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