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Contextualising Educational Studies in India: Research, Policy and Practices edited by Pradeep Kumar Choudhury and Suresh Babu G S, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2022; pp xv + 228, `995.
How education is constituted as a knowledge domain and the extent to which it may be identified as a discipline have been matters of scholarly debates from the inception of education studies. Arguably, the lack of consensus and territorial tensions around these questions have shaped education research, policy, and practice and the fissures between them to a much greater degree than agreements on the foundational knowledge. The distinction in the connotations of “education studies” (as a broader category that includes studies of and for education) and “educational studies” (as knowledge generation for improving policy and practice) is situated in the context of these debates and discourses (Whitty 2006).
The predicaments of the domain have been studied in depth, albeit not consistently, in some contexts like the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). In the Indian context, scholarly literature on these concerns is much sparse. How the questions about the nature of knowledge in education bear upon conceptualisation of research, policy, and practice is thus not extensively discussed in the literature in the Indian context. The book, Contextualising Educational Studies in India: Research, Policy and Practices, edited by Pradeep Kumar Choudhury and Suresh Babu G S, alludes to a possibility of reflecting on some dimensions of the knowledge domain by engaging with interdisciplinary questions and research approaches while focusing on education policy.
By including questions about the nature of education policy research, the volume opens spaces for thinking about the organisation of educational studies. It does so by drawing attention to the orthodoxy of evidence-based policy that has come to encompass research funding priorities in education, especially in the past three decades. The introduction, “Mapping the Field of Education Policy Research,” discusses the contradictions of this perspective within itself and vis-à-vis the complex nature of education policy problems that are often located at intersections of concepts and approaches spread across different areas of knowledge. The chapter underlines the need for making sense of the interdisciplinary education policy research in India while thinking through its inconsistencies that render a policy science approach in education unstable (p 1).
The commitment to the larger project of mapping educational studies, however, is only suggestive and tentatively reflected in the introduction. The editors delimit the scope of the collection as a “modest attempt … to introduce ways to situate the significance of educational policy research, which primarily occupied divergent contexts, circumstances and spaces” (p 15). In doing so, the volume brings together the selected writings of “young scholars” focused on informing education policy and practice utilising different methodological approaches (p 15).
However, pursuing this delimited agenda is not a straightforward exercise as what counts as educational policy and practice research is challenging to define. Given the normative and praxis-based nature of the domain, a considerable share of studies in education directly or indirectly connect with policy and practice to varying degrees and levels (ranging from classroom to global). Thus, the development of a criterion for delineating such research needs nuanced thinking and engagement with the epistemic tensions that frame education(al) studies (Whitty 2006). References to education as a “field of interdisciplinary research” and “as an interesting subject for production of knowledge” in the social sciences in the introduction chapter, further restrict the volumes’ scope for such analysis. This conception of education underlies most of the chapters of the volume, leaving significant gaps in mapping and contextualising educational studies. In this context, the book’s title appears to be much broader than what is contained in the volume.
Education Policy, Democracy, and Power
The volume is an outcome of a conference where early career researchers in education presented their ongoing and completed research. It comprises 10 empirically grounded chapters and a conceptual introduction by the editors. The book is organised in four parts, each representing critical education policy and practice concerns that are of historical and contemporary relevance. These concerns include equity, access, and inclusion in school education; women and minorities in higher education; youth and urban marginality in education; and knowledge and labour market. The themes represent broad and disparate set of education policy concerns located at the intersection of India’s socio-economic and cultural and historic contexts.
However, the overarching problematic that brings these concerns to cohere together is education policy, democracy, and power. This problematic, though identified as only one of the concerns of the volume, is succinctly developed in the introduction chapter. In their analytical-reflective commentary, Choudhury and Babu present a complex picture of how structural factors mediate between education policy and a democracy that follows a liberal model of development and “weaken the logic of education theories” (p 8). They exposit four ways in which such mediation takes place. First, in a liberal democracy, public policies come to serve as a democratic façade for elite solutions to the problems of development, leading to the reproduction of power. Second, electoral interests in a democracy yield power to the majority voices in public policy framing, thereby imposing majority solutions on the minorities. Third, public policy discourses are politically altered to juxtapose the goals of social justice vis-à-vis quality in education, creating tensions within the goals of democracy. Fourth, the alliance between the state and markets eventually renders the public system inefficient, for instance, by legitimising school choice. In this context, the agenda of the chapters is set out as illustrating “the narrative structure of power embedded in policy discourses, its operation in diverse areas of education and its wider implications for the state of education and society” (p 10). The four parts of the volume and the individual chapters pursue this thread across different aspects of equity, inclusion, and marginality on the one hand, and knowledge economy on the other.
Equity in Education
The first part of the volume includes two chapters that pursue the question of equity in school education by reviewing the implementation of specific policy directions. In Chapter 1, Ayesha Malik tracks a shift in the education policy paradigm from physical expansion to the consolidation of resources—or from inputs to outcomes—for enhancing access. With empirical data from four schools that underwent mergers/consolidation in two blocks in Rajasthan, the chapter elucidates how the process lacked a democratic-consultative approach and subverted the goal of access by increasing travel distance from the school, contributing to the impending trend of movement of the students to private schools.
Chapter 2 by Lipika Das is an assessment of the implementation of the multilingual education (MLE) approach at the primary school level with the Bonda tribe in Odisha’s Malkangiri district. The ethnographic data shows how textbooks, pedagogy, and infrastructure are well-adapted to the MLE approach. However, the goal of inclusion of the tribe remains distant due to a lack of conceptual clarity among the implementers about MLE leading to monolingual teaching and challenges for children in learning the dominant languages as they transition from primary school level.
Education for Women and Minorities
Chapters 3 and 4 critically engage with gender and religious identity questions and exposit the dynamics of inclusion and marginalisation in higher education. Co-authored by Ravi Shankar and Reenu Ram, Chapter 3 is one of the most conceptually rigorous contributions to the volume. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in a private university for women, the authors explain how single-sex educational institutions, rather than playing a critical emancipatory role, lead to ghettoisation of the sites for women’s education. The authors critically unpack the patriarchal norms underlying the discourse of women’s safety as they engage with the gendering of the social space of education.
Chapter 4 by Changiz Khan is a historical analysis of the status of education of Muslims, especially the most marginalised Pangal Muslims, in Manipur. It develops a case for specialised policy focus on Muslims while presenting secondary data on literacy, employment, and reservations. Contrary to the preceding chapter, the author argues for special higher education institutions (HEIs) in Manipur for Muslims. The chapter concludes with normative claims about the “lack of motivation” among the community members “to encourage youth to undertake higher-level studies” and about the need to modernise madrasas by the introduction of vocational, management, and computer courses (p 104), thereby essentialising employment as the goal of higher education for the marginalised.
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 focus on urban marginality and education while directly or indirectly making sense of aspiration framing in the context of Delhi. In Chapter 5, Naomi Prachi Hazarika ethnographically explores an unauthorised settlement in South Delhi to map the aspirations of schoolgoing youth, and the pathways available to them to realise these. The findings point to the lack of support structures—of career counselling and English-medium education—available to the youth for charting their pathways towards employment. Lack of counselling is seen as expanding the gap between aspirations and realities, and English-medium education is identified as an “aspirational node” (p 124) for accessing the imagined futures. While it omits to build on similar contemporary studies, the chapter critically contributes to the sense-making of socio-spatial dimensions of education.
Chapter 6 by Heena Khari is also an ethnographic inquiry in educational choices of the Gujjar community in an urban village in Delhi. The study combines ethnographic method and kinship-mapping to trace the relation between cultural ethos, change in circumstances, and educational choices. The work is complex in its methodological orientation and challenges the binary view of quantitative and qualitative research. However, the need for a more detailed explanation of the method is felt while reading the chapter.
Chapter 7 by Anup Kumar Bali is based on a survey on the medium of instruction at a state university in Delhi. Using Marxian framework, the study analyses the politics of knowledge-production in what the author refers to as a neo-liberal university and argues that elitist English-medium education alienates the youth from marginalised social groups. While the study pursues critical questions that may inform institutional policies to support the claims made, the survey categories need further contextualisation in curriculum theory and practice, and the socio-spatial ethos of the institutional site.
Education and Knowledge Economy
The fourth part includes three chapters that explore interactions between labour market and higher education, and critically counter some existing common sense policy underpinnings. In Chapter 8, using mixed methods, Sumit Kumar thoroughly explains the spatial preference of knowledge-based industries (KBI) for locations that have a relatively higher distribution of HEIs, mainly technical institutions. It counters the perception that KBIs are footloose and exposits how their conglomeration at certain locations, where HEIs are also simultaneously concentrated, leads to regional disparities.
In Chapter 9, Aakriti Saini analyses the constitution of student aspirations for social sciences at the postgraduate level based on survey data. Saini argues that rather than a simplistic cost–benefit analysis, a complex set of factors, including interests, perceptions about the course and employment, and future aspirations, shape students’ higher education choices and demand. In a self-critical manner, the author points to the limitation of the small sample size and the likelihood of elite bias in the study data, making the arguments more transparent.
In the last chapter, Antara Sengupta and Leena Chandran Wadia review the organisation of vocational programmes in selected colleges and universities. Based on interview data, the authors analyse the assimilation of education for skilling of the labour market in institutional contexts that have been conventionally occupied with liberal studies. The authors present a thick account of the conditions of success of such integrative models that include distinctive institutional characteristics such as campus size, faculty members’ orientation, and funding support from the state agencies.
Overall, all the chapters are written in an engaging style and communicate the findings coherently. The strength of the chapters lies in their pursuit of the interaction between macro and micro levels in education, such as policies and institutional practices, and socio-economic structures and aspirations. However, the contributions vary in quality and rigour of arguments. For instance, the theoretical framework is not sufficiently developed in some cases, and the findings are not connected with contemporary literature. Some studies also have methodological issues ranging from conceptual (like gaps between the data and research claims) to ethical (like ensuring anonymity of the field). However, these issues do not overweigh the significance of the contribution, especially considering that these studies may have been at different stages of completion at the time of publication.
While the book is well-imagined and organised, there are at least four issues and gaps in the conceptualisation. First, as with many edited volumes, the choice and coverage of themes and their organisation could be debated. The chapters have considerable conceptual overlaps that challenge the logic of their thematic classification. For instance, the question of educational aspirations cuts across several chapters in different parts, thereby qualifying as a possible category for organisation. Second, there is a lack of engagement with the central policy-practice concern of quality in education. While some chapters highlight the quality concerns, these are not the primary focus. Third, the book does not include teacher education and early childhood education levels that occupy centrality in contemporary education policy. Fourth, the volume focuses on the interfaces between socio-economic–cultural–historic perspectives and methods, thereby reflecting interdisciplinarity in education only in a restricted manner.
However, any alternative selection and organisation would have its limits and critiques. More so in education that is contented to be the “hardest science of all” (Berliner 2002). Its unique complexities make neat and linear classification, selection, and generalisation challenging—often due to conceptual intersections, contextual situatedness of problems, the ubiquity of social interactions, and limits of available approaches and resources (Berliner 2002). This is perhaps one of the most significant understandings about educational studies that (though not systematically discussed) can be inferred from the volume. The range of research methods and approaches represented in the chapters indicates how a diversity of research orientations is crucial in studying educational problems. The volume includes ethnographies, “semi-ethnographies” (p 49), surveys, interview-based research, archival and secondary data studies, sequential explanatory designs, and kinship-mapping to make sense of complex contexts and interactions. As said in the beginning, this helps in problematising the misplaced directions of funding priorities in education research that increasingly favour a particular kind of research choices at the cost of the others. For these reasons, the book would be of interest to various audiences in education, especially researchers and policy practitioners.
Berliner, David C (2002): “Educational Research: The Hardest Science of All,” Educational Researcher, Vol 31, No 8, pp 18–20.
Whitty, Geoff (2006): “Education(al) Research and Education Policymaking: Is Conflict Inevitable?” British Educational Research Journal, Vol 32, No 2, pp 159–76.
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