Debates on the constitutive elements of comparative and international education (CIE) as a field have been ongoing fixtures in the academic literature in search of concrete explications defining its contours. Just as arguments for considering CIE as a unitary, cohesive and discrete field of scholarly inquiry have been proposed and defended, equally persuasive counterarguments to dissociate comparative education from international education as distinctive epistemological orientations have been offered over time. Ostensibly, this continuing intellectual conversation on the merits of CIE as a field shows few signs of abating, particularly as CIE is becoming increasingly influenced by post-foundational theories, philosophies, and methodologies of investigation, which are gaining increasing traction and impact in driving conceptualizations of comparative studies. This conceptual paper uses assemblage theory aided by the example of big data to explore the changing contours of the field of CIE. In essence, we argue that the field is a meta-assemblage that has responded distinctly to theoretical and methodological shifts across the different disciplines.
This epistemic shift seems exacerbated and accelerated by the emergence of big data technologies, broadly defined as massive data-processing instruments, which have significant ramifications not only for research methodologies but also for the very nature of the field. Such implications redefine the core functions of generating new knowledge and understandings about phenomena under its purview. In attempting to provide a more malleable conceptualization of CIE, it is useful to adopt an assemblage thinking mode and conceive of the field as a “meta-assemblage” of subordinate and interwoven assemblages exerting influence on one another by establishing relational patterns that serve their perpetuation in a mutually reinforcing mechanism that legitimates their individual purpose and functional co-existence. This meta-assemblage configuration is characterized by a certain degree of fluidity in the era of data-driven technologies, as the increasing velocity, volume, and variety of big data can exert (re)territorializing and deterritorializing effects on CIE, both as a field and in rethinking instruments of comparison.
We return to the core tenets of assemblage theory to reenvision CIE, particularly emphasizing big data as implements for the construction and deconstruction of the field. As a starting point, we reiterate Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) principles for informing the rhizomatic nature of assemblages and how these can help in the framing of CIE as an assemblage defined by connection and heterogeneity; multiplicity; asignifying rupture; and cartography. The rhizome displays an extraordinary ability to form new connections along points of fracture and discontinued lines. It is this constructive-destructive dyad that gives rise to the notions of (re)territorialization and deterritorialization occurring on “lines of segmentarity” characterizing an assemblage.
Perhaps more than any other academic field, CIE can be parsed and understood through Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) principles. Connections, connective patterns, and linkages are continuously formed not only at the formally established institutional or organizational levels, but also along professional and disciplinary boundaries across socio-cultural environments as heterogeneous as they are varied. Societies, associations, and groups operating at the intersection of academic disciplines ranging from sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, history, philosophy, and education, to name a few, constantly enter into relational commitments or interactions, forging alliances based on the strength of their mutual interests. They do so along “lines of flight” or nodes in a mesh of clusters, each unit an assemblage in the CIE meta-assemblage. Far from diminishing the field, this seeming disciplinary dissonance paradoxically crystallizes and solidifies the CIE meta-assemblage.
We argue that the relationships among the assemblages are increasingly undergirded by the circulation of massive data streams along faster and more extensive computing infrastructures intended to facilitate the scholarly and scientific activity, but also to exert control through algorithms of evaluation and commensuration. It is the amplification in its communicative value on the one hand, and its stochastic nature on the other, that make big data concurrently appealing and dreaded in the reconfiguration of the CIE meta-assemblage. Although big data is most frequently construed in CIE as massive accumulations of statistical datasets used for their worth for comparison, we embrace the view that big data is far more encompassing, including among others data generated via social media or user-generated content online (George, 2014) and through video technologies (Gilmore, Adolph, Millman, & Gordon, 2016). The confluence of multiple streams of big data has indelible ramifications for CIE, as these are not only used to conduct the actual comparative studies essential to the field but also increasingly sustain the connectivity in the meta-assemblage. Big data permeate, sustain, and undermine the interlinked associations, clusters, and societies in CIE, (re)configuring and deconfiguring it at once. In the following sections, we examine the avenues by which big data exert (re)territorialization and deterritorialization effects on the CIE meta-assemblage.
We suggest that big data exerts territorializing effects on CIE through the increasing emphasis placed on the cogent application of data-driven methodologies to examine and explain educational phenomena across contexts, leading to inter-dependent analyses based on large datasets. The relative strengths of the relations formed between temporal, physical, cultural, social, historical, political or economic factors that inform educational environments underpinned by the availability of massive amounts of educational data have territorializing tendencies on CIE. Not only is the data more prevalent at the micro-level through the conduct of comparative studies, but the intensified use of big data technologies brings together agents at macro-level, forming increasingly tighter associations among professional scholarly associations, academic institutions, research think tanks, and governmental and non-governmental agencies. These units strive toward symbiotic relationships, continuously repositioning themselves as sub-assemblages in the meta-assemblage of CIE.
Conversely, big data can impose deterritorializing tendencies in CIE both at macro- and micro-level, with cascading effects from the former to the latter. As the differentiation among professional associations remains a mark of distinction for each unit in its immediate sub-assemblage (domain), contextual factors will determine the value of data-driven interpretations of educational phenomena. Hence, the meta-assemblage is rendered less cohesive and relationships among its units degenerate as the flow of big data and the increased computational power to analyze it give rise to multiple or competing interpretations across contexts.
In sum, we use assemblage as an analytical tool to examine CIE nuances our understanding of this continuously emerging field, but allows us to contend with the fact that moving forward, the field and its intellectual underpinnings are prone to continuous (re)configurations that do not diminish its importance and stature as a stand-alone scholarly field.