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Researching education and training: Notes on cultural approaches

April 29th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

I have had several requests for this paper, co-written in 1990 with Jenny Hughes, and realised it was not available on the internet. So I have published it to Scribd.

The paper looks at comparative research in Vocational education and Training and the possible uses of cultural theory as a research methodology. This extract explains some of the thinking behind such an approach.

The focus of much comparative research has been the comparison of different paradigms in VET. Set against a common background of globalisation of the economy, the rise of multi-nationals and shared technologies, these paradigms show a marked convergence across Europe and there is a seductive similarity between, for example, work organisation paradigms, curriculum paradigms and research paradigms. This has increased the tendency to undertake ‘point to point’ comparisons across member states, often based on task or functional analysis. And yet the outcomes of such research, whilst providing descriptive data which empirically reinforces the notion of converging trends is often at odds with what VET researchers ‘know’ to be true and which the general populus assumes as ‘common sense’; that is, that there are major cultural differences leading to apparently inexplicable divergences of practice. The challenge for VET research is to construct more robust tools for analysis which can accommodate and reconcile both the convergences and divergences.

Much of the existing comparative research takes as its starting point a single VET paradigm and deconstructs that paradigm into its elements. Thus, ‘VET’ would be the highest level of a tree diagram and the paradigmatic sets under observation would be branches below it.  These  may be labelled, for example, `employment patterns’,  `new production methods’, `trainer training’, `cultural issues’, `curriculum’ and so on.  The elements or items within the paradigms would form the next level of branching. For example under `new production methods’ there might be elements labelled `Just-in Time’ or `island production’ or `co-makership’.  Under  employment patterns there may be `self employed’, `employed by SME’, `unemployed’ and so on. Each of these elements can also be subdivided into properties or descriptors (which are actually paradigms in themselves).  For example `unemployed’ could be expressed as ‘average length of unemployment’ or `number of unemployed males over 25’ or `average qualification level of unemployed women’ or whatever.   The  number and type of paradigmatic sets are similar across member states as are the items within each paradigm, hence the apparent  convergence. Much quantitative comparative research maps and compares element against like element looking for differences in properties across member states. Occasionally it compares paradigm with paradigm but work at this higher level of aggregation level is more often seen in collaborative research.

What is rarely taken into account is the syntax which exists between the paradigms, a syntax which is determined by the culture which generated it and is as culturally specific as the rules of grammar are language specific. The syntagmatic relationship (or syntagm) which defines the way in which one paradigm articulates with another is, for the most part, ignored but it is here that the divergences across member states are located.

What VET needs is a grammar capable of analysis at a systemic rather than structural level. It needs a grammar robust enough and sufficiently rigorous to challenge and provide a real alternative to both functional and structural analysis but sophisticated enough to examine the cultural realisation and cultural meaning of sectoral and regional differences, national identities, gender, class and language.

Thus the model should not take  `VET’ as a starting point for the tree diagram and then simply disaggregate it – with `the cultural dimension’ being a paradigm or even an element within several paradigms and the assumption that it lends itself to comparison as readily as unemployment figures.  Rather we should put ‘culture’ at the top of the tree diagram with VET being one (disaggregated) manifestation of that culture

Functionalist analyses break down VET into a series of components that, not only .fails to recognise their significance within societies and cultures, but renders comparisons less, rather than more, meaningful.  Stucturalist and post structuralist schools continue to pursue structures of likeness and contrast, differences played against similarities. It follows that if all the factors which determine VET culture are themselves different then the component parts of those features are bound to be different.

Given the role of culture on Vet and of VET itself within its cultural context, then it may be of value to access that corpus of knowledge and theory in the field of cultural studies. The next section of this paper will look at some different ideas drawn from cultural theory and examine their applicability for comparative VET studies.

New Culture Paper


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