Anthropological Aspects of Education Research Paper

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The study of education would appear prima facie to be central to the anthropological project, and courses that cover anthropological aspects of education are taught in a number of universities, particularly in the USA. Educational anthropology, however, has yet to create as secure a niche for itself as a separate academic discipline as, for example, medical or legal anthropology, which have become increasingly influential in the study of technologically advanced, as well as pretechnological, societies. One reason for the lack of a clearly defined anthropology of education has been that its areas of interest and methodological approaches have overlapped so much with those of other disciplines, in particular social psychology, sociology, and, of course, the growing field of educational studies. Indeed, some of the most influential work in the study of education has been produced either in collaborative projects between anthropologists and those from other disciplines or by the latter bringing anthropological insights to bear in their own work. The influence of anthropology—in terms of scope, theory and methodology—on the study of education, therefore, is rather more than it may at first appear.

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1. Scope Of Study

For anthropologists, the study of education is far from confined to the examination of formal educational institutions such as schools or to the experiences of those who have not yet been defined as adults. Education, in an anthropological sense, includes the whole range of learning experiences of individuals from conception to death. Indeed, to avoid the narrower connotations of the word ‘education,’ anthropologists have tended to use much broader terms such as ‘socialization’ and (less often) ‘enculturation,’ both of which emphasize that an individual’s knowledge of what it means to be a social being is constantly refined throughout their life. The underlying assumption in the anthropological project is that every society or subsociety has an idea of what constitutes an ‘educated person’ (Levinson et al. 1996), but that this concept differs between societies and changes over time. One classic distinction in the study of education that many anthropologists have made is between verbal and nonverbal forms of teaching (Lave and Wenger 1991, Singleton 1999). The former generally takes place in formal settings, such as schools, the latter in informal settings, such as apprenticeships. In verbal forms of teaching, the responsibility for ensuring correct understanding lies with the teacher, while in nonverbal forms it lies with the student who learns through close observation of the teacher.

In order to study such broad concepts as ‘socialization’ and ‘enculturation,’ anthropologists need to look at many features of the particular society they are examining, from kinship and religion to political and economic systems. When anthropologists study formal educational institutions—such as schools, companies, military, religious and sporting organizations—they also take a holistic approach. They examine how these institutions reflect wider social values and attempt to inculcate them into students through formal and informal means. For example, culturally specific ideas about children and childhood in a society impinge on the educational environment in that society and lead to very different types of classroom experiences. At the same time, classroom activity in any society is presented as a ‘natural’ process, even though it is clearly historically and culturally contingent.

These characteristics of the anthropology of education can be understood more easily if we look at how they have developed historically and at some of their underlying theoretical and methodological assumptions.

2. Anthropology And Education: A Historical Overview

A history of the development of the anthropological study of education might be divided into four main periods. Ethnographers at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries generally included, in their accounts of the life-cycle of the peoples they studied, some description of how children were cared for, educated, and made full members of society, often through complex initiation rites. In many ways, these accounts differed little from those provided by travelers, missionaries, and social commentators over the previous centuries who documented their observations of the treatment of the young in the societies they visited or in their own societies. Indeed, some comparative educationalists trace their subject back to Herodotus and Xenophon in Ancient Greece and Cicero in Ancient Rome (Trethewey 1976). Only occasionally would the earliest Victorian anthropological theorists, such as Edward Tylor, draw on examples of educational practices from around the world in order to support their theories about how societies evolved from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilization,’ but this was never done in a systematic manner.

The beginning of what we now know as the anthropology of education and socialization, therefore, should perhaps most usefully be linked to the first attempts to theorize systematically about the socialization methods of different societies. In this project, Arnold Van Gennep, Franz Boas, and Bronislaw Malinowski were perhaps particularly important.

Van Gennep’s work on rites of passage introduced the idea that, while the rituals that mark the transition between life-cycle stages within any society are often both arbitrary and flexible, the underlying pattern of ritual performance often shows a remarkable similarity across societies. At the same time, Boas in the USA and Malinowski in the UK were among the first to challenge Victorian theories of social evolution which equated the poor performance of certain groups in formal Western educational institutions with cultural or biological inferiority. They did this in part by showing how socialization practices are designed to meet the particular ‘needs’ of a society at a given point in time. Their ideas of cultural relativity—that intelligence can only be judged in the context of a particular culture and not on a universal scale—helped form the basis of a counterargument to the use of universal tests of intelligence in a debate which continues to rage vigorously today.

In Britain, students of Malinowski such as Raymond Firth, Phyllis Kaberry and Audrey Richards continued into the 1930s to include in their ethnographies detailed descriptions of how children became full members of society. Followers of the alternative structural-functionalist tradition of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, however, steered away from the study of education; they considered it to be too close to psychology and the concept of ‘culture’ which they eschewed in favor of the study of ‘society.’

The second major phase of the development of the anthropology of education was the establishment of the Culture and Personality School in the 1930s and 1940s. This School, which enjoyed by far its greatest influence in the USA, primarily involved the application of psychoanalytic principles to ethnographic material. It believed that by studying child-rearing practices such as feeding, weaning, and toilet training, it was possible to understand the basis on which personality types were developed in different societies. Many of the leading US anthropologists of the period (Ruth Benedict, Cora DuBois, Abram Kardiner, and Ralph Linton) produced work within this paradigm. The School is probably best known, however, for the work of Margaret Mead; her argument that sex roles were determined culturally, as opposed to biologically, played an important part in the re-examination of cultural assumptions about men and women in many industrial societies.

The Culture and Personality School probably hit its height of influence in the wartime period with the publication of, so-called, National Character Studies, such as Benedict’s classic account of Japanese society, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. In the postwar period, however, such approaches became increasingly criticized for exaggerating the homogeneity of personality types within any one society and the link between early child-rearing practices and later adult behavior, for ignoring the significance of relationships which exist between societies, and for reifying society rather than regarding it as a social construction. The result of sustained criticism was a dramatic decline in the influence of the Culture and Personality School. Some remnants of its approach could be seen, however, both in the way data on socialization practices were collected in the Human Relations Area Files, and in the more quantitative studies of childrearing carried out cross-culturally by Whiting and Child in the Six Cultures Series (1966). Such research, however, in its quest for similarities that held across cultures, provided little insight into the culturally and historically contingent nature of socialization and educational practices and it had little influence in the UK where the study of children and education virtually disappeared from the work of anthropologists for the next 20 years (see Richards 1970).

What might be seen as the third phase in the development of the anthropology of education began in the late 1960s. This phase was linked, to some extent, with the growth of civil rights movements in North America and Western Europe. In the USA, it focused in particular on what anthropologists generally termed ‘cultural discontinuities’ in the educational experience of minority and immigrant groups within the US educational system. Detailed ethnographic studies which examined how children, who did not come from the mainstream, white, middle-class society, experienced education in the USA were drawn on to develop programs of multicultural education and greater sensitivity to the educational needs of children from different ethnic backgrounds. As John Ogbu (1981) pointed out, however, these new programs could sometimes be at the expense of essential zing—freezing in time—and stereotyping the ‘culture’ of minority groups.

In Britain, similarly detailed ethnographic studies were being undertaken on British schools but with the focus on issues of class rather than ethnicity. Several of these (Hargreaves 1967, Lacey 1971) were undertaken by members of the social anthropology department at Manchester University whose head at the time, Max Gluckman, was keen to see anthropological methods used in the study of industrial societies. Probably the most influential work in the UK in this period, however, was Paul Willis’ (1977) study of working-class culture in a British secondary school. Significantly, while Willis described himself as a sociologist, he drew heavily on the ethnographic methods used by social anthropologists.

The research that probably had the most lasting influence on the field of educational anthropology from this period, though, was carried out by the French scholar, Pierre Bourdieu who developed the concepts of ‘cultural capital’ (which the elite in society pass on to their offspring) and ‘symbolic violence’ (which schools impose on nonelite students so that they learn to silence themselves when in the company of those with greater social standing). While Bourdieu is also often described as a sociologist, the original insights for his later work can be found in the mainstream anthropological research that he carried out among the Kabyle peasants in Algeria (see Bourdieu 1977).

At the same time as ethnographers were examining the ways in which education systems reproduced class and ethnic inequalities, feminist anthropologists in many Western societies became interested in studying the mechanisms whereby gender patterns and inequalities were reproduced through the same system (Okely 1978). Overall, therefore, by the end of the 1970s the anthropology of education could be described as one of the most politically active areas of the discipline as well as one of the few areas where Western anthropologists were actively making studies of, and becoming involved in, policy-making in their own societies.

From the end of the 1970s, anthropologists of education became rather more outward looking, although they often remained politically committed. In part this involved more applied work being undertaken by anthropologists in developing countries. This work often identified closely with the ideas of the anticolonial movement and was sometimes highly critical of the manner in which Western educational systems had been ‘imposed’ on developing countries and tried to show how this had sometimes led to social disintegration rather than integration (Foley 1977). Perhaps more influential for policy in the West, however, were an increasing number of detailed ethnographic studies by anthropologists of the operation of the education systems of societies whose economies seemed to be rapidly developing at a time when those of the USA and Western Europe seemed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to be stagnating.

A large number of works on the anthropology of Japanese education, in particular, began to appear in the light of Japan’s astonishing economic growth during the 1980s which many commentators—both inside and outside Japan—believed could best be explained by its education system. While some politicians in the West seemed to suggest that Japan might provide a model for the reform of their own education—particularly preschool and elementary—systems, most anthropologists pointed out the problems inherent in the piecemeal importation of elements of a foreign education system and the impossibility of adopting a system wholesale. Instead, they urged policy-makers to use descriptions of foreign education systems as a mirror for examining the strengths and weaknesses of their own systems (Rohlen 1983).

The fourth major phase in the history of the anthropology of education involved a change of focus from studying those who run and/organize education and other socialization systems to looking at the cognitive worlds of those being educated (Amit-Talai and Wulff 1995). While there had been calls within anthropology since the 1970s, influenced largely by the work of Edwin Ardener, for children, along with women, to be given their own voice in ethnographies (see Hardman 1973), this really only began to emerge two decades later. An impetus for this development may in part have been the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention certainly sparked intense debate in many countries throughout the 1990s about what constituted a ‘child’ and what were ‘children’s rights’. Ideas about the ‘child’ and ‘childhood’ were shown to differ greatly between societies with consequent implications for issues of punishment and control in the formal educational institutions in those countries; some commentators indeed felt that the Convention represented an overly Anglo-Saxon view of the child that was being ethnocentrically imposed on other societies (Boyden 1990).

3. Assumptions

There are two overlapping sets of assumptions that need to be examined in order to explain the (often unconscious) different approaches that anthropologists have taken to the study of education. The first set relates to whether the anthropologist’s primary interest is in the way education systems structure the behavior of individuals or in the way individuals construct education systems. This dichotomy is often described as one between a focus on ‘structure’ or ‘agency.’

The second set of assumptions relate to the ideas— held both by the researcher and the society being researched, though these may not be the same—about how the process of socialization actually operates. For example, in the case of socializing children, is the child a passive object waiting to be molded by society, or an already formed individual which just needs an environment in which it can naturally develop, or a person intent on pursuing its own interests and on whom society has to impose its will (see Jahoda and Lewis 1988)? Sometimes these distinctions are dis- cussed in terms of the child as tabula rasa, the Apollonian child (the child as naturally good), and the Dionysian child (the child as innately wilful).

Approaches which concentrate on how socialization systems—particularly formal education systems— help to construct, disseminate, and legitimate a commonly understood and accepted ritual and symbolic language and system of meaning within a society— thereby structuring the experience of individuals who are often presented as tabula rasa—are often described as Durkheimian or functionalist. Such analyses have been particularly influential in the study of large-scale modern societies where it is impossible for all the individuals to know each other personally. Formal education systems have played a major role in the formation of the modern nation state; they have often been the main means though which a common language has been disseminated and a national identity constructed in a population. Through their interaction with the economic and religious elements of the social system, they have helped to develop a national work ethic and inculcate national spiritual values. The study of education, therefore, has clearly been important in the work of anthropologists of ethnicity and nationalism such as Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner.

Marxist theories have also focused on the way in which education practices produce social beings but rather than seeing these as aids to social integration they have concentrated on how they maintain and reproduce social difference. Marxist and neo-Marxist approaches to the study of education largely replaced functionalist and Durkheimian approaches in the 1970s with studies of how class and ethnic inequalities were reproduced through the education system in the USA and UK. These studies showed how an education system can be systematically designed—by means of ‘linguistic codes’ or a ‘hidden curricula’—to provide differential educational experiences for different class, ethnic, and gender groups in a society. While the structural effects of class reproduction could be examined quantitatively, the actual mechanisms of the ‘black box’ (as it came to be called) of education could be discerned only through intensive qualitative research undertaken by ethnographers.

Social action theorists have focused on how the individual actors in the educational setting help to construct or resist its formal structures. Unlike Durkheimians and Marxists, they do not see individuals in an education system as passive but as active participants in a process of ‘cultural production’. Where active participation supports the integrative or the social reproductive functions of education, the analyses of social action theorists overlap with those of Durkheimians and Marxists. As Willis (1977) showed in his account of working-class youth in the UK, for example, the subcultures of resistance formed by these youths to the middle-class curriculum often only served to recreate the class structure of the wider society. Social action theorists, however, generally suggest that there is a range of reactions to the learning process in any educational setting as well as a range of teaching styles. In describing these, they often draw, implicitly at least, on Max Weber’s concept of ‘ideal types.’

Understanding the differences between the positions outlined above is important in the discipline of anthropology as anthropologists are generally themselves the main research tools. The assumptions on which anthropologists base their research effect not only what they look at but also the types of questions they ask and the conclusions they are likely to draw.

4. Methodology

While there are a number of antecedents to the ethnographic approach to the study of society, it was largely patented and systematized by Malinowski in the 1920s and became closely associated with the discipline of social anthropology. The application of this approach may be the most significant contribution made by anthropology to the study of education. Almost all anthropologists of education have relied on some form of field research, ranging from total participant observation to informal interviews (Woods 1986). Through all of these techniques, the researcher tries to gain an understanding of the participants’— teachers,’ pupils,’ parents,’ officials’—views on the educational process. In its ideal form, indeed, the researcher becomes through participant observation socialized in the society or institution being studied and thereby subjectively comes to empathize with and understand its values.

While field research has been shown to be a very effective means of understanding how socialization works in the broadest sense, it has perhaps particularly been suited to the study of education in ‘bounded’ institutions—institutions with clearly defined boundaries in terms of time and space—such as schools, churches, and other environments where children are taught basic social categories formally and informally. When children start formal schooling in Western societies, for example, they learn how concepts of time—work time vs. play time, school time vs. home time, holiday time vs. term time—and space—public vs. private, male vs. female, safe vs. dangerous—are divided in the extra-domestic environment. Such institutions, therefore, provide an excellent setting in which to investigate what are considered to be, in a particular society at a particular point in time, its core social values and how these values are socialized—through teaching the meaning of dominant symbols and key ritual performance—and legitimated through reference to ideas of ‘tradition’ and ‘culture.’ Field research also allows the researcher to gain a sense of the extent to which these values are accepted, rejected or ignored by those being taught them.

5. Contribution To The Study Of Education

The discipline of anthropology has brought a number of important points to bear on the study of education—a relativistic perspective of socialization practices, a holistic approach, an ethnographic method that allows for the simultaneous study of structure and agency in the educational process—which have all become standard practice in the field even if they are not always associated directly in researchers’ minds with anthropology. At the same time, the study of education has become increasingly common in anthropological accounts, but often under the headings of the study of ethnicity and nationalism or cognitive and psychological anthropology or the growing field of the anthropology of children rather than as a distinctive field of educational anthropology. It may be that the systematic anthropological study of education has been too threatening to anthropologists many of whom, of course, are themselves full-time educators.


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