We have also criticized functionalistic tradition as too mechanistic a perspective to higher education
We have criticized functionalistic tradition as too mechanistic a perspective to higher education.

By: Emmanuel Daykeay, Ph.D., Ed. D Entrant

ABSTRACT: This article discusses social dynamics of higher education in Liberia in which one of the most crucial but neglected perspectives in comparative studies of higher education. We pay attention to the importance of time, space and contexts—both geographical and sociocultural ones—to reveal how they influence on different social dynamics in various systems of higher education. The article focuses on the country national higher education system level. Theoretically, we approach higher education systems from a relational perspective paying attention to dynamics created by changing relationships between different actors in Liberia cultural, geographical and historical contexts.


The main aim of our article is to discuss social dynamics of higher education in Liberia because it is one of the most crucial but neglected perspectives in comparative studies of higher education. We will debate the importance of time, space and contexts—both geographical and socio-cultural ones—to reveal how they influence on different social dynamics in various systems of higher education. By social dynamics, we refer to the fact that the ways systems of higher education function and operate vary between different countries because of the differences in their various cultural and geographical contexts and the relationships between various actors. As a concept, it makes a reference to Physics where dynamics is a branch which deals with movements and force. We will focus our discussion on the national higher education system level of Liberia because it provides a suitable degree of abstraction for this article.

However, we hope that these arguments are also considered at the institutional level comparative studies because higher education institutions (HEIs) and their primary operational units are the levels where social life in academia takes place (see Kogan and Becher 1992). Our primary goal is to advance the study of social life in higher education in Liberia—no matter whether it takes place at the individual, basic unit, institutional or system levels. When saying this, we do not want to take part in the old(-fashioned) debate on the differences between micro and macro sociology (see Giddens 1984). Instead, we approach higher education systems as part of their contexts from a relational perspective (see Emirbayer 1997) paying attention to dynamics created by changing relationships between different actors in given national contexts. Using a terminology of Bourdieu we could say that we are interested in analyzing agents which are struggling for power in national higher education policy fields (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). However, even though we recognize the importance of Bourdieu as one of the relational thinkers, we do not want to tie our thinking to only one sociological theorist because our aim is to challenge traditional (structural functionalist) approach by arguing that higher education systems develop and function differently in relation to their social, historical and spatial contexts which have been improperly discussed so far. It is time to discuss the future of Liberia higher education and decides where do we go from here.

This article is based on two previous publications on comparative research (Va¨limaa 2009, 2010) and an ongoing large-scale comparative research project (Va¨limaa 2014; Nokkala 2014) with the hope of advancing the ideas presented in them. The structure of the article is as follows: first, we will discuss different traditions of comparative studies in and on higher education to show the broad outlines of differences in comparative higher education research. Second, we will explain the basic underlying assumptions of comparative studies, especially structural functionalism. In the third part, we will discuss the main factors that influence the different social dynamics of higher education system. Finally, we will conclude the main arguments of the study. We use the concept of ‘actor’ unwillingly because of its strong connotations in social sciences related to debates on the nature of social change, structures, agency, and functions. However, in the lack of a better concept, we use ‘actor’ as a term to name groups of human beings who have agency and who either work or study in higher education and try to influence its functioning.


Theoretically, one of the main dividing lines in Western science has been the nature of the interest of knowledge. In humanistic tradition the aim has been to understand (often: human behavior) whereas the objective in the intellectual tradition has been to explain (often: natural) phenomena (see e.g. Toulmin 1992). This division has been very sharp in the Western science, and it has led to fundamental differences between natural sciences (typically physics and chemistry) and disciplines studying human behavior (such as education, history, social sciences and psychology). It has been supported by different methodological perspectives both between disciplines and, especially in social sciences, inside disciplines. In the humanist tradition, the methods have often been qualitative aiming for interpretations, whereas in the intellectual tradition they have been quantitative and mathematically-based aiming for creating general principles and universal laws. In the fields of social sciences, humanities and education, rational culture has frequently been named as positivism and its supporters have sworn in the name of one of its developers, Karl Popper, whereas the humanist tradition has often been called as qualitative tradition with a variety of methodological approaches to it (see also Creswell 1998; Delanty 2005).

In this article, we will find a way to combine both the goals of explaining and understanding the social life in higher education. We also recognize that comparative higher education is especially fertile ground for theoretical debates, because in comparative studies a researcher very soon faces the need to try to explain, or even to give causal explanations, to social phenomena examined because comparative research setting normally reveals both common characteristics and differences between the cases studied, or between the units of analysis (whether individual, departmental, institutional of system). This need for explanations is soon followed by the notion that one cannot make general and generalizing remarks unless one understands deeply the social phenomenon examined in its contexts. The tension between generalizing arguments and contextual understanding of the cases makes comparative studies very different from single country or HEI case studies, because in a comparative research setting there is a real and concrete need to find common categories and concepts to review the cases and to explain differences and similarities between them. In typical single case (Liberia) studies researchers do not see this need very easily because the social dynamics of a given higher education system follows more or less the same social dynamics and which also feels natural and healthy for the researchers living inside the same culture. This’ single country myopia’ is, in fact, one of the reasons for problems in comparative higher education studies, because it is all too easy to assume that all higher education systems or institutions follow the social dynamics of one country, HEI or other social entity. This single country myopia seems to be especially common with researchers living in a significant, or dominant, culture because it is difficult enough to try to analyze the complexities and burning issues of the dominant culture itself. However, comparative studies can be real eye-openers both theoretically and practically; for this reason, they should be recommended to all higher education researchers.

Comparative research setting is also very political field of research because policymakers and even fellow academics try to find ‘‘the best’’ or ‘‘the worst’’ cases among the analyzed ones—no matter what has been the original purpose of the study. The’ game of competing interpretations tends to happen despite the fact that most academics know that the criteria chosen for analysis define the outcomes reached. In political arenas, in turn, politicians are eager to use comparative studies to advance their agendas—again, indifferent of the original purposes of the research. For these reasons one of the dimensions often mentioned in comparative education studies is the political context of the object of research (see e.g. Carnoy 2006). Even though there is no clear-cut solution to this state of matters, researchers should be sensitive to the political dimension when conducting comparative studies on and in higher education.


Before explaining what causes and influences differences in the social dynamics of systems of higher education we need to reflect on the traditional way of reasoning in comparative higher education research. This reflection also helps us to understand why the theme of social dynamics has been neglected in comparative higher education research so far in Liberia. We would like to suggest that the fundamental basic underlying assumption in the field of comparative higher education research has been the following one: all higher education systems follow the same logic of functioning, because they have the same actors and structures of the higher school system (students, academic staff, higher education institutions both private and public, ministry of education) which follow the same objectives and motivations (to get a degree/students, become famous/academics, become world class universities/HEIs or use national or public resources efficiently/ministry of education). It is this reduced approach to comparative higher education research we criticize as structural functionalism because of its underlying fundamental assumption that all higher education systems serve the same purposes (see criticism of functionalism in Giddens 1984).

This structural functionalistic logic of reasoning generally begins with theoretical assumptions on the importance of the division of labor between different levels of the system of higher education, on the need to have functional structures and on the assumption that actors have different roles in the structures. It then continues with the originally Durkheimian reasoning which pays attention to the social forces of integration and disintegration of the system. The classical work by Burton Clark (1983) with its famous triangle of coordination pays accordingly attention mainly to structural characteristics of national higher education systems. Despite obvious problems in the operationalization of this useful heuristic device (see Huisman 1995; Va¨limaa 1997), it has been used in comparative studies in the lack of a better model. This instrument pays attention to social forces which bring integration to the national systems of higher education through the main principles of integrative actions represented by the state, market, and academia. This is not to criticize Clark’s triangle as such. It is a decent heuristic device which reduces the complexity of the higher education systems thus making it more feasible to study them. This way of reasoning does not, however, leave room for thinking that all higher education systems do not necessarily follow the same functionalistic social dynamics because of its underlying rational assumption that the same lexical equivalence produces the same social dynamics.


We have used the concepts of social life and social dynamics together because we would like to pay attention to the fact that everyday practices and routines of academics produce and are reproduced by educational structures and social dynamics of the higher education system. Social life in academia and the social dynamics of higher education systems and institutions of higher learning are interwoven with each other. Typical to higher education is that contemporary higher education institutions are influenced by many and often contradicting expectations from civil society, business, industry, NGOs, and taxpayers. HEIs are expected to be high-quality research sites with extensive education and training programs and giving a significant regional impact on local economies and communities (see Va¨limaa 2007). Many of these expectations and societal tasks have been given to universities—or have been adopted by universities—over the course of their history. Therefore, the study of contemporary higher education should take history as one of its starting points because traditions of higher education institutions have developed and changed over time in geographical and cultural contexts. Social dynamics are influenced by cultures. However, we would like to emphasize that history alone is not a sufficient perspective to understand and explain the development and contemporary activities of higher education institutions. We have also criticized functionalistic tradition as too mechanistic a perspective to higher education because this tradition assumes that higher education plays the same social function in every society, or, respectively, that organization named the same play the same role within different higher education systems. However, this is not the case. Therefore, we would like to suggest that social dynamics provides a fresh perspective to comparative higher education research because it focuses attention on the fact that higher education systems—and institutions of higher learning have always been in interaction with their locales and societal contexts. The combinations of these relationships taking place in time, space and context have produced different social dynamics for higher education systems and institutions. For these reasons the comparative study of higher education may benefit from the perspective of social dynamics, because it is less interested in finding similar functions of higher education systems through the examination of lexical equivalences but aims to find effective equivalences. This kind of comparative higher education studies may utilize many different methodological perspectives and intelligent devices. Crucially important is to understand that higher education is—and has always been—a part of their societies. Taking this notion seriously is the most important starting point in analyzing what kinds of social dynamics can be found in higher education to understand the social life in academia better.


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