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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Conceptual Framework No.1: The Practical Ideal Type

[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series devoted to tools and frameworks for researchers to plan better projects right from the start.  Read the first blog for an introduction to conceptual frameworks]

In the previous post I introduced the conceptual frameworks as a practical tool to link theory and practice. As Patricia Shields has commented, conceptual frameworks operate in two levels, a macro level, and a micro level. On the macro level, conceptual frameworks are the theories that are the backbone of researching policies: public choice theory, rationalism, system theories and others. We will not get into those in this series of posts.

On the micro level, conceptual frameworks connect the specific policy issues with the academic inquiry. As recounted in the previous posts, Patricia Shields proposes four frameworks. In this post I will discuss the ‘Practical Ideal Type’.

What is the Practical Ideal Type framework?

This framework is proposed as a means to gauge a situation. In the policy context, this means assessing a policy or program by defining what would the ideal policy be, and then establishing how the reality is compared to this ideal.

This sounds like a very straight forward thing to do; however, it is complex when we try to apply it in practice. For once, what is that ideal? This initial question is already a challenge. As a matter of fact, the process of thinking about the ideal gets us thinking openly and must not be confused with strapping ourselves to goals and commitments. Once we have a practical ideal in place, we use this framework to evaluate the current situation. How close or how far are we from this ideal? To be able to determine this, in the research process we will have to define the dimensions or categories of analysis that we will use. This allows us to make sense of the complex settings where policies evolve.

Think for instance, how hard it is to determine what the ideal education system is. Some think we should look at successful international cases, others think that those models are not transferable. I can imagine a group of researchers considering that ideal, and this process being quite challenging. To allow a meaninful discussion, categories are needed. A literature review may reveal key dimensions where the study should focus. In the case of education, one could determine that the role of teachers in the education process, the participation of local governments, and the evaluations processes are key categories of analysis. Literature reviews are  essential to determining these categories and their relevance for the issue we are analysing. It is important to realize that this ideal must be practical, the comparison should be meaningful. This means the process is not one of only finding best practices, but actually evaluating if those practices are applicable and meaningful for our context.

Various analysis methods can be used to assess the current situation compared to the ideal. One must, however, consider the possibility of analysing certain categories. For example, we might be interesting in exploring a category of analysis that requires detailed data that is not available. In this case, it might be unfruitful to focus on this analysis.

When should you use it?

Now that we have a sense of what the practical ideal type model entails, it is important to note when it should be used.

  1. When research questions are focused on gaps or improvements. Our research process has to be related to assessing a situation, or finding recommendations for improvements.

  2. When the program, policy, institution is already in place. This framework is not useful when we are starting something from scratch, but rather, when something that exists can be improved.

  3. When there is enough existing knowledge on related models. It is also useful to have significant literature on the issue being analysed. The literature review is critical to create a meaningful ideal, if now, how are we going to develop it?

Additional notes

  1. It is not the same as best practices. Although best practices are valuable inputs in this framework they are not the same. While the best practice approach tries to understand what has been done to achieve consistent superior results, the practical ideal type framework is an assessment.

  2. This research process can be very participative. Determining ideals is not a purely academic endeavour. To become more meaningful in practice, this process can involve other stakeholders.

In the following posts, the other frameworks will be explored.

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