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A counter school culture inside the school ? 
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Children agency in the school playground and beyond

Dominique BLANC (EHESS, LISST-Centre d'Anthropologie Sociale – Toulouse, France)

For more than twenty years, the researches on children games have increased. They also have changed in nature. Today, they are not a mere catalogue of specific games and activities of the first ages, like in the old "folklore of childhood" tradition. They rather are studies on interactions between children, on entry into the game, on integration or exclusion, on the dynamics of creation of new situations of play and consequently on the dynamics of creation of the very group as well. In our current vision, children are inventing the group while inventing the game as they are inventing the game while inventing the group. This permanent dynamics explains how and why the specific culture of the children is a "peer culture" described by Corsaro and Eder as "a stable set of activities or routines, artefacts, values and concerns that children produce and share in interactions with peers". We are far from a classic vision of socialization as an imposition of a set of norms and values from the adults world to the children one through institutions and activities entirely framed and organized for them, the children, but without them. The autonomy of the children world is now generally admitted. Children become the managers of their own social world. As Carl Butler put it, this current vision of a "children peer culture" and "detailed analyses of children's talk and action in setting up and doing play offers compelling demonstrations of the agency and competencies of children in managing their social arenas". In the Sixties and the Seventies, researchers where concerned essentially with youth subcultures, some various rebel and marginal expressions of the uneasiness of young people in a changing society. Today, the interest of most scholars focuses on groups of very young children considered as micro societies inside which everything begins in the social life of an individual through the relations he or she establishes with his or her fellows. These studies are innovative and very important if we want to understand better what the dynamics of socialization in western societies actually is. But what does happen in the period of time situated after the first childhood, witch is structured by the first groups of peers and the youth time when relatively stable, conformist or nonconformist groups structure the relations between individuals, through the so-called subcultures or not. Everybody knows, of course, that the production of a sort of autonomous culture by the children through their talk, their games and other specific activities does not mean a mere creation independent from the outside world and in particular from the world of the adults. This children creativity must be put in perspective. Corsaro, for example, proposes the concept of "interpretive reproduction" : children do not merely individually internalize the external adult culture, they become a part of adult culture, that is, contribute to its reproduction, but through their negotiations with adults and through their creative production of a series of peer cultures with other children. However, this notion is not a simple one, no more than the notions of autonomy, creativity and children agency, especially in this intermediate period between the end of childhood and the beginning of youth, this age that we often call quite improperly preadolescence. To illustrate this difficulty, let me explain briefly an example borrowed from an ethnographical inquiry I accompanied.
It concerns a middle school of the middle class in Toulouse, southern France. After the explosion of a chemical factory in the suburb of the city in 2001, the children of the suburban districts stricken by the disaster were scattered in various schools of the city. I must clarify that, in this example, the participant observer was a student who worked with me and a group of other students interested in school ethnography. As an education assistant he was daily on the field. His interest focused on talk and behavior of the boys after the arrival in the school of the children coming from the suburb. First observation: the reference to the model of the "bad boys" already existed among the boy's from 11 to 15 years old, coming from the middle class, who frequented this school before the change in its population. They themselves played the "bad boys". Their desire to fight against the constraints imposed by the school and by the adults often incited them to take the appearance of rebel eccentrics. But physical violence, for example, remained mostly a symbolic one, limited to a verbal challenge. How the boys coming from two so different social circles do organize themselves in this common space where they are obliged to live together? First of all, it might be obvious but let me clarify that the school is a unique institution even if there are two different areas inside and, consequently for the boys, there are two manners to assert their personality: the classroom, where the model to be imitated is the good pupil, the one who respects carefully the codes of the institution and then the school playground, the area where the auto-organization of the pupils dominates. Let me clarify as well that these two universes do not exist the one without the other one. They are in continual interaction. Even if the class is the scene where the institutional recognition takes place, this scene, in a way, produces the "bad boys" we encounter in the school playground. Indeed, schoolteachers distinguish not only good pupils but bad pupils as well. These last ones, whom everybody calls "les branleurs" (the lazy sods), are also called "les virés" (those who are fired) because they are regularly chased away from the class and sent back to the school playground. So they become, thanks to some teachers, the future playground heroes. We find here the opposition observed somewhere else between "jocks" and "burnouts" in American suburban schools or more formerly, between "lads" and "ear' oles" in some British working class schools. A third category, much more ambiguous, also exists, the category of "the clowns", that is those who adopt the behavior of lazy sods but know how to respect certain limits. They amuse their classmates but they also amuse their professor. So they are not "fired", they are merely tolerated. Both categories, "lazy sods" and "clowns" share, through different degrees of intensity, the behavior perceived as typically male, that is the "troublemaker" one. The idea is admitted, even by the very institution, that the boys are by nature troublemakers and that in a way, and in certain limits, it is an inevitable fact we have to deal with. The categories I mentioned before never coincide exactly with the pupils' social origin even if they globally correspond. In the schoolyard, it is not the social category which organizes directly the hierarchies we can observe. The space is structured according to the years or school degrees, according to personal affinities and first of all according to gender and age. The "bad boys" constitute neither a group separated from the others in the school playground nor a group imposing its law merely by physical or psychological constraint. It is rather a group which dominates common representations. In other words, it represents for all the boys, including the good pupils, the reference in physical and psychological resistance, against the institution, against the outside groups and against girls who constitute a dangerous and badly known opposing category. Consequently, the school playground becomes for all the boys a male area they have to conquer. Visibility becomes a challenge. Only the best pupils can remain indifferent to this type of visibility, all the others are invited to participate in the system if they want to assert their masculinity. To practice a sport (football or basketball) is central, even spatially: sport takes place exactly in the middle of the yard. Boys establish all around their often short-lived groups and cliques. Certain members participate regularly in the practice of a central sport, some others occasionally, and some others never, but all the boys remain diligent spectators. These hierarchies are essentially structured by ages: the "older boys" choose their own prestigious places and activities while the "young boys" are maintained at distance in a peripheral place and desperately try to be allowed to enter as soon as possible the central area. In order to understand the production-reproduction of new games we must necessarily replace them in this general perspective. The most important for the boys is to distance themselves from the childish world of the very young pupils and from the feminine world (Meanwhile, the girls are playing or discussing in quite small groups all around the yard). It is necessary for them to participate in some violent games which are some actual physical and psychological tests, like the game of "the egg" or the game of "the warm hand" which consist in bearing the cruel pain provoked by violent knocks on the head or the fingers (they provoke a nasty bruise similar to an egg on your head or a grave burn on your hand that you can expose proudly and dramatically in public). To become an "older boy" implies to stop playing like a child to go in for sport under the admiring glance of the "younger boys". In summary, we are in a socially mixed school but the model of masculinity shared by all the boys in the school playground is not a mixed one: it is coherent and homogeneous. Can we say however that what is at stake is the reproduction of a traditional model? At first sight, we may answer yes. But of what traditional model are we speaking about? Is it a mere reproduction of a kind of remote model of male domination always in use in some marginalized popular circles? Its reproduction in the middle class school might be seen as a consequence of the arrival of the suburban children. More accurately we can say that we are in front of an exacerbation of certain kind of violence already present in the games formerly invented by the boys of the middle class. The sudden presence of some actual "bad boys" (or supposed ones) would have only intensified an existing process. In the classroom there were already stereotypes common to the professors and the pupils: the boys are noisy and active and the girls are rather discreet and docile. In the school playground, leadership and fighting spirit seem to reproduce the characteristics of some gang boys but in the case we studied there was not any gang at all. We are mostly in a situation of representation where the young men produce in a limited area and a limited period of time their own hierarchical system. In a way, they generate an "autonomous school culture" opposite to the school culture controlled by the adults. But whatever their social origin, they are inspired by a same set of behavior borrowed from the world of sport, from the world of music (rap and hip hop), from mechanical arts (auto-motorcycle) as they perceive them through the mass media. If we return at the idea of an "interpretive reproduction", the point is: what kind of interpretation and a reproduction of what are we talking about?" What does it mean, finely, that children do not merely individually internalize the external adult culture, that they become a part of adult culture, that is, contribute to its reproduction, through their negotiations with adults and through their creative production of a series of peer cultures with other children? The things are not that simple. The ethnography shows us that the school playground is a scene (a social arena) where the boys experiment between them an exacerbated masculinity, according to values which do not result at all from a negotiation with adults. They assume deliberately opposite values: violence, antidemocratic leadership, contempt of the feminine, etc. We can explain the intensity of this phenomenon by the suburban children's sudden arrival but this does not explain the phenomenon itself which already existed before this accidental event. To understand it, we must look somewhere else that is towards the others social arenas where the same individuals behave and talk in a quite different way. The relationships with girls, for instance, are very different when they take place in an intimate situation or in a public arena under the collective glance. The girls themselves describe the shy and soft behavior of some bad boys of the school playground when they are acting outside the main scene. Most of the time, the expression of a retrograde masculinity in the school context must be perceived as one particular moment, as a limited experience, as an obliged passage in the coming of age, which values are to be rejected later by most of the individuals when they are growing up.

In our complex societies, without formal ritual initiation, boys and girls design some kind of experiences, even some extreme ones, by themselves, borrowing from the adult world but frequently in opposition against adult current values. I have no time to show how growing up consists precisely in rejecting those opposite values to plainly socialize in a new adult world with its social diversity. But I have time to say, to conclude, that we certainly are frightened, as educators, by the behaviour I described before, but as anthropologists, we must conduce a rigorous ethnography of this autonomous "indigenous culture" to help educators to design accurately effective educational policies taking into account actual children agency.







 


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