Educational research through cultural lenses

The average person is not aware of their cultural lenses, or that their view of the world is shaped by a set of acquired “cultural truths”. We learn this through our society, our schools, our news, our entertainment, but rarely do we reflect on it.

Unless, of course, we are researchers, in which case such reflexivity is crucial.

According to Lincoln, Lynham, & Guba (2011), “reflexivity is the process of reflecting critically on the self as researcher” (p. 124), and in my opinion it is important to engage in this in every step of the research process. When doing educational research, it is useful to clarify our own cultural lenses, and how we feel about education.

We cannot escape our culture or our perspectives. All we can do is be aware of them.

Our own experiences shape our views whether we are aware of them or not. Denzin and Lincoln (2011) refer to these views as perspectives, stating that while “paradigms represent belief systems that attach the user to a particular worldview (…) perspectives are less well developed system, and it can be easier to move between them” (p. 5, emphasis added). If we are made aware of our cultural lenses, we can change them (or at least attempt to see the world through the eyes of the other).

We cannot escape our culture or our perspectives. All we can do is be aware of them. Research without personal perspective is impossible, and any positivist that claims differently is simply not self-aware enough. I studied biology and chemistry, and have done a lot of “pure scientific” research. Even in this type of research, however, we must take into account the cultural lens of the researcher. No research is neutral, in my view. This is not necessarily negative, however. What is hard data without interpretation and analysis? And how can anyone interpret and analyze without automatically carrying with them their worldview in the process?

References:

Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (2011). Introduction: The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research. In Denzin & Lincoln (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. London: Sage.

Lincoln, Y., Lynham, S., & Guba, E. (2011). Paradigmatic Controversies, Contradictions, and Emerging Confluences, Revisited. In Denzin & Lincoln (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. London: Sage

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Indigenous Knowledge – Forever the supplement and never the main event?

I wonder at what point the world went from being a thriving mosaic of local cultures to becoming divided into two main parts: a hegemonic Western (urban) culture on the one side, and the collection of indigenous cultures on the other.

Was it perhaps the industrial revolution that set the ‘modern’ man apart from the societies that still followed the ‘traditional’ ways of living, learning, and working?

I know I am part of the hegemonic Western culture, and even though I recognize the value of indigenous knowledge, I still struggle to see it as a true challenge to Western knowledge systems. There is no doubt in my mind that the human race would benefit from reconnecting with nature and the spirit, but will this idyllic view ever move out of the realms of myths and sagas and into the ‘real world’? Are we too far gone to ever ‘go back to our roots’ so to speak?

There is no doubt in my mind that the human race would benefit from reconnecting with nature and the spirit, but will this idyllic view ever move out of the realms of myths and sagas and into the ‘real world’?

These video clips show various ways in which indigenous knowledge and practices have proven valuable. we In Tanzania traditional healing methods supplements expensive Western medication.  In Uganda, applying modern technology (e.g. solar panels and walkie talkies) to traditional knowledge has help reduce maternal mortality. These examples illustrate how Western technology can improve communication and implementation of traditional practices.

I do not, however, identify in which ways traditional knowledge affects/improves Western knowledge systems. Is this new-found open-mindedness simply a new way of the West to ‘take pity on’ the non-Western societies? Are these modern-traditional collaborations just a romanticized façade covering up the continued influence of Western value systems?

Collier (2009) and Lambert (2009) both discuss how Māori practices (such as interpreting symbols in nature, and using chants in education) might contribute to the current curriculum in state schools. I wonder whether such additions would simply be perceived by students and teachers as a ‘fun fact’ section instead of a serious input to their education system.

Sámi national costume (Norway)
Sámi national costume (Norway)

Guttorm (2009) considers the perception of Sámi art in modern society, finding that we still are very much trapped in the notion that indigenous knowledge belongs to the past, and is difficult to integrate into the present. I grew up with Sámi TV shows and songs, and politically correct news anchors speaking Sámi (by law, a percentage of all broadcasting in Norway must be in Sámi). However— as we saw Sámi children dressed in traditional costumes living in Lavos (Sámi tee-pees), catching reindeer and communicating with the nature spirits— I never remember thinking that these were valid contribution to my own knowledge system. The Sámi culture remained a mystical tradition of the past (“back when man and nature lived in harmony”), and I never seriously considered any of this knowledge an actual contribution to my Western way of thinking. This was perhaps a result of the fact that all these glorious indigenous appreciation was supported and presented through the frameworks of Westerners…

Would we be as inattentive to the impact of pollution, over-fishing, oil spills, deforestation, and so on, if we had grown up with a stronger notion of a Mother Nature?

I would love for the world’s citizens to heighten their awareness of the connection between nature and man. In most indigenous traditions, Mother Nature is held in great esteem, and any violation against ‘her’ has direct impact on our way of life. Would we be as inattentive to the impact of pollution, over-fishing, oil spills, deforestation, and so on, if we had grown up with a stronger notion of a Mother Nature? Would we have allowed the destruction of the Earth get to this point, had we been raised in an indigenous knowledge system? What about human exploitation, racism, and gender violence?

Sweatshop workers
Sweatshop workers

From what I’ve read on indigenous cultures, there is a strong focus on each individual’s role in the world. We all have something to contribute; we are all connected to each other, like parts of a great machine. With this sort of reality conception, would we allow slave-like work conditions in the bottom floors of capitalist enterprises? Would we look away when we saw abuse and discrimination? Would it be as easy to turn our back to problems that did not directly concern ourselves?

Those are all aspects of indigenous knowledge I would like looking into, and that would be interesting to research. Despite my interest in indigenous knowledge, however, I still question whether we will ever see a genuine recognition of traditional practices outside of the status as ‘cultural add-on’…

References:

WINHEC. (2009). Selby, R. (Ed.) Indigenous voices Indigenous symbols. Sàmi University College. Norway.

Education, culture, and society

Jim Cummins – the multi-literacy specialist at the University of Toronto – spoke at a conference I attended last year. He stated that, “when students see themselves reflected in their learning, they are more likely to stay engaged and continue on with their education.”

This quote highlights the interrelationship between education, culture and society. Education is most effective when it is culturally relevant, and when children are allowed to learn within a system that not only benefits their society (e.g. making them into obedient citizens), but also benefits them.

In a globalized world the appreciation of “other” truths is essential to conflict resolution, global interaction, and the peaceful advancement of humanity.

Any educational system is a product of its society, BUT a society can also be transformed as a result of education. Similarly: education can be a tool for cultural reproduction, BUT through education we may also see a cultural transformation (in society and within each student). It is this intricate inter-dependence that I find so interesting.

I cite Michael Apple (2001) a lot: “Curriculum reflects what is considered by an education system as valid and legitimate knowledge” (as cited in Gross, 2006, p. 607). Education, then, is not synonymous to knowledge, as it is the society (or the government) that decides which “segments of truth” to include and exclude. It is crucial to keep this in mind as we go through our education – and to remind our children that the truth is never one-sided or definite. In a globalized world the appreciation of “other” truths is essential to conflict resolution, global interaction, and the peaceful advancement of humanity.

References:

Gross, Z. (2006). Power, Identity, and Organizational Structure as Reflected in Schools for Minority Groups: A Case Study of Jewish Schools in Paris, Brussels, and Geneva. Comparative Education Review, (50), 4. 603-624.

What does multicultural citizenship mean?

Edward Said (1994) reminds us that in today’s globalized world, “no one […] is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are no more than starting points” (as cited in May, 2001, p. 108).

I thought this quote was a good place to start the discussion on multicultural citizenship. To me, multicultural does not only refer to the community, but also the individual. When we talk about multicultural, therefore, it is not only about diversity within cities and nation-states: it is about diversity within persons.

 New identities emerge in the intersection between global and local

It is about not stopping at one label, but rather accepting each individual as a myriad of identities (such as a gay Swedish Buddhist, or a Muslim Chinese woman, or a black French Jew…if that exists yet.) Interestingly, I find that multiculturalism is closely linked to the individual. One might think that with globalization we would see a homogenization of cultures and identities, but I think that we actually will see the opposite.

New identities emerge in the intersection between global and local. For example, in Norway fifty years ago we saw a very clear majority of white, Christian heterosexuals. Today – while there definitely has been a diffusion of the traditional Norwegian culture as a result of global influences – we see a myriad of version of “Norwegian”, including various religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and so on.

Multicultural citizenship means embracing all identities that exists inside each person. It is NOT the same as having separate pockets of “pure” cultures living in harmony within a community. While this is not a bad thing, I do not see this as true multiculturalism. Culture is not a static concept. Culture changes and transforms constantly – that is what makes it culture.

Multicultural citizenship means embracing all identities that exists inside each person. It is NOT the same as having separate pockets of “pure” cultures living in harmony within a community.

Global citizenship to me refers to the ability to interact with people from all over the world. It includes the ability to adapt to different cultures; to be curious and open-minded toward new concepts; to appreciate the limitations of ones own cultural lens and framework.

References:

May, S. (2001). Language and Minority Rights: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Politics of Language. NY: Pearson Education.

Globalization: dispersing local cultures, not destroying them.

Globalization is an irreversible process, and discussing to which extent it is harmful on the local level, is meaningless at this point. Like an avalanche reshaping the landscape, globalization is well on its way to permanently changing the way we view the world, as well as each individual’s role in it. We cannot ignore globalization, much like we cannot ignore an avalanche. Our only option is to work on finding a way to ride on top of the immense wave of change, and redefine the new world on our own terms. Do we want this new globalized reality to be defined by multinational corporations (MNCs) and what the marketplace views as beneficial? Do we allow neo-colonialism to take root, and dictate the knowledge transmitted through multimedia and the Internet?

Kubow and Fossum (2007) point out that what we call globalization is in fact better described as a Westernization, and that it exits a risk that “global society develops predominantly in the image of the privileged developed world” (p. 292). While the global communication portals have been opened, it seems the flows of knowledge, ideas, and values are unilateral. The American brand Coca-Cola is commonplace in even the most underdeveloped areas of the world (Brooks et al., p. 311), and the presence of a McDonald’s restaurant has become a measurement for a country’s economic development (De Leo & Telasi, 2012).

Being global does not contradict preserving local worldviews and values; on the contrary, it should mean creating a platform for cultural exchange and sharing of knowledge and wisdom

I’m deeply worried by what I see as a loss of local cultures and practices. What concerns me even more is the assumption many people make, that this Westernization is inescapable. Many of us have settled with the idea that the erosion of traditions and culture is a natural – albeit regrettable – result of globalization. I strongly disagree. It is evident that the Western culture has not suffered, but rather has spread throughout the world at record speed, aided by what Friedman so accurately coined the “flattening of the world”. Why should we not allow – or at the very least encourage – cultures from Africa, Asia, and South-America to spread to the West? Must the global transmission of knowledge remain unilateral?

As an educator I fear that what we now call ‘globalization’ might turn into a ‘homogenization’ of the people of the world, as Kubow and Fossum (2007) warns us about. This is not how I wish to redefine the new world arising from the ‘globalization avalanche’. I call for a true globalization, where the portals of knowledge are multilateral, and all peoples and nations have a place. Being global does not contradict preserving local worldviews and values; on the contrary, it should mean creating a platform for cultural exchange and sharing of knowledge and wisdom. The main challenge in achieving this, of course, is educating the coming generations on global issues, and arousing a sense of global identity.

Upon entering a new era of “web-enabled global collaboration” (Friedman, 2005) it is crucial to steer the globalization process in the direction we as global citizens desire. As Friedman explains, the third era of globalization will be spearheaded by individuals: not countries or companies. It is down to each and every one of us to take an active part in sharing knowledge across country borders, religious beliefs, and ethnicity. Educators will play an important part in preparing young citizens to not only accept and understand globalization, but to recognize the potential it unlocks in moving towards a more peaceful, tolerating world.

References:

Brooks, I., Weatherston, J., & Wilkinson, G. (2010). Globalisation, challenges and changes. In The international business environment (pp 306-336). Retrieved from http:// www.catalogue.pearsoned.co.uk

De Leo, P. & Telasi, F. (2012, May) McDonalization. (Unpublished dissertation). Università degli studi di Milano-Biccocia, Italy, Dipartimento di Economia, Metodi Quantitativi e Strategie di Impresa website: dipeco.economia.unimib.it

Friedman, T. (2005). The World is Flat. [Video file] Presentation at MIT. Retrieved from http://video.mit.edu/watch/the-world-is-flat-9145/

McLuhan, M. (1965). Mcluhan Predicts World Connectivity. [Video file] Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/arts-entertainment/media /marshall-mcluhan-the-man-and-his-message/mcluhan-predicts-world-connectivity.html

Kubow, P.K. & Fossum, P.R. (2007). Comparative Education: Exploring Issues in International Context. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.