22 SES 04 D, Imaginations and Identities in and of Higher Education
Sustainability has become an area of increasing relevance and prevalence in higher education throughout Europe, America and beyond, many universities now practising and encouraging various sustainability and environment-based initiatives: indeed, many northern European universities provide particularly visible cases of this.Sustainable development issues are increasingly being adopted and debated in higher education, as demonstrated in campus initiatives, in teaching, and through growing research. Much of this sustainability research focuses on its possible inclusion in teaching in disciplinary contexts (Barlett and Chase, 2013; Jones et al., 2010). However, the specific areas of Education for Sustainable Development(ESD) and Sustainability in the Curriculumremain widely contested. And whilst sustainability has been explored in the context of most disciplines, there is a relative paucity of published work exploring sociologists’ perspectives, which is surprising since both have an interest in society and social change and sociological research addresses areas including the environment and consumption (Soron, 2010). In addition, several studies suggest that many students would like sustainability issues better represented in their institutions and in their curricula (Drayson et al., 2013; Jones et al., 2010). In the context of this backdrop, the paper proposed here will summarise and discuss a study recently completed by the author, which investigated sociologists’ perspectives about sustainability in higher education and in higher education curricula, drawing on both staff and student views.
The central research question for the project was:
1. What variations exist in sociology academic staff and students in their accounts about and experiences of sustainability in higher education?
The project also incorporated the following subsidiary questions:
2. What do sociology staff and students understand by sustainability?
3. Should sustainability be included in higher education curricula?
The research was undertaken by adoption of the phenomenographic approach (see next section) which focuses on variation in participant experiences of a particular issue. In this work, therefore, I bring together the problematised area of sustainability in higher education with the research approach of phenomenography, advocating that the undertaking of further phenomenographic studies about sustainability, in more diverse higher education contexts, would be of genuine value to the sector. The study features a number of distinctive characteristics, these being its focus on sociological accounts of sustainability, its eliciting of both staff and student accounts, and its use of the phenomenographic approach for researching sustainability.
Aspects of this project have been presented at previous ECER Conferences during the time that the research was ‘in situ’. For example, I presented a paper about some of the early outcomes of the study and another paper about the benefits and limitations of phenomenography for researching sustainability. However, ECER 2019 will provide the first opportunity to summarise the project in its entirety - addressing its full outcomes, and related arguments and recommendations. The paper will therefore be entirely distinctive from any previous submissions to ECER that I have made and will be presented in such that a way that all key points, lessons learned, and recommendations drawing from the research can be synthesised in the available time.
The project was informed by a detailed literature review drawing on themes including sustainability in higher education, sociology and sociology of the environment, and phenomenography. Sustainability literature that was used – incorporating research projects, case studies, and critiques of sustainability – feature a highly European focus, reflecting the strong European emphasis on sustainability and education. Recent work by Caradonna (2016) was valuable for contextualising the project.
In designing the project, careful account was taken to mitigate against identified weaknesses characteristic of previous published sustainability research. These include, according to authors including Barth and Rieckmann (2015), Gräsel et al (2013), Rickinson and Reid (2015) and Wu and Shen (2016), a lack of attention given to student perspectives about sustainability; a tendency to limit studies to single-institutions; a lack of detail about methodology and data analysis. As a consequence and to build on previous research, my project was undertaken at three universities, and included an equal number of staff and student participants. All interviews were undertaken, transcribed and analysed by the researcher, and attention was given to the data analysis phase of the project, in which phenomenographic procedures were adopted. Research approach / phenomenography: An approach used primarily for researching higher education, phenomenography focuses on variation in interpretations and experiences of a particular issue amongst a pre-determined population. It has been used for researching areas such as learning and teaching (Shreeve et al., 2010), curriculum (Fraser, 2006) and study support (Hallett, 2010) as well as for disciplinary-based studies (Ashwin et al., 2014). Phenomenography assumes that experiences may be captured in a finite number of qualitatively distinct categories of description (Marton, 1981), the researcher seeking to understand the meanings of these categories and how they relate to one another (Entwistle, 1997). These categories are collected in one or more ‘outcome spaces’. Phenomenography is usually undertaken using interviews, but other methods may be chosen. There have already been a small number of phenomenographic studies on sustainability, most within given disciplines (Carew & Mitchell, 2006; Reid et al., 2009; Cotton et al, 2012). Design, implementation and ethics: I devised staff and student interviews schedules and undertook all interviews within three sociology departments, at three universities, with the pseudonyms of Civic University, Coastal University and County University. Ethical approval was obtained at all three universities. Twenty-four sociologists (12 staff, 12 students) were interviewed using the phenomenographic approach – an equal number at each university. A multi-phased data analysis process led to the development of two outcome spaces, respectively entitled ‘Sustainability and me’ and ‘Sustainability and my discipline’. Each outcome space comprised a series of categories, demonstrating clear variation in sociologists’ conceptions of their own relationships with sustainability, and of the relationship between their discipline and sociology. This variation will be examined and discussed as a central part of my paper.
Based on the outcomes, it is argued that sociological perspectives could be important for guiding future education, practice and policy about sustainability. Sociological perspectives provide insights into challenges and debates associated with sustainability and can play a role in offering ideas for the progression of relevant initiatives in higher education institutions. In addition, claims are made for new knowledge yielded by the study and limitations and ideas for future research are noted. It is also suggested that phenomenography, with its focus on structural differences, is well suited to researching sustainability, which is also characterised by difference – in definitions, understandings, and views of its role in higher education. The undertaking of additional phenomenographic studies might help policy makers, educators and other staff and student groups develop more meaningful policies and teaching about sustainability. To sum up, the study makes several contributions: - It develops the literature about sustainability in higher education. - It examines sustainability through a new, sociological lens, eliciting staff and student sociologists’ accounts. - It broadens understandings of what sustainability is and might include with a stronger focus on the ‘societal’ domain. - It adds to the limited phenomenographic literature which focuses on variations of understandings of and views about sustainability. That sociologists offer fresh ideas about sustainability is, I believe, partly attributable to a natural ‘connection’ between their discipline and this field: both are, in their own ways, about society. This is why it is concluded that sociology can further contribute to our understanding of, teaching about, and research into sustainability. Afterall, in an era characterised by climate change, species loss, resource concerns and global inequalities, higher education needs to do more, and in this capacity, sociology can help. In this way, the paper also coheres with the conference theme, with the latter’s focus on risk and uncertainty.
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