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Proceedings of ECER 2003 Roundtable on methodological approaches in European projects
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Culturally embedded actor-based approach

Issues for discussion

Moderator

Anja, in the context of the European project GENDERQUAL you have developed a 'culturally embedded actor-based' approach. Can you explain what this is about?

Anja Heikkinen

It is a bit complicated. You may ask whether it was a methodological way we were following or whether we had a shared methodological understanding. It was more a process, a processual development of methodology. The project was about gendering practices concerning core competencies in certain occupational areas: male, female dominated and mixed occupations in different countries and cultures. They should also include the work sides and educational institutions. The problem is: how do you do that; how do you explore the gendering practices in order to understand how they could perhaps be overcome, or how you could develop recommendations or alternatives for these gendering practices, whether it is relevant or correct to try to overcome those gendering practices. 

Thinking about gender, the main challenge was that the research discourses - or the research fields related to vocational education, to gender or gender studies - are very far from each other, and they use different kinds of concepts in research. What we found out first was that gender is not a universal concept, gender doesn't mean the same in different cultural contexts. You can say it is culturally embedded. The gender of masculine and feminine is something else in the Finnish, Portuguese and German contexts. We found out that, while we were discussing and trying to make the first comparisons about how certain occupational fields are gendered, in fact making masculinity as a Portuguese electrician doesn't mean the same as making a feminine nursery nurse in the Finnish context. So that's the point in this cultural embedding.

The other point is about actor-based: this was the question where do we start. There is the policy discourse in the EU, which was a kind of imperative for the project. If we did find recommendations we should provide them for the policy makers to improve the educational systems or curricula or whatever. The question was whether we are following that line, whether we are staying at that level of discourse at national and European level. The alternative would be to look at research discourses, which are perhaps more distant from the policy discourse, and then we come to these gender studies or vocational education discourses: should we take them as starting point? The third path could have been perhaps closer to the national actors: to start out from the industrial, the corporate actors who are negotiating about the educational policies and how to develop them; the unions or the employer organisations, to look at these negotiations and what kind of concepts or arguments they use.

What we wanted to do was to have an actor-based approach, which means that we are not taking for granted even though we are conditioned to those discourses, because we are researchers, because we are in a project which is implemented by policy makers. So the challenge was to try in different countries to go to the level of actors and to be open for their definitions or what they mean by gender or gendering, by key or core competencies; what their attitudes or opinions are about what is good or bad; what they would like to promote; in which direction they would like to develop these competencies; whether these are linked to gender. So this is shortly the kind of methodological thinking in GENDERQUAL.

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