Ethnography as a radical activity

My curiosity to unwind tangles and make complexities visible—to reveal inequities and marginalized individuals and groups of people—and to tell their stories with integrity, demands that I take seriously my roles as an anthropologist. I agree with Ray McDermott, who claims ethnography as “radical activity.” Much of my research focuses on the authority of officials to make policy, and ethnography becomes a way to speak truth to power. I study education policy (broadly defined) as a field of activity, situating it as a complex, productive, multidirectional process in which people, policy and places interact to shape and enact mandates across diverse contexts replete with political subjectivities and differentials of power. My empirical investigations extend across multiple sites and social structures, and offer a cultural analysis that captures the complexity of education processes. These investigations can be situated across three interrelated, strands of inquiry. They are: the productive social assemblages of education policy; the controversies of globalizing education; and the politics and complexities of language policy and newcomer education.

Writing ethnographic accounts is part of the academic work expected of me, but increasingly when I grapple with my own ideas, and aim to integrate the knowledge gained from study participants, critical theorists, social scientists, colleagues, and students, I find myself drawn to sharing what (I think) I know in other forms—written letters to editors, school newsletter columns, blogs, and Facebook posts.  Along these lines, I have just begun a one year fellowship with Public Voices Thought Leadership/The OpEd Project whose aim is to increase the range of voices and ideas in the world, and ultimately give ideas “a chance to be heard, and to shape society and the world” (  Being a Fellow affords me the opportunity to insert an anthropological voice into the public conversations about education. Drawing on my recent ethnographic research with refugees and newcomers networks, I am writing my first OpEd about the need for greater ESL provisions in the Refugee Act of 1980.

Jill Koyama is a graduate of the programs in anthropology. She is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice in the College of Education at the University of Arizona. You can read her academic work in a variety of journals, including the American Journal of Education, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Journal of Education Policy, and Educational Researcher.  Her books include: Making Failure Pay (University of Chicago Press), School Connections (Co-edited, Teachers College Press), and US Education in a World of Migration (Co-edited, in press with Routledge Press).  You can also follow Jill on Facebook-jillkoyama, @Koyamawonders on Twitter, or at

Jill in cold NYC 




Whither the Future of Anthropology in Education?

For more than half a century, anthropology and education have had a productive relationship. Ethnographic methods have enhanced understanding of how education happens, inside the classroom and outside, close to home and abroad.

TC has always been a leading voice in this exchange. Margaret Mead, who taught at the College from 1948 to 1960, was among the first to focus her field on American schools, and her young protégé, future TC president Lawrence Cremin, absorbed her vision of education as occurring not just in classrooms but in all the theaters of daily life.

All of which made the College the logical venue, in mid-October, for a two-day conference titled “The Future of Anthropology and Education” – a future that currently seems very much in question.

“Anthropology is disappearing as a focus in many education schools, and major foundations no longer back anthropological research in the classroom,” TC President Susan Fuhrman said in welcoming attendees from two-dozen institutions, including Stanford, Northwestern, McGill, Princeton, Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania. Anthropology also is losing ground to the tidal wave of large-scale “Big Data”-driven projects that increasingly attract funds.

“It is not self-evident that our discipline and its approaches are sustainable,” said the conference’s convener, TC Professor of Education Herve Varenne. “We must figure out how to educate our audience about the power of what we do.” (Varenne has received the 2013 George and Louise Spindler Award, from the Council on Anthropology and Education, recognizing his lifetime achievement in the field.)

Many of the field’s central values hark back to the creation of the Council on Anthropology in Education in 1970. For example, Nancy Hornberger, outgoing editor of the Anthropology & Education Quarterly (AEQ), said that the journal’s mission “remains the same: to publish ethnographic studies on learning and teaching both in and out of school.”

“We want research that goes deeper than just talking to people,” Hornberger said, adding that long-term participant-observation is still what distinguishes the field. “But today submissions based on narrative and discourse analysis are growing,” she said. “We need more systematic ethnographic accounts.”

But today submissions based on narrative and discourse analysis are growing, she said. The impact of digital media spaces on ethnography is an important new concern. The relationship between researchers and participants is in constant flux, partly due to new methods and partly due to constraints such as those imposed by institutional review boards. Meanwhile, Hornberger said, public schools and districts “are making it harder for teachers to feel free to have researchers in their classroom, and that is having an impact on our field.”

Another major challenge facing the field is how to influence policy and hold power structures accountable.

Peter Demerath, of the University of Minnesota, said that anthropologists should not speak in a private language, but “should speak as we do in public, be clear and lay out our arguments in terms of the conventional wisdom that they are responding to.” Instead, he said, Demerath added: “we need to get over our deep-seated fears of reductionism and our reluctance to generalize. Policy-makers need to hear unitary messages.”

In the conference’s final plenary, Jill Koyama, of the University of Arizona, called for anthropologists in education to speak out more and worry less about the precise institutional status of the sub-field.

“We’ve been so preoccupied with how anthropology of education came together, and is maintained together,” Koyama said. “I do not feel that anthropology needs to be in the service of education. Collaborate, integrate, critically inform – but do not subsumed.”

Koyama urged her colleagues to be forceful in asserting the role of anthropology in education, calling for more work on race and class, more critical scrutiny of the anthropologists’ own institutions, and more blogging and other public work, even when this is not encouraged or rewarded. “We have ourselves to blame for not being invited to the table,” Koyama said. “We need to get our voices out there.”


Post originally posted here.

Gender and Education Policies in North Uganda


A country of boundless physical beauty, well known as the “pearl of Africa,” Uganda also hides one of the most tragic occurrences: abduction of children by Joseph Kony and the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in North Uganda over a period of twenty years. Nonetheless, Uganda is known as “a leader in policy development with an established record of developing policies that are used as best practices in Africa” (Brown, 2013). Government policies and their effects on North Uganda developed into a research topic for my first class at TC, International Policies, during summer 2013. As the case study for the course turned into a conference presentation, I started to wonder if an apology of sorts was required to the conference audience.  I questioned what it means to look critically at the policies of a developing country, and I wondered whether research that is not field based might be a form of appropriation, meant for passive consumption by a Western audience. Having read much this term about Western perspectives and also keeping in mind Easterly’s perspective that MDG goals make Africa look worse, how fair is it to be critical? Yet, the case of Uganda is unique. Uganda has met many of the MDG’s, including gender parity in schooling. There are numerous policies to promote gender equality and education such as the National Strategy for Girls’ Education (NSGE); there’s a gender desk at the MoE (Ministry of Education); gender mainstreaming exists; and quotas for female ministers are present in Uganda. The Global Gender Gap report ranks Uganda extraordinarily as 28th overall out of 163 countries and 5th in sub-Saharan Africa (The Global Gender Gap Report, 2012). Gender parity in education, universal primary schooling and universal secondary schooling are some of these successes. However, tremendous barriers to access and quality exist. Girls experience high drop-out rates, early pregnancies are rampant, and incidents of rape are not uncommon.

Elaine Unterhalter’s statement, “gender parity is so hollow a measure of gender equality” has guided this research. Thus, I started wondering if it was the government that should apologize for passing policies which remain largely nominal such as the USE (universal secondary schooling) and UPE (universal primary schooling). These policies have incredible hidden costs, for appropriating these quantitative relative successes to enable it, a regime that has been in power since 1986, to maintain strong relationships with the West and with donors to continue the flow of aid despite high levels of alleged corruption. A full 41% of Uganda’s national budget comes from the international aid. I wondered also if as a relatively stable country geopolitically in a region of great instability, Uganda had harnessed gender and education policies as social currency to elevate its position in the international arena, yet which make little impact for the marginalized people, especially in Northern Uganda, for whom these policies should engender the most impact. Against this backdrop, it becomes salient to be critical.   

  There are different perspectives for why North Uganda lags, having the highest poverty rates, lowest net enrollment ratios, and rising numbers of ‘defilement,’ the Ugandan term for rapes of children under 18. Although it is true that during the LRA’s insurgency, nearly 20,000 children were abducted and 1.5 million people were displaced, the LRA’s atrocities are still the reasons given by government to explain the higher rates of poverty; yet, there are substantial critiques of the government’s discrimination towards the North due to political rivalries in providing equal funding. This endemic inequality is manifested in various levels of governance of the North and has meaningful implications on the realities of gender and education policy implementation.  “[C]entral and western Uganda benefited most from …investment [of Western aid], while the north and north- east suffered relative neglect, a situation which some came to believe was ‘punishment’ for the region’s role in the bush war” (Ritchie, 2011). Moreover, there is a reverse correlation between the wage bill given to students and the district level poverty (Winkler and Sondergaard, 2008). Therefore, amidst the myriad policies, numerous problems of quality, transparency, and systemic inequities of poverty, especially in the most vulnerable regions in the North, egregiously leading to low survivor rates of children in completing primary school remain (Tamasuza, 2011). UNICEF country report findings show that a mere 32% remain in school by P-7 [grade 7] (UNICEF, 2012).  An interview with Jackie Olanya, who is from Kitgum, North Uganda and has worked for the ANPPCAN (African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect), provided valuable insights into how marginalized people of the North cope with policies that are only nominal such as those that are meant to protect girls. Responding to an assertion made in the Guardian about poorer families settling cases of defilement outside court for money, Olanya states,

The truth is that research which says poorer families seek material gains rather than punishment is rather condescending to the poor. The truth is at the end of the day, people are people and families are families. When we met with families of survivors – they were furious about the defilement, especially the mothers of the girls. However, they were up against so much that it made seeking the ‘conventional’ “western” type of justice so difficult for them due to many barriers. Firstly, even just reporting was a problem – who do you report to? And if you report? So what? People in Ug normally report cases to the local councils (who are the lowest local government level and are present in each village)

 For the people of Uganda, the country may still be a pearl, but for the government, it has become a form of production on many levels, a factory that they can manipulate, to create a façade of success. 

Natasha Mansur is a masters student studying education and international development at Teachers College

TC Education Anthropologist Herve Varenne Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Herve Varenne, TC Professor of Anthropology and Education, has received the George and Louise Spindler Award for lifetime achievement from the Council on Anthropology and Education. The honor – named for the husband-wife team who, along with TC’s Margaret Mead, did much to establish the field – was announced this past week at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. Varenne and Elsie Rockwell, a prominent Mexican education anthropologist, each received this year’s Spindler award.

The Council’s award committee credited the French-born Varenne with exerting a “profound effect” on the field of anthropology and education, noting that his first book, Americans Together: Structured Diversity in a Midwestern Town (1977), “sparked a comparison to another famous French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, because of [Varenne’s] insights into American culture as expressed through the actions of ordinary people.”

More broadly, the committee said that Varenne is “widely recognized for advancing theory and asking the counterintuitive questions…including: Are people really predisposed toward anything? Is there an ‘American culture’? Is learning outside school settings as powerful or more powerful than that of in-school settings? Why do we assume ‘community’ and is it even possible?”  

The flavor of Varenne’s ideas comes through in an essay he wrote in TC Today magazine in the spring 2012 issue of TC Today magazine, which was dedicated to technology.

Noting the ease with which non-experts from children to grandmothers have learned to operated computers, Varenne asked, “What if teaching and learning are not specialized activities? What if they are ubiquitous processes regularly activated when conditions require them? Dewey intuited this, but we must investigate a more radical set of opportunities. Could schools simulate the conditions under which newcomers realize that they must learn a skill and find the people who will help them? Perhaps by specifying curricula, pedagogies and the experts one must go through to be certified as knowing something, schools have been unwittingly limiting educational activities and the rewards they produce.” 

In nominating Varenne for the award, Jill Koyama, a faculty member in education leadership and policy at SUNY Buffalo, praised him for demonstrating how “cultural categories have perceived, real, and often, enduring consequences,” particularly for those in education.”

Another nominator, Lesley Bartlett, TC Associate Professor of Education, hailed Varenne “for shifting the attention of the social sciences from ‘learning’ as a process with lasting individual consequences, to ‘education’ as an open, collective, and deliberative process of continual transformation and change.”

And Ray McDermott, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, wrote in his nomination of Varenne:  “Call him genius, call him creative, call him the new de Tocqueville (150 years later), they all apply, but the important point is that he puts on the table, every time he speaks, every time he writes, a different and important point of view on the American nation, the American school, and the American family.”

At TC, Varenne’s many courses have included the Ethnography of Education, American Culture, Technology and Culture, and The Dynamics of Family Life. His books include American School Language: The Rhetorical Structuring of Daily Life in a Suburban High School (1983); Ambiguous Harmony: Family Talk in America (1992); Successful Failure: The School America Builds (1998; with Ray McDermott); and Alternative Anthropological Perspectives in Education (2008, with TC Professor Emeritus Edmund W. Gordon).

In each of those works, the emphasis has been on determining an applied approach for his field that answers the needs of the day. Or as Varenne himself put it at a conference he convened at TC this past October on the future of anthropology in education: “It is not self-evident that our discipline and its approaches are sustainable. We must figure out how to educate our audience about the power of what we do.”


More info here

ICT in Education Study

Faculty and students in the Anthropology Programs at Teachers College worked with partners at Kampala University and University of Nairobi on the recently released report, ICT in Education Study. Drawing on two years of preparation and implementation by  the Earth Institute at Columbia University’s Connect To Learn (CTL) team, the study was carried out at four CTL schools in Kenya and Uganda where computers and mobile broadband connectivity has been installed by CTL technology partner Ericsson. The study demonstrates the contributions and challenges of implementing ICT in rural classrooms.

More info in the link below.

ICT in Education Study

The Girls from MÄDEA: Introduction to a Field Site

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Who is a German? This is a question not only for my research that I pursue at Teachers College, but a question a young Berliner, Ezgi, faces each day. I had the chance to speak to Ezgi during my summer research as part of my fieldwork for the Anthropology program at Teachers College. She told me that in many ways she feels German. She grew up in Germany, she speaks the language fluently and she has plans soon to go to college nearby. She also loves being Kurdish, the music and language, and does not dismiss them from her life. Likewise, she sees no conflict with being Muslim and German and explains how she is grateful for the protection of religion in the German constitution. She notes her headscarf would be forbidden in many public spaces in Turkey, including university. Yet, frequently on the street in Berlin she suspects others would take one look at her and dismiss her as a foreigner because of her headscarf or for speaking Turkish or Kurdish. They would not allow her these multiple identities. However, at MÄDEA, an after school center for girls in Berlin and the central site of my research, Ezgi can not only comfortably express these different layers of herself, but is encouraged to explore them. At MÄDEA she exclaimed proudly: “I am the future of Germany!”

Questions of Where do I belong?, like Ezgi’s, are becoming more frequent in Germany as its society grows more diverse. The question of “Who is German?” does not have an obvious answer in today’s world. Though being born in Germany does not guarantee citizenship, as in the US, in recent years it has become easier to become German, at least officially. Many immigrants who came in the 1960s to help rebuild Germany’s economy after World War II stayed and made their lives in the country. Now their children and grandchildren are part of the face of a new Germany. But this changing landscape of people has caused worry and confusion for many, as Ezgi notices on the street. Even the leader of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, told a young audience in 2010 that “multiculturalism has failed” as a policy. But what alternatives are there, especially for young people with migration backgrounds? Ethnographic research provides a powerful means of illuminating this issue.

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At the forefront of these questions about a new Germany are Ezgi and the girls of MÄDEA youth center. Most of the girls were born in Germany, but a majority of their parents have diverse origins: Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, Slav, Portuguese, Dominican and more. The youth center is located in the heart of Wedding, one of the most immigrant-rich neighborhoods in Berlin. Historically an entry point for new arrivals to the city, it remains economically disadvantaged, but not without some bright spots. Sitting on a busy commercial thoroughfare, MÄDEA offers a dynamic and creative setting for local girls to spend time in after school. It was here that I spent time interviewing many of the girls and viewing their many different media projects.

Around 2pm the colorful rooms of MÄDEA receive the first girls of the day, many of which walk over from neighboring primary schools. They put up their school things and filter into a number of different activities: making tea, working out a dance routine, or just sitting around and talking with friends. A little later, older girls like Ezgi arrive. Some stay four hours, some just to chat for awhile. The girls like to spend time with their friends, and many parents are grateful for the free help with the girls’ homework.

Quite often the girls get the chance to join an art project, led by local musicians and performers. A poster project many of the girls participated in prompted the questions of “What is a homeland? Can you have more than one?” Ezgi, with the three sisters and some other MÄDEA girls, helped put together a theater piece aimed at their families. Some parts of it were for the parents who came to watch: the girls played out scenarios about siblings and dating that might otherwise have been conversations too uncomfortable to have one-on-one. A fifteen year-old girl led the vocals on a song about friendship, “Amiga Boa”, which was eventually recorded and made into a CD. The song challenged the listener to consider the complex identity of the singer, who responds in the song to the question “Who are you, with the black hair? – I am Greek and also a Berliner.” Many of the younger girls painted enormous colorful canvases of themselves with their families or with each other standing in front of famous Berlin sites.

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Belonging is complicated for teenagers in general and especially for those with migration backgrounds in Germany. MÄDEA provides the girls with different ways to reflect their experiences to the world and also gives them a safe and amazing space to be themselves. It also provides a window into the “sticky engagements” of larger discourses about immigration and integration at the level of daily life.  Ezgi, along with the older girls and the staff, ensure that the lessons and wisdom they received at MÄDEA are passed on to the younger ones. The girls learn self-confidence foremost, but also how to talk–or draw or paint or sing–about their lives, with all the complexity left in.

Post by Bruce Burnside

More Than a Class


When I was choosing my classes for this semester, one of them just popped out of the screen: Globalization, Mobility and Education, a course in Anthropology, taught by Prof. Bartlett. Just from its title, I knew this class would bring together all of the topics I am interested in: basically, how education is intertwined more than ever with migration in today’s globalized world. I made sure to register immediately so I would secure my place in this class and headed to the first class with sheer excitement.

When Prof. Bartlett handed out the syllabus, I realized we had to choose between a policy and a pedagogy stream. Policy entailed writing a very long paper, while pedagogy meant volunteering as a tutor for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in New York City. There was no hesitation in my mind: I chose pedagogy. Ever since that first class, I have been a tutor on the Saturday Learning Series at IRC’s midtown office, where I help elementary and high school refugee students with their homework. For two hours in the morning, I get to work with tutees from Guinea, Haiti, Tibet, and many other countries. One of the most attractive features of New York City is the vibrant diversity of its people. That I knew. However, working with these particular types of students, who have endured the extremely difficult experience of relocating to another country due to war, natural disasters or economic hardship, is a whole different story. Each Saturday means learning a little bit more about their life stories and seeing the human face of the injustices we know exist in this world. Each Saturday means looking up and thanking God for my blessings and the opportunities I have been given by my family and my country. Each Saturday means searching deep down within my soul to find comfort in the fact that, somehow, I am making a change, no matter how little it may seem in the grand scheme of things. None of this would have been possible without the inventive mind of Professor Bartlett, who came up with this wonderful idea of turning volunteerism into a class option, one that, if chosen, gives back to you in a lot more ways than just credits and grades.

Sometimes I wonder if I am helping these students or if they are helping me. Last Saturday, I was working with a boy from Haiti. I helped him with his English reading skills. In return, he reminded me why I chose to be an educator. This boy, with his huge smile and thick Caribbean accent, made me realize that, deep down, we are all the same: all of us have faced earthquakes, some literally, others figuratively. But if you look closely, you will find that one person that, maybe unknowingly, helps you get through it and put the pieces back together so that they are stronger than before. Perhaps it is an inspiring teacher from one of your graduate classes. Perhaps it is a kind roommate that listens when you are homesick. Or perhaps it is a teenage boy from the little island that could.

(Lucia Caumont is an international student from Uruguay. She is currently in the first year of the Master of Arts in Comparative and International Education, with a concentration in anthropology.)