Working Paper 59
Activity, structures and connections: A framework for researching teaching practices in international HE
Published March 2021

This CGHE Working Paper presents the ontological and epistemological reflections motivating the author’s conceptualisation of international higher education as a global practice-scape.

At the centre of this theory-building is the single actor, whose particular teaching practices shape and are shaping the macro-level changes commonly associated with the globalisation of higher education and research. This creates a challenge for the educational sociologist, who requires a framework that can simultaneously facilitate a need to ground any observations in empirical studies of specific agents’ action and interaction, and establish linkages between such activity at the individual level and events in other institutional settings, national systems and policy/geographical scales. A second challenge is ‘methodological nationalism’ as an empirical inquiry into lecturer experiences with international higher education can easily result in the foregrounding of ‘national difference’, encouraging informants to rely on a binary distinction between a ‘default culture’, embodied by those native to a particular national and linguistic field, and deviance ascribed to international students and staff.

As a solution, the paper proposes a ‘practice ontology’, suggesting that lecturers’ practical understandings be treated as the focal point when examining the phenomenon of ‘international education’. The author’s approach has been inspired by the practice theories of Pierre Bourdieu, Theodore Schatzki and John Dewey. Hence, it is recommended that an investigation of social practice include considerations relating to 1) the setting in which action is performed; 2) the specific activities that agents undertake; and 3) the implicit or explicit norms that guide actors’ evaluation of their own and other agents’ performance.

The working paper brings together the practice theorists’ understanding of social practice as habituated action with an acceptance of international HE as an activity connecting individual performances with action unfolding in other settings. To do so, the paper presents a framework consisting of three elements: activity, structures and connections. Activity can be defined as concrete ‘doings & sayings’ (Schatzki 2002) and includes teaching practices such as course design, multicultural teamwork and academic literacy.

Structures are the normative understandings that actors use to navigate within a specific institutional, national or international field and involve disciplinary orientation, academic mobility and Englishisation. Finally, connections highlight the linkages between the specific performances undertaken by teachers in the classroom and developments in other sites and scales. Hence, the single lecturer’s enactment of international HE within a particular site is read in the light of linkages connecting him/her to other geographies and/or policy-levels, enabling the educational sociologist to document empirically how teaching practices shape and are shaped by macro-level globalisation.

Read the full Working Paper here.