The First Day of Term: reflections from the beginning of an ethnography
Here are some of my reflections from the very early stages of a two-year comparative ethnography exploring the themes of imagined futures, aspiration and transitions into adulthood among school leavers in New York City and London (See Imagining The Future for project details). Just two days into the ethnography, I find that there’s already room to reconsider some of the conceptual and political boundaries that have shaped the research ideas.
Research into aspiration and schooling is not exactly new ground in our field: on the contrary, it is a staple of the sub-discipline. The contestation of futurity is a theme that permeates the background of many anthropological and sociological studies of childhood and youth. So why do this research project? Do we really need another ethnography that documents the long shadow of work, educational failure, and the struggle that some have in ‘makin’ it’?
My short answer to the above question is ‘Yes, we really do’, but challenging the usefulness of more research on aspiration and schooling has led me to plot a different path into the project. Like many ethnographies of aspiration and schooling before it, this ethnography is clearly focused on the linked educational challenges of raising aspirations, raising levels of achievement and attainment in schools, closing the achievement gap, and improving access to Higher Education. It also addresses the question of how formal secondary education can more effectively serve as a scaffold for transitions into the precarious world of contemporary young adulthood. Importantly, however, this research also addresses the educational challenge of thinking critically about how ‘aspiration’ and imagined futures are framed within the context of public/state education systems, and in wider society. It is important to investigate and challenge the ideas that shape how we think about aspirations and the future – of being educated, going to college, getting a job, being a ‘productive’ member of society, ‘dropping out’, and so on. Of course, this is not a radical point of political or theoretical argument: the anthropology and sociology of childhood and youth has a long pedigree of scholarship that identifies and challenges the arbitrary nature of taken-for-granted assumptions about what counts as the ‘right’ kind of life to aspire to, through chidhood and into later adult life. But this research does put back into the centre of the frame the concept of futurity – of imagined futures, and imagined future selves – as something that must be critically understood in the context of anthropological studies of childhood and youth. Rethinking the spatio-temporal framing of social identity – what I consider to be a kind of ‘quantum personhood’ existing not only in the past, present, and future, but in multiple, concurrent versions or imaginings of each – may lead to interesting new ways of thinking about how we are socialised into futurity, and what impacts this may have on how we conceptualise and experience childhood and youth (how we imagine age).
These ideas had been dormant on the page for several months in anticipation of the beginning of the research project – and I remain a long way from pairing them neatly with data from the research. But it was this week, on a Tuesday morning soaked with the humid weight of a New York summer, that I boarded a crowded subway train to arrive at the school where these ideas would be challenged and honed. Empty of students before the beginning of term, the school felt like an immense ship being prepared for a familiar but long and arduous journey. Custodial staff sweated around the school, towels tucked in T-shirt necks, and shouted an echoing commentary to one another down shiny corridors as they hammered, painted, and jerry-rigged the school back into shape. Teachers weaved in and out of classrooms and offices, plain-clothed, switching quickly between smiling conversations about summer vacations, new haircuts, tans, and the weather, and serious hushed huddles about school politics, supplies, bureaucracy, and the coming storm of teenagers. The ebullient figure of the Principal loomed large in this scene, smiling and stating with happy sincerity that ‘everyday at (this school) is a good day!’. He gathered the teachers together to go through past progress statistics and talk about the year to come – a year that would be bigger and better not only for the students on the sometimes trecherous path towards graduation, but also for the school as an entity with its own collective aspirations and hopes for the future.
To me, this moment of caesura – this hurried but confident fixing of costumes before curtains-up – is a fascinating example of how futurity is constructed and reproduced through the mundane processes of schooling. Without putting too much weight on this rather scant data, I think that it is indicative of the ways in which schools help in subtle and explicit ways to socialise us not only into imagining a horizon upon which we can fix our gaze, but also into constructing a sense of social identity that is only sensible when framed in this particular future-gazing way. What remains to be seen is the process through which competing and contested futures are imagined, sometimes concurrently or divergently, and the more profane daily routines through which certain futures, and certain aspirations, slowly disappear out of view for some students.