19 SES 04 A, SPACE: School Space Uses and Discourses
This article considers the understandings of space and place amongst a group of disaffected students, within an institution that had been in a state of flux over a number of years. It explores ways in which students are positioned by institutions into specific spaces, ways in which they use those spaces to challenge authority, and ways in which they appropriate both space and place to assert new, and often playful, identities.
In developing his concept of ‘ThirdSpace’, Soja rejected the tendency among Marxist geographers to privilege the social over the spatial. Instead, he contended that there was a dialectic based on mutual relations, by which geography shaped class as much as class shaped geography (Borch, 2011; Soja 1996). This facilitates a far more dynamic model, one that is more fluid, open to multiple and unpredictable interactions. From this starting point the paper will draw on the work of Massey (2005) and Casey (1996) to develop an understanding of space as a product of interrelations permanently under construction, as opposed to simply a surface, and place as a product of these intersections within the wider power geometry of space. It also draws on the work of Foucault (1988; 2003) in order to understand power as diffuse rather than a simple dichotomy between power and resistance. This theoretical framework is used to question the distinction made by De Certeau (1984) between the strategies of the powerful and the tactics of the powerless.
The ethnographic research reported in this paper took place in a secondary school in the South of England that had been identified as an ‘underperforming’ school by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) inspectors. The school is located on a deprived estate, taking its students from an area in the bottom quintile with regard to deprivation indicators, and regularly features at the bottom of local league tables. Recently converted to ‘Academy’ status (an academy in the UK is a state funded school which is independent from local authority control), the school was in the process of being rebuilt at the time of the study. The school has been viewed as failing by the broader community, containing a large number of students perceived to be disruptive and disaffected.
Although the research took place in a specific British school, it remains relevant to a wider European audience due to the expansion of Neo-liberal education policies across Europe through strategies such as the Lisbon Agenda (Turner & Yolcu, 2014) and the entrenching of disadvantage in schools similar to the one in question.
An ethnographic study was carried out in an English secondary school between 2012 and 2013. The research project investigated student perceptions of the school and spatial behaviours within it. During fieldwork, participants were perceived as being emplaced within their environment, engaging with it in a multisensory manner. 20 participants were involved from Years 10-11, aged between 14-16. The participants were all perceived as low achievers in the school. There was an on-going dialogue between participants and researcher over the first two years of the project, with regular (unstructured but focused) conversations in both individual and group contexts, and semi-structured (15-20 minute) interviews scheduled over four occasions. The focus on the creation of place and the ways in which place was experienced required methods that neither prioritised the visual nor were reducible to it (Pink, 2009). Whilst more traditional approaches to participant observation and interviewing attend to cultural and social systems, values, organisation and more, they can be restricted by their lack of responsiveness to experiential facets of ethnography. In order to address these issues, a variety of methods were chosen in order to collect data and maximise the engagement of these methods with the creation of place. Observations, interviews and walks with the participants were carried out, while participants were also invited to create photographic representations of places and spaces around their school, proposing possible meanings connected to the resulting images. The photographs taken by participants were used as a starting-point from which feelings about the institution could be explored. The understandings that emerged, wherever possible, were co-constructed, resulting from conversations with the participants about the meanings of the images they had taken. Inevitably, academic understandings remain privileged, but the ‘interviews’ were more like structured conversations, opening up possibilities for to participants to be exposed to potential ideas arising from the literature. The feelings of alienation and resentment among the participants created certain ethical dilemmas for the researcher. It took time for the students to recognise that the researcher was not a member of staff. It was difficult on occasion for the researcher to maintain ‘neutrality’ as he felt sympathy for their view that their education was being undermined by the seemingly continuous change going on around them, both in the structuring of the school and in the physical landscape. In such circumstances, it is our view that research should be explicit about such sympathies, rather than feigning objectivity.
In describing the spatial environment, the youngsters in this study utilised a language of resistance and conflict. Through their language, they portrayed the landscape around them as chaotic and wild, the chaos, in their view, caused by external decisions, and the wildness a response indicative of their free spirit. While glorying in the sense of anarchy, they also seemed to yearn for order. They saw themselves as the victims not the agents of the changes in the site that were occurring around them. These changes to the school buildings constituted both a threat and an opportunity. The changing environment was perceived as eroding and undermining their identity. In response, they sometimes became fatalistic or intransigent, viewing themselves as beyond change. However, an alternative response was to express defiance - being beyond change also made them, in some way, invincible. There was a constant fluidity, and the changes that were taking place opened cracks in the discourse surrounding them, enabling them to make further claims to available spaces and re-appropriating them through their behaviour. The shoddiness of the spaces allocated was the cause of complaint and yet the source of delight. The participants perceived themselves as ‘outsiders’; the space that was being created in the school grounds was part of a masquerade, of no benefit to them. They identified the school, and later themselves, with the bins, which they photographed repeatedly, so as to make the point. Theirs was the kingdom of the ‘skip’, a place where rules did not exist and where separate identities could evolve ungoverned by authority figures.
Borch, C. (2002). Interview with Edward W. Soja: Thirdspace, Postmetropolis, and Social Theory. Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 3:1, pp. 113-120. Casey, E. (1996). How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time. In S. Feld and K. Basso (eds.), pp. 13-52, Senses of Place, School of American Research, New Mexico. De Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. London: University of California Press. Foucault, M. (1988). Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984. London: Routledge. Foucault, M. (2003). Society Must be Defended. London: Penguin. Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: SAGE. Pink, S. (2009). Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: SAGE. Soja, E. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. NJ: Wiley Blackwell. Turner, D. A. & Yolcu, H. (2014). Neo-liberal Educational Reforms: A Critical Analysis. London: Routledge.
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