Compulsory education, rural development, audit culture, unintended consequences, China

Document Type

Article in Response to Controversy


This paper provides a situated critique of how evidence-based, “best practices”-oriented research can result in unanticipated consequences and perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophesy at the expense of deeper understanding of educational problems. I structure the paper along two analytical steps. First, I explore the sociology of unintended consequences through German Sociologist Max Weber and his contemporary critic Mohamed Cherkaoui. Second, I draw from an ethnographic study in rural ethnic communities of Southwest China to illustrate how best intentions at providing free compulsory education go awry, and how the controversial policy both fails and succeeds in fabricating its intended outcome. The ethnographic evidence highlights the unintended consequences of not only a state policy but also the fraught ways in which it is linked to other social mechanisms to produce a “successful failure.” The paper argues that by focusing on “best practices” and “what works” we often neglect the ways in which questions are posed and the ways in which assemblages of forces generate the topic or phenomenon in the first place. A research design that takes into account unintended consequences is necessarily emergent, interpretive, and open-ended.