Policy Research in Educational Settings: Contested Terrain
reviewed by Leanne Foster - 2003
Title: Policy Research in Educational Settings: Contested Terrain
Author(s): Jennifer Ozga
Publisher: Open University Press , Buckingham, United Kingdom
ISBN: 0335202969 , Pages: , Year: 2000
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In Policy Research in Educational Settings: Contested Terrain, British researcher Jenny Ozga makes a passionate and strong argument for qualitative policy research that contributes to our understanding of how educational policy impacts on equality and social justice. She contends that the current orientation of educational policy towards the economization and marketization of schooling has created a post-Fordist mass of uncritical technicians and clients. In writing this book, Ozga works to contest what she views as this dominant paradigm of policy analysis. She hopes her efforts will compel educational practitioners from all areas to engage in research that will challenge hegemonic assumptions that inform current policy, thereby acknowledging and contributing to the emancipatory project in education.
By Ozga’s own admission this book is not an introductory guide to social research. First-time researchers and students, for example, will find little discussion of methodology or the practical considerations that shape a research project. Yet this very readable book, at 145 pages, has much to offer by way of its explicit and thought-provoking examination of the relationship between research and policy. It provides a well-articulated, critical perspective of the world of educational policy research that encourages the research community to acknowledge and reflect upon the value-orientation inherent in all types of research.
The book is divided into the following chapters: (1) Researching education policy: some arguments; (2) Teachers as a policy case; (3) Theory, values and policy research in education; (4) The context of policy research; (5) Resources for policy research; (6) History and education policy research; and (7) Conclusions: contesting the future? Each chapter is well referenced and offers up the occasional “real world” example of policy in practice, often drawing on the experience of British educators.
From the outset, Ozga makes it clear that she sees policy as a contentious process rather than a neutral product. It is not, as others might suggest, the final output of government or bureaucratic decision-making bodies, but rather a negotiated struggle by a myriad of groups and individuals who may or may not be located within the official machinery of institutional bureaucracy. Individuals who work within the policy context find policy, not only in official state documents and texts, but also in the ongoing and active interpretation and steerage of state sanctioned intentions. In Ozga’s view, researching such policy must work against the grain and recognize that sites of inquiry are contested terrains.
In making her arguments, it is clear that Ozga grounds her thinking in the critical theory tradition. She is heavily influenced in her discussions on methodology by feminist theory, and makes use of a micropolitical lens in order to understand and analyze the importance of political and social contexts on research. Throughout the book, she assimilates the essence of postmodernism while working with a dogged determination not to be paralyzed by the nihilistic uncertainty that arises out of its most extreme forms. The end result is a coherent and impassioned treaty on the potential of teachers, academics and other researchers to use educational research in the pursuit of social justice.
It should be said that this book might prove a challenge to those readers who seek comfort in the “middle ground” for there is little moderation in Ozga’s views. In fact, she specifically points to the absence of “neutral, Olympian space from which an unbiased, objective account of policy research can be given” and states rather unequivocally: “We are all partisans but only some of us acknowledge it” (p. 36). She believes that the value-laden nature of research is rarely recognized and argues for an “explicit” acknowledgement of each researcher’s position. Furthermore, Ozga asserts that research done in a critical vein has a moral and methodological obligation to articulate its concerns about inequity and social injustice caused by policies. In the area of education, in particular, Ozga argues that policy research should be used to deconstruct prevailing attitudes and assumptions about teachers, students, and the purpose of education. In short, policy research in Ozga’s world must work to support democratic principles and ideals.
No one can accuse Ozga of beating around the bush. In a clear and prescriptive style, she takes direct aim at everything from teacher professionalism as a tool of control by the state, to social research that caters to or is restricted by the expectations of a “client” or “customer.” Within academic settings, Ozga bemoans the proliferation of governmentally funded contract research that unduly focuses on contract compliance and results in steerage by committees. She shows limited tolerance for such relationships that, in her opinion, may leave researchers with little choice but to sell short their academic integrity and believes that contract research hinders the ability of researchers to work for social justice. She draws the conclusion, therefore, that the research community should join forces in resisting the lure of contract research.
This book’s strength, namely Ozga’s passionate and critical stance, is also its weakness. Ozga’s assertion, for example, that contract research has no place in academia is a bold and provocative statement that unfortunately hints at the sort of “ivory-tower” myopia for which academics are too often criticized. One could just as forcefully argue, for example, that externally funded research provides opportunities to locate theory within the real world, thus allowing for a link between theory and practice. One could also argue that externally funded research is, like it or not, a simple reality for those who need to pay the bills . Regardless, a more constructive and realistic approach might have framed contract research as something to be understood and managed, rather than resisted and rejected out of hand. In fairness to Ozga, however, so it should come as no surprise to the reader that allows little room for compromise .
Middle ground is something left unexplored by Ozga, and herein lies my main problem with this book. In presenting the “other side” in its most extreme light; that is to say, in positioning the “left” as virtuous and the “right” as ignoble, Ozga risks alienating those of a more moderate disposition. Despite Ozga’s admirable commitment to the cause of equity and social justice and her sincere belief in the need for autonomy in research, she limits her audience by radicalizing her opposition to the status quo.
I’m left with a sneaking suspicion that Ozga might say I simply don’t “get it” because I’m too privileged in my own position to understand how “less enlightened” research makes one complicit in the perpetuation of social inequity. I’m not sure she would be right, but I admit there’s always more to learn. It is for these very reasons – the need to be open to possibilities, to allow our assumptions to be challenged – that Ozga’s book is such a worthwhile read. It provides a challenging perspective on the discipline of educational policy research that, when approached with a grain of salt, encourages reflection at a time when systemic reform, standardization and cookie-cutter solutions seem to discourage educators from thinking deeply, or should I say, from thinking at all.