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Lecture 3 – International Organisations, Interplay and the Value of Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studying Education Policy

Sotiria Grek (University of Edinburgh, UK)
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Sotiria Grek is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. She works in the area of Europeanisation of education policy with a particular focus on transnational policy learning, knowledge and governance. She has co-authored (with Martin Lawn) ‘Europeanising education: governing a new policy space’ (2012, Symposium) and recently co-edited (with Joakim Lindgren) 'Governing by Inspection’ (2015, Routledge). She is currently writing a monograph on 'Educating Europe: EU Government, Knowledge and Legitimation' to be published by Routledge in 2017.

The lecture will discuss education governance and Europeanisation. It will suggest that education researchers need to employ theories and methods from across the disciplinary spectrum in order to be able to make sense and analyse the emergence of a European education space. Sociology, politics, EU integration studies, as well as anthropology, geography and science and technology studies are rich in their theoretical perspectives and methodological apparatus in helping us understand current developments in transnational and European education governance. In order to illustrate the argument I am making , I will be using an example from some of my current research which is problem- driven and interdisciplinary; this is the interplay and interdependence of the OECD with the European Commission in collecting evidence and drawing new educational policy agendas in Europe during the last 15 years.

Interdisciplinary Research

‘We are not students of some subject matter; we are students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline’ (Popper, 1963, p.88).

One of the greatest quality of social science research is curiosity, and curiosity is not limited and bounded within disciplinary borders. Examples of interdisciplinary problems are diet, eating, climate, health, aging, etc.

What do interdisciplinary studies tell us? They tell us about grand challenges and societal challenges in the 21st century – for example, if you were to look at the grand scheme of Horizon 2020 where eight billions of funds are available to do interdisciplinary research, you would see many examples of research that does not fall neatly within disciplinary boundaries. What we also know is that while most of you would like eventually to work in academia, the reality is that it may not happen. Half of you will work as lecturers at the university, but the other half may find jobs in research organizations, political organizations, in government and so on. What does this mean? It means that you will be requested to work with people coming from different disciplines where the core skill is to be open, to be open to new perspectives, to new theories. I think this is, of course, the core skill of researchers. Though it means, in that case, looking elsewhere to compare your subject matter with other fields, looking to other theories.

According to a definition, “Interdisciplinary research is a mode of research by a team, or by individuals that integrate information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, theories from two or more disciplines.” The idea of integration is core in interdisciplinary research. Very often, people confuse interdisciplinarity with multidisciplinarity where you have different separated disciplines looking at the same subject matter. Integration, synthesis is important. And what is the purpose? “To advance fundamental understandings or to solve problems whose origins are beyond the scope of the single discipline, or area of research.”

When to use interdisciplinary research? The literature says: “a) when the problem is complex, b) the problems are unresolved, c) there are problems at the interface of disciplines.” In my research, for example, I have always looked at the interaction of Europeanization with globalization, the role of international organizations in the field of education, that is interdisciplinary topics at the interface among different disciplines. Other instances in using interdisciplinarity are when no single disciplines have been able to address a problem comprehensively, and important insights are offered by more disciplines.

How to do interdisciplinary research? Some people would like to have several steps. You identify a question that requires interdisciplinarity; you identify relevant phenomena, methods, disciplines that are relevant to the study. You identify the most relevant insights, what are the more useful, what you want to criticize, and why you are thinking of taking the field forward, you find common ground, reflect and test, depending on your epistemology (positivist, constructivist, etc.) and communicate the results.

However, there is another way of doing interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary at its core, it is not a matter of method in itself, it is more a mindset. It is a mindset because you need have a kind of perspective, it is not a matter of listing propositions that come from different disciplines. It is a matter of trying to understand that political, rhetorical, psychological nuance that interdisciplinarity offers.
Skill in interdisciplinary work is more a matter of heart, rather than methodology (Froderman, 2013) – or a habit of the mind.

I have had a quite peculiar career for example. I started studying history and archeology, I have a master in art history, and I worked as museum educator for four years before coming to the UK to have a Master and a Ph.D. and to do the work I did in the last ten years. For a long, long time I have tried to completely hide that past because I thought that past was an obstacle to proving my credibility. Just to give you an example of feedback from a previous failed project application : this woman started to study in Greece art history, then went to the UK to study education, and now is studying international organizations! I think there was a degree of irony in the comment as it is not common in academia for researchers to cross boundaries and move out of the comfort zone of their field. This is one of the problems of interdisciplinarity, and in particular, for those who do not have not a linear path in academia (and there are more and more of us these days!). Now a few years later I have accepted this past background of mine, and I am presenting it as a benefit, an advantage. In moving in different fields, you bring a lot of knowledge, openness, perspectives, curiosity that those who work mono- disciplinarily may not have. The critical point is to find people who recognize these qualities at an early career stage and give you the opportunity to push you forward. I was lucky, but I know that not everyone has the same luck. This is not to suggest that it is only interdisciplinary research that should be of relevance; there is bad interdisciplinary research, similar to bad mono-disciplinary research. But there are additional challenges with interdiscplinarity, that need to be recognised. For example, the basis for judging quality is not the same across disciplines. The problem when you do interdisciplinary research is that you may encounter diverse expectations.

International Organizations and the Rise of a Global Metrological Field: The origins of the idea of an Interdisciplinary Project Proposal

The core question of this project dates as back as 2007 when I started working in the Fabricating Quality European Project with Jenny Ozga, Martin Lawn and several colleagues of other countries. We were looking at the emergent governance by numbers and the many ways in which quality assurance and quality discourses are creating an emerging European space of education. One of my core activity as an early career researcher was to interview a lot of actors of the European Commission, in different research agencies, in diverse national contexts (in England, in Scotland, etc.). I asked them how do they experience the Europeanization of education, how do they understand it, how does it happen, does it exist, etc

The answers that we had constantly back were: “Yes, it is very important,” “OECD has recommended that we do A, B, C,” “PISA has been very important” “Yes, we want to take part of this international assessment.” I used to ask them about Europe, I asked them about Europeanization, they would always come back discussing OECD. I tried to clarify, by saying: “No, we are not looking at OECD, the project is looking at Europeanization of education, that is the question we are interested in, you have to focus on that.” In the end, it became a pattern. You were asking people about Europeanization; that is a process starting with the influence of the European Commission, the participation of the member states, the definition of the Open Method of Coordination, the Lisbon Agenda, and the dominant answer would have always been the OECD! I wrote, then, a paper in 2009 looking at OECD as a key Europeanising actor.

As a result of this article, that became quite popular; I wrote a project proposal that was funded by ESRC to look at transnational policy learning, and in particular, at the interaction between European Commission and OECD in constructing the skills and competencies agenda in the new big study called PIAAC. The project produced some very good findings: there were a lot of interaction between the two organizations, and both were using one another to promote their policy agendas. OECD started as a research actor, and the European Commission as policy actor, yet PISA and PIAAC projects produced almost a reversal of role. EC would push OECD to adopt a policy agenda to be shared with member states trying to avoid the problem of subsidiarity. While the EU Member States prefer not to be seen as influenced by the European Commission, there is not any problem for them in being influenced by OECD. The case of Germany is a good example of that. There have been quotations in the article about the ways in which the Commission uses the OECD to do some of its work: not only with the OECD providing data the Commission needed for governing the space, but also primarily by pushing the OECD towards some specific policy recommendations. OECD does not speak openly about that. There is an article by Schleicher where he says that OECD is/was following the Lisbon agenda and is/was working very closely with the Commission. You can understand the reason because OECD is funded to a large extent by the Commission.

International Organizations and the Rise of a Global Metrological Field: The content of an Interdisciplinary Project Proposal
Our lives are governed by numbers. Surprisingly, we know very little about how numbers are made, what are the processes producing quantification, who are the key actors making this happens.
At the moment we see the emergence of some collaborations between international organizations in the making of metrics. International organizations come together in the production of numbers. In the past, international organizations have their policy and geographical loci. EC was working mostly in Europe, OECD was a club of powerful economic nations, World Bank was working in the middle-income countries, UNESCO all over the world. In the last 15 years, there is a reshuffling of the spheres of influence of the different international organizations, and the emergence of a lot of collaborations in the making of metrics. Just to give you a couple of examples. If you look at PISA, OECD is moving to very different regions, with the project PISA for Development, if you look at sustainable development goal in 2015 looking forward: it is an alliance of many different organizations. We are seeing that transnational governance is regarding alliances and interdependencies. The key idea of this project is that looking at the interplay between the different international organizations in the making of metrics offers a unique lens to understand the making of quantification, and how transnational governance is being done nowadays

A range of disciplines informed this study: international relations, STS studies, global policy studies, social studies of metrics and quantification, organizational sociology.

International relations is the discipline that studies international governance. The three parts of international relations are the realistic approach that considers the international organizations as passive entities; the rational choice perspective that looks at the actors and how they perform their interests; the constructivist perspective view where I found particularly interesting the work of Martha Finnemore. Finnemore discusses the work of international organizations as purposeful actors, describes international organizations, as having authority and being actors in themselves. She considers international organizations as the purveyors of the liberal order, as having legitimacy through the technical work they do.

The second big area that informed the study was science and technology studies. This discipline looks at the making of knowledge (from Actor Network Theory to the political production of knowledge). Sheila Jasanoff discusses the role of coproduction in knowledge production, i.e. how international organizations are sometimes at the interface between the policy and the research world as the case of OECD-EU Commission displayed. Here, the notions of boundary objects and boundary organizations are crucial, and I could not but address it.

The third strand is the global policy studies interested in the making of transnational governance, the role of transnational networks, the role of the transnational network in learning.

Social studies of metrics and quantification is not a discipline in itself; it is emerging as a body of literature from the history of statistics, sociology and anthropology. Here, we have the relevant works of Marilyn Strathern, and Chris Shore. Finally, organizational sociology that provides useful tools to understand organizations, and in particular, the internal and the external worlds of international organizations.

In using these disciplinary backgrounds, it does not mean that the project does not have a theoretical framework. I have been using political sociology for quite a long time and Bourdieu’s theory of the field. I used Bourdieu theory of the field in my Ph.D., and I found useful to understanding the making of these metrological fields regarding actors that advance their positions depending on the different identities they assume and the interests they have. Finally, I am using these concepts from STS, especially this notion of knowledge controversies, i.e. controversies that arise when experts produce knowledge.

The project proposes to do in-depth examinations of metrics, of the decision-making processes, to investigate the kind of expertise chosen, the role of these epistemic communities, the role of lay knowledge, of tacit knowledge. We are interested in looking at funding, at the role of ignorance, the role of not-knowing, in looking at failure – we know that many projects of the international organizations fail. Using the notion of interplay allows focusing on that unique moment – bids, documents, conferences, meetings, dinners where consensus is created. How international organizations come together and create a common frame of reference for collaboration. This is not a given, and it has to be constructed, and the politics of doing so is the focus of the research. Secondly, we are looking at the international workings of international organizations, and again interplay is the key moment. If I had to use the example of OECD and DG it could be interesting to see how this collaboration brought out in the open contrasting views on education in DG. Finally, what the project wants to do is an analysis of the relationshipd of international organizations with their external environment, the interactions with the policy world, the enrollment of the different expertise and the way their work is legitimized.

As to the research design, we have been looking at two policy areas: education and sustainable development. The reason is not looking at just two separate policy areas; there is an underlying question mark: understanding the way these two separate areas seem to become much closer than ever before. Think of the example I gave you: PISA for Development. Education studies come to be used for development or the sustainable development goals where one of the crucial goals, the number four, is equitable education.

We will have four specific cases: a) the world education indicators b) education and skills online c) child poverty indicators d) sustainable development indicators. We will be using mixed methods. We will synthesize the results across the cases through social network analysis, topic modeling analysis, semi-structured interviews, critical discourse analysis.

The project is aimed at creating new theory on the process of quantification in itself, and also to understand how the making of metrics impact on international organizations in themselves, and how this affects transnational governance.


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