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Some dominating methodological and theoretical trends in adult education research

Which theories, study topics and methodologies dominate the global adult education research field currently? Fejes and Nylander shed light on the issue using bibliometric methods.



What the “field” of adult education research is and how it can be described has been a debated issue over the decades. In the 1970s and 1980s the debates were to a large extent of a philosophical character, focusing on issues of epistemology, i.e. the status of adult education as a discipline or as a unique field of knowledge (cf. Hirst, 1974; Bright, 1989).

Such debates seem to have declined in the 1990s and, entering the 2000s, they have almost disappeared (Rubenson, 2000). Today, there seems to be a consensus concerning the epistemological status of adult education, since scholars construe this “field” as inherently interdisciplinary, borrowing theories and methodologies from a range of disciplines (cf. Fejes & Salling Olesen, 2010; Hake, 1992; Larsson, 2010; Rubenson, 2000). Openness to the inclusion of scholars from diverse disciplines with different methodological and theoretical inclinations is thus arguably an important part of the self-image of scholars active in the field.

However, whether or not adult education research is characterized by methodological and theoretical pluralism, could also be treated as a research question, open to inquiry and contestation. In what ways is the field characterized by scientific practices that are heterogeneous and pluralistic? Is this interdisciplinary and institutionalized pluralism reflected in the most cited contributions in some of the main adult education journals in the field?

In this paper, we summarize some of the main findings and arguments in an on-going research project on the bibliometrics (statistical analysis of written publications) of adult education research (Fejes & Nylander, 2014; Fejes & Nylander, 2015) where we have focused on the one hand on who publishes, or is allowed to publish in the field, and on the other, on what characterizes the research in the field in terms of object and context of study, authorship, as well as research methodology and theory.

The study is based on an analysis of articles published in three main research journals in the field 2005-2012 (Adult education quarterly (AEQ), International journal of lifelong education (IJLE), and Studies in continuing education (SICE). The nineteen most cited articles in each of these journals published during this period were selected for further scrutiny (n57) in terms of content. Two aspects of interest and which will be discussed in the following were: what research methods and theories dominate the field as represented through these journals? (For a more comprehensive description of the research design see Fejes and Nylander 2014, 2015.)

Research method and theory

Our analysis of the most cited articles illustrated how the field, in terms of research method and theory, is quite homogeneous rather than pluralistic. Only four out of 57 articles in our sample adopted a quantitative approach, while the rest where framed within a qualitative research paradigm. In terms of theory, there were a wider range of theories used which partly implies pluralism. However, more than half of all articles used either a sociocultural, poststructural or critical pedagogic perspective. In the following, we will discuss potential explanation to these results.

A qualitative research paradigm

With regards the research methods used, our results illustrate how there has been a near total dominance of qualitative research methods within the top-cited contributions in adult education research journals in recent years. Only four articles in our sample can be categorised as solely drawing on quantitative methods. Such results are partly in concordance with earlier research (Harris & Morris, 2011; St. Clair, 2011; Taylor, 2001) insofar as these previous studies found that qualitative research has become more common and quantitative research less common over the years.

However, despite the decrease in quantitative research, previous studies indicate that it is still quite common. Taylor (2001) for example, illustrates how quantitative and qualitative research were equally common at the end of the 1990s (see also argument by Groen & Kawalilak, 2013). A focus on the top-cited articles, however, indicates that quantitative research methods are much more endangered than previous review descriptions have been able to convey.

The difference in results might be due to our focus on a wider range and on slightly different journals compared to previous studies, or because we considered a later time-period than in Taylor’s (2001) study. Another possible reason for the decline in quantitative papers may be that our focus has been on those articles that have been picked up and cited by others, whereas previous reviews in the field have grasped the full research output in specific journals (Taylor, 2001; Harris & Morrison, 2011). It might be that numerous quantitative studies have been published with low citation rates, and that it is the quality of these papers or the numerical (il)literacy of scholars in the field that prevents them from being cited.

Regardless of the reason, our results show how qualitative research has gained a dominant role in the field. In fact, our findings suggest that not only should research be framed within a qualitative paradigm in order to be picked up and cited extensively by peers, it should also preferably focus on individuals and their narrations elaborated through interviews (46%), sometimes in combination with observations. Having all possible research strategies in mind, this is quite a remarkable outcome that calls for further discussion.

One possible explanation regarding the dominance of qualitative research might be found in the historical trends of the field. Firstly, those adult education scholars who currently hold positions as professors have, to a large extent, shaped their academic careers during a time when qualitative research was emerging and establishing itself as a dominating trend within the field (70s and 80s). It can be argued that there is a risk that these leading professors, who often fought hard to make qualitative research legitimate, had focused on providing more doctoral courses and supervision within the frames of a qualitative research paradigm. Thus, it could be hard for doctoral students interested in conducting quantitative studies to find suitable supervision at their institutions or receive meaningful feedback at adult educational conferences.

Secondly, quantitative methods have been important, and previously dominated adult education research in the US (se e.g. Taylor, 2001). Our results seem to indicate that, even though the volume of quantitative research seems to have drastically declined in the last few decades, such research is still to be found, but predominantly so in the adult education journal in the US. Three out of four of the quantitative articles in our sample are published in AEQ, and three out of four of the main authors of these articles are from North American institutions. The fourth of the main authors is from an institution in Zambia, but is affiliated with a North American university. Thus, one could argue that adult education scholars who draw on quantitative methods seem to have benefitted from being located and published in North America.

Another explanation of our results might be found in the question of recruitment to doctoral studies in the field. There is a long-standing tradition in the field of recruiting students who themselves have been engaged in practices of adult education, as teachers, activists or community workers. From a life-course perspective, it is logical to assume that these students bring with them interests that relate to prior experiences of their vocational and political practices.

The propensity to use qualitative research methods and to construct research objects that are intuitively recognizable (students’ motivations, transformative learning experiences, pedagogic and political strategies, etc.) might therefore, at least in part, depend on the recruitment to the doctoral level. It could also be connected to a wish to produce the kind of knowledge demanded in educational and teaching programs which, according to Taylor’s (2001, p. 336) diplomatic observation, has led to ‘less debate about its [qualitative methods] validity as a research method’.

Another important lead in explaining the qualitative dominance might be found by reading about the aims and scopes of the three investigated journals. As the sample builds on research journals within adult education that stress the relation between theory and practice as especially important, ambitions to publish research that is deemed useful to practitioners, might also render the journals more inclined towards qualitative approaches, in which the connection to those working in the field appears more straightforward.

Provided that one would like to contribute to an increase in quantitative studies, there would be a need to develop the competence to carry out such studies, either by fostering the appropriate skills within the field or by bringing in such competence from other departments or disciplines. This latter dimension seems more visible in our material, where a researcher in psychology, and another one from a department specializing in criminal justice, conducted two of the four quantitative studies in our sample.

Teamwork between scholars who are competent within different areas of conducting social scientific research is not rare and almost half of the top-cited articles in our sample were collaborative projects that involved more than one researcher. Yet, in order to be able to carry out large-scale quantitative studies empirically, there is a need for researchers active in the field to attract larger research grants. As our results clearly illustrate, very few studies are quantitative, and the qualitative studies are, to a large extent, small-scale interview studies in terms of empirical material. One possible explanation for this finding is that adult education researchers are not very successful in attracting funding for large-scale research projects in which mixed method approaches and quantitative research form an integral part.

However, the lack of quantitative studies might also indicate that adult education research is not highly esteemed among research funders, or that adult education, which is often a very minor part of the educational or public system, has been ignored during this particular time period, i.e. the early 2000’s

Three theoretical perspectives

Our results illustrate that, even though a wide array of theoretical perspectives are used among the top-cited articles, three perspectives dominate the field: socio-cultural perspectives, critical pedagogy (see Peter Mayo’s article in this issue) and post-structural perspectives. This pattern indicates that broad conceptual pathways are open for the conduct of adult education research. So how come these three perspectives dominate the field?

One explanation could be related to the methodological observation that almost all articles in the sample draw on qualitative research methods. These theories are often mobilized to help explain and problematize qualitative data of various sorts, and thus authors deem these theories appropriate in relation to the choice of method.

Secondly, as the bibliographic variable on institutional affiliations of the authors illustrates, the dominance of these three theoretical perspectives should probably be seen as tied to specific sites of enunciation, e.g. adult education research as it is practiced in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia.

But what happens outside this anglophone world of publications, say in Korea, Germany, China, or France? Such a question can also be raised in relation to our own sample and its internal relationship. For example, the three dominating perspectives are most clearly represented in IJLE (n=10) and SICE (n=14), while they are less represented in AEQ (n=7). This could indicate that adult education research in North America, to a large extent, is still influenced by psychology, with a stronger focus on the individual rather than on sociological questions and issues of power (cf. Rubenson, 2000).

Such an explanation is partly supported by our sample, since three of the articles in AEQ drew on transformative learning theory, while only one of the papers in the other two journals focused on this theory (authored by a US scholar). Transformative learning theory was developed in the US, and is very much focused on the individual and her/his cognitive dispositions.

Thirdly, the dominance of these perspectives could be related back to the history of the field. With the emergence of critical pedagogy in the 1970s, not least through the writing of Freire, issues of power came to the fore in much of the adult education research. Critical pedagogues are brought together by a ‘preoccupation…with social injustice and how to transform inequitable, undemocratic, or oppressive institutions and social relations’ (Burbules & Berk, 1999, p. 47). The critical inclination typically comes from researchers identifying themselves with a social cause or movement, which leads them to take on the role of spokespersons or judges who unveil the destructive disparity between the ideal and reality, between how the world really ‘is’ and how it ought to be (Boltanski, 2011).

Critical pedagogy could thus be expected to appeal to adult education scholars who themselves come from the adult education field, bringing along a wish to conduct research that might help improve practice by focusing on issues of power. As already argued, previous practitioners and activists have been a common source of recruitment to PhD programs in adult education. Similarly, post-structuralism, being part of a critical tradition as well, offers a different way to understand power, and thus adult education.

Socio-cultural perspectives, rather than being critical or focusing on issues of power, could be viewed as descriptive. Generally, their focus is on describing how learning occurs in relation to and within socio-cultural practices, through the appropriation of language, rules, tools, etc. (cf. Wenger, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978). Such perspectives were most commonly used in our sample.

Firstly, the popularity of socio-cultural perspectives could be explained by wider tendencies within educational research, since socio-cultural perspectives on learning have taken a dominant position in terms of how to understand learning, at least in a European context (often through rather simple comparisons to ‘cognitive perspectives’ or ‘behaviouristic perspectives’ on learning) (cf. Säljö, 2013).

Secondly, by looking in a cross-sectional way at our results, the dominance of socio-cultural perspectives can be related to the research contexts that are most common in these studies. Out of thirteen articles that we grouped as belonging to the socio-cultural perspective, five focused on the workplace, four on e-learning and four on a specific educational group of people. Thus, some of the top-cited articles focused on two contexts that have emerged as important in policymaking on lifelong learning during the last decade (e-learning and workplaces). Arguably, the continuing success of socio-cultural perspectives has benefited from, and contributed to, a change in emphasis from education to learning.

As argued by Fejes (2006) and Nicoll and Fejes (2011), there seems to have been a shift in adult education research from lifelong education to lifelong learning – where the focus on lifelong learning account for other learning processes than those associated with educational institutions. Thus, the increasing emphasis on workplace learning within adult education seems to have resulted in well-cited articles that extend the domains in which knowledge is seen to be acquired, reflected for instance in workplaces amounting to no less than 21% of the most cited articles as compared to the 10% that focused on the transformations of entire educational systems.

With the spread of research on workplace learning (see LLinE theme issue on the topic), socio-cultural perspectives have been able to gain or sustain momentum during the last decade (cf. Fenwick, 2010). Yet another explanation to the dominant pattern described might be that sociocultural perspectives are very generic and broad, framed within a social constructive theoretical terrain, thus making it attractive for being taken up in a range of different versions, and contexts, offering tools for many adult education researchers in the mainstream.

Concluding note

In sum, our findings question all too generalized statements about the field of research on adult education and learning. Statements about the dynamics of this field need to be refined and nuanced through empirical investigations such as the one we have just carried out. There is a risk that we, as adult education scholars who publish in adult education journals as well as read them, take our own set of assumptions of the field to be true. Even though such assumptions are important and inevitable, they need to be complemented with systematic empirical inquiries in order to further the discussions on what the field is and how it might develop.

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This is a shortened and slightly revised version of a previously published article (Fejes & Nylander, 2015).

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