Researching adult learning and active citizenship

Over the next few months I’m going to be revisiting research into adult learning and active citizenship. Part of the initial rationale for looking at this area again was my assumption that it was definitely off the agenda for most adult learning researchers. Yet it was once a thriving field of study, with its own international network which pre-dated and then aligned itself with the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults.


The ESREA network went very quiet about ten years ago, and I concluded that this area was now struggling. I’d imagined a few ageing scholars grumbling that no one listened to them any more, as new themes and topics forced their way up the agenda.From my point of view this was an ideal situation, of course: my starting point would be that now is an ideal time to breathe new life into this area.

Still, as you do, I decided to start the new work by checking out the literature. A quick online search of the International Journal of Lifelong Education yielded 114 articles that mentioned ‘active citizenship’. Taking those published from 2000 onwards, and excluding book reviews and editorials, I was still left with 86 articles, which is a sizeable number.

Even more striking are the yearly figures. The numbers spike in 2006, for no obvious reason (there wasn’t a special issue, for example). Otherwise, up to 2008, usually there are two or three articles a year which address active citizenship; from 2009 to 2014 there are seven or eight; then there is a fall to only three in 2015.

So the first thing I discovered was that my starting assumption was quite wrong. Far from being moribund, these figures suggest that research into active citizenship and adult learning is in reasonable health.

Of course, the crude figures on their own won’t take us very far. They include papers that deal with active citizenship as one among several outcomes of adult learning, papers that trace a decline in adult learning for active citizenship, and Foucauldian studies that present adult learning as part of a wider process of ‘government’ which turns subjects into active citizens. And it is perfectly possible for research into a topic to thrive while practice goes into decline, which may be the case here.

Even so, there is nothing to suggest that interest in the topic has vanished, and I find that quite heartening. It’s also annoying, as it means that I now have to jettison my cherished assumptions, and rethink my approach, but that is often how the research journey goes.

2 thoughts on “Researching adult learning and active citizenship

  1. The 2015 Yearbook (just out) of DVV International/ICAE, Adult Education and Development, is devoted to Global Citizenship Education – the one small chink in the neo-liberal priorities in global education in development policy. Primarily targeted at school age learners when launched by the UN SEc Gen in ?2012, it is there in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goal on education, and provides a space for thinking about active,life-wide citizenship education for adults. Far from dead as an issue, then. But how to measure whether it is being offered, what its effects are, whether it is of good quality – alas all issues to think about in assessing how best to move from rhetoric to effective practice.

  2. Pingback: Education, organisations and civil society | thelearningprofessor

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