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date: 25 November 2020

Anthropology of Educationfree

  • Rosemary HenzeRosemary HenzeSan Jose State University


The anthropology of education (also known as educational anthropology, pedagogical anthropology, ethnography of education, and educational ethnography) is a broad area of interest with roots and continuing connections in several major disciplines, including anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychology, and philosophy, as well as the field of education. It emerged as a named subdiscipline in the 1950s primarily in the United States through the work of George and Louise Spindler, Margaret Mead, and others. However, work of a related nature was also taking place around the same time in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, and Britain. While research in the anthropology of education is extremely diverse, a few central aims can be articulated. One is to build our understanding of how people teach and learn and what they teach and learn across different community, cultural, national, and regional contexts. Through comparisons of educative processes, scholars often draw insights about how culture shapes educational processes, how culture is acquired by individuals and groups through such processes, as well as how people create changes in and through their educational environments. A basic premise is that formal schooling is implicated in a paradoxical relationship with social inequality. While formal education can lead to greater social justice, it can also contribute to the creation and widening of social inequality. Thus, another key aim is to describe, uncover, and expose educational processes that undermine as well as enhance greater social equality. Formal education is not the only focus; studies of informal learning in families and communities provide rich descriptions of everyday contexts in which young people develop the skills and knowledge to be productive members of their community. Often such descriptions stand in stark contrast to the formal educational system where the same learners may be perceived as deficient.

Since the 1990s, the anthropology of education has witnessed a number of shifts, including a movement toward research that takes an activist and engaged stance (e.g., research that includes a goal of changing oppressive conditions by collaborating directly with stakeholders such as youth and parents). This movement entails accompanying changes in methodologies, expanding beyond primarily descriptive ethnography to include methods such as participatory action research, teacher research, policy research, and critical ethnography. A more international and less US-centric perspective is also emerging as scholars around the world recognize the importance of studying both formal and informal education through ethnographic and other qualitative methods. The field is enriched as scholars around the world contribute new perspectives forged in regions with different historical and political environments. One of the key questions asked in early 21st-century educational anthropology is, under what circumstances can formal education be a force for change to create more egalitarian and inclusive societies?


I consider this article like a rough map constructed through my own experience and background primarily in a US-based anthropology of education, with ample contributions from a few key sources so as not to reinvent what has already been done. A map is never the territory it purports to represent; it is always somebody’s map, created for some purposes and not others, and shaped by the limitations of the mapmakers and their context (Kumaravadivelu 2008).

To direct readers to more comprehensive materials, I have drawn extensively on two edited volumes: Levinson and Pollock’s A Companion to the Anthropology of Education (2011), and Kathryn Anderson-Levitt’s Anthropologies of Education: A Global Guide to Ethnographic Studies of Learning and Schooling (2012). Taken together, the articles in these volumes introduce readers to many of the key themes and issues in this subdiscipline; they address not only foundational concepts in the anthropology of education, but also directions the field has been taking since the 1990s, and international perspectives. In addition, I discuss some newer work since 2012 and reflect on abiding questions that make this field vibrant and fruitful for future scholarship and practice.

Brief History

The anthropology of education took shape as a named subdiscipline in the United States in the 1950s. However, from the 1920s to the 1950s, foundational work was also taking place under other labels in the United States and other parts of the world, including Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and Britain. The German philosopher Hermann Nohl, a disciple of Wilhelm Dilthey, sought to develop a humanistic and empirical theory of education based on the personal relationship of educator and student (Nohl 1950). In Japan, studies of culture and education were initiated at Kyushu University in 1955, focused mainly on developing countries outside of Japan and on Japan’s internal minorities (Minoura 2012). In Mexico, anthropologists began to engage with education in the 1930s due to the government’s indigenista policies for integrating indigenous peoples (Rockwell and Apodaca 2012). In Brazil, the 1950s marked the beginning of an anthropology of education focused on Brazilian themes and the cultural uniqueness of each place (Gomes and Gomes 2012). In Britain, social anthropologists such as Evans-Prichard (1940, 1953) included descriptions of childrearing practices in their ethnographies. In the United States, the study of culture and personality was popular, as were studies of child socialization. Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, in the early decades of the 20th century, stressed learning and experience in contrast to the existing emphasis on heredity (Comitas and Dolgin 1978). Margaret Mead, in addition to her well-known study Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), wrote extensively about education, drawing on her cross-cultural comparative perspective to make suggestions for reforming US education (Monroe 1992). She proposed that comparing American education with “simpler” societies would illuminate our own methods of education (Eddy 1985).

In the mid-1950s, George and Louise Spindler (fig. 1) and Rosalie and Murray Wax began to focus on how culture is transmitted and acquired both within the family and community and in school; they also raised important questions about inequality in the treatment of minority school children in the United States. A conference on this topic in 1954 led to increased communication among anthropologists interested in education. According to Spindler (1984), four major themes were articulated:

. . .the search for a philosophical as well as a theoretical articulation of education and anthropology; the necessity for sociocultural contextualization of the educative process (rather than assuming a more universalist view of education); the relation of education to "culturally phrased" phases of the life cycle; the nature of intercultural understanding and learning.

(Spindler 1984, 4)

Figure 1. George and Louise Spindler.

Reproduced by permission of Sue Spindler Coleman and Lee Coleman.

In 1968, the Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE) was founded, and by 1970 it became officially incorporated as a section within the American Anthropological Association. The Council’s journal, initially named the CAE Newsletter, began in May of 1970 and was later changed to a quarterly, Anthropology and Education Quarterly. Academic organizations and journals in other parts of the world have also developed sections or focal areas that deal with education and ethnography or anthropology (see “Links to Digital Materials”).

While the anthropology of education was gaining recognition in the United States as a distinct subdiscipline of anthropology, the Chicago School of Sociology was also producing work with very similar methodological processes: “naturalistic inquiry in local milieus, in-depth fieldwork, observation and interviews” in the Sociology of Education (Van Zanten 2012, 304–305). As the two disciplines became more separate in US universities, sociology became associated primarily with quantitative studies, while anthropology retained its largely qualitative methods. In the United Kingdom, however, there was not the same separation, and most of the ethnographic work on communities, schools, and classrooms was conducted by sociologists (Van Zanten 2012, 305). A vibrant tradition of ethnography of education continues in the United Kingdom (Delamont 2012). This brief history shows us that the practice of educational anthropology may take place under various labels and that these practices may be carried out by people who identify as sociologists, anthropologists, applied linguists, and educators, among others. This complicated origin story in which methodology, area of focus, and disciplines intertwine explains in part why this area of research has so many names. In this article, I primarily use the labels “anthropology of education” or “educational anthropology,” but I intend them as cover terms that include those doing similar work in and between other disciplines.


Ethnography was (and still is) seen as the foundational methodology because, as Spindler and Spindler (1987) point out, the phenomena of study require finely grained methods that help the researcher get at “the dialogue of action and interaction” (3):

[The aim is to] determine how teaching and learning are supported and constrained by understandings, many of them implicit, that govern the interaction of teachers and students. The dialogue around what is to be taught, and how much of it is to be learned, and how the teaching and learning will be conducted, is what we try to record and eventually interpret as ethnographers of education. . . . The search must follow clues wherever they may lead and cannot be predetermined by a schedule of categories or rating scales. (3–4)

At the same time, the Spindlers did not preclude the use of quantitative methods as part of the overall research program nor did they preclude the growing number of additional research methods that are used alongside traditional ethnography. Explicitly engaged methods that involve study participants as co-researchers, such as teacher research, participatory action research, and critical ethnography, are increasingly used along with a growing array of data sources. Visual data such as photography, mapping, sketching, and collage may be used to elicit participants’ sense of place (Powell 2016). Since the advent of somewhat portable video cameras in the 1970s, video has been used as a tool for microethnography, enabling the researcher to capture and later analyze moment-by-moment verbal as well as nonverbal interaction (Erickson and Shultz 1982). Video recordings have also been a useful tool for elicitation, reflection, and feedback, especially among classroom teachers (Spindler and Spindler 1987b; LeCompte and Schensul 1999). Poetry and other forms of creative writing are also explored (Cahnmann-Taylor and Siegesmund 2018).

Furthermore, educational ethnographers are discussing how the internet age changes, or doesn’t change, how ethnography is conducted, given that many communities and spaces of interaction are now virtual (Baker 2013; Hammersly 2018; Shumar and Madison 2013; Webster and Da Silva 2013). All in all, the core methodology of ethnography has been enhanced by the wise and ethical use of additional methodological tools. It is important to note, however, that with methodological innovation and changing times come new ethical twists and dilemmas such as those noted by Vossoughi and Escudé (2016) regarding video recording in classroom research with children or Hammersly (2018) regarding the emphasis on “big data” and “accountability.”

Given the enduring centrality of ethnography as the methodological cornerstone, with or without the addition of other methods, it is not surprising that scholars in other disciplines such as sociology also use ethnography and may focus on similar topics as well. What then distinguishes an ethnography of education that is anthropologically oriented? Without going too deeply into the long history of what distinguishes a cultural versus a social focus, one may say that in an anthropological study the concept of culture is central (Van Zanten 2012, 317; Wolcott 2011). In an anthropological approach to education, culture is not viewed as separate from society; culture shapes social life and social structure in particular ways and is constantly changing. Culture is a process more so than an entity, and anthropologists of education have been particularly interested in how culture is transmitted, acquired, transformed, and resisted, as well as how culture creates and sustains both belonging and marginalization. In the following definition (one of many), culture is “. . . what human groups collectively create, recognizing that these cultural productions and processes, though sometimes material, are more often social, behavioral, and most of all mental; that is, they consist of ideas, concepts, meanings, entire worldviews” (Mukhopadhyay et al. 2014, 97).

In the 1950s, in Britain as well as France, the subdiscipline of social anthropology took precedence over cultural anthropology, with a primary emphasis on social structures such as kinship, legal systems, and political organization (Dianteill 2012). While differences remain in intellectual histories between those with a more social versus cultural emphasis, for the purposes of this article, I see no point in separating society from culture. Rather than attempting to draw a rigid boundary that delineates anthropological studies of education from other studies that also use ethnography to study education, it seems wiser to think of these affiliated areas as a big tent where disciplinary boundaries are becoming more porous.

Snapshots of Research Interests

The full range of areas studied by anthropologists of education is quite diverse and cannot be adequately covered in this article. However, the following snapshots may be helpful for readers to gain a sense of some substantive themes that occupy researchers, particularly in the 21st century. The first section presents topics and issues, while the second section delves into identities.

Topics and Issues

Dominance and Stratification

Many anthropologists of education have studied the ways in which schooling is implicated in creating and reinforcing the stratification and power relations of the larger society. While this area is shared among sociology and education as well, the anthropology of education has contributed to what has come to be known as a “microethnographic lens” to delve into the moment-by-moment interactional details of how children and youth are sifted, sorted, and classified into particular places in their classrooms and schools. Erickson and Schultz’s book, The Counselor as Gatekeeper (1982), is an early example of a microethnographic analysis. They used video recordings to document the interactions of community college students in a college counselor’s office. The analysis shows that the counselor employed subtly distinct styles of talk and body language with students. In some cases, the counselor connected with them through chat about shared interests in sports, for example, and encouraging them to apply for a four-year college; in other cases, the counselor exhibited body language and conversational style that was out of synch with that of the student and ended the session by pushing the student toward a vocational certification rather than a four-year degree. Varenne and McDermott carried this genre forward, examining how schools and classrooms are designed to produce failure. “The problem,” they note, “is not that some children are on the bottom. The problem is that there is a bottom, a carefully crafted bottom, that defines a top eventually available to only a few” (Varenne and McDermott 1998, cited in McDermott and Raley 2011, 37). By the 1990s, however, McDermott and Raley note that what was once a discovery—“the secret role of schools in producing failure”—had become overt, “given . . . an international capitalism that requires everyone to choose to be better than everyone else” (44).

Literacy, Language Development, and Multilingualism

Literacy, language development, and multilingualism have long been topics of interest for anthropologists of education, many of whom also have backgrounds in sociolinguistics and applied linguistics. The ethnographic study of language and literacy development takes researchers into the realms of family and community, the first teachers of children. Heath (1983) compared language use in two working-class communities in Pennsylvania. Five years of ethnographic study and analysis revealed differences in the ways these two communities and their schools inducted children into literacy-related practices valued in school. This study, among others, supported the idea that there may be a mismatch between ways of communicating at home and at school, and that for non-mainstream or language and cultural minority children, such mismatches can contribute over time to increasing stigmatization in school, particularly when racial or ethnic differences are entwined with communication differences.

Continuing research in this genre examined multilingual families and communities as well as the role of multiple dialects. Scholars such as Vasquez et al. (1994) pushed against prevailing ideas about “deficits” in minority communities by contributing to a growing body of evidence showing the resourcefulness and linguistic skill among Mexican ancestry families living in the United States. Orellana’s (2009) work reveals young people’s own views of their roles as translators or “language brokers” among immigrant families. “As translators, children make things happen for themselves and their families; they forge connections and open up lines of communication” (21). The view of children as active agents of change exemplifies a more asset-based view than earlier static ideas in which young people were often seen as mere recipients of actions and decisions made by adults (fig. 2).

Figure 2. ¿Que idiomas hablas? In Orellana’s ethnographic research in an after-school program in Los Angeles (2017), an asset-based approach to multilingualism prevailed. Here, a child considers her peers’ and her own response to “What languages do you speak?.”

Reproduced by permission of Mara Mahmoud.

Gilmore’s (2016) historical documentation of the special language that her English-speaking son Colin and his Samburu-speaking friend Sadiki developed also highlights the linguistic resourcefulness and agentive ability of children. Gilmore and her family lived in a multilingual community in Kenya in the 1970s to carry out research on primates. The lingua franca in that region was Up-Country Swahili. Neither of the five-year-old boys spoke each other’s native languages, but they shared a small Swahili vocabulary. Out of that, plus influences from English and Samburu, they developed a unique language—a pidgin variety based on Swahili, English, and Samburu—to sustain their friendship. Gilmore reflects not only on the creative development of a language by two children, but also on the way this language was seen by community members as a special gift from God rather than as a deviant variety to be fixed. In light of the deficit explanations we often hear about children’s language varieties, this case is instructive!

Turning from children to parents, we can see how one-dimensional views of immigrant low-income parents also shift when we look closely at the support networks they form. The parents in a study by Delgado Gaitan (2005) used computer literacy and personal family narratives as part of their growing sense of agency in disempowering situations involving their children’s schools, where their voices were not often heard. Drawing on Delgado Gaitan’s work with parents, Villenas et al. (2006) develop this idea further, employing a mujerista framework (womanist and feminist) to understand how Latina immigrant mothers gained an important sense of solidarity and also a widening context in which to transform themselves and the world around them. While the purported learning was around literacy, in fact the learning and teaching was much more encompassing.

Since the 1990s, the study of literacy has been increasingly informed by New Literacy Studies (Street 1993) and critical literacy. Morrell and Duncan-Andrade (2004) (cited in Alim 2011) define critical literacy as “being present and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history, and future” (242). Alim (2011) examines recent scholarship on hip-hop through a lens of critical pedagogy and finds that not only is hip-hop creating new avenues for everyday learning in informal contexts, but it also offers possibilities for pedagogies inside schools that “center the texts that youth use, create, and manipulate in their everyday lives” (242). He also points out that hip-hop’s global reach (examples include Nigeria, Brazil, Australia, Quebec, and Tanzania) creates spaces for the negotiation and mixing of multiple languages and language varieties and places black identities in a normative status while simultaneously “reinscrib[ing] dominant notions of gender, sexuality, and class” (235).

Teaching and Teacher Education

The education of teachers has a strong presence in educational anthropology across countries and regions, with particularities influenced by the historical and political context. Ouyang (2000) conducted a narrative inquiry of the seven-year journey of a rural teacher in China “migrating” from the more traditional modes of teaching toward West-imported learner-centered teaching. The study reveals how teachers are caught up in a conflictual dynamic with communities that are not ready to accept the new style of teaching (Ouyang 2012). Another study by Li (2011) documents a similar path of teacher change, but with a different outcome. The teacher, who worked with a group of Chinese students in a Japanese school, eventually went back to more traditional rote methods of teaching, even though this approach risked disapproval from her superiors, because she wanted her students to feel secure and develop a sense of achievement. (cited by Ouyang 2012). Rockwell and Apodaca (2012) also noted that the work of teaching (trabajo docente) is a big area of research in Mexico, including several studies of how teachers deal with educational reforms and other researchers conducting inquiries on the organizational cultures of teachers and teachers’ unions (75). In the United States, many ethnographic studies in the 1990s and onward portray successful or effective teaching, particularly among minority students who had been painted with a deficit brush. Studies in this genre include Michèle Foster’s work about exemplary African American teachers (1993) and Gloria Ladson Billing’s book, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Students (1994).

Teacher research has become popular as an approach to aid close observation and reflection among teachers in preparation programs, as well as those receiving on-the-job professional development. The idea that teachers can also be researchers developed out of action research models in the United Kingdom in the context of curricular reforms (Hollingsworth 1992; Stenhouse 1983). Several models of teacher research have proliferated, one of which is “teacher-as-ethnographer.” Using some of the tools of ethnography, teachers have studied their own classrooms and teaching practices, sometimes focusing on one or more focal students to understand students’ learning better. They have also engaged students in data collection. Heath (1983), for example, invited teachers to engage their students in collecting and analyzing language data in their homes and communities in order to study communicative patterns in and out of the classroom. A teacher-as-ethnographer approach has also been used in Italy to shift the focus from children’s diversities to teachers’ coping strategies (Gobbo 2012).

Teachers have also, following González et al. (2005), learned how to inquire into the experiences and knowledge children bring from home and to incorporate what they learn in school curricula. For example, González and her colleagues describe one example in Tucson, Arizona in which a child’s mother makes candy at home and sells it in the neighborhood. This work involves skills and knowledge that cross several traditional subject areas in school including math, business, science, nutrition, and social sciences. A skilled teacher can not only invite this parent to come as a guest to the classroom to introduce the practice to the students, but also can follow up by integrating this new practice with related subject areas in the curriculum. Known as the “Funds of Knowledge” approach, it signals an intentional turn away from deficit views that see only the school as a place where knowledge develops. It asks teachers to become learners themselves and to develop an appreciation for the knowledge and skills that reside in these families and communities (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Teachers in rural Nicaragua practice a pedagogical approach in which community is seen as a source of knowledge. Here, they practice giving directions in English using a hand-drawn map of their community.

Photo by the author, 2015.

Another approach to teacher research involves teachers writing “cultural autobiographies” or auto ethnographies as a way to decenter themselves and make their own cultural assumptions more visible. Given that in the United States most teachers are white and female, it is also suggested that autobiographical approaches be paired with more outward looking approaches (i.e., learning about the students by focusing on questions such as “How can I draw on this student’s strengths to engage her in learning?”) (Jewett and Schultz 2011, 171). Such a twin approach is designed to counter the tendency to view “culture” in a simplistic manner. Ladson-Billings (2006) also suggests that prospective teachers engage in immersion experiences where they are “cultural outsiders” and write and reflect on their experiences with others).

Teacher-as-ethnographer approaches and other anthropological investigations of teaching tend to be nested in a broader concern for social justice. They also assume that teachers are professionals who make informed decisions about how to teach their students. However, the trend in the United States and other Western countries since the 1990s, in part due to neoliberal ideas of education as a marketable commodity, has been to de-professionalize teaching, making it more about following preordained scripts that will result in higher student performance on standardized tests (Panait and Teodoro 2017). Educational anthropologists and teachers who collaborate to challenge such limited concepts of teaching help to make the work of teachers visible and contextualize teaching within the larger sociopolitical and historical spaces and moments where it occurs (Jewett and Schultz 2011; Pease-Alvarez et al. 2010).

Higher Education

While most ethnographic research on formal education centers on pre-K through secondary schooling, a growing number of scholars have been investigating higher education. One of the main reasons for the scarcity of such research is that ethnographies of higher education usually involve academics themselves investigating their own institutions; due to close-up methods such as participant observation and open-ended interviewing, the traditional norms of scientific objectivity may appear to be compromised (Pabian 2014). Pabian’s edited collection provides useful examples in which authors in the United Kingdom, Slovakia, Sweden, and Denmark describe how they managed the methodological complexity of doing ethnographic research on one’s own institution. In the United States, Hunter and Abelman (2013) describe a project called the Ethnography of the University Initiative, begun in 2003, in which students carry out archival as well as ethnographic research within the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana. They have developed a publicly-available database of these projects.1 Ethnographers of higher education have been especially drawn to documenting and grappling with neoliberal trends in higher education (Posecznick 2014).

Educational Policy

Educational policy came into view in the 1990s as a new focus within the anthropology of education. In earlier decades, the focus had been on learners and learning, classrooms, schools, communities, teachers and teaching, and occasionally, principals. Laura Nader’s call for anthropologists to “study up” (1972)—in other words, to turn their gaze not only toward those who suffer oppression or marginalization, but also toward the powerful—created reverberations that inspired anthropologists to study culture in the corridors of power (Shore and Wright 1997). Educational anthropologists began examining how educational policy is made, unmade, and remade, taking a sociocultural view that policy is more than mandates from above; it is also created by ordinary people through their resistance, negotiations, adaptations, and initiations of policy from the ground up (Hamann and Rosen 2011; Hamman et al. 2002; Levinson and Sutton 2001; McCarty et al. 2011).

In addition, the changing “policyscapes” that have emerged (and continue to morph) with globalization and neoliberalism have had major impacts on local educational systems and children’s learning opportunities, while at the same time, local policy actors reinterpret and resist policies based on local contingencies such as material and institutional constraints.2 Such policyscapes may operate at the national level or may engage a range of local as well as global entities. In the United States, the federal No Child Left Behind legislation (2002) set into motion a whole network of for-profit companies, superintendents, principals, teachers, and city officials in pursuit of the test scores and accountability measures that would enable students and schools to show progress and reach standards (Koyama 2010). It also created a climate of punishment in which schools that didn’t “measure up” faced possible closure.

The charter school movement in the United States, beginning in the 1990s, created opportunities for public school funding to be privatized. Charter schools have become one of the most common approaches to unregulated school choice in the United States to date. Critics of charter schools argue that regular public schools lose in this scenario, as public monies are funneled away from low-income neighborhood schools toward schools that are not regulated as public schools are. Charter schools typically seek out a “valued customer” and play on the discourse of “good fit” to lure parents into choosing a school (Convertino 2017; Lipman 2015). Nygreen (2017) studied policy through the lens of a community-based organization that was working toward developing a pilot school. Unlike charter schools, pilot schools are innovative schools that remain under the purview of the public school district. She shows how neoliberal trends and reform agendas shifted the plan from a pilot to a charter school and the tensions that arose as a result. Her ethnography reveals the paradox of neoliberal reforms that appear to practice inclusion on a symbolic level (e.g., via promotional messaging), but when it comes to material benefits (e.g., funding), these reforms actually practice exclusion, particularly toward the most marginalized members of the school district.

Examples of educational policy studies in other countries include Phyak’s ethnography of language policy and practice in Nepal (2013). He studied a community school that was purportedly practicing a multilingual policy in which Nepali serves as the national language, English as the international language, and Limbu as the local language. However, Phyak’s ethnography of everyday practices showed that the incursion of English was displacing Limbu (fig. 4). He engaged local young people to study this issue with him and in doing so, witnessed a growing interest among youth in doing grass-roots policy research for a more authentically multilingual education. In France as well as Belgium, researchers such as Raveaux and Draelants (2012) are interested in the effects of decentralization of schools. In an environment where education is more localized, the reception of educational reforms brings local decision makers or “street level bureaucrats” into focus. As in the United States, the emphasis has shifted from policy as mandates from above to policy as a sociocultural process (Raveaux and Draelants 2012, 144). And in Russia, Aydarova (2015, 2019) provides a “peek behind the curtains” at how global reforms in teacher education in Russia are made from the inside by local stakeholders.

Figure 4. A bilingual Limbu indigenous youth helps another student to learn Limbu by translating an English text.

Reproduced by permission of Prem Phyak, 2016.

Policy can also be studied at the transnational level where more than one nation or international organization may be involved. The spread of learner-centered pedagogy, as compared to teacher-centered pedagogy, provides one example. Learner-centered pedagogy asserts that students learn best when given opportunities to actively construct knowledge with peers and teachers rather than being lectured to and only required to memorize existing knowledge. In a multisite study, Bartlett and Vavrus (2014) show how this idea was taken up by six different secondary schools in Tanzania. The authors use a “vertical case study” to examine how international development organizations such as the World Bank, UNESCO, and private donors form a network of stakeholders, along with national curriculum policy and national exams, teachers, parents, school heads, and communities at the local level. In their case study, educational policy becomes a complex, power-laden interaction among these international, national, and local stakeholders.

Interest in educational policy as an area within educational anthropology seems to be growing. If Castagno and McCarty’s edited volume on this theme (2018) is an indicator, it will be an area of intense inquiry far into the future.

Civic Engagement and Citizen Education

In his article on citizenship education, Levinson (2011) argues that anthropologists of education ought to pay more attention to the formation of civic identities, an area that he says has been “dominated by researchers in political science, comparative education, and social studies education” (292). He believes that educational anthropology, with its diverse methodological toolkit, has much to offer in terms of parsing out the meanings that “participation” may have in different contexts. He takes it as a given that most citizenship education aims to develop participation in democratic or striving-to-become democratic societies. Here, I consider some of the work that I believe falls within this broad scope.

Scholars distinguish two kinds of citizenship—legal and cultural (also sometimes called formal and informal citizenship). Cultural citizenship denotes an individual’s sense of belonging in the nation, often gained through local participation in civic life (Rosaldo 1996, cited in Mangual Figueroa 2017). Even when people do not have legal status as citizens, as is the case for students in the DACA program in the United States (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals), civic participation is still possible. Mangual Figueroa’s (2017) ethnography examines how and when undocumented elementary students speak (or remain silent) about citizenship in school. Among her conclusions, she states that “curricular material can support students in developing more robust reasoning about citizenship and its relation to broader historical and political contexts” (514). She also points to ways in which teachers may enhance a sense of belonging for all students, regardless of their legal status. In an earlier study, Mangual Figueroa (2015) focused on undocumented mothers and their acts of giving testimonio (testimony). She finds that “giving testimonio in both public and domestic settings constitutes a form of civic participation in which undocumented mothers actually attempt to move out of the shadows and into a more public domain” (244). Bellino’s (2017) ethnography of youth civic identity development in four schools in Guatemala also speaks to the importance of looking at civic identity in context rather than as an attribute of individuals. Understanding context allows us to see how Guatemala’s violent years of armed conflict influence youth who grew up in the “postwar” years. The way the conflict is constructed in communities and schools affects how young people find a sense of agency to shape a better future. She concludes that civic agency is an attribute that is fragile and not equally available to all youth.

An important but underexamined subset of civic education involves the teaching of anthropology in elementary through secondary education, as well as into adulthood. The premise is that fundamental concepts of anthropology such as cultural variation, respect for those who differ from us, and an emphasis on local meanings and the importance of context, can contribute to the development of an educated citizenry. Attention to the teaching of anthropology in pre-college education has waxed and waned in the United States and Canada. There is no requirement in either country for students in public schools to take any anthropology class to graduate from high school, although it may be offered as an elective in a few private and public schools. Teachers do sometimes expose students to anthropological concepts, but these are not necessarily identified as part of anthropology. Thus, the field of anthropology as a whole has a low profile when it comes to K–12 curriculum.

The American Anthropological Association over the years has formed, disbanded, and re-formed many task forces to address anthropology’s lack of presence in K–12 education. Clearly, anthropologists of all subfields need to collaborate in how the field is presented to children and youth. Efforts to do so have been documented in several publications, including Erickson (2000) and Selig (2001). Selig (1989) also laid out a rationale for “why we should care” about anthropology in public schools. In 2014, a very comprehensive report on anthropology education was completed by the Anthropology Education Task Force (2014). This report includes not only vignettes of how teachers use anthropology in the classroom but also many links to resources.3

Rituals and ceremonies have been important areas for educational anthropologists to examine civic identity and learning, especially in places where national identity is still forming, as in Israel (Shlasky et al. 2012), or where it is undergoing a major shift in political philosophy, as in Bolivia under President Evo Morales (Lazar 2010). In Germany, a home of educational anthropology has developed since the 1990s in what is known as “historical cultural educational anthropology” within education (Wulf 2012, 35). One of the most prominent long-range ethnographic studies is the “Berlin Study on Rituals,” which examines the importance of rituals in the learning of children and adolescents in inner-city schools. The study explores four areas of socialization including family, school, children and youth culture, and media (Wulf 2012, 35). Adely’s (2009) study of a girls’ secondary school in Jordan also illuminates the role of school rituals as a way to demonstrate adherence to religious, moral, and patriotic norms, while at the same time showing off the nation’s progress in women’s rights.

Anderson (2011) points to the need for anthropologists of education to study what she calls “civil sociality”—children’s participation in voluntary spaces such as sports groups, where children are expected to be equals (e.g., age-mates, teammates, members of an ethnic group). In Denmark, such voluntary associations are seen as important spaces where immigrants and refugees learn to incorporate themselves and assimilate into Danish society. However, Anderson takes a more critical stance, saying that these spaces need ethnographic study before we assume their beneficial integrative functions. Her questions are reminiscent of the period in the United States when schools were being integrated after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Many liberal educators at that time assumed that the mere co-presence of African American and European American children in the school would lead to positive intergroup relations. It took decades for mainstream educators to understand that placing children and youth from profoundly unequal backgrounds in the same learning environment does not erase generations of social inequality. It is up to educators and school leaders to take proactive steps inside and outside of classrooms to promote culturally relevant and antiracist pedagogy (Pollock 2008).

Educational anthropologists who use Participant Action Research (PAR) methodology with youth are consciously preparing young people to take part in the civic life of the community, region, nation, and world. Ginwright and Cammarota (2007) highlight the potential role played by community-based organizations as sites where, outside of the constraints of the school day, youth can be engaged as co-researchers to study the issues that directly affect them in their local environment, and to propose solutions (figs. 5 and 6).

Often, community-based organizations facilitate what we call critical civic praxis, a process that develops critical consciousness and builds the capacity for young people to respond and change oppressive conditions in their environment. In other words, critical civic praxis is the organizational processes that promote civic engagement among youth and elevate their critical consciousness and capacities for social justice activism. (699)

Figure 5. Youth Together, a program in five high schools in Oakland, California, “operates from the belief that youth empowerment must include individual transformation, community building, and youth leadership to change inadequate school and community conditions.”

Reproduced by permission of Youth Together

Figure 6. A group of students from Youth Together.

Reproduced by permission of Youth Together.

Tanaka (2015), who discusses the deep ruptures in American democracy due to corporate greed embodied in the 2008 economic crisis, took action by involving himself in local “citizen panels.” He feels it is only through the participation of ordinary people that the United States can develop a renewed and “deep democracy.” The schools will need to be involved in this effort, according to Tanaka, but it will have to go beyond school. “A deep democracy . . . will need to be scaffolded; its citizens will want to learn the norms and skills to use it well. . . ” (328).

Migration, Immigration, and Transnational Flows

According to Gibson and Koyama (2011), educational anthropologists prior to the 1980s focused mainly on long-settled immigrant minority groups. It was primarily through the work of John Ogbu that scholars in the field turned their attention to recent arrivals. Ogbu (1987) brought a comparative perspective to questions of immigrant and other minority groups’ success in US schools. He asked why voluntary immigrants (those who have come to the host country in search of better economic or other opportunities) seem in the aggregate to do better in school than minorities who are there not by choice but because of conquest, colonization, or slavery. He called them involuntary minorities. Ogbu’s work was criticized for many reasons (e.g., his framework didn’t originally account for refugees and asylum seekers, and the classification system was seen as overly deterministic). Nonetheless, his work inspired many to push further in exploring the multiple factors involved in school performance. Gibson’s (1988) study of Punjabi Sikh immigrants in northern California documented what she called “accommodation and acculturation without assimilation”—a pathway that enabled Punjabi Sikh immigrants to adapt as necessary to the dominant culture while at the same time holding on to important practices and values in their homes and communities. This pathway, which does not ask or expect immigrants to completely denude themselves of their home culture, has been associated with better school performance, not only among Punjabi Sikhs but other groups as well (Gibson and Koyama 2011).

In the 21st century, however, the pace of globalization and immigrant and refugee movement has increased to such an extent that the former theoretical frames are no longer adequate. Whether spurred by economic instability, climate change, war, violence, or genocide, people are moving in unprecedented numbers around the globe. They may enter and exit multiple countries throughout their lives, and with advanced technology, it is easier to stay in close contact with relatives and friends in the country of origin or elsewhere (Gibson and Koyama 2011). Families do not necessarily migrate together, so in some cases siblings are born and raised in different countries and have different legal statuses in one country or another (Mangual Figueroa 2017). Immigration is no longer necessarily one-way; Latinas/os may live temporarily or permanently in the United States, but we see a reverse flow also—US-born Latinas/os returning to live in Latin American countries, especially when economic and political conditions in the United States become less promising for immigrants. Taken as a whole, this dynamic pattern has been called the “transnational Latino diaspora” (Hamman et al. 2002). In the United States, Italy, and Germany, the large numbers of unaccompanied minors present a challenge to local educational systems to develop equitable and humane responses (Ricucci 2018; Wulf 2012).

Gibson and Koyama (2011) find that in this environment of global migration flows, frameworks and studies are needed that attend to how young people’s identities are negotiated across multiple spaces. Comparative studies that help us understand how the immigrant experience with education differs across nations having different political histories are also required. In Israel, for example, a country with a relatively recent national identity formation, we see an interesting window on how this recency affects social scientists who study immigration. According to Shlasky et al. (2012), ethnographic research on education began in the late 1970s and was a counterpoint to earlier work in which “social scientists regarded as one of their functions to encourage consensus and cohesion” (269) in a nation of immigrants from all over the world. Since the 1980s, ethnographic research in Israel has focused less on consensus building among immigrants and more on the problems faced by particular groups of immigrants, such as social alienation among young immigrants from Ethiopia. Shasky et al. (2012) note that some minority groups are conspicuously absent in the ethnographic research, namely, Arab students and ultra-orthodox students. A different example is provided in Denmark by Jaffe-Walter (2016). She documents how a liberal progressive stance toward Muslim immigrant youth, which can appear as benevolent concern, also masks a coercive attitude that demands assimilation.

Further complexity is added when we consider the means by which people are identified as indigenous or migrant. In an edited volume in Spanish (Novaro et al. 2015), collaborating authors in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, and Spain consider and compare education of both indigenous people and migrants. Using historical as well as contemporary cross-national perspectives, they seek understandings of movement and stability in an era of global inequality. In the midst of the many “borders” we humans construct, both the national ones and the ones that signify spaces of cultural belonging, Orellana (2017) suggests that we pay attention to the enactment of “transculturality.” Referring to her ethnographic study of upper elementary school girls in an after-school club in southern California, she documents their playful navigation of boundaries among one another and the undergraduate students who interacted with them on a regular basis.” The interesting part of transculturality lies in the movement itself, both within and across constructed borders, before we have a chance to create new borders that define a new culture in opposition to other things.” She notes the ways the girls and the undergraduate students lovingly and gently cross borders every day and asks, “Might transcultural perspective taking get us further in our aim to truly transform the world, more than simply uniting around some enemy and forming new forms of ‘us’ and ‘them’?” (Orellana 2017, 215).

Agency and Resistance

As I note in the later (see “Overemphasis on Failure”), anthropologists of education in the United States have often exhibited a preoccupation with school failure and the institutional production of failure. A structural view in which the opportunities and futures of individuals and groups are overly determined by their social identity, social capital, or by the powerful institutions that surround them left little room for recognizing individual or group agency. However, in the 21st century, we begin to see a turn from understanding failure in school to understanding the agency and resistance of young people. Ginwright and Cammarota (2007) define agency as “young people’s ability to analyze and respond to problems impeding their social and economic advancement” (694). Abu-El Haj (2017) articulates this turn as follows: “We not only document oppression and dispossession, but also presence and resistance” (428).

Since the 1980s, many researchers have embraced various forms of critical ethnography and critical praxis, including critical pedagogy (Freire 1970), critical race theory (Ladson Billings and Tate 1995), culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson Billings 1995), and decolonizing methodologies (Tuhiwai Smith 2012). While these theoretical frames critique existing social institutions and arrangements, they also encourage researchers to document how people take action to improve their lives under conditions of oppression and to consider who conducts research and for what purposes. In the 21st century, we also see critical areas of study emerging that center on the experiences and histories of particular ethno-racial or other groups, including LatCrit, TribalCrit, AsianCrit, Critical Race Feminism, and Critical Whiteness Studies. While these areas arose from Critical Race Theory and Ethnic Studies, many educational anthropologists in the United States embrace these new theory-building opportunities because they resonate with the desire to see social justice for historically marginalized groups. In addition, centering these voices and experiences fits well with the ethnographic practice of privileging the emic (insider) view rather than only that of the researcher or outsider. Furthermore, the critical study of whiteness makes visible the production of whiteness and white privilege.

The themes of critique, resistance, and agency resonate for educational ethnographers in many parts of the globe. In Mexico, resistance movements among indigenous groups are increasingly the subject of ethnographers’ studies. Ethnographers not only describe how indigenous people “negotiate, resist, and vindicate their claims to educational resources,” but also describe the processes through which indigenous groups “reinvent their traditions and reestablish imagined communities” in order to achieve recognition in the face of global dynamics of modernity (Rockwell and Apodaca 2012, 79–80). In Argentina, in the wake of dictatorial governments, anthropologists interested in education study such topics as “power relations, conflicts over inequality and resistance, and movements for social change,” among others (Neufeld 2012, 95). In Denmark, school ethnographers of the 1980s turned away from a view of schools as sites of social reproduction and began to investigate “modes of resistance and meaning making” among various stakeholders (Anderson et al. 2012, 197). The 1989 adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, together with a new scholarly interest in children as social actors, prompted many ethnographic studies focusing on children’s perspectives, experiences, and agency (Anderson et al, 2012, 200). In Japan, “a considerable number of studies adopt a critical stance that assumes subjects as active agents who negotiate their position in a society” (Minoura 2012, 222).

The notions of agency and resistance give shape to the work of many educational ethnographers who develop research and action projects with minority groups in the United States, such as Villenas’ (2006) work with immigrant mothers, Delgado-Gaitan’s (2005) work with Latinx parents, Orellana’s study of upper elementary school girls in a school club and their agency as transcultural brokers (2015), and Brayboy’s (2005) study of the strategies used by American Indian students in higher education.4 These students are “creative individuals from traditionally oppressed groups who know how to use the educational tools and credentials they have acquired toward liberatory ends [to] unseat the assimilationist influence of Western schooling” (208).


Issues of class, race, gender, and other social identities tend to intersect and overlap (fig. 7). Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, who has written extensively on this topic, defines intersectionality as “the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather as reciprocally constructing phenomena” (Collins 2015, 1). Educational anthropologists have long recognized these intersections in their ethnographic work.

Figure 7. A sign carried at the Women’s March in Oakland, California, January 21, 2017.

Photo by the author, 2017.

Notwithstanding the need to acknowledge and forefront intersectionality, it is still useful at times to focus on a particular social identity. This singular emphasis is especially evident when journal editors create a special issue on a particular identity or simply collect a group of articles on a theme and publish them in the same issue. For example, between 2009 and 2014, the Anthropology and Education Quarterly featured collected articles on Indigenous education from a Latin American perspective (Rockwell and Gomes 2009), religious identities in education (Adely and Seale-Collazo 2013), gender and education (Galman 2014), and race (Valdiviezo 2014). The following sections provide a glimpse into how educational anthropologists have focused on various identity categories.


According to Foley (2010), class analyses of education were “alive and well” in the sociology of education during the 1960s and 1970s. He refers to the work of Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, and others who took up Paolo Freire’s critical pedagogy within the United States (216). Meanwhile, in the same era, few educational anthropologists in the United States were engaged in class critiques of schooling. They were more focused on challenging cultural and linguistic deficit views of ethnic minority communities and were “not infusing cultural theory with class concepts of alienation, power, exploitation, and inequality” (Foley 2010, 216). It was not until the “New European Sociology of Education” in the early 1980s, through the influence of Michael Apple and Paul Willis, that US educational anthropologists started to develop a class-cultural critique of schooling (Foley 2010, 218–219).

Foley (2010) gives a number of examples of educational anthropology studies that combine a class culture emphasis, among them Varenne and McDermott’s (1998) study of how US schools construct the failure of linguistically and culturally diverse students, Lomawaima’s (1994) study of disciplinary policies in an Indian boarding school, and Hall’s (2002) study of popular culture practices of South Asian immigrant youth in Britain, as they adapt to capitalist commodity culture.

With widening economic gaps in the decades following the financial collapse of 2008, and with the vast health and economic disparities further exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic (Inayat, 2020), class will undoubtedly continue to be an analytic lens that educational anthropologists must consider.

Race, Racism, and Racialization

The intersections of race and education have occupied anthropologists of education since the early days of the field. Race has been a particular concern in countries that, like the United States, have a colonial history and practice of slavery or other forms of institutionalized racism. In Brazilian ethnographic research on education, race relations are one of the major themes. In the 2000s, we see the emergence in Brazil of black scholars studying race relations (Gomes and Gomes 2012; Da Silva 2014). However, it is important to note that in some parts of the world, class, gender, immigration status, religion, language, or other factors are seen as more consequential than race. Hence the intense focus we see on race in the United States, as well as how race is conceptualized, are not universally shared (Mukhopadhyay et al. 2014). Yet concern for racial justice is growing even in places where oppression takes other forms. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, and other unarmed black men and women in the United States, the widespread protest movement of Black Lives Matter has garnered support around the world to end police violence against black men and other people of color, as the map of protest locations clearly shows.5

Anthropologists and most other scientists who study race explain that it is a culturally constructed invention, developed in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe to legitimize social inequality under the guise of “science.” The reasons why race is now considered unscientific and invalid as a biological classification are detailed in Mukhopadhyay et al. (2014). Writing primarily for educators, the authors also explain why and how stratified racial categories and racism continue to live on, particularly in North America, as a culturally meaningful but ultimately harmful system. They point out that schools are key institutions where racism and racialization are enacted daily and provide suggestions on how to advance educators’ and students’ understanding of race, as well as interrupting the perpetuation of racism and racialized practices in schools.6 Also of note is the traveling exhibit and website on race that were developed by the American Anthropological Association.7 This exhibit represents a major effort to reach public audiences, including teachers and students across all levels (fig. 8).

Figure 8. Visitors at the “Race—are we so different?” exhibit consider how the US Census would have counted them in different eras.

Reproduced by permission of American Anthropological Association.

In the vast literature on race and schooling, several key theoretical stances inform the field of anthropology and education. Bartlett and Brayboy (2005) identify five strands of theorizing that center race, beginning with the work of John Ogbu and Herbert Simon’s “cultural ecological theory” (1998). Ogbu and Simons posited that non-voluntary minorities (whose ancestors were enslaved or incorporated to the nation through conquest) tend to have an oppositional stance toward the educational system and other institutions. They also saw systematic discrimination by the majority group as a factor affecting educational opportunity of minorities.

Another strand of theorizing about race and schooling is Omi and Winant’s (1986) racial formation theory, which sees race as a social and cultural construction rather than a fixed and inherited trait. Racial formation takes a more processual and nuanced approach compared to Ogbu and Simon’s, focusing on the cultural processes involved in defining or labeling racial groups, as well as the political and economic institutions that distribute power along racial lines.

Another theoretical stance that has influenced the study of race and education in anthropology is Pierre Bourdieu’s (1986) notion of social and cultural capital. Originally intended as a theory of how class operates to reproduce advantage by valuing those with middle-class tastes, values, and ways of interacting, it has been taken up by those who study race and ethnicity.

The last area discussed by Bartlett and Brayboy is race talk and silence. This area focuses on how and when people in schools talk about race and when it is silenced or erased (Castagno 2014; Pollock 2004). Castagno (2008) points out that even with a rich array of “diversity efforts” in schools, there remains a well-intended (but misguided) silence around issues of race in the two schools she studied. “Silences around issues of race . . . perpetuate an educational culture in which the status quo is maintained” (329). This focus on silence harkens back to Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory in that language use is one way in which race becomes important and visible (and hence “real”) or unimportant and invisible. Silence about race can lead to generalized and “safe” talk about student achievement without recognizing racial disparities.

The continuing importance of race is evident in a special issue of the Anthropology and Education Quarterly (Valdiviezo 2014), which includes five articles on race and education based on ethnographic work in Bahia, Brazil; Oaxaca, Mexico; as well as US sites in Texas, California, and Hawai’i. Scholars also describe processes of racialization that are being extended to new Muslim immigrant students. Abu-El Haj et al. (2017) provide a comparative analysis of how schools in three countries “racialize” Muslim students without necessarily talking in racial terms. They compared schools in Denmark, Spain, and the United States, examining how educators’ narratives of liberal, Western nationhood (with value placed on tolerance and individual freedom) were juxtaposed against an imagined Muslim “other” who lacks individual freedom and holds rigid attitudes. This assumed rigidity then became the rationale for finding Muslims “unassimilable.” Without using race as an explicit reason for the assumed “otherness” of Muslims, Western educators nonetheless racialize Muslim students by uncritically painting them with a broad brush in opposition to Western liberal values. The authors suggest using the power of storytelling (or counter-storytelling) to “unpack liberalism’s taken-for-granted connection to individual freedom and tolerance” and to create spaces for Muslim youth to tell their own stories (311).

Gender and Sexual Identity

The 2014 special issue of Anthropology and Education Quarterly focuses mainly on gender, with ethnographies situated in Afghanistan, Argentina, Sweden, and Britain. Articles in this issue not only focus on women’s and girls’ experiences, but also on males and maleness. Galman, in her editorial introduction, notes that it is still rare to see gender analysis thoroughly integrated into studies of teachers’ work. Furthermore, maleness is usually taken as a given, not investigated, as one of the authors in this special issue has done (Jonsson 2014).

Gender, particularly girls’ access to schooling, receives a great deal of attention in developing African countries such as Guinea, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, and Mali. In most of these cases, the research agenda is shaped by the priorities of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the World Bank and UNESCO and hence misses the perspectives of local scholars (Diallo 2012). The same “shaping” of the research focus on girls’ education by international NGOs is noted in the Muslim majority countries of the Middle East (Adely and Starret 2011).

In the United States, a strong focus on gender (especially the experiences of women and girls, layered with class and ethno-racial analysis) appears in many educational ethnographies written by and about Latina women and girls (Cervantes-Soon 2012; Dyrness 2008; Galvan 2001; Villenas et al. 2006). These studies take a critical feminist or mujerista stance and often use narratives, testimonios, and counterstories as a central part of the evidentiary basis, along with ethnography and historical documentation. Dehyle (2009) uses similar methods in chronicling the consequences of racial stereotyping in the lives and educational opportunities of Navajo women in Southwestern Utah. Not only does she emphasize the devastating results of such stereotypes, but also the ability of these women to not only survive but also resist and challenge limited, one-dimensional assessments of their skills. Throughout all of these studies, women’s and girls’ agency is foregrounded against a backdrop of oppression.

The theme of sexuality in schools is taken up in work by Woolley, who conducted a three-year ethnographic study of a high school gay–straight alliance club in northern California. Her work reveals the sometimes unintended ways in which LGBTQ voices are silenced even when school events attempt to promote LGBTQ awareness raising (Woolley 2012).8 She also considers how binary gender operates in school in the many activities that force students to choose a gender (e.g., boys over here, girls over there) (Woolley 2015).

Religion and Religious Education

Religious education, according to Adely and Seale-Collazo, is often perceived as being “merely reproductive” (2013, 343), yet religious pedagogy is constrained and shaped by local contingencies, as is all schooling. In a special issue of Anthropology and Education Quarterly, five collaborating authors share their ethnographies of faith education within Christianity, Islam, and Judaism across geographic areas including Morocco, Istanbul, Puerto Rico, and California (Adely and Seale-Collazo 2013). In an ethnography of Catholic religious education for Mexican immigrant children in Los Angeles, Baquedano-López (2004) documents the shift in policy as the program went from Spanish as the medium of instruction to English. Here, we see how religion and language are intricately interwoven. Ethnographic studies of religious and moral education in the Middle East also shed light on how religious schooling challenges the more typical frame of reference in which “resistance is linked to a liberatory project largely conceived in secular terms” (Adely and Starrett 2011, 353). In other words, these works may surprise readers who consider religious education a far cry from resistance to authority.

Special Needs

The study of special needs education from an educational anthropological perspective brings to our attention the sorting and stratifying functions of schooling. McDermott “flips” the usual scripts we hear about how children become labeled as having a disability. Instead of asking how a child acquires a learning disability, he asks, how does a learning disability acquire a child? “LD [learning disabled] exists as a category in our culture, and it will acquire a certain proportion of our children as long as it is given life in the organization of tasks, skills, and evaluations in our schools” (1993, 271). Valente and Collins (2016) juxtapose ability and disability, pointing out that the field of disability studies is often viewed as only concerning those with disabilities. They offer [dis]ability as a critical lens for exploring how ability is linked, in the language of educational reform, to neoliberal ideas of competition and winners: Race to the Top ultimately ends up providing the logic (and funding) for a system of segregated education based on who is a “winner” and who is a “loser” (Valente and Collins 2016, 13).9 An ethnography by DeWolfe (2014) delves deeply into the worlds of parents of children with autism, highlighting the agency of working-class parents as they navigate and negotiate the school systems. Shuelka’s (2018) ethnographic study offers an example from Bhutan, focusing on how disability is culturally produced in Bhutanese schools. These examples illustrate how ethnographers are unseating many of the preconceived notions of how ability and disability function as binary categories in education.

Minority Ethno-racial Groups in Education

Many studies within anthropology of education focus on particular ethno-racial minority groups in relation to their educational trajectories, school success and failure, home language maintenance, and other themes. In general, anthropologists tend to be specific in identifying who is the group that is the focus (e.g., Navajo women in Southwestern Utah rather than Native Americans). However, at times it is still important to speak and write more generally, especially when discussing shared histories of groups that have been racialized over many generations.

The education of indigenous people has been a major topic in the United States, Latin America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations where European colonization of indigenous territory took place. In Mexico and other countries in Latin America, as Rockwell and her colleagues discuss (2009), cross-national comparisons are bringing to light similarities as well as differences in the ways different Latin American nations approach indigenous education. Ames and Gomes (2017), for example, compare the approaches of Peru and Brazil with regard to mainstreaming versus differentiation. Castagno and Brayboy’s (2008) review of decades of literature on indigenous education in the United States concludes that culturally responsive schooling is the most effective pathway to increase indigenous students’ academic learning and engagement with school. They question why, after at least three decades of research showing the benefits of culturally responsive pedagogy, scholars still have to argue for its value in 2008. The persistence and pervasiveness of deficit views of indigenous students seems to continue despite the evidence.

The literature on Latina/o students in the United States is likewise robust and has been mentioned numerous times throughout this article. A large body of literature exists on African American students, some of which has already been mentioned. In addition to work already noted by Foster (1993) and Ladson-Billings (2009), Fordham (2008), K. Foster (2008), and Gayles (2005) offer illuminating ethnographic studies of African Americans in education. Similarly, numerous studies look at Asian American students. A prevalent theme in educational anthropologists' studies of Asian American students is challenging the “model minority myth” (the myth that all Asians excel in education) (Lee, 1993; Trueba et al. 1994).

Wherever a dominant ethnic group exerts power over the education of internal minorities, tensions over curriculum and control of the schools are likely. In Hungary and the Czech Republic, as well as in Italy, the Roma are considered “internal minorities” as opposed to immigrants. They occupy a prominent place in ethnographic research on education, but that place resonates with the deficit perspective that has been so problematic in the United States (Eröss 2012, Gobbo 2012; Van Zanten 2012). We can find the deficit perspective operating in many educational settings around the globe, including China, with regard to the dominant Han population vis-à-vis Uighur Muslim and Tibetan students.

Enduring Questions and Problems

In this section, I touch on some of the enduring questions and problems that stimulate growth and change in the anthropology of education, making it a field of vibrancy and continuing improvement.

The Need to Recognize Scholarship from Countries Other than the United States

One of the problems faced by the anthropology of education is that US perspectives and ways of constructing differences have often overshadowed work being done in other countries or regions of the world. This is in part due to the dominance of US-based academic journals. Furthermore, US-based researchers tend to focus on questions that are relevant to our particular place in the world and fail to recognize that other scholarly questions are relevant elsewhere (Anderson-Levitt 2012a). Delamont (2012) explains further that the “anthropology of education written in English is overwhelmingly American, whereas the Anglophone ethnography of education is spread across all those nations where scholars publish in English” (51). The ethnography of education is much wider than the anthropology of education because it includes academic traditions not associated with anthropology or anthropologists (e.g., sociology, philosophy, education, applied linguistics).

Not only is much more dialogue needed among scholars doing similar work in different places, but we also need to realize how much related work is published in languages other than English. And most important of all, when we look at how the anthropology of education is taken up across the globe, the most striking differences are political histories that shape scholarship, promoting some forms of scholarship over others, and in some cases literally shutting down any efforts to do ethnography. Here, I provide examples of some of these variations (drawing primarily from Anderson-Levitt 2012).

Different Disciplinary Orientations and Assumptions

In many countries and regions around the world, anthropology has never taken hold as an academic discipline or it has been disfavored compared to sociology, pedagogical studies, or philosophy. Hence, even when studies may share much in common with the anthropology of education, they originate from a different intellectual tradition and may have different underlying assumptions. In the United Kingdom, as noted (see “Brief History”), most of the ethnography of education is done by sociologists rather than anthropologists. A vibrant tradition of ethnography of education continues but it is not strongly associated with anthropology. Similarly, according to Minoura (2012), most ethnographic studies of education in Japan have been produced by sociologists, not anthropologists. She has seen a shift in theoretical orientations since 1980 from viewing knowledge as transmitted by experts to knowledge as constructed through interaction as well as a more critical orientation that questions the status quo. German pedagogical anthropology, however, grew out of German philosophical traditions that ask “what it means to be human.” These studies initially focused on the relationship between the teacher and the student (Nohl 1950). However, Wulf (2012) notes how German scholars in the 21st century have developed a more historical–cultural anthropology of education. He describes a major ethnographic research project spanning twelve years, focusing on learning and everyday life in school and family, with attention to ritual and performance.

The subfield of educational anthropology is quite new in Scandinavia, specifically Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, which share social democratic traditions and universal welfare (Anderson et al. 2012). Before 1990, only a handful of anthropologists focused on education and socialization. Since the 1990s, the number of anthropologists has grown, but since not many positions were open to them in anthropology, many of them found work in newer institutions focusing on studies of welfare institutions. The growing number of anthropologists dovetailed with growing numbers of immigrants and refugees. As doing anthropology at home (rather than fieldwork abroad) became more accepted, many graduate students focused on critical studies of public institutions in Scandinavia. Anderson et al. (2012) point out an important challenge of translation in that the English term, “education,” when translated into Danish as “uddanelse,” focuses on schooling, not learning, nor does it focus on sites outside of the bounds of public schooling. These other studies fit more under the term “pedagogical anthropology” (195).

In France, Raveaud and Draelants (2012) describe the “age of glaciation” in which the French sociological macro approach dominated. Durkheimian sociology was taken to mean a focus on “normative foundations of meritocracy, equality, [and] democracy,” and ethnographic close-up empirical studies of education were not considered part of this approach (132). But recently, increased decentralization of schools has led to a demand for understanding new roles of local educational stakeholders such as teachers and administrators. Sociologists in France are challenged, however, because French law does not allow the collection of data by ethnicity or race; only nationality and place of birth can be used (139). French social sciences emphasize a “homogenizing ideology,” and as a result the notion of culture which dominates the US tradition of anthropology of education is regarded with suspicion. However, in Francophone Belgium, Switzerland, and Quebec, the authors note that other models of integration prevail, with more openness to expressions of cultural and religious identity (145).

Political Agendas, War, and Other Issues

In some places, anthropology and ethnographic studies have been discouraged or prohibited due to political agendas, civil wars, and other issues. In China, for example, Ouyang (2012) reminds readers that the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976 still lives in people’s memories. Many scholars in China are still afraid that the practice of ethnography and the revealing of insider stories could put them at risk from authorities. Fong and Kim (2011) note that studies of child socialization in mainland China have been conducted mainly by psychologists. In sub-Saharan Africa, Diallo (2012) notes that precolonial and colonial history left a great weight on the development of both sociology and anthropology until the 1950s. It was not until the late 1950s and 1960s that sociology took root as a discipline that could be associated with the new independence of African countries such as Mali, Togo, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Benin. Anthropology was not favored due to its association with the “double sins of primitivism and colonialism” (281). And while sociology was more favored by the universities, its development was stalled either because of totalitarian governments or armed conflict. In the 1990s, as more of these African countries moved toward democratization, an influx of funding from development agencies, NGOs, and other donors began to shape sociological research agendas toward educational themes. The most dominant of these continues to be barriers to girls’ schooling and “technology as a lever of development” (292).

According to Anderson-Levitt (2012a), there are few educational anthropologists studying in Arabic-language countries of the Middle East. However, there are certainly anthropologists, and Adely and Starrett (2011) remind readers that the term “Middle East” is an “artificial designation for a nebulous concept” (137). The region is characterized by great diversity in languages, religions, and histories, and its countries count among the poorest and the wealthiest in the world. However, political upheavals and wars have no doubt impacted scholars’ ability to carry out long-term ethnographic research in the affected countries.

Anthropology and anthropology of education are not well established in the Central European countries of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia (Eröss 2012). Up to the end of communism in the 1970s, no school of anthropology or any kind of cultural–social anthropology existed. Another discipline was “stealing the show”: ethnography and folklore, with a focus on “authentic” culture and ancestral traditions. School, being a modern institution, did not fit within this traditional focus. Since the 2000s, studies aligned with educational ethnography have focused mainly on ethnicity, specifically the Roma and issues of inequality and segregation. As in sub-Saharan Africa, policy and scholarly knowledge are seen as intertwined, with funding often dependent on philanthropic organizations. Since the anthropology of education does not exist as an academic subdiscipline, “sociologists and other social scientists have divided the field among themselves” (169).

Chile and Argentina both had military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s that suppressed sociological or anthropological study of education. During Chile’s dictatorship (1973–1990), the National Center for Educational Research was dismantled. However, some of the scholarship on education was moved to local or international private locations where, during the 1980s, these dispersed centers became oases of intellectual resistance. Budnik and Barrios (2018) provide a collection of articles in Spanish by Chilean social scientists on the history and practice of ethnography of education in Chile. An English language article titled “School Ethnography in Chile” is also available. In Argentina, after the military government ended in 1984, the teaching of sociocultural anthropology began to gain ground, spurred by participation of two Argentine anthropologists in a network in Mexico established by Rockwell and Vera (the Network of Qualitative Research on Schools) (Neufeld 2012, 96). In the 1990s, a group called the Education and Anthropology Program, established by Neufeld and Batallan, was created at in University of Buenos Aires (Neufeld 2012).

The impact of colonization and postcolonial attitudes toward teaching shape Indian ethnography of education, which has emerged since the 1990s. Kumar took a historical perspective in his examination of precolonial and colonial ideas about teaching in India, showing, among other things, how the same teacher changed under colonial rule. Once a teacher who commanded a great deal of respect, this individual became a meek servant of the government (Kumar 1990). Sarangapani (2003), in her ethnography of a village primary school for boys, points out the need for a close examination of teaching and learning environments, in particular how the overarching emphasis on rote learning in government schools needs to be understood in context. Ramanathan (2005) uses what she calls an “ethnographic stance” to study the divide between English medium and vernacular medium schooling. Other ethnographic studies by Indian scholars include Thapan (1991), Chaudhary (2004), Clarke (2001), and an edited volume by Thapan (2014).

Changing Assumptions about Diversity

In some countries, the focus of formal education itself has shifted from a policy of assimilation to one of recognizing and valuing linguistic and cultural diversity. While this is true for the United States, it is also true in many other countries. This shift in basic assumptions about diversity has led to an opening where ethnographic study of education becomes more highly valued. Such is the case with Italy, which was “unified” politically in 1861, but remained diverse in terms of languages and cultures. Government and schools attempted to unify this diversity by erasing regional and social dialect differences (Callari Galli 1975). It was not until the 1990s that “positive recognition of Italy’s cultural and linguistic diversity was reclaimed in educational thought and practice” (Gobbo 2012, 154), and by the mid-1990s, it was evident that Italy had changed from “a country of emigrations to one of immigration” (155). Italy’s newest educational demographic is unaccompanied minors, including young people from Albania, Egypt, Guinea, Eritrea, The Gambia, and Bangladesh. The Italian educational system and local schools are under pressure to develop innovative strategies to provide equitable education to these new students (Ricucci 2018).

In Mexico, the decades of the 1990s and 2000s have led to considerable diversification and an increase in anthropological studies on education (Rockwell and Apodaca 2012). They stress the interdisciplinarity of research, which is not strictly anthropological but draws on traditions from sociology, history, and other fields. Growing numbers of dissertations written by indigenous scholars point toward a vibrant new generation of scholarship. Themes of high interest include schooling as a social construction; trabajo docente (the work of teaching); classroom ethnography, language, and literacy (e.g., digital literacy both in and out of the classroom); youth cultures; language loss and maintenance in indigenous language bilingual communities, along with indigenous identity and migration to urban schools; and infant socialization.

In Brazil, somewhat similar to Italy, a contemporary emphasis on diversity and racial and cultural identities departs radically from earlier Brazilian national policies of the 1930s, which had pushed for national identity, consolidation of European immigrant ethnicities, and “elimination of the cultural traditions of African origin.” The main themes in the early 21st century are race relations and education, youth, and indigenous education systems. Black Brazilian scholars as well as indigenous scholars are emerging and contributing to studies of race relations (Gomes and Gomes 2012). However, the rights of indigenous people and African origin people, as well as LGBTQ people, are threatened since 2018 under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro (Anderson, 2019).

Overemphasis on Failure

In addition to the sheer dominance and visibility of US anthropology of education, an attendant problem is that the research literature, especially in the United States, tends to skew toward documenting and explaining school failure rather than what makes individuals, groups, or schools successful (Delamont 2012; Eröss 2012; Gobbo 2012; McDermott 1987):

The anthropology of education is overwhelmingly a close observation of failure. . . . If the aim of the discipline is to learn about education, it would be more productive . . . to focus upon highly successful pupils in other cultures. Understanding how and why educational success occurs, especially among groups who are not upper middle-class Anglo Americans, is a more productive research strategy.

(Delamont 2012, 59)

This concern is echoed by Gobbo, describing how she sees anthropology and education in Italy (2012): “[R]esearchers still define heterogeneous classrooms mostly in terms of ‘conflict’ and ‘problems’ . . . there is a need to challenge interpretations that define social and cultural transformation as emergency situations” (160). Eröss (2012), writing about the Central European countries (Hungary, Czech Republic Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia), also criticizes the focus on Roma as students who have trouble in school. He would rather see researchers start not with the Roma, but with the village or the district, or the school as a whole.

Failure, McDermott argues,

is a culturally necessary part of the American school scene. We do not need to explain it; we need to confront it. . . . [T]he ethnographer’s work might be better focused on how Americans have become so preoccupied with failure, and how, being so preoccupied, we have found ways to make so constant the attribution of failure to particular children or particular kinds of children. (1987, 362–364)

A Focus Largely on Formal Education

Funding opportunities and policy exigencies often shape the choices young scholars make about their study area. It is far more likely in most countries to be funded as an educational anthropologist if one conducts a study involving the school system or an educational policy that has just been instituted (Eröss 2012). Yet scholars across the decades remind us that education is not equivalent to schooling, that we are constantly learning and teaching throughout our lives both in and out of schools, and that we shortchange the theoretical power of our field if we focus too narrowly on studies of formal schooling systems. For one, the richness of ethnographic work on learning and teaching in homes and community would cease to inform our work. We would lose the comparative perspective that allowed Margaret Mead in the 1950s to critique American schools (Monroe 1992). We would not see that “competence” in one setting can be viewed as “incompetence” in another. Furthermore, the familiarity of school settings tends to blind us in that we “miss what remains most powerful in human life—the continued efforts by all to transform their conditions” (Varenne 2007a, 1559). Studies of informal learning enable us to cross the bridge “from familiar to strange and back again” (Spindler and Spindler 1982).

Although the research tends to skew toward studies of schooling, ethnographic research on informal learning does exist and can provide exemplars as well as theoretical framing. Barbara Rogoff, who was trained as a psychologist, brings ethnographic observations into all of her studies. When the volume Everyday Cognition appeared in 1984 (edited by Rogoff and Lave), many studies with a similar focus on informal learning followed, including my own dissertation and book on informal learning in a Greek community (fig. 9) (Henze 1992). A special issue of Human Development is devoted to the notion of “pitching in” to family and community endeavors (Rogoff 2014). An interdisciplinary volume, called The Anthropology of Childhood, considers cultural aspects of learning in childhood, presenting work by psychologists, sociologists, educators, and anthropologists (Lancy et al. 2010).

Figure 9. A four-year-old boy in rural Greece learns how to ring the doorbell on his grandparents’ house.

Photo by the author, 1986.

The settings in which learning takes place, whether formal or informal or somewhere in between, have their own rules and expectations regarding what constitutes success and failure. Anthropological studies in non-school settings are not only valuable in themselves as a lens on the many ways teaching and learning take place, but they can also contribute toward improving education in formal settings. Students’ home experiences and knowledge can become a valuable foundation on which to build curriculum and pedagogy (González et al. 2005), a part of asset-based pedagogy or “culturally sustaining pedagogy” (Paris 2012). When teachers are able to draw on and make connections to funds of knowledge in students’ communities, students previously seen as poor learners become more successful in school. We need more, not fewer, ethnographically informed studies that serve as a corrective to the tendency to make assumptions about poor and minority children’s home lives.

In addition to formal education in schools and informal learning in families and communities, many settings lie somewhere in the middle. These include programs offered to children, youth, and adults through community-based organizations, settings that deserve our attention as well. McLaughlin, Irby and Langman (1994) documented the experiences of inner-city youth in neighborhood organizations in three cities in the United States. Included are YMCA programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as church, park, and recreation department activities. Focusing on community members as leaders in these programs as well as on the youth themselves, they provide ethnographically grounded insights into how these programs connect with and support young people at risk of disengaging or dropping out of school. Ginwright and Cammarota (2007) provide an important corrective to much of the research on community-based organizations, noting that “[r]esearch on African-American and Latina/o youth has been dominated by studies that focus on ‘problem’ adolescent behavior.” Typically, “youth crime, delinquency, and violence . . . [have been] seen as individual pathological behavior or cultural adaptations stemming from social disorganization in their communities” (2007, 693). Instead, they argue that we need to view “young people as active participants in changing debilitative neighborhood conditions” (693).

The Role of Theory

A question that surfaces repeatedly over the decades concerns the role of theory in the anthropology of education. In the early years, the concern was mostly about whether educational anthropology is merely descriptive and lacks a unifying or unique theory (Comitas and Dolgin 1978, 173). Charles Frake (1964) describes the ethnographer’s task as not simply recounting events one has observed, but as providing "a theory of cultural behavior in a particular setting" (112). Wolcott (1987) points out that “culture does not lie in wait to be discovered. . . . Theorizing cultural behavior involves a process of inference, developing from grounded experience [and] explicit statements that ring true to the members of a particular culture or microculture” (41). Echoes of the theory question come up again in the 1990s and beyond, especially with regard to a more explicit turn toward research for social action. González (2010) traces the theory question to the binary between anthropology and applied anthropology, with anthropology of education relegated to the “applied side,” which “has never been viewed as having any theory except those borrowed from anthropology or other disciplines” (S250).

Baltodano (2019) points out that educational anthropology has evolved in the era of postmodernism to embrace new, transdisciplinary theories. She notes many theories that have influenced the anthropology of education, including Anzaldua’s (1987) theories about mixed cultures and hybridities that develop in the borderlands between nations or regions; Vélez-Ibañez and Greenberg’s (1992) notion of “household funds of knowledge,” which was taken up in the work of González et al. (2005); critical race theory (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995); critical pedagogy (Freire 1970); and culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings 1995). Adding to this mix, Foley’s class culture theory (2010) addresses the need for anthropologists of education to bring our long-term examination of culture and ethnicity back into dialogue with issues of class, hierarchy, capitalism, and the global power structure. Many educational anthropologists also draw on activity theory (Wertsch 1979) and socio-cognitive theory (Vygotsky 1962), which influenced the development of constructivist pedagogy in education.

While it seems that the anthropology of education in the early 21st century draws on an abundance of theory, Delamont (2012) points out that most of these theories did not arise in anthropology but rather in sociology, education, legal studies, history, psychology, and other disciplines. Delamont urges US anthropologists of education to consider theoretical frameworks within anthropology. Commenting on the theory question, Van Zanten (2012) points out that one of the reasons for the “lack of reactivity to new trends and controversies in both anthropology and sociology is the ‘divorce from the mother disciplines’ that has taken place as more and more anthropologists and sociologists of education take positions in departments of education” (306).

Problems with the Notion of “Culture”

Culture and cultural analysis have been cornerstones of educational anthropology since its beginnings. Culture was “an important tool for understanding both cultural continuity and discontinuity within schooling processes as well as an important antidote against the assumption of genetic differences as causative explanations for differential academic achievement” (González 2010, S251).

Yet as the notion of culture began to enter into explanations of school performance, it was also vulnerable to being appropriated into political agendas. The anthropological concept of culture was “misconstrued as [a source of] impediments to academic success” (González 2010, S249). The most well-known example is Oscar Lewis’ “culture of poverty” model (1966), which in its simplest form argued that groups that have suffered poverty for generations develop a separate culture. This argument, taken out of context of Lewis’ original work, is still heard in the 21st century. It provides a rationalization for programs that try to inculcate poor children to adopt white middle-class behaviors and leave their own cultural patterns behind. While the argument uses essentializing labels toward both groups (“white” and “middle class” as well as “poor” and “racialized”), it is the poor and racialized who are harmed by these notions that “their culture” needs to be replaced with something more valuable. Ironically, “Culture had cyclically metamorphosed into the biological reductionism it was intended to combat” (e.g., one often hears stereotypical statements such as blacks learn by rhythm and movement, Asians learn by striving for transcendence, whites learn by counting and measuring) (González 2010, S252).

How do educational anthropologists suggest we counter such reductive and harmful notions of culture? We need to be engaged in both academic and public spheres, including news media, social media, and public forums (González 2010; Pollock 2008). We need to be able to clearly speak and write in ways that don’t assume the audience has a PhD in anthropology. And we need to be especially careful of minefields like “culture” so that when we use this term we explain what we mean by it and deploy it with care (Erickson 2011).

For some of us, place and ancestral origins are a profound part of what we mean by culture. But culture may also develop among professional colleagues and new contacts in distant places, communicating with one another via the internet or some medium not yet invented! Our definitions of culture need to remain open to all the different ways we humans share meanings, practices, social classifications, and material things—and not reduce us to a collection of skills and attributes based on race, gender, age bracket, or any other category of our identities.

Increasing Calls for Activist Studies

Low and Merry (2010), editors of a special issue of Current Anthropology on “Engaged Anthropology,” find that the discipline as a whole does not adequately support engaged and advocacy research. Furthermore, old paradigms of positivism, especially in education, have an impact on our field by presenting false choices between objectivity and subjectivity. The positivist “hard line” assumption is that by taking an activist stance in our research, we are compromising validity.

However, the tide swung long ago toward educational anthropology as an “action-oriented” field that seeks to enhance social justice rather than merely collect detailed ethnographic descriptions. Even in the 1950s when George and Louise Spindler were writing about their work with teachers, their underlying assumption was that through “cultural therapy,” teachers would develop a more culturally aware perspective toward their students and possibly make modifications in their teaching as a result. The Spindlers did not label themselves as activist ethnographers, nor did they think it was for educational anthropologists to be involved in changing policy, but the work they were doing nonetheless carried an implicit action orientation.

Emihovich, reflecting on the role of educational anthropology in 2005, urged anthropologists of education at all levels, junior through senior, to put their scholarship to work:

I am not arguing that all the fine work that has been done by so many scholars has no value, but instead I suggest that we must find a way to harness all the wisdom and knowledge we have collected . . . to engage in action at all levels.

(Emihovich 2005, 306)

Foley (2008) sums up the movement toward more activist orientations as follows:

Our sense is that the field is becoming more, not less, activist in orientation and practice. [this is] not to say that activist, practice oriented pieces should replace cross cultural and more theoretical studies. . . . But we do reject the false dichotomy that separates theory from practice, thus relegating “practice” to a lesser, applied science. The field will remain vital if we remain connected to evolving cultural theory, both in and beyond anthropology, and if we learn from recent experiments in activist-practice-policy-public ethnography. (1–2)

If anything, global human suffering in recent decades makes it even more pressing to use our research for the common good. Schultz (2014) reflects on the sense of urgency she feels in being asked to volunteer as an ethnographer of education in crisis situations such as the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. Asking “What does it mean to be an activist scholar?” (219), she considers how anthropologists of education can balance the (usually) long-term time frame of ethnography with the call to be involved in something that cannot wait. Dyrness (2008) points out that most writing about activist anthropology seeks changes in the legal realm (e.g., changing a policy or advocating for the rights of minoritized groups). In contrast, she points to research that aims to transform relationships between researcher and researched, and “expand the capacity of participants to make changes for their own communities” (23–24). In 2020, as this article goes to press, humans are faced with multiple and interconnected dire situations, all of which carry both cultural and educational implications. The Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout; the failings of United States police and justice system, captured on cell phone cameras and epitomized in the Black Lives Matter movement; and the crisis of global warming, all lead to calls for deep, systemic reforms. The continuing relevance of the anthropology of education rests on the ability of future scholars to both uphold its strong evidentiary base and to carry forward the hope embedded in its action orientation.

Career Options

Most anthropologists of education work as professors or adjuncts in universities or colleges, either in an education department (especially in teacher or leadership development) or an anthropology department (or applied anthropology department). Those with degrees in sociology or other disciplines may work in those departments. Academic tenure-line positions were once considered very secure. However, it is worth noting here that universities in the Western world are increasingly following neoliberal trends of making higher education a marketable commodity, and as some of the authors discussed earlier note, universities in the United States in particular are increasing the number of adjuncts in order to be competitive in the market. The right to academic freedom is also being challenged (LeCompte 2014). Hence, academia is no longer the secure place it once seemed.

Many anthropologists of education work in the nonprofit sector in NGOs and community-based organizations. These positions often provide valuable experience in fundraising, research and project management, travel to different areas to collect data, and collaboration with distant or local partners. While the nonprofit sector used to be viewed as less desirable because it lacks the security and benefits of an academic position, the changing climate of academia may make the nonprofit sector a good choice for some. Corporate positions or consulting offer another means of employment. Anthropologists of education may find meaningful work in corporations involving “diversity training” or other types of leadership in human resources. Teaching in K–12 schools is another option if one has the requisite credentials. And finally, government positions often value the skills and knowledge base of those with backgrounds in both anthropology and education. Paramount in this background are the strengths developed through ethnographic work: systematic close observation and listening; recognizing and uncovering local knowledge and perspectives; collaboration with diverse partners or participants; the ability to see how policies are enacted “on the ground”; attention to the cultural shaping of teaching and learning in all its forms and locations; and frameworks for understanding why and how education plays a major role in producing both equality and inequality.

Select Journals

Anthropology and Education Quarterly (US)

Boletín de Anthropologia y Educación (Argentina)

Cahiers de la recherche sure l’education et les savoirs (France)

Cultura y Educación (Spain)

Education et Sociétés (France)

Ethnography and Education (UK)

International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (UK)

Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Education (UK)

Revista Mexicana de Investigación Educativa (Mexico)

Teachers College Record (US)


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  • 1. See IDEALS.

  • 2. A policyscape refers to a space in which policies created in the past affect political institutions and citizens in the present and future in multiple ways, including access to resources, educational opportunities, and other social goods.

  • 3. See Anthropology-Education-Task-Force.

  • 4. Latinx is used to denote a nongendered version of Latino (male) or Latina (female).

  • 5. See Black Lives Matter Protests 2020.

  • 6. Racialization refers to the creation of racial categories and the placement of people into these categories. The term emphasizes that “races” are not preexisting natural categories, but rather are created and sustained through historical and current social practices and institutions for the purpose of upholding unequal power and privilege among “racially different” people.

  • 7. See Understanding Race.

  • 8. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.

  • 9. Race to the Top was the US School Reform agenda in 2009, under President Barack Obama.