Dueling Banjos: Shifting Economic and Cultural Contexts in the Lives of Youth

by Lois Weis & Greg Dimitriadis - 2008

Background/Context: As the economy grows ever more tight, the school (K–16) is increasingly important in relation to life choices and outcomes, and researchers who focus on youth culture, often in and out of school contexts, can no longer afford to ignore such traditional educational institutions. If school credentials do not “guarantee” social mobility, they are certainly the sine qua non of such mobility in the New Economy.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In this article, we put these concerns into dialogue with recent work (including our own) that valorizes out-of-school settings and popular texts as sites for the production of authentic and vibrant youth identities. We find ourselves less and less able to read youth practices as removed from the structural realities of schooling and the economic context within which this all plays out. This means that we can no longer valorize youth practices as disconnected from their broader context because the linkage between “success” in school (defined in particular ways such as test scores, attainment, and so forth) and economic and social possibility is becoming tighter than ever. The consequences of what we often theorize as vibrant youth identities as produced in out-of-school sites, then, must be examined and theorized as part of a long-term intellectual project that explores such identities in school spaces and beyond.

Research Design: For this article, we critically interrogated and synthesized extant research in three key areas: the New Economy and globalized capitalism; the production of youth identities through popular culture and out-of-school learning settings; and qualitative research and multi-sited ethnography.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We offer reconceptualized multi-sited ethnographic approaches as one potential set of responses to this central challenge now facing educational researchers: bridging concerns around the attenuation of economic opportunities for youth and current work on the vibrancy of youths’ cultural lives.


Much recent work in education—including our own—has valorized out-of-school settings and popular texts as sites for the production of authentic and vibrant youth identities (Dimitriadis, 2001, 2003; Dimitriadis & Weis, 2001; Dolby, 2001; Heath & McLaughlin, 1994; Weis & Fine, 2000, 2001; Yon, 2000). As we will note below, this work has opened up an important space to look at and interrogate the ways in which young people’s lives often transcend the delimiting and narrow parameters prescribed in traditional school settings. Yet, as neoliberal economic regimes continue to unfold and ascend, we see the need to float such cultural production within and against the school as it is more traditionally defined. An increasingly pivotal point in the lives of youth, schools are increasingly becoming sites around which future opportunities spin. If school credentials no longer “guarantee” social mobility (a point we will take up in more depth below), they are certainly the sine qua non of such mobility in the contemporary economy. We find ourselves, in short, less and less able to read youth practices as removed from the structural realities of schooling and the economic context within which this all plays out. This means that we can no longer valorize youth practices as disconnected from their broader context because the linkage between “success” in school (defined in particular ways such as test scores, attainment, and so forth) and economic and social possibility is becoming tighter than ever. The consequences of what we often theorize as vibrant youth identities as produced in out-of-school sites, then, must be examined and theorized as part of a long-term intellectual project that explores such identities in school spaces and beyond. In addressing these pressing concerns, this article looks across three interrelated sets of issues. First, we explore some important facets of the so-called New Economy, including the ways that increasingly limited opportunities for youth are more intensely linked to school credentials. Second, we look at work to date on youth identity, and popular culture and out-of-school settings, work that often (as above) highlights the ways that youth can create valorized and vibrant selves outside or beyond the formal school curricula. Third, and finally, we offer reconceptualized multi-sited ethnographic approaches as one potential set of responses to this central challenge now facing educational researchers: bridging concerns around the attenuation of economic opportunities for youth and current work on the vibrancy of young people’s cultural lives. Such approaches allow us to better understand how young people’s multidimensional and multifaceted cultural lives intersect with contemporary structural, economic realities—and with what consequences and effects.


Our argument hinges on the observation that opportunities for youth are being increasingly shut down—that we are, as numerous scholars have noted, in new economic times—in a so-called New Economy—times that affect all of us to be sure (including teachers, teacher educators, administrators, employers, and so on)1 but have particular long-term consequences for today’s youth. On one level, we see this in the well-documented move from an industrial to a postindustrial global economy in which more and more young people will spend their lives working in service sector jobs that provide minimal income, few if any benefits, and little job security. On another, broader level, we see this in the ways that all labor is coming to operate under these logics. As Simon Head (2003) noted, many of the so-called white-collar job sectors (e.g., those of information technology [IT] and health care) have come to “manage” or “reengineer” the work of its employees in much the same way that Wal-Mart does—segmenting job tasks into discrete units and “flexibly” farming them out to the cheapest possible workers, whether in the United States or, as is increasingly the case, nations such as India, Mexico, and China, among others. The net effect has been both the offshoring of millions of jobs and new, massive concentrations of wealth into fewer hands.

As Stanley Aronowitz argued in Just Around the Corner (2006), we are in the midst of a “jobless recovery.” The economic growth often associated with big public spending projects (as outlined by Keynes) has served to spur some measures of economic growth; however, the majority of citizens do not feel the effect of such growth. Expenditure on the Iraq war, for example, has not fostered the kind of broad-based economic growth that spending on World War II did. Although larger sums of money are being spent on more intense weapons development projects, such spending benefits smaller groups of people. Moreover, this kind of military spending has served to justify “belt tightening” domestically. As Francis Fox Piven argued in The War at Home (2006), “war” overseas has served to justify wholesale pillaging back home—cuts in taxes to serve the very wealthy and large-scale industrial deregulation. It is arguably the case that we sit at a moment of new, massive concentrations of wealth, with particular implications for the education and work worlds of those still in school.

More broadly, economist Robert Reich (1991, 2001) commented on the shift in the global economy, with particular reference to the United States:

All Americans used to be in roughly the same economic boat. Most rose or fell together, as the corporations in which they were employed, the industries comprising such corporations, and the national economy as a whole became more productive—or languished. But national borders no longer define our economic fates. We are now in different boats, one sinking rapidly, one sinking more slowly, and the third rising steadily. (1991, p. 204)

As Reich described it, that “boat” holding routine production workers is sinking most rapidly because

global webs, which earn their largest profits from clever problem-solving, -identifying, and brokering, are replacing the old corporate core. As the costs of transporting things and of communicating information about them continue to drop, profit margins on high-volume, standardized production are thinning, because there are few barriers to entry. Modern factories and state-of-the art machinery can be installed almost anywhere on the globe. (p. 204)

As a consequence, the former working class is in competition with routine production workers all over the world, most of whom will work for a fraction of what the American worker (even nonunionized worker) demands. Given this situation, the old collective bargaining agreements are useless, leaving routine production workers without a stable foothold in the New Economy.

Reich (1991) continued, noting that the U.S. economy shifted away from large-scale production efforts about three decades ago, moving toward modes of “continuous innovation.” Such shifts have rapidly, even exponentially, accelerated in recent years. New technologies—technologies of “communication, transportation, and information”—have widened and deepened the range of consumer choices now available at any moment. Consumers now can search for “better deals” on a range of products and services, forcing parallel pressures on production and competition. “Wider choices and easier switching have intensified competition at all levels—forcing every seller to innovate like mad, cutting costs and adding new value.” Sellers are thus less secure than ever. “The dynamism and innovation that rewards buyers also subjects sellers to less certainly, more volatility, higher highs and lower lows. Almost all earnings are becoming more volatile, and less predictable” (pp. 106–107).

Our point here, paralleling Reich, is simple. The economic context, with which youth articulate as they enter, live within, and leave school, has changed markedly. By way of example, if sellers now constantly court buyers through innovation and accompanying cost-cutting mechanisms, this leaves the working class and poor, who empirically exist in particular gender and race relation to class and who primarily still have only their labor to sell, at the mercy of an increasingly competitive, yet in contradictory ways, dynamic, economy. The very interpersonal dynamism that Reich described is the dynamism that renders the working class and poor not superfluous in the sense that they are not needed, but thoroughly economically expendable and/or exchangeable given the vagaries of the new business climate: let go when they are not needed or are too expensive, only to be picked up when the next, and highly different, business “opportunity” comes along. This is strikingly different from dynamics embedded within the old industrial economy, where the “bargain “ between capital and labor was such that labor, after much struggle, won a living wage and set of accompanying benefits in return for their labor power.

There are no such bargains being struck today because the global economic context both demands and simultaneously enables the obtaining of wage labor at the lowest level possible, forcing higher and higher numbers of people into sporadic work, no work, or dangerous work such as that associated with the increasingly robust yet simultaneously illegal drug economy in the United States. Because business is no longer bound by local labor power, if any given enterprise, no matter how temporary, does not obtain labor at an acceptably low cost, it seeks labor elsewhere (as we have seen, a wide variety of tasks can now be outsourced or offshored) or simply relocates the business. This bears little resemblance to the old U.S. or other first-wave industrially based economies, wherein plants, until they relocated down south (in the case of the United States) or overseas, were expensive to build and maintain, thereby being effectively place-bound. The infrastructure of the old industrial economy rested in a given space and could not be moved except at great expense. This is no longer true, where internally based yet simultaneously globalized U.S. business is tagged to work that can be done almost anywhere, given high-speed fiber optics, new and quicker modes of transportation, and the Internet. Individuals who enter the market with inappropriate cultural capital, desired skills that are commonplace in other communities, including other nations, and/or no particular skills valued by the New Economy, and can therefore be bought at lower cost, obviously have little bargaining power here.

Here we suggest that the global economy and the particular place of the American worker, professional, business leader, and/or investor has changed dramatically over the past years and that the school, in the hard sense of academic attainment and achievement as measured in particular and intensified ways, has and will continue to become a more pivotal and crucial site of sorting given that there is less and less economic room for anyone in the industrialized West in these new global economic circumstances. Although the school has always been a site of sorting through tracking, vocational education versus preparation for college and so forth, we argue that this process now takes a different, more vicious shape and form and is simultaneously more critical in relation to the future trajectories of youth. In other words, the stakes are simply higher, and every parent in America, from the very poor to the upper middle class, knows it. As we detail below, there is ample evidence that schools are becoming an intensified space of sorting—a site that Joel Spring (1989) referred to as the “sorting machine.” Although sorting often refers, in the academic literature, to issues of ability grouping, tracking, and so forth, sorting must be seen as more broadly related to how experiences in schools link to later outcomes, a topic that we take up in the next section.


As Adam Gamoran (2001) argued, “No aspect of American education had more salience for 20th century sociologists than inequality among different socioeconomic and demographic groups” (p. 135). Questions center on the extent of inequality (access, outcomes, nature of experiences), primarily—in the United States at least—as linked to social class, race, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, gender. Questions relate to the production of academic achievement, academic attainment, occupational status, and income; the assessment of the production of these outcomes and mediating factors with respect to such production lie at the very heart of a certain form of sociology of education.

Data as far back as the 1960s suggest that the achievement gap between Black and White children increases with time in school. African American students score lower than White students in Grades 1 and 12, but the gap in Grade 12 is substantially wider than that in Grade 1, suggestive of the intensification of differential outcomes by actions/activities within the school itself (Coleman et al., 1966; Jencks et al., 1972). This is most striking because it is arguably the case that the weakest of such students leave school before 12th grade. Although these data have been used to suggest that schools cannot overcome initial disadvantages (nonschool factors such as poverty, community attitudes, low education level of parents), the data also reveal that schools exacerbate initial disadvantages rather than reduce them. Clearly something goes on inside the school that inhibits achievement of poor Black children and/or children of specific Asian descent (Lee, 2005). Black and White students do not experience school similarly, as Oakes’s (1985) work on tracking makes clear. Moreover, Latino students are increasingly joining African Americans in experiencing a profound resegregation in public schooling, as Orfield and Lee (2005) made clear. The divide between the privileged and disenfranchised is clearly growing.

Later work by Gamoran (2001) suggests that about a third of the test score gap and nearly the entire gap in high school graduation and college enrollment between races can be explained by differences in family socioeconomic status (Gamoran). As Blacks increase their socioeconomic status, the trend has been toward test score convergence. This gap has narrowed since 1965, but, most important in light of our argument, the rate of narrowing has slowed, and even reversed in some cases, since 1972. In addition, although racial differences at the bottom of measured academic achievement are narrowing rapidly, group differences at the top levels of achievement remain large and are narrowing much more slowly (Gamoran). After parental socioeconomic status (SES) is controlled, a random Black high school student is no more likely to be near the top of the achievement score distribution in 1992 than 1965 (Hedges & Nowell, 1999). The long-term trend shows that although the achievement gap is beginning to close, major difference in academic achievement by race still exists and is unlikely to be redressed in any major way in the foreseeable future (Gamoran).

Most important here, the closing of the test score gap points to an upward shift in inequality, and this has major implications for the argument at hand. As students from less privileged backgrounds increasingly graduate from high school and go to college (although there is evidence that this too will change with recent shifts in federal grants versus loans to low-income students), students from higher socioeconomic classes pursue more years of college and at increasingly prestigious institutions, thereby maintaining and even exacerbating inequalities related to schooling. Even if educational opportunity and achievement at the secondary school level are equalized by race, the labor market is that much tighter, resulting in further and continued widespread social inequality that is directly attributable to type of school attended, time spent in school, whether one graduates, which college one attends and where it is located in the Carnegie classification (Bowen & Bok, 1998),whether one graduates on time, and so forth. This parallels findings with respect to gender, for which the achievement and attainment gap has narrowed considerably, but large-scale inequalities remain in the occupational sector.

Evidence also suggests that test scores improve for, and high school graduation rates increase among, African Americans who attend desegregated schools (Orfield, 1996; Orfield & Lee, 2005; Orfield, Eaton, & Harvard Project, l996) and that desegregation and affirmative action programs benefit the African American population relative to the White population (Gamoran, 2001). Gary Orfield’s (l996) powerful work suggests strongly that desegregation benefits African American students in academic and social terms and in relation to college attendance. Unfortunately, however, because of the rollback in desegregation court orders, the American school system is rapidly resegregating, and this bodes poorly for further closure of the achievement and attainment gap between Whites and African Americans and Latinos (Orfield, 2005).

In addition, Walter Haney and colleagues (2005) recently turned their attention to what they call the pipeline, analyzing data on grade enrollment and graduation over the last several decades nationally (1968–2000) and for the 50 states (1884–2000). Theirs is a sustained effort to assess the progress of public school students as they move through the education pipeline from kindergarten through secondary school graduation. Focusing on simply “staying in school” rather than academic achievement per se, Haney and colleagues suggested that the public school pipeline has constricted over the past 30 years and that the attrition rate between Grades 9 and 10 has tripled, from less than 4% to nearly 12% during the same time period. The increasing bulge of students in Grade 9 relative to Grade 8 in the previous years suggests a sharp increase nationally over the last 20 years in the percentage of students who are held back (flunked) at Grade 9. Although Haney and colleagues did not analyze these data by race, it can be assumed that the effects of such attrition fell largely on poor African Americans and Latinos. This is particularly alarming given that there is an increasingly strong link between failure to graduate from high school and the likelihood of being imprisoned (Harlow, 2003).

We highlight these data to draw attention to the fact that possibilities through schooling, like those in the economy at large, are shutting down rather than opening up. This is not an indictment of the teaching of reading or any subject matter in particular; it is simply a statement related to the overwhelming evidence that schools are becoming more segregated in large urban areas, thus hampering the outcomes of poor African Americans and Latinos; that test scores are no longer narrowing by race and are, in point of fact, widening by social class (Gamoran, 2001); and that the pipeline is severely shutting down, suggesting that more students will drop out of school and/or move or be moved to alternative institutions where there is scant evidence of positive articulation with economic possibility. It is arguably the case, given our points on the economy, that the intensified sorting through school as related to economic and social outcomes will only worsen in years to come. Even students who succeed in school (when we use test scores or years in school as a measure of success) who have not done so in decades past now compete with those from the middle and upper middle classes who score better and stay in school longer (often through graduate school). Those historically disenfranchised may or may not be running faster and doing more (the successful among them), but it is, quite simply, going to be increasingly difficult to catch up given that the middle and upper middle classes are running faster as well.

Here is where the point about the shift in the global economy becomes so important: Data suggest that schooling will become more important at exactly the moment when more people are in the system, and simultaneously, more students are excised and made irrelevant by the system. Track structures are getting tougher and tighter than they were when Jeannie Oakes completed her landmark study in the 1980s. The pipeline is constricting and resegregation is widespread, forcing millions of children into central city schools where over 90% of the children live in poverty (Orfield, 2005). The test score gap by race is narrowing at the same time that it is broadening at the top. Most important, the place of schooling is becoming that much more important given that the economy is closing down, and working-class jobs and even upper-middle-class positions are being exported to India, Singapore, and other nations, with repercussions for the American poor. Putting even greater stress on an already tightened economic situation are rising immigrant populations spanning highly educated professionals with “flexible citizenship” to those immigrants and refugees who will, quite simply, work for lower wages given that they compare their lives with those of friends and relatives left “back home” (Ogbu & Simmons, 1998). Within the nation-state boundaries, then, it is that much harder to obtain positions that enable a living wage. As a consequence, youth across social class and race backgrounds must either run faster to keep up, or run the risk of dropping out entirely. This “race” is obviously loaded to begin with, given differential opportunities related to achievement and attainment by sector of school (poor urban, affluent urban, affluent suburban, public vs. independent private, and so forth)—a set of differential opportunities that are linked in key ways to student social class and race.

The New Economy, and schooling as related to opportunities thrown up by such economy, is one in which fewer and fewer young people in the United States will prosper. Although credentials alone do not guarantee economic mobility, they are vitally necessary to compete on this new terrain. In many respects, we see an acceleration of dynamics, which began in the expansion of the education system in the mid-20th century. As Jane Jacobs (2005) argued, “The credential is not a passport to a job, as naïve graduates sometimes suppose. It is more basic and necessary: a passport to consideration for a job” (p. 45). Although this perhaps has been true for the past 100 years or so, there is and will continue to be less and less “slippage” in this regard. Young people must now work harder in jobs that are less secure. And they must be better credentialized for the opportunity to do so.

Of course, schools have never been particularly inviting or even relevant places for youth—particularly poor and disenfranchised youth. Much recent work, our own included, has looked to challenge school’s primacy in the lives of such youth, focusing on youth’s “cultural vibrancy” from “the ground up.” Much of this work has focused on the ways that young people carve out their own “spaces” in and out of school, in nontraditional learning sites, through popular culture, and so on. Treated in more detail below, this work has focused largely on the cultural dynamics that have proliferated in the face of school’s ever-tightening and narrowing managerial grip, looking to keep pace with the ever-expanding, complex flow of symbolic resources that have come to mark our moment (McCarthy, Crichlow, Dimitriadis, & Dolby, 2005). Like much academic work, this body of research has followed its own trajectory, largely independent from (and to) the kinds of economic presses detailed above.

Given this context, however, we are in an ironic scholarly moment of valorizing productions of out-of-school cultural vibrancy without ever asking how such vibrancy articulates with, or perhaps even smacks in the face of, an increasingly tight “sorting machine,” broadly defined. In other words, what happens to those youth who engage in certain forms of cultural production? In dialogue with our own research selves and those of our colleagues, we suggest that what passes as ostensibly multi-sited work in education has not, for the most part, explored these sites, literal or otherwise, as existing in dynamic interrelation with other sites in specific and particular ways. Although we have many studies of single sites that pick up on the cultural vibrancy of youth, we do not have a sense of how these sites are enmeshed in complex webs of relationships for their participants. In the remainder of this article, we highlight important work on community organizations and safe spaces and on popular culture, all of which attests to the cultural vibrancy of youth as they produce themselves in such contexts. Toward the end of the article, we offer suggestions for a truly multi-sited ethnographic approach, one that, we argue, has the potential of bridging the “dueling banjos” related to research on youth cultural vibrancy and what we know to be the shutting down of economic opportunities. We turn now to the question of cultural vibrancy and out-of-school learning.



We begin with a text fundamental to the study of out-of-school learning. Indeed, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways With Words (1983) is a germinal text in the area of home/school connections. In this book, Heath looked at home language practices across three differently situated communities, noting which kinds of practices prepare students in what kinds of ways for success or failure in school. Different students possess different kinds of literacy skills rooted in home practices that are differentially valued or validated in school. Focused on the variable nature of literacy, this work opens up a range of questions and concerns related to language, learning practices, and specific institutions, including cross-case comparisons between and across dominant and nondominant learning settings.

Heath (2001) and her colleagues have extended this work over the past several years to focus on what they call community based organizations (CBOs), highlighting the ways in which “community” is the “third area beyond school and family” for school researchers (p. 15). Focusing on the organizations that young people identify as most successful and deploying what they called “guerilla ethnographers,” Heath and McLaughlin (1993) spent 5 years looking at 60 different organizations, gathering data from 24,000 youth in predominantly low-income and marginalized community settings across the United States. This research serves to establish the critical importance of these sites and identify key characteristics of the most successful such organizations (McLaughlin, Irby, & Langman, 1994), stressing the notion that CBOs are not bureaucratic institutions, as (typically) are schools, but emergent and unpredictable ones. Such institutions draw on the strengths of young people, working with particular adults on specific tasks, with both real risks and consequences in specific settings. CBOs typically offer young people the opportunity to work through real-world activities that demand their full participation. As Heath (2001) noted,

Community organizations that create positive learning environments exhibit these same features. Work takes place within a “temporal arc,” with phases that move from planning and preparation for the task ahead; to practice and deliberation along with ample trial-and-error learning; to final intensive readiness for production or performance; and, ultimately, to a culminating presentation of the work that has gone before. (p. 12)

CBOs may include arts-based activities, such as theater, dance, and music (Ball & Heath, 1993), as well as sports-based activities such as gymnastics, baseball, and basketball (Heath, 1991; Mahiri, 1998). When putting on a drama to raise money for a trip, for example, young people have to decide (among other things) who will design the costumes, who will design the sets, who will act, write, advertise, manage the finances, and so forth. These activities unfold under the guiding hand of older, better skilled community workers or “wizards” (McLaughlin et al.), individuals who see young people as resources to be used, not problems to be managed (Dimitriadis & Weis, 2001).

By way of example, Heath looked at the everyday talk of a coach (Victor Cage) and his community center-based basketball team (the Dynamos) as they work through their season. Here the coach models conditional “what if” phrases as they work to cocreate a set of flexible rules and strategies to accomplish specific tasks. This kind of work depends on “carrying distributed knowledge, shared skills, and discourse patterns through a project over a period of time” (Heath, 1996, p. 247). As Heath noted, the team internalized a set of rules that they were able to adapt flexibly when the coach transgressed them. Ultimately, the team created a “sense of place with a keen notion of the role of rules and ways of planning and talking about relations between rule setting and rule breaking” (p. 246).

A split between school and nonschool settings has marked such work. According to Heath, schools often prefigure relevant curricula based on simple notions of identity, assuming, for example, that young people desire activities defined by adults as ethnically or culturally “relevant.” According to Heath and McLaughlin (1993), CBOs thrive on the complex, already-existing social networks of young people—their ability to mobilize specific sets of personal resources to deal with concrete concerns and challenges. Lived identities in these organizations, as Heath and McLaughlin argued, are “complex, and embedded in achievement, responsibility, and . . . immediate support network[s]” (p. 32) in ways that transcend the easy delineation of (multi)cultural borders and boundaries. There is nothing predicable or stable about the ways that ethnicity and identity play out in these organizations, nor do these organizations make a priori assumptions about young people and culture (Heath & McLaughlin). “Community organizations, particularly those in which the arts are intensely integrated, generate unexpected contexts and collaborations that often add up to some outcomes that are tough to achieve elsewhere: blurring lines of racial and ethnic division and crossing linguistic barriers” (Heath, 2001, p. 16).

For the most part, then, Heath and her colleagues did not situate their research in schools. One gets the sense—with only occasional exceptions (e.g., Heath & McLaughlin, 1994)—that schools are a vestige of another era and that for disenfranchised youth in particular, the most interesting and important kind of education is happening outside school. “Schools,” they summed up, “are experienced as hostile and demeaning environments where neither inner-city youth nor their interests are taken seriously” (McLaughlin & Irby, 1994, p. 305). Furthermore, schools are no longer training youth for the kinds of flexible problem-solving activities that are so necessary for “job readiness” in the information age. Such work, they suggested, is happening in CBOs.

Similar ideas have been developed by Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, and colleagues in relation to what they called “safe spaces,” although these authors are less focused on skills than are the above-mentioned scholars (Dimitriadis & Weis, 2001; Fine & Weis, 1998; Hall, 2001; Weiler, 2000; Weis & Fine, 2000). Not marked by the same split between in-school and out-of-school settings, Fine and Weis’s work has focused on the imaginative resources that young people use to carve out spaces for themselves both inside and outside of school. Young people, they argue, carve these “safe spaces” in a variety of sites—in school and out of school—creating “counter publics,” to use Nancy Fraser’s (1991) term, ironically out of the very exclusionary practices of the public sphere. “These spaces are not just a set of geographical/spatial arrangements but, rather, theoretical, analytical, and spatial displacements—a crack, a fissure, a fleeting or sustained set of commitments. Individual dreams, collective work, and critical thoughts are smuggled in and re-imagined” (Fine, Weis, Centrie, & Roberts, 2000, p. 132). Refusing the school/nonschool binary, Fine, Weis and colleagues explored how young people take up public spaces (Kelley, 1997) and how, within the context of great poverty and the dismantling of the public safety net, they carve out private ones.

By way of example, the authors juxtapose two sites, a neighborhood art center in Buffalo and an Orisha spiritual community in New York City (Fine et al., 2000). In the first site, a diverse group of participants meet in an urban community to work under the tutelage of its director, a long-term member of the local arts community. The center’s poly-vocal feel encourages people who do not normally interact with each other—from poor Black youth to White upper-middle-class housewives—to discuss common concerns. It is a thriving “community of difference” constituted through aesthetic practice. In the second example, the authors highlight the micro-moves of a “self-consciously heterogeneous spiritual community” in New York City as participants invent and reinvent religious practices of the African and Cuban diaspora, making them relevant for broad groups of urban dwellers. In both cases, the authors highlight “spaces in which ‘difference’ signals interest, engagement, commitment, and opportunity” that look beyond the “walls of school” (p. 149).

Additional work focuses more specifically on school culture. Weis and Fine (2001), for example, juxtaposed the powerful day-to-day work within two in-school sites—an abstinence-based sex education program and a detracked and racially integrated world literature class, both located in northeastern urban schools. In the first example, the authors demonstrated how the program participants stretched beyond the official intent of the program (“abstinence only”) to “traverse a variety of subjects regarding race, gender, sexuality, and men” (p. 519). Under the guidance of the program’s Latina leader, this weekly meeting became a “safe space” for these young women as they discussed salient issues in honest and personally meaningful ways. In the second example, the authors showed how a world literature class can be a powerful space in which to engage questions of identity and difference. “Students have learned,” they wrote, “to engage in this space, for 45 minutes a day, with power, ‘difference,’ and a capacity to re-vision. Some with delight and some still disturbed, but they know that everyone will get the chance to speak and be heard” (p. 519). The authors went to great lengths to trace the discourse that evolved over a year-long period as students discussed books like Of Mice and Men, Two Old Women, and La Llorana.

There is also a small but important body of work that has documented the critical, liberatory potential of the arts for youth, both inside and outside school. For example, Michelle Fine has engaged youth in creatively documenting the legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Across gender, race, and class, young people create powerful poems and oral histories that evoke this largely contested legacy (Fine, 2004). In another key example, Jennifer McCormick’s Writing in the Asylum (2004) discusses the important ways in which poetry and art function in formal and informal ways in a working-class New York City high school. Drawing on the experiences of three young women, McCormick discusses the importance of self-narration and expression in the face of profound surveillance and assessment. This work suggests ways in which the arts can give marginalized youth a voice even in highly oppressive circumstances.

Rather than assuming a priori parameters, work on CBOs and safe spaces raises important questions as to where “education” happens. Juxtaposing in-school and out-of-school sites, such work powerfully reframes contemporary educational questions and agendas. For Heath, McLaughlin, and colleagues, this means an elaborated discussion of what kinds of “skills” are fostered in these sites and how these skills translate across the kinds of tasks most associated with our contemporary information age. For Weis, Fine, and colleagues, this means looking at how a variety of young people “homestead,” or claim authentic and meaningful spaces and identities within a variety of sites, both in school and out of school. This work intentionally decenters the home-school binary in educational research, evoking the myriad ways in which “community” is a “third area” of study (Heath, 2001, p.15). In both cases, the structural limitations of schooling are either not rigorously explored or are simply willed away.


Further pushing the question of contemporary out-of-school curricula, recent research has stretched well beyond the home-school binary in its growing focus on popular cultures and technologies. In parallel fashion to research on alternative learning sites, this work challenges our assumptions about what counts as educational curricula or texts for young people. Indeed, as a range of scholars have argued, popular culture increasingly offers a terrain upon which young people are navigating their lives and meeting their everyday needs and concerns (Dimitriadis, 2001). These cultural texts are proliferating in complex ways in and through video, film, television, and music technologies, as well as computers and the Internet—all of which have increasingly complex relationships with each other.

Recent work on popular culture and education looks at how young people use these texts in practice or performance (Buckingham, 1993, 1996, 1998; Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 1995; Tobin, 2000). David Buckingham and Julian Sefton-Green, for example, treat media literacy as a kind of symbolic social action; they explore how young people mobilize popular texts as discursive resources in particular and meaningful ways, using them to negotiate senses of both self and community. In Cultural Studies Goes to School (1995), the authors offer several case studies wherein young people use media to create personally relevant texts—from magazines to photographs to popular music—as they “author” their lives.

Julian Sefton-Green (1998, 1999) extended this work, focusing on the relationship between popular media culture, the arts, and the Internet. In Young People, Creativity and New Technologies (1999), Sefton-Green gathered recent theoretical and empirical work “to describe the opportunities digital technologies offer for communicating, disseminating and making culture as well as acting as a vehicle for personal and collective self-expression” (p. 1). Among other topics, contributors discuss multimedia memoirs, self-produced CD-ROMs, online school scrapbooks, and personal Web pages. These new and creative uses of information technologies are part of a broader redefinition of youth culture that has implications for all manners of educational practice—from the classroom to the dance floor and beyond (1998).

More recently, scholars in education have looked at the ways that young people construct identities through popular culture and the implications of such identities for school life (Dimitriadis, 2001; Dolby, 2001; Yon, 2000). Dimitriadis’s recent work looks at how young people construct notions of self, history, and place through their uses of hip hop texts, focusing on how these young people use these texts in concert with, and in counterdistinction to, school texts. For example, Dimitriadis looked at the ways in which two teenagers construct notions of a Southern tradition through their use of Southern rap texts; how young people construct notions of history through viewing the film Panther (1995), a film that they connected to hip hop culture more broadly; and how young people construct powerful senses of self through talk about the life and death of icon Tupac Shakur. All are examples of popular culture’s reach and power. “We see popular culture,” Dimitriadis wrote, “more and more, providing the narratives that young people are drawing on to deal with the issues and the concerns most pressing in their lives.” “These investments,” he showed, “played out in often unpredictable ways” (p. 120).

Dolby and Yon developed similar ethnographic projects in the field of education, though both have looked to settings outside the United States. Dolby (2000, 2001), in a particularly fascinating study, looked at how young people at a high school in South Africa (“Fernwood High”) negotiate ideas about race in the aftermath of apartheid. Here, music and fashion become ways to carve out ideas about being “white,” “black,” and “coloured,” at a moment when taken-for-granted racial categories are called into question. “Rave music,” for example, “is understood specifically as ‘white’ music. A coloured student who listens to rave would be ostracized by her or his classmates, and seen as a threat to ‘coloured’ identity” (2000, p. 206). In sum, she argued, “‘Race’ at Fernwood reinvents itself (as it does constantly) as a site of identification that takes its meaning, in large part, from affect and affective investments. Students are invested in the emotions of desire that surround consumptive practices, particularly the practices of global youth culture” (p. 203).

Yon (2000), in turn, looked at a multiethnic high school in Toronto (“Maple Heights”), focusing on the ways in which young people negotiate their day-to-day identities. Yon offers portraits of different young people and the creation of complicated identities through their investments in popular culture. As he noted,

Many of the signs and symbols of the popular cultures of these youth, like dress codes and musical tastes, are racialized. This means that the signifiers of race can also change with the changing signs of culture and identity, and what it means to be a certain race is different from one context to the next. (p. 71).

He offers several examples wherein young people construct notions of self through popular culture. These include a Canadian-born Black, a White youth who identifies with Black culture, and a Black immigrant from the Caribbean—all of whom use popular culture to negotiate and stake out particular senses of self.

Beyond the field of education, several researchers have looked at the ways that popular cultural forms serve as pan-ethnic and racial flash points in the lives of young people. Robin Sylvan’s Trance Formation: The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of Global Rave Culture (2005) traces the emergence and proliferation of “rave” culture as a site of social and personal transcendence—a site where diverse and heterogeneous young people come together to enact (often) life-changing rituals. Deeply embedded in music, dance, fashion, and other aesthetic registers, these events offer powerful examples of “unity in diversity,” Sylvan wrote. “Time and again, ‘ravers’ speak of the ways in which powerful peak experiences on the dance floor break down traditional boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth, bringing everyone together in an ecstatic unity that transcended these differences” (p. 180). These too are pedagogical spaces—spaces where young people enact social, cultural, and religious formation—that transcend those narrowly delimited in school settings.


In sum, Dimitriadis, Dolby, Yon, and others make it clear that we cannot understand young people’s identities in predictable ways. Rather, we must increasingly ask ourselves what kinds of curricula—broadly defined—young people draw on to understand, explain, and live through the world around them. This is messy terrain, one that extends beyond a priori notions about identity often privileged by educators. As these authors make clear, the multiple uses to which popular culture is put challenge easy notions of “cultural identification.” Young people in the United States and around the world are elaborating complex kinds of social and cultural identifications through music like hip hop and techno in ways that challenge easily understood notions about texts, practices, and identities.

As we argue here, and as anthropologists have long noted, education takes place both within and beyond the boundaries of school. Researchers such as those noted above, among others, delve into the vibrancy of the “in-between” in important ways, recognizing that education unfolds across numerous sites and settings with and between multiple texts such as the Internet, music, dance, and other aesthetic spaces. Thinking through the “in between” allows us to understand the emergent and unpredictable nature of education in new ways. These new pedagogical spaces signal both global cultural and economic shifts to which educators would do well to attend. In some ways, then, work on out-of-school sites meshes well with contemporary economic and cultural imperatives and the role of “education” therein.

Indeed, our so-called New Economy increasingly demands creative and flexible thinking, while our contemporary global terrain demands more cosmopolitan notions of citizenship (Hargreaves, 2003). We recall here the complex problem solving often associated with after-school arts education. We recall as well the cultural negotiations happening around global popular culture. If nothing else, our moment is marked by difference and multiplicity. As Marcelo Suarez-Orozco and Desiree Baolin Qin-Hillard argued in the introduction to Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millennium (2004),

An education for globalization should . . . nurture the higher-order cognitive and interpersonal skills required for problem finding, problem solving, articulating arguments, and deploying verifiable facts or artifacts to substantiate claims. These skills should be required of children and youth who will, as adults, fully engage the larger world and master its greatest challenges, transforming it for the betterment of humanity—regardless of national origin or cultural upbringing. This we term the convergence hypothesis: globalization is de-territorializing the skills and competencies it rewards, thereby generating powerful centripetal forces on which students the world over need to know. (p. 6)

Suarez-Orozco and Qin-Hillard look toward a more expansive notion of education, one rooted in the kinds of creativity and complexity associated with the New Economy. We see here a cosmopolitan notion of education, one that looks past nation-state projects to creative problem-solving practices across sites. They continue, “Educational systems tied to the formation of nation-state citizens and consumers bonded to local systems to the neglect of larger global forces are likely to become obsolete, while those that proactively engage globalization’s new challenges are more likely to thrive” (p. 23). Much of the contemporary “work” that youth do, what we refer to here as youth cultural vibrancy, highlights the kinds of cultural complexities engendered by globalization and its multiple effects.

We would argue, however, that we are in a ironic moment of what we call ”dueling banjos.” As we noted at the outset of this article, schooling will become more important in both short- and long-term outcomes of youth at the same time that youth are inventing themselves in rather powerful ways and often outside the context of the traditional school, a phenomenon carefully tracked by researchers notes above. Although new, cosmopolitan skills and identities are necessary for our contemporary economic and cultural times, then, new structural realities will allow fewer and fewer “properly” credentialed youth to demonstrate them. It is thus critically important for these strands of research to interact in powerful and productive ways so as to assess short- and long-term consequences both of youth vibrancy and intensification related to the traditional educational sorting machine. Here we suggest that multi-sited ethnographic work can begin to bridge this gap, bringing these two research strands in conversation with one another. We turn now to multi-sited education and ethnography.


A long and venerable history of work in the anthropology of education suggests that formal schooling is but one tool of socialization; one-way culture is transmitted from generation to generation. As Spindler (2000) and others noted, older and younger people engage in multiple practices of “enculturation” through storytelling or dinner-table talk, for instance, and such multiple practices have critical implications for education.

Such work relies on specific ideas or theories about “culture” itself—namely, that “culture” can be conceptualized and understood as a bounded object of study (in other words, that it is discreet and can be contained). Yet, notions of cultural containment fly against the contemporary reality of migration and complex cultural transactions that are so much a part of the experience for youth both in and outside the United States. “Culture,” as so much work in globalization makes clear, is interconnected and in transit, the result of various often unequally situated and disjunctive flows and trajectories (Appadurai, 1996; Massey, l994). As Eisenhart (2001) argued, these new tensions around culture have helped to muddle debates around ethnographic methodology. If culture can no longer be contained in discrete sites and settings, the traditional tools of qualitative inquiry need to be rethought.


Elsewhere, we suggest (Dimitriadis & Weis, 2005) that multi-sited ethnography offers a key response to this muddling (Burawoy et al., 2000; Marcus, 1986, 1998). Doing multi-sited ethnography, according to George Marcus (1998), means “tracing and describing the connections and relationships among sites previously thought incommensurate” (p. 140). The multi-sited ethnographer must, in any project, “keep in view and mind two or more ethnographically conceived sites juxtaposed” (p. 4). By way of direction, Marcus offers the dictum, “follow the people,” “follow the thing,” “follow the metaphor,” “follow the plot, story, or allegory,” “follow the life or biography,” and “follow the conflict” (pp. 90–95). All imply different “starting points” for tracing connections across and between different sites—individual biographies, objects, or stories. As he noted, “Multi-sited research is designed around chains, paths, threads, conjunctions, or juxtapositions of locations in which the ethnographer establishes some form of literal physical presence, with an explicit, posited logic of association of connection among sites that in fact defines the argument of the ethnography” (p. 90). In other words, the researcher defines a question and then draws links intuitively across different, tangible sites. This has resulted in ethnographic work in anthropology that has followed the same population across locations, as in, say, nurses traveling between India and the United States, or software developers from Ireland engaging in work for companies in the United States (Burawoy et al., 2000, p. 30).

Calls for multi-sited ethnography, then, challenge us to rethink our “research imaginary,” a rethinking that must take place if we are to bring into conversation important work on youth cultural vibrancy and the school “sorting machine.” Our examples here—community-based learning sites and popular cultural texts—call attention to new critical energies in the sites under consideration in powerful ways. However, the consequences of either site cannot be fully understood outside the contemporary realities of schooling, the New Economy, and the linkages therein—a point we treated at length earlier in the article. By way of example, while Heath and McLaughlin (1994) suggest looking away from traditional schools and focusing only on community-based organizations, there is a danger of reifying these sites as objects of study. Instead of turning away from the study of schools, we suggest figuring out, in particular and situated ways, the relationship between multiple sites—schools, community centers, job sites, and so forth. This suggests a different research imaginary than exists currently. While Weis and Fine (2000) include in-school and out-of-school sites in their work, there is a parallel danger of focusing on single-site studies in isolation from one another, as Weis and Fine do. We have, in other words, little sense of how participants live their lives across and between sites, particularly how they move from what Fine and Weis called “spaces of possibility,” or safe spaces into the worlds of school and beyond.

Like work on CBOs and safe spaces, work on popular culture has overwhelmingly been single sited as well. For example, studies by Dimitriadis (2001), Dolby (2001), and Yon (2000) focus on single settings—a community center and two high schools, respectively. In each case, we gain a “clear” picture of a particular educational site and a specific group of young people. In each of these cases, we are asked to expand our notion of education—where it happens and with what texts. Yet, we get little sense of how different sites, understood on their own terms, invite the “working across” that we discuss here and, most important, what that working across means as young people move through their lives in new globally generated economic circumstances. Missing is the long-term meaning of the apparent vibrancy that we pick up in the single-site studies. This is a particularly urgent question given massive changes in the global economy. These changes make the school that much more important as a space of long-term consequence than was the case in previous economic times.

Part of the impetus for studies discussed above lies with the impact of globalization because it is arguably the case that youth vibrancy must be seen and understood in relation to the movement of artifacts and peoples across a global universe. McCarthy et al. (2005) wrote forcefully in this regard, and we

acknowledge this point. Globalization, however, throws up a different yet related set of dynamics that are also tied to massive shifts in the global economy. In this case, what is at issue are the individual and collective consequences of such shifts as related both to the meaning of schooling itself and the consequences of varying forms of schooling in the new economic order. This aspect of economic globalization must be understood and theorized as we work to probe the consequences of youth cultural production processes. In other words, as we push, probe, and even valorize cultural production processes among youth, we neglect the fact that such production is linked dialectically to social structure—that it is produced both in relation to such structure and structurally located positions, and has consequences for structure and accompanying positions the same time, both at the individual and collective level. We cannot, therefore, ignore the social structural context, both local and global, within which this all plays out. This is the case no matter how robust, radiant, or creative individual and/or collective cultural productions are for youth, no matter the site. Given the intensified sorting process as represented by the school, the position of those perched at the increasingly competitive edge of the new global economy is more and more precarious, and the school, whether we like it or not, sits at the nexus of future outcomes. Coming full circle here, we affirm Marcus’s (1998) notions of multi-sited ethnography and advise all of us to “follow the people,” “follow the thing,” “follow the metaphor,” “follow the plot, story, or allegory,” “follow the life or biography,” and “follow the conflict” (pp. 90–95).


In this article, we stress the vibrancy of the “in between”—the vibrancy within out-of-school spaces and popular culture, a vibrancy that has been fueled by youth themselves and in spaces that are indeed, as scholars note, often quite amazing. Our focus on vibrancy, however, is, we would argue, shortsighted, given that our research imaginary does not encourage us to follow those who produce such cultures beyond the point of production. Given the global economy and its particular iterations locally, we can no longer afford to ignore youth as they interact with educational institutions because schools now have an intensified attachment with life outcomes as linked to type of employment; whether one has employment in the legitimate sector; whether one has health insurance, and if so, who pays, and with what kind of coverage; the type of neighborhood one lives in and with what safety and security; whether one is able to purchase a home; and so forth. Although excellent work has documented the production of youth cultural form, attesting to its power and creativity, in light of research on the relationship between schooling and economically linked outcomes, we may have been too quick to make assumptions as to what such vibrancy might mean in the long run. Although we valorize such in-the-moment productions in our scholarly forums, we have not tracked the consequences of such productions in the lives of those we study.


In closing, we admonish researchers to go back to the dictums of Marcus (1986, 1998). It is critically important to engage in multi-sited work that truly is multi-sited. Although we appreciate studies of youth across spaces such as community centers and popular culture, we urge following up such students through varying zones of action, particularly into schools, neighborhoods, and jobs where we can assess the consequences of supposed cultural vibrancy. Most ethnographic studies are inevitably done at a single point in time at a single site. Although we learn a great deal from such studies, what we do not know is what happens to youth after they leave specific locations. This goes for school ethnographies as well. Culturalist theoretical challenges, although important, do not enable us to probe linkages between actual school experiences as explored by ethnographers, and life chances and choices in other sites. This means that multi-sited work in education must be conducted over time and space. We have some example of such studies, such as Jay McLeod’s Ain’t No Makin’ It (1995), Claire Wallace’s For Richer, For Poorer (1987), Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor (1977), Lois Weis’s Class Reunion (2004), and Greg Dimitriadis’s Friendship, Cliques, and Gangs (2003). But this is only a start.

We end then with this dictum: The economy is growing evermore tight—the school (K–16) is increasingly important in terms of what happens to students when they leave school, and it will become even more so in years to come. We cannot, therefore, afford to ignore the site of the school as we focus on youth. Our focus on out-of school sites such as community centers and popular culture has produced fascinating explorations into sites of cultural vibrancy and possibility, but we do not know the extent to which such vibrancy “sticks” or where it sticks as youth and adults proceed through an ever more vicious sorting machine. Although scholars are clear that schools have never been sites of overwhelming and equally distributed possibility across social class and race—indeed, schools are heavily implicated in the reproduction of race and class structure—we cannot pretend that we do not have to deal with schools at all. The fact is that we do, and the role of school as determinant of social possibility is that much more intense under current economic conditions. We cannot continue to ignore this, either at the level of theory or at the more intensely personal level in relation to people’s lives. We urge, then, attention to the sorting process as we celebrate cultural production. This is where, in the new global order, structurally based work must meet work on cultural production processes. If we do not do this, we chronicle, theorize, and even valorize the production of youth vibrancy among young people who resonate possibly not at all with the institutions that increasingly set them up for the rest of their lives.


We would like to thank Lyn Corno as well as two anonymous reviewers for their extremely helpful suggestions on this paper.


1. We thank the anonymous reviewer for highlighting this point.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 10, 2008, p. 2290-2316
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