Knowing Your Place Uncategorized

The Politics of the Playground

(c) rachael voorhees

Like the workplace, schools provide fertile ground for Dirty Looks and its desire to explore the relational world, a world in which caring what other people think may be frustrating and often self-defeating, but ultimately unavoidable. Arguably more than teachers, the collective judgements of peers exert an intense hold over young people, to the extent where the power of peer pressure creates its own warped perspective and logic. The captive nature of schooling creates a claustrophobic environment in which the capacity to gain alternative perspectives can be almost impossible. While not always a negative influence, the pressure of peers acts as a powerful regulatory mechanism on the behaviour and beliefs of the young.

It is a concern, then, that so many researchers exploring ‘power relations’ in the context of schooling seem to go out of their way to avoid and dismiss the power of the relational. Thankfully there are some excellent exceptions to this general trend, the work of Nigel Sherriff on peer group cultures and masculinity being one of them. Sherriff has done better than most by asking why researchers seem to have a collective blind-spot when it comes to the relational world. While Sherriff prefers to adopt the language of social identity theory as a paradigm, his critique of sociological research in this area chimes to some extent with the analysis presented in Dirty Looks. According to him this body of research finds it difficult to see, as it were, the trees for the forest:

Such studies have usefully drawn attention to how Othering practices between peer groups are seemingly underpinned by a need for belonging, identification, acceptance, status, prestige, and ultimately a place within the hierarchy or pecking order of social relations [but] we are often left wondering what such underpinning mechanisms might look like. In other words, the ‘nitty gritty’ processes through which these Othering (intergroup) practices might operate have largely been ignored in the sociological literature. Researchers have failed to really get to grips with the actual ‘intergroup mechanics’ involved in boys’ masculinity performances; that is, there has been a lack of attention to the specific cognitive and motivational processes which are likely to influence the interactions between boys performing differential versions of masculinity.

Sherriff is correct to emphasise the ‘nitty-gritty’ of relational dynamics as a significant regulator of peer behaviour. But while social identity theory and social psychology generally have much to offer the study of relationality, they still carry with them the fatal flaw common to so much social science research: they neglect to take seriously relations themselves as a phenomenon worthy of study, i.e., not the school, not the individual pupil, not the group dynamic. A-la and contra Bourdieu, intersubjective relations are crying out to be taken seriously on their own merits – not as the by-product or epiphenomena of capitalism, patriarchy, or any other hegemonic form providing simplistic and outdated modes of social investigation.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.