Paul Willis, in Learning to Labour (Willis, 1977), joins his teenage research subjects in their extracurricular trips to the pub, in the name of holistic ethnography. I used to use this anecdote to illustrate the ways in which adulthood – and its attendant responsibilities – has become so much more rigorously enforced in British schools in the intervening 50 years. But now the pubs are shut anyway.
Conducting ethnographic research in secondary schools which are trying to contain the coronavirus – as I have been doing on and off since September 2020 – throws up new challenges for researchers already preoccupied with positionality and power. Educational ethnographers have historically seen adulthood as a serious barrier to research with children, an’ have devised a series of ingenious workarounds. Gillian Evans, in her ethnography Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain, claims to have become ‘like a friend to them’ (Evans, 2005, p. 190). Others seek ‘least-adulthood’ (Mandell, 1988).
‘Conducting ethnographic research in secondary schools which are trying to contain the coronavirus throws up new challenges for researchers already preoccupied with positionality and power.’
The technologies of safeguarding and ‘appropriateness’ in modern-day schools resist this kind of ‘playful entanglement’ (Dennis & Huf, 2020). Anyone who has visited a UK school in the past decade will recognise the ways in which adulthood is enforced before you even get past the receptionist. A touch screen may take your photograph and log your arrival time and car registration. There may be a dress code. You will likely be given a badge, perhaps colour-coded to reflect the degree to which you are a school ‘insider’. Even then, you may not be given freedom of movement around the school but be escorted around. There is no special pleading at the front desk for ‘incompetent’ adulthood (Corsaro, 2008) or temporary childhood.
This adult–child binary is policed yet more vigorously as schools seek to contain Covid-19. One main new feature is ‘bubbles’. Certain groups of children, usually a whole- or half-year group, are restricted in their movements so they don’t ‘cross’ into another bubble. However, in order to limit staff absence if a group has to isolate – and because staff often have to ‘cross’ bubbles – adults in both of my schools are instructed to maintain a two-metre distance from all pupils. This distance is a condition of my access to the field during the pandemic, stipulated both by the schools and my university’s ethics committee. The children, however, are under no obligation to keep this distance from one another.
This rule makes closeness (both literal and metaphorical) with the children as research subjects much more difficult. Huddling together to exchange Pokemon cards, as Evans does with the children in her study, isn’t possible. Pupils are encouraged to keep their own pencil cases and textbooks, rather than passing them – and their germs – around. The necessary containment of our virus-transmitting bodies and possessions precludes ‘entanglement’ as a method of interacting with children ethnographically and equitably.
Masks are another consideration: although they must be worn by everyone when moving around the school, children don’t wear them in lessons – though I am required in one of the schools to wear mine full-time. The mask-in-the-classroom therefore functions as a visual marker of adulthood, and also inhibits communication by hiding facial expressions and muting tone.
Altogether, these Covid-mitigating practices have thwarted any attempt to interact with children as a ‘peer’ in any meaningful way. I situate them, however, as the latest in a series of measures which police an impenetrable adult–child binary in contemporary UK schools. So, I have positioned myself mostly as a teaching assistant. This reflects my conviction that research in education need not be preoccupied with children’s interactions in an adult-free space. It facilitates relationships with children while disrupting the ‘observer’ gaze (with the terrifying precedent of inspectorates) to secure the comfort and goodwill of school staff at an incredibly stressful period.
It is time to come to terms with the nature of adulthood as it is constructed in school settings and find new ways of researching without grasping for an impossible role.
Corsaro, W. A., & Molinari, L. (2008). Entering and observing in children’s worlds: A reflection on a longitudinal ethnography of early education in Italy. In P. M. Christensen & A. James (Eds.) Research with children: Perspectives and practices (2nd ed., pp. 239–259). New York: Routledge.
Dennis, B., & Huf, C. (2020). Ethnographic research in childhood institutions: Participations and entanglements. Ethnography and Education, 15(4), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/17457823.2020.1722951
Evans, G. (2006). Educational failure and working class white children in Britain. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.
Mandell, N. (1988). The least-adult role in studying children. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 16(4), 433–468. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891241688164002
Willis, P. E. (1977). Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. London: Saxon House.