Critical Institutional Research

What is Critical Institutional Research?

In spite of a long tradition of critical approaches to both the study and practice of education, institutional research is dominated by very much traditional approaches to inquiry. Positivism, behavioralism, managerialism, and rationalism remain key—and usually unexamined—substantive and methodological commitments in IR, and opportunities to pursue alternatives are limited by both the immediate demands of the decision-makers to whom IR professionals are accountable and the conflation of these values with scholarly rigor. Critical approaches to IR offer the opportunity to better understand and perhaps improve existing practice, to open new directions for inquiry, to broaden the groups represented in IR analyses, and when necessary to challenge problematic practices in IR and in higher education more broadly.

To address these issues, I propose a research agenda that I’ve tentatively called “critical institutional research.” We might conceive of critical approaches to IR along at least three dimensions. As critical analysis, critical IR would ask questions about how and why we do what we do that we might otherwise take for granted, in essence embracing the field as itself an object of study. As critical methods, critical IR brings new (typically non-positivist) approaches to the problems that IR professionals confront. As critical theories, critical IR explores the social structures that influence the field and its place in higher education.

The heart of critical IR might, in philosopher Iris Young’s words, be a call to see our profession from the perspective that, “It does not have to be this way; it could be otherwise.” As such, possible topics in critical IR might include:

  • The concepts and practices that IR analysis implicitly use in representing students
  • Concepts of privacy that are appropriate for use in IR analysis
  • The scientific status of typical methods in IR
  • The relevance of feminist, critical race, queer, or other theories of marginalization in IR
  • The influence of political economy on IR practice
  • How management theory operates as a legitimating ideology for IR analyses.
  • How IR might consider intersections among gender, race, or class in supporting institutional decisions
  • Whether discursive methods can provide information useful for supporting institutional operations
  • The extent to which IR relies on or reinforces structures of privilege in institutional management
  • The values embedded in the technologies and organizational practices of IR

 My Work in Critical IR

On Assessing Student Learning, Faculty Are Not the Enemy Inside Higher Education, November 7, 2014.

Ethics of Data Mining and Predictive Analytics in Higher Education Association for Institutional Research Annual Forum, Long Beach, California, May 19-22, 2013. An abridged version of this paper appears in International Review of Information Ethics 21 (July 2014).

Information Systems and the Translation of Transgender Transgender Studies Quarterly 2.1, 2014, forthcoming (author’s final version).

What Do We Measure? Methodological Versus Institutional Validity in Student Surveys Association for Institutional Research Annual Forum, May 2011.

Critical IR Reading List

Jesse Stommel, “Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition,” Hybrid Pedagogy, November 18, 2014.