Educational research as an interdisciplinary epistemic craft

This set of slides has been prepared for a workshop “Interdisciplinary methods for researching teaching and learning”. It summarises some ideas about intellectual work across conventional (disciplinary) boundaries in education. A number of them draw on experiences working in the field of the learning sciences and writing the Epistemic fluency book. The main message is the paradoxical tension between what educational research is as practice and how educational research is organised and institutionalised as a formal research field (aka. discipline).


On the one hand, education conventionally has been looking for its intellectual foundation and, simultaneously, for ways for creating knowledge in other disciplines (psychology, sociology, philosophy, etc.). However, classical mono-disciplinary studies from these domains comprise only a small part of research that investigates educational phenomena. Much of the educational research is done on the boundaries of these disciplines or even outside them. Despite this, education has not become a discipline with its own intellectual foundation and methodological toolkit. That is, educational research is and for a long time has been an interdisciplinary field of research practice; and work across disciplines and other knowledge traditions for many educational researchers has been a “normal mode” for doing research.

On the other hand, formally, educational research, including higher degree research courses, has been organised as if education was a discipline that draws on several discrete and stable knowledge traditions. E.g., think about the majority of research method textbooks that clearly sort out boundaries between positivism, interpretativism and a few other (maybe more mixed, yet well-articulated) knowledge traditions. Learning to do research across disciplines and traditions, or outside them, has never been a priority; often it is genuinely discouraged. If the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge work in educational research were taken seriously, then teaching and learning to do educational research would need to look very different.

One response to “Educational research as an interdisciplinary epistemic craft

  1. michaelrhysjohnson

    Thank you for sharing those thoughts. I wanted to share one from someone with nearly as terrific a surname as yours – Brad Mehlenbacher:

    p7 Because paradigm mediums such as education and technology form the very core of our systems for understanding, conceptualising, and promulgating knowledge about, with, and into the world around us, they are exceedingly difficult to understand, isolate, parameterize, or control.

    When two such ‘paradigm mediums’ are combined in a field of research, is it any wonder if we end up with ‘low quality’ attempts (cf. Selwynesque critiques)? I think science prefers (to fund) questions it can answer.

    For myself, somewhat threadbare in disciplinarity, due in some degree to a miss-spent youth, I find solace in multi/interdisciplinary communities such as the Networked Learning guys. Especially memorable was sitting in a thinly attended seminar with Gale Parchoma who said, ‘of course, none of us started out life as networked learning scholars’ and thinking, ‘well, this [networked learning] is as good as I’ve got actually…’ LOL! But also, more recently, my sense of dislocation has been mollified by finding a home in research methodology traditions, such as qualitative case study and ethnography, however contested and unstable those may be.

    Also, a number of slides made me smile, not least to think of the way that Patton exposed the messiness of method compared with it’s depiction in ‘text-book’ accounts of method.
    I wondered also about the straight lines drawn between ontology and epistemology… Chris Jones (2015) manages to hold a realist ontology with epistemologies from posthumanism. Permit this extended quote:

    I do not adopt the radical view of ontology that can be found in Latour and many who have adopted ANT as the framework for their research. There has been a surge of interest in networked learning for research based on this approach in recent years (see for example Wright 2014) and this interest often takes a radical stance in terms of ontology. This radical stance argues that there are multiple realities constituted by practices and that in some cases the realities that are constituted by different practices although they are related to the same object might be incommensurable (see Oliver 2012 ). For there to be commensurability between different accounts requires work and the bracketing of differences between accounts, and it results in degrees of compatibility rather than a binary either-or outcome. The key step in the radical argument is that there is no reference point against which better or worse accounts can be judged and there is no foundational truth. My preferences remain solidly realist in relation to this question about ontology, although my emphasis is firmly on how we come to know, rather than the nature of reality in itself. The standard realist view is that there is a reality beyond human practices to which we can refer in order to adjudicate between different accounts. Notice the use of a judicial term applied to this process because it is used advisedly to emphasise a process that does not suggest an absolute truth or a truth that is fi xed. The realist point (end of page 232) is that reality is not subjective and that the world resists human constructions. In some ways this leaves Latour as a realist too because he would recognise the argument that the world resists, but he would also argue that this resistance can be overcome if a certain price is paid (see Harman 2009 ). ANT and Latour cannot be reduced to a purely social constructivist argument, but they can give rise to Mol’s argument that reality is multiple (Mol 2002). I argue that there is a limit to the negotiation of costs and there is a limit to interpretive flexibility, a limit to use, even if the user is prepared to pay an extreme cost to work against the material and real. For Latour the world is never constituted by stable and solid forms and the appearance of stability and solidity is the outcome of a negotiation between numerous forces. My argument is that for most practical purposes in the study of networked learning provisional stabilities, negotiated as they might be, can be treated as stable and solid, even if we acknowl- edge that in principle they are dynamic. The degree of permanence of different stabilised entities is also an issue of some importance, and it should not be flattened in such a way that significant differences in the nature and rates of change are ignored. My argument in favour of levels includes the idea that microlevels are more contingent and macrolevels relatively stable and the interest for networked learning is often in mesolevels of organisation and practice, at which change takes place in moderate time scales and with the application of organised effort.

    Jones, Christopher R. Networked Learning : An Educational Paradigm for the Age of Digital Networks. Research in Networked Learning. London: Springer, 2015.
    Mehlenbacher, Brad. Instruction and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.

    Liked by 1 person

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