21/10/2011 Education Sociology
DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2011.619839 SemanticScholar ID: 144375371 MAG: 2043099668

Theory building in educational research

Publication Summary

Do you help develop the skills of new researchers and doctoral students? Are you responsible for the methods training of very talented social science undergraduates? Do you mentor promising colleagues? If so, like me, then this may be a book you had been waiting for perhaps without even realising it. It is about how theory or theories may be improved and made productive through clear and logical association with empirical research. Emerging from a Cambridge tradition (or School even) in sociology writing about productive theory, Kettley has done something new. Kettley, also the author of Educational attainment and society, has shown how theory in education is being held back by separation from empirical work, and by the unwarranted notion of methodological paradigms. The book has eight chapters presented in four parts, plus the usual preliminaries, references and index. There are no pedagogic bells or whistles, no suggested reading or exercises. This is an academic book, and as any good academic book should be it is easy to read. It makes a complex subject simpler to understand. The first part of the book rehearses some of the barriers to good work in education research – the Q-word silos, the idea that theories can be unrelated to real life and so untestable in practice, and the equally absurd notion that social science can make major advances without theory at all. The section introduces the idea of productive theory that cuts through these self-inflicted barriers (see also Holmwood and Stewart 1991; Gorard with Taylor 2004). The second section provides an epistemological basis for combining methods pragmatically and scientifically. Using examples ranging from competing theories of social class to contradictory notions of widening participation, the book calls for imagination and rigour in section three. Section four reminds readers that research has consequences. Where research is of poor quality and yet has impact it can damage lives. Where it is of poor quality but has no impact there is still an opportunity cost (an increasing concern in economically straitened times). Kettley argues that social explanation and the policy recommendations stemming from it will improve, through using the ideas in this book. He ends the book saying that “Resolving the contemporary crisis of education studies, that is, the reproduction of the association between degenerate research agendas, weak explanations and ineffective prescriptions for policy, requires the promotion of scholarly change. Researchers must decide for themselves whether the potential benefits of change outweigh the risks. Yet, sometimes doing nothing in the face of adversity is the most dangerous decision of all” (192). These are strong words, but by that stage of the treatise I feel they Educational Review Vol. 63, No. 4, November 2011, 505–520

CAER Authors

Avatar Image for Stephen Gorard

Prof. Stephen Gorard

University of Durham - Professor in the School of Education

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