothes" and the "language of the silence", that it is easy to forget all the materiality and practice that is part of the life that provides a framework for language.

It is probably the fact that we see the very construction of meaning as so central to language that we so easily use it as a metaphor for other meaningful phenomena. Maybe this tendency is strengthened when the researchers theorizing the world themselves live their lives in a textual world.

The very idea that language also contributes to the construction of the world means that the linguistic turn easily can be connected to the critical turn, perhaps since both turns take the starting point that the world as it appears is not a natural fact.

The last turn I will present is in some ways even more critical than the critical turn. Before going over to it, it should be noted that there are also connections between the qualitative and the linguistic turn, such as in, for example, ethnomethodology.


The ontological turn

This expression was used by an internationally well-known researcher at a seminar at Uppsala University, but I do not really know how established the expression is. Sometimes this turn, or parts of it, is referred to as post-humanism / postmodernism and can take different forms, ranging from a milder form in which man's rationality is partly deconstructed, over views such as at Bruno Latour´s where objects are seen as actors to approaches where animals are seen as subjects with equal value as human beings. The ontological turn thus involves a radical questioning of human sovereignty.

It is possible to distinguish and name the turns in slightly different ways and also to put them more clearly in a chronological context. It should also be noted that they have co-existed and the quantitative approach has always had a strong position. However, my point here has been to illustrate the occurrence of turns and to briefly describe them. It is now time to return to the question that was asked initially.


One turn too many?

This question can be interpreted in two ways. One the one hand the turns can be seen as an expression of a research community where confusion prevails. If so, we could talk about several turns too many. Many would think that it is important to turn in the right direction and then go on in that direction. However, I do not agree with this because I believe pluralism is an inherent aspect of modern society, therefore we can expect different views and each approach can contribute to our knowledge in different ways.

The other way to interpret the question has to do with the fact that a return to quantitative research seems to be evident in many countries. It is seen by many as a turn too many. The research community should have stayed within other approaches the argument goes. I agree with that objection but certainly not fully. Of course, my position depends on my own theoretical starting points. I consider myself a pragmatist in the sense that I believe that the development of knowledge should be relevant to the development of society and schooling.

In order to avoid misunderstandings, I do mean that research should follow the lead of politicians and school authorities but research should be relevant to the democratically decided goals of schooling. The pluralism in perspectives illustrated above can all be useful in such a pragmatic project.

However, I do not sympathize equally with the different turns, sometimes I have even warned of some elements in them, but everyone contains something important that we should take advantage off. What I see as particularly problematic in my pragmatic perspective, however, is that there are very few encounters between researchers who adhere to different turns.

If we use democracy as a metaphor, the research community in that light can be seen as consisting of different parties that very rarely debate with each other. The metaphor comes out a little bit short because political communication is usually ritualized. It is rarely about genuine discussions. But the educational science research would definitely benefit from different approaches coming into contact with one another.

As mentioned earlier, the quantitative approach in educational research has never disappeared, but seems to have ended up in the background of qualitative and critical research, at least in Sweden, for a relatively long time. The quantitative research share several assumptions with the instrumentalism that characterizes what is usually called New Public Management, which could largely explain the return of the quantitative approach. There are, of course, great risks with such an instrumentalism, which in its worst forms can develop into an anti-humanism.

From my pragmatic perspective, however, the (re)turn of the quantitative appoach can not only be seen as a negative event. It has raised very important questions about the content of research and the relationship of research to practice and has further contributed with a lot of interesting empirical research that have important implications for the work of schools.

In conclusion, it is something of a paradox that the pluralism of perspectives illustrated here rarely leads to deliberative discussions on the content and functions of research. Rather it seems that the many researchers perceive themselves as entrepreneurs whose task it is to drive their own approach forward rather than to engage in a dialogue with the research community.


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