This is a paper based on a recently published chapter in a book about qualitative research (QR) in higher education and the connection between theories and practices (Guzmán-Valenzuela, 2016) . The ways in which qualitative research in education and, particularly in the field of higher education, is conducted has attracted attention in the last decades (Denzin, & Lincoln, 2008; Huberman & Miles, 2004). As a result, there are many books and papers focused on methodological issues such as the main research approaches to address an educational research problem (for example, ethnography, phenomenography, case studies, narrative studies, discourse analysis and so on), specific techniques to collect data (interviews of different kinds, focus groups, document analysis, etc.) and techniques to analyze qualitative data (what has been called ‘qualitative analysis with some various variants depending on the methodological approach). In this paper, attention is paid to the connection between those theories explicitly or implicitly enunciated by researches when conducting research in higher education and practical problems in education.
The literature (Tight, 2007, 2004) shows that in QR in higher education, some researchers fail in connecting their current investigation with existing theoretical frameworks. Rather, researchers tend to generally enunciate some general o middle range theories (Goetz & Le Compte, 1988; Merton, 1957) and either they do not connect these theories with their research outcomes or they just confirm existing theories without problematizing them (Ashwin, 2012). As a result, it is not clear to what extent researchers conduct a research aiming to expand, deconstruct or reboot previous theories. This is an important matter since the creation/development/deconstruction of theories through research gives an account of the development and the robustness of (higher) education as a field. Also, this is a challenge in the field of education (in general) since education is a ‘soft applied science’ (Biglan, 1973) embedded in practices, which implies that much of educational research is configured around practical issues and it is often intended to lead to actions that help to improve a particular problematic situation. As a consequence, sometimes, educational researchers 'forget' about connecting educational problems with theories.
At this point, it is helpful to distinguish between to what has been called ‘practitioner research’ and ‘academic research’. Practitioner research is a kind of research rooted in problems that practitioners (for example, managers or teachers) face in their daily activities in a particular scenario (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009; Jarvis, 1999) and are wanting to resolve. As a result, practitioner researchers initiate a systematic process of inquiry to change a problem in a particular educational context. In contrast, academic research is a type of research originated in and guided by particular disciplinary frameworks that include the relevant literature on a particular topic (either a conceptual or empirical-based literature). However, the distinction between ‘practitioner research’ and ‘academic research’ is rather fuzzy (Jacob, 2001) and it is possible to find mixed types of educational research with a stronger focus on theories or practical problems. What has been called institutional research (Webber & Calderon, 2015), for example, is a type of research that combines elements of academic and practitioner research.
This paper examines both the more practical purposes of practitioner research and the more theoretical aims of academic research by analyzing some empirical examples of research in higher education and addressing questions about the origins of the research problem, who is in charge of the research and which are the main research purposes. The papers finalizes with a general reflection on the role and importance of both theories and practices in research in higher education.
Ashwin, P. (2012). How often are theories developed through empirical research into higher education? Studies in Higher Education, 37(8), 941-955. Biglan, A. (1973). Relationships between subject matter characteristics and the structure and output of university departments. Journal of applied psychology, 57(3), 204. Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York: Teachers College Press. Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (2008). The landscape of Qualitative Research. London: Sage Publications. Goetz, Y. P., & Le Compte, M. D. (1988). Etimología y diseño cualitativos en investigación educativo. Madrid: Morata. Guzmán-Valenzuela, C. (2016). Connecting theory and practice in qualitative research, In J. Huisman and M. Tight (editors) Theory and Method in Higher Education Research, Volume 2 (pp. 115-133). Bingley: Emerald. Huberman, M. & Miles, M. (1994). Data Management and analysis methods. In N. Denzin e Y. Lincoln (Ed.), Handbook of Qualitative Research, pp. 428-444. California: Sage Publications. Jarvis, P. (1999). The Practitioner-Researcher. Developing Theory from Practice. California: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Merton, R. K. (1957). The role-set: Problems in sociological theory. British journal of Sociology, 106-120. Prosser, M. y Trigwell, K. (1999) Understanding learning and teaching: the experience in higher education. Buckingham [England]; Philadelphia, PA: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press. Tight, M. (2004). Research into higher education: An a-theoretical community of practice? Higher Education Research and Development 23 (4), 395–411. Tight, M. (2007). Bridging the divide: A comparative analysis of articles in higher education journals published inside and outside North America. Higher Education, 53, 235–53. Webber, K. L., & Calderon, A. J. (2015). Institutional Research and Planning in Higher Education: Global Contexts and Themes. Abingdon: Routledge.
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