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From Paris to PISA: Aesthetic Governing in Comparative Education
Örebro University, School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, Örebro University, Sweden.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-8173-7474
University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.
2016 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

International comparisons have become the lifeblood of education governance in Europe and globally; however, they are not just a contemporary phenomenon. On the contrary, governing by comparison in education is historically as deep-rooted as the founding of the European nation-states themselves. Using Sweden as a case study, the aim of this paper is to explore and analyse the ways in which national systems and their innovations were influenced, constructed and traded through the use of education comparisons. By focusing on Sweden, a country considered to be one of the leading European education systems for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, we will examine the workings and effects of international education comparisons through an examination of the role and impact of representing the Swedish education system in two historical junctures: the first historical point in our analysis will be the late 19th century World Fairs and the exhibition of Sweden as a model education system (through the literal use of models to represent schooling in the nation); the second historical moment is the one of Sweden being represented as a failed system, as this has been exemplified in the ‘killer’ charts and rankings of the OECD PISA results. Through both primary data collection and secondary analysis of qualitative data, we will explain the ways in which aesthetic governing and the use of comparison as a spectacle – either of glory or of fear- creates policy dispositions that may be far starker and effective than any detailed analysis and use of evidence in contemporary policy making. The case of Sweden will also be seen from the broader spectrum of European education governance and situated in this context and policy landscape.The power of the spectacle of comparison, from the traditional World fairs all the way to PISA tables, is often related to the notion of accountability. Sobe and Boven describe the accountability of exhibitions  (and perhaps their contemporary equivalent of the rating and ranking of country tables) as the “’political’ work of establishing norms, constructing subjectivities and helping to establish what is and is not possible’ through ”rituals of verification” (2014). Exhibitions have often been considered as ways of standardising and creating uniformity via information on educational systems that in some ways is quantifiable.Going beyond the notion of the comparative spectacle (which has been developed eloquently by the classic work of Novoa and Yariv-Mashal, 2003) when looking closer both at older exhibitions and at OECD reports like Education at a Glance, and in particular the media presentation of PISA results, we are able to discern efforts for an aesthetic representation  of educational comparisons (Ghertner 2010; 2011; for an example of international assessments as  aesthetic representation, see: C. Lundahl, The Beauty in PISA http://www.paristopisa.com/?p=66) ; these can be educational objects, such as schoolhouses, teaching materials, and pupils’ work at display at a World’s fair or even the colourful sloping diagram of a country’s PISA result in the morning news. Therefore we suggest that we distinguish between  numerical accountability and aesthetic governing, where the former is seen more as a panoptical power producing standards through statistical norms and calculations whilst the latter can be seen as a synoptical power, producing and displaying ideals effecting emotions, beliefs, hopes etc. The notion of aesthetic governing would then work as a complement to numerical accountability, allowing an understanding of how traditional exhibitions as well as modern comparative data can both relate to governing senses and thus selves. The paper is based on current research in the project ‘From Paris to Pisa: Governing Education by Comparison 1867-2015’, funded by the Swedish Research Council.MethodEmpirically the project makes use of a wide array of sources. Archives in Sweden as well as abroad (UNESCO, IEA, OECD), are examined. Policy documents, scientific journals, newspapers, magazines for teachers and interviews with key policy and research actors – in Sweden and abroad – are also used. For the purposes of this paper, archival analysis as well as critical discourse analysis will be used in order to analyse a. the exhibition as a space of comparison and b. the visual discourse as created through the use of numbers and statistics as well as exhibited objects and educational artefacts. For the investigation of the first historical juncture (exhibitions) we will use a range of sources, for example: The World Fairs 1867–1904; The Swedish exhibition of school material 1877–1906; and the national school museum 1908–1930. The preliminary sources we are going to use are, amongst others, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) archive in the UK; the archives of Foreign affairs (Svenska UD); the archives of the Expo agency (Utställningsbestyrelserna); the Nordic museum archive, newspapers and teacher union magazines. In order to analyse the second historical point in our analysis (OECD PISA tables) we will use critical discourse analysis of the OECD reports on the Swedish education system as well as reporting of the PISA 2012 results.Expected OutcomesAlthough national systems have so far been regarded as internally constructed, with particular policies and politics, our approach builds on historiographies in education, science and technology, as well as political/historical sociology, to create a novel and original interpretation which treats comparison and the cross border flow of data and expert actors as mutually constitutive. This means that our paper will offer insights and explanation of phenomena largely ignored: the role of Sweden in international exhibitions; the Swedish School Museum; and the impact of the aesthetic governmentality of large international assessments on the Swedish education system and beyond.More specifically, the paper will argue that there are two different aspects of aesthetics that play a role in comparative education: as representation as well as aesthetic education in itself. Aesthetics as representation is a governing instrument that renders comparisons visible, interesting and alluring. Such a quality of aesthetics can be found both in World’s Fairs as well as in PISA. Aesthetics as educational content in itself however relates more to what kinds of knowledge international comparisons value. The era of the World Fairs was obsessed with aesthetic aspects of school knowledge, with drawing, gymnastics, Sloyd and beautiful school houses. PISA, on the other hand, shows little interest in comparing knowledge that values aesthetics. Thus, the paper will explore whether the relationship between representation and content has changed. Aesthetics as representation no longer mirrors an interest in aesthetics as content.


Ghertner, D. A. (2011) Rule by aesthetics: World-class city making in Delhi, A. Roy and A. Ong (eds). Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, Oxford: Blackwell.Ghertner, D.A. (2010) Calculating without numbers: aesthetic governmentality in Delhi's slums, Economy and Society, 39:2, 185-217 Novoa, A. and Yariv-Mashal, T. (2003) Comparative Research in Education: a mode of governance or a historical journey, Comparative Education, 39(4), 423-438.Sobe, N.W. & D.T. Boven (2014). Nineteenth-century world’s fairs as accountability systems: Scopic Systems, Audit Practices and Educational Data. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(118), 4. http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22.1673.

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URN: urn:nbn:se:oru:diva-53743OAI: oai:DiVA.org:oru-53743DiVA: diva2:1051836
European Conference on Educational Research (ECER 2016), Dublin, Ireland, August 22-26, 2016
Swedish Research Council
Available from: 2016-12-04 Created: 2016-12-04 Last updated: 2016-12-05Bibliographically approved

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School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, Örebro University, Sweden

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