In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Comparative Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Education and Development

Education Comparative Education
Robert Arnove, Stephen Franz, Patricia K. Kubow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0152


Comparative education is a loosely bounded field that examines the sources, workings, and outcomes of education systems, as well as leading education issues, from comprehensive, multidisciplinary, cross-national, and cross-cultural perspectives. Despite the diversity of approaches to studying relations between education and society, Arnove, et al. 1992 (cited under General Overviews) maintains that the field is held together by a fundamental belief that education can be improved and can serve to bring about change for the better in all nations. The authors further note that comparative inquiry often has sought to discover how changes in educational provision, form, and content might contribute to the eradication of poverty or the end of gender-, class-, and ethnic-based inequities. A belief in the transformative power of education systems is aligned with three principal dimensions of the field. Arnove 2013 (cited under General Overviews) designates these dimensions as scientific/theoretical, pragmatic/ameliorative, and global/international understanding and peace. According to Farrell 1979 (cited under General Overviews), the scientific dimension of the field relates to theory building with comparison being absolutely essential to understanding what relationships pertain under what conditions among variables in the education system and society. Bray and Thomas 1995 (cited under General Overviews) point out that comparison enables researchers to look at the entire world as a natural laboratory in viewing the multiple ways in which societal factors, educational policies, and practices may vary and interact in otherwise unpredictable and unimaginable ways. With regard to the pragmatic dimension, comparative educators have studied other societies to learn what works well and why. At the inception of study of comparative education as a mode of inquiry in the 19th century, pioneer Marc-Antoine Jullien de Paris (b. 1775–d. 1848) aimed at not only informing and improving educational policy, but also contributing to greater international understanding. According to Giddens 1991, Rivzi and Lingard 2010, and Carney 2009 (all cited under General Overviews), international understanding has become an even more important feature of comparative education as processes of globalization increasingly require people to recognize how socioeconomic forces, emanating from what were previously considered distant and remote areas of the world, impinge upon their daily lives. The priority given to each of these dimensions varies not only across individuals but also across national and regional boundaries and epistemic communities. Yamada 2015 (cited under General Overviews), for example, finds notable differences between the discourses and practices of North American and Japanese researchers, with the former tending to locate their research in existing theories and the latter trying to understand a particular situation before eventually finding patterns or elements applicable to a wider situation. Takayama 2011 (cited under General Overviews) notes that one reason for differences in research traditions is the Japanese emphasis on area studies. The evolution of comparative education as a scholarly endeavor reflects changes in theories, research methodologies, and events on the world stage that have required more sophisticated responses to understanding transformations occurring within and across societies.

General Overviews

The references cited here include leading English-language textbooks in the field that introduce readers to the principal dimensions of comparative education, including its contributions to theory building, more informed and enlightened educational policy and practice, and international understanding and world peace. They illustrate the increasing focus of the field on how globalization impacts national education systems and, in turn, are refracted and changed by local contexts. Japan, which has one of the longest traditions of comparative studies, is included to point out differences in scholarly traditions.

  • Arnove, Robert F. 2013. Introduction: Reframing comparative education; The dialectic of the global and the local. In Comparative education: The dialectic of the global and the local. 4th ed. Edited by Robert F. Arnove, Carlos Alberto Torres, and Stephen Franz, 1–26. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    The global economy and the increasing interconnectedness of societies pose shared challenges for education worldwide. Understanding the tensions between the global and the local is necessary to reframing the field of comparative education. The global-local dialectic is explored in relation to Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and the United States.

  • Arnove, Robert F., Philip G. Altbach, and Gail P. Kelly. 1992. Introduction. In Emergent issues in education. Edited by Robert F. Arnove, Philip G. Altbach, and Gail P. Kelly, 1–10. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    The three editors/authors discuss how the book reflects the field as it emerged in the 1990s. They review the debates over theory that have remained unresolved since they emerged in the 1960s. Issues examined include modernization without Westernization, the role of international donor agencies, the reform of educational governance, public-private relations, the changing patterns of higher education, the education of girls and women, the professionalization of teaching, and the nature of literacy campaigns.

  • Bray, Mark, and R. Murray Thomas. 1995. Levels of comparison in educational studies: Different insights from different literatures and the value of multilevel analysis. Harvard Educational Review 65.3: 474–491.

    DOI: 10.17763/haer.65.3.g3228437224v4877

    The initial conceptual framework provided by Bray and Thomas constitutes a seminal contribution to comparative education that alerts scholars to the importance of multilevel units of analysis along three dimensions: geographic/local units (ranging from world/regions/ continents to that of schools/classrooms/individuals); nonlocational demographic units (ranging from ethnic/age/religious/gender groups to entire populations); and aspects of education and society (typically subjects studied, such as curriculum, teaching methods, educational finance, and management structures).

  • Carney, Stephen. 2009. Negotiating policy in an age of globalization: Exploring educational “policyscapes” in Denmark, Nepal, and China. Comparative Education Review 53.1: 63–68.

    DOI: 10.1086/593152

    The author explores the processes of policy implementation in Denmark, Nepal, and China. Carney introduces the notion of “policyscape” (one of “hyper-neoliberalism”) as a common context for understanding change efforts at different levels of education in particular localities.

  • Farrell, Joseph P. 1979. The necessity of comparison in educational studies: Different insights from the salience of science and the problem of comparability. Comparative Education Review 23.1: 3–16.

    DOI: 10.1086/446010

    In this presidential address, Farrell affirms that all sciences are comparative. The goal of science is not only to establish that relationships exist between variables, but also to determine the range over which they exist. Farrell makes a major contribution in discussing how variables in education-society relations may not be phenomenally identical, but they can be conceptually equivalent. A body of scholarship can be gradually constructed to establish comparative education as a disciplinary field of study.

  • Giddens, Anthony. 1991. The consequences of modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Giddens discusses the nature of social institutions at the end of the 20th century. Societies are entering a stage of “high modernity”—not post-modernity—as dominant forms of social and cultural organization have not yet been radically transformed. The current stage of world development provides previously unavailable opportunities for the well-being of humanity; however, it also poses systemic dangers resulting from totalitarian governments, degrading industrial work, environmental destruction, and militarism.

  • Rivzi, Fazal, and Bob Lingard. 2010. Globalizing education policy. London: Routledge.

    The authors critique “the rationalist approach” to policy studies that have a narrow national focus. Instead, they offer insights into how reform trends in curriculum, pedagogy, evaluation, governance, and equity policies are located within a global framework. Their conclusions call for a new imaginary of globalization that challenges the dominance of the “neoliberal construction” of the world based in economics, while strengthening social solidarity and democratic learning within and across national borders.

  • Takayama, Keita. 2011. Reconceptualizing the politics of Japanese education: Reimagining comparative studies of Japanese education. In Reimagining Japanese education: Borders, transfers, circulations, and the comparative. Edited by David Blake Willis and Jeremy Rappleye, 247–285. Oxford: Symposium Books.

    Takayama makes a strong case for viewing a dialogic relation between Japanese and non-Japanese research traditions that enables scholars to draw upon external transformations that have occurred in Japanese society and education in what he calls the “post-post-war time.”

  • Yamada, Shoko. 2015. The constituent elements of comparative education in Japan: A comparison with North America. Comparative Education Review 59.2: 234–260.

    DOI: 10.1086/680172

    Yamada analyzes how comparative education has been discussed and practiced in Japan, based on a questionnaire completed by members of the Japan Comparative Education Society and classification of articles published in its journal between 1975 and 2011. This information is then contrasted with North American trends identified by scholars examining research by members of the Comparative and International Education Society and articles in the Comparative Education Review (cited under Scholarly Journals and Publications).

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