by Stijn Daenekindt and Jeroen Huisman
Parallel to the exponential growth of research on higher education, we see an increasing number of scientific contributions aiming to take stock of our field of research. Such stock-taking activities range from reflective and possibly somewhat impressionistic thoughts of seasoned scholars to in-depth reviews of salient higher education themes. Technological advancements (such as easy electronic access to research output and an increasingly broader set of analytical tools) obviously have made life easier for analysts. We recently embarked upon a project to explore the thematic diversity in the field of research in higher education. The results have recently been published in Higher Education. Our aim was to thematically map the field of research on higher education and to analyse how our field has evolved over time.
For this endeavour, we wanted our analysis to be large-scale. We aimed at including a number of articles that would do justice to the presumed variety in research into higher education. We did not, however, want the scale of our analysis to jeopardize the depth of our analysis. Therefore, we decided not to limit our analyses to, for example, an analysis of citation patterns or of keywords. Finally, to forestall bias (stemming from our personal knowledge about and experience in the field), we applied an inductive approach. These criteria led us to collect 16,928 journal articles on higher education published between 1991 and 2018 and to analyse each article’s abstract by applying topic modelling. Topic modelling is a method of automated text analysis and a follow-up blogpost (also on srheblog.com) will address the method. For now, it suffices to know that topic modelling is a machine learning technique that automatically analyses the co-occurrence of words to detect themes/topics and to find structure in a large collection of text.
In this blogpost, we present a glimpse of our findings and some additional thoughts for further discussion. In our analysis, we differentiate 31 research topics which inductively emerged from the data. For example, we found topics dealing with university ranking and performance, sustainability, substance use of college students, research ethics, etc. The bulk of these research topics were studied at the individual level (16 topics), with far fewer at the organisational (5) and system level (3). A final set of topics related either clearly to disciplines (eg teaching psychology) or to more generic themes (methods, academic writing, ethics). This evidences the richness of research into higher education. Indeed, our field of research certainly is not limited in terms of perspectives and unleashes “the whole shebang” of possible perspectives to gain new insights into higher education.
The existence of different perspectives also comprises potential dangers, however. Studies applying a certain approach on higher education — say, a system-level approach — may suffer from tunnel vision and lose sight of individual- and organization-level aspects of higher education. This may be problematic as processes on the different levels are obviously related to one another. In our analysis we find that studies indeed tend to focus on one level. For example, system-level topics tend to be exclusively combined with other system-level topics. This should not come as a big surprise, but there is potential danger in this and it may hamper the development of a more integrated field of research on higher education.
In our analysis, we also find a certain restraint to combine topics which are located at the same level. For example, topics on teaching practices are very rarely combined with topics on racial and ethnic minorities — even though both topics are situated at the individual level. To us, this was surprising as the combination of ethnicity and educational experiences is a blossoming field in the sociology of education. The fact that topics at the same level are only rarely combined is less understandable then the fact that topics on different levels are rarely combined. We hope that our analysis aids others researchers to identify gaps in the literature and that it motivates them to address these gaps.
A second finding we wish to address here relates to specialisation. Our analysis suggests that there is a trend of specialisation in our field of research. We looked at the number of topics combined in articles and we see that topic diversity declines over time. This is, on the one hand, not that surprising. Back in 1962, Kuhn already argued that the system of modern science encourages researchers towards further specialisation. So, it makes sense that over time, and parallel to the growth of the field of research on higher education, researchers specialise more and demarcate their own topic of expertise. On the other hand, it may be considered a problematic evolution as it can hamper our field of research to develop towards further maturity.
But what should we think of the balance between healthy expansion and specialization, on the one hand, and inefficient fragmentation, on the other? We lean towards evaluating the current state of higher education research as moving towards fragmentation. Other researchers, such as Malcom Tight, Bruce Macfarlane and Sue Clegg have similarly lamented the fragmented nature of our field of research. Our analysis adds to this by showing the trends over time: we observe more specialisation (not necessarily bad), but there are also signs of disintegration over time (not good). Other analyses we are currently carrying out also indicate thematic disintegration and suggest clear methodological boundaries. It looks like many researchers focusing on the same topic remain in their “comfort zone” and use a limited set of methods. For sure, many methodological choices are functional (as in fit-for-purpose), but the lack of diversity is striking. Moreover, we see that many higher education researchers stick to rather traditional techniques (survey, interviews, case studies) and that new methods hardly get picked up in our field. A final observation is that we hardly see methodological debates in our field. In related disciplines we often see healthy methodological discussions that improve the available “toolkit” (for example here). In our field, it appears that scholars shy away from such discussions and it suggests methodological conservatism and/or methodological tunnel vision.
There are still many things to investigate to arrive at a full assessment of the state of the art. One important question is how our field compares to other fields or disciplines. But if we were to accept the idea of fragmentation, it is pertinent to start thinking how to combat this. Reversing this trend is obviously not straightforward. But here are a few ideas. Individual scholars could try to get out of their comfort zone by applying other perspectives to their favourite research object and/or by applying their favourite perspective to new research topics. Related, researchers should be encouraged to use techniques less commonly used in our field and see whether they yield different outcomes (vignettes, experimental designs, network analysis, QCA/fuzzy logic, [auto-]ethnography and – of course – topic models). In addition, journal editors could be more flexible and inclusive in terms of the format of the submissions they consider. For example, they could explicitly welcome submissions in the format of ‘commentaries/ a reply to’. This would stimulate debate and open up the floor for increased cross-fertilisation of research into higher education and, in general, signal the maturity of research into higher education. Finally, there is scope for alternative peer review processes. Currently, only editors (and sometimes peer reviewers seeing the outcome of a peer review process) gain full insight in feedback offered by peers. If we would make these processes more visible to a broader readership – e.g. through open peer review, which still can be double-blind – we would gain much more insight in methodological and theoretical debates, that would definitely support the healthy growth of our field.
This post is based on the article: Daenekindt, S and Huisman, J (2020) ‘Mapping the scattered field of research on higher education. A correlated topic model of 17,000 articles, 1991–2018’ Higher Education, 1-17. Stijn Daenekindt is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Ghent University (Department of Sociology). SRHE Fellow Jeroen Huisman is a Full Professor at Ghent University (Department of Sociology).