More hands, light work

In this post Martin Bittner, Melissa Nolas and Christos Varvantakis, all members of the Childhood Publics Network, reflect on their recent participation at the 6th Ethnography in Education conference in Halle, Germany and how this is a great example of working collaboratively in a network. 

According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary the phrase ‘more hands, light work’ is currently at the bottom 10% of word/phrase popularity. We can only speculate why (possibly because its antithetical to the individualised and neoliberal cultural moment we are living through?) but for us, as members of the Childhood Publics Network, the idea of ‘more hands, light work’ is pivotal to practices of solidarity and the ways in which Melissa and Christos have been working on the ERC Connectors Study, from which the network grew. 

With this in mind, we were delighted when Martin Bittner proposed a symposium for the 6th Ethnography in Education conference, Going Public?, held in Halle at the beginning of November. On Saturday 2nd of November a group of us set off at the crack of dawn from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof main railway station to make the trip down to Halle and the ethnography in education conference, this year dedicated to thinking about ethnography in education and social work and its publics. 

Martin Bittner, Rebecca Webb, Thomas Stodulka, Christos Varvantakis, and Melissa Nolas have been discussing notions of publicness in childhood for a while now and the conference provided an opportunity to work together in a more concrete way. So under Martin’s leadership we came together to present ideas around ethnography, publicness, and ‘future citizenship’ as we’ve encountered these and worked with them in our individual and joint research projects. 

The global modes of governance in education (Sellar/Lingard, 2014) and family life (Gillies et al., 2017) have brought particular changes to the education and social care systems in European countries in the last 25 years (ie: OECD/ PISA studies; EU/ BOLOGNA Reforms; UN’s commitments to inclusion). The globalisation and internationalisation of education and its modes of intervening into family life is expressed in ratification of conventions and the competitive comparison of states and nations and an evidence-based-pedagogy. Globalisation has found its way into the educational curriculum and associated policies.

In family life, it is expressed in the proliferation of state discourses and practices of child protection at the expense of provision and participation. As such, the political stakes for educational and child welfare institutions have been raised making the attempt to govern children’s everyday lives a key activity. Extending educational services and opportunities can be perceived as governing families to be controlled by social welfare systems. The educational institution is therefore charged with the task of taking responsibility for education, care and the making of the ‘good citizen’.

We thus need to question the transformation of education institutions. Paradoxically, the family as an institution, and motherhood in particular,  are also charged with similar tasks of care, education, supervision, and the growth of the future citizen. As these forms of governance of everyday lives, and of personal and intimate spaces proliferate, the questions of what ethnography might offer as a form of documentation, understanding and activism, become even more relevant. At a time of polarised political narratives the exploration of in-between spaces of the everyday life of children and their families becomes an imperative. It is in these in-between, interstitial spaces between the school and the family, the child and the institutions, that practices of resistance, escape and transformation of lived experience emerge and often flourish.

Our symposium focused on the cultivation of ‘the future citizen’ and its methodological implications for ethnography. We argued for a political theorization that accounts for entanglements of children’s practices and agency between families and schools. We raised questions about the making of ‘future citizens’ within a European context and at a time of socio-economic and political precarity. Through our various contributions we experimented with the concept of ‘a childhood publics’ (Nolas, 2015), and explored the ways in which children might encounter, experience and engage with various forms of public life.  Pulling together four different ethnographic experiences with children in families and pedagogical institutions in the UK, Greece and Germany, we explored questions regarding the roles, agency and positionality of children, professionals and researchers in the everyday life, within and in-between institutions, as well as in the ethnographic process. Accordingly, we explored how the entanglements of practices within institutions and a perspective of childhood that places the child in a politically active position creates new publics.

In particular, Martin discussed ethnography as a post-qualitative inquiry (St. Pierre, 2018). He questioned the intimate publics of the family and the school by focusing on the epistemological concept of sensitivity of knowing of the ethnographer and questioning what it needs to do in research that relates to privacy and intimacy within institutions. By arguing for a perspective on transgression and heterotopian places, he contributed for a perspective of children’s entangled encounters of different and intimate ‘politics’.

Christos’s presentation discussed the experimental method ‘configuring matters’ that he and Melissa, together with their colleague Vinnarasan Aruldoss, developed in the course of the Connectors Study. Children were asked to arrange fifty cards with ‘things that matter’ (collected in a previous research stage among all child interlocutors) around a given center of ‘most important’. The initial conception of a singular center and of matters of importance organised in concentric circles moving from proximity to distance in terms of importance, was resisted and challenged by some children. Instead the children in the study produced messier, rhizomatic and fluid configurations, leading the researchers to rethink their epistemologies and analytical models in circulation (e.g. kinship diagrams and ecomaps) of organising and making sense of children’s everyday lives.

Finally, Melissa’s presentation revisited a key technology of governmentality, ‘the gaze’. The gaze is both an instrument of surveillance, increasingly found in childhood, as well as a playground of pleasure. Her contribution engaged with children’s photographic practices on the Connectors Study where they were given digital cameras to take photographs of what mattered to them. Melissa discussed what it might mean ethnographically to be undone by and to engage with the child’s gaze, as well as for the implications for understanding of the relationship between childhood and public life. For the later she used the emerging theorisation that she and Christos are developing on the ‘child’s gaze’ to read a set of images taken by two children, one in London and one in Athens, on the topic of the ‘refugee crisis’. 

Unfortunately, Rebecca, and Thomas (who was our discussant), were unable to join us at the last minute, and their physical presence was very much missed but they were there in spirit! Had Rebecca been there she would have raised questions about what it means for a school in England to declare an inclusion ‘Equality and Diversity’ initiative as ‘’not political you know?’’ Focussing on an encounter between the school leader and a disgruntled eight year old as he enters the classroom after a break, Rebecca questions how she as an ethnographer might read what takes place. She will draw on Foucault to deconstruct assumptions of the discourses at play and on Rancière to enable to consider what might be at stake in any declaration of ‘politics’. 

The panel generated a lively discussion on the shift of ethics within ethnographic studies from compliance to the productive task of imagining what could happen in the elaborated way given by Martin’s talk; this might be achieved through believing something is true at the same time as knowing it is not true in the nearest possible worlds (Pritchard). We also discussed the relationship between hierarchical structures that construct the child in institutional worlds versus the more rhizomatic structures (Deleuze) through which children themselves construct their own worlds and how this might relate to the ontological question of dissensus as well as questions about the refusal of children’s agency and would end in the very political litigiousness (Ranciere). Here we wondered, whether this means a de-centering of the child and a critique of the child’s embeddendness in intimate publics, where we might need to redefine the political in relation to ethnographic theory.  

We are currently in the process of re-thinking, expanding, and commoning the Childhood Publics network. The network aims to connect and put in dialogue researchers and practitioners whose research aligns with the broad themes of childhood publics, including (re)thinking children’s agency, children’s participation, social movements, politics, and intergenerational solidarities as these relate to childhood. In the coming months we will be discussing ways in which to more collectively organise and collectively run the network, as well as openning up to new members and thinking about meaningful and creative activities for the near future. For all these- and much more to come, watch this space, and do get in touch if you are interested to join us. 

This blog post was written by Martin, Melissa and Christos.

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