Social Anthropology in the Primary Classroom

Part One of Two

I am increasingly convinced that social anthropology is a useful discipline in the primary school. For pupils, this approach – which seeks deep understanding of culture without an ethnocentric lens – could enable them to develop criticality and analysis, whilst building their worldliness and appreciation of difference.

For teachers, it can be a vehicle to contemplate the huge question of belonging, identity and difference that permeate the books we share with children, the topics we include in our curricula and the kinds of questions that pupils ask us.

Also, it afford a different kind of understanding of the social life of the classrooms and playgrounds themselves.

Now, I’m not suggesting Social Anthropology itself should be a taught discipline in the primary school, although I personally would like this and feel it could be a tangible bridge between existing subjects; rather, I think that the ‘lens’ of social anthropology could enrich the the teaching of humanities, and that wider curriculum that teaches pupils to become well-rounded sociable citizens.

What is Social Anthropology?

Social Anthropology is the comparative study of the ways in which people live in different social and cultural settings across the globe. Societies vary enormously in how they organise themselves, the cultural practices in which they engage, as well as their religious, political and economic arrangements. Social Anthropologists devote themselves to studying this variation in all of its complexity, with a view to contributing to a broader understanding of what it is to be human – what unites us as human beings, as well as what makes us so diverse.

Source: UCL Department of Social AnthropologySource: UCL Department of Social Anthropology

Whilst they are not central aims of primary education, some of my personal drivers include a commitment to supporting children’s ability to reason critically, to cut through stereotypes and identify them as such, to seek to understand before casting judgement and to foster curiosity about things that appear, at first glance, to be odd.

In a lesson last week we were discussing the life cycle of human beings, and how a foetus becomes a baby becomes a toddler, a child, a teenager, an adult and then an elderly person. Whilst we talked about physical stages of biological development, my mind began to wander back to social anthropology, and the ways in which a culture-specific rite of passage often sanctifies and commemorates these biological changes.

The point at which a child or teenager ‘becomes’ an adult is deeply vague, biologically. Having just taught our first Year 5 SRE lesson this afternoon, the children’s questions reflect an attempt to navigate this vagueness, with the maelstrom of questions about puberty being tinged with a fear of never growing up. ‘What causes it? What if it doesn’t happen to me?’

Ageing is interesting for this reason.

Birthday celebrations, parties and gifts commemorate the sequential annual ageing process in Western Societies, and age-grading is a cultural universal. Social anthropologists enjoy explore and unpicking what can and cannot be considered a cultural universal.

In many other societies, community and cultures, different rituals exist abound to demarcate the stages of human life. For the Sateré-Mawé people, in order to demonstrate readiness to be an adult, to be a man, boys must go through a gruelling initiation. The tribal leader describes it thus:

If you live your life without suffering anything, or without any kind of effort, it isn’t worth anything to you.

Perhaps the comparatively tame UK equivalent of this is a GCSE test.

In Vanuatu, one must bravely throw oneself from atop a towering structure, held up only by vines wrapped around the ankle, to demonstrate the bravery required to be elevated into adult status.

Sharing this, briefly but in detail, enriched and contextualised the understanding of ageing and development; a sense that the biological is universal, to an extent, but that the way we experience the biological is mediated through culture, and presents differently.

I have written recently about how our teaching about other cultures can often exoticise and rigidify difference; we often identify only the differences, glossing over the blurred boundaries in order to package the world into neat binaries, where in reality, the blurring is the reality.

We often allow the critical eye to pass straight over our own culture, in our haste to compare it with others, and in so doing, we position our own experiences as the norm against which abnormality and subnormality are identified.

We may use the example of the Pamplona bull run as one of animal cruelty in our debating lessons, having our children stand up and encouraging them to get irate about the mistreatment of the bull, but then once the lesson is over, they go for school dinner where they eat chickens that have never seen the sky and drink milk from factory cows whose entire lives have been spent in forced pregnancy to keep them lactating.

We get our kids riled up about defending the rainforest, then make a massive paper display of their work; this is like making an anti-torture placard out of torn fingernails.

We highlight the peculiarity of the Mexican Day of the Dead rituals, but never pause to think about how odd it is that we bring our newborns into towering stone buildings to have them submerged into magical water by (usually) an old man in a flowing black dress; more commonly known as a Christening.

When we, as teachers and pupils, are able to reflect critically on the peculiarity of our own oft-taken-for-granted rituals, we not only can identify the commonalities that bind disparate other cultures, communities and societies, but we can also begin to appreciate that our own instinctive viewpoints may be prejudiced by our own cultural standpoint; whilst this may arguably be unavoidable, and a universal itself, it is one that we ought to account for in order to see past it.

A few years ago now I was exploring the concept of Britishness with Year 5; not, on this occasion, the symbols of British identity, like the tea, the scones and the fish and chips but the label itself. Do pupils consider themselves British? Does each child mean the same thing when they do? Do they feel ‘more or less’ British at different times and in different places, as if it is a spectrum?

By starting to unpick the concept with pupils, presenting it as the problematic and contested idea that it is, a space was opened up to look more deeply at the concept itself, its history and its bearing on the lives of pupils.

One boy described how he feels most British when he is in India, being teased about his accent when visiting family. One girl described how showering with a bucket in India made her feel most British; it forced her to recognise how much she dislikes this particular element of a different ‘way of being’ that her Indian family are used to.

One boy explained that he thinks of himself as very British…as too British. He resents this because the British is ‘pushing out’ the Romanian, forging a barrier of difference between him and his parents.

Children demonstrated that they were potently able to handle this level of analysis; their writing was suffused with meaning and fluent ideas. Together, we were let to explore how ‘British’ can mean different things to different people.

We could then do a similar thing for other markers of identity; ‘African’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘East Londoner’, ‘Muslim’ and so on.

In these and many other ways, a social anthropological approach to culture can support pupils to develop a more refined understanding of belonging, identity and difference. Too often, schools perpetuate (or enable the perpetuation of) false narratives, that posit that Africa is a byword for poor, that the peak of human progress is embodied by Westfield, that societies and communities that are not like are own are, by their very nature, dysfunctional.

In the next part, I will talk about what kinds of understanding we might gain by looking at our classrooms and schools themselves through a social anthropological lens. Schools are a fertile ground for cultural practice, and the social worlds of you, your colleagues and pupils, are worthy of an ethnography of their own.

What gains could come from that?


3 thoughts on “Social Anthropology in the Primary Classroom

  1. I often argue for a total re-think of Citizenship education in Secondaries. I see it as central to any curriculum. Libertarians argue that Citizenship is a veil for endoctrination, often lumping that together with a critique of the subject, and (its) teachers, as The Blob. On the contrary, while I accept that there is a risk of this (especially while the curriculum remains in the hands of politicians), I think it is entirely compatible with all ideologies and biases, insofar as it is equally critical (in the academic sense) of all of them, and of itself.

    I’ve lacked a piece of the puzzle in explaining this, and social anthropology, as an approach – a pedagogy of Citizenship – seems to be that piece. I thank you for it. It seems having read and assimilitated its core ideas early, I’ve failed to recognise in myself that it forms an intrinsic part of my own bias, an irony easily disarmed by virtue of the central tenet of social anthropology itself – that any such study must be acutely aware of its own context of production as a text.

    Anyway, the main problem to implementing such a reform is not even the lack of ownership of the curriculum, but the lack of capacity in the workforce to deliver it in a pedagogically appropriate way. I wonder if this, itself, is a negative bias towards the teaching profession on my part. Have you met many colleagues enthused by this facet of education? What training is required to adopt the approach you so beautifully describe yourself using? Can it be scaled to school level? Regional? National? Should it be, and what are the risks?

  2. I did BA social anthropology and ancient history at UCL 🙂
    I definitely think they should replace RE with social anthropology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s