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date: 21 October 2019

The Anthropology of Education

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

The anthropology of education (also known as educational anthropology, pedagogical anthropology, sociology of education, ethnography of education, and educational ethnography) is a broad area of interest with roots in several major disciplines, including anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and 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. While research in the anthropology of education is extremely diverse, a few central aims can be articulated: One is to build an understanding of how and what people 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, and 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. For instance, there is a movement toward more activist, engaged research; this 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 this subdiscipline and contribute new understandings of it.