The Disembedded Laboratory – Torsten Husén and the Internationalisation of Educational Research for Policy

We are happy to announce that the Swedish Research Council have granted our project The Disembedded Laboratory – Torsten Husén and the Internationalisation of Educational Research for Policy. The project can be seen as a continuation of our previous project From Paris to PISA, and will be reported from at this website.

Purpose and aims

The proposed project will examine the accelerated growth of educational research in post-war Europe and the US, through an in-depth study of its articulation, dissemination and consolidation as an international phenomenon. Torsten Husén (1916-2009), the leading Swedish educational figure, whose international career spans the mid/ late 20thcentury, will be the key lens for the analysis. In particular, Husén’s archive, stored in the Swedish National Archive and thus far under-researched and unknown, is a treasure trove for the study of the construction of the European education research arena. It consists of 38 metres of files, and holds all of Husén’s correspondence, from his key roles in the IEA and the IIEP-UNESCO, as well as his extensive scientific networking across the globe. 

However, why focus on Husén? What can the study of a single actor illuminate about the rise of a whole scientific field with its machinations, collaborations, ruptures and linkages over the long decades of the European post-war reconstruction? The project follows a sociology of science theoretical frame in order to examine the Husén archive as a container of a ‘disembedded laboratory’. The disembedded laboratory consists of volatile transnational networks that contribute to the development of social science research beyond fixed time and space dimensions, that extends science beyond individual ideas, researchers, environments, institutions and universities. These are practices that create, mobilise, sustain and challenge relations between actors in innovations, knowledge creation and various social activities (Latour 1987).In other words, the archive represents the socio-material manifestation not only of the intellectual trajectory of a key education actor (as widely evidenced for far by, amongst others,  Agar and Smith 1998; Latour 2005; Bijker et al 1987) but of a whole scientific field (Bourdieu 1993). 

The historical context here is a crucial backdrop to our study. We will be examining the decades that saw the slow yet methodical construction of education comparative data for policy-making, the rise of cross border and international comparisons and the role of a modern, comprehensive education in these processes. Through a detailed analysis of the interactions of a range of actors, materials and institutions, we are going to explore the socio-cognitive processes that saw education as the sole pathway towards the governing of ’a better society’. Such imaginaries of education have been in existence for centuries, nevertheless the notion that education science can and should be informing the making of education policy was a novel idea in the 20thcentury. 

Similarly innovative was the concept of cross-border research. Although ideas had always travelled, post-war Europe education science – with Husén at its helm – becomes systematic, organised and institutionalised; it is materialised through the controversies and consensus of expert networks; and it becomes legitimised in institutions, through the successful set-up of education research organisations like the IEA, which still dominate the education research arena.  Thus, we argue that our investigation is not simply about studying what kind of knowledge for policy; the proposed project will study the rise of the international education epistemic community through a focus on the ideational, value-based, moral, political and cognitive processes that brought previously dispersed scientists into an organised, cosmopolitan, and – crucially – legitimate disembedded scientific laboratory that wrote the first pages of the global education research for policy post-war. The Husén archive and its rich documentation of this important historical period offers therefore a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to document this history and bring it to life.

Research Questions

The project’s overarching aim is to understand the rise of the post-war world of education research, as a ‘disembedded laboratory’, through an in-depth examination of the spaces, places, actors, objects and norms, and its legacy. In order to operationalise this, we ask the following questions:

  1. How did Husén and his peers, as representatives of a new emerging field of science, come together in forming networks and creating common work spaces? Who were the key actors that worked with Husén and what kind of characteristics and qualities did their networking entail? 
  2. When Husén and his transnational networks developed into international organizations, how were they established and sustained? What was the role of key actors in constructing them? How did they organise their work and plan their activity? What funds, kind of work and ideas held these organisations together? 
  3. What kind of knowledge for policy was intended to be produced in these networks? Under which conditions was this knowledge produced and disseminated? Which procedures gave it validity and legitimacy? What kind of knowledge production was prioritised and why?

Pertinent to all these questions are issues of gender, since spaces, places, actors and networks also are arenas for hierarchies, inclusion and exclusion. Even if the project is focusing on a male actor, we will strive to bring more hidden, or peripheral knowledge workers to the fore (Lundahl & Primus 2018).   

Published by

Christian Lundahl

Christian Lundahl, Professor of education, School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, Örebro university.

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