Philosophy of Education

Theory and data in educational research is a wicked problem

Scientific graph colored
Foucault describes data without a theoretical framework as a kind of “blind empiricism” that yields data but very little explanation.

What is required is both theory and data. Paul Trowler describes the relationship between theory and data as a “wicked problem”.

Wicked issues being:

  • poorly-understood
  • have many causal levels
  • have no clear stopping point, where a solution has been reached
  • not clearly right or wrong

The point being that if educational research becomes over reliant on theory, particularly grand theory such as Marxism etc., then there is a danger to the authentic voice of the practitioner. On the other hand if the practitioner forgoes theory then the thesis could become weightless, floating off in directions that are not accessible and do not contribute to a body of knowledge.

One alternative is a mid-range theory. Research should have a meaning to the situated context that it purports to be studying but also be generisable. Not to the extent of a grand theory but at least to other similar institutions, subjects or whatever.

Kathy Charmaz writes beautifully about evoking experiential feeling, developing a theme of writing as a strategy, inviting the reader into a story and imparting a mood through linguistic style and narrative exposition. She juxtaposes the need for theorists to be analytical in their writing, but balances that with the need to evoke the experiences of the participants. The research should remain grounded in the particular situated context but have meaning in other contexts.

Basil Bernstein describes it as the general principle, which ‘makes the data tick’ what matters is the relations between data groups. The art of the researcher is to make those relations visible. The relations between categories then point to something else—the underlying rules or principles that generate the particular instance.

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