Studying the Construction of a “Knowledge-Based Regulation Tool”: Conceptual Issues

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How has the OECD’s comparative inquiry on student performances (PISA) been constructed (and evolved over time, 1997-2007)? What kind of relationships has it established between knowledge and policy? In order to answer these questions we’ve studied PISA as an entity of complex multiple activities through which diverse social actors are engaged in the production, dissemination and use of ‘knowledge for policy.’

PISA is explicitly oriented towards the production of information and the steering of educational systems. In our approach (Carvalho, 2009) we look at such ‘knowledge for policy’ as a specific type of knowledge, created by specific practices and facing specific criteria (see Nassehi, 2008). The formation and direction of these types of knowledges, is not only dependent on the quality of scientific or technical “credibility,” but also what is important is the criteria of “contextuality.” Following Lindquist (1990: 31-35) this is the quality, or condition, of being relevant and able to be handled by an audience. This means that the creation and the storing of data, and the transformation of data into arguments, are only relevant if they are found to be “usable” by the desired or expected readers. If the success of knowledge for policy rests on the condition of being consumed, shared, and learned by its audiences then it cannot be separated from processes of “knowledge mediation” (see e.g. Henri & alli, 2001, Rutkowski, 2007). Such processes require the generation of conventions (Rizvi, 2004), whether in relation to what counts as knowledge for policy and the modes and content entailed, or as part of a vision on education and the ways it can, or should, be governed. Such “mediation” includes processes of communication and organization (i.e., stabilization of cooperative relationships) between different social universes.

PISA is not merely a triennial survey with a subsequent third year report. The profiles of PISA participants reveals researchers, public and private research centers, experts in material assessment and in components of scientific surveys, as well as OECD professionals (either managers or analysts), policy-makers, bureaucrats and technicians from multiple countries. These actors come together through multiple activities “information gathering, publication and convocation activities” (Lindquist, 1990: 34) where greater communication and organization can occur.

Looking at these factors we sustain the idea that the development and circulation of PISA combines the following: (i) a cognitive dimension, defining what counts as knowledge for policy, as well as a vision on education and the ways it can be governed, and (ii) a social dimension focusing on the creation and stabilization of organizations. In other words, the definitions of educational reality and appropriate conducts of government (and even of appropriate ways of creating knowledge for policy), go hand in hand with the process of achieving coordination between different actors. Thus, the success of PISA depends on bringing together, and cooperating with, various actors around a series of activities, and sharing the vision of PISA as a proper instrument for the governing of education.

When we try to analyze the meanings and the scripts displayed within and around the knowledge-policy tools we need to keep in mind that those are the result of, according to Bruno Latour (1996 [1989]) “several interdependent practices”: From the formulation of research subjects to the institution of a “monopoly of competence”; from the convincing of others (politicians, bureaucrats, experts, researchers) in order to guarantee resources (informational, financial, human) to the building of “public confidence.” Thus, we follow closely central elements of the “sociology of translation” as these have been mobilized in the analysis of public policies. Namely, the overlapping of cognitive activities and the interactions between actors, as well as the importance given to elements such as documents and databases as components in the making and sustaining of ordered practices (see Lascoumes, 1996, 2004: 437).

The creation and exchange of knowledge for policy may well be related to the “construction of multilateral spaces” by international organizations (Rutkowski, 2007: 237). The influence of intergovernmental organizations in educational policies has been growing since the end of the Second World War, keeping pace with the intensification of interdependence and coordination of human activities on a worldwide scale (Henry & alli, 2001, Rizvi & Lingard, 2009). While these organizations have broadened their “scope of action” (influencing the national debates, aims, goals and structures of the education systems), they have also spawned new arenas and new forms of educational governance (see Leuze & alli, 2007: 9-10). These processes have not necessarily eliminated the role of the nation-state in the governing of education systems, but they have at least forced them to make new decisions, such as those concerning the localities and agencies responsible for the coordination of action in the field of education (Dale, 1999, Ozga & alli, 2002).

PISA is an exemplary case of the agenda and specific regulating practices that characterise OECD’s involvement in transnational governance (Mahon & McBride, 2008, 2009). The work generated, and coordinated by this “policy lender” (Steiner-Khamsi, 2004) does not obliterate the notion that public policies are determined by a complex set of actions and interactions carried out by multiple participants within multiple spaces. Moreover, the “international argument” (Schriewer, 2000) is often cited when drawing up national policies as a strategy for the certification (or for the decertification) of controversial policies, operating as an act of validation as well as dismissal of actors and opinions by using a source of external authority (Steiner-Khamsi, 2004: 203-204).

Thus, we sustain the perspective of a cyclical and multi-directional creation of knowledge-policy instruments. This idea is also supported by different literatures, for example studies on cultural transfer demonstrate that it involves more than a simple transpositions of theories, instruments, working methods (etc.) - instead what is required is the taking of a more ‘tortuous’ road combining varied diffusion modalities and active (and selective) incorporation processes (Charle, Schriewer & Wagner, 2004). Additionally, studies in education refer to contemporary policies as processes of mediation (reinterpretation, decontextualization and recontextualization) where national, local, regional, and international agencies intertwine (e.g., Popkewitz, 2000, van Zanten & Ball, 2000, Steiner-Khamsi 2004, Maroy, 2006). Thus, we adhere to the advice made by Jürgen Schriewer (2000: 327) regarding the need to face analytically a “weaving of opposites”: “internationalization and indigenization,” “supranational integration and intranational diversification”; “global spread of standardized educational models … and the surprising diversity of socio-cultural interrelationship networks.” In sum, we study PISA as a series of complex and multiple activities in which a myriad of social actors are engaged in convergent or divergent ways, actively or passively, in the production, dissemination and use of knowledge for policy. The actors involved are simultaneously “free and networked,” as well as “constructing and being constructed by their engagement” (Lawn, 2006: 4).

CARVALHO Luis M. with E. Costa (2009), Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), KNOWandPOL Report.

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