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The Politics of Inquiry: Education Research and the “Culture of Science”

reviewed by Patti Lather - March 02, 2009

coverTitle: The Politics of Inquiry: Education Research and the “Culture of Science”
Author(s): Benjamin Baez and Deron Boyles
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791476871, Pages: 237, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

This book is a political reading of the scientific imaginary as it plays itself out in the education science movement. As a sort of critical sociology of higher education, it brings to bear Foucault, Bourdieu, Dewey, Kuhn, Derrida, and even a touch of psychoanalysis by dint of the Lacanian concept of imaginary on issues of the power of science in determining the meaning of the social world. Along the way, we encounter histories and critiques of professionalism, the National Research Academys 2002 publication of Scientific Research in Education (SRE), the purposes of higher education, and the history of academic freedom and the PhD and EdD.

The five chapters begin with a reading against SRE and its privileging of a narrow view of science, in spite of protestations to the contrary. The second chapter attempts to move beyond the tedious nature of contests over science (p. 122) to endorse a political reading of scientism and positivism. The authors argument is in essence a critique of expertise, its rationality and depoliticizing effects on public issues. The third chapter focuses on how these issues play out in the struggle over doctoral training in education research methods. The fourth chapter probes how scientific instrumentalism fosters governmentality, that oh so useful Foucauldian theorization of the construction of the governable subject. The final chapter looks at grant culture and its role in (mis)shaping academic practice and culture.

I was familiar with the authors earlier work on the deadliness of the federal embrace of grant culture on the academy and found the same pull no punches tone in this book. Particular players are taken to task: Ellen Lagemann who should have known better (p. xx), assorted cronies of Bush science, and duplicitous users of Dewey. Experimental design is called out as dangerous to children and schools (p. 20); the IES is told it might do better to leave teachers alone (p. 11); and gutter utilitarianism, used three times on one page (p. 113), is a favorite approbation, especially in relation to what works rhetoric.

I loved this book.1

The book is clearly written to an inside audience of those who agree with the authors withering critiques of the direction of higher education and education research in the last few decades. Its main contribution is to situate the issues associated with the science of education movement in larger frameworks of how science gets used to shape how we can think and the political forces involved [therein]. As Baez and Boyles state, such issues are ultimately about the sort of society in which we want to live or, as I have begun to term it, what kind of science for what kind of politics?

Within this larger context, SRE becomes symptomatic, a point of departure (p. 13) for exploring what makes possible such events, including their reception. SRE is positioned as a power play (p. 29) in a sociology of professionalism, a legitimation strategy couched in useful terms that belie its policing, violent efforts to establish an authoritative voice, presently playing out in efforts to reshape doctoral education. The fevered pitch around SRE is part of a long-running angst around education, fueled by federal intervention and the larger political forces that shape such heretofore unparalleled intrusion. Hence we are talking about much more than Bush science.

This book is a part of the critique unleashed upon SRE and its efforts to impose a culture of science on education researchers. This critique has, in turn, created a backlash against education researchers who protest, especially, interestingly, postmodernists with their purported arguments (Phillips, 2009, p. 189), who often still regard themselves as researchers in spite of their critiques of the traditional research enterprise (p. 168). This comes from D.C. Phillips contribution to Education Research on Trial (2009) that is scattered with admonishments of critics of the SRE such as: unruly, recalcitrant, querulous, vituperative (pp. 167, 187), and, tucked away in footnote 29 (p. 193), my favorite, postmodernist contumely. I looked this up and found: a reproach, haughty and contemptuous rudeness, insulting and humiliating abuse, scornful insolence. Contumely is right next to contuse: to wound without breaking skin.

I leave it to the readers to make their meaning of what this says about those who so consider those who protest SRE. But one has to say, at the least, that such rhetoric bespeaks a situation where the scientific culture wars (OConnor, 2007, p. 3) are far from over.

I particularly like situating education schools as interstitual sites (p. 109), able to help us be smarter about theory/practice relations in an era of the engaged institution. I also like the idea that all science is political science (p. 156) and the call for the kind of reflexive science illustrated by Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) whose Making Social Science Matter has been much picked up by those interested in why social inquiry fails to make a difference and how participatory approaches might make it more useful. Indeed, the very short epilogue touches on the cost of a narrow notion of utility and one could wish they had gone further with this.

While some of the play-by-play of SRE has been out for some time and the book is vulnerable to the constant shifts in the federal scene and the demise of our go-go economy that face anyone who writes in these areas, this book makes a most worthy contribution to understanding the larger contexts of the science movement in education. It is particularly good at weighting how the natural scientific imaginary has been put into the service of government practices at great cost economically, politically and philosophically. To the extent we as a society agree not to trouble a scientificity that claims that objectivity is not political, empiricism is not interpretive, chance can be tamed via mathematization, and progress equals greater governmentality, we court not just a narrowed science but a narrowed future. For those of us in education research, such views make contract workers of us all, and this book is part of an amassing literature of wake-up calls against such a state of affairs.

With SUNYs decision to drop its education list, this may be one of the last opportunities for books at the low paperback price that has made SUNY books so useful for the classroom. This particular book has utilities in courses in education research, the history of higher education, and foundational approaches to education policy.


Among the things I love about the book is the authors love affair with footnotes, and I commend the publisher for allowing this scholarly practice that allows for much more pleasurable reading, sans the back and forth page-turning of endnotes.


Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making social science matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

National Research Council (2002). Scientific Research in Education. Washington DC: National Academy of Science.

OConnor, A. (2007). Social science for what? Philanthropy and the social question in a world turned rightside up. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Phillips, D.C. (2009). A quixotic quest? Philosophical issues in assessing the quality of education research. In P.B. Walters, A. Lareau, & S.H. Ranis (Eds.) Education research on trial: Policy reform and the call for scientific rigor (pp. 163-195). New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 02, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15583, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:19:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Patti Lather
    Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    PATTI LATHER is a Professor in the Cultural Foundations in Education Program, School of Educational Policy and Leadership at Ohio State University where she teaches qualitative research, feminist methodology and gender and education. She is the author of three books, Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/in the Postmodern (1991 Critics Choice Award), Troubling the Angels: Women Living with HIV/AIDS, co-authored with Chris Smithies (1998 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title), and Getting Lost: Feminist Efforts Toward a Double(d) Science (2008 Critics Choice Award). Her interests include (post)critical methodology, feminist ethnography, and poststructuralism. Her in-process book, Engaging (Social) Science: Policy from the Side of the Messy, is under contract with Peter Lang. She is a 2009 inductee of the AERA Fellows.
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