Wash Ian

Enacting the Liberal Deal: The Discursive Construction of Education in the Promotion of International Development

This study investigates a policy puzzle. Since 2000, international organisations, global agencies, and national governments have faced a challenge in designing educational policies that work to improve the lot of people in developing countries. Using interpretive discourse analysis, this study challenges the assumption of a functional liberal model by revealing the conflicted beliefs, intersubjective tensions, and disputed meanings that shaped the policy landscape.

Although the liberal model governing education for international development appears cohesive and unified around institutional targets such as Education for All and the Sustainable Development Goals, the field is constructed of disputed norms. Three theoretical models contribute to this disharmony.

Human capital theory provides a dominant perspective on international education supported by educational investment decisions based on cost-benefit analysis that justify reduced public spending and endorse market reforms (Bennell, 1996). Critics claim that this trend reflects the state bailing out of its responsibility as a key provider of education by shifting costs to the end-user and that it impinges on education as a fundamental human right.

Processes driving the education agenda can be traced to influential ideas on public sector reform that support the principles of new public management. Good governance policies promoted by international organisations, such as the World Bank, echo norms about state-regulated growth which assume that institutions can tame capitalism and incentivise economic behavior (Stiglitz, 1998). Rival beliefs contend that these innovative blends of market and state merely represent a continuation of neoliberal principles.

Beliefs behind, in support of, or opposing international education policies have implications for issues of power and state formation. The theory of uneven and combined development is useful to locate these ideas in relation to the staggered and chaotic spread of post-industrial capitalism together with existing equalities and injustices in the modern system (Rosenberg, 1996).

International education policy has seemingly been shaped by the interplay of these three background theories that haven’t always operated in harmony. This thesis explores the various contestations that play out between them in the discourse. Positivist-empiricist research misses the processes in political change and largely ignores the concept of agency. Focusing purely on facts as explanation and downplaying concepts of power, it offers no normative position to improve the impact of policies. Interpretivists, however, place importance on ideas and agency. They do so in the understanding that political structures are shaped by values and meanings embedded in discourse which explain the actions of agents. It is this form of meaning-making that carries explanatory power when understanding continuity and change in policies.

Discourse has proven to be a useful analytical tool for examining major current political developments in global education such as the knowledge-based economy, the liberalization of education markets, and the promotion of public-private partnerships. Such research sets an interdisciplinary trend where the interpretive turn in policy studies meets at a crossroads with the political turn in linguistics, giving birth to various forms of language-based analysis. This study employs interpretive discourse analysis to answer the following questions:

  1. What kind of vision has driven the global education agenda since 2000?
  2. How did agents discursively construct the management system governing education for international development?
  3. What were the ideas behind the international education policies put into practice and the evaluations of policy outcomes?

Analysing policy issues through discourse can proceed directly from applying discursive theories or take the form of one of many analytical models. This study employs a hybrid approach that draws on elements of Interpretive Policy Analysis (IPA) developed by Yanow (2000) and Wodak's Discourse-historical approach (DHA) to critical discourse analysis (2001). Table 1 summarises the characteristics of each approach. Although cleavages exist between the two, they take a united stand against a value-free positivist ideology and both use political puzzles to springboard investigations. Distinctions ought to be accepted in a celebration of diversity seeing that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to discourse analysis and blending is often necessary to tailor the approach to the nature of the particular policy issue being investigated.

Table 1: Characteristics of IPA and DHA

Ontology Objects of Analysis Linguistic Depth Text / Context Relationship Role of Agency/Subjectivity Broad or Detailed Perspective
IPA(Yanow, 2000) Hermeneutic / phenomenological(intersubjective meanings) Meaning-making in policy. Political narratives. Texts and policy context Analytical not ontological Agents express subjectivity. They are subjects of meaning. Broad on structures. Detailed analyses of texts
DHA(Wodak, 2001) Critical Realist(dialectic relationship of language and social practice) Political discourse. Social injustice. Argumentation Texts and policy context Texts are Objective.Historical context is subjective Cognitive. Detailed on texts.Broad analysis of structures

Adapted from Glynos et al (2009)

The interpretive strategies of both approaches overlap considerably and can be proceduralised following six steps:

  1. Locate the objects of research (e.g. language, ideas or actions) that contain political meaning.
  2. Collect a sample corpus of documents relevant to the objects of research. Determine the genre of texts and connections between other texts and discourses.
  3. Establish the wider context and identify communities of interest surrounding the policy issue. Formulate research questions and develop theoretical frameworks to approach these.
  4. Analyse the discourse by deploying appropriate interpretive tools such as argumentation, framing, and legitimation. Using the chosen theories, interpret meaning from discourse related to objects being investigated.
  5. Identify conflicts and divergences in meaning interpreted by communities of interest. Uncover plots and sub-plots in the story that evolved then interpret a grand narrative.
  6. Widen the interpretive lens to make normative interventions. Clarify the implications of various meanings, empathetically demonstrate that diverse perspectives reflect different ways of viewing social reality, and then provide reconciliation to bridge differences.

Analysis entails the collection of a wide corpus of documents covering major themes in the discursive construction of the field of education for international development. Table 2 details its dimensions and contents. The corpus needs to be representative of a broad cross-section of the epistemic community and is divided into three levels between which power relations are played out.

Table 2: The Corpus

Level of corpus Type of documents Approx. Number of documents
Core policy Reports from international organisations. Policy papers and speeches from national governments. 100
Intermediary Reports and policy briefings from the non-profit sector. Academic empirical literature. 100
Periphery News articles and transcripts of podcasts. Scripts from radio, television, and film. 100

Initial sampling will be purposive and proceed through keyword searches and use of Boolean search terms on online electronic databases (e.g. UN Database, Nexis) and search engines such as Google. Documents will be evaluated for their relevance and usefulness to the objects of the research. Following that, snowball sampling will be used as documents containing intertextual references will lead to related sources.

Since the central focus of the study is the discursive construction of the field of education for development since 2000, core policy documents before that point will not be included. However, civil society literature and media sources published prior will be selected and analysed to situate the study in its wider historical and cultural context. A sense of history allows antecedents and prerequisite ideational stimulants to be identified and woven into the rich tapestry of the narrative.

The novelty of this study is threefold. Firstly, although education and international development have been studied together due to the causal relationship between better schooling and socio-economic development, few studies have adopted discourse analysis as a primary method. Also, this approach focuses on the relationship between agency and structure whilst most research in the field is systemic and lacks attention to agential beliefs. This provides scope for an agent-centred discourse analysis tracking the effects of structures on agency and vice versa. Thirdly, the methodology targets interpretation of meaning in policy, allowing an understanding of how political ideas are interpreted and assigned meaning by competing agents and the ways in which processes of continuity and change impact education policies.

The importance and significance of this research is evident on several levels. Crucially it challenges the nature of positivist mainstream policy research and its philosophical assumptions by presenting a credible alternative for policy analysis. In addition, it supports rights-based approaches to education by revealing the extent to which their advocacy work has influence, both discursively and in political practice. Finally, the finished thesis may offer significant policy recommendations through its potential relevance on the impact side for communities of interest and international organisations. The results of this analysis will speak to extant literature in the field and uncover a conflicted version of reality that differs from the perceived harmony of the liberal deal. This will contribute to further studies and hopefully bring about a turn in the literature that challenges the way in which humanists, neoliberals, Marxists, and others across the liberal spectrum view the field.


  • Bennell, P. (1996). Rates of Return to Education: Does the Conventional Pattern Prevail in Sub-Saharan Africa? World Development24(1).
  • Glynos, J., Howarth, D., Norval, A., & Speed, E. (2009). Discourse Analysis: Varieties and Methods. Retrieved from Centre for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences:
  • Rosenberg, J. (1996). Isaac Deutscher and the Lost History of International Relations. New Left Review, 1 (215).
  • Stiglitz, J. (1998).More Instruments and Broader Goals: Moving Toward the Post–Washington Consensus. Paper presented at the The 1998 WIDER Annual Lecture, Helsinki, Finland.
  • Wodak, R. (2001). The discourse-historical approach. In R. Wodak& M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (pp. 63-94).London: SAGE.
  • Yanow, D. (2000). Conducting Interpretive Policy Analysis(Vol. 47). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.