Rethinking Comparative and International Education as a Field

by Nozomi Sakata
Associate Professor
Hiroshima University, Japan

How to define the field of Comparative and International Education (CIE) has long been debated. Angela Little in her episode explains it in an accessible and succinct, yet nuanced, manner. By breaking the term CIE into two phrases – Comparative Education and International Education – she describes the former as the process of turning what was strange about educational processes and practices into familiar and what was familiar into unfamiliar while “extending the boundaries of our knowledge about education.” The other part – International Education – covers a variety of meanings. It can denote “inter-national” relationships within the education arena; or it can point to “global” and relate to the work of international organizations or international development in education particularly in developing countries, while “international education” can also refer more broadly to the development of education systems and society regardless of geographical boundaries.

While Little in her episode and earlier article implies that enough has been done on the debates about definitions of the field, in my view it is still troubling and is undergoing a cumulative process of meaning-making. Manzon (2011) is concerned with the blurredness of the boundaries of the CIE field, and Epstein (2007) – in his Forward for one of the most recognized textbooks in the field (Phillips & Schweisfurth, 2014) – expresses his apprehension about the lack of common understanding of the origin and definition of the field among CIE graduate students. I also observe in my teaching that postgraduate students seem to face difficulty in concretely defining the CIE field.

The ambiguity of the bounds may arise from the nature of CIE as a field and not a discipline. Kubow and Fossum (2006) distinguishes the two as follows. A discipline accompanies a prescribed set of rules, standards and methods, and in doing so it necessarily abandons other techniques and procedures. A field, by contrast, accommodates a variety of rules and methods by drawing on multiple disciplines (e.g., sociology, anthropology, economics and psychology). This multidisciplinarity as a field, as well as its theoretical and methodological diversity, would be inevitable for CIE in seeking to better understand the complexity of educational phenomena in particular settings. It enables CIE to continuously develop itself to respond to the changing society and environment, thus presenting the elastic and flexible nature of the field as a strength rather than a weakness (Phillips and Schweisfurth, 2014).

The historical trajectory of the CIE field demonstrates such a fluid nature. Whereas the former phrase of CIE, “comparative education,” has a relatively more established origin with prominent figures (e.g., Michael Sadler, Marc-Antoine Jullien, Horace Mann, Isaac Leon Kandel, George Z. F. Bereday, to name some), the latter phrase of “international education” covers a vast territory of education that has anything to do with “international” and whose boundaries can easily shift and expand as time goes by. In addition, the field started with a focus on nation-state comparisons – some of which as part of colonial projects (for details, listen to Arathi Sriprakash’s episode) – but as Michael Crossley and Peter Demerath repeatedly emphasize, respecting local voices and attending to contextual particularities have become an integral part of CIE research as the field advances. In doing so, the comparative case study approach developed and elucidated by Fran Vavrus and Lesley Bartlett offers one powerful methodological tool. They explain what and how horizontal comparison through multi-sited case studies, vertical comparison of policymaking and enactments at different policy levels, and transversal comparison through engagement with history can be conducted. The triple axial analysis of horizontal, vertical, and transversal examinations expands the notion of “comparison” beyond cross-national comparisons into more diverse and nuanced ways of comparing across space and over time. This can in turn lead to “boundary extension” within comparative education as opposed to boundary setting. Such exercises of reconceptualizing the CIE field have taken place in the relatively recent history of CIE, and we can easily imagine that some more occasions of expanding the field might happen in years to come.

I thus claim that the feature of constant evolvement and loose boundaries are what characterize CIE, and advocate that we as CIE researchers need to constantly come back to the debates of definitions and what it means to engage in the field.

June 1, 2024