Identity, Agency and Social Institutions in Educational Ethnography: Volume 10


Table of contents

(15 chapters)

Ethnography has become one of the major methods of researching educational settings. Its key strength is its emphasis on understanding the perceptions and cultures of the people and organizations studied. Through prolonged involvement with those who are being studied, the ethnographic researcher is able gradually to enter their world and gain an understanding of their lives.

The prime focus on the social processes of schooling within educational ethnography has tended to marginalise or eschew, the importance of other “informal” educational sites. Other social institutions, such as family, community, media and popular culture, work and prisons are salient arenas in which behaviours and lives are regulated. They all interrelate and are all implicated in the generation, management and development of social identities and the social and cultural reproduction of structures and relations. Individuals, though, are not merely shaped by these social institutions, their agency is evident in the way they creatively adapt and accommodate to the tensions and constraints of economic, educational and social policies. The maintenance of self in these situations requires identity work involving mediation, conflict, contestation and modes of resistance, which often contribute to a continual reconstruction of situations and contexts.

In this article the everyday relationships of children in the context of the contemporary multicultural city will be discussed. It is based on ethnographic research into social relationships of city dwellers in Antwerp, a Flemish city in Belgium, within the framework of the reflection on community life, conflict and public space. In this research several city dwellers were interviewed about their social relationships, a small number of individual city dwellers were followed in their everyday life and participant observation was done in shops and on public transport. The fieldwork on public transport was carried out over a period of eight months. Observations were done on one specific tramline and its stops; drivers were informally interviewed and the researcher took part in the ticket control with inspectors of the public transport company. The fieldwork in the shops consisted of participant observations (not anonymous) for six months in a small shoe shop, a baby shop and a department store with a refreshment bar in it. Next to this in a specific city neighbourhood 30 interviews were done with different city inhabitants about their relationships and contacts and three of them were each followed for two months in their daily activities in and around the city. An elderly woman, a working man and a child were involved. The research unit was not formed by a specific ethnic, socio-economic or age group but by the relationships between different city dwellers. Special attention is given to crosscutting ties, those ties between individuals that run through delineated social groups and geographical boundaries. This article offers only descriptions of everyday relationships of children from the ethnographical research projects described above.

Globalization of the media communications progressed rapidly during the twentieth century thanks to innumerable innovation within information technologies particularly communications satellites, digitalization and advances in computer technology. Today we can utilize new communication systems that allow a worldwide distribution of messages from one place to another. In the middle of the global development of mass media we can find many children and young people. With their engaging, interactive properties, the new digital media are suggested to have more impact on how children grow and learn, what they value, and ultimately who they become than any other medium that has come before (Montgomery, 2002). New media technology influences the life and culture of young people. What is the nature of the content in it and whose values and judgments does it represent is a fatal question for educational researchers today.

If you knew one of your child’s friends smoked pot with her mom, would that worry you? If you knew another one of your child’s friends spoke in tongues, would that worry you more or less?

Over the twentieth century, the relationships between the home and the school have been considered from a number of perspectives. These include social class and children’s education (David, 1993; Halsey et al., 1980; Utting, 1995); the language of the home and school (Bernstein, 1971); involving parents in their children’s learning (David, 1993; Mortimore & Mortimore, 1984; Sylva, 1987; Wolfendale, 1983); parents’ political participation in their children’s education (Ball, 1990; David, 1993; Deem, 1989; Golby, 1989; Macleod, 1989); home-school relations and minority ethnic families (Tomlinson, 1984); gender and home-school issues (David, 1993); family structure and children’s education (Cockett & Tripp, 1994; Utting, 1995); the treatment of family in the school curriculum (Cockett & Tripp, 1994; DfEE, 2000; OFSTED, 2002; Utting, 1995); the role of school in addressing students’ family problems (Cockett & Tripp, 1994; Rodgers & Pryor, 1998); and home-school contracts (Bastiani, 1991; David, 1993; Macbeth, 1989). The range of areas outlined above alone highlights the complexities of the issues surrounding home and school.

This study examines the experiences and perceptions of boys and girls vis-à-vis racial integration in two former segregated South African secondary schools. The study is presented in a twofold way since it explores the ethnographic methodological understanding and dilemmas of conducting ethnographic race research in South Africa, and the gendered differences and identities through the manner in which the boys and the girls mediated racial integration in a micro school setting. These two dimensions are tied together in order to present a coherent relationship from the conceptual understanding of ethnographic race research to the dominant themes that emerged in the process of generating that knowledge. The study is part of a Ph.D. project, which was conducted in order to understand how the process of racial integration was experienced and perceived by students in two South African Secondary schools. In 1996 the South African government passed legislation desegregating segregated schools. However, a number of exclusive schools had already opened their doors to non-white students in the 1990’s. There had been studies conducted on these former segregated schools, which mirrored different dimensions from racial desegregation of schools to complex processes of racial integration (Bhana, 1994; Carrim & Mkwanazi, 1993; Dolby, 2001; Metcalfe, 1991; Valley & Dalamba, 1999). This study moved from a premise to study racially integrated schools with a relatively stable reputation in order to find out what is happening today in these schools vis-à-vis the process and extent of racial desegregation. What emerged at the end was a dialectic relationship between the gendered reaction to integration and the dominant school ethos.

As early as 1928, Lewis Meriam’s research report to the Secretary of Interior indicated that American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) schools were understaffed, had irrelevant curricula, and employed under qualified teachers. There continues to be a categorical need for professionally developed curriculum materials that reflect the local culture and language of AI/AN students. There is an equivalent need for instructional strategies that can succeed with AI/AN students. Over the past decade, reports (Deyhle & Swisher, 1997; Pavel, 1999; Swisher & Tippeconnic, 1999) have reinforced the need for educational programs for AI/AN schools and communities that are based on local culture and employ a group’s vernacular language as a part of schooling. This is a reversal from earlier more assimilationist models of education, which have been promulgated by the federal government through its policy on first language (other than English) and cultural exclusion. This call for programs based on culture and vernacular language is due, in part, to the persistent nationwide gap in the academic performance of AI/AN students and their non-native peers (Berlak, 2001).

The main policy discourses in education in Sweden now emphasise personal flexibility, creativity, responsibility for learning and freedom of choice for learners and the aim to produce creative, motivated, alert, inquiring, self-governing and flexible users and developers as opposed to just recipient reproducers of knowledge. These curriculum ideas are reflected in National Curricula (such as Lpo 94; Lpf 94) in statements relating to such things as “students developing capacities to take personal responsibility for learning…by taking part in planning and evaluation and by choosing courses, subjects, themes and activities” (Lpo 94, p. 85). However they derive from policy writing at the political level of the education system internationally (Zackari, 2001) as exemplified in writing such as OECD (1992) and (1995), which states that individual schools should create their own profiles and help individual pupils to influence the content of their studies’ (OECD, 1995, s. 137) and exhort the “willingness and ability of individual citizens and families to take responsibility for choices and priorities of their own” (OECD, 1995, s. 86). These ideas have filtered through things like official national propositions (Dir. 1991, p. 117; SOU, 1992, p. 94) and reports (e.g. Skolverkets rapport 1999, p. 443) to the arenas of action comprised by schools and colleges, where they are developed into new working aims for our modern schools and are described as contributing toward a new school vision (see also Lundahl, 2001).

According to the National Advisory Committee Report on Creativity in Education (N.A.C.C.C.E./DfEE, 1999), creative learning involves thinking and acting in an imaginative and yet purposeful way, guided by an overall objective, and the report also argues that skilled teachers and well designed courses can help anyone to be a creative learner, by assisting them in developing original ideas in a positive way. However, the question is what happens to creative learning in education when the main education objective that guides students is to arrive at pre-set answers within an exchange-based, commodity form of engagement, solely for the purposes of passing a course with a good grade and obtaining an education qualification. These are the conditions of a banking education. The present chapter considers creativity under such conditions in two different classifications of laboratory work in science education, both of which have been identified from ethnographic data from 40 hours of participant observation in school laboratories at one main upper-secondary school site in Sweden in 1999, which was carried out as part of a one-year participant observation on a half-time basis at the school in question. Conversations with students and tutors there and from four other sites in 1999, 2000 and 2003 have been particularly important in the research.

Restructuring in Swedish adult education it is not a national isolated artefact, but rather part of a broader, global movement of what for example Ball (1998a) terms global policy paradigms. It is often carried out within “a market discourse” emphasising “freedom of choice,” “flexibility” and the “effective deployment” and use of resources, and has generally been accompanied by a movement from central control to decentralisation and from direct regulation to steering by goals. Even though the restructuring of education in Sweden reflects a global political conjuncture it is also possible to discern processes of local translation and recontextualisation of generic policies, which is the subject, the subject of this article, using Göteborg, the second city of Sweden as an example. How the restructuring are experienced and interpreted by differently positioned actors and interest groups with varied interpretative repertoires will be discussed but also related to a more general discussion in the area of policy sociology.

This article outlines the strengths of applying ethnographic methods to policy evaluations, even to the study of exhaustively researched policies such as the New Deal for Young People (NDYP). Ethnography is understood as interdisciplinary, combining method and methodology into a perspective (Clifford, 1986) that looks at less conventional units of analysis, such as non-verbal expression and the symbolic use of objects and spaces. Four groups of findings from a study of the NDYP’s Voluntary Sector Option are outlined: the connotations of interviewing in the welfare to work context; institutional-disciplinary processes; deconstruction of dependency discourses and delivery space-time logistics. It is concluded that such a perspective is especially valuable in the context of normative social policies about which people have lay knowledge and common-sense beliefs (Brewer, 2000) and as such should be applied more widely to contemporary social policy evaluations.

Education – and especially aspects of reading and writing – have consistently been ideologically and politically linked to the times and spaces in which they occur. Historically, groups or individuals invariably demonstrate some form of “educentricity,” that is, holding to a view of education that is based either on their own experiences or related to the perceived educational needs and experiences of those around them. It is usually based on what “we” (or “they”) think education “is” or “ought to be” and is tied strongly to the value placed upon it. Educentric points of view can be linked to the “way of the world” at almost any given point in history and have frequently been used as a way of positioning learners, including or excluding certain groups, and supporting or constraining educational progress. This chapter looks at educentricity – with a specific focus on literacy – at the beginning of the 21st century and from a primarily European perspective. More specifically it looks at the literacy-related activities and practices of one particular group – prisoners – and seeks to understand the impact of various educentric ideologies on current educational provision in prison. It is written from outside the parameters of educational research, takes an ethnographic and holistic stance towards prison life, and seeks to look at education – and reading and writing in particular – from the perspective of policy-makers, practitioners and prisoners themselves.

Dennis Beach is a Reader in Education Sciences (Pedagogy) who is currently employed at the Department of Education, Göteborg University. His research interests lie in the field of the sociology of education, the sociology of teachers’ work and the problems of education change. He has authored or co-authored three books and a number of articles and chapters in these subject fields and has also supervised several Ph.D. projects. At present he is head of two major national research projects in the fields mentioned, both of which are financed by the Swedish Research Council, and collaborates in two large European projects.Marie Carlson Ph.D. in sociology 2002, Göteborg University, Sweden. Her earlier studies were in social anthropology, Swedish for immigrants, and ethnicity and migration. Her main research interests are cultural studies and sociology of education. The wider project of which this chapter is a part focuses on Swedish language courses for immigrants as a social and cultural construction in the Swedish knowledge arena. It deals with questions regarding the impact of social and cultural practices on conceptions of knowledge and education. (e.g. Carlson, M., 2001) “Swedish Language Courses for Immigrants – Integration or Discrimination?” in Ethnography and Education Policy (Ed.) Geoffrey Walford, Oxford: Elsevier.) Marie Carlson also lectures on courses in ethnicity and migration, and is tutoring within the fields of “Language & culture,” “Islam” (Muslim women) and “Ethnicity.” Currently she is engaged in a project “Competing Ideas in the Renewal of SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) – An Investigation of Discursive Practices in SFI-education during Re-structuring” (financed by The Swedish Research Council). The project is carried out in corporation with Dennis Beach, Department of Education, Göteborg University.Marianne Dovemark was formerly a teacher at a comprehensive school in Sweden for over 20 years. She is in the process of completing a Ph.D. (in Educational Sciences) supervised by Dennis Beach and is currently employed as a lecturer on the pre-service Teacher Education Programme at the University College of Borås where she also does researches in the field of Sociology of Education. Her research stresses the new aims of comprehensive education in a re-structured school in Sweden with a special focus on the possibility of free choice within the school.Caroline Hudson is a Research Consultant whose company is called Real Educational Research Ltd. Caroline’s research interests encompass adult learning, literacy, family structure, offending and education, and issues related to social exclusion. Caroline is currently evaluating three literacy, language (ESOL) and numeracy developmental projects in the National Health Service (NHS), with the National Research and Development Centre (NRDC) for adult literacy and numeracy. She is also researching the impact of use of a PC tablet on the writing skills of young people who offend, for Ecotec Research and Consultancy on behalf of the Youth Justice Board (YJB). Caroline has worked as Basic Skills Advisor in the Home Office National Probation Directorate, and as an English teacher both in the United Kingdom and abroad.Bob Jeffrey has worked with Professor Peter Woods and Geoff Troman at the Open University since the early 1990s researching the effects of reform on teachers and young people in primary schools using ethnographic methods. In particular he has focused on the how the reforms have affected the creativity of teachers and more recently he has concerned himself with young people’s perspectives of their learning experiences in a project involving ten European countries. He has also contributed to the development of Ethnography in Education by publishing regular articles on methodology, editing books in this area, co-ordinating an international email list as well the Ethnography network for the European Educational Research Association and is currently co-organising the annual Oxford Conference for Ethnography in Education.Janet Donnell Johnson is a clinical lecturer and doctoral student in English Education at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, USA. A former English teacher at an alternative high school, her research interests include the interconnectedness of student identity, agency, and resistance, and literacy as a social practice in and out of classrooms. Janet is currently researching and writing a critical qualitative study based on how non-mainstream students use language to take up certain subject positions and how those positionings create opportunities for literacy learning in and out of school. In her role as clinical lecturer, she teaches writing, methods of teaching English, and coordinates partnerships between Indiana University’s English Department, Language Education Department, and teachers in the schools. She also works closely with secondary and college teachers on incorporating critical literacy and teacher research in their classrooms.Jongi “Mdumane” Klaas is currently completing a Ph.D. in Education at the University of Cambridge. The study examines the perceptions and experiences of learners and teachers vis-à-vis the processes of racial integration in two South African secondary schools. Jongi obtained a Bachelor of Pedagogics degree majoring in English Literature and History at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. He taught History for two years at Gwaba Combined School in South Africa before taking a Fulbright Scholarship to study a Masters degree in Comparative Education at the University of Oklahoma, USA. Jongi is married to Nocwaka Sinovuyo Klaas.Jerry Lipka is a full professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He has worked in cross-cultural education for the past 22 years. During this time, he has developed a long-term relationship with a group of Yup’ik Eskimo teachers and elders. This collaborative relationship has resulted in numerous publications. Most recently, this work has developed a culturally-based math curriculum; research on its effectiveness has shown that rural Yup’ik Eskimo students outperform their counterparts in math understanding.Gerry Mitchell is a Research Student at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion and member of the Social Policy Department at the London School of Economics. She is in the final year of an ESRC funded Ph.D. researching the New Deal for Young People’s Voluntary Sector Option in London. The work is divided into three: It focuses on methodology – what is gained from applying ethnographic methods to social policy evaluations? Secondly, it analyses delivery of the New Deal at ground level and lastly explores the construction of identities around work in the narratives of young unemployed people. Recent Publications: “Choice, Volunteering and Employability: Evaluating Delivery of the New Deal for Young People’s Voluntary Sector Option” Benefits (2003), 11(2), 105–111.Farzaneh Moinian was formerly a teacher at different comprehensive schools in Iran and in Sweden. She is a doctoral student in pedagogy at Stockholm Institution of Education. Her research areas are linked to ethnography in education as well as the exploration of childhood in its historical and current manifestations. Her doctoral project includes children’s perception of morality, self-concept, values and goals as well as children’s life world from their own point of view. Her project would draw on a range of theoretical perspectives from inter-disciplinary Childhood studies, and would employ mainly qualitative methodologies, including ethnography. The various research projects carried out by Farzaneh Moinian focus on understanding the ways in which children percept and interpret their lives as well as how they communicate with other children about it.Ruth Soenen is research assistant (Fund for Scientific Research – Flanders) at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of The Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Her work concerns ethnographic research into everyday relationships in urban settings. Research was carried out in schools and in collective city spaces (e.g. public transport and shops) within the reflection on intercultural matters, learning, community and public domain. She wrote a book in Dutch on intercultural education, research reports for Flemish Government (Educational and City Policy) and made several contributions in leading Flemish journals and books. In English she made a contribution to “Debates and Developments in Ethnographic Methodology. Studies in Educational Ethnography Vol. 6.” Other English publications are forthcoming.Geoff Troman is a Research Fellow and Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Language Studies at the Open University. Geoff taught science for twenty years in secondary modern, comprehensive and middle schools before moving into Higher Education in 1989. Throughout his time in schools he carried out research as a teacher researcher. His Ph.D. research was an ethnography of primary school restructuring. He is currently conducting research on teachers’ work and lives and focusing on the educational policy context and primary teacher identity, commitment and career in performative cultures of schooling. Among other publications in the areas of qualitative methods, school ethnography and policy sociology, he co-authored Primary Teachers’ Stress with Peter Woods and Restructuring Schools, Reconstructing Teachers, with Peter Woods, Bob Jeffrey and Mari Boyle. Geoff is a joint co-ordinator of the Ethnography Network for the European Educational Research Association and is currently co-organising the annual Oxford Conference for Ethnography in Education.Geoffrey Walford is Professor of Education Policy and a Fellow of Green College at the University of Oxford. His books include: Life in Public Schools (Methuen, 1986), Restructuring Universities: Politics and power in the management of change (Croom Helm, 1987), Privatization and Privilege in Education (Routledge, 1990), City Technology College (Open University Press, 1991, with Henry Miller), Doing Educational Research (Routledge, editor, 1991), Choice and Equity in Education (Cassell, 1994), Doing Research about Education (Falmer (Ed.), 1998), Policy, Politics and Education – sponsored grant- maintained schools and religious diversity (Ashgate, 2000) and Doing Qualitative Educational Research (Continuum, 2001). Within the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Oxford, he is Director of Graduate Studies (Higher Degrees), has responsibility for the M.Sc. in Educational Research Methodology course, and supervises doctoral research students. He was Joint Editor of the British Journal of Educational Studies from 1999 to 2002, and has been Editor of the Oxford Review of Education from January 2004. His research foci are the relationships between central government policy and local processes of implementation, private schools, choice of schools, religiously-based schools and qualitative research methodology.Joan Parker Webster is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where she teaches courses in multicultural and cross-cultural education, children’s and young adult literature, reading theory and language acquisition, and ethnographic research methodology. She has researched and published in the areas of literacy, language acquisition, indigenous language revitalisation issues and ethnographic methodology. Parker Webster is presently working with Yup’ik Eskimo teachers and elders on a literacy-based curriculum project using traditional Yup’ik stories.Anita Wilson is a Research Associate with Lancaster Literacy Research Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, U.K. She has spent almost 14 years undertaking ethnographic and collaborative inquiry with people in prison. Between 2001 and 2003 she held a Spencer Post-Doctoral Fellowship from the National Academy of Education, New York which she used to introduce her theory, method and approach to prisoners in America, making a transatlantic comparison of how policy and practice impacts on prison literacies as they are “lived out” on a day to day basis. Her doctoral thesis Reading a Library – Writing a Book: The Significance of Literacies for the Prison Community proposes that people in prison live in a “third space” community, socialising the institutional in order to retain their sense of personal rather than prison identity. She maintains a strong focus on the ethics of working in constrained and sensitive settings and considers issues around exploitation, equity and advocacy to be central to ethnographic work. She has published widely and shares her work with policy-makers, practitioners and prisoners around the world. At present she is undertaking research funded by the National Research and Development Centre which investigates the importance of education to the lives of young offenders.

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Studies in Educational Ethnography
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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