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British Journal of Sociology of Education

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The Two Traditions in Educational Ethnography: sociology and

anthropology compared
Sara Delamonta; Paul Atkinsona
Department of Sociology, University College, Cardiff

To cite this Article Delamont, Sara and Atkinson, Paul(1980) 'The Two Traditions in Educational Ethnography: sociology
and anthropology compared', British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1: 2, 139 152
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/0142569800010201


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British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1980

The Two Traditions in Educational Ethnography:

sociology and anthropology compared*
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SARA DELAMONT & PAUL ATKINSON, Department of Sociology, University

College, Cardiff

There is a vigorous, and possibly growing, research interest in the 'ethnography' of

schooling. That is, broadly speaking, research on and in educational institutions
based on participant observation and/or permanent recordings of everyday life in
naturally occurring settings. We welcome this interest (cf. Delamont, 1978) and
have attempted to make some contribution to it (e.g. Delamont, 1976; Atkinson,
1976; Atkinson & Delamont, 1977). We believe, however, that there is some danger
that 'ethnographic' research may come to be taken as a self-justifying activity. In
other words, there is a potentialand very seriouspitfall involved in identifying
such research activity solely or primarily in terms of the method.
'Ethnographic' research approaches do have affinities with particular theoretical
schools or traditions. The rationale for participant observation, for example, or for
the analysis of naturally occurring talk, can be found within a number of so-called
'interpretative' sociologies. Ethnographic research reflects the epistemological com-
mitments or presuppositions of such theoretical perspectives. But there is not a hard-
and-fast, determinate relationship between ethnographic work on the one hand and
any particular theoretical position on the other. Ethnography can be conducted
under the auspices of a range of theories. It is in this sense that we wish to warn
against the premature identification of an 'ethnographic' approach which might lose
sight of its theoretical possibilities. Many of those who have adopted an ethnogra-
phic approach to educational research have done so in reaction to 'positivism',
'mindless empiricism' (or whatever epithets are invoked in the same vein). There is a
present danger that some of them at least may find themselves contributing to a
novel variety of the same inadequate work: an empiricism mindless of its' theoretical
We wish to highlight this general theme by documenting how 'ethnography' can
serve several masters: in particular, we wish to contrast the use of such research

* This is a revised version of a paper presented to the SSRC/Open University conference on the
ethnography of schooling, St Hilda's College, Oxford, 10th-12th September 1979.
140 S. Delamont & P. Atkinson

procedures in the study of schools in Britain and the United States. To a

considerable extent this means that we are also led to reflect on differences between
the anthropology and the sociology of education. In the course of this exploration
we also hope to draw together much of the literature from the respective countries
and disciplinary fields. Our reading of the literature suggests very strongly that
despite havingapparentlycommon concerns, scholars in the respective countries,
and those who work in the two different disciplines, have little awareness of each
other's work. This underlines our basic point. The 'ethnography' of schooling seems
to be going on within more or less watertight academic boundaries. Despite a
common approach to the conduct of inquiry there seems to be little in the way of
shared interests or theoretical perspectives. Having indicated the existence of
contrasting 'schools' and briefly characterised their content, we shall then go on to
describe their abiding concerns and attempt to relate them to more general national
and disciplinary preoccupations.
Our starting point is a more particular one, however. Although we have both
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carried out ethnographic research in educational settings, and both originally

studied social anthropology, it is only recently that we have turned our attention
systematically to the anthropological tradition in educational research. We had
been content merely to incorporate a diffuse sympathy for qualitative research into
our sociological work. The occasion for our more recent reflection was the
development of an undergraduate course on the Sociology of Wales, in which we
were committed to a component on 'language, identity and education'. We turned
therefore to the literature on bilingualism, biculturalism and 'culture clash' in
schools. The language issue in Welsh education is as contentious as anything in
Montreal, or among any other of the North American ethnic minorities. It was to
the North American literature that we turned, therefore. (Not that such educational
issues are confined to North America, of course, and this was not our exclusive area
of interest.) There we found a large corpus of published ethnographies of education
which seems to be generally overlooked by British sociologists ofeducation [1].
There is an obvious and striking difference between British and American school
ethnography. Whereas the American research on schools and classrooms has been
conducted primarily by applied anthropologists, that in Britain has been done
overwhelmingly by researchers who see themselves as sociologists. It is noticeable
that several researchers now working as sociologists were trained as anthropologists,
or began work in anthropology departments. Both of the present authors fall into
the former category, while the classic Manchester-based studies of Hargreaves
(1967), Lacey (1970) and Lambart (1976) were undertaken in a joint department of
sociology and anthropology. The Manchester department was, at the time of these
educational research projects, turning attention more generally to research on
contemporary British society (including industrial settings); several of the British
'community studies' discussed later in this paper also emanated from the Manches-
ter department. While there was a strong anthropological impetus and an
ethnographic approach to this work, it is apparent that the school studies are more
strongly sociological in flavour. Since these initial studies both Lacey and
Hargreaves have looked increasingly to sociological paradigms such as symbolic
interactionism. Similarly, several members of the Centre for Research in the
Educational Sciences at Edinburgh, including ourselves, had backgrounds in
anthropology. But the published work associated with CRES shows a much stronger
sociological orientation (e.g. Stubbs & Delamont, 1976).
Where British research has looked to North America it has been to American
Two Traditions in Educational Ethnography 141

sociology in generalespecially symbolic interactionism and, more recently, ethno-

methodology [2]. The comparatively few empirical studies of schooling in these
traditions are referred to much more frequently than the more numerous anthropo-
logical studies. The small numbers of American and Canadian school ethnographers
who see themselves as sociologists actually look to Britain to find inspiration and an
audience for their work [3]. The different perspectives and traditions on either side
of the Atlantic are exemplified by our own experience vis-a-vis schooling in Wales.
When we searched the literature for ethnographic research on Welsh education, we
found only one observational study of a Welsh-speaking school. This had been
undertaken by an American fieldworker (Khleif, 1976), and he treated the Welsh
pupils precisely as if they were North American Indians. At the same time he paid
scant attention to British work on education.
This Welsh example therefore exemplifies the first of our themes. We shall go on
to examine the literature in more detail. In this next section we shall attempt to
establish that the Atlantic really does divide school ethnographers into differing
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traditions. Our first task, then, must be to establish the truth of our claim that
school and classroom ethnography in America and Canada is predominantly
anthropological in orientation, while that in Britain is more sociological. To do this
we need to show four things: a relatively large amount of educational anthropology
in North America; a small amount of sociologically inspired work there; the absence
of educational anthropology in Britain; the sociological orientation of British
ethnographic work.
It seems incontrovertible that there is a great deal of American and Canadian
work in educational anthropology. With very little effort, in our preliminary survey
of the field we 'discovered' that there exist a specialist journal, numerous special
issues of other journals, many text-books and collections of papers and several major
review articles, as well as numerous monographs and journal articles [4]. Although
there are many workers in the field, there are several major figures who have been
particularly influential in developing it, in sponsoring other researchers through
their editorial work and so on [5]. The field is not without its critics: the collection
of papers edited by Weaver (1973) attests this. But it is undeniable that it is
remarkably homogeneous, characterised by a common style, tone and recurrent
concerns. It has been going strong for at least the last twenty years. It is therefore a
well-established and thriving research tradition: at least in terms of the quantity of
material published and the number of active researchers involved it dominates
North American educational ethnography.
In contrast to the abundance of anthropological work, there appears to be a
relative lack of fieldwork in schools and classrooms which is recognisably sociological
in style and orientation. That is, there are few studies which explicitly ally
themselves to sociology, with citations of sociological literature. It is hard for us to
prove a negative in this context, but the search procedures which generated the
volume of citations of anthropological work failed to produce anything like the same
amount of material. We doubt very much whether anyone could find enough
sociological work from North America to match the list of ethnographic research
given by Burnett (see below). The list of sociological school ethnographies we know
of is relatively small [6]. Even the once buoyant and seminal symbolic interactionist
tradition of studying occupational socialisation seems, in the 1970s, moribund and
negative (see Atkinson, forthcoming). The lack of material available for review by
Lightfoot (1974, 1979) also lends support to our conclusion.
Several years ago one of us pointed out the lack of British research in the
142 S. Delamont & P. Atkinson

anthropological tradition, and an apparent lack of interest in the possibility of such

work (Delamont, 1975a, b). With the exception of one or two isolated individuals
(e.g. Driver, 1979) it is clear that, in the 'boom' of observational, ethnographic
research, anthropological perspectives have had little direct influence. British
researchers have certainly not been influenced by the American work of this sort.
Nor does there appear to be much cross-fertilisation in the opposite direction. Only
two British scholars appear in any of the American collections or in the Burnett
(1974) bibliography for educational fieldwork (as opposed to work on child
socialisation). Musgrove (1973) is included for his work in Uganda, and Lacey
(1973) has a paper on his Hightown Grammar research. Even these two authors
have not drawn on the American research with which they were once anthologised
in their subsequently published work.
One of the most striking pieces of evidence in this context is provided by a survey
by Landman (1978) of applied anthropologists in Britain, carried out in 1975 and
1976. Landman comments that because there is no professional organisation for
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applied anthropologists in the United Kingdom, she had to find her target
population by combing publications and using respondents' personal networks. She
claims to have found nearly all those people who are working as 'applied
anthropologists', and her total numbered sixty; of these ten were working on
education. Landman found that:
"The specific label 'applied anthropologist' is generally avoided by them
because of its frequently negative connections in Britain today."'
Some of her respondents reported feelings of inferiority, because of the low status of
the applied field and its lack of theoretical development. Others acknowledged the
low status, but argued that this was the result of prejudice and had no reason to feel
themselves in any way inferior. A minority felt that applied anthropology was a
legacy of colonialism and that it should therefore die away. Landman herself
thought that the subject had lost ground in Britain since the demise of the Colonial
Social Science Research Council and the lapse of the Applied Anthropology chairs,
readerships and lectureships at the London University Institute of Education and at
the London School of Economics. Of course, work on schooling does not have to be
designated 'applied' but our feeling is that if a search like Landman's can find only
ten people who are anthropologists working on education, then we can be confident
in our claim that the speciality is underdeveloped in the United Kingdom.
In contrast to the almost complete absence of anthropology, when we turn to
sociological work in Britain it is apparent that recent years have witnessed a good
many ethnographic studies [7], They derive from a number of different theoretical
perspectivesalthough the theoretical underpinnings are not always explicitly
acknowledged. Some of this work has been inspired by American sociologyespeci-
ally the Chicago school of symbolic interactionism. The cognate formal sociology of
Goffman has likewise been drawn on in the same overall programme of research.
The relative lack of theoretical development in this context, however, has moved
Hargreaves to inquire in a recent paper 'Whatever happened to symbolic
interactionism?' (Hargreaves, 1978). There has been fresh impetus to such observa-
tional work from the so-called 'new sociology of education', in which varieties of
phenomenological and Marxist analyses have been combined, with particular
emphasis on the organisation and reproduction of knowledge (Karabel & Halsey
(1977), indeed, have quite erroneously seen this tendency as the only inspiration for
ethnographic research in educational settings.) This British movement has appeared
in some few American studies (e.g. West, 1975). The ethnomethodological approach
Two Traditions in Educational Ethnography 143

has also led to number of sudies of naturally occurring interaction in educational

settings: this is, of course, true for the United States as well [8]. Although it is not,
strictly speaking, a work of educational ethnography, Willis' (1977) recently published
monograph has also occasioned considerable interest in ethnographic research. The
fact that Willis allies this approach to a Marxian analysis only serves to underline
the fact that ethnography is not a theoretical perspective in itself, but can be
employed in varying theoretical frameworks. (Although we cannot elaborate the
point here, we also believe that the attempt to marry ethnography and Marxism has
led Willis into some pitfalls when it comes to the interpretation of his data.)
In making these remarks we are not unaware of the fact that the American
literature contains several outstanding works of sociological research. Nor are we
confusing quality of research with quantity. (A thorough critical review of all the
relevant literature would be quite beyond the scope of this essay.) Overall, however,
we believe that we have been able to indicate that sociologically oriented
ethnographic research is much more lively and active in Britain than it is in the
United States and Canada. In very general terms, then, it can be concluded that
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'ethnography' in North America and in Britain is being carried out under the
auspices of rather different traditions. While the labels 'sociology' and 'anthro-
pology' are not absolute they do indicate the different styles of the respective
traditionstheir characteristic concerns, substantive, methodological and theoreti-
cal. We shall continue with a more detailed examination of these concerns.
We shall do so first by outlining some salient aspects of the American educational
anthropology. We begin by outlining the general substantive concerns of the
research. This discussion is based on the contents of the 157-page annotated
bibliography compiled by Burnett (1974). We have chosen this as a convenenient
summary of the field, and the parameters it suggests square with our wider reading
in the area in journals, text-books and edited collections. Table I shows the ethnic
and linguistic groups which have been studied inside the North American continent,
and Table II shows the other areas of the world which have been studied. It is clear
from Table I that the number of studies focused on an ethnic group bears no
relation to their proportionate place in the total population. Indians are numerically
insignificant, but have received the bulk of the research attention. Research
attention has been concentrated on groups who are a 'problem' in educational
terms, because they are seen to be 'failing'. The studies of Indians, Blacks, Chicanos
and Puerto-Ricans together make up the vast bulk of the published work.
Table II shows that the bulk of the work has been done in Africa, with lesser
amounts in Asia, and in the Pacific Islands and Australasia. The African studies are
TABLE I. Ethnic groups studied in the North American Continent

Ethnic group No. of published studies

Indians (in USA and Canada) 89

Wasps/Anglos 40
Negroes 38
Chicanos (in USA and Mexico) 23
Puerto Ricans (in USA and Puerto-Rico) 14
Eskimo 8
Rural Deprived (Ozarks, Appalachians etc.) 6
Orientals (mainly Japanese) 5
Other (e.g. Italians) 2
Total no. cited 225
144 S. Delamont <? P. Atkinson

TABLE II. Other areas of the world studied

Area No. of published studies

Africa 59
Asia 36
Pacific Islands and Australasia 28
Latin America (excl. Mexico) 14
Europe (inc. USSR) 11
Middle East 8
Caribbean 8

spread across the continent from Egypt to the Cape, and from Liberia to Tanzania,
but no region, country or people has been studied by more than one or two people.
Within the overall category of 'Asian' studies, Japan has received the most attention
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(12 studies) followed by India (5), Thailand (4) and China (4). Within Europe
Germany (5) has been most intensively studied, and in the Middle East Israel (4).
The work done in the Pacific Islands and Australasia is spread across a range of
cultures, but Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines are more frequently studied than
ex-British or French colonies. In other words the research effort has followed the flag"
or the army of occupation or the peace corps. If one can talk of American 'colonies'
then that is where the educational anthropologists have worked overseas, while
inside the American continent the focus is on the 'internal colonies'. This focus has
been criticised (see Weaver, 1973) by radical anthropologists and by members of the
minority groups themselves. Vine Deloria (1973) in the intriguingly titled Custer
Died for Your Sins has voiced an Indian protest. He claims that:
Indians have been cursed above all other peoples in history. Indians have
anthropologists. Every summer, when school is out, a stream of immigrants
heads into Indian country... This odd creature comes to Indian reserva-
tions to make observations... the anthro is usually devoted to pure re-
search ... The difference between pure and applied research is primarily
one of footnotes. Pure has many footnotes, applied has few footnotes...
Anthropologists came to Indian country only after the tribes had agreed to
live on reservations and had given up their warlike ways. Had the tribes
been given a choice of fighting the cavalry or the anthropologists, there is
little doubt as to who they would have chosen... Several years ago, an
anthropologist stated t h a t . . . he had spent... $10,000,000 studying a tribe
of fewer than 1,000 people...had it been invested in buildings and
businesses there would have been no problems to study.
Deloria claims that too many Indians have swallowed anthropological theories
about the 'tribal', 'folk' nature of their lives, which prevent them from striving to
join mainstream urban society. He is both witty and bitter.
The substantive focus of the anthropological studies of education as carried on in
North America is therefore on 'problem' groups in American and Canadian
societies, and on certain parts of the Third World. Further elucidation of the topics
studied will follow, together with discussion of the theories and methods adopted.
Initially it is harder to characterise the British material, which is rather more
diverse a corpus than the American anthropology. It is, however, easy enough to
point to one major contrast. There is remarkably little work which has explicitly
addressed the educational experiences and problems of Britain's minority ethnic
Two Traditions in Educational Ethnography 145

groups. Despite the very visible presence of different ethnic groups in many British
schools, this has not been the subject of ethnographic school studies. Naturally
enough young British pupils from West Indian, Indian, Pakistani, Cypriot and other
'immigrant' backgrounds appear among the dramatis personae of some studies. They
are not normally treated as the focus of the research, however. Of course, the
situations differ as between the two countries. Amongst other things there exist in
North America schools which are exclusively Indian, Eskimo and so on, and to that
extent, perhaps, may appear to offer more 'obvious' research potential.
If that aspect of Britain's colonialism has been overlooked, then it is also the case
that the so-called 'internal colonies' have received little explicit attention. The
peripheral areas of the 'Celtic fringe', for intance, have not attracted field research
to any extent. (As we pointed out in introducing this paper, the only substantial
study of a Welsh rural school is in the style of American anthropology.) Indeed there
has been no significant British work on the ethnography of rural schooling which, in
the American style, might investigate the school in the context of its rural
'community' setting.
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There has been an important research tradition in Britain which does span
'anthropology' and 'sociology'and that is the collection of 'community studies'. At
one time a flourishing approach, this style of intensive study of small-scale (usually
rural) communities is now rather in abeyance. But here perhaps one might have
found something which approximated the concerns of the American anthropolo-
gists. Remarkably, however, those authors who contributed to this genre devoted
precious little time to the discussion of schools and schooling as such. The topic is
not ignored altogether, we must admit. Emmett (1964), for example, in her account
of life in a rural Welsh community, points out that school was a distinctively
'English' enclave. In a similar vein Littlejohn (1963), in his study in the Scottish
border country, comments on attitudes to schooling on the part of farmers and other
members of the local population. He comments on the extent to which the school
attempted to inculcate 'middle class' language and manners. While these and
similar community studies include some remarks on local schools as part of their
'holistic' ethnographic accounts, there is little or no evidence that the schools
themselves were ever the topic of systematic observation and inquiry. Unique in this
respect among European community studies appears to be that of Wylie (1957).
This is a study of a village in southern France which included some specific
attention to education in the ethnographic data collection. Interestingly enough, the
author was an American.
If we were to characterise the British material, then, in terms of the sort of schools
studied, their location and so on, we would be forced to conclude that it is
predominantly urban in character. By and large secondary schooling has predomi-
nated over other segments of the education system. Although by no means
homogeneous in their subject-matter, then, the British studies of schooling
concentrate on a fairly consistent and limited range of types of schooling. While
neither the British nor American traditions are uniform, they do have distinctive
emphases, then. (They also have blind-spots in commonsuch as a neglect of
gender as an organising theme; but this is hardly restricted to school ethnographies.)
The relative homogeneity of the American research certainly does not mirror
cultural and geographical uniformity in the schools and cultures which have been
investigated. There is a world of differenceon the surface at any ratebetween,
say, the school in a remote Kwakiutl village on the northwest Pacific coast (Wolcott,
1967) and one catering for Puerto Rican adolescents in Chicago (Burnett, 1973).
146 S. Delamont & P. Atkinson

What unites so much of this apparently diverse research is a consistent preoccupa-

tion with issues of cultural variation and 'culture clash'. This indeed is a theme of
much American educational writing, and it is to this more general theme that we
now turn.
Over the past ten years or so there has been considerable interest in ideas about
'multiculturalism', 'biculturalism', 'bilingualism', 'bidialectism' and similar notions,
all connoting a preoccupation with cultural pluralism and a stance of cultural
relativism. This enthusiasm has followed the widespread rejection of the ideas
implicit in those now infamous calls for assimilation of all ethnic and cultural
groups into mainstream WASP American culture (e.g. Glaser & Moynihan, 1954).
In contrast there have been celebrations of all kinds of non-WASP cultures (see, e.g.
Dworkin & Dworkin, 1976). In education this has led to a flood of books and special
issues of journals on cultural pluralism [9]. The calls for Spanish language schools
for Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, for example, and the resulting struggles for
political and linguistic control of the schools have produced a climate of interest in
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which anthropological studies celebrating Amish, Cherokee and Ijaw culture are
likely to be read and used as texts in teacher training.
The American ethnographies thus have this in common. They serve to document
one of two things. Either they celebrate the cultural uniqueness of the researcher's
chosen setting, or they go on to stress the 'clash' between that culture and that of the
school, which is representative of white urban middle-class America. The school
therefore is portrayed (implicity or explicitly) as an arena where the diverse cultural
backgrounds and assumptions of teachers and taught, of school and community
impinge on one another and conflict.
If the anthropological perspective is in harmony with the American obsession
with cultural pluralism, educational interests are also congruent with the more
general concerns of American anthropology. The American tradition of cultural
anthropology, in contrast to British social anthropology, has always accepted, and
indeed welcomed, considerable influence from other social sciencesnot least from
social psychology. The sub-discipline of 'culture and personality' studies has a long
and respectable history in American anthropology. The subject has therefore been
committed to the investigation of socialisation and enculturation. Childrearing, for
example, has for long held acentral place in the anthropological literature (see, e.g.
Wilbert, 1976).
In contrast, British anthropologists have tended to hold themselves aloof, and to
regard such psychological influences with some suspicion. British scholarship has
fostered a more austere outlook, emphasising the structural-functional or structural-
ist modes of analysis. With one or two exceptions, British social anthropologists have
paid little explicit attention to issues of education and socialisation (except in so far
as they are implied in issues of kinship and marriage, rituals of the life-cycle, descent
and inheritance and so on). The one collection of papers on socialisation (Mayer,
1970) quite clearly includes a number of 'afterthought' essays. It is perhaps
indicative of the relative standing of such topics that several of the papers are also
contributed by the female halves of researcher couples. It seems to be 'women's
work'. (In making this point we recognise the sexual division of labour; we do not
aim to endorse it.) In short, then, whereas American anthropologists can study
education without appearing to abandon the confines of their 'pure' discipline, the
subject in Britain is much less accommodating to such work. Furthermore, as we
have noted already, there has been a far greater willingness to endorse an 'applied'
Two Traditions in Educational Ethnography 147

role for the subject in the United States and Canada. Applied anthropology had
been viewed askance in Britain and has very few practitioners [10].
As we have indicated, the North American anthropologists treat as problematic
the juxtaposition and incongruence of cultures, and the school as an arena for such
conflict. On the other hand, the actual process of schooling tends to be glossed over.
That is, the organisation and day-to-day accomplishment of social life in the schools
and classrooms remains implicit. There is little or no systematic ethnographic
material on the classrooms themselves, and such data that are presented tend to be
rather scrappy and anecdotal. Burnett (1973) is rare in having an avowed aim of
analysing critical events in the classroom. But the underlying assumptionthat of
culture clash between Puerto Rican youngsters and an Anglo schooldominates the
analysis, while never being explicitly addressed or questioned itself. Remarkably,
Burnett, like other authors in the same style, makes no reference to earlier Chicago-
school ethnographies. Howard Becker and Blanche Geer might never have existed
for all the use she makes of their work.
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As we say, Burnett is unusual in this context in referring explicitly to the research

methods employed. The ethnographer's techniques usually remain implicit in the
published works of educational anthropologists. It is often far from clear what they
did and why they did it. It may not even be evident to the reader how long the
researcher was in the field, what roles were adopted, or how data were collected and
recorded. Most of the studies are also remarkably lacking in theory. This point has
been made most forcefully by Foster (1972) in a review of the major collection
edited by Wax et al. (1971). Foster launched a vigorous attack on the whole sub-
discipline, arguing that it was characterised by a "relative absence of conceptual
advance and significant fieldwork", and that a large proportion of the authors were
afflicted with an unwarrantably romantic viewor, as he puts it, with "subliminal
If we turn now to the sociological versions of 'ethnography', with particular
reference to British work, then a rather different picture emerges. In contrast to the
anthropological literature we have just described, there appears to be a higher level
of theoretical and methodological self-awareness. It clearly derives from a number of
theoretical developments in sociology and the ethnography is informed by them
(although, as we warned at-the beginning of this paper, there does appear to be
some danger of the research coming adrift from the theoretical moorings). It is not
our purpose in this brief review to outline and evaluate all the theoretical
undercurrents. A useful summary is provided by Woods & Hammersley (1977), in
their editorial introduction. They sketch out how various types of anti-positivistic
and 'interpretative' approach became incorporated into the British sociology of
education: symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, ethnomethodology and so on.
In some contexts they were mixed with other more structurally based perspectives,
including the Marxist, in the heady brew normally referred to as the 'new sociology
of education'. Woods & Hammersley comment:
Central to this 'new approach' was a focus on teacher and pupil
experiences as revealed in teachers' and pupils' own accounts, their
interpretations and feelings merging, changing, developing, converging,
blurring, clarifying and so on in the course of everyday life in schools. This
carried implications for the significance of the impact of schooling, for
example, on the pupil's conception of self and his construction of identity
within the society of which he is part.
Thus the recurrent preoccupation of the British sociologists has been the
148 S. Delamont & P. Atkinson

organisation and negotiation of everyday life in schools and classrooms. Although

the American literature is rather sparse, sociological research on both sides of the
Atlantic draws on common sources and inspirationa great deal of it American in
origin. Whereas the anthropologists tend to treat the process of schooling as
unproblematic, the sociological approach has treated that process as the topic of
research in its own right. Hence the sociologists are, to that extent, more
sophisticated in their analyses of schooling as such. The anthropologists would do
well to adopt this perspective, at least in part: their work would benefit enormously
from the inclusion of more detailed and systematic ethnography of schooling, from
the sort of 'micro-ethnographic' research presently current in some sociological
At the same time there is little room for complacency on the other side. The
sociologists' apparent ignorance or disregard of the anthropological literature is
hardly praiseworthy. We find it regrettable that those bodies of work should be
developing in almost total isolation. The anthropologists may well have something
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to contribute. Whatever their theoretical, methodological, and indeed ideological

shortcomings, they do display the varieties of cultural setting in which schooling is
conducted. As we have indicated already, we find the present range of studies
unnecessarily and regrettably limited. There has been little enough attention paid to
the schooling of minority groups, or in rural and peripheral regions. There has,
perhaps, been a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the educational
experiences of urban working-class children in secondary schools. Certainly they are
important, but they are not the be-all and end-all. The contrast between the
anthropology from the United States and the sociology of the United Kingdom
reflects an abiding difference: between a preoccupation with race and culture on the
one hand, and with social class on the other. At the same time, the anthropologists
have much to teach on the location of schools within cultural milieux. The
sensitivity of British sociologists to the negotiation of everyday life within schools
and classrooms has tended to obscure relationships between schooling and local
culture, local social structure and so on (rather than the very broadest categories of
social structure).
In conclusion, therefore, we wish to commend to researchers in the two academic
disciplines in the different countries a greater awareness of each other. We believe
that each body of research would benefit greatly thereby. We hope that the
bibliographic material embodied in this paper, as well as the arguments we have
put forward, will contribute to this rapprochement. We have also attempted to
demonstrate how 'ethnographic' research can be conducted under the auspices of
different theories and traditions, and hence cannot in and of itself substitute for
theory as such.

Correspondence: Sara Delamont & Paul Atkinson, Department of Sociology, Universi-

ty.College, PO Box 78, Cardiff CF1 1XL, Wales.


[1] We are grateful to our colleagues in the Sociology of Wales teaching team for inspiring us to
struggle with the literature discussed. We are also grateful to Shelagh Pollard and her assistants on
the Inter-Library Loan desk at University College, Cardiff's Arts and Social Science Library who
rustled up most of the studies we used.
[2] British ethnographers cite the Chicago school symbolic interactionists (e.g. Becker et al., 1961;
Two Traditions in Educational Ethnography 149

Becker et al., 1968) and their imitators (e.g. Werthman, 1963) or the work of Sacks (e.g. 1972),
Garfinkel (1967) and Aaron Cicourel (e.g. 1968).
[3] This is noticeable in the special issue of Interchange (1976) on school observation, and the way in
which over the last ten years Louis Smith, Ann and Harold Berlak, Robert Stebbins and others
have found more interested audiences in the United Kingdom than at home.
[4] The specialist journal is the Anthropology and Education Quarterly, which has reached Volume 10. There
are special issues on Anthropology and Education of Human Organization (Vol. 27, No. 1, 1968 and
Vol. 34, No. 2, 1975), Journal of Research and Development in Education (Vol. 9, No. 4, 1976), School
Review (Vol. 79, No. 1, 1970) and Youth and Society (Vol. 8, No. 4, 1977).
There are text-books by Kneller (1965) and Spindler (1955, 1963), and collections of papers by
Calhoun & Ianni (1976), Chilcott et al. (1968), Fischer (1970), Gearing & Sangree (1979), Gruber
(1961), Holmes (1967), Ianni & Storey (1973), Kimball & Burnett (1973), Lindquist (1970),
Middleton (1976), Roberts & Akinsanya (1976), Spindler (1974), Wax et al. (1971) and Weaver
Bibliographies include Burnett (1974), Lindquist (1971) and Storey (1971).
Review articles of the state of the field include Brameld & Sullivan (1961), Shunk & Goldstein
(1964), Wolcott (1967) and Sindell (1969) in Review of Educational Research, La Belle (1972) in
Teachers College Record, Foley (1977) and Masemann (1976) in Comparative Education Review, and
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Gmelch & Zenner (1978) in Urban Anthropology.

[5] Foremost among such arbiters of fashion are George and Louise Spindler, who are the general
editors of the series Case Studies in Education and Culture (Holt, Rinehart & Winston). There are
seventeen titles in this series: they include eight books in North America and Mexico (three Indian
groups, two Negro schools, one Eskimo group; The Amish, and one on school principals); five books
on Africa (Kpelle, Sisala, Ijaw, Kanuri and Neoni); and one each on the Philippines, Borneo,
Germany and Japan. Murray and Rosalind Wax enjoy a similar position as senior authors and
editors in the field.
[6] We would include Stinchcombe (1964), Jackson (1968), Smith & Geoffrey (1968), Rist (1970),
Cusick (1973), Stebbins (1975), Martin (1976), Berlak et al. (1976) and the work of Silvers, West &
Heap (1975) published in Interchange.
[7] There are sociological ethnographers represented in Chanan & Delamont (1975), Stubbs &
Delamont (1976), Hammersley & Woods (1976), Woods & Hammersley (1977). At an individual
level there are sociological ethnographies around by Ball (1978), Bellaby (1977), Denscombe (1978),
Hannan (1978), Andy Hargreaves (1977), David Hargreaves et al. (1975), King (1978), Willis (1977)
and Woods (1979).
[8] E.g. Cicourel et al. (1974), McHoul (1978), Mehan (1978) and Payne (1976). Torode (1976) takes a
not dissimilaralthough idiosyncraticview.
[9] A cursory look at Current Contents for the last four years revealed special issues of the following
journals: Compare (Vol. 8, No. 1, 1978); Education and Urban Society (Vol. 10, No. 3, 1978); Educational
Leadership (Vol. 33, No. 3, 1975); Educational Research Quarterly (Vol. 2, No. 4, 1978); English Journal
(Vol. 66, No. 3, 1977); Florida FL Reporter (Vol. 7, No. 1, 1969); Human Organization (Vol. 29, No. 1,
1970); Interchange (Vol. 9, No. 1, 1979); International Review of Education (Vol. 21, No. 3, 1975); Journal
of Research and Development in Education (Vol. 11, No. 1, 1977); Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 33, No. 4,
1977); The Journal of Teacher Education (Vol. 28, No. 3, 1977); Language Arts (Vol. 33, No. 3, 1976);
Linguistics (No. 198, Oct. 15, 1977); The Personnel and Guidance Journal (Vol. 55, No. 7, 1977); Prospects
(Vol. 6, No. 3, 1976); and Social Problems (Vol. 23, No. 5, 1976).
[10] The collection edited by James Watson (1977) may be the beginning of a change of direction here.

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