14 SES 01 A, Rurality and Spatial Representation in Educational Research
This paper is offered to those across Europe and beyond considering inequalities and injustices in education, knowing that place and space matters (Gulson & Symes, 2007). It also responds to the call from Kvalsund & Hargreaves, (2009) to increase the use of theory in research and scholarship work around education in rural places.
The work of theorist Henri Lefebvre is put to work in a spatial engagement with education in rural places. Lefebvre’s work requires us to understand space in relation to the practices that produce it (Christie, 2013); for Lefebvre, space is socially produced. Lefebvre envisages all space as social space; hyper-complex, overlapping, intertwined, flowing, moving, interfering and interrupting in a multiplicity of ways (Christie, 2013).
In this paper, Lefebvre’s triad of spatial practices, are put to work on a case study of a rural community and its schools.Lefebvre envisages space as hyper-complex; “We are confronted not by one social space but by many – indeed by an unlimited multiplicity or uncountable set of social spaces” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 86). Lefebvre works through the complexity of space by arguing it needs to be understood, not in the usual two ways, as the conceived, abstract thought of space, or of the perceived, concrete reality of space, but in three ways, with the addition of space as lived (Elden, 2004, p. 187). He calls this heuristic a “spatial triad”. Christie (2013) argues that Lefebvre’s triad can enable fine-grained analysis of the different activities of spatial production, particularly tracing of the historical assembly of enduring social patterns of inequality.
Case studies are frequent and familiar in ‘rural education’ studies. Putting theory to work on case studies, specific sites or incidents, could be a way to optimise the beneficial aspects of the footprints of research (White et al, 2012), and to extend its reach.
As Lefebvre suggests:
Beginning with description but soon confronted with problems that exceed simple descriptions, what is required is another tool of investigation distinct from empiricism. By delving deeply into the problem of rural sociology in order to grasp its laws, the process is confronted as simultaneously historical, economical, and social. In order to know the objective process, a theory is needed. (Lefebvre, 2016 , p. 72)
Lefebvre’s theories seem appropriate for researchers in rural education spaces and places, as he had a constant interest in and focus on everyday life (see, for example, Lefebvre 2000, and 1987). Lefebvre's ideas are suitable for use at the molecular level (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) engaging with the smallest and seemingly the least significant details of the everyday life of education places and spaces.
There are limited published examples written in English detailing the use of Lefebvre’s ideas in studies in rural contexts or places of education. A few are worth mentioning; for example Green, Reid and Corbett have been developing ideas of rural space that draw on Lefebvre’s concept of social space (Reid et al., 2010; Green & Corbett, 2013; Corbett, 2016). Some authors explored Lefebvre’s ideas with respect to education policy and practice contexts (Middleton, 2014), and the appropriation of space in schools by pupils (Loxley et al., 2011) and teachers (Smith, 2014). Researchers are also putting Lefebvre to work on the geography of social issues such as those of young people who are not in education or training (Thompson et al., 2014).There are a few published studies in English on rural communities that use a Lefebvrian analysis. Halfacree uses Lefebvre’s ideas in his work (for example, Halfacree, 2006; 2007) and there is a notable case study on the gentrification of two villages in England by Phillips (2002).
This paper presents a ‘worked example’ of a piece of Lefebvrian analysis done when returning to a case study. It is a conceptual piece of work, applying an idea (Lefebvre’s spatial triad) to a research case study. This case study was of a rural community of place (an interruption in space (Tuan, 1977), in England. The three-year case study set out to investigate the role school played in the lives of the young people from Morton. Significant amounts of all kinds of data were generated including documentary material such as local history books, a collection of contemporary and old newspaper articles, local council meeting minutes and village newsletters. There was also quantitative data in the form of school attendance records and socio-economic statistical information for the locality. A wide range of people were interviewed in Morton, including a youth worker, parish councillor, two parents of school aged children, the primary school head teacher and a police officer. People interviewed at the secondary school included members of staff, the education welfare officer and a school governor. In addition to the documentary and interview data the author kept a research diary of recorded reflections and responses on key events and casual meetings with people who were speaking about Morton. Lefebvre’s spatial triad was then used as an analytical tool on the case study data. The analysis began at a small, micro local level, whilst also connecting with the regional, national and global. Using Lefebvre's trilectic of lived, conceived and perceived space and putting it to work on a case study gives us the opportunity to explore the empirical work done on places such as rural schools; but this is challenging work. The three elements of Lefebvre’s triad, spatial practices, representations of space and spaces of representation overlap and are fluid, so clear boundaries between the perspectives are difficult to achieve. Through the act of writing, representations of space dominate and are difficult to challenge.
Case studies that examine the minutiae of everyday life are important but we hope that working and making sense of them through theorising means we can attempt to unsettle, destabilise and shift assumptions (Ball, 2006). For example, we can examine how rural education research might be contributing to the development of hegemonies that are based on conceived, perceived and perhaps hyper-real versions of reality, which may not convey the reality of lived experiences of educators, learners and communities in rural places. There is a possibility here for engagement with the long-established hegemony of the rural as deficit, for example. Lefebvre provides a framework for the important struggle for researchers to trouble and engage with social practices and material relations at all levels and not collapse analysis into abstract notions. The triad encourages fine-grained, molecular level analysis of the different activities of spatial production. It encourages an engagement with the historical production of spatial inequalities, everyday experiences, and the mapping of these onto representations of space. The spatial triad approach promotes the idea of the activities of schooling as spatial practices being enacted and experienced at a local level in specific schools and communities whilst also being national-global. Using Lefebvre’s triad requires a theoretical engagement of the case rather than just a description. In this way, the use of theory connects the case study with other bodies of work in education that are looking to develop understandings of how spatial, social, material inequalities and injustices might be challenged and disrupted.
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