J.L.Lemke On-line Office


II. Science Education Research and the Sociocultural Perspective


In the last two decades science education research has begun to address some of the sociocultural issues raised in the previous section. To get a rough idea of the extent of this engagement, it's instructive to look at the numbers of items retrieved by searches of the ERIC database (1966-99) for science education and some key terms:



Culture, -al

Social [issues]


Race, -ial

Items found






For comparison, science education AND cognition retrieved 3,058 items. A few other results of interest for science education and …:





Social Class


Items found






In the index to the fairly comprehensive recent International Handbook of Science Education (Fraser & Tobin, 1998), 'cultural issues' has about as many page citations as 'curriculum reform', and 'social perspectives' as many as 'constructivism'; 'discourse' has a few more than 'conceptual change'. By and large, work in the sociocultural perspective is found mainly in the 1980s and 1990s, and appears to be supplementing if not supplanting the earlier heavy emphasis on individual learning and cognition.

 What are some of the key areas of sociocultural research in science education in the last decade? Social interaction perspectives center mainly on classroom discourse (e.g. Lemke 1990; Kamen et al. 1997; Roth 1995, 1996, 1998 ), but there is also considerable interest in language and science education more generally (cf. Sutton 1992, 1998). Wider sociological concerns include research on minorities in science education (Baker 1998, Gallard et al. 1998) and gender equity issues (Parker et al. 1995, Keeves & Kotte 1992). These two approaches have fruitfully intersected in research on science education for language-minority students (e.g. Lee & Fradd 1998).

 By far the largest focus of attention seems to have been on cultural issues, primarily on hypotheses of cultural conflict between the normative culture of science and the community cultures of Africans and African-Americans, various Hispanic groups, Asians and Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans (e.g. Aikenhead 1996, Allen & Crawley 1998, Atwater 1994, Barba 1993, Cobern 1996, Costa 1995, … and on through the alphabet). Prominent here is the work of researchers who are themselves from partially non-eurocultural backgrounds (e.g. Jegede & Okebukola, Lee, Ogawa, Ogunniyi, Lim, Olarewadju and many others -- for detailed references see the collection of symposium papers organized by Aikenhead, Jegede, & Allen 1999). There are also many contributions by members of groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in science and academic research, especially those who participate in the cultural systems of various Latin American and Afro-American traditions. Science education research as an institution is gradually widening its range of contributing perspectives toward a more truly global reach that is also inclusive of the viewpoints of many national minorities.

 Nevertheless, there are still many sociocultural issues that have not been addressed in depth by the research community, particularly direct engagement with issues of social class culture, nonstandard dialect speakers, and racial attitudes and conflicts (on ‘the racial economy of science’ see the impressive collection edited by Harding 1993). Moreover, there seems to be some tendency in the literature to apply only one type of sociocultural analysis for each social group, neglecting the role of the others. For example, in the U.S. literature, we hear far more about race in relation to African-Americans than we do about language or social class; far more about language in the case of Hispanic groups than we hear about race or class; far more about culture for Asian-Americans or Native Americans than about race, language or class. To some extent these imbalances may reflect only the early stage of these studies, but a self-reflexive application of the sociocultural perspective itself should make us worry that they may also reflect deep-seated ideological assumptions in the cultures of many researchers.

 I should not be using terms like 'class' , 'gender', 'sexuality', and especially 'race', or even in many contexts 'culture' and 'language', without problematizing them. None of these notions have objective definitions; all of them represent potentially misleading and harmful oversimplifications of the complexity of human similarities and differences. All of them owe their origins and historical prominence to explicitly political rather than scientific agendas. Every research study which frames itself in these terms should also be an inquiry into the limitations of applicability of the concepts themselves, refining and replacing them according to the salient features of the data at hand. Every researcher who uses them should have investigated their histories and be familiar with the relevant critiques of their validity. This is not often enough the case in the science education literature.

 Science education researchers are not often enough formally trained in the disciplines from which sociocultural perspectives and research methods derive. Most of us are self-taught, or have learned these matters second-hand from others who are also not fully trained in sociology, anthropology, applied linguistics, political economy or cultural studies. Too often we don't know where the bodies are buried. Younger researchers may even be unfamiliar with the intellectual history that reveals the origins (briefly described above) of the sociocultural perspectives now in use in science education research.

 By contrast, in the papers for the recent symposium on Culture Studies in Science Education at NARST, 1999 (see Aikenhead, 1999) it was important to see references not just to the canonical cognitive psychologists and philosophers of science that science education researchers traditionally study, but also to Bourdieu, Habermas, Foucault, Latour, Traweek, Spindler, Geertz, Halliday, Gee, Harding, van Manen, Wertsch, and others, as well as to work in other areas of education research which have made use of sociocultural perspectives (e.g. Apple, Cummins, Delpit, Freire, Garcia, Giroux, Green, Hicks, Irvine, Kincheloe, Ladson-Billings, Phillips, Tharp, and Wolcott among many more).

 It is important that new researchers and established doctoral programs in science education recognize that familiarity with the classic literature of the contemporary social sciences (including cultural and social psychology, science studies, and cultural studies) is today as fundamental for reading the research literature of our field, for engaging in current dialogues about key issues, and for advancing our understanding of practical educational problems as is the work of cognitive psychologists or philosophers of science. Beyond this, our field should aspire to contribute to these disciplines and merit the same intellectual respect, accorded by the same exacting scholarly standards, as any other specialization within the human sciences. Our work should be sophisticated and significant enough to merit citation far beyond the borders of science education. One recent review from outside the field would suggest that this is not yet by and large the case (Turner & Sullenger, 1999).