Book Review: Key Themes in the Ethnography of Education (Sara Delamont)

A few months ago I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Sara Delamont’s text Key Themes in the Ethnography of Education: Achievements and Agendas, thanks to a Sage giveaway on Twitter. They didn’t ask for a review, but I’ve put together my thoughts on the book.

Delamont presents the book in part as a companion to the four volume reader she has out called Ethnographic Methods in Education. That reader has clearly informed the work in Key Themes. The significance of the Key Themes book for me is in the depth of the literature review in each chapter. Delamont takes us through the major works in ethnographic study from anthropology and the sociology of education to map developments in specific themes.  For researchers embarking upon a methodological journey and requiring solid rationales for the choices they make with ethnography (or even any form of educational social research) the support is here in the traditions of ethnography. From the previous literature, Delamont then offers her own key issues for current and future work in each area. As a guide for structuring your own work within contemporary and classic ethnography in education, this is highly valuable.

For instance, chapter 3 on space and place, something that I have been interested in in my research, opens with a reminder of the importance of rich descriptive accounts of places in ethnography, something that sets ethnographic work apart of other forms of inquiry. Chapter 4 on time recalled for me the questions that participants or gatekeepers often ask (fair enough) of ethnographers: how long will you be here? Have you finished yet?

Sport and PE researchers may be particularly interested in the chapter on movement, which notes how ethnographers’ experiencing of individuals/groups’ movement or restriction of movement is important for understanding their lives. Restrictions on women’s movement is now thought backwards in the West, Delamont notes, with criticism of places such as Saudi Arabia where girls’ PE is largely unavailable, but that situation was common and thought civilised in nineteenth century Britain. Delamont draws attention to the difficulties faced in providing access for girls and women to physical activity in the early years of educational change, yet also highlights how in her own research in girls’ secondary PE immobility was as much a part of the lesson as mobility: girls’ movements and freedom still restricted. Although only a short snippet in this chapter, the narrative strongly expresses restrictions on girls’ movement and appearance – comportment, dress (whether to cover or reveal, whether to restrict free movement) that have been reproduced in PE.

Sport related researchers will also find interest in the chapter on bodies and performativity as many of the examples used are drawn from dance, PE, and boxing settings. These little examples are also really useful for teaching research methods, with snippets of real research to draw upon.

The book finishes with an examination of autoethnography, not something previously covered in the book. So it’s not so much a conclusion on the book as a whole as a contrast of what Delamont considers valuable empirical data collection and the (problematic) “look at me!” that might be found in autoethnography. This came as a bit of a surprise but it is easy to see why Delamont wanted to establish the value of empirical and analytical work in unfamiliar worlds and with hard to reach populations in contrast to introspective or experiential writing. I’d have thought that there are examples of good autoethnography by practitioners or participants in a field who have become social researchers, but its a worthwhile point that we must write analytically not just about experience. One or two examples of ethnographic research throughout the book emphasise for me the value of prolonged engagement in the field for understanding local meanings and thinking beyond dominant or expected representations or readings. This emic perspective can really help to access what something means to the community, not to say that an outsider reading is not at all useful but that it cannot assume what things mean to insiders. But it is the dialogue between insider and outsider that succeeds in making the familiar strange and making the strange familiar that creates rich ethnography.

The book is not a how-to guide on designing and carrying out ethnography, but each chapter has a page on key things to remember if you are doing ethnography: elements of experiencing a setting if you are to create successful ethnographic work: space, time, memories, movement, bodies, groups and identities, narrative, senses, knowledge. What ethnographers might be looking for, and how they will write about it, are key elements. Then there are notes on research for the future: what’s not been done yet or what key aspects of education still need to be investigated?

As the embodied experience of the ethnographer affects the research they create, so the experience of reading this book will be different for different readers. As a lecturer in research methods I most commonly read texts aimed at undergraduates which do have that “how to” approach. Delamont’s text is very different and reading from start to  finish provides opportunity to contemplate how your own ethnography can be shaped in response to thinking about classic ethnographies in education. This will be great for doctoral researchers situating their thesis in the methodology.


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