action; critical evaluation; instrumentalism; intellectual projects; knowledge; literature; policy; practice; reflexive action; research; theory; understanding; value stances
In the last two chapters, we first introduced the idea of a mental map for navigating the literature plus the tools for thinking that represent the key to this map. We then looked at the first map component: the two dimensions of variation amongst knowledge claims. Here we complete our introduction to the mental map by describing its other three components:
Figure 8.1 Tools for thinking and the creation of three kinds of knowledge about the social world
The three kinds of knowledge that we distinguish are theoretical, research and practice. We describe each below and show how they relate to the set of tools for thinking summarized in Chapter 6. Figure 8.1 represents that relationship, showing that the tools for thinking play a central role. They are employed both to generate and to question the three kinds of knowledge.
The tools for thinking are most obviously reflected in theoretical knowledge – you cannot have a theory without a set of connected concepts. We define theoretical knowledge as deriving from the creation or use of theory, in the following way. On the basis of a theory about the social world, we make claims to knowledge about what the social world is like. The theory itself may or may not be our own and will have been developed on the basis of patterns discerned in that social world, whether through general observation (armchair theorizing), through specific investigations (empirically based theorizing) or a mixture of the two.
For example, in order to provide warranting for the claim that all children should be given the chance to learn a foreign language before the age of eight, an author might offer as evidence the theoretical knowledge that there is a ‘critical period’ for language acquisition. The theory upon which the author is drawing for this knowledge has been built up over the years by various theorists (beginning with Eric Lenneberg). The theorists have used both general observation about what happens when people of different ages learn a language and a range of empirical studies that have sought to establish what the critical age and determining factors are. Bundled up in the theory are potential claims about roles for biology, environment and motivation. The author would need to unpack these roles if the fundamental claim were to be developed into an empirical research study (to see how well it worked to offer foreign language tuition to eight-year-olds) or into practice or policy-based recommendations (about whether, and how, foreign language teaching should be introduced into schools).
So-called armchair theorizing can involve reflecting on personal experience in an area of practice. Normally one would also expect such theorizing to be supported by reflection on what the author has read in the literature, so that it draws on others’ theoretical, research or practice knowledge. Where the links with other kinds of knowledge are weak, armchair theorizing can lead to explanations or prescriptions for practice that are not backed by evidence. Anyone can dream up a theory. However, without the support of evidence, why should others accept it?
Empirically based theorizing entails the abstraction of generalities from specific evidence. Characteristically, existing theory is used to make predictions. The predictions are tested through experimentation, survey or observation. If the results fail to support the predictions and are considered robust enough, adjustments may be made to the theory (see Figure 2.1). Empirically based theoretical knowledge is thus knowledge that, potentially, can be critically evaluated by returning to the studies upon which it was based. However, theorizing necessarily entails abstraction. Some aspects of a claim to theoretical knowledge may be weak, not because of the original evidence but due to the degree of generalization that has been made from it.
Theoretical knowledge needs to be conceived of in the same terms as other kinds of knowledge. It is a form of evidence that is used by authors to justify their claims. Therefore, it can be critically questioned in the same way. How might you engage with a claim such as: ‘Lenneberg’s theory holds that there is a critical period for language acquisition, therefore children should receive foreign language teaching before the age of eight’? There are two basic approaches. One is to question the validity of the theory itself, by finding reasons why you believe that the ‘critical period’ hypothesis is illogical or ill-founded. The other is to challenge the claim to theoretical knowledge that has been derived from the theory, by offering counter-evidence from other domains: empirical studies and practice. Thus, one might ask: ‘what evidence is there that teaching foreign languages to eight-year-olds matches the predictions of the critical period hypothesis?’ and ‘what do foreign language teaching initiatives introduced in primary schools around the world tell us about what can be done?’
Research in the social world entails the focused and systematic empirical investigation of an area of experience or practice to answer an explicit or implicit central question about what happens and why. Sometimes the domain is extended to normative questions about how to improve practice. Research knowledge consists of claims about what happens, supported by empirical evidence gathered through data collection and analysis in the course of an investigation. As described in the previous section, research is often based on predictions made by a theory. However, it can also be atheoretical, where it is not explicitly linked with any perspective, theory or model. In either event, because research cannot be conducted without using tools for thinking, it is inevitable that some concepts will be employed. They may be undefined and used unsystematically, but concepts are bound to inform choices about what evidence to gather and how to interpret findings.
The research approach may vary, from an investigation by professional researchers who do not attempt to intervene in the phenomenon they study, through an intervention study where researchers work in partnership with those they study to help them improve their practice, to practitioners’ action research where they investigate their own practice.
The research process proceeds through the application of particular methods or techniques for focusing the investigation, collecting data as the basis of evidence, analysing and reporting the results, and drawing conclusions about what they mean. These detailed methods tend to reflect a particular methodology, that is, the researchers’ philosophical assumptions about the nature of the social world and how it can be investigated (including whether social phenomena are or are not subject to universal laws).
The conclusions drawn, based on the results of an investigation, embody the researchers’ claims about what happens and why, and possibly about how to make improvements. These claims are typically made public by publishing an account of the research in the literature. The account may be more or less descriptive, explanatory or evaluative, depending on what explicit or implicit central question the researchers were attempting to answer.
You know a great deal about practice in your domain of the social world, but you may not be aware of just how much you know. We define ‘practice’ to mean ‘everyday activity’. Those engaging with practice knowledge interpret and evaluate their practice, guided knowingly or unknowingly by tools for thinking that are related – however loosely – to theoretical knowledge. Part of practice knowledge is largely unconscious: the know-how entailed in the skilful performance of practical tasks. Some know-how can be raised to consciousness by reflecting on practice, informed either by theories or by investigating and challenging habitual activity, as in some versions of action research. Practice knowledge that is made explicit embodies claims about what does or should happen in the practical domain concerned. This explicit practice knowledge is commonly summarized in the literature, as when experienced practitioners write an account of their practice, or where informed professionals (such as inspectors) report on their work in evaluating practice.
Practice knowledge claims in the literature are open to critical questioning for the same reasons as the other kinds of knowledge. Anyone can hold a view about good practice. However, you can always question what meaning is being given to the concepts used, whether the concepts are used coherently, how logically the concepts are linked together, and whether the claims are supported by evidence.
A HIERARCHICAL MIX OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF KNOWLEDGE
Any piece of literature may relate to one or more kinds of knowledge. Wallace’s article (Appendix 2) is clearly concerned with research knowledge generated by his empirical investigation as a professional researcher. Early on he states (pages 222–3): ‘I wish to explore empirical factors connected with the contexts of schools and consequent risks – especially for headteachers – that may inhere in their endeavour to share leadership’.
But his research focus is also informed by his combined cultural and political perspective, which channels his attention towards those empirical factors connected with uses of power as determined by different cultural allegiances. He both draws on theoretical knowledge and generates a model of his own to synthesize his findings. Further, his explicitly normative argument culminates in practical prescriptions, designed to influence the development of practice knowledge by school managers and trainers.
So this example of academic literature relates unequally to all three kinds of knowledge. At the top of the hierarchy is research knowledge. But theoretical knowledge is both drawn on and developed, and profitable directions are advocated for practitioners to develop more effective practice knowledge.
It is theoretical, research and practice knowledge, written down and published, that constitutes the bulk of front-line literature. As you would expect, each kind of knowledge is commonly expressed through its associated type of literature. You will recall, however, that in Chapter 2 we distinguished four types of front-line literature, not three. The fourth type is policy literature. The different types of literature are characterized as follows:
Policy literature tends to emphasize practice knowledge, since policy-makers are essentially concerned with improving some practical domain. To a varying extent, policy literature may also draw on research knowledge and theoretical knowledge. A frequent point of discussion in professional groups is whether policy should be built upon, or at least informed by, these types of knowledge. In policy literature, authors will tend to base their vision for improvement on their evaluation of the present situation and this evaluation will be according to the values and assumptions underlying their political ideology. (They may or may not provide warranting from research knowledge for their evaluation of what is wrong with the present situation, and predictions about what will work better.)
When you first come across a text, it is worth identifying what type of literature it conforms most closely to, because each type tends to emphasize claims to particular kinds of knowledge. Each type of literature is prone to specific limitations affecting the validity of the knowledge claims it contains. By identifying the type of literature at the outset, you can alert yourself to what you should look for in the text to help you decide how convincing claims are, including any generalization about the extent of their applicability to different contexts.
Table 8.1 indicates some limitations of the four types of front-line literature. For each type, we have included an indicative list of features to look out for, which may affect the extent to which you find the claims convincing.
Table 8.1 Types of literature and indicative limitations of claims to knowledge expressed in them
These potential limitations underline how open to challenge and alternative interpretation our knowledge of the social world can be. Becoming a critical reader entails developing the habit of questioning whether such limitations have a bearing on claims made in the literature you encounter. Becoming a self-critical writer involves habitually checking whether your own claims might be subject to such limitations, then addressing those that you can resolve or work around, and acknowledging those that you cannot. (In the next chapter, we explain how you might react to these limitations when developing a Critical Analysis of a text.)
A HIERARCHICAL MIX OF DIFFERENT TYPES OF LITERATURE
Just as the three kinds of knowledge relate to each other, so do the four types of literature. Our distinctions between types of literature are crude and many texts actually give unequal emphasis to more than one kind of knowledge. Combinations include:
There are often sufficient clues in the title of a text alone for you to work out which type of literature you are dealing with (italicized in these fictional examples):
Failing that, you may get clues from an abstract, the blurb on the cover of a book, or the introduction and conclusion of the text. Theoretical literature will have a strong emphasis on one or more tools for thinking. Research literature will include a report or discussion of empirical evidence, whether gathered by professional researchers or by practitioners investigating their own work. Practice literature will focus on experience in some practical domain. Policy literature will tend to assert that existing practice needs improving or that a new practice should be implemented.
A SHORTCUT FOR IDENTIFYING THE TYPE OF LITERATURE
Look at the abstract for Wallace’s article (Appendix 2). Within it, certain key words indicate what type of literature it is: empirically backed … findings … research … model.
Wallace is developing an argument about how leadership should be shared. His conclusion about sharing is backed by warranting that consists of findings from empirical research, which he reports. In the light of the research, he develops a model which uses patterns in the findings as a means of supporting his argument about the value of a contingent approach to sharing school leadership. This piece of research literature is therefore providing evidence to support a model, which itself legitimizes a conclusion. By this means, Wallace aims to convince the target readers of the paper that his conclusion is valid.
Elements of research and theoretical literature are being combined here. But this is research literature because the empirical investigation underpinning the model is the central feature of the author’s work. Whether the conclusion is convincing rests on the adequacy of the claims made possible by the investigation.
An author’s intellectual project is the nature of the enquiry that she or he undertakes in order to generate the desired kind of knowledge and resultant type of literature. We identify five sorts of intellectual project, named for the outcome that they offer:
As a critical reader, identifying the sort of intellectual project that authors have undertaken gives you an overview of what they are trying to do and how they are trying to convince their target audience. It provides clues about how they are likely to go about achieving their purpose and what the strengths and limitations of their approach may be. The type of literature that they have produced, the kind of knowledge claims they are making and the assumptions and values that lie behind these claims will all be linked to their intellectual project for studying. So once you are clear about the authors’ intellectual project, you will be in a strong position critically to assess the extent to which the claims are convincing.
INHERENT VALUES IN INTELLECTUAL PROJECTS
Is the investigator relatively impartial, positive or negative about the issues under investigation?
Postgraduate students are themselves engaged in an intellectual project as they develop work for assessment or publication. Their training commonly emphasizes knowledge-for-understanding, knowledge-for-critical evaluation and knowledge-for-action. In all three of these intellectual projects, critically reviewing the literature plays a central part in supporting or challenging claims to knowledge.
Whichever intellectual project you identify in a text, certain features should be discernible: the author’s rationale for undertaking the study, the typical mode of working, the value stance that the author takes, the questions that are typically asked, the way that theoretical knowledge is viewed, the type of literature that is characteristically produced and the typical target audience. In Table 8.2, the five intellectual projects head the columns. Each row indicates one feature and shows how it is manifested in that particular intellectual project. When reading literature, you can identify an author’s intellectual project by considering each feature in turn to check which project it best fits. In other words, the realization of these features can be used as an indicator:
Bear in mind that these categories are simplistic and that, in reality, intellectual projects are not always pursued separately. You may expect to come across authors whose activity spans more than one intellectual project. For instance, an account of social science-based research, designed mainly to generate knowledge-for-understanding, may include in the conclusion some recommendations for improving policy and practice (reflecting a knowledge-for-action agenda). However, even in such cases, you will probably be able to identify a study as being primarily connected with a single intellectual project.
Table 8.2 Five intellectual projects for studying aspects of the social world
A SHORTCUT FOR IDENTIFYING THE INTELLECTUAL PROJECT BEING PURSUED
The title and abstract of Wallace’s article (Appendix 2) offer indications of the sort of intellectual project that he is undertaking. The following words suggest to us that Wallace is pursuing knowledge-for-action: justifiable … normative … should … risks … implications for training.
We judge that Wallace’s research and model-building are explicitly value-laden: developing a normative argument to justify a claim to knowledge about how leadership should be shared, on the basis of a study of what happens in British primary schools. His knowledge claim is directed towards informing senior school staff, trainers who design training programmes on school leadership and possibly policy-makers who commission them. Wallace points to the implications of his research, along with the model for improving training that he presents, as relevant to the improvement of school leadership practice. The centrality of his explicitly stated values about practice, his focus on implications for training and the absence of a critique of related policy and practice, all point towards a knowledge-for-action intellectual project.
Using Table 8.2 as a checklist, here is the emerging evidence for this conclusion, using just the title and abstract of Wallace’s paper:
Approaching the reading of the published literature with a mental map will help you identify landmarks that indicate the purpose and nature of the material. Understanding what authors are trying to do, why and how, is a necessary prerequisite for making a fair critical assessment of their success in doing it. Selecting and commenting on arguments out of context can easily distort one’s view. A responsible critical reader aims to consider not only what is said but also the authors’ purposes, assumptions and intentions in saying it, along with an appreciation of whom the authors are primarily saying it to. Where you detect, by this means, that you are not a typical member of the authors’ target audience, it is still legitimate to indicate what information you would require in order to be satisfied (e.g., a stronger line of evidence to back up claims). You will be able to make this assertion in a manner appropriate to your understanding that the authors made choices on the basis of a different readership.
The mental map will be equally useful as a way of informing your writing where you develop your own argument evaluating what you have read. You may consciously deploy particular tools for thinking in constructing this argument, ensure that your claims are well-matched by the warranting you marshal in support of them, draw on and develop a form of knowledge or a mix of them, contribute to your chosen type of literature and be driven by your own clearly articulated intellectual project.
You are now ready to employ the mental map as an aid to becoming a more critical reader of the literature and a more convincing self-critical writer of texts for assessment by other critical readers. To demonstrate how this is done, we offer next a structured approach that can be used to conduct a Critical Analysis of a text.
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