For more than twenty years, research on children games has increased. It also has 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 (Sutton-Smith, Johnson and alii: 1995). 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" (Corsaro and Eder: 1990). We are far from a classic vision of socialisation as an imposition of a set of norms and values from the adults world to that of the children through institutions and activities entirely framed and organized for the children, but without them. The autonomy of the children world is now generally admitted. Children become the managers of their own social world.
In the Sixties and the Seventies, researchers where concerned essentially with youth subcultures, with various rebel and marginal expressions of the uneasiness of young people in a changing society (Brake 1985; Hall and Jefferson 1993). 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 (Corsaro+ 2003). These studies are innovative and very important if we want to understand better what the dynamics of socialisation in western societies actually are. But what does happen during the period of time following the first childhood, which is structured by the first groups of peers and during youth when relatively stable, conformist or nonconformist groups structure the relations between individuals, whether 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 pure creation independent from the outside world and in particular from the world of adults. This children creativity must be put in perspective. Corsaro proposes the concept of "interpretive reproduction": children do not merely internalize the external adult culture individually, they become a part of adult culture, that is, they contribute to its reproduction, but through their negotiations with adults and through their creative production of a series of peer cultures with other children (Corsaro 1992). However, this notion is not a simple one, no more than the notions of autonomy, creativity and children agency, especially in the intermediate period between the end of childhood and the beginning of youth, the age that we often call - quite improperly - preadolescence. To illustrate this difficulty, let me explain briefly two examples borrowed from ethnographic inquiries I did myself or which I accompanied.
Not all the boys are bad boys
The first one concerns a middle class middle school 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 should say 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 in 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 "bad boys". Their desire to fight against the constraints imposed by the school and by the adults often incited them to assume the appearance of rebel eccentrics. But physical violence, for example, remained mostly symbolic, limited to a verbal challenge. How do the boys coming from two social circles, so different, organize themselves in this common space where they have to live together? First of all, though it may seem obvious, let me stress that the school is a unique institution even if there are two different areas inside it and, consequently for the boys, 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 stress, too, that these two universes are interdependent. They constantly interact. Even if the classroom is the scene where 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 classroom and sent back to the school playground. So they become, thanks to some teachers, the future playground heroes. We find here the opposition observed elsewhere between "jocks" and "burnouts" in American suburban schools (Eckert 1989) or, formerly, between "lads" and "ear' oles" in some British working class schools (Willis 1977). 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 of the "troublemaker". The idea is admitted, even by the very institution, that boys are by nature troublemakers and that in a way, and within certain limits, this 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 correspond globally. In the schoolyard, it is not the social category which directly organizes 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 (Danic 2006). 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 induced 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 their often short-lived groups and cliques all around. Certain members participate regularly in the practice of a central sport, some others occasionally, and some 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 the central area as soon as possible. In order to understand the production-reproduction of new games we shall have to replace them in this general perspective. The most important for the boys is to distance themselves from the childish world of the very young 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 real 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 which can be exposed proudly and dramatically in public). To become an "older boy" implies to stop playing like a child and 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 is shared by all the boys in the school playground and it 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 might answer yes. But 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 faced with an exacerbation of certain kind of violence already present in the games invented by the middle class boys. The sudden presence of some real "bad boys" (or supposedly so) would just seem to have intensified an existing process. In the classroom there were already stereotypes common to professors and pupils: boys are noisy and active and girls 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" confronting the school culture controlled by the adults. But whatever their social origin, the boys are inspired by the same set of behavior borrowed from the world of sport, from the world of music (rap and hip hop), from mechanical arts (cars and motorcycles), as they perceive them through the mass media. If we return to the idea of an "interpretive reproduction", we must ask: what kind of interpretation and a reproduction of what are we talking about?
The ethnography shows us that the school playground is a scene (a social arena) where the boys experiment between themselves 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 may explain the intensity of this phenomenon by the sudden arrival of the suburban boys but this fails to account for the phenomenon itself since it existed before this accidental event. And the participant observer has noticed that in other social arenas the same individuals behave and talk in a quite different way. The relationships with girls, for instance, are very different whether 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 supposedly "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.
Not all the girls are good girls
To explain this phenomenon, let's look at the second example. A few years ago I studied the personal writing practices of young girls in French high schools, hoping to show the interest of ethnography of "ordinary" practices “hidden” to the anthropology of education (Blanc 1993; 1995; 2007). Doing so, we will have a chance to know better certain forms of socialisation and of adolescent sociability largely invisible to parents at home as well as to adults in the school. Such an inquiry also provides some useful elements to bridge out-of-school literacies with classroom practices (Hull and Schulz 2002). When I started studying diary writing as a common practice among young people attending school, I quickly realized that this had some predictable characteristics but also many that were unpredictable. Quite predictable was the fact that this practice is mostly a feminine one. This phenomenon is well known and thoroughly discussed (Lejeune 1993). More unpredictable was the fact that the intimate writing of female students was rarely an individual activity. Most often it was realised in the context of an exchange. The latter may take place between two students or embedded in a wider network that can even encompass all the girls in the same class. Most interesting and typical of the way young writers act is the case of two girls who decide to secretly write a diary, each of them on her own, and then offer it to her new "friend". I observed some of these curious couples. At the beginning of the school year, a girl sympathizes with another one and then makes this strange request to her: "To know ourselves better, we could write our experiences, our feelings and thoughts in a notebook that we would exchange once finished".
Writing, "the" very common practice in schools, obviously, is supposed to quite naturally take over from other modes of communication. But the reality is quite different: exchange conditions and modalities of implementation deserve our attention. First of all, what we call writing actually begins with an endless collection of objects, images and written pieces. Let us follow one of the girls. Throughout the day, she collects all kinds of papers. In the morning, just before going to school, she puts aside the TV program to use it at night. The interclass will give her the opportunity to collect some pages of magazines left in the aisles. In a bar at noon, she picks up various papers. At 5 pm, in the office of her mother, a secretary in public administration, she writes some notes on scraps of paper while waiting to go back home. At night, once the dinner is finished, she goes up to her room. She feels at home at last! On the floor, compact discs and magazines are displayed and the walls are covered with posters, tickets and pictures cut from magazines. She slips a disc in the player. Installed at her desk, she tries to do her homework. After an hour of a compulsory and boring schoolwork, she puts her schoolbooks back into her schoolbag. All the instruments used for schoolwork disappear in the left drawer of her desk. Then she slips a new disk into the player, opens the right drawer of her desk, and grasps a box of colored pencils, scissors and glue. From the bottom drawer she removes a wallet of cut papers and a notebook, "the" notebook. For an hour, to the rhythm of the music, she writes, draws, cuts, pastes, using all the papers collected all day long. This work of "personal writing" once finished, she carefully puts away her documentation in the right boxes. Just like her writing, her desk has two sides strictly separated: the left side for school writing and the right, "the side of the notebook" for personal writing. At the same time, in a similar room, another teen makes quite the same gestures listening to quite the same music.
The terms of trade are also a bit weird. The two supposed friends do not know each other very well. Each one will come to be known by the other girl only when they have changed their first notebooks. That is the primary purpose of the exchange. The "notebook friend" is not the "heart-to-heart friend" before writing. She is not only chosen "for" the notebook but literally "by" the notebook. As a girl put it, "with Élodie we knew each other very well after such a long time so that a notebook was not necessary between us. But I knew Eve only through some moments we lived together. I did not know her enough to speak sincerely to her, then I suggested that we could make a notebook we would change when finished. The first notebook was more to put us in touch. We knew each other better only after the third one. [...] So, she did this for me, on a notebook, putting images that more or less corresponded to her feelings. In her diary, she raised questions about me, and then I answered in my own notebooks. This lasted two years, only with her. I have a dozen of her notebooks and she has a dozen of mine too."
What do we see in the "beloved notebook"? We note without surprise that the documentation and the form of expression come directly from young women's magazines. Biographies of celebrities, advertising shaped like a test ("Finding the love of your life. A personalized search to help you define your ideal partner ...") are borrowed from the magazines to define the boyfriend of the writer or the boyfriend of her correspondent as well. In the notebooks pictures of "cute guys" and furtive personal confidences are mixed. The superlatives used in the captions of the pictures may refer at the same time to raw sex and to the most romantic feelings. Questioned on the issue of feelings, the girls explain that the guys do not know how to express their feelings, and then they use obscenities in a humorous way, while girls express their feelings more directly but with some subtlety. However, we find in their writings a curious female equivalent of the supposed "brutal prudishness" of young men. Interestingly, we find sex intentions ("If I meet Patrick, I shall rape him, he is too cute") as well as some traditional (not to say reactionary) discourse on virginity before marriage. The world of notebooks seems populated by virgins and whores. And the writers seem to be placed alternately and sometimes simultaneously in both categories. We are here in the universe of TV series where sex and love are mixed and where the viewer can identify herself with ambiguous heroines who at the same time are sexually "liberated", unfaithful, but romantic.
When one girl tries to define herself, she imitates "The Couch", a game of free associations typical of teenagers' magazines. The tests "I like / I do not like", the "forecast of the heart", horoscopes, copied or adapted to the present love affair, fill up the notebooks, adopting in part the model imposed by the magazines. Only in part: the traditional letter to the close friend remains a strong model. But in this case too the "personal" sentences are peppered with set phrases, borrowed, once again, from the same magazines. Set phrases and personal sentences compose inextricably a continuous text about which we cannot say which type of writing is precisely defining it: creation or imitation. Intimate thoughts, if any, are mixed with stereotyped elements in a constant "exercise" of imitation, as if the latter was the only means to access finally to the mastery of a true personal expression.
What is the notebook for, if its "personal" and "secret" writing is made of stereotypes? What is this intimate writing used for, if nothing is quite intimate in this writing? To understand such obvious contradictions we must take into account that we are here in a world where usual definitions of reality and fiction do not work, in a universe created by a particular type of writing. The main issue in the notebooks is, of course, love, and more precisely the actual love of the teenage girls. But if we simply read their notebooks we can hardly know if the writers are actually in love with real people or if all the stories reported there are a fruit of their imagination. Questioned about this point, they confirm that the boys actually exist but we soon discover that they are fictional characters as well. Such an alleged "lover" never knew that he was the protagonist of a love affair. In his case, as in the case of imaginary relations with the "cute boys" of the pictures, some reality is concerned but it doesn't amount to much: just a glance, in both cases. Hence, in the notebooks, the girls can "break" a relationship with a movie star as well as with a boy in their class. In both cases they only dared to look at the boys and they fell in love with an image. Under the photo of Brad Pitt with whom she has just "broken", Anne writes laconically, "a former beloved." And when she writes further: "I dare to look at him! Testing masterpieces is not forbidden! ..." this time she is not talking about a movie star but about a schoolmate who became a fictional hero as he entered her world of paper. She never dared to talk to him but in his notebook. Unlike the traditional diary, the notebook is almost never reporting true events and living stories. Moments of real life are concerned, of course, but only as a pretext for an expression of feelings that are confusing and difficult to master. For this reason the girls are constantly making "exercises of writing", copies of texts, "collages" of photos, and their drawings are colorful attempts to express some clumsy and timid thoughts, doubts and hopes, difficult to formulate in a personal way.
We can identify "the notebook period" in the lives of some girls. It is a moment of confusion between reality and fiction, between love and friendship, between what is shared with others and what is unique to oneself. This game of constantly changing identity is a risky one. Each girl is trying to define herself through her notebook but often she is quite confused about to whom she addresses her writing: to herself, to her alleged lover or to her new friend and correspondent? Here, writing does not serve to clarify events, analyze the feelings or order the thoughts. We are far from the academic world or the literary world; we are in a world made of copy and repetition. So: what is this writing for? It serves to fully experience this confusion, to delight in it and also to suffer its real or fictitious torture and finally to end it. A proof of the intensity of this required moment is found while observing the conditions of "production" of this writing. What is at stake is not simply to write or illustrate a text. All is about living intensely the experience of writing the notebook, every day, or rather every night. The description of the girl's room presented above was referring to a quiet night. But most often the sound is very loud, the pieces of music carefully chosen according to the theme of the writing. And then there are those things that the girls do not talk about: alcohol, drugs, anything that lets you experience not only in your spirit but also in your body a whirlwind of ideas and emotions. In such circumstances, we cannot speak of a simple exercise, a simple "test" without consequences. It is a true test necessary to live intensely the "vertigo of all senses" as Rimbaud put it. The practice of such writing can be a pivotal moment in the life of some girls. The banality of the majority of the text produced by imitation is not representative of the intensity of an experience that may sometimes go too far.
All the girls do not participate in the writing of notebooks of this type and all the girls who do are not involved in the extreme conditions just mentioned. But, apparently, all students experience at one time or another something similar to what only a few of them explore more completely and systematically. Therefore, it was important to single out some examples that seem atypical, but are in fact very significant. Even if the girls, after "the notebook period", look down on it and start writing a "true" diary of the traditional type. Even if most of the girls have just shared a common but limited experience inside the classroom: writing and illustrating their school diaries, erasing every night all that relates to homework to immediately replace it by photos of singers, "cute guys", advertising, tests, horoscopes and words of love, just like in their personal notebooks. Then, some diaries pass from hand to hand in the classroom, thus defining a circle of friends. At first sight all the notebooks are alike. All the girls borrow the same references to the same movies, to the same magazines. They address their writing to the same singers, the same actors. Their borrowed texts and images draw a common horizon. But what is at stake for each girl is the building of a personality by inventing from the palette shared by all the other girls a graphic universe which defines her as unique.
Experiences, passages and peer-group socialization
We could say that in this example, echoing the exacerbated masculinity of the supposedly "bad boys", the girls are showing an exacerbated femininity by reproducing the most common models borrowed from TV serials and teenager magazines. But we see that something quite different is at stake. Like the boys evoked here, the girls observed rather experiment the ambiguity of various situations, those they reproduce in their notebooks and those they live. They may be virgins AND whores according to the ambiguous situations exposed in the medias around them. During their "notebook period", they explore all possibilities through their writing, playing a game mixing reality and fiction constantly (Blanc 1995). This game has no actual consequences for their real life but is not without danger. On the one hand, because the writer has a correspondent to whom she addresses in snatches her intimate feelings beyond some conventional and sometimes crude fiction. Her clumsy attempt to "open her heart", to "tell the very truth" to her new friend may put their friendship in jeopardy. And breakups frequently happen because the writers have difficulties in separating true friendship from a common relationship and even friendship from love. The whole exchange is a test. What we adults might see as an insignificant and childish game can have a real relevance for preadolescent girls. On the other hand, because most of the girls who "make a notebook" also throw themselves into an actual experience calling upon a whirlwind of sounds, colors and even alcohol and drugs.
As in the first example we are chiefly in a situation of representation where the young girls produce, in a limited area and a limited period of time, an "autonomous culture" invisible to the adults. Whatever their social origin they are inspired by the same set of references borrowed from the mass Media. This experience is a common one. What makes a difference is what happens afterwards: how does each personal experience end? How do each boy and each girl emerge from this particular moment of experimentation? Obviously, this depends on the social origin, the family culture and the local environment. But while boys and girls are living their quite autonomous peer culture, the school as an institution and the teachers as referent actors are displaying the official school culture whose values are essential, finally, to enter the adult world. I am convinced that more accurate ethnographic observations concerning for instance violent behaviour amongst middle class young boys -apparently impossible to understand - or concerning the curious expression of an "unofficial" literacy, quite naïve and sometimes quite vulgar and goofy, can help to alleviate the transition between the children peer culture and the culture transmitted in the classroom. It should also help us to understand that in western and modern societies, which lack clearly defined initiation rites (in the anthropological sense of the word), and in which the stages of youth and adulthood are somewhat blurred, there nevertheless exist pivotal moments when the individual has the opportunity to live through important experiences across various tests designed by a group of peers inside or outside the school.
NOTE : The participant observer in the middle school was Thomas MARTINON. The observations of Karine HORVATH in an elementary school were also very precious.
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