Jane Kenway is an emeritus professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. For the past several years, Professor Kenway has led a team of scholars and students from around the world on a multi-sited global ethnography of elite schools in 12 countries.

The study explores the global forces, connections and imaginations on elite schools, and hopes to enhance our understanding of how many national and transnational leaders are formed through their education.

The project has resulted in many publications, some of which you can find here. Will Brehm spoke with Professor Kenway in January on one of her recent pieces about how she and her team conducted this research, comparing more “traditional” forms of ethnography with her use of “global multi-sited ethnography.”

Citation: Kenway, Jane, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 13, podcast audio, July 21, 2016. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/janekenway/

Transcript, Translation, and Resources:


Will Brehm  1:42
Jane Kenway, welcome to FreshEd.

Jane Kenway  1:44
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this extremely interesting project you’re doing.

Will Brehm  1:50
You’ve been working on a project for the last few years that looks at elite schools around the globe. And you’re using something called multi-sited ethnography and I’d like to really dive into that topic today. But perhaps to start, it might be best to talk more about a more traditional form of ethnography. Could you explain a little bit about what the standard or the traditional form of ethnography is?

Jane Kenway  2:34
Yes. I should also say though, before I do that is what we’ve done is we’ve called it “multi-sited global ethnography”, and I can explain that to you later. But it’s important to have the “global” in there, and I’ll pick up what I mean later. But if we talk about the traditional view of ethnography, and that’s an extremely general way to talk, then it’s usually associated with anthropologists. And it’s usually associated with a set of people who have gone from one country to another, often – usually, actually – from say, the Global North to the Global South, or from the Global West to the Global East, to study people who are considered to be of different cultures and different sorts of communities. So traditional ethnography, I would think of it in that way, and I would associate it with people like Malinowski, and people like Geertz, and they’re the sort of major figures in that space. But what I do think it’s important to say, with that particular way of thinking about ethnography associated with anthropology, is their use space, and time and mobility in certain ways that are very, very clear in the heads of those who practice this sort of research. So if you like, I could say a little bit about each of those.

Will Brehm  4:11
Sure, yes. How, how do anthropologists and the traditional form of ethnography understand the concepts of space and time and mobility?

Jane Kenway  4:31
The first thing to note is that invariably it begins with a particular notion of a field, or a site – the research field, or the research site. And, in terms of spatiality, that site is usually seen as somewhat self-contained. It’s usually seen to be small scale. And it’s usually seen to be somewhat enclosed. When people think about the “field”, or the “site”, they usually think about small scale spaces. And with regard to those spaces, they usually seem to contain a particular culture or a particular community. The way in which people in that space are thought about is as “insiders”, or as “natives” for want of a better term, and clearly a better term is needed. And the interest of the ethnographer, or the anthropologist, is in these particular people, their point of view, their culture, and their communities and so on and so forth. When ethnographers or anthropologists go into these particular spaces, they are usually seen as outsiders who try to become sort of insiders/outsiders within, who try to participate in the everyday aspects, every day and every night, the aspects of these particular spaces, but they also understand themselves as entering a space for a particular period, and leaving that space once their research is done. So in terms of time, the traditional ethnographer or the traditional anthropologist, will see their work as being conducted over an extended period of time in one particular place. And the notion of extended time, or what sometimes we refer to as “deep time”, is what’s seen to be important. So you have to be in a particular place or space, and you have to be there for quite a while. And as a function of being there for quite a while, the idea is that you will get to know, in an extremely intimate manner, the ways of life of this particular group and the community. Equally, if you think about the work of the ethnographer, the work is supposed to be a sort of temporality of slowness. In other words, you don’t rush around like a mad thing in the field, you just quietly and slowly immerse yourself in the field over this extended time, and get to understand it, get to appreciate it, bit by bit by bit. The third concept was the concept of mobility. And again, it’s important to note that traditional ethnographies or anthropologies are not interested particularly in mobility. So, in movement, other than the movement that occurs within the spaces that are being studied. They’re not interested in people going in and out of these particular spaces, and they’re not even necessarily interested in movement over time, you know, across time. Often these ethnographies are only interested in what’s going on in the time in which people are in the field, and that they’re able to describe what’s happened when they’re there. So they’re not about coming and going; it’s not about the people who are coming in, the route they may take, their travels to and from the particular places they’re in. It’s about what is called the roots of the place in a way: looking deeply into a place, not looking at the connection between these particular spaces and places and other locations, and the movements that might happen between those.

Will Brehm  8:56
These particular tropes have obviously been around for quite some time. And it’s always about achieving this coveted thick description in the analysis or in the description that the ethnographer or anthropologist writes. Do you see this form of ethnography and anthropology alive and well today?

Jane Kenway  9:25
Yes, I think it is, and it is alive. And it is well, it’s extremely well. Although there’s all sorts of things that problematize that, which we can get to if you like. But it is maintained as a sort of sacred form of ethnography. And those particular tropes that I’ve mentioned are understood as the sort of sacred tropes, if you like. And so there is a sort of purest notion of what an ethnography should be, and they’re the keys to it. And people who practice that, and develop what gets called “thick descriptions” are putting out really interesting work. And that work is often very descriptive, very intimate on detail, very engaging in the ways it’s written up. But it is a particular type of ethnography that has been challenged by all sorts of developments in social theory, not just social theory, theory generally – geographical theory, social theory, cultural theory, and so forth. And it’s also been challenged, in part because ethnography has traveled as a method into other disciplines: sociology, education, cultural studies. And those disciplines are asking different sorts of questions and adopting different sorts of practices that aren’t necessarily as pure as the more traditional anthropological purists would like.

Will Brehm  11:11
And this brings us to the work that you’re doing, which you’ve called the multi-sited global ethnography, but that derives from the term multi-sited ethnography. So perhaps the starting point is to dig into this notion of multi-sited ethnography and how it’s different from this purist form of ethnography.

Jane Kenway  11:35
The idea of multi-sited ethnography came from George Marcus, and his key text or key article came out in the mid-1990s, where he put this idea forward. Now he did a whole number of really interesting things in ethnography around similar times where he’s trying to bring contemporary thinking in other fields into the anthropological field, and to look at different ways, not just of conducting ethnography, but also writing ethnography. Hence, he was very interested in the poetics of ethnography, for example. But in terms of multi-sited ethnography, he was engaging with world systems theory and very critical of it. Equally, he was trying to look at the ways in which particular bounded sites may be understood, to use Appadurai’s term actually, as “unbounded” –  how sites might be on the move, as opposed to staying still. How we don’t just go into a particular place and look at a particular thing or a particular set of events, but how we might follow certain things as they move. So the trope that he developed, for which he is extremely famous, is this idea of “following”. So you follow the thing, or you follow the people, or you follow the idea, or you follow the conflict. And in following, you move between sites, you don’t just stay in one site. And as you move, you study the ways in which the thing or the people or the conflict or whatever, have changed in these different sites as you observe them in the process of following. Now, that was his original idea, and a number of people have picked up multi-sited ethnography and taken it in a bunch of different directions. And so there’s a whole set of what I think of second generation multi-sited ethnographers, who will seek to develop the idea, to practice it somewhat differently, to explain what it’s seeking to do and so forth. And what these people have done, who are doing this sort of work, are also looking at not just the question of following, but also saying, well multi-sited ethnography can look at a number of different sites not just because you’re following something, but because you’re interested in the connections between those sites. If you’re doing it in the original way that he talked about, it was you followed something from here to here. But this other way of looking at it suggests you can, at the outset, have multiple sites and then look at how they function as sites in their own right in some ways, but also how the connections between them lead the sites to have commonalities with each other, or differences from with each other. So there’s different manifestations of the ways which multi-sited ethnographies are conducted, and second generation people are the ones who are exploring what these might look like.

Will Brehm  15:01
Let’s return to some of the tropes that anthropology and ethnography works with: the space, the time, the mobility. How do some of these tropes differ in the work of multi-sited ethnography, even though it’s quite a diverse field, as you said?

Jane Kenway  15:22
They work very differently. And this is in part because, with regard to each of those tropes, different say theories of space have emerged or different theories of time have emerged or mobility or whatever, have emerged to problematize these original ways of thinking about about those concepts. So for example, with regard to space, and I noticed you in one of your other discussions, you’ve got a discussion of space which is very extensive, so I won’t attempt to even go that distance. But with regard to space, the space itself is saying to be socially produced. It is seen to be contested. It is seen to be one of those problematic concepts that ethnographers are using coming out of geography. And geographers are problematized not only notions of space, but equally notions of place, and also scale. So because that concept is so nuanced now, ethnographers are trying to think, “Well, what does this mean for the way in which you might think about very, very basic things, such as the notion of the field, for example? What does it mean to go into the field? What does it mean to have a research site?” And do ethnographers themselves actually produce the site? They just don’t go into one, they actually produce the site in the process of designing a project and practicing the research associated with the project. So the other thing about time is that the thing about multi-sided ethnography is not obsessed about the time people spend in the site. More traditional ethnographers or anthropologists will insist that you’ve got to spend a lot of time in the site. And if you don’t, then your work is likely to be superficial, you’re not likely to get sufficient rapport with the people in the field. You’re likely not to develop the sorts of intimacies that are needed to get access to the sort of knowledge and information that you need to get access to. And so time in situ is seen to be one of the most important elements of ethnography. But multi-sited ethnographers challenged that on a range of ground, some of which are about accessing other ways of knowing the site. So for example, it might be that multi-sited ethnographers is much more comfortable with the use of secondary and other sources, or –  I’m sort of losing the thread of my argument here – but they think that it’s not just about the amount of time you spend in the site, it’s partly about the quality of the time you spend in the site. But it’s also about the time you spend with the data that you produce, and with the data produced, what you do with it. So it’s not necessarily so excited about thick description with purely thick and descriptive terms, it’s also about what sort of theories do you bring to bear on the data that you’ve generated. And you don’t need to be spending a lot of time in the field to be to be reading and thinking with that sort of theory. But equally, it might be that you’re researching something where time is experienced differently. So it might be short time, it might be very fleeting, it might be very sudden and brief encounters, in which case, the time you spend in terms of those encounters doesn’t need you to be hanging out there for a long period of time. In terms of mobility, again, it’s useful to get back to Clifford’s idea of routes (as in r-o-u-t-e-s), and one of the most interesting things for us in the project we’re working in is this relationship between these two different types of routes/roots, in the particular site itself, however you’ve defined it, but also what are the implications of the ethnographer’s roots and routes? So, for example, what does it mean if you come from one particular location and study another location? How do your particular roots impact on what you are able to see in the field and what do you have great difficulty in seeing? And equally, how did you travel in order to get into that space? And how does your travel to and from that space impact on the ways in which you engage it? So mobility is central to multi-sited ethnography. And mobility is, if you like, multiply conceived.

Will Brehm  20:47
Right. And I guess now is a good time to turn to your work where you’ve been working with an international team doing the multi-sited global ethnography. So perhaps you should say, you could say something about the project, but particularly about why you included this term “global” into this multi-sited ethnography and what that means to to you and your team.

Jane Kenway  21:06
Yes, well earlier when I mentioned that, yes, there are some people doing very good traditional ethnographies. In studies of elite schools, which is our study, there are a number of really evocative and interesting ethnographies conducted inside individual elite schools. But in looking at them, one of the problems with them, well there were a number of problems with them, that provoked our particular study. One was that they tended to operate with in a sort of “presentism”, so they tended largely to look at these schools within a very narrow slice of time. But equally, they tended to subscribe to what others called “methodological nationalism”. So they would study one school in one country, but then sort of generalize, as if this can be applied to all elite schools in all countries. But the other problem with the literature was that it understood social class and eliteness, and the two terms are obviously different, as national. So it was interested in national class formations, or national elite formations, not in any formations of eliteness, or formations of class, that might be transnational or have occurred over time and space. So these were the problems with the traditional ethnographies in this particular field. And that’s the reason why we produced what we called a multi-sited global ethnography. And just to very quickly describe the project very, very briefly, it involves seven elite schools in seven different countries, and all the countries that the schools are in were part of the former British Empire. And what we were interested in looking at was the ways in which the British model of public schools, which is a model that has traveled all over the world, as the most elite mode of schooling you can get. Was the model of schooling that traveled to the colonies, and was picked up and indigenized in different ways in the different colonies that we looked at, partly because, of course, the colonies themselves were very different and had quite different sort of relationships to the mother country, the so-called mother county, if you like. That was broadly the study, and so we were interested in the ways in which these schools were part of globalizing practices over time. So not just contemporary forms of globalization, but also older forms of globalization. In other words, earlier, colonial times. And the notion of multi-sited ethnography was very, very useful for thinking about these schools as different sites that we could go into. And we could perhaps make some comparisons between, and you know, differences over time and so forth. But nonetheless, it didn’t provide a sufficiently useful conceptual structure to think about the global aspects. And we’re interested in the global aspects, what holds these schools together in these different locations, as well as what might make them distinctive. And that’s why we turned to Burawoy – he’s a sociologist- his colleagues’ ideas of global ethnography. And the key concepts there are global forces, global connections and global imagination. And we brought that to bear upon the idea of multi-sited ethnography. And then we developed a sort of matrix, which allowed us to think about the things that are usually identified in elite schools as contributing to class formation. And these things are questions of identity, and curriculum, and culture, and community, and nation. But how they are potentially globalized when it comes to global forces, global connections, and global imagination.

Will Brehm  25:33
Could you give an example of some of the findings that you’ve uncovered in this multi-year, multi-sited global ethnography that makes this quote unquote “global class” or “global elite” as you followed the British public-school model?

Jane Kenway  25:53
Well, it’s difficult to summarize them and I won’t even try. Because you can imagine, we’ve got the most incredible archive. And I can talk a little bit about some of the practice we adopt as an international team, because one of the interesting features of the study was that involving national team, and maybe we can go down and look at the different ways in which we worked with question. Actually, that might be a way to go: to talk about the different ways in which we worked with space and time and mobility.

Will Brehm  26:25
Okay, yes, so how did your team end up working with those three tropes that have reappeared in ethnography?

Jane Kenway  26:40
Yes. Well, there’s two ways to think about it. One is, what were we looking at with regard to space and time and mobility? And the other one is, what did those things mean for the sorts of ethnographic practices that we adopted? When we thought about space, obviously we thought about the British Empire, so we were very interested in the sorts of education that were provided in England by these public schools and the history of those public schools. But we’re also interested in how, through different processes of colonialism, this model traveled to these different countries, and the ways in which, when they arrived in these different countries, via various carriers of Empire, who included teachers and principals and various other figures. How, when they arrived in the schools, or developed these schools, how did Empire become indigenized? What did the schools and the people in them do with these ideas that traveled into the school? Did they change them? Did they adapt them to the locality? Did they take on board English notions of social class? And so on. So that’s one aspect of space. The other thing with regard to space was the ways in which we thought about the project as multi-scalar. So although we were interested in globalization – the global, the regional and the national – we didn’t want to adopt just a sort of nested notion of scales that is implied in that sort of analysis. So we think about the project as sort of multi-scalar and involving various sorts of scales. So, for example, at the one end of it, we looked very close up at what was going on inside the schools, and we looked at the sorts of borders that were around the schools – the fences and the gates and the sort of border work the schools did in keeping their students in and away from the contagion of them having to associate with so-called “lesser classes”. So we looked at the small scale, but we also looked at things on a broader scale. For example, when we were in Hong Kong, we were interested in the ways in which the boys in the school in Hong Kong thought about the women who worked in their homes. Who in Hong Kong, they’re called maids, as I’m sure you know.

Will Brehm  29:29
Yes, the domestic helpers.

Jane Kenway  29:31
Yes. And we’re interested in that, because it was a class issue, obviously. Because it’s a gender issue. But equally because it involved a form of globalization of care work, where poor women from countries in the Global South usually, travel to countries in the Global North and provide care to wealthy people. And in the process, have to care for their own families at a distance. So we were interested in the ways in which the boys thought about their domestic helpers, and how they understood them; whether they understood them. And like many students in elite schools, they really didn’t understand them at all, just as the students in our other schools didn’t understand the sort of domestic help that they were provided with or the sort of care work that was provided in school by people who were considered manual workers or cleaners or cooks or gardeners or, you know, people on the gates. By and large, these didn’t figure in the horizons of these students. What I’m trying to allude to there is that when we look at these boys’ care workers, these helpers, they’re part of a global supply chain of carers; they’re not just people who are in the locality. So it’s one way of understanding in quite subtle ways, the ways in which the students and the schools are linked to globalization. I mean, that’s just one of a number of examples.

Will Brehm  31:05
And what of time?

Jane Kenway  31:25
In very practical terms, the project was a five-year project, but we were in the schools over three-year period. And we spent roughly three weeks in each school over a period of of three years. And so in terms of time, we were returning to the school; we returned to the school three times. And this is a very unusual thing for ethnography, as I’m sure you know. And traditionalists might say, “Well, you wouldn’t have had a chance to develop the sort of intimacy that we would otherwise have got.” And that may have been the case, although we don’t think it was necessarily the case, it’s a bit surprising how intimacy can happen more quickly, and maybe that’s symptom of our times, who knows. But equally, we also felt it was very beneficial for all sorts of ways. One of them was because, say in the first year, we may have been particularly seduced by a particular practice of the school – we might have been blown away by how impressive it seemed on first glance. Going back a second time, we could see what had happened to certain things. Had they changed? Had they fallen in a heap? Had the sort of shiny gloss dropped away from them so that we were able to see them with a certain sort of distance? And one of the ways we were able to develop that distance was partly because we were going in over time, but also because we were traveling between the schools. So what we saw in one school, we were able to … it provoked us to think about issues and questions with regard to the other schools as well. And one example was when we were in South African school, and I got very interested in an organization called Round Square, to which a number of the elite schools belong; it’s an elite global institution which many schools join as a signifier of status and connection and so forth. And we were able to pick up issues around these global connections – of these global organizations the school belonged to – in part because we were in one place and questions arose that we applied to other places.

Just to step back from the Round Square thing, it also applied to questions of charity. So most of the schools were involved in various forms of charity work, but how these were expressed, and how they were addressed in the schools, varied. But one aspect of them in terms of globalization was the students going to different countries, usually third world countries, to do care work or charity work, or what was called ‘service’ or ‘service learning’. And we were interested in different ways in which that happened across time and across space. In terms of mobility, those comments I’ve just made, was very obvious to us was that the schools were constantly on the move, as were we, and we were very interested in the different ways in which they were on the move. So ideas were coming into them from all over the world. But equally, the teachers were traveling, the principals were traveling, the students were traveling. And it wasn’t just that the students were traveling with regard to the curriculum, various aspects of the curriculum, or the extracurricular work. But also many students were traveling to these schools from other places in the globe. So students, for example, from Hong Kong were traveling to England. Students from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa were traveling to the school in South Africa. And this is an increasingly significant feature of these elite schools – that the students are on the move, and wealthy parents are scouring the globe for schools that might be the best for their children. And so the schools are involved and very active in what we call the “global elite school market”.

Will Brehm  35:39
As you know, this is a podcast for the Comparative and International Education Society, and your project working in those seven different countries is so ripe for comparison. And I just wanted to ask, as a final question, what sort of lessons or ideas did you learn about the idea of, quote unquote, “comparison” doing this multi-year, multi-country study?

Jane Kenway  36:10
Well, the first thing is that comparison, in the usual way it’s often thought about isn’t sufficient. I mean, while it can be extremely interesting comparing this with that, often attempts to explain why this or that are inadequate if they’re nation bound, or if they’re too place bound. What we found really useful was to think about these particular sites, not just as you can compare a school in Australia to a school in Hong Kong to a school in India to a school in Barbados, and not just that you can compare the different ways in which they indigenized the particular colonial project via the public school model. But also how you can look at the connections between these schools, and the forces between sites that might otherwise just be compared. So rather than thinking of it as a study of seven different multiple sites, probably what makes this global and therefore not just comparative in terms of the sites, is that we did bring to the forefront questions of global forces. And there, you know, colonialism, capitalism, market forces, the changing nation state and how that’s changed as a result of contemporary globalization, global connections and how these are manifest and produced in terms of class, class identities and class distinctions, and also global imaginations. And the global imaginations are the ways in which the schools are inventing themselves according to a particular imaginary that they think connects best to future elite formation. So I think if we’d just done a comparative study, what we wouldn’t have been able to do is to look through those three lenses, which required us to ask different questions of what was going on in these particular sites, and which would be absent if you just used a traditional comparison lens between different sides.

Will Brehm  38:37
Well, Jane Kenway, thank you very much for joining FreshEd.

Jane Kenway  38:41
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

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