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Cuadernos del Sur. Historia

versión On-line ISSN 2362-2997

Cuad. Sur, Hist.  no.37 Bahía Blanca  2008


Challenging space limitations in our fieldwork

Margarita del Olmo*
Caridad Hernández Sánchez**
Carmen Osuna Nevado***

* Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales, CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas).
** Facultad de Educación, UCM (Complutense University of Madrid).
*** Becaria MAEC-AECI. Grupo INTER. Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales, CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas).

El artículo ofrece resultados provisionales de tres trabajos etnográficos combinados realizados en el marcho de un proyecto de investigación cuyo objetivo es analizar las estrategias de integración social y la prevención del racismo en las escuelas de Madrid, España, en las que las autoras llevan a cabo sus trabajos de campo etnográficos.
El objetivo del artículo es analizar las ideas de espacio y lugar o sitio en el marco de los trabajos de campo mencionados para desafiar las limitaciones que cada uno de estos lugares impone al tratar de combinarlos entre sí y superar el problema de la representatividad en Etnografía.

Palabras clave: Etnografía; Trabajo de Campo; Escuelas; España; Representatividad

This paper shows provisional results of three combined ethnographic fieldworks. Within the frame of a research project that aim at analyzing social integration strategies and racism prevention in schools where authors carried out our their fieldwork in three different schools in Madrid, Spain.
We aim at analyzing the ideas of space and place within the fieldwork contexts to challenge the limitations of each specific setting, trying to combine the results and going beyond the problem of representation in Ethnography

Key words: Ethnography; Fieldwork; Schools; Spain; Representation

Fecha de recepción: 11 de noviembre de 2008
Aceptado para su publicación: 16 de septiembre de 2009


This presentation shows provisional results of three combined works. Within the framework of two research projects that aim at analyzing social integration strategies and racism in schools2, we are currently doing fieldwork in three different schools in Madrid, Spain.

Carmen is doing her fieldwork in a Secondary public school placed (A in the map) at the frontier of two neighborhoods, different in terms of socio-economic levels (medium, and medium-high). She has chosen the first level beyond compulsory Education (16-17 years old).

Caridad has placed her fieldwork in a Primary chartered school of a neighborhood of medium-low socio-economic level (B in the map). She has chosen a special program (called "linking classroom") set apart for immigrants from 8 to 12 years old who do not know Spanish, the language used in the classroom.

Margarita is doing her fieldwork in a Secondary chartered school (C in the map) placed in a neighborhood of medium, low-medium socioeconomic levels. She has also chosen the "linking classroom", set apart for immigrants, but in her case their ages - - - range from 12 to 18 years old.

Choosing our fieldwork places

When we started doing work for the project we first focused our interest in terms of ideas and then we thought about where we could gain information about it.

The idea was to analyze how Education addresses diversity, focusing on the policies designed by the Board of Education in Madrid. We then designed a multi-site fieldwork framed by George Marcus proposal, when he wrote: "follow the conflict" (Marcus 1995). By following the conflict we understood that we had to walk along two different paths: 1) the schools, as the places where these policies are put into practice, and 2) the Board of Education itself where these policies are developed and modified.

When we contacted the schools with our interests, we were perfectly welcome to visit them but not entirely welcome to come back day after day as fieldwork requires. So we needed to reconsider our strategy to secure the availability of - a school to place our fieldwork. We thought that relaying on our personal networks could help, and we were right.

Caridad, as professor in the School of Education of the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, and as mentor of student practices has a wide network of personal relationships with teachers and principals in schools in Madrid. Thus - -, Caridad was able to guarantee/provide a place to work for Margarita as well as for herself. We were shocked to realize that none of the public schools we knew of allowed us to carry out an extensive fieldwork, and we wondered why only chartered schools let us in. We could only speculate about the idea that since we always approached the school senior staff, once principals gave us permission, classroom teachers in a chartered school had less independence to confront the principal's decision.

Carmen was nonetheless able to get access to a public school. She went to the school where she had studied because she has kept contact with one of her former teachers. This teacher welcomed the idea and she herself introduced the project to the principal and the rest of the teachers, many of whom used to be also Carmen's teachers. Analyzing her entrance to the school, Carmen thinks one of the reasons that worked for her was the general perception of herself as a former pupil of the school, and also that the teacher she contacted had a position of authority within the school, not only among teachers but also among students.

Caridad and Margarita chose the "linking classroom" as the most evident and explicit manifestation of the new policies of the Board of Education in the Community of Madrid to address diversity within a whole program called the "Welcome Program". The main idea behind the program is that proficiency in the teaching language is the main tool for integration of the new comers. So "linking classrooms" are places where pupils are taught Spanish for a period of six months, after which they are supposed to be able to join regular classrooms.

Carmen didn't choose a "linking classroom", she chose the program where the teacher who granted her entrance was working in, this program is called "Bachillerato", two courses beyond compulsory education for those pupils who want to study at the university. Within this program Carmen had the opportunity to pick - a particular classroom to focus on. She chose from what teachers told her about diversity: "there aren't any racist problems in these classrooms because there are only a few immigrants and they are very well integrated into the school". She was especially interested in the relationship between immigration and diversity, and the case of a particular student provided her with a very promising arena, because his physical appearance provokes confusion in his definition, for that reason she placed her fieldwork in his classroom.

Analyzing the role of the ideas of space and place in our fieldworks

We consider space as the environment where people could live, and place as a localization and crystallization of it. Humanistic Geography claimed to distinguish place and space, and defined one vis à vis the other. Space would be an abstract idea and place its concrete formulation. Place was linked to experience and emotions, and for that reason it would be where meanings and values are built (Tuan 1977 and Relph 1976). We considered this idea useful for our discussion.

We do fieldwork in localized and concrete places (classrooms in specific schools), contained in the broader framework of space, which in our case is the idea of Education in general. In this sense, what we produce in our fieldwork is tightly related to all that is happening in the space in a more general and broader sense.

We think we make sense of this broader idea of Education out of our concrete experiences in our fieldwork places.

As anthropologists we are looking for symbolic material produced by social relationships. And we go to our classrooms with this idea in mind. After our introductions, we seek to keep on building relationships. Two factors: time, which gives us the opportunity to communicate with people, and everyday interaction provide us with the chance to build relationships based upon trust. That is why we need a place to work in. But places are not enough to understand relationships because the reasons that explain behaviors, and in particular, the choices we see people make in our places, are beyond the places themselves, and belong to a broader environment where the meanings and values which explain lives are built.

Our interest in the idea of how Education addresses diversity belongs to the space in general, but we can only see what this idea has to do with the relationships we build in classrooms: not only how these ideas, as a framework, constrain and guide the conducts in the classroom, but also how this framework is contradicted: when and how this happens to be able to understand why. Let us elaborate this point a little bit further by giving some concrete examples of clashes between what policies say things should be like and what we perceive:

If the policy of the "linking classrooms" is based upon the idea that the language is the most important tool for the social integration of pupils, then, based upon our fieldwork, we can point out some contradictions. Some examples are the following:
-We have observed that kids do not learn Spanish mainly in the "linking classrooms" but outside them
-We do not consider kids integrated once they have learnt the language
-Kids under 8 years old are not included in the program. Why? Don't they need Spanish, as the rest of the kids, as a way to fully participate in the school activities?
-Why do kids who are about to leave the "linking classroom" to join their regular courses use different strategies to postpone their exits?, such as failing the exams on purpose, calling in sick or cutting down on classes, etc.
-Why academic level is perceived by teachers as an obstacle for full integration but the program does not currently consider it?
-The "linking classroom" program is supposed to be developed in six months, but some teachers consider this period is too short and others think it is too long.
-Why do kids in the "Bachillerato" program perceive that classes are taught just for a few of them while the rest are left out?

Thus, we perceive places as a medium to get material for the analysis, but we are also aware that places constrain the analysis of our interests which belong to the broader arena, that is to say space. We will elaborate on this contradiction in our next point of discussion.

From place to space. Breaking up the barriers of the place

As anthropologists we work in places but we have an interest in space. We are doing fieldwork in three different classrooms with the idea of contributing to the understanding of social integration strategies and racism in schools.

Our first tool to jump from place to space is to cross-analyze in a traditional way. We designed our study looking for different examples, different places which show similarities as well as contradictions with one another, and we also tried to compare them with other examples that will help us place them in space.

Our second tool to jump from place to space has been to design our research as a multi-sited ethnography following George Marcus' proposal. In his words, that means "Empirically following the thread of cultural process itself impels the move toward multi-sited ethnography [...]. For ethnography this means that the world system is not the theoretically constituted holistic frame that gives context to the contemporary study of peoples or local subjects closely observed by ethnographers, but it becomes, in a piecemeal way, integral to and embedded in discontinuous, multi-sited objects of study" (Marcus 1995: 97). In this paper, Marcus suggested several modes of constructing multi-sited Ethnography, such as "follow the people", "follow the thing", "follow the Metaphor, "Follow the plot", "Follow the Biography", and Follow the Conflict" (Marcus 1995:106-110). Among all these, we chose "Follow the conflict" which Marcus described as a way of "following the parties to conflicts [...] [which] in contemporary society simultaneously involves spheres of everyday life, legal institutions, and mass-media" (Marcus 1995:110).

The conflict in our case is integration in school, and this idea is our space. Integration for us involves every single student regardless of origin, religion, social class, gender, etc. Nevertheless, integration in the Educational system is perceived by our society as a specific problem of immigrants, and as such it is amplified by mass media. On the other hand, legal institutions in Education consider integration as a problem in the following circumstances: a) immigrants , b) students with physical or psychical disabilities, and c) students with a significant academic gap, and, for them, they have designed special measures.

Within our fieldwork, in order to follow the conflict in the following places, we focus on:
1st) policies designed specifically to integrate
2nd) practice of "Aulas de Enlace" in everyday life
3rd) a regular classroom with no specific integration measure

In designing our research we had a starting point. We were all working on Intercultural Education and we conceived it as a way to work from diversity (any kind of diversity) to build teaching/learning processes for all students, working for inclusion. From this perspective, the special measures designed by the Board of Education to integrate students were the exact opposite: they set apart students who are considered to be at disadvantage (specially academic disadvantage) in order to "compensate" their deficiency and get them ready to be integrated into regular classrooms. The main idea to compensate for is the language deficit, since the laws state that language is the main tool for integration. After three different evaluation processes implemented by the Madrid Community Board of Education, they were fully satisfied with the policy, even though they also made recommendations to improve it.

That is why we chose two different contexts as fieldwork places: The "Aulas de Enlace" Program in two different settings, and a regular classroom. Thanks to our work in the "Aulas de Enlace" we could contrast our ideas on integration with those of the Board of Education, but the regular classroom allowed us to compare special measures with the regular practice.

Between place and Space: Provisional Conclusions to Discuss

-We started working in space, which we consider the arena of abstract ideas. We worked with our ideas until we found what we thought was a significant contradiction to focus on
-This contradiction allowed us to visualize a process of transition between space and place. Why? Because in order to solve this contradiction we needed to find and work in a place where we could materialize our ideas embedded in social relationships
-To end up in a specific place we had to follow a complex process of negotiating the constant presence required by fieldwork in concrete places
-This transition between space and place was a two-way movement, since the ideas from space led us to the place, but in order to make sense of what was happening in the place we needed to go back to space. So we conceived the relationship between both of them as a feedback movement: place led us deep into the conflict but we could not make sense of it without space. How this process is actually happening is what we should make explicit in our research
-Marcus's proposal of doing multi-sited fieldwork following the thread of the conflict provided us with a meaningful relationship among the different places of our fieldwork. What we have added to this proposal is that each fieldwork is being carried out by a different researcher. This multi-researcher perspective makes our work more complex and richer, but, at the same time more difficult
-We can explain what we are doing using the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle: our places are some of the pieces of the whole picture which we could only make up by thinking about them from space.

2 The projects are part of the research project: "Estrategias de participación social y prevención de racismo en las escuelas II (FFI2009-08762), funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation. This paper has been made within the frame of this project.

1. Marcus, G.E. (1995) "Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergency of Multi-Sited Ethnography" Annual review of Anthropology: 24: 95-117.
2. Relph, E.C. (1976). Place and Placelessness, London, Pion.
3. Tuan, Y.F. (1977). Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience, London, Arnold.