Welcome to the academic blog of Dr. Patrick Alexander. Click on the pages to find out about my current research (Imagining the Future), dispatches for Oxford Brookes University School of Education (Brookes in the Bronx), and general commentary on the familiar and strange of living as an itinerant anthropologist in the United States (thanks to the US-UK Fulbright Commission).

Monday 4 April 2016

We've Moved!

If you're one of the many thousands of visitors to this site each month, you'll be excited to know that I've moved permanently to the following address:


The same great content, and much much more. Come and visit!

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Life Course as Method: Age Imaginaries in School Ethnography

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Like most social scientists, my approach to methodology is in important ways entangled with personal narrative. 
My interest in age as a field of social analysis emerged from my early experiences as a secondary school teacher. 

As a twenty-three year-old trainee, I was barely older than the more senior teenage students in my charge. At the same time, I was easily recognizable to my senior colleagues as member of the same generation as their own children. Training to be a teacher involved my immersion in the uncertain performance of several different identities: professional adult, grown-up in a classroom full of kids, youthful teacher. It was jarring to me to experience simultaneously what seemed like mutually exclusive categories of age. Out on the playground, students (and, sometimes, teachers) engaged in their own complex and ever-shifting negotiation of the age-based rules of engagement in everything from friendship to bullying, dating to disgust, dominance to deference. This led me, several years later and newly formed as an anthropologist of education, to focus explicitly on age in its multiple imaginings as aspect of social life in schooling in the UK.
Approaching age as the primary focus of anthropological analysis presents methodological challenges. Expanding one’s methodological approach to capture multiple, overlapping reckonings of age is perhaps particularly tricky in schools, where order is predicated on the neat portioning of the life course into categories like age groups, year groups, grades, or stages of the life course linked to educational achievement. The difficulty lies in analysing age as an aspect of social experience, while also recognising that age is both an essentialised and an essentially dynamic aspect of social identity. This makes it something of a moving target for the beleaguered anthropologist in the field.
Ironically, researchers have tried all kinds of approaches aimed at mitigating the impact of age, and its concomitant asymmetrical power relations, as a barrier to robust data gathering. Many of these, I would argue, serve to further reify the discreteness of the age-based positionality that a researcher holds relative to younger (or older) informants. Attempts to adopt a “least adult” role in ethnographic research (put crudely, adults acting out childhood with children) may lead children to experience rather peculiar imaginings of childlike adulthood. The sociologist Ronald King (1978) famously hid in a Wendy House (or play house) in order to conduct non-participant observation with children in a classroom, uninterrupted by the presence of adults; and not surprisingly, this method also raised its own problems. Hammersely and Atkinson have pointed out the tension between knowledge, power and age in the role of the school ethnographer, arguing that, in the eyes of participants, chronologically younger researchers may fit more neatly with the role of ignorant but curious observer than do older, and therefore seemingly wiser, greying professors (2007:77). More recently, the “new” sociology of childhood has championed participatory methods as a way to foreground the voice of children and young people in school-based research. While there are significant gains to be made in better representing the self-efficacy of young people as actors in the research process, there are also issues here: it is debatable as to whether “child-centred” research (research that privileges and makes paramount the voices of children) can always be equated with what might be termed “childhood-centred” research (research that questions the terms by which the children and young people in child-centred research are defined). Research about children’s and young people’s lives in this sense must be seen as an important part of the process by which discourses of age are shaped and reproduced, rather than as a practice that exists alongside and apart from it.
In my own research, I have pursued, failed, and persevered with a range of methods for capturing the social complexity of age. Ultimately, I have found some success in a traditional approach to ethnography that embraces the messy, mercurial, dynamic nature of age as a “unit of analysis” and in so doing also attempts to capture the rich and complex ways in which age is given meaning in everyday life. Rather than limiting my analysis to the known taxonomies of age that shape life in school, my challenge was to capture the complex, concurrent, multiple notions of age that served to structure the lives of both teachers and students. As with my own experience as a teacher – of performing at once a version of grown-up, of growing up, and of being little more than a big kid with a beard – these imaginings of age were constructed relationally, idiosyncratically, and in dialogue with dominant discourses of how age “ought to be” experienced. Age, I found, was imagined in a moment-to-moment way that moved beyond existing taxonomies of age, but was also obliged to render itself sensible to them. The methodological hurdle was the capture this complexity. I have attempted to do so through applying the concept of age imaginaries– a “warts and al” approach to recognising how age shapes the ethnographic process as much as it shapes experiences of schooling for children, young people, adults – and everyone in between.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Brookes in the Bronx: Reflecting on A Year of Ethnography

Picture a 17 year-old girl who was shot in the head at a Freshman party, now wheelchair-bound, struggling to graduate. A young Latino man with ‘Game Over’ tattooed on his eyelids, leaving his gang affiliations behind to focus on schooling. A hard working, smiling, first generation migrant teen from Ghana, on his way with a full scholarship to a prestigious private American university. Middle class kids from relatively stable families, pursuing a well-known but increasingly fragile version of the American Dream that leads from college to job satisfaction and security in the future. Picture an incredibly dedicated principal who begins his work day, everyday, at 4.30am, and for whom no issue in his high school of 2000 students is too small to deal with personally. Tireless, caring teachers who may teach English, but who also council the homeless, or disaffected, or desperate youth that they encounter in their classrooms, before hemming and washing the clothes of their students so that they’re presentable for work experience. Picture tired, over-worked teachers who struggle to marry their vision of doing well by their students against the increasing demands for accountability from their institution, the City, the state, and the government. Picture police officers walking the halls of a school, protecting students from within and without, idly high-fiving the occasional straggler on the way to class. Picture an immense, castle-like structure in The Bronx, where these people exist together, carving out aspirations and imaginings of their distinct but interconnected futures amidst the pulsing, chaotic, inspiring, roaring mechanism of New York City.

This is a list of just a few of the incredible individuals who I was fortunate enough to meet as part of my experience as a Fulbright Peabody Scholar conducting anthropological research into aspirations and schooling in New York City during the academic year 2014-2015. As an anthropologist of education, I am fascinated and driven by three connected fields of inquiry: a) the social and cultural processes through which humans learn; b) the ways in which we give structure to our social lives; and c) the means that we use to shape and reproduce culture. In this research and in my previous academic work to date, I have been preoccupied in particular by the ways in which schooling serves to socialise young people (and eventually, older people) into particular practices and ways of thinking. As a profoundly important context in which lasting social norms and values are forged, mass formal education serves a very compelling space for exploring the ideological drivers of contemporary society.

With this in mind, in this research I was especially interested to explore comparatively the ways in which schooling shapes the aspirations and imaginings of the future held by those at the very end of formal secondary education. I wanted to ask high school seniors what they wanted to be when they grew up, and then to unravel the complex set of sociological factors that led them to aspire to particular imaginings of the future. I also wanted to know about the barriers to achieving their aspirations for the future, and the strategies and supports that they used in order to overcome (or not overcome) these barriers. In short, I wanted to better understand in comparative relief what young people in contemporary British and American society consider to be the building blocks of a meaningful life; and I wanted to understand why they think this way. These are issues at the heart of much political and popular discourse in the UK and the US. Indeed, the effective shaping of the aspirations of young people, through schooling, is at the very core of the economic and political ideologies of our respective nation-states. If the children are our future, as Witney Houston would have it, then schools are the contexts in which particular imaginings of the future are given shape, value, and potentiality. I wanted to better understand why certain futures are privileged and articulated through experiences of schooling, and how these may be similar and different in the post-recession realities of everyday school life in the US and the UK.

In order to do so, during 2014-2015 I spent several days each week spending time with seniors and their teachers at a school I call Bronx High School. By adopting this classic ethnographic methodology of socio-cultural anthropology, I hoped to immerse myself in the everyday life of the school, documenting mundane, cumulative, momentary articulations of ideas about aspiration and the future, mainly through observation, conversation and interview. Fortunately for me, schools are inherently future-gazing spaces: most activities and conversations are directed towards a future task, an impending examination or assessment, a future status as college student, college dropout, worker, or even grown-up. This meant that everyday at Bronx High was a good day for exploring youth imaginings of the future.

This is not to say, however, that these imaginings were articulated in a simple or straightforward way. In fact, one of the more compelling emerging findings of the research is the complex, multiple imaginings of the future that individual students are able to maintain concurrently, even when these imaginings may at first seem mutually exclusive. Students must also navigate the contested nature of the futures imagined for them by (and in relation to the relative futures of) the school, the City, or broader US society. As suggested above, Bronx High was home to a range of students, many of whom were much more familiar with generational patterns of entrenched disadvantage in The Bronx than they were with the sparkling affluence of near-distant Manhattan. In reconciling their experiences of disadvantage with the powerful message of potential future success and happiness underpinning the school’s articulation of the American Dream, many students would at once imagine a future as pro basketball players, rappers, lawyers, philanthropic businesspeople, or simply as college graduates, while also articulating their fear and frustration at the likelihood of much less opulent futures ahead. Some articulated their aspirations for the future in keeping with a traditional pathway from hard work at school, to college, and on to employment, wealth, and the happiness that comes with social and economic security. Others were more cynical about the relationship between schooling and learning, and between schooling and the ultimate conditions for a meaningful life (even if they were on their way to college anyway – just in case). Others still had no clear vision of what the future would be like, but were on the way to college because that was their normative framework for navigating early adulthood. Drawing metaphorically from the realm of quantum physics, over the course of the project I developed the concept of quantum personhood as a means of understanding these complex, multiple imaginings of future selves – the uncertain, entangled, seemingly incongruent but ultimately coherent articulations of individual and collective social identity, expressed in the present but always in relation to past and potential future versions of who we are and may be.

In June 2014, as I attended the high school graduation ceremony for seniors at Bronx High (including some of those mentioned above), I had cause to reflect on the truly profound impact that my Fulbright experience had on me, both personally and professionally. I learned a lot from the gracious, welcoming high school seniors and teachers who allowed me into their lives during the school year. This was not only in terms of their particular articulations of aspiration and the future, but also in terms of developing a critical perspective on the broader concept of aspiration as it is understood and articulated in late modern capitalist societies like the UK and the US. Adopting this kind of critical approach is crucial not only in helping young people to overcome risks and develop resilience in achieving their aspirations, but also in helping them to challenge on a more profound level the terms in which these aspirations are framed. As my year as a Fulbright scholar came to an end, I left New York City with a renewed fascination for understanding in comparative relief the relationships between US and UK culture and society. This is inspired as much by my research as in the rich experience of cultural exchange that Fulbright provides. I now look forward to continuing with this research project as I begin a second year of ethnographic school, this time in a London secondary school, where I anticipate I will find distinct but similarly complex youth imaginings of the future.    

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Another High School Year Ends

In New York City this year, Spring came and went like the proverbial Yellow Cab. As if impatient even with the weather, New York hurried the crisp, sunny, English breeze of Spring out of the way, in favour of the thickening, humid air of summer. Where New York in winter is almost devoid of smells, in the early days of summer the city bursts into olfactory life. As I make my morning commute from Williamsburg to the Bronx, early morning coffee and pastries waft into flower-filled window boxes on Bedford Avenue. On North 7th street I descend into the bleach/fruit-scented cleaning products and air conditioning of the subway. On the 4 train, we rocket past the sweaty throng of Union Square and Grand Central, and burst overground into summer sunshine at 161st Street, Yankee Stadium. Stepping off the subway and back into the close heat of the north Bronx, there are occasional clouds of vape and cigarette smoke, faint scents of always-decaying garbage, and the sweet tang of piragua - syrup-flavoured shaved ice sold by street vendors. Walking across the avenue, I'm always greeted warmly at Bronx High by NYPD school security staff idling by the airport-style metal detectors in the main foyer. Blistering sunshine recedes to shade inside the echoing, marbled corridors of the school's main building, and I begin another of the last few remaining days of fieldwork before the school year is finally, and suddenly, over. 

The change in seasons has brought with it even more evidence of the tensions of race and inequality that surge in American society. In April, Freddy Gray, a young black man from Baltimore, died as a result of injuries sustained in police custody. Protests and riots flooded the streets of Baltimore as the city's populace registered their outcry at yet another example of police brutality against minority men.

In the incessant cycle of American news media, one could be forgiven for conflating this incident with numerous others occurring in the past weeks that have also raised questions about race and inequality. One such incident was the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, a black man in North Charleston, South Carolina. White police officer Michael Slager shot Scott 8 times as he ran away, unarmed. The scene was caught on camera by a passerby, leading to Slager's indictment on murder charges and further demonstrations about race relations in the United States. 

The Scott case led President Obama to make even more clear his position on race and inequality in the US and the need for institutional and structural change. It seems that as he draws closer to the end of his presidency, Obama feels more confident in making such statements, and to act on them. In May, for example, Obama and his entourage thundered over Bronx High in twin Chinook helicopters, landing in a swirl of dust on the playing field of Lehman College, located down the block. Obama was there to draw attention to the My Brother's Keeper Alliance aimed at improving outcomes for boys and young men of colour - a cause that seems integral to Obama's post-presidential career. This did nothing for students' attention to the task at hand in AP English that afternoon, but it did register a clear commitment at the highest levels of government to issues of race, gender and inequality - and did so in a way that brought all these issues close to home in this Bronx neighbourhood.

Others including Hillary Clinton have also weighed in on the need for change. On a small-scale, in relation to the police this might involve officers wearing body-cameras; but on the large scale this means addressing issues of entrenched racism and poverty - something that is already driving the rhetoric of announced candidates in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2016.

Across the pond, of course, the failings of the UK's outdated electoral system have ensured another five years of austerity-driven Conservative government. For us back in the UK, it seems, questions about the profound inequity of our society have been quickly muffled post-election by calls for a positive psychological approach to our socio-economic woes. Aspiration remains centre-stage for the new Conservative government; but those who experience the sharp end of the austerity spear (namely, disadvantaged, marginalised young people) are increasingly being blamed, and even pathologised, for the hopelessness that their 'entrenched worklessness' engenders. In the coming year it will be interesting to find out how these seemingly contrasting sentiments are reconciled and articulated by students making their way towards the end of secondary education and into the brave new world beyond.

The Prime Minister, delivering a major speech on the economy in Bedford today, said Labour had left millions of people trapped on welfare in a system which 'punished the poor'

Issues of aspiration and inequality continue to emerge on a daily basis in the lives of seniors at Bronx High. As we enter their final week of high school (at least, for those who will graduate), the reality of what will come next is increasingly stark. Some already have places confirmed and scholarships won to attend local community colleges, and for these students the next step begins in just a few weeks. For those on financial aid, CUNY colleges provide a suite of preparation classes aimed at getting students ready for entering the mainstream of college life. This speaks to the ongoing issues that students from local NYC public schools have with success at college: all arrive with high school diplomas, but many lack the skills that these diplomas are supposed to represent. This means that students need to take different remedial pathways through college in order to stand a better chance of succeeding in the long run. In this final week of high school, few are fully aware of the challenges that will emerge in this sense in the year to come. Many students will commute to college in the city from the parental home, meaning that life will slowly transition from high school. Others will be leaving the teaming busyness of their Bronx neighbourhoods for leafy campuses upstate - a prospect that is at once exciting and scary, not least because it will be the first time that some black and latino students will experience 'being a minority' first-hand. Living in a predominantly black and latino for their whole lives, some talk about the added challenge of having to deal with 'casual' racism as part of the college experience. 

Some are excited about the exceptional future prospects that they have secured through years of hard work, application and finally acceptance to private university with 'full rides' for funding. Others simply won't be making it to college this Fall, even if they still maintain and fully believe that this is what is going to happen. Perhaps one of the most compelling and complex aspects of this research is the process through which students are capable of maintaining narratives of the future that are only loosely connected to the realities of the present. These are not 'fantasy' imaginings of a future of celebrity and wealth, but simpler imaginings of an impending future at college alongside the reality that they do not have the grades to graduate; or that they failed to pay application fees; or that they applied too late for courses; or that their parents will not allow them to go to a far away college; or that they are just not fast enough to win a track scholarship. Somehow these competing narratives of the future do not cancel one another out, and students maintain them concurrently right until the end. 'Summer school' is a dread term at Bronx High at the moment, and when it is uttered, some students finally realise that they won't be donning caps and gowns at the end of this month with their contemporaries. It is an immediate cure to 'senioritis' (the slow slacking-off that comes at towards the end of senior year), but it comes too late for some. 

For the most part, however, Bronx High is filled with the excitement of end of year. Last week, the International Fair led groups of Jamaican students and students from the Dominican Republic to scream and dance for their representatives up on stage in the school auditorium. Yesterday, year books were distributed and seniors began the symbolic process of saying good-bye to high school. Last Wednesday, most took the day off school to prepare for Prom, with all its ritual signifiers of early transitions into adulthood.

As a researcher, this is a poignant time to reflect on the many people who have been kind enough to share their lives with me over this year, and of the mounting pile of data that I have been lucky enough to gather in order to capture this process of 'coming of age'. With just a few final interviews to do, the first phase of this project is nearly complete. But I have a feeling that this is only just the beginning of a much longer story that could last long into the future - the imagined future, that is - as these young people begin to navigate the uncertain path into early adulthood, and beyond. 

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Brookes in the Bronx: Spring in the City

A week after Easter, with Passover coming to an end, and Spring has finally come to New York City. This morning the city is washed in windy sunshine, and temperatures are finally on the steady rise. You can tell from the number of slightly overweight hipster runners pounding the pavements of Brooklyn that summer is only a few jean sizes away - and I should know: I've become quite accustomed to wrapping up in a big black coat to ward of the crisp NYC winter, and any visible signs of what an American diet can do to an Englishman abroad...

When the first snows started to melt a few weekends ago, New York City looked like it was waking up from a very heavy Friday night: all those snowdrifts were playing temporary host to a million cigarette butts, discarded coffee cups and doggie bags (and not the kind you take away from a restaurant), all of which spread out in cold puddles across the city streets. But in typical NYC fashion this has all been efficiently cleared away, ready for the Spring and Summer to come.

It's been an eventful few weeks, both in terms of research and research inspiration. At the beginning of March, for instance, I went to a fascinating talk at NYU from Jim Loewen, author of the influential Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995). Loewen challenged the audience to think about their own experiences of history education (and particularly the US Civil War), and in so doing revealed the redacted and racialised ways in which American history is constructed in US schools. Perhaps most striking was his account of 'sundown towns' -towns where, until relatively recently, black inhabitants were obliged by law to leave town before dusk. This widespread practice still resonates in rural towns US today, where de facto segregation still continues even if the law no longer officially endorses it.

Questions of race and inequity emerged again and again alongside other evocative themes at the American Anthropological Association Anthropology of Childhood and Youth Special Interest Group (take a breath) Annual Conference, held in Long Beach, California. Presentation topics ranged from gutter punk teenagers riding the rail (yes, this still happens! America's subcultural answer to the gap year, you might say) to incarcerated migrant youth on the US-Mexican border, to adoption and baby trafficking in China, to my own research on quantum personhood and imagined futures in the Bronx. This proved an excellent platform for discussing the temporal dimensions of social identity, particuarly in relation to race, gender and class as aspects of young people's lives. 

Another strange highlight of this California trip was an experience of something quintessentially American: gun culture. I was surprised with a visit to a gun range up in the hills above Los Angeles, where, with far less regulation than one might expect at your average British paintballing venue, we were allowed to fire a Magnum 500 (think Dirty Harry). The experience, in a word: terrifying. But also exhilirating in the way that anything that goes 'bang' can be. Alexis de Toqueville would have been proud of my commitment to truly understanding the anthropology of American society....

Big guns aside, conversations about youth and imagined futures continued back in NYC when I gave a talk to colleagues at NYU, including Jon Zimmerman, author of the new Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. While seemingly tangential to my own research, Jon's work on the ideological underpinnings of sex ed at different times in US History (preventing the spread of disease; as Cold War metaphor; as mouthpiece for conservative family values and functionalist sociology; and always as mechanism for 'taming' youth) made me think seriously about how sex and relationships are figured in the imagined futures of the seniors in my research. While it's logical at first to frame aspirations and imagined futures in terms of jobs and economic or career 'success', these dreams form part of a tangled, complex picture of the future that also involves imaginings of intimacy and family. Many students talk about aspiring to be successful so that they can provide for their as-yet unformed families of the future. This fits with a more traditional view (also endorsed through sex education) about finding 'the one' and settling down to a serious relationship. Interestingly, though, most students have also discussed the winding trajectory that they think will take them towards 'the one' - and this is the picture of sex and relationships more commonly represented through media, and particularly media representations of college. But they also complicate this picture: most imagine that only through being with multiple partners can one finally get to know oneself well enough to know what one wants in a significant other. This is a much more sophisticated and subtle reckoning of sex and relationships than most might give teenagers credit for - and may go some way to explaining why (according to Zimmerman) most think sex ed is something of a joke.  

Relationships aside, it's an increasingly exciting time at Bronx High. We're edging ever-closer to the end of the academic year, and for seniors this means that the once very distant, imagined world of college will very soon become a stark reality. Most are looking forward to the independence that broader college horizons will bring - most, but not all. The statistics for New York City suggest that many of these seniors will struggle to keep up with their peers in local city universities, possibly having to take remedial English or Maths classes to make up for slower progress at school. Many will take up to four years to complete a two year Associates Degree, meaning increasing debts and a decreasing likelihood of further study down the line. More still, of course, will not make it to college because the challenges of life in the Bronx make getting through high school a real struggle. As part of their effort to alleviate some of the barriers that students face, Bronx High has become a Community School - one aspect of Mayor de Blasio's programme to integrate social services for young people. The city has seen some impressive success stories in Community Schools where incredibly dedicated principals have been able to harness some of the vast financial and infrastructural resources of NYC to improve life for those young people who need help the most. Some of these stories came out during the Risk to Resilience conference hosted at NYU and organised by Pedro Noguera. The conference was aimed at identifying best practice in community-focused approaches to education, and in frank terms illuminated the confluence of race and inequity in American society. It was incredibly inspiring to see so many individuals dedicated to helping others in their communities. Of course, these charismatic, dedicated individuals also highlight that so much of the success of these programs rests on the personal investment of the few, rather than in structural change that may have a lasting, profound impact on poverty in urban America, particularly for young people, and particularly for young people of colour. Here's to hoping those structural, scalable changes lie ahead in the not too distant future.  

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Brookes in the Bronx: New York City Winter

Welcome to the Winter Installment of Brookes in the Bronx!

There have been a lot of changes in New York City since the trees became bare in late November, and winter started to creep across the city. Until the heating was finally turned on on the 1st December, we froze for a few days in our new apartment in the trendy epicenter (sic) of Bedford Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Now I know why all these aspiring hipster artist-entrepreneurs have such large beards, I thought - but this was long before the winter proper began and the beards really started to come in handy...For an expat Brit more used to the drone of air conditioners and humming radiators than old-fashioned oil-and-gas boiler heating, the tap-tap-gurgle sound of pipes took some getting used to - but now, after weeks in the snow, the singular and peculiar sound of American heating  has comfortably blended into the relatively quiet background of bars, sirens, dogs barking, moustachioed bluegrass bands a-playing and Apple Macs whirring in the coffee shops across the East River from Manhattan.

December began with controversial rulings on the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, black men who both died at the hands of police earlier this year (see my previous post about this). There was a real sense of outrage in New York City, as mass demonstrations surged into the streets under the uniting assertion that Black Lives Matter. It was interesting to note that few students at Bronx High (my research site) seemed particularly phased by these developments - for them, these things happened far, far away (on Staten Island, in Garner's case), and to 'other' people. But the ruling was also not particularly surprising to them - after all, one of the most profoundly disturbing issues with these cases is that they are just some of the more recent incidents where black men (and particularly young black men) have been killed by police in the United States. Joining the crowds that filled Washington Square Park and Broadway in December in demonstration against rulings, it was evocative to be surrounded by people for whom this was a very real issue. In the crowd were many of the black and hispanic young people of New York City for whom these issues could have fatal consequences, if their impending future actions were to be construed in the wrong way, at the wrong time, by law enforcement.

December also brought a gathering of a different kind - the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in DC. After visiting the White House and the Lincoln memorial on a dour, suitably atmospheric winter evening (think House of Cards), it was inspiring to join in with the thousands of anthropologists arrived in the capitol from all over the world to tout their wares. I gave a talk on the emerging findings from my research, including a first public airing of the concept of quantum personhood - which was mercifully received by those in the audience. Excellent contributions from Ray McDermott, Jean Lave, and Bruno Latour, among others, made for an incredibly thought-provoking and engaging few days of discussion. It's also good fun to play 'what to wear: or how to dress like an anthropologist'...    

Christmas in New York City is, needless to say, something to behold (we took a stay-cation all the way to the illustrious Jersey City... 15 minutes across the Hudson). And as the festive season drew to a close, the real winter started to set in. Local American news, in its usual understated fashion, deemed that we would be struck with 'Snowmageddon', featuring the end of the world, among other things. In the end it has just been a regular extremely cold winter with lots of snow and ice, and the occasional dip in temperature to -24C. For the first time in my life, I own a pair of longjohns, and it does not seem strange to see pugs and poodles walking around in Burberry jackets and little neoprene booties. New York in winter is a strange world indeed...

None of this weather made much of a dent in the school calendar, however, and the weekly routine of ethnographic fieldwork has continued in spite of the sleet and the snow. Students and staff alike at Bronx High have been incredibly welcoming during the winter months, and with their help I'm continuing to paint a complex picture of how futures are imagined as part of the normal everyday lives of seniors in this American high school. Imagined futures can be seen in all kinds of places - from articulations about imagined futures in discourse and policy at the national and regional levels (see Obama's 2015 State of the Union address for an example, along with campaign claims from NY state governer Andrew Cuomo, NYC major Bill de Blasio, and the NYC Department of Education), to imagined futures at the level of the school, in the curriculum, in individual classrooms, and in the individual lives of teachers and students. They emerge in plays written by students, in college personal statements, in preparation for work experience - even in the banal filling out of applications for federal students loans. At times, multiple imaginings of the future vie for primacy as macro- and micro-scale imaginings come together, intersect, and collide. As seniors come closer to graduating high school, concerns about graduation, college acceptance, gathering credits, and about failing classes all speak to the many potential futures that must be negotiated at this juncture in their young lives. Many of these issues I have captured in an article that documents the emerging findings from the research, and which I hope will appear in a special edition of Anthropology of Education Quarterly later this year.

Other highlights of the last short while have included giving a talk and receiving great feedback on the emerging research from colleagues and students at Columbia University's Teachers College, as well as a conference there at which Jean Lave gave an excellent Gramsci-inspired keynote. I was also proud to represent Brookes at the UN along with other Fulbright colleagues, where we discussed how the values of the United Nations can be fostered through education (we also had fun pretending we were in The Interpreter). Breaking with the 'tough it out through the winter' NYC narrative, I also snuck off to California for a few days of sun in February, which was rather nice. Back in NYC, this week I had the pleasure of attending another evening of discussion about New York City schools at the NYC Google HQ, which provided more food for thought about how imagined futures are shaped by education in particular ways within cityscapes as vast, challenging and inspiring as this one.

Today marks a slight break in the weather; and with thawing of the city I'm also made aware that time is ticking by, and soon enough the research year will be over. Time to refresh the batteries in the dictaphone and get back to it...

Monday 2 March 2015

Brookes in the Bronx: On Quantum Personhood

The winter months in NYC have been packed with moments for reflection on new ideas emerging in my research about aspiration and imagined futures. The next entry will be more about the details of what's been happening recently - but for now I thought I'd share some thoughts about a nascent concept that I've been developing - the notion of quantum personhood. At the risk of being accused of quackery for invoking quantum physics in the realm of social science (see Brian Cox on the subject here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051ryq8), I've been thinking about how to employ the imagery and metaphor of quantum science in my work about imagining the future. Here's a bit of it:

Life Is Straight Improv’: Quantum Personhood at Bronx High

The Concept of Quantum Personhood
The above sentiment was articulated by Antoine, a senior in the academically-gifted small learning community of the school who has recently been accepted to a private college, with a full scholarship. When talking about whether he had imagined college and a scholarship as part of his future, he told me:

‘You know, life is straight improv: you just make it up as you go along. You never know what’s going to happen or what kind of person you’re gonna be. And I wouldn’t want a roadmap for what my life is going to be like – that would be boring. Even when you do have a plan, you never know how you’re going to like it until you’re in it. Life is straight improv!’

This kind of perspective on present and future imaginings of self is part of what I hope to capture with the concept of quantum personhood. Recognising the multiple and sometimes incongruous ways in which people are capable of imagining  personhood is of course not a particularly new idea (Strathern 1988; Geertz 1972), but the idea of quantum personhood intends to complicate the picture further, in relation to temporality and young people, and in the context of formal schooling. On the subject of personhood and age, Meyer Fortes remarked of the Tallensi that birth represented the ‘minimum quantum of personhood’ necessary for a Tallensi child to begin the long process of acculumating full personhood (something often not ascertained until after one is dead) (1987:261; Carsten 2004:89). This example is one among many from the literature on personhood that stands in stark contrast to the traditional Western notion of personhood as a complete and unchanging status achieved by all humans (see also Strathern 1988). As with the Tallensi, of course, it is possible to see how personhood in Western societies is also in fact on one level as a matter of process, even though we maintain a processural view of personhood alongside the more discrete understanding of all human being as persons. One only need consider debates around abortion and ‘personhood’ to see this confluence of contradictory but concurrent imaginings of personhood in action in Western contexts.

Building on Fortes’ wording, then, quantum personhood seeks to capture the complexity of how personhood is constructed in dynamic ways in the everyday lives of young people at school, alongside an enduring sense of stable personhood as traditionally perceived in Western society. As with quantum physics, the intention here is to complicate existing ideas about personhood by focusing on complexity, uncertainty and paradoxy, particualrly in the temporal figuring of personhod. Quantum personhood accounts for the ways in which the many potential versions of persons impact on how they construct a coherent sense of self both in the present, and in representations of the person projected backwards into the past and forward into the future. As in Strathern’s reckoning of relational, dividual personhood (1988), it also emphasises the ways in which personhood is shaped by relational entanglement between individuals, meaning that personhood exists beyond individual psychology or the boundaries of individual selves or individual human beings, and instead is a matter of collective interaction. Personhood exists in the co-constructed, shifting narratives that we tell to ourselves and to others, and the stories that others tell about us (Strathern 1988). Sometimes these narratives are complimentary: others may imagine our future action – whether distant or impending – in the same way that we imagine it.  This may lead to a co-construction of personhood that is positively alligned with aspirations or dreams for the future – a collaborative, quantum complication of the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy (Rosenthal & Jackobson 1968). When these narratives do not match up, this discord can have profound consequences for the future of either actor.

Capturing the temporal dimensions of personhood 
In addition to its relational quality, quantum personhood illuminates how the person is shaped in spatial as well as temporal conditions, meaning that personhood can be percieved to linger in and to alter once-inhabited spaces (like schools) or anticipated spaces and times (like going to college in the future) even if the person is not physically there. Similarly, our personhood may extend to virtual spaces (as in positive or alternative representations of self online through social media such as Facebook or Instagram) and material culture (the items, like cars, or shoes, or watches, or houses, that we consume in order to represent to others and ourselves something of our person) (Latour 1999). In attempting to capture more of the temporal dimensions of habitus, it also focuses on how multiple potential futures are played out in the habitual, ritual performances of everyday life in the present. As the repetition of daily routines turns present into past, with habitual behaviour we re-work familiar but always slightly different imaginings of the impending future. In the present, our imaginings of the future are in turn sculpted in response to the choices presented to us, and to our reckoning of those potential choices and decisions. The regular and repetitive scheduling of the ‘daily grind’ at Bronx High can be seen in this way as the performance of idiosyncratic versions of the same scene, at once similar but also different (and sometimes incongruent), played out over and over again in the pursuit of an imagined future that will also be made up of repetitive, future-gazing actions, as in the routines of employment or college. Personhood is perpetually articulated and enacted in the present, but its quantum qualities relate to multiple versions of the same personhood, located in the past and the future, always present, as it were, in the present, but not always in neat agreement or concordance.
This may require further exposition in relation to quantum theory. Without going into too much detail, for the purposes of this article quantum physics can be defined as dealing with the peculiarities of how matter and light behaves at the atomic level. The ability of light to act both like a wave and a particle leads to strange occurrences and inconsistencies that do not conform to the laws of classical physics, including the capacity of particles to exist in more than one location at one time, to ‘teleport’ without travelling between points, and for the measurement of the position of a quantum object to influence its momentum, and vice versa. Quantum physicists also discuss the ‘entanglement’of atomic objects, irrespective of their distance in space from one another – the way in which objects lose their independence and become relationally connected, not unlike individual persons, after they have come into contact with one another and have influenced one another’s trajectories (what Einstein referred to as ‘spooky action at a distance’). In this respect, quantum physics involves reimagining time in a non-linear way: while some societies reckon time as progressing forward towards the future, via the present and the past, in fact some quantum theorists would argue that time does not objectively exist in this way. Instead, while we perceive ‘time’s arrow’ sailing forward, we actually exist in single present that is defined by the entanglement of particles and by the potential of other simultaneous entanglements. Humans are capable of rendering sensible the past and the present because we become correlated with our immediate surroundings and record this as experience as memory. While the future also exists as potential in the present, we lack the capacity to picture it beyond imaginings and aspirations because the infinite possibile potential entanglements of particles around us makes ‘the future’ perpetually uncertain. At the more radical end of thinking within quantum theory and string theory, the unusual activity of quantum objects may be explained by the existence of multiple universes – by the fact that while we only perceive one universe in which objects exist, there may be others that are slightly or very different to our own. This accounts for the existence of multiple, concurrent realities in which all potential actions and occurrences may exist, and exert influence on the shaping of the more coherent, linear view of reality that we maintain. In this way, the so-called ‘multiverse’ captures the conditional: it not only accounts for determined actions (and thoughts, social interactions, and choices about trajectories across the life course), but also for all the potential actions – for all the decisions unchosen (and the way that choices influence our decisions) in order that our lives can carry forward in the way that they do.

Each of these aspects of quantum phyisics can be applied to better understanding the temporal dimensions of personhood in relation to schooling. The idea of quantum personhood provides a way to think about how personhood is not simply inscribed in an individual’s physical, psychological and social being in the present, but also asks how we develop multiple narratives of personhood, both past, present and future, through schooling. We may therefore have multiple, quantum narratives of self, but these are collapsed and made sensible to dominant, unilinear taxonomies of how personhood is organised.