Comparing cultures

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“Were the British truly imperialist?” asked the respected travel writer, Jan Morris (2005, p.24). Does “The Chinese Learner” (Watkins & Biggs 1996) “invariably have a high regard for education”? Are “Asian students not only diligent, but also [possessed of] high achievement motivation” (Lee 1996, p.25)? Is there really “a distinct Chinese pedagogy”, as Rao and Chan (2009, p.10) have intimated? Do Finnish students enjoy some cultural advantage that enables them to do well repeatedly – in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012 – in the league tables produced by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)? Was it appropriate for South Africa’s 1951 Eiselen Commission to state that “education practice must recognise that it has to deal with a Bantu child, trained and conditioned in Bantu culture, endowed with a knowledge of a Bantu language and imbued with values, interests and behaviour patterns learned at the knee of a Bantu mother” (Kallaway 1984, p.175)? And was it valid then to declare, as did Hendrik Verwoerd, South African Minister of Native Affairs in 1954, that “there is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour” (Kallaway 1984, p.173)?
Few would deny that cultural factors are associated with and influence many aspects of education. As Alexander (2000, pp.29-30) has observed: Life in schools and classrooms is an aspect of our wider society, not separate from it: a culture does not stop at the school gates. The character and dynamics of school life are shaped by the values that shape other aspects of … national life. Alexander went further (p.30), writing that: “Culture, in comparative analysis and understanding, and certainly in national systems of education, is all.” When comparing one culture with another, however, researchers should tread with caution. They face possible accusations of stereotyping, of treating culture as monolithic, and of overstating its influence in a world of complex interactions and influences. Morris’ (2005, p.24) response to her own question whether the British were truly imperialist was that: some were, some weren’t. It depended on class, age, temperament, religion, the state of the nation, the state of one’s investments, the state of one’s liver and all the myriad other factors that make national consensus about anything a nonsensical hypothesis. 
In his chapter in the book, The Chinese Learner, Lee (1996) cited the claims of Ho (1986) and Yang (1986) about the diligence, motivation and high regard for education apparently typical of Chinese, and more generally, Asian students. Many who have taught in societies characterised by what are widely called “Confucian heritage cultures” have reported similar perceptions. How valid are these characterisations, and are the features unique to students in Confucian heritage cultures? Lee has cautioned readers about the risks of over-generalisation. He and Manzon remind readers in Chapter 9 of this volume that “[w]henever values are discussed collectively, they have to be examined in the context of individual choices of values”. In Revisiting the Chinese Learner, Chan and Rao also warned readers of the risks in positing “a binary distinction between Chinese and Western students” and in “assum[ing] the homogeneity of the Chinese people” (2009a, p.318).
Concerning the performance of Finland’s school children in the 2000 PISA study, Välijärvi (2002, p.45) has indicated that cultural influences were a significant element. One component, he has suggested, was cultural homogeneity: “it has been comparatively easy in Finland to reach mutual understanding on national education policy and the means for developing the education system”. Välijärvi has also referred to students’ engagement in reading, and cultural communication between parents and children; and he cited a great cultural emphasis in Finland on equal opportunity in education.
In related vein, Linnakylä’s (2002) interpretation of the excellent performance of Finland’s school children inferred that Finnish children in general have through centuries of cultural tradition long respected the ability to read. This is possibly because after the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe (1517-1648), in which the established practices of the European Catholic church were challenged by Martin Luther and others, it became increasingly acceptable and important for parents to read the Bible to their children (in contrast to the previously dominant Catholic practice that reserved the reading of the Bible for the priesthood). Since the 16th century in Finland, then part of Sweden, literacy had been a prerequisite for receiving the sacraments and contracting a Christian marriage. Children’s reading skills were publicly assessed in the annual ‘kinkerit’, in which failure meant public disgrace and the denial of permission to marry (Linnakylä 2002, pp.83-85). This has meant that for several centuries almost all children in Finland have been raised in families where both parents are literate. The last question raised at the beginning of this chapter – where cultural differences were used to justify apartheid education – contrasts sharply with the prior examples. However, apart from the transparently racist attitudes that served the economic and political interests of the elite in apartheid South Africa, many educational researchers would acknowledge substantial degrees of truth in the examples taken from Finnish and Confucian heritage cultures. As noted earlier, few would deny that cultural factors indeed influence many aspects of education; but most would flinch from asserting precisely what these factors are. Such factors are notoriously difficult to isolate, and assertions are often tenuous at best, given how easy it is not only to overstate the influence of a particular culture in a complex world, but also to get it wrong. Perhaps worse than this, researchers who attempt to describe the influence of cultural factors on education face accusations of stereotyping, even of racism. While The Chinese Learner (Watkins & Biggs 1996), Teaching the Chinese Learner (Watkins & Biggs 2001) and Revisiting the Chinese Learner (Chan & Rao 2009b) are respected volumes in the field of culture and pedagogy, publication of a volume entitled “The Black African Learner” would be scorned as racist. While the former three titles are not, in that they attempt to uncover the reasons behind the remarkable educational achievement of students in Confucian heritage cultures (which are also paradoxical, given educational policies, pedagogies and learning styles), the latter would be typical of the literature justifying colonial and apartheid education in South Africa: as if there were some phenomenon reducible to “the black African learner”.
Bearing in mind such considerations, this chapter considers some philosophical and methodological challenges that face researchers who attempt to compare education across cultures. The two core sections respond to historical, philosophical, anthropological and sociological questions associated with the definition of culture, and to methodological questions associated with research across cultures. I attempt to sketch a more nuanced understanding of culture than is evident in much contemporary educational research by considering the work of writers such as Johann Herder, Raymond Williams, Robert Bocock, Stuart Hall, Geert Hofstede and Zygmunt Bauman. The methodological questions associated with cross-cultural educational research are addressed by reference in particular to the work of Robert LeVine, Joseph Tobin, Robin Alexander and Vandra Masemann. Robust inferences from comparative studies would depend on comparison between entities that are both identifiable and discrete. If it is from comparison between two cultures that researchers wish to draw robust conclusions, they should be able at least to identify each culture, and to be sure about what marks each as distinct from the other. If they wish to claim, for example, that “Chinese learners invariably have a high regard for education”, they should bear in mind that a claim as strongly put as this implies that all members of this group display this feature. The statement also implies that this feature is an essential attribute of the members of this group, and in turn that a high regard for education is a necessary condition for membership of the group described as Chinese. Attention to this level of definitional constraint in comparative education research across cultures would increase rigour in the field. Comparisons of education across cultures are, after all, common. Two wellknown examples are the cross-national studies of educational achievement conducted under the auspices of the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) and PISA. Secondary analysis of these results frequently involves a challenging search for cultural factors associated with educational achievement – the immediately obvious first slippage being that from country to culture (and indeed, if the adjective “cross-national” is used, from nation to country). The assumption that nation, country and culture are synonymous is of course simply wrong. To assume that culture is a monolithic and discrete entity is equally wrong. The image of the pith-helmeted anthropologist cutting his way through jungles and traversing formidably mountainous terrain to ‘discover’ a remote tribe utterly isolated in its valleys in order to record its attributes and practices has possibly skewed contemporary views of cross-cultural comparison more than is normally realised. Questions about the validity and reliability of anthropological perspectives on educational comparison across cultures underlie much of the discussion in this chapter – that is, at least about the more outdated anthropological approaches that still seem to influence much comparative educational research across cultures. In a world where cultural isolation as per the mythic tribes of Borneo is increasingly impossible, some of these more outdated anthropological notions of culture might not serve as well in comparative research across cultures as other perspectives on culture might. I argue here that it is to sociological understandings of the concept of culture that researchers should turn for a more appropriate construction of culture in all its complexity in a world characterised by increasing degrees of plurality, multiculturalism, interdependence, hybridity and complexity. Copyright © 2014 Springer International Publishing Switzerland.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationComparative education research: Approaches and methods
EditorsMark BRAY, Robert Damian ADAMSON, Mark MASON
Place of PublicationHong Kong
PublisherComparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong; Springer
ISBN (Electronic)9783319055947
ISBN (Print)9789881785282, 9783319055930
Publication statusPublished - 2014


Mason, M. (2014). Comparing cultures. In M. Bray, B. Adamson, & M. Mason (Eds.), Comparative education research: Approaches and methods (pp. 221-257). Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong; Springer.


  • Early childhood education
  • National culture
  • Chinese learner
  • Preschool teacher
  • Ethnographic research

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