The Comparative and the Transnational – diversity and similarities in the study of comparative governance

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The contemporary situation in which comparison is energized by speed, technology and data and applied to, and reorders the governing of education, is regarded by scholars and practitioners alike as new. It is not. Comparison is a tool used within governance, in diverse ways and with different intensities, over time, to shape education systems. Our project has a focus on the ways in which the cross border governing processes of education have used comparison, and it uses the case of Swedish education [its governing actors, elites and practitioners]. Our interest in how to study cross border comparisons is reflected in this short review of the concerns and methods of comparative education [the disciplinary activity] and transnational histories. Both have an interest in the history of nation state developments and cross national influences, but they appear to vary in the scope and methods of their work.

From ‘Paris to PISA’ is a research project focused upon the contrasts and judgments that state actors or researchers develop in the field of education for the purposes of governing. The project introduces the idea of comparison in the act of governing education systems, that is, in changing, innovating and understanding national systems, through the use of information drawn from other places or systems. This information may be derived from special events, like exhibitions or study tours, and from publications and research centre reports. A still dominant view of education systems is that they change from within national discourses, borders and traditions. This may well be true but it may also be a construction in which the cross-border, the foreign, the object or the data might have been deliberately excluded or unwittingly ignored. Reintroducing the idea of the ‘outside influence’ is not a way of creating a new dominant view but creating a complex and detailed set of instances in which judgments and data have been influential or excluded from national cases of governing education. Historians have tended to overlook the significance of cross-border movements in explaining the ways in which education systems change while evidence from political science research suggests that, not only at the present time but also historically, learning from and with others is one of the primary tools in the policy making assemblage.

Sweden, as a self consciously modern state, has always been in a fluid space of comparison, engaged in both internal and external arrangements and policy learning. The project uses Sweden as an exemplar to investigate the ways in which national systems and their innovations were influenced, constructed and traded through the use of comparison: and how the practice of governing comparisons developed over time transnationally, internationally and in European contexts.

Comparative and policy studies in education have used borrowing, lending and transnational flows as useful concepts in explaining education reform (Steiner-Khamsi & Stolpe 2006). The transfer of educational practices and objects involves adaptation and translation and is done in the context of specific interests and power relations (Steiner-Khamsi 2009). The application of similar perspectives for the analysis of the Swedish educational history is rare (Lundahl 2008, Lundahl & Waldow 2009). Systematic analyses of the interplay between Sweden and the international are still very much an open field. We argue that socio-historical analysis can contribute to a more complex understanding of the formation of national and international policy as an interdependent process. To conclude, transnational histories have revealed the importance of international policy and research communities working in education, and their rich intertwined influence on the construction of national policies and practices, the movement of pedagogic objects and routines, and their role in international organizations.

Comparative Education
The traditional emphasis, and a foundational concern of comparative education has turned around the importance of single country case studies and cross national comparisons [Silova 2009). The “dominant unit of analysis since the emergence of the field as a distinct domain of inquiry” (Silova 2008, p. 305, quoting Bray), has been the single country and the nation state, as expressed in the work of early practitioners of the field (Sadler, 1900, Monroe, Kandel, 1933a). The focus on the single country included Kandel’s ideas on the relation between the history of the country and the history of education, and with Sadler, the idea that the whole culture of the country, rather than simply its educational structures, mattered. Kandel’s idea that comparative education would be the “continuation of the study of the history of education into the present” (1933b,p. xix) would need revision today as history of education has had to deal with the arrival of transnational history. However, Cowen has argued that what preceded the category of nation was an issue or a ‘factor’ (race, language, religion and so on) as units of comparative analysis. The comparative educationists, formed in the interwar period, took as their agenda the major historical and contemporary changes of ‘their’ world [Cowen 1996 p154). It is this sense of context which was applied to the country or site

Traditionally comparative educationists like Michael Sadler have tried to understand educational systems by trying to understand the political, economic and social contexts that have surrounded them. Educational sites can perhaps be read as distillations of crucial political and economic messages, including the redefinitions of the past and the visions of the future. [Cowen p341]

Of course, this sense of context was seen as necessary in the extraction of value for the comparativist which could be used elsewhere: comparison produced ‘things’ of transferable value

It has been argued that a shift from the scholarly contrasting and comparing of
different national systems of education has been under pressure from the rise of ‘international education’ [Anweiler 1977]. International education, according to Anweiler, has focused on a heightened [in relation to comparative education] concern with, and deliberate effort toward, to educational change across borders, systematizing national actions by learning, borrowing, influencing and responding to ideas and practices from outside its borders. At different times, imitation and transfer, informal exchange of information, and the growth of international planning have taken place in the 20thC, first within the context of a limited imperial and industrial competition and then widened into a dominant mode of governing education. Competition and reform have been institutionalized through international bodies, like the OECD, and UNESCO, World Bank and the IEA. The relation between national school reform projects and international comparisons, policy statements and expert exchanges is complex today but it has a history.

The scale of International education and the agencies which foster it, may have heightened, organized and promoted transfer within a competition based international system, and the application of large scale comparative education programmes led to the need for understanding large scale effects and problems. For example, the idea of ‘transitologies’, or the major reconstruction of failing states in which education has to carry the heavy burden of symbolic and practical assistance (Cowen 2000 p338] is an unknown problematic for the Swedish project, although it suggests a scale we haven’t imagined in our study of flows and influences.

Transnational Histories
Historians have generally built their work upon that of previous generations, and using their key ‘framework of analysis’, the nation-state. [Iriye 2013 p2]. The focus was on how the state emerged and developed – a ‘nation-centred understanding’ of modern history. The move to social history only strengthened the nation centred approach, although it emphasised marginality, popular culture, and a wider range of subjects. However, the production of new categories, drawn from the social and the cultural, moved the older narrow category of nation state, defined as a political entity, into relations with expert and cultural communities. The idea that the nation state couldn’t be understood except as situated within movements in world history, gradually required linkages with scholarship in the economic, trade, financial, and diplomatic areas. It remained intact as a key unit of analysis though. In recent times, the growth of multinational companies, alongside international agencies, and organizations working across borders, have limited the emphasis on the nation state, with its borders, histories and concerns. It has not removed it as its people, funding, and concerns can be expressed in particular ways and contexts, within the developing histories of the transnational.

Of central importance to transnational histories is

The intricate interrelationship between nations and transnational existences, between national preoccupations and transnational agendas, or between national interests and transnational concerns [Iriye 2013 p15]

This works its way out in the focus on

cross national connections, whether through individuals, non-national identities, and non-state actors, or in terms of objectives shared by people and communities regardless of their nationality. [Iriye 2013 p15]

Periodization, and especially the notions about early or late Modernity, makes imperfect sense within this conception of transnationalism. Following the transnational movements of ideas, practices, objects and people means that they have to be studied within a de-centred context. Understanding the elements of movement is the key.

In our project, we are working with a transnational history approach: that is, we are following non-government actors, working scientifically and entrepreneurially, whose work and influence is often produced in a national context, sometimes supported by government actors and interests, but which is constantly recreated in transnational contexts. One of the consequences of this approach is that we view human and material interaction as producing mix, blend and hybridity in the diverse forms of ‘migrations, cultural transfers and interchanges’ they engage in [Iriye p78]. Naturally therefore it is the ‘spaces between’ which are illuminated as much as the ‘places’ of production or event –

It is an approach that focuses on relations and formations, circulations and connections, between, across and through these units, and how they have been made, not made or unmade. [Saunier p2]

Bearing in mind our interest is in comparative governance, the value of a transnational history approach is its focus on the complex ways in which ideas and practices flow across the spaces of interaction, leading to a series of iterations, in this case, about the flows of Swedish practices in education, to and fro, and their consequent effects.

Saunier has summarized this approach in the following way

First is the historicization of contacts between communities, polities and societies. Here the goal is to study how the exchanges and interactions waxed and waned, to appraise the changing the levels of exchange, integration and disintegration between the territorialized basic units of historical understanding [countries, regions, continents]; and empirical answer to the questions of what is, and when was globalization.

Secondly, the transnational perspective acknowledges and assesses foreign contributions to the design, discussion and implementation of domestic features within communities, polities and societies; and, vice versa the projection of domestic features into the foreign. The purpose is to thicken our understanding of self-contained entities like nations, regions, civilizations, cities, professional groups, and religious communities by shedding light on their composite material.

Thirdly, transnational history deal with trends, patterns, organizations and individuals that have been living between and through these self contained entities that we use as units of historical research. Here we have an opportunity to recover the history of projects, individuals, groups, activities processes and institutions that have often been invisible or at best peripheral to historians because they thrived in between, across and through polities and societies. [Saunier p3]

So, it is with the entity, and in this case, we start with Sweden, the wax and wane of its influence and connections, the hybrid and composite in its construction and governance, and the complexity of these processes, over time.

The range of conceptual tools which we can use include the following – firstly, the connectors, the intermediaries and brokers who have operated as agents or elite members or experts, and yet have been seen as peripheral or incidental, or even invisible in histories. These actors work with texts and guides, and create regulations and standards, all items which structure mobility and interconnect. Connectors and their linkages might be weak or strong, and with fixity or a passing touch, and may terminate as much as maintain [Saunier p34].

They enter or create situations where they can act as go-betweens, they use certain mechanisms and tools to accomplish their connecting performance, they are active in one region, or one moment, and not in another, they make ties and unmake them” [Saunier p57)

Secondly, the situations that ‘connectors’ work across may vary from major events, like exhibitions; major research projects; and informal meetings. Travel and its problems are the basis of their work, and inquiry, conversation and analysis are its fundamentals. Part of that work is about comparison.

Thirdly, they travel and leave a trace, and sometimes, assemble in or create circuits. They meet, correspond, publish, translate, convene and generally produce circulations.

It is the dissection of circuits that makes it possible to restore the agency of those who lived in-between and through polities, to circumvent loose arguments about the ‘influence’ of the foreign in the domestic and to dissect the actual operation of integration and disintegration processes [Saunier p46]

Fourthly, objects may ease circulation and strengthen trace. It is not just human actors that are at the heart of the transnational, but material objects – pedagogy, method, key texts – which have a power and influence at some distance from their origins and context. Objects help to produce shared landscapes and common identities [Saunier pp47-49].

Lastly, while connections may materialise into systems, they exist within emerging global communications and transport systems, which allow interdependence and sustain the impact of events into major effects.

The Swedish Project
As has been noted, this project is researching into the ways that influences flow across the spaces between places, and ideas and practices move between site and actors. It is attentive to the ways, the serendipity, the planning and the deliberation that create changes in the governing of education systems, from pedagogical innovation to research data, and in the temporality of these effects.
The project recognises that hybridity and re-composition could be significant features of the governing of education in diverse times and places. It is not intending, in the use of Sweden as a core element, to act as an amplifier of myths or a critic of failure, nor as the examiner and agent of value, but as the curious scholar of the relation between governing and comparison.

The relation between the project and the field of comparative education is shaded and ambiguous. It may be that the core ideas of Cowen 2006 , and the use of transfer, translation and transformation will be helpful in determining movements and flows at this level of analysis. However it is not clear that all talk of comparison either creates or obscures commonalities of approach and purpose.

Martin Lawn


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Martin Lawn

Martin Lawn, Honorary Professor, School of Education, University of Edinburgh.