Brookes in the Bronx: Reflecting on A Year of Ethnography

Picture a 17 year-old girl who was shot in the head at a Freshman party, now wheelchair-bound, struggling to graduate. A young Latino man with ‘Game Over’ tattooed on his eyelids, leaving his gang affiliations behind to focus on schooling. A hard working, smiling, first generation migrant teen from Ghana, on his way with a full scholarship to a prestigious private American university. Middle class kids from relatively stable families, pursuing a well-known but increasingly fragile version of the American Dream that leads from college to job satisfaction and security in the future. Picture an incredibly dedicated principal who begins his work day, everyday, at 4.30am, and for whom no issue in his high school of 2000 students is too small to deal with personally. Tireless, caring teachers who may teach English, but who also council the homeless, or disaffected, or desperate youth that they encounter in their classrooms, before hemming and washing the clothes of their students so that they’re presentable for work experience. Picture tired, over-worked teachers who struggle to marry their vision of doing well by their students against the increasing demands for accountability from their institution, the City, the state, and the government. Picture police officers walking the halls of a school, protecting students from within and without, idly high-fiving the occasional straggler on the way to class. Picture an immense, castle-like structure in The Bronx, where these people exist together, carving out aspirations and imaginings of their distinct but interconnected futures amidst the pulsing, chaotic, inspiring, roaring mechanism of New York City.

This is a list of just a few of the incredible individuals who I was fortunate enough to meet as part of my experience as a Fulbright Peabody Scholar conducting anthropological research into aspirations and schooling in New York City during the academic year 2014-2015. As an anthropologist of education, I am fascinated and driven by three connected fields of inquiry: a) the social and cultural processes through which humans learn; b) the ways in which we give structure to our social lives; and c) the means that we use to shape and reproduce culture. In this research and in my previous academic work to date, I have been preoccupied in particular by the ways in which schooling serves to socialise young people (and eventually, older people) into particular practices and ways of thinking. As a profoundly important context in which lasting social norms and values are forged, mass formal education serves a very compelling space for exploring the ideological drivers of contemporary society.

With this in mind, in this research I was especially interested to explore comparatively the ways in which schooling shapes the aspirations and imaginings of the future held by those at the very end of formal secondary education. I wanted to ask high school seniors what they wanted to be when they grew up, and then to unravel the complex set of sociological factors that led them to aspire to particular imaginings of the future. I also wanted to know about the barriers to achieving their aspirations for the future, and the strategies and supports that they used in order to overcome (or not overcome) these barriers. In short, I wanted to better understand in comparative relief what young people in contemporary British and American society consider to be the building blocks of a meaningful life; and I wanted to understand why they think this way. These are issues at the heart of much political and popular discourse in the UK and the US. Indeed, the effective shaping of the aspirations of young people, through schooling, is at the very core of the economic and political ideologies of our respective nation-states. If the children are our future, as Witney Houston would have it, then schools are the contexts in which particular imaginings of the future are given shape, value, and potentiality. I wanted to better understand why certain futures are privileged and articulated through experiences of schooling, and how these may be similar and different in the post-recession realities of everyday school life in the US and the UK.

In order to do so, during 2014-2015 I spent several days each week spending time with seniors and their teachers at a school I call Bronx High School. By adopting this classic ethnographic methodology of socio-cultural anthropology, I hoped to immerse myself in the everyday life of the school, documenting mundane, cumulative, momentary articulations of ideas about aspiration and the future, mainly through observation, conversation and interview. Fortunately for me, schools are inherently future-gazing spaces: most activities and conversations are directed towards a future task, an impending examination or assessment, a future status as college student, college dropout, worker, or even grown-up. This meant that everyday at Bronx High was a good day for exploring youth imaginings of the future.

This is not to say, however, that these imaginings were articulated in a simple or straightforward way. In fact, one of the more compelling emerging findings of the research is the complex, multiple imaginings of the future that individual students are able to maintain concurrently, even when these imaginings may at first seem mutually exclusive. Students must also navigate the contested nature of the futures imagined for them by (and in relation to the relative futures of) the school, the City, or broader US society. As suggested above, Bronx High was home to a range of students, many of whom were much more familiar with generational patterns of entrenched disadvantage in The Bronx than they were with the sparkling affluence of near-distant Manhattan. In reconciling their experiences of disadvantage with the powerful message of potential future success and happiness underpinning the school’s articulation of the American Dream, many students would at once imagine a future as pro basketball players, rappers, lawyers, philanthropic businesspeople, or simply as college graduates, while also articulating their fear and frustration at the likelihood of much less opulent futures ahead. Some articulated their aspirations for the future in keeping with a traditional pathway from hard work at school, to college, and on to employment, wealth, and the happiness that comes with social and economic security. Others were more cynical about the relationship between schooling and learning, and between schooling and the ultimate conditions for a meaningful life (even if they were on their way to college anyway – just in case). Others still had no clear vision of what the future would be like, but were on the way to college because that was their normative framework for navigating early adulthood. Drawing metaphorically from the realm of quantum physics, over the course of the project I developed the concept of quantum personhood as a means of understanding these complex, multiple imaginings of future selves – the uncertain, entangled, seemingly incongruent but ultimately coherent articulations of individual and collective social identity, expressed in the present but always in relation to past and potential future versions of who we are and may be.

In June 2014, as I attended the high school graduation ceremony for seniors at Bronx High (including some of those mentioned above), I had cause to reflect on the truly profound impact that my Fulbright experience had on me, both personally and professionally. I learned a lot from the gracious, welcoming high school seniors and teachers who allowed me into their lives during the school year. This was not only in terms of their particular articulations of aspiration and the future, but also in terms of developing a critical perspective on the broader concept of aspiration as it is understood and articulated in late modern capitalist societies like the UK and the US. Adopting this kind of critical approach is crucial not only in helping young people to overcome risks and develop resilience in achieving their aspirations, but also in helping them to challenge on a more profound level the terms in which these aspirations are framed. As my year as a Fulbright scholar came to an end, I left New York City with a renewed fascination for understanding in comparative relief the relationships between US and UK culture and society. This is inspired as much by my research as in the rich experience of cultural exchange that Fulbright provides. I now look forward to continuing with this research project as I begin a second year of ethnographic school, this time in a London secondary school, where I anticipate I will find distinct but similarly complex youth imaginings of the future.    


Another High School Year Ends

In New York City this year, Spring came and went like the proverbial Yellow Cab. As if impatient even with the weather, New York hurried the crisp, sunny, English breeze of Spring out of the way, in favour of the thickening, humid air of summer. Where New York in winter is almost devoid of smells, in the early days of summer the city bursts into olfactory life. As I make my morning commute from Williamsburg to the Bronx, early morning coffee and pastries waft into flower-filled window boxes on Bedford Avenue. On North 7th street I descend into the bleach/fruit-scented cleaning products and air conditioning of the subway. On the 4 train, we rocket past the sweaty throng of Union Square and Grand Central, and burst overground into summer sunshine at 161st Street, Yankee Stadium. Stepping off the subway and back into the close heat of the north Bronx, there are occasional clouds of vape and cigarette smoke, faint scents of always-decaying garbage, and the sweet tang of piragua – syrup-flavoured shaved ice sold by street vendors. Walking across the avenue, I’m always greeted warmly at Bronx High by NYPD school security staff idling by the airport-style metal detectors in the main foyer. Blistering sunshine recedes to shade inside the echoing, marbled corridors of the school’s main building, and I begin another of the last few remaining days of fieldwork before the school year is finally, and suddenly, over. 
The change in seasons has brought with it even more evidence of the tensions of race and inequality that surge in American society. In April, Freddy Gray, a young black man from Baltimore, died as a result of injuries sustained in police custody. Protests and riots flooded the streets of Baltimore as the city’s populace registered their outcry at yet another example of police brutality against minority men.
In the incessant cycle of American news media, one could be forgiven for conflating this incident with numerous others occurring in the past weeks that have also raised questions about race and inequality. One such incident was the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, a black man in North Charleston, South Carolina. White police officer Michael Slager shot Scott 8 times as he ran away, unarmed. The scene was caught on camera by a passerby, leading to Slager’s indictment on murder charges and further demonstrations about race relations in the United States. 
The Scott case led President Obama to make even more clear his position on race and inequality in the US and the need for institutional and structural change. It seems that as he draws closer to the end of his presidency, Obama feels more confident in making such statements, and to act on them. In May, for example, Obama and his entourage thundered over Bronx High in twin Chinook helicopters, landing in a swirl of dust on the playing field of Lehman College, located down the block. Obama was there to draw attention to the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance aimed at improving outcomes for boys and young men of colour – a cause that seems integral to Obama’s post-presidential career. This did nothing for students’ attention to the task at hand in AP English that afternoon, but it did register a clear commitment at the highest levels of government to issues of race, gender and inequality – and did so in a way that brought all these issues close to home in this Bronx neighbourhood.

Others including Hillary Clinton have also weighed in on the need for change. On a small-scale, in relation to the police this might involve officers wearing body-cameras; but on the large scale this means addressing issues of entrenched racism and poverty – something that is already driving the rhetoric of announced candidates in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2016.

Across the pond, of course, the failings of the UK’s outdated electoral system have ensured another five years of austerity-driven Conservative government. For us back in the UK, it seems, questions about the profound inequity of our society have been quickly muffled post-election by calls for a positive psychological approach to our socio-economic woes. Aspiration remains centre-stage for the new Conservative government; but those who experience the sharp end of the austerity spear (namely, disadvantaged, marginalised young people) are increasingly being blamed, and even pathologised, for the hopelessness that their ‘entrenched worklessness’ engenders. In the coming year it will be interesting to find out how these seemingly contrasting sentiments are reconciled and articulated by students making their way towards the end of secondary education and into the brave new world beyond.

The Prime Minister, delivering a major speech on the economy in Bedford today, said Labour had left millions of people trapped on welfare in a system which 'punished the poor'
Issues of aspiration and inequality continue to emerge on a daily basis in the lives of seniors at Bronx High. As we enter their final week of high school (at least, for those who will graduate), the reality of what will come next is increasingly stark. Some already have places confirmed and scholarships won to attend local community colleges, and for these students the next step begins in just a few weeks. For those on financial aid, CUNY colleges provide a suite of preparation classes aimed at getting students ready for entering the mainstream of college life. This speaks to the ongoing issues that students from local NYC public schools have with success at college: all arrive with high school diplomas, but many lack the skills that these diplomas are supposed to represent. This means that students need to take different remedial pathways through college in order to stand a better chance of succeeding in the long run. In this final week of high school, few are fully aware of the challenges that will emerge in this sense in the year to come. Many students will commute to college in the city from the parental home, meaning that life will slowly transition from high school. Others will be leaving the teaming busyness of their Bronx neighbourhoods for leafy campuses upstate – a prospect that is at once exciting and scary, not least because it will be the first time that some black and latino students will experience ‘being a minority’ first-hand. Living in a predominantly black and latino for their whole lives, some talk about the added challenge of having to deal with ‘casual’ racism as part of the college experience. 
Some are excited about the exceptional future prospects that they have secured through years of hard work, application and finally acceptance to private university with ‘full rides’ for funding. Others simply won’t be making it to college this Fall, even if they still maintain and fully believe that this is what is going to happen. Perhaps one of the most compelling and complex aspects of this research is the process through which students are capable of maintaining narratives of the future that are only loosely connected to the realities of the present. These are not ‘fantasy’ imaginings of a future of celebrity and wealth, but simpler imaginings of an impending future at college alongside the reality that they do not have the grades to graduate; or that they failed to pay application fees; or that they applied too late for courses; or that their parents will not allow them to go to a far away college; or that they are just not fast enough to win a track scholarship. Somehow these competing narratives of the future do not cancel one another out, and students maintain them concurrently right until the end. ‘Summer school’ is a dread term at Bronx High at the moment, and when it is uttered, some students finally realise that they won’t be donning caps and gowns at the end of this month with their contemporaries. It is an immediate cure to ‘senioritis’ (the slow slacking-off that comes at towards the end of senior year), but it comes too late for some. 
For the most part, however, Bronx High is filled with the excitement of end of year. Last week, the International Fair led groups of Jamaican students and students from the Dominican Republic to scream and dance for their representatives up on stage in the school auditorium. Yesterday, year books were distributed and seniors began the symbolic process of saying good-bye to high school. Last Wednesday, most took the day off school to prepare for Prom, with all its ritual signifiers of early transitions into adulthood.
As a researcher, this is a poignant time to reflect on the many people who have been kind enough to share their lives with me over this year, and of the mounting pile of data that I have been lucky enough to gather in order to capture this process of ‘coming of age’. With just a few final interviews to do, the first phase of this project is nearly complete. But I have a feeling that this is only just the beginning of a much longer story that could last long into the future – the imagined future, that is – as these young people begin to navigate the uncertain path into early adulthood, and beyond. 

Brookes in the Bronx: Spring in the City

A week after Easter, with Passover coming to an end, and Spring has finally come to New York City. This morning the city is washed in windy sunshine, and temperatures are finally on the steady rise. You can tell from the number of slightly overweight hipster runners pounding the pavements of Brooklyn that summer is only a few jean sizes away – and I should know: I’ve become quite accustomed to wrapping up in a big black coat to ward of the crisp NYC winter, and any visible signs of what an American diet can do to an Englishman abroad…

When the first snows started to melt a few weekends ago, New York City looked like it was waking up from a very heavy Friday night: all those snowdrifts were playing temporary host to a million cigarette butts, discarded coffee cups and doggie bags (and not the kind you take away from a restaurant), all of which spread out in cold puddles across the city streets. But in typical NYC fashion this has all been efficiently cleared away, ready for the Spring and Summer to come.

It’s been an eventful few weeks, both in terms of research and research inspiration. At the beginning of March, for instance, I went to a fascinating talk at NYU from Jim Loewen, author of the influential Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995). Loewen challenged the audience to think about their own experiences of history education (and particularly the US Civil War), and in so doing revealed the redacted and racialised ways in which American history is constructed in US schools. Perhaps most striking was his account of ‘sundown towns’ -towns where, until relatively recently, black inhabitants were obliged by law to leave town before dusk. This widespread practice still resonates in rural towns US today, where de facto segregation still continues even if the law no longer officially endorses it.

Questions of race and inequity emerged again and again alongside other evocative themes at the American Anthropological Association Anthropology of Childhood and Youth Special Interest Group (take a breath) Annual Conference, held in Long Beach, California. Presentation topics ranged from gutter punk teenagers riding the rail (yes, this still happens! America’s subcultural answer to the gap year, you might say) to incarcerated migrant youth on the US-Mexican border, to adoption and baby trafficking in China, to my own research on quantum personhood and imagined futures in the Bronx. This proved an excellent platform for discussing the temporal dimensions of social identity, particuarly in relation to race, gender and class as aspects of young people’s lives. 

Another strange highlight of this California trip was an experience of something quintessentially American: gun culture. I was surprised with a visit to a gun range up in the hills above Los Angeles, where, with far less regulation than one might expect at your average British paintballing venue, we were allowed to fire a Magnum 500 (think Dirty Harry). The experience, in a word: terrifying. But also exhilirating in the way that anything that goes ‘bang’ can be. Alexis de Toqueville would have been proud of my commitment to truly understanding the anthropology of American society….

Big guns aside, conversations about youth and imagined futures continued back in NYC when I gave a talk to colleagues at NYU, including Jon Zimmerman, author of the new Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. While seemingly tangential to my own research, Jon’s work on the ideological underpinnings of sex ed at different times in US History (preventing the spread of disease; as Cold War metaphor; as mouthpiece for conservative family values and functionalist sociology; and always as mechanism for ‘taming’ youth) made me think seriously about how sex and relationships are figured in the imagined futures of the seniors in my research. While it’s logical at first to frame aspirations and imagined futures in terms of jobs and economic or career ‘success’, these dreams form part of a tangled, complex picture of the future that also involves imaginings of intimacy and family. Many students talk about aspiring to be successful so that they can provide for their as-yet unformed families of the future. This fits with a more traditional view (also endorsed through sex education) about finding ‘the one’ and settling down to a serious relationship. Interestingly, though, most students have also discussed the winding trajectory that they think will take them towards ‘the one’ – and this is the picture of sex and relationships more commonly represented through media, and particularly media representations of college. But they also complicate this picture: most imagine that only through being with multiple partners can one finally get to know oneself well enough to know what one wants in a significant other. This is a much more sophisticated and subtle reckoning of sex and relationships than most might give teenagers credit for – and may go some way to explaining why (according to Zimmerman) most think sex ed is something of a joke.  

Relationships aside, it’s an increasingly exciting time at Bronx High. We’re edging ever-closer to the end of the academic year, and for seniors this means that the once very distant, imagined world of college will very soon become a stark reality. Most are looking forward to the independence that broader college horizons will bring – most, but not all. The statistics for New York City suggest that many of these seniors will struggle to keep up with their peers in local city universities, possibly having to take remedial English or Maths classes to make up for slower progress at school. Many will take up to four years to complete a two year Associates Degree, meaning increasing debts and a decreasing likelihood of further study down the line. More still, of course, will not make it to college because the challenges of life in the Bronx make getting through high school a real struggle. As part of their effort to alleviate some of the barriers that students face, Bronx High has become a Community School – one aspect of Mayor de Blasio’s programme to integrate social services for young people. The city has seen some impressive success stories in Community Schools where incredibly dedicated principals have been able to harness some of the vast financial and infrastructural resources of NYC to improve life for those young people who need help the most. Some of these stories came out during the Risk to Resilience conference hosted at NYU and organised by Pedro Noguera. The conference was aimed at identifying best practice in community-focused approaches to education, and in frank terms illuminated the confluence of race and inequity in American society. It was incredibly inspiring to see so many individuals dedicated to helping others in their communities. Of course, these charismatic, dedicated individuals also highlight that so much of the success of these programs rests on the personal investment of the few, rather than in structural change that may have a lasting, profound impact on poverty in urban America, particularly for young people, and particularly for young people of colour. Here’s to hoping those structural, scalable changes lie ahead in the not too distant future.  

Brookes in the Bronx: New York City Winter

Welcome to the Winter Installment of Brookes in the Bronx!

There have been a lot of changes in New York City since the trees became bare in late November, and winter started to creep across the city. Until the heating was finally turned on on the 1st December, we froze for a few days in our new apartment in the trendy epicenter (sic) of Bedford Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Now I know why all these aspiring hipster artist-entrepreneurs have such large beards, I thought – but this was long before the winter proper began and the beards really started to come in handy…For an expat Brit more used to the drone of air conditioners and humming radiators than old-fashioned oil-and-gas boiler heating, the tap-tap-gurgle sound of pipes took some getting used to – but now, after weeks in the snow, the singular and peculiar sound of American heating  has comfortably blended into the relatively quiet background of bars, sirens, dogs barking, moustachioed bluegrass bands a-playing and Apple Macs whirring in the coffee shops across the East River from Manhattan.

December began with controversial rulings on the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, black men who both died at the hands of police earlier this year (see my previous post about this). There was a real sense of outrage in New York City, as mass demonstrations surged into the streets under the uniting assertion that Black Lives Matter. It was interesting to note that few students at Bronx High (my research site) seemed particularly phased by these developments – for them, these things happened far, far away (on Staten Island, in Garner’s case), and to ‘other’ people. But the ruling was also not particularly surprising to them – after all, one of the most profoundly disturbing issues with these cases is that they are just some of the more recent incidents where black men (and particularly young black men) have been killed by police in the United States. Joining the crowds that filled Washington Square Park and Broadway in December in demonstration against rulings, it was evocative to be surrounded by people for whom this was a very real issue. In the crowd were many of the black and hispanic young people of New York City for whom these issues could have fatal consequences, if their impending future actions were to be construed in the wrong way, at the wrong time, by law enforcement.

December also brought a gathering of a different kind – the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in DC. After visiting the White House and the Lincoln memorial on a dour, suitably atmospheric winter evening (think House of Cards), it was inspiring to join in with the thousands of anthropologists arrived in the capitol from all over the world to tout their wares. I gave a talk on the emerging findings from my research, including a first public airing of the concept of quantum personhood – which was mercifully received by those in the audience. Excellent contributions from Ray McDermott, Jean Lave, and Bruno Latour, among others, made for an incredibly thought-provoking and engaging few days of discussion. It’s also good fun to play ‘what to wear: or how to dress like an anthropologist‘…    

Christmas in New York City is, needless to say, something to behold (we took a stay-cation all the way to the illustrious Jersey City… 15 minutes across the Hudson). And as the festive season drew to a close, the real winter started to set in. Local American news, in its usual understated fashion, deemed that we would be struck with ‘Snowmageddon‘, featuring the end of the world, among other things. In the end it has just been a regular extremely cold winter with lots of snow and ice, and the occasional dip in temperature to -24C. For the first time in my life, I own a pair of longjohns, and it does not seem strange to see pugs and poodles walking around in Burberry jackets and little neoprene booties. New York in winter is a strange world indeed…

None of this weather made much of a dent in the school calendar, however, and the weekly routine of ethnographic fieldwork has continued in spite of the sleet and the snow. Students and staff alike at Bronx High have been incredibly welcoming during the winter months, and with their help I’m continuing to paint a complex picture of how futures are imagined as part of the normal everyday lives of seniors in this American high school. Imagined futures can be seen in all kinds of places – from articulations about imagined futures in discourse and policy at the national and regional levels (see Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address for an example, along with campaign claims from NY state governer Andrew Cuomo, NYC major Bill de Blasio, and the NYC Department of Education), to imagined futures at the level of the school, in the curriculum, in individual classrooms, and in the individual lives of teachers and students. They emerge in plays written by students, in college personal statements, in preparation for work experience – even in the banal filling out of applications for federal students loans. At times, multiple imaginings of the future vie for primacy as macro- and micro-scale imaginings come together, intersect, and collide. As seniors come closer to graduating high school, concerns about graduation, college acceptance, gathering credits, and about failing classes all speak to the many potential futures that must be negotiated at this juncture in their young lives. Many of these issues I have captured in an article that documents the emerging findings from the research, and which I hope will appear in a special edition of Anthropology of Education Quarterly later this year.

Other highlights of the last short while have included giving a talk and receiving great feedback on the emerging research from colleagues and students at Columbia University’s Teachers College, as well as a conference there at which Jean Lave gave an excellent Gramsci-inspired keynote. I was also proud to represent Brookes at the UN along with other Fulbright colleagues, where we discussed how the values of the United Nations can be fostered through education (we also had fun pretending we were in The Interpreter). Breaking with the ‘tough it out through the winter’ NYC narrative, I also snuck off to California for a few days of sun in February, which was rather nice. Back in NYC, this week I had the pleasure of attending another evening of discussion about New York City schools at the NYC Google HQ, which provided more food for thought about how imagined futures are shaped by education in particular ways within cityscapes as vast, challenging and inspiring as this one.

Today marks a slight break in the weather; and with thawing of the city I’m also made aware that time is ticking by, and soon enough the research year will be over. Time to refresh the batteries in the dictaphone and get back to it…

Brookes in the Bronx: On Quantum Personhood

The winter months in NYC have been packed with moments for reflection on new ideas emerging in my research about aspiration and imagined futures. The next entry will be more about the details of what’s been happening recently – but for now I thought I’d share some thoughts about a nascent concept that I’ve been developing – the notion of quantum personhood. At the risk of being accused of quackery for invoking quantum physics in the realm of social science (see Brian Cox on the subject here:, I’ve been thinking about how to employ the imagery and metaphor of quantum science in my work about imagining the future. Here’s a bit of it:

Life Is Straight Improv’: Quantum Personhood at Bronx High

The Concept of Quantum Personhood
The above sentiment was articulated by Antoine, a senior in the academically-gifted small learning community of the school who has recently been accepted to a private college, with a full scholarship. When talking about whether he had imagined college and a scholarship as part of his future, he told me:

‘You know, life is straight improv: you just make it up as you go along. You never know what’s going to happen or what kind of person you’re gonna be. And I wouldn’t want a roadmap for what my life is going to be like – that would be boring. Even when you do have a plan, you never know how you’re going to like it until you’re in it. Life is straight improv!’

This kind of perspective on present and future imaginings of self is part of what I hope to capture with the concept of quantum personhood. Recognising the multiple and sometimes incongruous ways in which people are capable of imagining  personhood is of course not a particularly new idea (Strathern 1988; Geertz 1972), but the idea of quantum personhood intends to complicate the picture further, in relation to temporality and young people, and in the context of formal schooling. On the subject of personhood and age, Meyer Fortes remarked of the Tallensi that birth represented the ‘minimum quantum of personhood’ necessary for a Tallensi child to begin the long process of acculumating full personhood (something often not ascertained until after one is dead) (1987:261; Carsten 2004:89). This example is one among many from the literature on personhood that stands in stark contrast to the traditional Western notion of personhood as a complete and unchanging status achieved by all humans (see also Strathern 1988). As with the Tallensi, of course, it is possible to see how personhood in Western societies is also in fact on one level as a matter of process, even though we maintain a processural view of personhood alongside the more discrete understanding of all human being as persons. One only need consider debates around abortion and ‘personhood’ to see this confluence of contradictory but concurrent imaginings of personhood in action in Western contexts.

Building on Fortes’ wording, then, quantum personhood seeks to capture the complexity of how personhood is constructed in dynamic ways in the everyday lives of young people at school, alongside an enduring sense of stable personhood as traditionally perceived in Western society. As with quantum physics, the intention here is to complicate existing ideas about personhood by focusing on complexity, uncertainty and paradoxy, particualrly in the temporal figuring of personhod. Quantum personhood accounts for the ways in which the many potential versions of persons impact on how they construct a coherent sense of self both in the present, and in representations of the person projected backwards into the past and forward into the future. As in Strathern’s reckoning of relational, dividual personhood (1988), it also emphasises the ways in which personhood is shaped by relational entanglement between individuals, meaning that personhood exists beyond individual psychology or the boundaries of individual selves or individual human beings, and instead is a matter of collective interaction. Personhood exists in the co-constructed, shifting narratives that we tell to ourselves and to others, and the stories that others tell about us (Strathern 1988). Sometimes these narratives are complimentary: others may imagine our future action – whether distant or impending – in the same way that we imagine it.  This may lead to a co-construction of personhood that is positively alligned with aspirations or dreams for the future – a collaborative, quantum complication of the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy (Rosenthal & Jackobson 1968). When these narratives do not match up, this discord can have profound consequences for the future of either actor.

Capturing the temporal dimensions of personhood 
In addition to its relational quality, quantum personhood illuminates how the person is shaped in spatial as well as temporal conditions, meaning that personhood can be percieved to linger in and to alter once-inhabited spaces (like schools) or anticipated spaces and times (like going to college in the future) even if the person is not physically there. Similarly, our personhood may extend to virtual spaces (as in positive or alternative representations of self online through social media such as Facebook or Instagram) and material culture (the items, like cars, or shoes, or watches, or houses, that we consume in order to represent to others and ourselves something of our person) (Latour 1999). In attempting to capture more of the temporal dimensions of habitus, it also focuses on how multiple potential futures are played out in the habitual, ritual performances of everyday life in the present. As the repetition of daily routines turns present into past, with habitual behaviour we re-work familiar but always slightly different imaginings of the impending future. In the present, our imaginings of the future are in turn sculpted in response to the choices presented to us, and to our reckoning of those potential choices and decisions. The regular and repetitive scheduling of the ‘daily grind’ at Bronx High can be seen in this way as the performance of idiosyncratic versions of the same scene, at once similar but also different (and sometimes incongruent), played out over and over again in the pursuit of an imagined future that will also be made up of repetitive, future-gazing actions, as in the routines of employment or college. Personhood is perpetually articulated and enacted in the present, but its quantum qualities relate to multiple versions of the same personhood, located in the past and the future, always present, as it were, in the present, but not always in neat agreement or concordance.
This may require further exposition in relation to quantum theory. Without going into too much detail, for the purposes of this article quantum physics can be defined as dealing with the peculiarities of how matter and light behaves at the atomic level. The ability of light to act both like a wave and a particle leads to strange occurrences and inconsistencies that do not conform to the laws of classical physics, including the capacity of particles to exist in more than one location at one time, to ‘teleport’ without travelling between points, and for the measurement of the position of a quantum object to influence its momentum, and vice versa. Quantum physicists also discuss the ‘entanglement’of atomic objects, irrespective of their distance in space from one another – the way in which objects lose their independence and become relationally connected, not unlike individual persons, after they have come into contact with one another and have influenced one another’s trajectories (what Einstein referred to as ‘spooky action at a distance’). In this respect, quantum physics involves reimagining time in a non-linear way: while some societies reckon time as progressing forward towards the future, via the present and the past, in fact some quantum theorists would argue that time does not objectively exist in this way. Instead, while we perceive ‘time’s arrow’ sailing forward, we actually exist in single present that is defined by the entanglement of particles and by the potential of other simultaneous entanglements. Humans are capable of rendering sensible the past and the present because we become correlated with our immediate surroundings and record this as experience as memory. While the future also exists as potential in the present, we lack the capacity to picture it beyond imaginings and aspirations because the infinite possibile potential entanglements of particles around us makes ‘the future’ perpetually uncertain. At the more radical end of thinking within quantum theory and string theory, the unusual activity of quantum objects may be explained by the existence of multiple universes – by the fact that while we only perceive one universe in which objects exist, there may be others that are slightly or very different to our own. This accounts for the existence of multiple, concurrent realities in which all potential actions and occurrences may exist, and exert influence on the shaping of the more coherent, linear view of reality that we maintain. In this way, the so-called ‘multiverse’ captures the conditional: it not only accounts for determined actions (and thoughts, social interactions, and choices about trajectories across the life course), but also for all the potential actions – for all the decisions unchosen (and the way that choices influence our decisions) in order that our lives can carry forward in the way that they do.

Each of these aspects of quantum phyisics can be applied to better understanding the temporal dimensions of personhood in relation to schooling. The idea of quantum personhood provides a way to think about how personhood is not simply inscribed in an individual’s physical, psychological and social being in the present, but also asks how we develop multiple narratives of personhood, both past, present and future, through schooling. We may therefore have multiple, quantum narratives of self, but these are collapsed and made sensible to dominant, unilinear taxonomies of how personhood is organised.

Brookes in the Bronx: Ethnography in the City

This week I’m going to be focusing on the art, science and mystery of ethnography as it applies to my ongoing research in the Bronx. This is dedicated particularly to students on the MA in Childhood Studies at Oxford Brookes University who are exploring the theme of ethnography this week.
I’d like to begin with an obvious question: What is ethnography? We’ll explore some definitions, a brief historical account of ethnography, the state of the art and possible future directions for ethnography. We’ll then move on to explore an example of school ethnography from my current research. This will set us up for an engaged and critical discussion during around the positives and pitfalls of ethnography as a method for social analysis within specific examples.
 The term ethnography is derived from the Greek ἔθνος or ethnos “folk, people, nation” and γράφω, grapho, “I write”. In short, ethnography is an account of culture and society. The OED says that ethnography is ‘the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences’ – I’m not always sure about the ‘scientific’ part (we’ll get to that later), but otherwise this a good working definition. I’d like to complicate this by suggesting that ethnography can also be considered as: 1) A practice; 2) A product; 3) A way of being (seeing the familiar as strange, and the strange as familiar). Let’s explore each of these in a bit more detail through a series of statements and associated questions/caveats.
When thinking about Ethnography as a Practice, we are asking: How do you do ethnography? In short, the practice of ethnography involves: sustained engagement in a research field (but where? For how long?); and participant observation – a combination of reflective observation and engaged interaction (but are these mutually exclusive?). Ethnographers are interested to find out what people say, what do people do, the inconsistencies between actions and utterances, and how people make things meaningful. Ideally this means gaining an emic analytical perspective, walking in people’s shoes or seeing culture and society from within (but is this really possible?). It involves ‘data’ gathering, primarily in terms of fieldnotes or observation notes, interview data, and other media. It often involves a ‘magpie’ approach to research, picking up whatever one can about a particular community and then sifting through to find those artefacts that will be most valuable for your research. Some would say that this basically equates to just hanging around and talking to people…so surely this is the easy option for social researchers? Well…maybe not. For many ethnographers it is the unpredictable, surprising, personal, uncertain and occasionally chaotic nature of ethnography that makes the method as fraught as it is exciting and rewarding. 
Ultimately, the practice of ethnography should lead to a representation of the ethnographic data, which is ethnography as product. This can come in many forms (film, blog, documentary, verbatim theatre, etc.), but most often the product of ethnography is a text that adheres to certain generic qualities familiar to the tradition of writing ethnography, and often referred to as a monograph. So, how do you write ethnography? Ethnography is a dynamic genre of writing: it is prone to change, reflecting the social and historical context of the writer, and theoretical and ontological shifts in the social sciences. It is an accurate representation of the field experience (but does accurate mean the same as ‘truthful’? We’ll get on to this); and it involves the critical, reflexive analysis and representation of data in a way that tells a story, often in relation to theory. 
As with the practice of ethnography, the way that a person chooses to produce ethnography raises important ontological and epistemological questions related to how  one interprets ethnography, and ultimately about how one perceives the knowable world. These are the big questions of ethnography: built into the nature of ethnographic work are issues of perception and the representation of perception. The ‘scientific’ nature of ethnography, for example, is therefore up for grabs depending on what you think you are recording through ethnography; and similarly, some will challenge the methodological value of ethnography if all it entails is an idiosyncratic account of a moment in social time (a story, in other words) that has no bearing on objective ‘truth’ and few claims to generalisation, representativeness or even validity. On the other hand, we can also argue that the power of ethnography is to critically address the kinds of ‘truth’ claims or assertions to generalisability that are made through other social science methods. Once again, if ethnography is about hanging out, it’s also about hanging out and thinking hard.
Ethnography as a way of being
This leads us on to the notion of ethnography as a way of being. Through the practice and production of ethnography (which also involves reading and engaging with ethnographic literature), individuals are able to develop new, critical, ethnographic ways of seeing the world. By this I mean that you may begin to see in a more complex, profound way the subtle social and cultural practices that make up what you take for granted about your own existence, while at the same time developing a better understanding of the seemingly strange cultural practices of other people. This can be an unsettling process because it can involve challenging some of your most fundamental beliefs and practices. But it can also be deeply rewarding because it opens up the world through the nurturing of a critical tolerance for all social and cultural practices. Therein lies the challenge, magic and mystery of developing ethnographic sensibilities.
A (very) brief history of ethnography
There isn’t really space here to go into too much detail about the historical development of ethnography as a practice within the social sciences, but click here for a quick but critical romp through the method’s history. In brief, ethnography has developed from accounts of voyagers, conquerors and missionaries, through the work of late 19th century ‘armchair’ anthropologists (who did no real ethnography to speak of, really), to early 20th century anthropologists championing the method (notably Malinowski, Boas, Mead, Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard) who provided accounts of exotic, ‘isolated’ islands, Aboriginal Australians, African ‘tribes’ (note colonial context), and so on. In the Chicago School of Sociology ethnography was being adapted at the same time for urban Western contexts, and in the early 60s in the UK Max Gluckman and the Manchester School began developing ethnography ‘at home’ – especially in educational settings. This led to the emergence of a ‘new’ sociology of education, with figures like Hargrieves, Lacy, Paul Willis, Ball and others adopting interpretivist/symbolic and interactionist accounts of childhood and schooling. A reflexive turn came in anthropology in the late 80s and early 90s with Clifford & Marcus’ Writing Culture, which repositioned ethnography as subjective and literary, as an intepretive process involving the writer. This reflexive turn troubled the ‘truth’ claims made by earlier ethnographers, but was also critiqued for encouraging a kind of post-modernist navel-gazing that detracted from the substance of research. Gladly, many ethnographers have since found a happy medium where their research can be informative and evocative while also being critical and reflexive. 
Ethnography has in the last 40 years spread in popularity through the social sciences, so there are now many versions of  ethnography depending on disciplinary background and epistemological outlook, rather than one single ethnography. Ethnography for the 21st century is also more complex, accounting for globalization, for example through multi-sited and virtual ethnography. Ethnography has also more recently become ‘sexy’ in the commercial world with ‘drive-by’ ethnography and pseudo-ethnography being used widely for marketing, advertising and consumer insight purposes. Ethnography in 2014 is a broad church indeed. 
Brookes in the Bronx: practice, product, way of being
I’d like to now turn to the contemporary example of ethnography from my own ongoing research at a high school in the Bronx. In brief, this study comprises a comparative two year ethnography of secondary education in London and New York City, exploring the themes of aspiration, imagined futures and transitions to adulthood. I am now three months in to the project and at the juncture in the research where I am becoming much more familiar with school while still wrangling the disparate possible threads of the research into a coherent whole. In this section I’d like to work through a number of ongoing methodological queries, in relation to the points explored above, before suggesting a few questions for discussion.
Doing an ethnography of schooling in a developed country where English is the predominant language provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the ethnographic process. For an English ethnographer of education, a US high school is at once familiar  but also very strange – and it requires an ethnographic sensibility to take a step back and question both the things that are peculiar (from the credit system, to the process of going to the college, to issues with gangs, violence, and disadvantage) and those things that you take for granted (the age grading of schools, that nature of teacher-student relationships, the presumed content of the American Dream). When starting this research, some colleagues suggested that the similarities between the US and the UK would outweighs the differences and render the research less interesting. An important part of conducting the research has been to think critically about the supposed similarities (speaking English or American pop culture for example are not so simply dissected when the school context is largely non-white, first or second generation migrants with English as a second language), and to look for ways be make sense of both the very familiar (cheerleaders and American football players) and the rather strange. As for the process of ethnography, it has been very interesting to reflect on my positionality within this research and my reception as an individual in the school. Being English is suitably strange but also familiar (and harmless enough) enough for students to engage openly and in a friendly way that helps the research to progress. This raises interesting questions about positionality in the research and gender, ethnicity, and the confluence of these markers of identity with assumptions about cultural identity – all of which are important to keep in the balance when moving through data gathering to analysis. In this research I have been more conscious than in the past about the ongoing coding of observation notes, and of writing about the field experience (as I am now) as part of the process of analysis. By this I mean that writing (in this case reflective writing) is both part of the process of ethnography and the route to the finished product – the ethnographic monograph itself. Finally, this research is reminding me to be open and accepting of the uncertainty that comes with ethnographic practice. It is important to accept that you will not have all the answers at many points during the process, and that this uncertainty is what helps lead you to unexpected revelations and insights that will ultimately enrich and enliven the research.
Ethnography: opportunities and challenges
Bearing in mind what we have discussed so far, I’d like to propose the following questions to explore:
Choose one of the following contexts for an ethnography:
An ethnography of a prison: 
An ethnography of a Master’s programme: 
An ethnography of sneezing
An ethnography of Harcourt Hill 
Activity: In a short paragraph, state your ethnographic context and then provide a few lines or bullet points on each of the following questions: 
What topic would you choose to focus on?
How would you go about doing the ethnography?
What would be the major challenges in conducting these ethnographies?
Please respond with reflections or constructive comments on the contributions of at least two other students in the forum. 
Further reading
DELAMONT, S (2014) Key Themes in the Ethnography of Education: Achievements and Agendas. London: Sage. 
YON, D (2003) Highlights and Overview of the History of Educational Ethnography, Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 32: 411-429. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro32.061002.093449
LANCLOS, D. (2003) At Play in Befast: Children’s Folklore and Identity in Northern Ireland, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.

Brookes in the Bronx: Civilly Disobedient Youth

From New York City to Hong Kong (both places close to my heart), the past few weeks have provided good cause for reflection on the relationship between issues of civic participation, disobedience, and the place of ‘youth’ and young people in imagining new political futures.

Here in NYC, as the first golden brown leaves shimmered down in Central Park, the arrival of the UN General Assembly in mid-September brought about mass demonstrations around the connected issues of global capitalism and climate change. On 22nd September approximately 300,00 people marched through the streets of the city under the banner of the ‘People’s Climate March’, bringing traffic to a standstill and sending Instagram accounts into overdrive. This was the largest public demonstration focusing on climate change in history, organised to coincide with UN talks on environment. The intention was to show popular outcry about the current state of the planet. When the Yankees finished playing in the Bronx, and the Giants finished up in New Jersey, New York’s transit systems were flooded with an odd mix of baseball fans, football bros and hippies, activists, families and climate change voyeurs of all descriptions. It took a long time to get home that day.

While the People’s Climate March attracted individuals of all different ages and backgrounds, it was in many ways shaped by discourses of youth and childhood. After all, climate change is particularly susceptible to what’s sometimes known (to me at least) as the Whitney Houston doctine of childhood: we believe the children are the future (not the present), and all our actions to preserve the environment now are for the benefit of future generations. This is a discourse of activism fundamentally grounded in the temporal framework of generations – and it is also almost always the ‘youth’ who are imagined to be at the balustrades of the eco-revolution. As such, when things progressed from the peaceful mass demonstrations of 22nd September to the occupation and arrests at Wall St the following day, it was the face of angry young men and women that littered the newspapers. Families may demonstrate at the sanctioned events, but it will be the young – those idealistic, reckless, idealised youth with nothing to lose and so much hope for the future – that will be dragged away by tired looking New York City cops for a night in the cells. A few news cycles later and it’s like it didn’t happen; but in the moment, the youth were rubbing up uncomfortably against the estbalishment – a rather familiar framing of how disobedience and resistance rise and fall out of view in civil society. 
Several thousand miles away, in my hometown of Hong Kong, secondary school students and university-age young adults were also on the verge of mass civil disobedience. The Occupy Central movement (Central is Hong Kong’s principal financial district and the seat of its legislative council) took cues from New York City’s Occupy Wall St legacy and transformed it into a movement focusing not on anti-capitalism per se, but on limited democratic reform of Hong Kong’s rather peculiar cocktail of hypercapitalism and reactionary pseudo-Communist politics. Young people in Hong Kong have for the past few weeks led an incredibly well-behaved, considerate, thoughtful charge towards a new kind of democratic engagement not seen in China for more than twenty years. the HKSAR government’s reaction couldn’t have been less ‘hip’ to the political times: tear gas, clubbings, alleged hiring of triad gangs as thugs and sexual assailants bent on breaking up the peaceful mobs all smack of a generation of politicians out of touch both with their popular political opponents and with the global media watching on. Seeing these scenes played out on the streets and thoroughfares of my own expatriate youth in Hong Kong made this kind of old-time political activity seem all the more surreal. The first wave of demonstrations ended last week with a fizzle; but already it seems that renewed reactionism from China will lead the youth to go wild – calmly, politely, peacefully – once more. It’s worth reflecting on how this very civil disobedience jars with a traditional framing of youthful resistance: the absence of bandanas and Molotov cocktails might actually lead to an enduring presence of politically engaged youth in Hong Kong.
In both these cases, imaginings of youth, and imaginings of future are at play, and it has been revealing for me to reflect on what specifically it is that defines this cohort of young people as ‘youth’ that are politically and civically engaged. What is interesting about the particular generational experience of school leavers and college students in Hong Kong, and their contemporaries in NYC, is that both have perhaps even less to lose than have recent previous generations. The global recession has made them suspicious of the promises to social mobility that are the backdrop to their participation in formal education; and where previous generations of young people may have been cynical or disengaged about their potential impact on political and economic systems (it’s easier to believe in individualism, after all), this generation is bouyed by the real, tangible impact that collective, technologically-engaged action has had in movements as disparate as the Arab Spring, Anonymous and the Occupy movement. They might actually make a difference – and they might even do it on their own terms. Don’t these sound like ‘youthful’ aspirations? Shouldn’t we be proud of these young people for flying the flag for real, progressive change in civil society? Aren’t they imagining the kind of civically-engaged, enlightened future that we might ideally like them to create in the lengthening shadow of late modern capitalist society?
The short answer to the above questions may well be yes; but it’s also interesting to consider that the qualities outlined above – the idealism, commitment, organisation and engagement borne of having little to lose in the current system of things – are not actually qualities solely imbued on the chronologically young. In fact, it might be that young people – school and university students – may be doing a good job of imagining and consuming the qualities of ‘youth’ that are actually open to people of all ages who may have also experienced a shrinking of their future horizons. In both New York and Hong Kong, those who have survived (or even thrived in) the recent recession may stay away from the demonstrations; but for those who are getting older without ‘growing up’ – without realising the dreams promised as the outcome of living ‘youth’ well, of attending university, of getting and keeping a well-paying job, of staying out of political trouble, of keeping one’s media-feed clean and adhering to the accepted avenues of acceptable rebellion/disobedience –  there is increasingly less to lose by not taking part. Perhaps the most profound impact that the civically disobedient youth of today can have on their elders is to make them feel ‘youth’ again – but this time, in a different, altogether more politically dangerous and exciting way. 

Brookes in the Bronx: understanding futurity and youth in a summer of fraught race relations

The unusually clement summer weather in New York City this summer has made it easier to get on with most things, it would seem. A soft breeze has blown across Manhattan from the Hudson since we arrived, and like a good Englishman I’ve been happy to talk (to anyone who would listen) about how lovely the weather is and how lucky we’ve been to avoid the usual Dog Days of Summer.

Where the weather has been mild, the tensions around issues of race and youth have been anything but. This has led me to reflect on the ways in which race and ethnicity are imagined in relation to gender and imagined futures – and on the potentially terminal consequences that dissonant, negative constructions of race and ethnicity can have on the lives of the young people involved.

In the context of the 24-hour news cycle, last summer’s verdict on the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by neighbourhood watch captain Michael Zimmerman seems like a distant memory (and more distant still for those of us across the pond who more readily associate Florida with Mickey and his friends). Zimmerman was acquitted on all charges connected with the fatal shooting of Martin, who was unarmed at the time of the incident. This led to demonstrations across the US, with Barack Obama calling for ‘soul-searching’ about how this reflected the broader state of race relations in American society – particularly for young people -and young men in particular- who are not considered white.

Similarly, the fatal shooting of black 29 year-old Mark Duggan by police in North London during the summer of 2011 led to wide-scale rioting and expressions of discontent on behalf of young people in disadvantaged areas of the city, many of whom were from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, and many of whom were articulating a combination of outcry at police brutality and outrage at the social marginalisation experienced in their everyday lives. Just as with the Martin case in Florida, the Duggan case led to acquittals and further demonstrations, but in the wash of other sad news about (mainly young) people dying around the world, it has been largely forgotten. It’s become more of a static case study for social commentary and sociological analysis (cue folk devils and moral panic) than evidence from our very recent history of an issue that remains at the centre of many young people’s lives.

Eric Garner died while being arrested by police in Staten Island.The pressing nature of these issues was nowhere more evident than in the US this summer. The news since July has been overshadowed by two cases of police using deadly force against black and minority men, young and slightly older. When I arrived in New York City on 5th August, the focus was on the case of Eric Garner, a 44 year-old Staten Island man who died when police put him in a choke hold during an arrest for selling ‘loosies’, or single cigarettes, on the street. Outcry over the death was widespread and led to massive demonstrations led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The focus remained not on decrying the police en masse (police shootings and deaths in police custody are down considerably in the NYC area this year), but on recognising racial prejudice and abuses of power  perpetrated by a minority of law enforcement that discriminate against black men in particular. 
This relatively peaceful response to an act of violence was then followed by demonstrations of a different kind, beginning on August 9th when Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year-old black teenager, was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Rioting spread in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the fatal shooting, with protesters raising their hands and carrying banners saying ‘Don’t Shoot!’, reflecting the disputed final moments of Brown’s life. As in the case of the London riots, this public demonstration of anger and frustration in some cases fuelled popular phantasmagoria about the public threat of young minority men in public spaces. But it also drew media attention once again to the precarious position that some young men are placed in, when faced with the real threat of injury or death at the hands of law enforcement who may imagine them to be people that they are not.   
Michael Brown's casket the day of his funeral Aug. 25.: Michael Brown's casket the day of his funeral Aug. 25.This is not the first run of summers where there have been cases of police brutality against young people, and I doubt it will be the last. Whatever the particular and varied details of these cases and the individuals involved, all point to the ongoing tension through which imaginings of race, ethnicity, social class, youth and gender are conflated with imaginings of social deviance, criminality and danger. 
This is not a new argument in sociological or anthropological understandings of race and ethnicity; and nor is it a new experience for people from black or minority backgrounds. But thinking in terms of aspiration (as I am prone to do these days), this particular racialised ‘youth’ is imagined as aspiring to crime, violence, lawlessness, self-interest, even social disorder and chaos – a different set of values altogether, apparently, from those ideally represented by law enforcement. Of course, each of these qualities is also socially constructed, and it’s as easy to see how the actions of some police may also encapsulate each of the above rather anti-social aspirations, against which people might rightly protest. What is compelling is the extent to which black and minority youth are often associated a priori with present and/or future criminality – a temporally framed, negative imagining of race, ethnicity and ‘youth’ that suggests that it’s not a matter of if these young people will aspire to criminality, but when. This process is abruptly stopped in its tracks for each of these men before the presumed aspiration to future deviance can grow into action. The same may also be said of imaginings of working class white young men, even if the police response may often be rather different. 

And this is also not just the experience of young men from minority backgrounds: just this week, the black Hollywood actress Daniele Watts of Django Unchained fame was handcuffed and held by LAPD for refusing to produce ID while being suspected of committing a leud act with her partner in their car on a public road. Leud acts aside, the issue in this detainment was that the officers involved apparently intimated that they thought they were dealing with a case of prostitution, because Watts is black and her partner is white. Without getting into the slightly convoluted details of this case (which you can read about here), once again the media circus focuses our attention on how imaginings of race and ethnicity are conflated with particular imaginings of deviance and criminality, many of which are also associated with ‘youth’, and with the inevitability of future deviance. Youth is, of course, a flexible concept, and in these stories it is stretched to include men aged 18-28 and women of indistinct age but ‘youthful’ appearance (trying to find out Watts’ actual age is a difficult and thankless task, readers). We should also note that many of the police and law enforcement involved in these cases would by the same token also be described as young – but they do not embody the kind of ‘youth’ apparently associated with individuals like Brown, or Martin, or Watts for that matter.  

Each of these cases has caused me to reflect on the ways in which popular negative imaginings of black and minority youth may impact both how young people construct ideas about their futures, and how they go about attempting to achieve these futures. The young people that I have met so far in my current research aspire to be cardiologists, architects, sanitation workers, writers, and, more importantly, to be ‘good people’. It must be difficult to maintain the integrity of these kinds of positive aspirations for the future when the negative popular imagining of ‘youth’ – and urban black and minority youth in particular – is built in some part around an assumption that one’s future will inevitably lead to deviance and criminality. When this popular imagination exists in the minds of the police, and when certain police officers find themselves in positions where they can act irrevocably on these imaginings of inevitable future criminality – whether imminent or impending – the results can be fatal and future-killing.

As the nights draw slowly in at the end of this summer, and as the wind begins to bite in the fading sunshine, I feel like I’m only just starting to understand the complexity of how race, ethnicity, gender and youth collide in the various and often divergent, contested imaginings of the future that inhabit this city.        

Brookes in the Bronx: First Day of Term

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.