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date: 16 January 2018

School Ethnography in Chile

Summary and Keywords

In Chile, ethnographic studies of schools started 30 years ago. At the time, most of the educational research in Latin America was done through quantitative methodologies, which didn’t show school processes in their proper contexts. In this scenario, a group of Latin-American educational researchers came together to develop a critical qualitative research network, in which Chile adopted the form of the first school ethnography research team in the country. From that, a new means of research was developed, aimed towards understanding everyday life in schools, which was what the “black box” quantitative research was unable to see. This innovation allowed these ethnographers to understand schools as a singular and complex reality. They took up a Latin American critical-historical epistemological approach, understanding that schools require a thick description, historically contextualized, that also considers the structures that determine a school’s singularity.

Chilean school ethnographies in the last 30 years have focused on the ways in which concrete social relationships take place in situated historical contexts, from the dictatorship of the 1980s to current neoliberal educational policy. They have allowed the visualization of the effects that more general political, economic, and social transformations have had in the schools’ daily organization and practices. In this trajectory, there have been different approaches to educational policy; some take on a critical perspective and others aim to inform and influence policy. School ethnography has addressed a variety of topics, from school failure in its beginnings, to youth culture, civic engagement, ethnicity, learning and development, and gender and educational policy. This diversity, however, has a common interest: the subordinated or excluded cultural forms and subjectivities, which are the consequence of power relationships and normative structures that are reproduced in schools.

Keywords: school ethnography, history, educational research, Chile


Anthropology of Education appeared barely 50 years ago (Yon, 2003), and in Latin America, just 30 years ago it emerged as Educational Ethnography. Chile took part in this history, and we can find the first school ethnographies in the early 1980s (López, Assaél, & Neumann, 1984). Although we acknowledge the argument that education and schooling are two distinct phenomena, and as such, Anthropology of Education is not the same as school ethnography (Catalán, 2016), in Chile the main development has been in the schooling field.

In these three decades, a distinct field has been growing, slowly and silently. The ethnographic perspective helps us understand the complexities of the school institution, as it proposes to listen and observe through extensive periods of time. This allows a sound description of the everyday life and the relationships that subjects develop there, framed in its history and material conditions, in the broader context of society. This article draws the scope and limits of research done in this area.

Put in a broader context, the examination of Chilean school ethnography becomes relevant since Anthropology of Education presents enough variations to merit attention. Katheryn Anderson-Levitt alerts us to how Anthropology of Education beyond the English-speaking world is barely known. She maps Anthropologies of Education throughout the world. In her book Anthropologies of Education, a Global Guide to Ethnographic Studies of Learning and Schooling (Anderson-Levitt, 2011), she refers to ethnographic studies in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, but does not mention what has been done in Chile. Batallán (1998), in a previous work, writes about an emerging field for school ethnography in Chile, referring only to one research team. Other than this, there appear to be no studies that show how school ethnography has developed in Chile.

School ethnography’s field in Chile constitutes a small, yet interesting way of approaching the educational and school world. During the last decade, we have seen it grow and diversify more than ever before. To nurture this trend, it becomes necessary to explore its trajectory, learning from its evolution, and to focus on how this investigative approach has built its research problems.

The aim of this article is to characterize the main trends of production in Chilean school ethnography. To do this, the construction of research problems linked to their contexts and theoretical backgrounds are addressed. Three distinct periods of school ethnography production are identified. Each one is tightly related to the social and political context of the country: the 1980s, in the middle of military dictatorship; the 1990s, a period of transition to democracy; and the 2000s, in a social and political crisis.

School Ethnography in the 1980s

In the middle of the military dictatorship, two events marked the beginnings of school ethnography in Chile. In 1979, at Stanford University, Carlos Calvo published his doctoral thesis entitled “Being a teacher taxi in the Chilean Educational System,” where he explored the relationship between working conditions and teaching practices in teachers. A year later, in 1980, in the Interdisciplinary Program for Research in Education (PIIE, in Spanish),1 a school ethnography team was put together to be included in a Latin American qualitative research program in education. With its creation, this research team began a career that would last two decades.2

In that moment in Chile, the main concern of educational research was the quality of education, given policies aiming for widespread school coverage in the entire region. Within this process, there were serious grade-retention and dropout issues, referred to as “school failure,” which meant that empirical studies were mainly focused on identifying the factors that promoted such phenomena. Attention was given to the study of children coming from working-class sectors, where you could find high grade-retention rates, considered a good predictor of future dropouts. The grand majority of those studies, quantitative in nature, went deeper into the individual, family, and environmental characteristics of school failure (Briones, 1990). Within this context, a group of researchers, Chilean as well as Latin American, who later would form Rincuare Network, began to question these types of studies, because they were considered as unable to give an adequate account of school failure, given their breaking-down of reality into measurable and quantifiable variables, without understanding it in its singularity and integrated complexity. Another criticism was that research in those times did not consider the processes that occurred within schools, or the contexts in which these schools existed and unfolded. Ethnography, then, appeared as an answer that allowed the unraveling of what the schools called the “black box” (López et al., 1984).

Within this context, at the beginning of the 1980s, the Network of Qualitative Research of School Reality in Latin America (Rincuare, in Spanish) was created, with the objective of promoting the exchange between Latin American researchers interested in qualitative educational research, especially in school ethnography (Avalos, 1986; Batallán, 1998).3 Alongside this network, the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in Canada financed a project to carry out school ethnography in four countries—Chile, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela—to understand school failure, aligned with the concerns of educational research in the region at the time (Ávalos, 1986).

At first, this work was mostly intuitive in nature, where qualitative research seemed to blend into ethnographic research, according to what Ávalos wrote in a book that collected the research done by Rincuare. Ávalos describes the qualitative approach as one where “the anthropologist . . . attempts to understand a culture by becoming a part of it, but, at the same time, requires the ability to step back to interpret its processes in light of the wider social world of which it is part” (Ávalos, 1986, p. 13). The absence of a qualitative research tradition in the country served as motivation to train researchers in workshops in Mexico and the United States, so that this work would be continued in self-training workshops in Chile. A central referential figure in the development of the PIIE team was Mexican researcher Elsie Rockwell, who further developed the concept of “thick description” of Clifford Geertz (1973), proposing that it was necessary to consider the historical context as well as structural determinants, as the framework where cultural meanings are created (Rockwell, 1985; Rockwell & Ezpeleta, 1985). Also, Rincuare was an important support to researchers who were opposed to the military dictatorship.

During the 1980s, the ethnographic research team from PIIE carried out seven studies, each one with a different focus, which assembled the conceptualization of school culture and made advances in the understanding of the problem of school failure. The first studies (Assaél & Neumann, 1989; López et al., 1984) described pedagogical processes and social relations within primary schools in working-class sectors to understand school failure. The conceptual framework in these studies was influenced by theories of reproduction (referencing authors such as Christian Baudelot & Roger Establet, Pierre Bourdieu & Jean-Claude Passeron, Paul Willis, and Louis Althusser), critical curriculum theory (referencing Michael Apple), by the perspective that considers school as the place where children are adapted into specific cultural codes (Bernstein, 1972; Blumer, 1962), and by the effects of marking or self-fulfilled prophecies in children’s self-image and behavior (Rist, 1970). From there, it was asserted that there were two different worlds: the child’s world and the school’s world, where the latter tended to nullify the former, aiming to adapt it to codes and forms of knowledge that were foreign to students’ life experiences. In these studies, the team defined “the school culture of failure” as a network of meanings built by society and school actors that systematically produce school failure.

Thanks to these studies, the team formulated the hypothesis that there was a contradiction between “school culture” and “popular working-class culture” that would influence the production of failure, which newer studies would seek to contrast and build upon. These studies centered around those students who had survived primary education, with the objective of delving deeper into socialization processes, to understand the phenomena of cultural transmission and its appropriation, and to study friction zones—that is, to describe contradictions and adjustments that occur within schools between the viewpoints of the school system and working-class families. These studies were strongly influenced by the theoretical contributions of Berger and Luckmann (1968) and Bourdieu and Passeron (1981). In addition, from psychoanalysis was incorporated the concept of ideal discourse (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1986; Millot, 1979), understood as those processes by which meanings are constructed in historically and materially constituted practices, and in relation to other practices. From this perspective, it is asserted that discourse builds reality and regulates both behavior and practice. More concretely, it proposed that, in the construction of this discourse by the subject, multiple idealization, negation, and sublimation, among other processes were produced. From this starting point, the main questions in this study were: “How does school discursively position itself in relation to the working-class family? How does the working-class family produce meanings regarding school and education? In what way is the students’ discourse mediated by the school and family institutions?” (Assaél, Edwards, López, & Adduard, 1989).

An important finding in these studies was that the tension between both cultures (school and family) tended to fade away, mainly observing similarities between the notions and wishes of students, parents, and teachers. This brought to light the fact that there were important continuity elements between school and popular working-class sectors, achieved by a process of internalization of the social norms by those students who managed to finish their primary education (Assaél & Neumann, 1989).

Toward the end of the 1980s, based on several findings in previous studies regarding the conditions where teachers’ work was carried, the team decided to delve deeper into the effects of municipalization4 and privatization policies on everyday life and school culture. The team focused on the processes that configured teachers’ roles through institutional relations in the municipalized school, from the perspective of understanding how in these relationships—through several mechanisms—a network of controlled normativities, are knitted that explicitly or implicitly configure a specific role for teachers’ work (Edwards, Assaél, & López, 1991). They considered that the teaching role not only was limited to the classroom (the teacher as a teacher), but was also determined by the role of the teacher as an institutional subject (the teacher as a worker). Calvo (1979) had already outlined this idea by studying the determinants of the type of school institution on the teacher’s role. Based on this, they understood “role” as the institutional definition of a specific job, which was not completely accepted by the subjects nor identified with it in a univocal way. In this way, subjects only managed to identify partially with the role. In this process, the subject was constructing, at the same time, its own identity. Because of this, the role was not given, but was constructed by a constant negotiation between centripetal (tending towards the norm) and centrifugal (voice of resistance against authority) forces. In this way, the PIIE team looked at not only reproduction in school, but also resistance, trying to understand the negotiation processes that teachers built in their relationship with authority.

To summarize, in this period an evolution can be appreciated regarding research questions and enabling a more complex look at the problem of school failure, broadening and deepening analytical focus on pedagogical relationships, working conditions, teaching roles, and the role of school in society. In this walkthrough, both subjectivity and popular culture, alongside the normative and homogenization functions of school, revealed novel ways in which power operates in the school space. On the other hand, in times of dictatorship, school ethnography could be considered as a resistance platform for some researchers.

The 1990s: Ethnography During the Chilean Transition

During the transition to democracy, the educational field was subjected to continuities and ruptures; while market-centered policies remained and were strengthened, other policies were applied that attempted to mitigate the undesired effects of the market without modifying its structural foundations. As in other educational reforms in the continent, educational research during this decade was strongly tied to demands made by the State and by international organizations to support the ongoing educational reforms (Abraham & Rojas, 1997; Beech, 2007). The most influential international organizations were: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank.

In the case of Chile, independent academic centers (mostly PIIE and Education Research and Development Center -CIDE in Spanish) took on the responsibility of generating ideas and providing staff to work for the management of the new democratic government’s educational reform (Picazo, 2013). At the same time, the decline in external funding for independent academic centers (Corvalán & Ruffinelli, 2007) and the weak recovery of the public university system undermined the ability to build a strong and autonomous educational research field.

This harsh outlook for educational research in general was also true for school ethnography during the 1990s and the start of the new millennium. PIIE remained, as in the previous decade, the main producer of ethnographic research in education. Even so, various university researchers from varied origins started to involve themselves in ethnographic research. In addition, until that moment, this type of research was mainly done in the capital city, but in this period, researchers from other cities joined the group. When reviewing the ethnographic production of this period, a significant spreading of research subjects and problems can be seen across different studies.5 In short, these can be grouped according to four main themes, the first two being more prominent: school culture and youth culture, participation and citizenship, learning, and interculturalism.

The most ambitious ethnographic research and the one with the largest amount of researchers, assistants and resources was El Liceo por dentro: Estudio etnográfico sobre prácticas de trabajo en educación media (Edwards et al., 1995).6 This study emerged from an explicit demand from the State to overcome the lack of knowledge pertaining to secondary school in a context of growing school coverage.7 This study was defined by the discourse, espoused by international organizations and agencies, of promoting social cohesion and improving economic competitiveness as the objective of educational reforms in the region (Beech, 2007; CEPAL-UNESCO, 1992). In short, it attempted to simultaneously explore institutional practices, classroom teaching practices, and the area of interaction between secondary students (Edwards et al., 1995). In this manner, the study focused on understanding the relationship, often conflictive, between youth culture and school culture, an aspect that was seen as an expelling factor of students from the educational institution. The study gave special attention to the exposure of teaching practices that did not stimulate participation of students in their own learning process, and the gap between youths’ expressions and school norms. This was expressed through rich ethnographic descriptions that showed the state of abandonment and crisis of education within the context of transition to democracy.

One of the objectives of El Liceo por Dentro was to be a relevant resource for the ongoing educational reform. However, the need to immediately translate ethnographic knowledge into policy recommendations meant that the material generated during fieldwork was not fully exploited. Since the study was mainly meant as a resource for public policy, the research team tended to work around the rhythms and needs of policymakers, without subjecting the generated material to the reflective judgment typical of ethnographic work. In spite of the effect it had on policy, this study did not translate into a further use of ethnography as part of knowledge-generating tools for the design of new reform policies.

Despite this, the rise of the topic of “youth culture” in secondary schools, which came from the findings of Edwards et al., 1995, started a new series of inquiries that guided other school ethnographies. As a result, part of the research team started to look into youth culture and the possibilities of civic participation among youths. Within this context, during the years 1997–1998, and funded by the Scientific and Technological Development National Fund (Fondecyt in Spanish), PIIE carried out an ethnographic study that lead to the book Joven y alumno: ¿Conflicto de identidad? Un estudio etnográfico en liceos de sectores populares (Cerda, Assaél, Ceballos, & Sepúlveda, 2002). Strongly influenced by the work of Dubet and Martucelli (1998), this study was built on the acknowledgement of the strong existing friction between youth culture and school norms, understood as a relationship between two poles in tension, which is necessary for the construction of the subject (Assaél & Cerda, 1998). In terms of procedures, this study explicitly set itself to “abandon the convenience of categories” (p. 7) to position itself in the youths’ world and to understand their codes. Facing a social discourse that highlighted youth anomie, this study focused on the cultural and value density of youths’ world (Assaél & Cerda, 1998; Cerda, Assaél, Ceballos, & Sepúlveda, 1998).

Ethnographic research during this period shows school as an institution that relates to youth culture in a conflicting manner. School is presented as a place that functions, on the one hand, by excluding different youthful expressions, and on the other, by co-opting those expressions and making them useful to institutionally defined purposes. In this sense, the critical potential of this study consisted of defending a multi-faceted youth culture that is systematically excluded by the school system. This study of youth culture broadened the view and opened new questions about the different spaces inhabited by youths. Later, between the years 1999 and 2000, the same team went into the existing formal participation instances that students had in working-class neighborhood secondary schools. Previous findings suggested that student councils, which the government was trying to revitalize during the transition to democracy, were not groups that gave enough room to the newer forms of youths’ cultural expressions (Ceballos, Assaél, & Cerda, 2001; Cerda, Assaél, Ceballos, & Sepúlveda, 1998). This time, this study focused on the meanings students gave to student councils. For the purpose of adequately formulating the research question, it was important to ask about students’ autonomy. Previous evidence showed that, when participation was constrained by the rigid framework prescribed by public policy, students’ prominence diluted, and the student council appeared as meaningless. Ethnographic reports showed scant autonomy of student organizations in some establishments located in low-income outskirt sectors. Prestigious traditional secondary schools, however, had active student councils, made possible by overwhelming the institutionalism, that is, the purposes prescribed by regulations and the schools’ authorities. This lead to an accelerated politicization of such associations and spaces, given the organization of several collectives and student groups that saw the need for occupying those groups (Assaél, Cerda, & Santa Cruz G., 2001; Cerda, Assaél, & Santa Cruz G., 2001). Throughout this walkthrough, ethnography made possible detailed description of the use of memory as material used in the processes of political subjectification (Assaél et al., 2001). Unlike what had been gathered by many other studies on youths during this period, the experiences of these few secondary schools allowed for the recovery of the value of politics in the processes of youth socialization.

Continuing in a similar vein, some years afterwards, a team from PIIE published a book entitled El complejo camino de la formación ciudadana: Una mirada a las prácticas docentes (Cerda, Egaña, Magendzo, Santa Cruz G., & Varas, 2004), which assembled a two-year study funded by the Ford Foundation. To a large extent, the authors recognized the existing social cohesion deficit and the fragility of social bonds created in a society where the market occupies a core position. They demonstrated the need to look into civic education in school, through the observation of teaching and everyday school practices in elementary school students. Unlike previous studies done by the same researchers, this ethnography favored the theoretical foundations of the questions, offering an interesting debate on the tension between liberal and communitarian perspectives regarding civic participation, and how this relates to students’ education. Based on ethnographic reports, the study describes and analyzes interactions between teachers and students, based on the assumption that “everyday classroom practices have, whether implicitly or explicitly, elements of civic education” (Cerda et al., 2004, p. 9).

This study on civic education in school ends a string of ethnographic studies done by the research team in PIIE. Its weak institutional conditions conspired against the possibility of broadening and maintaining ethnographic research teams and deepening the lines of work that opened up throughout the years. In spite of the important role that PIIE played during the first steps of school ethnography, the disappearance of its ethnographic team did not lead to the absolute decline of this type of research. During the time this institution dominated the field of school ethnography, different initiatives were being carried out by isolated researchers elsewhere. Among these, worth mentioning is the work done by University of La Serena’s Carlos Calvo, who has a long career as school ethnography researcher. During this period, he delved deeper into the conceptual distinction between education and schooling. Within the context of a Fondecyt project, in the year 2005, he published Entre la educación corporal caótica y la escolarización corporal ordenada (Calvo, 2005). This school ethnography sought to understand chaos and its relationship with education, as opposed to matters relative to school. The study showed that, on one hand, mystery, uncertainty, and improvisation are part of the experience of the childlike relationship of the body with nature; that is, they are ways of learning to learn. On the other hand, the educational system, understood as schooling, fails in achieving its own objectives as it tries to predefine possible relationships and to control the body.

One last topic that was addressed by ethnographic studies was interculturalism, which became increasingly relevant with the turn of the century. Worth mentioning is the UNESCO publication from 2005, Discriminación y pluralismo cultural, where two Chilean school ethnographies on intercultural education are included, alongside cases from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. This line of research, focused on the difficulties that educational institutions had acknowledging, beyond formalities, the multicultural condition of many schools, was also addressed in a study by Alarcón, Llaña, and Sánchez (1999), from the University of Chile. In that study, they looked into the existence of a hidden curriculum on a school on Easter Island, which undermined Rapanui culture. Both studies asserted that, in contexts where social discourses on multiculturalism and respect to diversity were present, a single and centralized model of educational institution was still predominant.

In sum, toward the end of this period, ethnographies increased in terms of research themes and institutional locations where they took place. In a group where a plurality of viewpoints and focal points where emerging, studies addressing multicultural issues stand out, something that will be a central theme of school ethnography during the next period. Put in perspective, the studies reviewed during this period reveal that school ethnography occupied a secondary place in educational research. The context of the reform had an effect on the way research was framed, not addressing directly issues that questioned core aspects of the current educational model. It is important to note that, regardless of the changes undergone by school ethnography, post-dictatorship, the fact that it focused on the ways that concrete social relationships are established in situated contexts shows the effects that broader changes on social, political, and economic levels had on the organization of everyday life and, specifically, in school.

School Ethnography During the Last Decade

During these past ten years, school ethnography in Chile has diversified, addressing cultural dimensions of socioeducational phenomena and everyday school life that had been absent in studies done during previous decades. Additionally, research teams doing school ethnography multiplied, and with them, so did disciplines, subjects, and theoretical perspectives. This diversification came from increased funding of educational research through public grants such as Fondecyt and new strategies oriented to financing research groups and centers,8 giving greater autonomy regarding subjects and manner of research. Because of this, during this decade, the void left by PIIE’s lack of school ethnography was filled by universities, which have easier access to these funds.

This new ethnographic production occurs amidst a crisis of political legitimacy in the country, unleashed by student protests that started in 2006. During the next 10 years, secondary and university students’ organizations criticized the educational system and extended the criticism to a social model installed during the dictatorship, still prevailing to this day. Other movements that questioned the established order also emerged, denouncing society’s structural inequality and the subordination of certain social groups. Noteworthy movements include the ones that seek to reduce the ecological impact of hydroelectric dams and indigenous movements, which bring to light the historical demands for the acknowledgement of the Mapuche people. Toward the end of the decade, these simultaneous protests, along with unprecedented corruption scandals that emerged throughout the entire institutional political spectrum, contributed to create a scenario of profound loss of legitimacy of the political system.

This political scenario strongly influenced school ethnographies. While some account for it as context, others focus on the relations and conflicts between cultures, regarding differences in ethnic groups, social classes, and gender as points of particular interest. This is not the only similarity between ethnographies in this period. They also regard school phenomena as complex interrelated totalities. Additionally, school is not only an object of study, but also operates as a subject by itself; in the sense that it becomes performative, it possesses discourses and practices, and it acts, for example, reproducing social structure or acting in an authoritarian manner. Last, the different school ethnographies show the need to account for the school phenomenon from the perspectives of subjects.

To show the diversity mentioned earlier, school ethnographies are grouped into three central topics that, far from being discrete categories, intersect and intertwine in different studies.

  1. 1. Diversity: it groups studies that address the problem of diversity from different theoretical perspectives, such as identity, ethnicity, multiculturalism; and different phenomena, such as bilingual intercultural education, immigration, or gender relations in the schools.

  2. 2. Learning and development: this topic encompasses studies that have sought to account for these phenomena beyond their individual manifestations, contextualizing them within school culture and educational policy.

  3. 3. Recreation of educational policies: a group of school ethnographies attempted to understand the effects of educational policies in a holistic and profound way.

On the topic of diversity, studies were done within the context of a 1995 intercultural bilingual educational policy; as well as the sustained increase of immigration, particularly from other Latin American countries. Seven ethnographies, coming from graduate theses or grant-funded research projects center on diversity. The studies, by Acuña (2005), González (2006), and Catalán (2016), orbit around the idea of the relationship between the school, identity, and ethnicity. While Acuña and González ask about inter-ethnic relationships between Mapuche and non-Mapuche teachers and students, and their relationship with the school, problematizing hegemonical school rationality, Catalán focuses on the construction of representations of ethnicity within the framework of an intercultural project that takes place in a high school. Suárez (2010) goes forward on the discussion of the relationship between ethnicity and identity in school, proposing it as a problem of relationship with an “other,” where a diverse school appears as a scenario where it is possible to build new identity meanings for migrant students that go beyond those imposed by the hegemonic nation. Both Suárez and Catalán, while considering the reproducing role of the school, ask themselves for subjects’ space for agency within that context. Jiménez and Fardella (2015), take care of the problem of multiculturalism from the teachers’ perspective, asking about the assessments, roles, and challenges that teachers confer on migrant students.

Diversity is researched not only from the viewpoint of ethnic identity, but also from other categories, like normalcy and difference (Matus & Haye, 2015) and gender (Acuña, 2008). In 2013, Matus and the Normalcy, Difference, and Education team carried out six ethnographies in six schools in the metropolitan region, with the purpose of establishing the ways in which policies and rationalities work to define and act upon what is diverse and different, from naturalized conceptions of normalcy. They construct their research problem assuming that discrimination is supported by ways of knowing and reasoning that are learnt. In this way, what is different is essentialized and naturalized, and has to be tolerated, positioning difference as something that is marginal and deviated. Then, it becomes necessary to study how normalcy is produced and circulated in schools (Matus & Haye, 2015). Acuña (2008) studied classroom dynamics from the viewpoint of gender relations, to then focus on elucidating the symbolic associations with gender and science and technology.

On the topic of learning and development, Luna (2015a) studied situated learning—learning that takes place everyday with the participation of children in a practice community, in this case the school, that implies an experience on being and doing within that school context. At the same time, school is subject to a series of norms that Luna describes as neoliberal policies with a strong emphasis on standardization and control through accountability measures. Ibáñez (2010a, 2010b) studied the development of language and world-building from the perspective of child development, in relation to interactional contexts of the school and family in a school in Araucanía (where the Chilean-Mapuche conflict is most present). Valdivia also studied situated learning (Valdivia, Herrera, & Guerrero, 2015), what it means for students to position themselves, to learn to occupy certain roles and places, and from there to explore understandings of experience and participation. Toward that end, she examined the practices that situate students in a position as creators and producers of digital media contents. It sought to understand how teaching practices are not limited to school, but acknowledge and promote the link with practices from digital and media culture, usually located outside of the school. Calvo (2014a, 2014b) studied the informal learning of preschoolers, which takes place within the confines of school, continuing the line of research initiated the previous decade. In the research of both Valdivia and Calvo, the notion of situated learning challenges the school’s boundaries. For Valdivia and colleagues, media practices are related to practices that surpass school. For Calvo, the institution appears more like an obstacle, where informal learning is made in spite of school, instead of thanks to the school.

The topic of educational policy is, in one way or another, present in every study during this period, as well as previous decades. Most studies point out that Chilean educational policy is characterized as neoliberal, market-centered, and marked by accountability mechanisms (Acuña, Assaél, Contreras, & Peralta, 2014; Falabella, 2015; Luna, 2015b). Even so, two studies consider it not only an important part of context, but also the object of their study. Assaél’s team, from the University of Chile, studied the effects of educational policies appearing during this decade on the everyday life of schools. Using the concept of recontextualization (Ball, Maguire, & Braun, 2012), it sought to go beyond the notion of implementation, where educational policy is conceived outside the school and then put into practice, in a passive and unidirectional manner. Instead, it understands the process of putting it in practice as necessarily entailing a re-creation of policy, in the sense that the singular conditions surrounding each school require a recontextualization of the policy to their specific school culture (Acuña et al., 2014). Alejandra Falabella (2015), also using Ball’s framework, sought to understand how market and accountability policies are put in practice in the local sphere, and the effects they have in schools.

During the last decade, school ethnography surpassed school boundaries and structured its problems in relation to broader educational contexts, be it relating to the wider national context, or by understanding learning beyond school. Whatever the topic, many of the studies are marked by the problem of reproduction and agency (Acuña, 2005; Assaél et al., 2014; Catalán, 2016; González, 2006; Luna, 2015a, 2015b; Suárez, 2010). Ethnography becomes a tool to look at the reverse side of hegemony and domination, to identify everyday practices that challenge the structural determinants that constrain the subject.

A Three-Decade Overview

Three and a half decades of school ethnography in Chile presents a broader perspective of what has happened in this field throughout its history regarding research problems. It emerged in the midst of a strong interest in school failure in the early 1980s. It intends to go beyond the limits of research methodologies popular at the time, namely, quantitative and broad approaches. It proposes instead a deep immersion in particular schools, to understand their complexities. Through the study of pedagogical processes, social relationships, and teacher’s working conditions, ethnographers found causes of school failure in the school culture. From there, they went on to study relationships between school and popular culture, finding an internalization of school culture in those students that were able to finish primary school. Later, they tried to identify the possibility of teacher agency through negotiation of their role. In the next decade, ethnography remained tightly linked to the national political context, but this time it was specifically concerned about school policy. Furthermore, the focus shifted from school failure to youth culture, and new topics emerged, such as learning and multiculturalism. In the most recent decade, while we no longer see research about school failure or youth culture, topics like intercultural relationships and learning are being studied. Also, we see the rise of policy enactment; gender and immigration issues appear, deepening certain concepts such as identity and ethnicity, adding the enactment and re-contextualization of policy.

Looking for common elements in the way these ethnographies have built problems and study objects, two main continuities can be found: the problem of subalternity and the concern for school policy. Though research problems are diverse, most of the school ethnography production is concerned with subaltern positions, this is, those groups or subjects that find themselves in subordinated positions in schools. Their interests go from students from popular backgrounds who fail to finish primary schools, to excluded and controlled youths, controlled groups of children, learning restrictions, and ignoring of heterogeneous cultures in the re-interpretation of school policy by teachers or schools. Through meticulous description of these in the everyday life of schools, ethnographers examine power relationships in a more complex way, showing the tiny and often invisible practices that establish subordination.

School ethnography is concerned with educational policy, whether as a context or as an object. In both cases, the approach to policies is critical, and ethnography shows their often hidden reductionism, voids, and troubles. This happens even when the research is constrained by the limits imposed by ethnographies done for and financed by the government. A complex relationship can be read here, regarding the limits and possibilities of knowledge produced in this way to influence educational policy.

School ethnography in Chile has developed in a context of weak institutions, whether research centers or universities. Also, its products have been scattered, and a practice community has not been established. Looking forward, the renewed financing and the proliferation of school ethnographies should multiply the scholarly exchange, opening the field to new theoretical influences and new methodological approaches. This would help the consolidation of this kind of educational research.


The work presented here is part of a larger project of which a group of researchers have been part: Felipe Acuña, Felipe Hidalgo, José Isla, Pablo Herraz, and Manuela Guerrero.

The project has been financed by Iniciativa Bicentenario de Revitalización de las Humanidades, las Artes, las Ciencias Sociales, y Ciencias de la Comunicación, of University of Chile. It had the support of the Centro de Investigación Avanzada de la Educación and its Proyecto Basal FB0003, financed by the Programa de Investigación Asociativa de CONICYT, also of University of Chile, and Fondecyt Project No. 1160445.


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(1.) Research center created in the Catholic University of Chile in 1971, by a group of researchers who had taken part in the university reform movements at the end of the previous decade. In the year 1977, the institution was expelled from the university, afterwards forming part of the Academy of Christian Humanism along other research centers. Its declared purpose was to contribute to social change through educational change, by means of research and working with other social organizations (PIIE, 1988).

(2.) In its beginnings, the school ethnography team in PIIE had three young researchers: a teacher (Gabriela López) and two psychologists (Jenny Assaél and Elisa Neumann).

(3.) Rincuare, coordinated by Rodrigo Vera, a researcher from PIIE, promoted the exchange during the 1980s between researchers and teams, mainly through the production and dissemination of educational material (Revista Dialogando and Cuadernos de Educación) and the organization of international seminars.

(4.) The process by which management of Chilean schools was transferred from the central Ministry of Education and became the responsibility of local governments (municipalities).

(5.) Ethnographic research in this period can be analyzed by establishing as a parameter the relationship they established with the reform agenda being pushed by the government. Thus, some studies were contracted by the State with the aim of acquiring updated information (Arredondo, Catalán, Monsalves, & Montesinos, 2001; and Edwards, Calvo, Cerda, Gómez, & Inostroza, 1995), while others sought to critically evaluate the transformations that were taking place in several aspects of the school system (Assaél, Cerda, & Santa Cruz G., 2001; Cerda, Assaél, & Santa Cruz G., 2001; and Cerda, Egaña, Magendzo, Santa Cruz G., & Varas, 2004).

(6.) This ethnographic study, coordinated by Verónica Edwards, was carried out during 1992, by a team made up of researchers from three institutions: PIIE, University of La Serena, and the Catholic University of Temuco. It consisted of a mixed research, ethnographic and quantitative. It had 5 researchers in charge and 18 field helpers. It was simultaneously carried out in 18 establishments throughout the country, lasting for a year.

(7.) This ethnography was one of 13 studies, requested by the Ministry of Education, of secondary schools throughout the country and where a number of higher learning institutes and independent academic centers were involved (Ministerio de Educación, 1994). The purpose of these studies was to generate evidence that gave empirical support to the formulation of the future Program for the Improvement of Quality and Equality of Education (MECE, in Spanish).

(8.) In 2006, The Scientific and Technological Research Committee (Conicyt, in Spanish) created the Baseline Funding Program, by which it funds six research centers, mainly located in universities. The Associative Research Program (PIA, in Spanish) was created in 2009, to manage the Baseline Funding Program. From this, two Advanced Research in Education Centers have been funded, as well as 11 Anillo projects, encompassing several institutions. In both cases the funds were given to different universities.