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date: 16 January 2018

Ethnography and Education

Summary and Keywords

As described in Beach and Dovemark’s 2007 book, Education and the Commodity Problem, critical researchers have identified two fundamental roles for modern-day schools within capitalist states. These are the ideological and material roles and function, where schools produce ideologically compliant workers and consumers for a corporatist economy on the one hand, this is partly through a teaching and a curriculum, which is often hidden and informal; and, on the other form part of a corporate business plan for the accumulation of private capital in the welfare sector through mass outsourcing of welfare-State education provision and the wholesale commodification of education as a public service. This article presents a research method for investigating education in these circumstances. It is a method with a philosophical foundation not only for understanding contemporary educational empirical reality under neoliberal forms of capitalism, but also for developing critical consciousness for the transcendence and transformation of this condition toward a more just form of political economy and human existence.

This research method draws from critical realism and its concept of explanatory critique as a way to forge a scientifically robust Marxist critical ethnography. In relation to this, the description of the method accompanies an overview of some of the basic principles and broadly accepted possibilities of and for ethnography and critical ethnography, followed by a presentation of what Marxist critical ethnography is and how Marxist critical ethnography functions as explanatory critique, respectively. This entails description of what explanatory critique is, and how it can be used to develop a philosophy of social science and an ontological base for ethnography. The aforementioned components together expand on a historical, theoretical, conceptual, and political development of ethnography as part of a Marxist approach to research and practice for social transformation.

Keywords: social class, critical ethnography of education, Marxism, demystification, social transformation, hegemony


Ethnography has been used for many years as a method to investigate empirical reality, which is the lived and experienced world, as it exists. However, while this has yielded useful data for building scholarship about social life it has not always helped with building critical consciousness, much ethnography fails to engage with this issue (Allman, 1999; McLaren, 2000). Taking this recognition as a starting point, this article develops ethnography in three inter-related ways—first, as a method to be used as part of research framed theoretically and philosophically within a Marxist tradition (Sharp, Green, & Lewis, 1975). This is necessary to understand contemporary reality under neoliberal forms of capitalism globally and to develop critical consciousness for its transcendence and transformation to a more just form of political economy and human existence (McLaren, 2000).

Second, and related to this development, Marxist critical ethnography can be made more robust as a science by drawing from critical realism and the concept of explanatory critique to articulate deep reality to understand neoliberal mechanisms that generate socio-cultural forms that are lived in empirical reality. This positing of a sophisticated Marxist critical ethnography then connects to the third development, which is that ethnography needs to be used as part of a quest for social transformation. Social transformation deployed here is about a process of revolutionary material and cultural change within the social system as a whole, be this local, state, national, or global. It requires a shift in collective consciousness in terms of a consensual reimagining of reality that can make a transition from one mode of production to another feasibly possible and sustainable. While not being an absolute certainty, change becomes possible after first demystifying the exploitative, alienating, and unfair and unequal neoliberal capitalism manifesting in everyday life, and education is important to this mental and material. Ethnography is in these ways and by these means and intentions need to be adjusted toward transcending the dominant capitalist ideology shared (mainly unconsciously) by the majority of the people in society. This ideology perniciously and often subtly is a mechanism of social control that frames how the people (should) think about the nature of, and their places in, society, but without a sense of capitalism itself (Maisuria, 2017). Ethnography taken in this way has an educative role and function, as well being a method.

This presentation of ethnography as a research method in educational research for social transformation is divided into different sections. The first provides an overview of some of the basic principles and broadly accepted possibilities of ethnography and critical ethnography. It is followed by a presentation of what is considered as specifically Marxist critical ethnography, with its emphasis on class relations and emancipation. This section provides the foregrounding to develop Marxist critical ethnography as explanatory critique in the next section, which explains what explanatory critique is and how it can be used to develop a philosophy of social science and an ontological base for ethnography. Together, these different parts of the article expand on a historical, theoretical, conceptual, and political development of ethnography as part of a Marxist approach to research and practice for social transformation.

The orientation provided is about the identification, theorization, and analysis of the mechanisms in society that generate the conditions for socio-cultural tendencies that shape consciousness and ideology. The mechanisms are often unobservable, but they emerge in empirical reality to be alienating, exploitative, and anti-intuitive, in terms of the organization of resistance to capitalism’s (and above all, of course, current global neoliberal capitalism’s) dominant ideas and values (Malott, 2010). The commitment of this type of ethnography is to unmask how particular cultural forms of understanding and practice evolve and materialize in ways that obscure the mode of (currently neoliberal) capitalist production and its inequalities, disempowerment, and patterns of unfairness through consent to the status quo (Gramsci, Hoare, & Nowell-Smith, 1971). It has the ultimate aim to enhance capabilities to question and name neoliberal capitalism as part of what is generally accepted as normal, to build a capacity for breaking free from the conditions that prevent human flourishing and a more just mode of production.

From Ethnography to Marxist Critical Ethnography

Writing recently on the value(s) of ethnography for education research, the cultural sociologists Anna Lund, Mats Trondman, and Paul Willis (Trondman, Willis, & Lund, forthcoming) recalled a 1907 debate, held in Paris, on the meaning and use of ethnography, and involving leading social scientists of the day such as sociologist Emile Durkheim and political economist René Worms. Worms was one of the first speakers. He gave an account of ethnography with three main standpoints followed by a conclusion. Ethnography, he asserted, concerned developing (a) assemblies of materials, and (b) descriptions of people with a focus that pertained to barbaric and savages societies. It could (c) only provide accounts of their activities in the present. The conclusion was that ethnography was purely descriptive and incapable of being analytical or critical. It was a-historical and relevant only to the study of so-called primitive societies (Trondman et al., unpublished manuscript).

Durkheim entered the debate after Worms, and he significantly disagreed with his position. Ethnography need not be restricted only to description, he suggested, and could provide a basis in data for both analyzing and synthesizing understandings of the past in relation to the present. Durkheim was advancing an ethnography that included contemporaneity and history, and he went on to suggest that this use of ethnography was not restricted only to what Worms referred to as primitive societies (Trondman et al., unpublished manuscript). All human societies have their version of civilization, and for this reason ethnography is applicable to all societies, he asserted and added that ethnography need not only be descriptive. It can be analytical, and it even has a potential for critical analysis. Marx alluded in Capital, Vol. 1, as to why this critical analysis is important.

The social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses . . . It is only a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.

(Marx, Capital I, p. 72)

Like most ethnographers today, more value is seen in the position adopted by Durkheim than the one expressed by Worms. Indeed, Martyn Hammersley, in his opening article in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Ethnography and Education in 2006, elaborated on points like those recognized by Durkheim, suggesting that ethnography has many driving forces and possible scientific interests and that, as a practice, it has been influenced by a diverse range of theories and methodologies within sociology, and in other disciplines such as education, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. The influential theories and methodologies include phenomenology, existentialism, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, Marxism, feminism, and semiology. These developed in research on different topics in different kinds of institutions and contexts influenced by both modern and postmodern epistemologies (Hammersley, 2006).

In terms of the adoption and development of ethnography in educational research, along the lines described first by Durkheim, and then Hammersley in his inaugural editorial presentation in the Journal of Ethnography and Education in 2006, the English sociologist of education Geoff Troman (2006) identified the so-called New Sociology of Education (NSE) initially presented in a ground-breaking book edited by M. F. D. Young (1971) as being particularly influential (Troman, 2006). The NSE foregrounded both neo-Marxist and interactionist perspectives, as Troman pointed out (Troman, 2006), and by this, crucially presented possibilities for research that could uncover social reproduction in the interests of change and open up the “black box” of education for serious analysis from critical, interactionist, and other perspectives (Troman, 2006).

The NSE movement included several ethnographic researchers with one or a combination of interactionist, phenomenological, existentialist, and critical interests (Troman, 2006). Their work focuses on a broad cross-section of the everyday activities in school sites, such as identity development and communication processes, patterns of interaction in school classrooms, differentiation-polarization, and misrepresentations in and the symbolic violence of schooling processes. Research by Sharp et al. (1975) provides a good illustration of the critical tradition in the ethnographic method. They described and theoretically accounted for how actors and interactions at school sites can both (re)produce and challenge the ideological values, knowledge, and interests of the ruling class, and the political economy of capitalism and its asymmetric power relations. They can, in other words, help to stabilize or challenge power relations in society (Malott, 2010), and although they are normally (understood as) sites for creating consent, in this sense (Gramsci et al., 1971), they are also, crucially, sites where struggle can be generated (Foley, 2002; Maisuria, 2017; McLaren, 2000; Willis, 1977). Ethnography has the potential to be analytical and critical toward reproduction, and subsequently, heuristically developmental in relation to the illumination and elaboration of possibilities for and practices of resistance (Beach, 2010).

To be critical within this particular framing, an ethnographic approach requires three things according to inter alia, Trondman et al. (unpublished manuscript), McLaren (2000), and Maisuria (2016). The first is to study education in its lived forms: this is what critical realists call empirical reality. The second is to de-mystify and de-naturalize what has been taken for granted in empirical reality (Maisuria, 2017), which is about moving beyond appearance and mere observation to reinvigorate a deep ontology. The third is to then re-naturalize the status quo in terms of more progressive educational values and practices and devote effort to identifying what conditions have to be satisfied in order that education for revolutionary social change may be a feasible reality and not merely a name or a slogan. An ethnography that would be able to contribute to that aim and objective would be (as Trondman and colleagues put it, paraphrasing Durkheim), infinitely precious and powerful, in terms of possibilities for changing the kinds of common sense that lead to consent. Indeed it can, we mean, ultimately be used very effectively for the purpose of the development of critical consciousness and empirically real revolutionary social transformation (Malott, 2010).

Marxist Critical Ethnography

Critical ethnography, particularly when influenced by Marxism, offers a significantly interesting means toward an infinite preciousness for a transformative quest. It does so by de-naturalizing and exploring the social relations and practices of contemporary capitalism, in terms of its co-incidences, as they materialize within the empirical reality of society and education, which it does concretely and internally by getting up close to sites of exploitation and oppression through participant observation, and learning about how they are lived, experienced, challenged, and changed from within by subjects themselves (Willis, 1977).

Getting up close to sites of exploitation and oppression through participant observation endows the researcher with first-hand experience of what actively and actually shapes forms of consent, alienation, exploitation, and symbolic violence in the world. These are the causally efficacious mechanisms that create the condition for reality to be the way that it is empirically; understanding them allows learning from communities of practice on a daily basis, in social interaction as class cultures with unique, self-valorizing, and expressive (symbolic) cultural practices with material consequences (Foley, 2002; Maisuria, 2017; Willis & Trondman, 2000). It allows exploration of how meaning and action can be understood in association with the self-reflection and relationship to wider structural forces. The analysis identifies these in terms of their local concrete lived and spoken characteristics and what these represent in terms of possibly more global or general tendencies. These are discerned more externally through a fine dialectic analytical movement involving three theories: a theory of meaning (Vorstruktur des Verstehens), in which understanding proceeds from what precedes it; a theory of action, in which meaning is understood as also carried out concretely; and a theory of experience, understood in terms of a lifeworld and forms of appropriation, and comprehension.

Crucially, what is important for Marxist critical ethnographers is that consciousness and practices in empirical reality also include moments of talk, action, and observation of these when consent is seemingly weakened, suggesting that this consent to dominant ideologies and the status quo is neither hermetically sealed nor inevitable, but rather an outcome of a constant process of class struggle (Maisuria, 2017). These cultural manifestations are then interrogated to enable a more complete grasping of the micro/macro dialectic that is useful for an accounting of contextually sensitive parameters and for an understanding of the power of the ruling class ideology and of resistance from the subjected, as being in constant hegemonic struggle and never fully fixed (Maisuria, 2017). It involves detailed textured investigations of the complexity of empirical reality and an attempt to establish some understanding of the political economy of capitalism as lived and the conditions necessary for this empirical reality (Beach, 2010).

The concept of social class and social class relations is maintained as a central watermark in the kind of ethnographic research we are advocating. It involves a shift from ethnography, as a systematic study of people and cultures designed to explore cultural phenomena, by observing and taking part in social practices from the point of view of the subject of the study; to Marxist critical ethnography as an ethnography with a political purpose to understand what generates (and/or can undermine) the conditions in particular empirical realities and their dynamics in the ruling capitalist class struggle to maintain their hegemony (Maisuria, 2017). This sort of ethnography has an interest in changing things in the interests of the exploited class in that temporal and spatial context, building-up a momentum for changing history, to be on the side of many, not the few (Malott, 2010).

The point, then, is to re-inscribe political critique in ethnographic analyses to address and challenge processes of unfairness or injustice within particular lived domains and beyond (Madison, 2012). In line with Trondman et al., it is about how the outsider in Walzer (1987, p. 39) has to become a social critic on the inside who enters imaginatively into local practices and arrangements, not as a marginal observer but as a critic detached from his (sic) own marginality (Walzer, 1987, p. 37). Relatively detached from the marginality in-focus, such a social criticism strives to move imaginatively in and out of local practices and the observation of social institutions to learn from, represent, translate, demystify, and finally critique and contribute theories and ideas for changing these practices and institutions in the interests of revolutionary social transformation (Beach, 2010).

To demystify is crucial. It means basically to unveil the fundamental nature of a relationship that may otherwise remain concealed, complex, inaccessible, or ambiguous—and thereby mystified. Marx (and Engels) forged a template for understanding this when he set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and in terms its fundamental nature, based on the capitalist relations of commodity production and its exploitation of labor power. At the time, modern capitalist and bourgeois States were in their infancy, but Marx nevertheless foresaw that a riddle was emerging, mystifying their mode of production, where the relations between the hostile classes in society appear to take on the character of things that possess a phantom objectivity. This was most obvious in the process of commodity production, where a class of workers used their labour power to produce what would become the commodities that were appropriated for the surplus value that was expropriated by the capitalist class. This process, Marx asserted, had, and would increasingly in history, obtained a status of normality as a rational state of nature; and this mystification of capitalist production also has a corollary in education, according to Beach and Dovemark (2007):

At times the organisational form of education and its correspondences with the capitalist State are less obvious and more subtle.|.|.|. Such is the case in current education provision through independent and State schools at secondary and upper-secondary levels.|.|.|. These present day school forms are local outcomes of long national and global processes of development, which was accomplished in two stages in most European nations.|.|.| First through the development of church and voluntary organisations and second by the “absorption” of the activities of these organisations into an expanding public domain as public services, by way of which the teaching labour originally carried out mainly by women within a system of kinship relationships and small family groups in the home, but also by men in association with productive labour, have successively been moved into the general economy: mainly as female work.|.|.|. This socialisation of labour and the creation of a new lower-middle class is described as occurring in the previous century in most European countries, earlier for some and later for others. Current developments are more in line with a massive habituation of education and the influx of neo-liberal principles of control.

(Beach & Dovemark, 2007, pp. 1–2)

Beach and Dovemark used Marxist critical ethnography to demystify the role of neoliberal capitalist relations of production in socio-cultural (re)production in education. Developing their work in this article, demystification is posited as part of an approach termed ethnographic explanatory critique. The philosophy of critical realism (see also Maisuria, 2016) is drawn on to philosophically frame Marxist critical ethnography—this is one of the key developments proposed to ethnography in this article.

Marxist Critical Ethnography for Explanatory Critique

As asserted, the knowledge, gained from the treatment of the ethnographic accounts of empirical reality, addresses the Marxist research problematic: what is the possibility, and how can critical class consciousness emerge in particular places with their contextually specific conditions and more generally? It represents a kind of critique that goes beyond merely reporting what is observable about relationships and social class. It aims to attain greater analytical sophistication by identifying the dynamics of what makes reality the way it is (Sharp et al., 1975, p. 25) and what would enable radicalism for change to take a foothold in these circumstances. For instance, there is an abundance of wealth and prosperity today, but almost all this is concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists—how does this ruling class of just a few people maintain this arrangement as being tenable for the majority. Critical realism argues that explaining is about recognizing and identifying what exists in the real world, and critique is for understanding the explanation: explanation and critique are dialectical in this way.

Inspired by critical realism, a particular focus of this proposed analytical sophistication is to understand the mechanisms that give rise to the socio-cultural conditions for what can be observed about class and its relational structure in empirical reality. Mechanisms in this context are deep unobservable causal structures, reasons, or belief systems that have the power to generate tendencies for qualitative changes of consciousness, with implications for action in the lived world. Explanatory critique entails a particular interest in elucidating (a), the mechanisms that generate the socio-cultural conditions of lived existence through generating dominant tendencies for particular consciousness forms to emerge and be reinforced, and (b), focusing on perceptions of empirical reality that include critical nuances that go against the grain of mass common sense, to indicate pivotal moments for struggle in and against the dominant hegemony. In relation to the Gramscian idea of class struggle in cultural forms, focus on the lived world is significant as a contribution to Marxist theory building for revolutionary social transformation (Maisuria, 2016).

The development of a Marxist ethnography inspired by critical realism entails a dialectical historical materialism that emphasises the complexity of the social world, which it seeks simultaneously to explain and also to critique for emancipatory purposes. This is what Marxists mean by explanatory critique. It is a methodological approach that tries to explain how common sense theory and practices are made plausible and credible in specific socio-cultural contexts, while at the same time, being critical of that common sense as a strategic resource for the ruling class to consolidate the class structure. It is designed to grasp the conditions that make it possible for the status quo to be existent and for elucidating socio-cultural formations that can provide a footing from which to plan strategically against them. The logic here is that, to be effective, any resistance must be prefigured against an understanding of the contextual conditional constitution of that which is being resisted. Only then will emancipation be available as a possibility.

Developing ethnography as a means to facilitate Marxist explanatory critique involves developing and using ethnography in a particular way, first to explain how common sense ideas and practices are made to seem both plausible and credible in a particular socio-cultural context (Maisuria, 2016, 2017), and second, to bring scientific critique toward the kind of common sense that becomes manifest and rational in relation to alienating, exploitative, and discriminating practices in everyday life. This is not a negative understanding of common sense. It means, instead, understanding common sense to be a resource and potential strategy, by means of which, in the Gramscian sense, a ruling class are able to sustain their dominance; the argument of this article is that this kind of critique can be an important democratic driving force of educational research and educational ethnography in the interests of possible empowerment for all (see also McLaren, 2000). Some criteria for this kind of research will now be presented.

The first criterion is that, by virtue of their connections to Marxism, certain specific understandings of social class are embedded in and essential to this critical ethnography. In Marxism and Marxist ethnography, social class is much more than a socially constructed category (Beach, 2010). It refers to lived class positions as part of empirical reality in the stable and material hierarchical relations of commodity production through labor power. This makes the concept ontological. It is a cultural, historical, and material category, not an imaginary social relation or just a socio-cultural status—as in Weberianism. This articulation forms a main difference between Marxist theories of class and other theories (Foley, 2002; Malott, 2010; McLaren, 2000; Postone, 2003). Marx put the issue similarly in chapter 5 of Capital, in his writing about wage labor, which he described the particularities of the capitalist mode of production. It is a mode of production in which laborers sell their capacity to work to their employers, and they in turn convert this into profit, a process entailing exploitation and the emergence of alienation. This is worth quoting it full.

Their commodity, labor-power, the workers exchange for the commodity of the capitalist, for money, and, moreover, this exchange takes place at a certain ratio |.|.|. For 12 hours’ weaving, two shillings (and) thereby all the other commodities that I can buy for two shillings |.|.|. The worker has exchanged his commodity, labor-power, for commodities of all kinds, and, moreover, at a certain ratio. By giving him two shillings, the capitalist has given him so much meat, so much clothing, so much wood, light, etc., in exchange for his day’s work. The two shillings therefore express the relation in which labor-power is exchanged for other commodities, the exchange-value of labor-power|.|.|.

But the putting of labor-power into action -i.e., the work—is the active expression of the laborer’s own life, which he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity. What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws up the mining shaft, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages; and the silk, the gold, and the palace are resolved for him into a certain quantity of necessities of life, perhaps into a cotton jacket, into copper coins, and into a basement dwelling. And the laborer who, for 12 long hours, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, carries hods, and so on—is this 12 hours weaving (etc.) regarded by him as a manifestation of life, as life? Quite the contrary. Life begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours’ work |.|.|. have no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed|.|.|.

The free laborer|.|.|. sells his very self|.|.|. He auctions off eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his life, one day like the next, to the highest bidder, to the owner of raw materials, tools, and the means of life|.|.|. to the capitalist. The laborer belongs neither to an owner nor to the soil, but eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his daily life belong to whom-so-ever buys them. The worker leaves the capitalist, to whom he has sold himself, as often as he chooses, and the capitalist discharges him as often as he sees fit, as soon as he no longer gets any use, or not the required use, out of him. But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class, unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class; and it is for him to find his man -i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class. (Encyclopedia of Marxism: Wage Labour)

The first criterion, then, relates to understanding the relations of production in terms of their social meaning and social consequences for classes of individuals in society. The second criterion relates to the characteristic of conducting ethnography in the interests and services of countering the dominant hegemonic ruling class as part of a broad struggle within society. This is developed from Marx’s (and even more so Gramsci’s) recognition that economic exploitation is implicit in capitalism, and it is driven by cultural production, which is educative. To obtain consent to its exploitative characteristics and consequences as described, capitalism needs to be reinforced by a dominance of ruling class ideas and values that keep the working class from recognizing their oppression—this is mystification (Maisuria, 2017). The production of these dominant and dominating ideas, values, and relationships prevail in the course of, and in the manufacture of consent (Gramsci et al., 1971), but they are at the same time resisted in the hegemonic class struggle called the war of position by Gramsci (Gramsci et al., 1971; Maisuria, 2016, 2017). The war of position is the constant struggle for control over beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and morals of society that enable a particular worldview to become the worldview that is accepted as the cultural norm and the universally valid ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural, inevitable, perpetual, and beneficial for everyone.

Hegemonic class struggle is always complex and, perhaps, not the least so in the present neoliberal historical moment of the 21st century, where relations of production and social positions become manifest in a multiplicity of integrated forms that, in many cases, lead people not to recognize themselves as occupying class positions at all, nor to see societies as stratified by class relations. In this mystified condition, many ethnographers have abandoned class analysis and only seek to report and describe societies superficially, in terms of socio-cultural practices rather than attempting to uncover the manifestation of the antagonistic relations that are necessary for the ruling class hegemony and the production of the ideas and values that enable the capitalist mode of production to prevail.

Access to higher education is often used to illustrate the decline of the importance of class. The argument is that higher education was once the preserve of the wealthy capitalist class but is now more accessible to others, and is enjoyed irrespective of social background; and even by the former working class. However, there is a strong counter from Marxist analysis to this miss(ed) recognition of class, and it is to this negation that we turn in our development of ethnography and explanatory critique. It states that attending university does not mean that the nature of the relations of production and creation of surplus value have changed. Nor does it change the fact that the class of people who have to sell their labor remain working class, even though they may not actually recognize this identity themselves. Although they may call themselves middle class, the inescapable point is that they still need to sell their labor power to live. This is not a choice, and so class identity in capitalism is still imposed. Complexity regarding reflexive identity, consciousness, and the sense-of-self that prevails does not negate the class positions of capitalist and worker that are constituently implicit in the social being and production activity of humans. As Rikowski states, “We are social beings incorporating antithetical social drivers and forces. This fact sets off contradictions within our lives” (Rikowski, 2001, p. 20).

The important point that Rikowski brings attention to is that workers have within themselves the capacity and potential to attain critical class consciousness, meaning that the exploitation and alienation within the capitalist social relations of production, and the social practices that maintain it, can be understood as contradictory to self-flourishing. Contradiction is indicative of a rational kernel of thought, manifested as a critical nuance to the common sense of, for example, fairness and equality prevailing, thus, in Gramscian terms, representing good sense about class struggle. In dialectical historical materialist terms, this conveys an ambiguous aspect of our social being that suggests a moment in empirical reality where consent is at stake and where the possibility exists for transgressing and countermanding that hegemony (Layder, 1993, pp. 7–8; Ollman, 2003, p. 4).

In modern globalized neoliberal capitalism, class struggle is not primarily obvious, explicit, and direct, and this mystification is the reason why we place an emphasis on socio-cultural discourses that expand and conceal formations of social control based on class advantage and interests (Malott, 2010). Class is an ontological relation and an aspect of structured reality in the conditions of material life itself; and for ethnography to be serious and efficacious in capturing empirical reality, it has to be underpinned by a theoretically robust categorization of class as ontological, and organize for the production of knowledge in line with this position.

Class is something that exists in the lived world and can be known. As part of historical materialism, class is always temporally and spatially contingent, as the ruling and working class exist in relation to each other and as an aspect of the development of capitalism and capitalist production relations (Bourdieu & Eagleton, 1992). The critics of Marxism often negate these basic premises (the importance of the mode of production and corresponding class structure, and also that class identities are struggled over in lived cultural forms); or perhaps they are not aware of them (Bourdieu & Eagleton, 1992); or, alternatively, maybe they just deliberately mystify them (Beach, 2010). Class cannot be evaded or simply absented (Foley, 2002), at least not without the loss of grasp on the totality of social relations as suggested above. This is an important point, which should put a spotlight on class and the way that it is dynamically manifested in socio-cultural forms materializing in and according to historical moments (Jordan & Yeomans, 1995).

In the third criterion, the position of Marxist critical ethnography in relation to class and history takes into account and will analyze the transient nature of history, the formational characteristics of which were initially described by Marx in chapter 2 of the German Ideology. This means that serious ethnographies will look for the generative mechanisms that are causally efficacious for developments and changes in human consciousness and practices. Put more concretely, the ruling class and their relationship with others, along with dominant political structures and ways of thinking in society, are founded on and reflect contemporary neoliberal capitalism; therefore, ethnography must be framed by such knowledge about the political economy to have an effective grasp of empirical reality.

The point being made here is that ethnography should be committed to eschewing a simple realism and empiricism (Beach & Dovemark, 2007) and that, as succinctly put by Marx, although people are the makers of their own history, they do not make this history under conditions they have made for themselves or that they may have freely chosen or have full control over. They make their histories collectively under circumstances and conditions that have been inherited from the past and that may weigh heavily on their intentions and interactions. It was in relation to lived practical struggles that Marx wrote this famous maxim, which is worth quoting:

Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

(Marx, 1852)

When Marx wrote this aphoristic expression, he considered the then proponents of materialism to often engender an overly deterministic, dogmatic science, whereby humans were merely products of social structures and were judged to think and act as structural dopes in the manner intended by the ruling class (Marx, 1852; Sayer, 2008). In this account of materialism Marx critically added, history was foreclosed and there was no potential for class struggle, and therefore revolutionary social transformation was ideologically negated in a manner that was antithetical to the agential capacity of humans. The materialist doctrine forgets that, as well as being formed within them, men (sic) also “change circumstances” (Marx, 1969 [originally published in 1845]). Put another way, materialism, conceived as a deterministic positivistic science of nature, does not allow for history to change in unpredictable ways (Willis & Trondman, 2000), nor does it allow for humans to have a say in the construction of hegemony (Gramsci et al., 1971).

Marx (1969) pointed out these defects, as part of his Theses on Feuerbach, where he provided an exegesis, in which he made explicit the potential of human capacity to make history as individuals and in class formation, at the same time as he also pointed out the limits of human capacity to make history—they do not make it as they please. History is made in already present, historically conditioned circumstances that create the parameters within which agency is possible (Beach, 2011; Maisuria, 2016, 2017).

In this way, Marx provided an antidote to Feuerbach’s materialism, while at the same time being antithetical to the ahistorical and idealist socio-cultural idea that human agents were totally free to construct their conditions of existence more or less as they desired. Materialism is dialectical, and the evolution of history is not straightforward or mechanically deterministic. It is manifested through an emergent dialectical process of mediation and negation that comprises a complex totality of dynamics (Beach, 2011; Maisuria, 2016). These include antecedent socio-cultural forms manifesting in ideas from history (Willis & Trondman, 2000), humans having some agential capacity to shape society, and (or perhaps through) a potential to challenge the dominant ideas and institutional forms and practices of the ruling class of their historical epoch (Banfield, 2015; Marx, 1969; Molyneux, 1995).

The conceptualization of political economic structures and their dialectical relationship to agentic capacity must be made fundamentally important to ethnography and the way that it examines, understands, and critiques practices and actions in the real world to be part of dominant tendencies and their generative mechanisms (Beach, 2010, 2011). At the present time, this implies a serious recognition of neoliberal forces on the way that individuals live life in terms of (a), an appreciation of the ontological apprehending of neoliberalism with all its complexity, and (b), a conceptualization of emergent counter tendencies that act upon the status quo. This is fundamentally important. Without an ontological appreciation of neoliberalism, ethnography would only divulge knowledge that would be grossly unclear about how power relations are constituted by the mode of production in the organization of class structure. It would be conducted with an emphasis on symbolic aspects of relations of production alone, which would prevent the economy from being grasped as a system that acts upon everyday cultural life contingently and often unpredictably. The conceptualization of emergent counter-tendencies as implicit in every dominant tendency means that change is always possible and immanent. If counter-tendencies were not conceptualized as such, then the history would be locked in neoliberalism, and no hope of change would exist.

The fourth criterion concerns the concept of the commodity. In Marxism, capital is not just a resource to be acquired; it is instead something that is intrinsic to a system of relations based on the exploitation of labor in commodity production (Beach, 2010). Commodities have an intrinsic value that is expressed in exchange value. Disclosing how this operates in concrete circumstances and on the basis of what forms of power and misrecognition, as stated earlier, must be a main aim of critical ethnography and, more broadly, critical pedagogical research (also Malott, 2010; McLaren, 2000). In other words, it is not the exchange of commodities that regulates the magnitude of their value, but rather the magnitude of their value that controls their exchange proportions. Who or what controls the magnitude of this value, and by what means, become key aspects of explanatory critique (Beach, 2010).

These latter points are not merely academic ones. They have significant implications for an understanding of causality and ways of grasping and changing the world beyond the limits of bourgeois thinking and dominant hegemony. Marx’s materialist view of history posits causality as consisting in vertical and determining and, simultaneously, horizontal and co-determining relations (Banfield, 2010; Maisuria, 2016).

One element of critique of ethnography that is commonly expressed, and sometimes quite compellingly so, such as the article by Martin Hammersley (2006) in the first edition of the journal of Ethnography and Education, is that ethnography is often weak in terms of using and contributing to the heuristic development of theory. However, with a focus on class relations and political economy in empirical reality, Marxist ethnographic explanatory critique would be capable of this theory-building; especially concerning generative mechanisms of tendencies and moments of struggle. This goes back again to Marx. Marx was, first, a philosopher, theorist, and historian whose main intention was to analyze and critique social organization in a scientific way, by creating a methodology for social science. This theory and method perceives human history as consisting of a series of struggles between oppressors and oppressed as the ultimate driving force of cultural development, which therefore needs empirical and scientific investigation. There is always the necessity of establishing a dialectical relationship between empirically real knowledge (ethnography) and theory (Marxism) for this reason, and (also) ultimately theory specifically for the purpose of revolutionary social transformation (Willis, 2000; Willis & Trondman, 2000).

In Marxist critical educational ethnography, the value of theory is often described and written about in at least two different ways, these were described in Beach (2010). They are, on the one hand, and as suggested already, as a tool for teasing out the patterns of class exploitation in a given setting from the general texture of everyday life, and, on the other, as compositions of a semiotic system that can signify the main organizing features, principles or outcomes of education, within contemporary society, in relation to the vertical dimensions of the relations of production and their naturalisation. This is done with the help of empirical knowledge that has been produced through a planned and conscious theoretically informed engagement with the researched setting (Beach, 2010; Trondman et al., unpublished manuscript).

This statement, specifically in relation to Banfield (2004, p. 53), recognizes the primary (though not exclusive) importance of the political economy and the need to attend to it, thus to avoid the risk of falling into an empiricist trap of thinking that knowledge via observing can merely be reported or can speak for itself, or that fieldwork always lacks the foundations for some generalization (Foley, 2002). Indeed for knowledge to be useful for understanding the complexities and dynamics of the totalities and subtleties of the social universe, what is observed needs to be framed as part of a structural system of neoliberal capitalism. Within this, moments where the dominant tendencies are questioned or negated also need to be reconsidered as a struggle against the status quo, which may be minor and passive or more active and directly participatory (Beach, 2011; Beach & Dovemark, 2007). Only observing the social world will not do for the type of serious ethnography that we advocate. It can only ever form a segment of what is useful for contributing to theory building and strategizing about revolutionary social transformation.

Our approach to developing ethnography is about taking a point of departure in empirical reality to show the nature of relationships between (individual) consciousness and (socio-cultural) practices within external (political-economic) circumstances (Malott, 2010) and also establishing dialogue with people in an attempt to penetrate deeply to grasp hidden generative mechanisms that create dominant conditions for socio-cultural manifestations to emerge (Maisuria, 2016). All this is with a view to create new forms of understanding from experience and to help to change the consent and acquiescence to the status quo into class-consciousness and strategic forms of action. Thus, in a similar vein to Freire’s (1970) notion of conscientisation, the research treats practical common sense knowledge as a subject of critical reappraisal in terms of its relationships to the mode of production and as the starting point for social transformation and revolutionary practice (Allman, 1999; McLaren, 2000). This is why critical consciousness (or conscientisation) is an important component in Marxist ethnographic explanatory critique, where it is conceptualized as a pre-requisite to creating the possibility for effective class action against the dominant ruling class and capitalist hegemony. Class consciousness is about opening-up stabilized and mystified spheres of rationality for explanation about who wins and who loses from the status quo; thus, it is inherently challenging and critical (Carr, 1995; Maisuria, 2017) when engaging in processes of discussion, argument, action, and debate toward the rational development of social transformation (Postone, 2003).

This is a statement that is, among other things, about the relations between the level of the political economy and socio-cultural levels in terms of the primacy of vertical aspects of tendential determination that are acting both prior to and “above”, as well as conterminously with, horizontal aspects of co-determination (Beach, 2011; Willis, 2000). At the same time, it is a statement about the need to study and theorize in terms of both at the same time and never only one or the other in isolation (Beach, 2010). There are distinct validity forms for this kind of research as knowledge that is valid only if it is integrated with and or instigates change that is sustainable and beneficial to ideologically and materially exploited groups within the working class. Banfield (2004) drew out implications for methodological practice of a critical ethnography of this kind. They correspond broadly with the criteria we have discussed in the recent pages of this paper. They are:

  • Hold to a stratified emergent ontology with a materialist view of history and of social class.

  • Take generative mechanisms as the object of inquiry, crucial for comprehending empirical reality in its fullest.

  • Accept the openness and unpredictability of the social world, through identifying tendencies rather than absolute determinations with inevitabilities.

  • Understand events as the outcome of multiple causal processes and contingent aspects of material history and its social relations.

Banfield (2004) used Bhaskar’s (1991) identification of the common failure of social analysis to maintain the distinction between ontology and epistemology as his starting point (Beach, 2010). The critical realist critique of positivistic philosophy of social science centered on the problem that it absented ontology, and/or it had been conflated with epistemology (Maisuria, 2016), which was problematic because it provided an inadequate account of the social world as it existed and its deep mechanisms for conditioning empirical reality. Absenting or conflating ontology commonly meant that epistemology was prioritized, and the danger of handing priority to questions of epistemology was that social questions are conflated into merely theory(ies) of the world and/or observed empirical appearances. This reduces science to how we might obtain knowledge of what exists, rather than what does exist in the historical, material, and lived world with all its complexity (Beach, 2010), and creates the possibility for this empirical reality (Maisuria, 2016). Human society cannot be observed to be operating mechanically with regularity enabling predictive evolution.

Adopting Marxist realism to drive ethnography in the way that we advocate does not make it impossible to fall into the trap of the epistemic fallacy, but it does make it difficult, and it can help one to find a way out philosophically and practically (Beach, 2010). It involves providing a challenge to the foundations of conventional social science as a critical tool for change, by developing a commitment to make science and reflection as available to everyone as possible within a globalization of thinking, and of affirmative action toward maximizing social and educational equality (McLaren, 2000). It is critically interesting to understand how the ruling class builds consent through the State and its cultural and educative institutions.

Consent, as argued, is never secure, and there is always the possibility that the working class can create a revolutionary counter through recognizing collective working class identity in capitalism in(side) various socio-cultural struggles and identity-politics (McLaren, 2000). This working class solidarity negates the dominant hegemonic ruling class imposed socio-cultural norms and values designed to absent class totally, and/or divide the working class into different identities, such as ethno-racial categorisations, designed to create antagonism within the working class and mystify the relations of production. Marx’s notion of alienation is broadened here to include objectifying, alienating, everyday socio-cultural and communicative practices in various sites and fields, in much the same way that laboring in commodity-producing factories does (Foley, 2002). For ethnography to be serious and efficacious for change, it should not be de-politicized into an ahistorical method that is devoid of theory and afraid to have a revolutionary purpose (Trondman et al., unpublished manuscript). This article, alternatively offers a Marxist ethnographic explanatory critique as a means to uncover and heuristically contribute knowledge about what generates and sustains classed socio-cultural processes, and (crucially) how they can be undone for a better world (Beach, 2010; Maisuria, 2017).


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