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Language, Ethnography, and Education: Bridging New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu

reviewed by Christian J. Churchill - April 19, 2013

coverTitle: Language, Ethnography, and Education: Bridging New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu
Author(s): Michael Grenfell, David Bloome, Cheryl Hardy, Kate Pahl, Jennifer Rowsell, & Brian Street
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415872499, Pages: 232, Year: 2011
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Ethnography contains an impossible task: to enter the life experience of other people whose reality is (usually) distinct from one’s own and depict it with accuracy, critical perspective, and subtle understanding of realities functioning below the surface of what is actually said and done by the people observed in the field. Such research is bound to end in some degree of failure, for no one of us is capable of fully grasping the lived experience, individual or social, of other human beings. But just as likely as this project is to end in at least partial failure, so also is it something we are driven to do. At the risk of using the very universalizing terms ethnography seeks to challenge in its localized sensitivity to cultures and their infinite milieus, there is a universal-seeming drive in us to know the other, to pursue that knowing through depiction (or reading depictions of) the other’s reality, and, finally, to know one’s own self better through having pursued knowledge of the other. Outside of social science, the rise of the novel is but one example that gives evidence to this constant yearning in human beings to know the lives of others.

Education shares many of these qualities with ethnography. The educator seeks to know the student in order to help the student know herself better. In the process, the educator discovers herself more fully than before teaching the student. For the educator, this process of leading the student to discovery and thereby making ever new discoveries herself never ends. And neither can it be contained in a scientifically defined project of planned curricular methods. This process of teaching is by definition idiosyncratic, for idiosyncrasy is the essence of discovery and discovery is the essence of education. It is this juncture – the meeting of education and ethnography in the idiosyncratic creative space that is the true home of each – that concerns Grenfell et al.’s Language, Ethnography, and Education.

This book, though it barely mentions the project of “assessment,” is a robust critique of the positivistic project of control and evaluation of which curricular assessment is a current symptom. Throughout, the authors make the point that the best way to understand a classroom is to enter its culture, or to use Bourdieu’s term so frequently employed in the book, its habitus. The authors make the argument throughout that the best way to understand a learning process is to join it substantively with the students rather than imposing upon it means of understanding that are situated above the students, imposed from authorities who have no meaningful conversance with the students’ realities. New Literacy Studies is the mode of understanding student learning styles which the authors endorse – i.e., identifying and working within the form of literacy most germane to the students’ habitus rather than that defined by the state as acceptable and “correct.” In this we find the ethnographic project of understanding the other from the other’s own perspective a critical means of not only studying classroom experiences but also of teaching students from their own experiential grounding rather than the grounding defined by curricular bureaucrats. As Grenfell writes: “…the scholastic world of theory about language teaching and learning needs to be seen as being just as prone as the empirical world of language classrooms to acting on the basis of presuppositions created historically; so much so that there is indeed the danger of research knowledge becoming a kind of ‘scholastic fallacy’, where what is offered in the name of scientific knowledge is in actuality simply the reproduction of a certain scholastic relation to the world, and one indeed imbibed with its own interests” (p. 193) – i.e., the “interests” of the state and its elites.

The organization of this book is idiosyncratically elegant. One expects on picking it up to encounter a series of essays, each written as its own project making the case for the interlinking of ethnography, New Literacy Studies, and Bourdieusian theory. If it were written as such, it would lack the life this volume contains. The several authors have substantively committed themselves to writing an integrated volume in which each succeeding piece builds upon and explicitly references the ones that come before it. As each chapter is written by a separate author (with some repetitions along the way), the reader encounters a series of voices stylistically its own, and yet altogether the book develops a unified tone and theoretical stance. Clearly much work has gone into planning this book to achieve such unified effect while retaining the singular voices of the authors.

This is also a demanding book. Readers should not expect to be swept immediately into a set of gripping ethnographic narrative page-turners. It begins with a rigorous effort in Part I to link ethnography, Bourdieu, and New Literacy Studies. Part II introduces actual ethnographies. These are not wide-reaching ethnographies but rather limited case studies in which the participant-observation technique central to ethnography is used to enter the habitus of students in literacy classrooms in order to understand their and their teachers’ approach to literacy as well as to develop curricular approaches that integrate with the students’ cultural realities. Each of these cases stands on its own and offers a different way to think of this synthesis. Perhaps the most compelling is found in Chapter Eight, “ ‘All that Jazz’: Classroom Reading as Intertextual Practice.” The authors Bloome and Brown open by stating “…teaching and researching are both inherently reflexive processes embedded in social contexts” (p. 132). They then show how the African American students and their teacher whom they observe collaboratively negotiate a way to understand selected readings from the point of view mandated by the state while also from the point of view most rooted in their own habitus. To this point, they write, “…learning to read in school is also about adopting a cultural ideology including how one defines who one is and who others are. Some students will develop a double-consciousness [the authors cite Dubois here]; they will ‘read’ in a particular way in school and in related institutional settings, but will be conscious that such reading is for school contexts and may employ other ways of reading elsewhere as culturally appropriate” (p. 139). In Part III, the theoretical introduction to the volume is revisited by way of linking it back to the empirical content of the ethnographic studies in Part II providing the reader with a clear, though theoretically dense, synthesis of problems in literacy education administered by state bureaucracies and possibilities for teaching differently.

The book points to idiosyncratic teaching and learning as the essence of good education, just as it is the essence of good ethnography. The authors succeed in making this point by providing their own ethnographic exploration of what this idea looks like in the praxis of both educators and participant observers. As such, they present a model of education that is precisely the reverse of what the contemporary push for assessment mandates in its bureaucratized emphasis on generating hard data to, as is so often said, “prove we teach what we say we are teaching.” This later approach to education is always the manifestation of the elite using the state to control the educational process, defusing its inherently radical potential to transform the student and the world, and replacing it with a controlled project of creating obedient followers who will carefully adhere to what is expected rather than strive for what has never been considered. It is notable that the (usually private) schools to which the elite send their children typically reject the rigid standards of assessment by which those same elites demand the social classes below them be evaluated. Each of the case studies in Part II make this point in unique fashion, and the theoretical chapters which provide the foundations in Part I and the synthesis in Part III offer both educational theorists and practitioners a means by which to develop approaches to education as liberation rather than education as control. This is a fine volume; it asks much of the reader but offers much in return.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 19, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17098, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:58:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Christian Churchill
    St. Thomas Aquinas College
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTIAN J. CHURCHILL is professor of sociology at St. Thomas Aquinas College; he holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University and a B.A. in sociology and literature from Marlboro College. He is co-author, with Gerald E. Levy, of The Enigmatic Academy: Class, Bureaucracy, and Religion in American Education (Temple University Press 2012); his article “Ethnography as Translation” appeared in Qualitative Sociology in 2005. He is also a New York State licensed psychoanalyst with a private practice in New York City.
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