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Dr. Christy Kulz: Doing ethnography: institutions, power, ethics and the personal

Christy Kulz is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the University  of Cambridge, Faculty of Education working on a three-year research project that explores how schools and their subjects are governed through the education market and social mobility dreamscapes. Her research monograph, Factories for Learning: producing raced and classed inequality in the neoliberal academy school, was recently published by Manchester University Press.


Doing ethnographic research is both a deeply personal and political  affair. My book Factories for Learning emerged from this potentially  perplexing confluence. Back in 2007 I was talking to a close friend one  evening at the pub about the secondary academy I was working at; she was  a PhD student at the time and is now lecturer in human geography. I described how Dreamfields and its ‘structure liberates’ ethos claimed to  give unhappy, urban children the rigid discipline they needed to lead  happier, more productive lives. While the test scores were undeniably  outstanding and Dreamfields had become a celebrated beacon of success,  this rigid environment had social and cultural effects beyond generating test results. Yet these less quantifiable stories never seemed to make  the headlines. My friend commented that my observations could be a  sociological project and suggested that I consider doing an MA, or even a PhD.

While I had worked as both a researcher and journalist, I was not overly  familiar with what an MA or PhD in sociology might entail. I began to  explore this option and the broad church that sociology provided captured my imagination. It would allow for an analysis of race and racism, class formations, gender, structures of governance, and the historical movements and politics that underpinned this educational format – all thingsrelevant to how Dreamfields Academy worked. Les Back describes this disciplinary openness in a recent interview with Nasar Meer in Sociology. He is committed to sociology because of the intellectual space it provided that gave the issues he was concerned about a place to call home (2016: 1024). I became inspired by C Wright Mills’ connection of private troubles to public issues, exemplified by Bev Skegg’s seminal longitudinal ethnography of working-class women in Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable. Back’s call to read against the grain of dominant narratives so beautifully captured in his book The Art of Listening also encouraged me to attend to the stories beneath dominant headlines.

At the outset of the research I was aware of my political motivations  for wanting to explore the everyday implications of Dreamfields’ ethos: it was a jewel in the crown of the academies programme, which was novel at the time and remains a controversial education policy. A revolving door of the good and the great had visited the school to observe the wonders it worked with urban youth, however the implicit racialised and classed presumptions behind the idea of unhappy, unstructured urban children and the need to limit and apply capital to their bodies troubled me. The research was also shaped by my own personal misgivings at carrying out the ethos as an employee. I had spent an intensive amount of time speaking to one-to-one with students as a learning mentor and my mentees’ stories seldom seemed to fit with Dreamfields’ backstory. Meanwhile, the students who really lived in extremely difficult circumstances that Dreamfields claimed to ‘save’ were in reality often purged from the system, as their transformation was a labour-intensive process.

While research problems emerge from the quandaries of ordinary life that bear out through the everyday, one’s life cannot simply be abandoned for research purposes. Unexpected dynamics and issues arise during the research encounter that might not have been anticipated at the outset. Building my private troubles into a public research programme produced numerous ethical and moral quandaries. Ethnographic work is not a detached, unemotive endeavor, but something your life becomes intimately interwoven with. Originally, I landed my post at Dreamfields through nepotistic means; my family member worked there when the research commenced and continues to do so. Arguably, the principal assumed I would write wholly celebratory things about his school because I had a connection to this trusted employee. Mr Culford did not seem to have much regard for research, commenting that I did not need to waste my time researching the school for he could tell me why it worked. Besides, he added, no one would probably read the research anyhow. I was left to wonder about the ethics of my access to this normally closed and securitized institution – did he understand the research questions or what sociology was? Was he really listening?

Importantly, Dreamfields was also a space – like many others – where white middle-classness acted as the silent, yet universal and normative way of being. The way I looked and spoke fit within this ideal. I was a non-threatening and automatically acceptable body – unlike the ethnic minority professionals that Nirmal Puwar writes about in Space Invaders who constantly have to prove their legitimacy. I have spent years juggling with the ethics of researching Dreamfields where power, privilege and personal relations have messily collided and coalesced. While there is great pressure for researchers to present a tidy picture of having ‘gotten it right’ by the conclusion of a project, judging from my conversations with other ethnographers and my own experience, I am not sure how often the story of a neatly bookended project that many methods chapters recount actually results in practice. A heightened focus on research outcomes and impact also draws us away from thinking about the intricacy of our methods and the quagmire of comprises and grey areas we encounter; how research relationships flow out of the confines of our monograph’s book cover into the present day and beyond. There are no easy answers and while ethics forms give researchers a practical framework and starting point, they are often woefully inadequate at dealing with the ongoing complexity of research relationships.

Researching Dreamfields also caused me to unexpectedly and uncomfortably reflect back on my own experiences of school growing up in the United States. Four years as a high school student within a highly competitive, results-driven institution was enough to convince me that I was an unremarkable academic failure and left me feeling hugely unconfident. I tried to avoid revisiting these memories when returning to higher education for fear that I might lose my nerve. If I could feel this dismal about both myself and education, even though I did not suffer from the disadvantages of racialization and class-based denigration that many of my peers back in high school had, how did the ‘losers’ of this far more accelerated game of individualized aspiration fare today? The measures and definitions of what counts as intelligence and value continue to narrow through neoliberal educational structures, delegitimising alternative ways of knowing and being.

Finally, research motivations and ethics are inseparable from issues of power and privilege. Despite the personal discomfort I sometimes felt from researching Dreamfields, the stories of students, parents and teachers within this powerful model neoliberal institution deserved to be told. Power shapes which stories get heard and which stories are silently buried beneath the common-sense headlines. As Heidi Mirza powerful states, ‘Sociology is your life and my life: We all have stories to tell…we must tell them …our voices must be heard!’

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