Rich details of poor students in England in a twin-city ethnography: symbolic control and the social imaginaries of poverty

Year: 2016

Author: Beckett, Lori, Thompson, Ian

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper addresses initial efforts to articulate the framing of a twin-city parallel ethnographic investigation into the effects of poverty on school student’ learning in a network of urban school-communities in the major English cities of Oxford and Leeds. Both cities have significant disparities between wealth and poverty in terms of income, house prices, and access to public services including education. We compare the effects of local and national policy on pedagogic practices and curricula organisation for poor children while exploring Taylor’s (2007) concept of a social imaginary framed by poverty and the policy effects of ‘symbolic control (Bernstein and Solomon 1999: 269). The research focuses on the social influences on learning and pedagogy for students marked by poverty from the points of view of those involved including young people, their families and the professionals who work with them. We address methodological questions involved in mapping the interlinked ethnographies tentatively styled as situated inquiry-processes undertaken by academic partners working with school practitioners and multi-agency workers. We aim to interrogate the role of academic partners in relation to ‘the university project’ (Furlong, 2013; Whitty, 2014), to explore debates about researcher-identities as participant-observers, insider-researchers, action researchers or practitioner researchers (see Goldbart and Hustler, 2007) including academic partners as critical friends (Groundwater-Smith and Kemmis, 2004; Beveridge, 2005) and secretaries (Apple, 2009) to support and mentor participants in finding their voices about the social contexts and social imaginaries in which children and young people who experience poverty live and learn. This paper’s focus on such conceptual and substantive issues illuminates the theoretical considerations feeding into these twin-city ethnographies. In gearing up for local area studies and gathering a mix of qualitative data, teachers’ knowledge of students’ learning comes into view, notably how different groups of students, disaggregated by social class, gender, 'race' and ethnicity and their intersections, experience teaching and learning. Of paramount concern is that ‘everybody knows the problems’ (Kozol, 1991) in these local school communities, including in the local authorities. We consider how to go ‘into the field’ with an open mind so that perspectives and perceptions can be tested against the views and experiences of young people and their families as well as the views of professionals such as social and health workers and others. We consider how to coordinate participant conversations and develop critical understandings of collective social life across the two city sites – in schools, homes, and local communities.