One Has to Go to School. An Ethnographic Study on a School Class as a Social Space

Petri Paju

(In Finnish: Koulua on käytävä. Etnografinen tutkimus koululuokasta sosiaalisena tilana)

This ethnographic study analyses ninth grade life at a comprehensive school in Finland during the academic year 2009–2010. The researcher went ‘back to school’ in his forties and the research is based on his attendance at school as a member of the class. The study examines pupils’ lives and activities as a social space, and is part of the Suomen ihanuus ja kurjuus – miten kasvatamme lapsiamme ja nuoriamme project (Finnish marvel, Finnish misery – how we bring up our children and young people), which examines social and personal growth within the Finnish education system.

The educational environment is divided into official school, unofficial school, and physical school. Official school determines what will be taught, evaluates students, and allocates grades. Unofficial school also delivers feedback, but of a diverse nature: sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, sometimes clear and sometimes difficult to interpret.  After comprehensive school, the majority of students apply to secondary schools, but unofficial school seems to have the effect of making some pupils forget the significance of the last school year. A school class forms a close group that has been assembled administratively, without consulting its members, and for a limited time period. At the same time, it is socially thick; a space to observe and to be observed in. Everyone in class knows each other at some level, yet they may spend many years in the same classrooms without speaking to each other once.

Each student will have to confront and resolve the central tension that exists at school between individual evaluation, and the fear of not belonging as an individual. The class under study is described as a social space, in which the pupils have positions depending on what kind of distance they maintain from official school. Those who keep their distance from official school do not tend to appreciate school as an institution, but do appreciate their own school as a place to meet their friends. Those who do not distance  themselves from official school appreciate  school in general, but not necessarily their own school.

The social space at school offers different opportunities for boys and girls to act and join groups, and therefore to dispel the threat of being left out. Boys and girls also have a lot in common in the ways in which they behave in a group: their attachments, rivalries, aggressive actions and words, as well as their ways of seeking balance are all carried out in a very uniform manner.

Keywords: school, ethnography, official school, unofficial school, physical school, gender, social class