The Journal of Higher Education 75.1 (2004) 1-6
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Questions of Research and Methodology
Over the past three decades, researchers' approaches to studying higher education and the questions they explore have changed markedly. In the 1960s and 1970s, the field was dominated by quantitative approaches (Keller, 1998), particularly small-scale statistical studies that sought to document such phenomena as access, mobility, faculty productivity, and student retention. In the last decade, as modes of inquiry have expanded in educational research generally, higher educational researchers have also turned to qualitative research, whose increasing legitimacy is reflected in the publication of the ASHE Reader on Qualitative Research in the early 1990s. In addition, critical, constructivist, and even postmodern approaches to inquiry have gained some credibility and turned researchers' attention to questions of the purposes of research. While methodologies and paradigms have expanded, so have ideas about who conducts research and for whom. For example, foundations are now funding research collaboratives of practitioners and researchers rather than individual researchers, making partnerships and action research more prevalent. A fundamental assumption we make is that this proliferation of research approaches offers valuable forms of knowledge and insight to those concerned with the study and practice of higher education.
As these changes have occurred, individual articles have focused on specific methodological challenges, such as the limitations of probabilistic [End Page 1] research about college students or the uses of critical race theory to examine access, but there has been no collection of ideas about the broad implications of changing forms of research for the field of higher education. Thus, the main goals of this special issue of the Journal—Questions of Research and Methodology—are to explore how research approaches contribute to our understandings of higher education and how higher educational researchers can continue to refine their inquiry. We hope that by bringing together in one collection various perspectives on reconceptualizing research, we can contribute to broadening conversations about individual forms of research as well as their relations, thereby enriching the work of the field.
At the same time, we are aware that current political conditions may encourage a retraction rather than an expansion of research approaches. We refer specifically to the National Research Council's (NRC) (2002) Committee on Scientific Principles for Education Research's recent report, Scientific Research in Education. This report signals an epoch in which the federal government would legislate valid research as "scientific" in increasingly narrow and normative ways, as evidenced by the NRC's emphasis on experimental research and its ambivalence about multiple approaches to research that do not come from or create a research community based in consensus (Feuer, Towne, & Shavelson, 2002). In such a moment, it is increasingly important that scholars of higher education learn to articulate the values of a plurality of research approaches and of specific types of inquiry framed as nonscientific.
We offer a few comments about how we decided on the issues and authors chosen for this edition. In thinking about reconceptualizing research processes and methodologies, we envisioned this topic broadly to include the focus of inquiry, the methods one chooses to approach research questions, the legitimacy of particular types of research, the practical nature of research, and the contributions of types of research to the field. We reviewed existing methodological literature in order to explore trends and themes that seemed to be emerging in various journals, books, and conferences in higher education and across other fields and disciplines. We held symposia at ASHE in 2001 and 2002 in which we explored ways of reconceptualizing research. Several key themes emerged as important areas in understanding the contributions of various types of research in the field and refining our thinking about research: (1) the role of disciplinary inquiry; (2) the importance of adopting, explaining, and working within the assumptions of research paradigms to enhance all research; (3) the potential for action or collaborative forms of research to affect practice; and (4) ways of rethinking [End Page 2] traditional approaches that have been narrowly defined. We asked...