Quotidian 1 (December 2009)
Between skipping rope and Eid ul-Fitr: Everyday youth culture in 8th form
Youth culture studies are becoming increasingly rare and the little theorizing that is done consists mostly of conceptual discussions. This article addresses these theoretical and empirical gaps by ethnographically investigating the relationship between context and content of youth culture. Answering the central research question ‘How do how specific, varying school contexts affect the routines and rituals that constitute everyday youth culture at school?’ this article provides a thick description of life in 8th form (groep 8). The study is based on prolonged ethnographic fieldwork at two Amsterdam primary schools: a ‘black’ (predominantly Muslim) and a ‘white’ school, encompassing 55 girls from diverse ethnic backgrounds aged 11-13. The results show how the specific structure of a context (manifested here in the school buildings, the rules etc) is a decisive factor in the content of everyday youth culture. These stable strategics create stable tactics, promoting historical and generational continuity rather than change.
Youth culture studies are becoming increasingly rare. In the 1980s, many Dutch scholars investigated youth cultures (e.g. Ter Bogt 1987; Van Duin 1983; De Waal 1989), an interest to which the then thriving academic journal Jeugd & Samenleving (Youth & Society) also attested. In the 1990s, this interest declined and the cultural perspective on youth culture was replaced by a psychological perspective on individual adolescents. Jeugd & Samenleving stopped and was replaced by a more policy oriented professional journal focusing on problems. In this perspective there is less attention to cultural differences, and, perhaps as a result, Dutch youth cultures were no longer studied. The move from a collective to an individual perspective is also visible in the international literature on youth cultures. After the almost overwhelming research on youth cultures in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) (e.g. Hebdige 1979; Hall and Jefferson 1976), critique on this original approach led to a reformulation of youth cultural theory. Informed by feminist, postcolonial and postmodern insights, the focus shifted from attention to collective expressions of resistance to individual expressions of consumerism (see Muggleton 2000; Bennett 1999; McRobbie 1990). Although some empirical work is done (e.g. Thornton 1995 on club cultures in the UK), most of these current studies on youth culture focus on conceptual discussions such as the applicability and usability of the term ‘subculture’ (see Hesmondhalgh 2005 for an overview). The critique on the CCCS is repetitive and hinders further theorising based on concrete new youth cultures. For example, youth studies acknowledge the importance of location (e.g. Perho 2000; Spaaij 2006; Holt and Griffin 2005) yet fail to theorise the relationship between context and content. To sum up, the literature on youth cultures suffers from both an empirical and theoretical gap.
In this article, I aim to understand how context affects content of youth cultures. I investigate youth culture in the specific context of the school, which, simply in terms of time spent, takes precedence over leisure sphere contexts such as sports, meetings or parties. Furthermore, the social life of most youngsters consists of school friends (Duits 2008). I chose to investigate 8th form, when pupils are on average twelve years old. The period of youth has become prolonged in the last decades (Kehily 2007) and twelve-year olds are now already considered part of youth. This age group is also remarkable because puberty with all its biological changes has just started or is around the corner. In the Netherlands, 8th form or groep 8 is the final year of primary school, after which pupils leave the familiar primary school womb. The year is marked by the CITO-test and other preparations for secondary school. The central research question is: How do specific, varying school contexts affect the routines and rituals that constitute everyday youth culture at school? Before explaining the methods employed to answer this question, I discuss the notion of everyday life, in order to frame this research question and to formulate two sub-questions that further guide this study.
The study of everyday life requires a micro perspective. In the nineteenth century, social and historical researchers developed an interest in ‘ordinary’ people moving away from a macro perspective on society (Löfgren 2002). As Löfgren rightly remarks, the study of everyday life is more a research ideology than a perspective, analytical tool or empirical field. Theorists of everyday life argue that studying the banal and the ordinary can produce great insights into larger social and cultural issues, and they have therefore focused on the interactions between the micro and the macro (see Sandywell 2004 for an overview of perspectives). Here, I use the framework Michel de Certeau developed in his The practice of everyday life (1984).
De Certeau aims to produce methods and conceptual tools that allow the articulation of everyday practices. Central to his framework are strategic and tactical entities. Strategics are places of power and authority, such as an institution. They operate through imposing order in certain spaces. In his reading of De Certeau, Fiske discusses a landlord to explain the strategic:
‘The landlord provides the building within which we dwell, the department store our means of furnishing it, and the culture industry the texts we ‘consume’ as we relax within it. But in dwelling in the landlord's place, we make it into our space; the practices of dwelling are ours, not his.’ (Fiske 1989, 33)
The landlord is a subject of will and power that, in a way, ‘sets the scene’ for the individual users, who then has to make do with this space (De Certeau 1984, xix). These uses/users are tactics. They have no power, no space, but instead ‘insinuate’ themselves into strategic spaces. A study of the everyday must thus start with an investigation of space. My first sub-question is: What are the spaces in which 8th form everyday youth culture takes form? To De Certeau, many everyday practices (he gives the examples of reading, shopping, cooking) are tactical. Investigating daily practices has long been the domain of ethnography. It involves submergence into a particular culture, taking in traditions, habits, routines and rituals. My second sub-question is: What are the routines and rituals of 8th form?
Dutch society is becoming increasingly multicultural. In 2005, about fifteen per cent of Dutch youngsters between 11 and 13 were of non-Western origin (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek 2004). I conducted a multi-sited ethnographic study at two Amsterdam primary schools with 55 pupils from diverse ethnic backgrounds. The two schools had distinct populations, where one school qualified as ‘black’ and the other as ‘white’. The multi-site approach allowed me to approach native and non-native Dutch pupils not as distant others, but as equal parts of contemporary Dutch culture (Marcus 1995; Wacquant 2004). Furthermore, adding one or more sites to an ethnography provides extra empirical grounding for a study (Nadai and Maeder 2005).
Participant observation at the Gunningschool started in November 2005 and lasted eight months. The observation at the Kantlijn started in February 2006 and lasted six months. At each school, I spent two days a week in class. I attended the Gunningschool on Mondays and Tuesdays, but switched days when I started attending the Kantlijn to sample days and events. I positioned myself as a helpful and friendly ‘grown up girl’: not exactly one of them, but not a teacher either (cf. Mandell 1988). I arrived with the students and left when they did, participated in all activities and entered conversations. I openly took notes, which I elaborated after school hours. In June and July 2006, I conducted in-depth interviews with all 55 pupils. Asking informal questions was part of the participant observation, but the more formalised interviews allowed for a different perspective. The interviews were fully transcribed and, together with the field notes, subjected to qualitative data analysis based on the coding guidelines of the grounded theory approach (see Duits 2008 for an elaborate discussion of method). Together, the analyses provide a thick description of everyday youth culture in 8th form, meaning they give a detailed account of a specific social setting that can be transferred to other findings (Geertz 1973; see also Bryman 2004).
The Gunningschool was a Christian primary school in a disadvantaged neighbourhood in one of Amsterdam’s western garden cities. The school profiled itself in its school guide as a ‘meeting place’ where ‘equivalence’ was a central value. The emphasis on difference was further reflected in the school’s motto ‘Colourful with an eye for difference’. The school indeed had a colourful, yet homogeneous population. In 8th form, all but two pupils were of non-Western descent (one Dutch, one Portuguese). All Turkish and Moroccan pupils indicated they were Muslim, making seventy percent of the class Muslim. The advertised eye for difference was missing in the school’s other communications. For instance, the monthly newsletters did not feature news about the pupils or multicultural holidays such as Suikerfeest [Eid ul-Fitr]. Instead, the teachers expressed their annoyance over the varying dates of it. The arrival of the new moon marks the end of Ramadan, and therefore the exact date differs in different countries of origin. This meant teachers did not know when pupils would be home for celebrations. Their annoyance signals a loss of strategic power.
The second school, the Kantlijn, was a public school in one of the late nineteenth century neighbourhoods. Although considered a black school up until about ten years ago, by now the school, like the neighbourhood, has whitened. Only five pupils in 8th form were of non-Western descent (two Turkish, three Indian/Surinamese-Indian). The Kantlijn profiled itself in its school guide as a neighbourhood school that emphasizes children’s own experience. The school believed this was important ‘because the world pupils learn about, is their own world, which means family – neighbourhood – school’. The school collaborated with organisations in the neighbourhood, such as after-school care clubs and the library, and in September 2006, it officially became a Brede School (Community School). In the Kantlijn’s communications, pupils and parents played an active and central role, and community was highlighted.
Buildings and classrooms
The two buildings and respective classrooms had distinct looks and feels. The Gunningschool stood in a quiet, residential area. The school shared the grounds and the gymnasium with a special education secondary school. The school grounds were fenced, and only opened when school started or ended. There was one large playground with a sandbox. The school installed a slide at the end of the 2005-2006 year. Steps led up to the main entrance, providing a podium overlooking the playground. The building had two levels: the younger children were upstairs, and the older pupils downstairs. Downstairs was also a larger, open area known as de ruimte (the space) that functioned as an auditorium. Staff members not responsible for teaching a form had their own small offices throughout the school.
The Kantlijn’s original building was renovated in my fieldwork year. The temporary building was located at ten minutes walking distance from the original location, in the same neighbourhood. Both buildings were just off busy streets, bustling with traffic and shoppers. The temporary building was an old-fashioned school building, with a small playground at the back of the school. The renovated building, attached to a public library, gymnasium, and after-school facilities, had two unfenced playgrounds. The largest playground had football nets, a sandbox and a playhouse. In both buildings, older years were upstairs. The new building had several small spaces, where pupils could work in groups outside the classroom. Non-teaching staff members also had their own offices throughout the school.
At the Gunningschool, the 8th form teacher Thomas’s classroom had clearly been in use for a while. Every inch was occupied and many items in the room appeared to have been there for some time. The posters’ duct tape was coming off the walls; bookshelves had boxes with never used booklets; the linoleum was worn-out; at the back of the room was a table with four stacked computers, of which not even Thomas knew whether they worked; dusty, wooden games rested on top of the cupboards; one of the TL-lights was broken; and along one side of the room were stacks of old paper. The tables and chairs were old and used, and none were alike. Some were light brown, others almost black. Each table had a sticker with the pupils’ name on it. Chairs were numbered, and lists with corresponding names hung on both sides of the room. Pupils always found their own chair and refused to use someone else’s. Each table had two plastic drawers that held pens, paper and other small things. Next to the pupils’ own tables, two tables stood at the back where they could sit to correct their work. There was another corner with three functioning computers. At the front was a washbasin, and at the back an aquarium. Girls and boys did not sit together. Tables were grouped in three rows of two tables each, facing the three-pane blackboard. One pane had been made into a week schedule with red tape, and Thomas wrote down homework assignments here. On the back wall were two large, hanging cupboards where all text and notebooks were kept. Nine printouts hung on the inner windows, featuring the ‘golden rules’ of the Gunningschool. A sign by the blackboard instructed pupils to ‘stop the bullying’. There were two series of self-made artwork.
At the Kantlijn, tables were grouped in sets of five or six and these groups were positioned around the teacher’s central desk. Boys and girls sat together and pupils faced each other rather than the teacher. At the back was a corner with a bookcase and pillows on the floor. The room had a small blackboard upon which pupils drew and teacher Luck seldom wrote. The room had a stereo set, a television with DVD-player and one computer. Around the blackboard on the wall was a drawing of two candles and a Christmas wreath. There were three large frames with photomontages of Luck’s former pupils. One wall featured professional photographs of this year’s pupils, framed in yellow cardboard. Pupils used the walls near to their tables to put up notes. Tables did not belong to pupils, instead pupils ‘owned’ their drawers.
Routines and rituals
The pupils of 8th form of primary school the Kantlijn kept going to the toilets together. Being out of class was an excellent opportunity to escape teacher’s supervision. Teacher Luck repeatedly forbade this and announced that if two or more of the same sex were caught together in the toilets, the other sex was to make a childish hat for the others. Although the pupils took this warning seriously, in the end two girls got caught. After extensive deliberation, the boys decided to make a long, conical hat out of pink cardboard. On the side were strings of toilet paper. On top was a cut out pink pig with the text ‘I am Miss Piggy’, a brown turd and the text ‘I am a toilet princess’. When the boys were making the hat, the girls felt awful about the prospect of wearing it, saying they definitely did not want to be seen in it. However, when the hat was finished, one girl volunteered to wear it. She showed it to her seven-year-old sister and made fun of herself. After that, the girls made a complete show out of wearing the hat to the toilets. One girl waited especially until right before school ended, so that the parents and pupils in the hallways could have, in her words, ‘the time of their life’.
In 8th form, pupils occupy an in-between position, between child and teenager. Their sentimentality about leaving primary school and their preparation for secondary school are incorporated in the routines and rituals of 8th form school life. This is addressed in the following description of a normal day.
Both schools started at 8.30. At the Gunningschool, pupils of all years gathered in the schoolyard. The girls of the 8th form avoided being the first one in the yard, preferring to wait by the fence until they spotted a classmate. Boys’ behaviour was more straight-forward, as they would just start playing football. The girls never joined their male classmates, and social outsiders were avoided. They had to wait by themselves until an ally entered. Who stands with whom was important. Although most girls had three close friends in class, cliques existed. The Gunningschool knew a distinction between popular and non-popular. The popular girls bullied one particular girl in this form, because she – in their words – snitched to teacher Thomas. The before school rituals revealed the hierarchy between the girls. Standing alone was to be avoided, but when a ‘better’ classmate arrived, a girl swiftly moved across the yard to stand with her. Usually, the popular girls reigned the conversations, whereas the less popular girls kept an open face and nodded a lot. The girls stood closely together, almost on top of each other, but made room for newcomers to enter the circle. Two janitors supervised from the top of the stairs, and sometimes shouted instructions to pupils and parents. The pupils were not allowed in the yard before 8.15; early arrivals needed to wait outside the fence. The pupils could only enter the building when the bell rang. Most juniors were brought by their mothers or the occasional father. Seniors, and especially eight-formers, came alone or with their friends. Two bells signalled the start of school. The first was the cue for the juniors, the second for the seniors. As the pupils entered the class, Thomas stood by the door and welcomed them. Lessons then started straight away.
At the Kantlijn, the pupils immediately entered the building and waited in their classrooms. Most parents brought their children, even their eight-formers, inside the classroom. Some parents waited for Luck to arrive, to ask questions or give instructions. When they left, they kissed their offspring, who were greatly embarrassed about that. Before school, the Kantlijn-pupils took a seat or stood together talking. Girls often mixed with boys. As this class was more inclusive, no one was left out, although some had their preferences. Here too, the girls stood close and they often touched each other. Sometimes the pupils turned on music, or practiced a dance. The pupils kept several of their own mixed CDs in class. The music ranged from top-40 hits to pop classics (e.g. California love by Tupac feat. Dr.Dre). Luck was usually late, which the pupils happily remarked upon. He started the day with a class conversation of matters at hand, such as whose parents could drive to school football.
At the Gunningschool, the curriculum mostly consisted of arithmetic and reading. Thomas usually gave a collective instruction, and the pupils worked individually or in small groups on their tasks as Thomas moved through the classroom to answer questions. The pupils were divided in A, B and C levels, where C level stood for an arithmetic level equal to 5th form. Only a few pupils were coded A, the arithmetic level equal to 8th form. Pupils were addressed by these labels, and they constantly nagged teacher Thomas to promote them to a higher level. A lesson lasted around twenty minutes, after which another subject was turned to. Through a weekly rotating schedule, two pupils functioned as classroom assistants (klasse-assistant), distributing books and notebooks for the next lesson. The pupils considered this to be break time and started chatting. Thomas aimed to keep the class quiet at all time, except during fun activities. He used an intricate punishment scheme where each incident landed the offender five minutes of detention. As verbal communication was hindered, pupils communicated through passing notes. This was a secretive and dangerous operation, although the messages were usually innocent (‘how are you?’).
At the Kantlijn, Luck hardly ever taught the group collectively, and instead, pupils who were at the same level sat in groups and helped each other. Luck introduced tasks by connecting them to the pupils’ lived experiences. For instance, a reading comprehension assignment about gusts of wind was introduced by asking who had ever encountered such a gust. The pupils often worked on dissimilar topics, almost as in the Montessori Method. Luck set out the tasks for the week, and the pupils decided for themselves which task they did first, with Luck available for questions and corrections. Whilst working, the class was noisy and instead of collaborating, the pupils often just chatted. Moreover, Luck often left the class. At these times, the pupils were loud for a bit, but settled to their work after a few minutes. Punishment was rare at the Kantlijn, and Luck preferred either talking to the violator or a frivolous solution instead.
Opening of the week
The Christian Gunningschool opened the week with a bible story. Each Monday, after they had worked for about half an hour, principal Wouda summoned the teacher to bring his pupils to ‘the space’. The pupils of the 6th, 7th and 8th forms had to wait and enter separately. Wouda, or one of the teachers, read a story from a children’s bible, after which the pupils sang up to three biblical songs, accompanied by Wouda on the piano. The teachers of the three forms stood at the side to police the event. The pupils misbehaved in every way they could, from purposely choosing the wrong seat to kicking the seat in front. On an occasion when lip-synching was punished, the pupils reverted to singing very loudly. Wouda’s response was: ‘enthusiasm is nice, but it cannot get too disorderly’. The teachers had a hard time keeping order, which resulted in sending pupils back to class as punishment. Often, the opening of the week resulted in the collective punishment of shortened playtime.
The week was ritually opened at the Kantlijn by discussing the weekend. Luck asked the class if anyone ‘had been up to something’ over the weekend. The pupils volunteered their stories and the others listened intently. A typical discussion about the weekend lasted over half an hour. The stories often connected and seemed to have been thought up associatively: when one mentioned redecorating her bedroom, others volunteered comparable stories. Below is a summary of the stories told on Monday 6 March 2006:
- Ramin went to see his grandfather and played outside.
- Lars visited the garden house and played in the snow.
- Sophie slept over at Roos’s on Friday. On Saturday she went with her parents and their friends to a bungalow park and swam.
- Odecia slept over at her grandmother’s and went to the movies, she saw Nanny McFee. Sunday she went out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant.
- (Luck starts a discussion about Chinese food, and pak-choi cabbage in particular.)
- Katia went to see Max with Maud.
- Sophie went to see Max with Roos.
- (Discussion turns into a discussion about how Max was recovering from his operation.)
- Thijs’ older brother came for dinner.
- Björn’s mother had her birthday yesterday and people came to visit.
- Marisol slept over at Mickey’s. They talked about out-of-body experiences the whole time and that was scary.
- Noa went to the movies with her neighbour and saw The Pink Panther. It was fun. Noa’s grandfather died last week.
- Mickey saw The Pink Panther with her mother. At first she thought it wasn’t a nice movie, but later it was.
- Maud took photos for the project, but not many.
- Thirza went horseback riding, and afterwards to a friend in Friesland.
- (Luck starts a discussion about feeling bad for the horses.)
- Mehmet went to Arabic school on Saturday.
At 9.30 at the Gunningschool, and 10.15 at the Kantlijn, it was time for break. Before they went outside to play, the pupils enjoyed food (e.g. cookies or a sandwich) and a drink (e.g. a carton of juice). During the break inside, the pupils formed little groups. Again, at the Kantlijn these groups were mostly mixed, whereas at the Gunningschool the four cliques formed. Food was often shared as a token of affection or friendship. After ten minutes, the pupils went outside to play. At the Gunningschool this was clear-cut: the boys played football and the girls skipped. The unpopular girls rarely joined in with the skipping. Although they claimed they did not want to when I asked them about it, the decision was never theirs. Instead, they were forced to stand by themselves or play with the 7th formers. At the Kantlijn, the playground was small and most pupils flocked together. They played catch, shot marbles, or just stood and talked. Some games were popular for a while, such as the movie title crossing game. The person designated as ‘it’ provided a letter of the alphabet, to which the other participants had to shout out a movie title starting with that letter before being allowed to cross. When year 8 was outside at the same time as the small children, the pupils often played with them, pushing them around on their small bikes. However, here too only outsiders played with the 7th formers.
Morning breaks were also the times when birthdays were celebrated. Birthday celebrations had been ritualised since kindergarten and consisted of treating the classmates and teachers. The birthday boy or girl chose two friends and they went round the other years together. At the Gunningschool, teachers stuck a sticker on a card provided by the principal. At the Kantlijn, teachers gave a small present, like a hair clip or a notebook. In class, the other pupils sang a birthday song before they enjoyed their treat. In my eight months at the Gunningschool, only two pupils from year 8 celebrated their birthday. At the Kantlijn, everybody celebrated his/her birthday in class.
In the Netherlands, most primary schools close for lunch. For children who cannot go home, schools arrange a special lunch programme, known as overblijven (stay on). This programme, carried out by volunteers, exists outside school regulation but nevertheless takes place at school. At the Gunningschool, only two or three 8th form pupils stayed on. Most mothers (and some fathers) stayed at home and had lunch with their children, other pupils spent lunch by themselves. At the Kantlijn, the majority of pupils stayed on at school during lunch. When school ended at twelve, Luck left the pupils in the care of two, semi-permanent overblijfkrachten (stay-on workers). The pupils had their brought in lunch, after which the group went outside. At the renovated school, the pupils used the school’s playground during lunch. In the temporary building, the junior pupils used the schoolyard, and years 7 and 8 usually went to a nearby public playground with a street-football field and playground equipment. During the walk over there, the girls usually hopped, singing either a pop song or a nursery rhyme. Often some pupils refused to go outside, wanting to stay in the classroom to listen to music or hang out. Playing sometimes got out of hand and accidents happened, for instance, one girl broke her arm when she was pushed off the merry-go-round.
The Gunningschool resumed at 13.15, the Kantlijn at 13.00. Waiting for school to start in the afternoon functioned similarly as the above reading of waiting in the morning, with the exception that the Kantlijn-pupils who had stayed-on, entered together. Afternoons had no formal breaks and the two hours were a long time for the pupils. Thomas solved this problem with a fun activity, like drawing or crafts. Luck often let the pupils go outside for extra playtime. Afternoons were generally more relaxed than mornings, with fewer tasks and hence more opportunities for talk and fun. Many afternoons at the Kantlijn were filled with changing the ways the pupils sat in class, a time-consuming activity the pupils loved (exactly for that reason).
School ended at 15.15 at the Gunningschool with a bell. Classroom assistants stayed behind to clean the room, whilst pupils with detention stayed in class to read. Outside, the janitor sent lingering pupils home. The Kantlijn stopped at 15.00, which was announced by the noise coming out of other classes. Detention and class duties did not exist and the pupils left the classroom, although some hung around to ask Luck questions.
Pupils had physical education twice a week at The Gunningschool and once a week at the Kantlijn. It is nowadays compulsory in the Netherlands that a separate teacher teaches physical education. At the Kantlijn, special teachers also taught handicrafts and English, and a special music teacher taught for several weeks, as part of a music project. This school also participated in a photography project of a local youth theatre. All Amsterdam primary schools participate in Museumles (museum lessons). The municipality organises weekly visits to the city’s diverse museums, where a guide shows pupils around. The Gunningschool only participated once every two years and clustered 7 and 8 years. The years always went by bus, accompanied by volunteer parents and teachers to keep the groups in check.
As the Kantlijn was located closer to the city centre, we often walked to the museum without extra supervision. Furthermore, both schools participated in the yearly Kunstschooldag (Art school day), when concert halls, theatres and museums have a special programme for children.
The end of primary school is celebrated in most Dutch schools by play or musical. The Gunningschool brought a musical called Chewing gum gangsters. Thomas started practice in March, but cancelled the musical in May because the pupils continuously misbehaved during rehearsals. Instead, the boys and the girls practised a dance they performed for their classmates and the other teachers. The girls chose Buttons, a song by the then popular The Pussycat Dolls. They had about six practice sessions without Thomas’ supervision, which they considered a privilege. Practice was a constant struggle over who was allowed to speak and who was allowed to show the moves, particularly between Consolacion, leader of the popular girls, and Aliye, the most experienced dancer. The girls copied all the sensual and sexually provocative moves, from opening and crossing legs to running hands over their breasts. Nonetheless, the dancing was shy, awkward and unfinished.
The Kantlijn (i.e. Luck with much input from the pupils) invented their own play, entitled School of the future. A face on a monitor had replaced the traditional teacher, and the pupils were sucked into this, ending up in a computer game. They had to play levels in order to escape. The play featured many dances and winked at the idea of the Brede School. Preparations for the Kantlijn’s final play started in June and took up most of the school hours until the end of year. This meant rehearsals that lasted all with pupils receiving very little education (in the strict sense).
This article investigated how specific, varying school contexts affect the routines and rituals that constitute everyday youth culture at school. It has provided a thick description of life in 8th form, locating everyday youth culture between skipping rope (tactic) and Eid ul-Fitr (strategic). The two studied schools differed greatly. The closed playground of the Gunningschool versus the open, community building of the Kantlijn corresponds with the different images the schools conveyed, where ownership of the school laid with faculty and the community respectively. The classroom at the Gunningschool addressed the pupils as students with duties. The classroom at the Kantlijn was less of an educational space than it was a meeting place, where pupils and teacher Luck lived together. With a strong focus on conventional learning, the climate at the Gunningschool was best described as an educational culture. The Kantlijn, on the other hand, was best typified as a gezelligheidscultuur (convivial culture). The strong emphasis on special activities at the Kantlijn corresponds with the school’s emphasis on experience and learning about the world. The Gunningschool assigned less time to such activities. Thomas told me he needed all the time he had to teach the basic skills. The differences between the two schools exceed the black/white dichotomy. Not all black schools are as strict as the Gunningschool, nor were all teachers at the Kantlijn as easygoing as Luck. However, this article did show the black/white dichotomy in action.
With all time focused on teaching basic skills, the Gunningschool-pupils were not only missing out on fun, they also lacked training in what can be labelled as middle-class skills of personal reflection and self-awareness. Thus, in response to the research question, the study shows how the specific structure of a context (manifested here in the school building, the rules etcetera) is a decisive factor in the content of everyday youth culture.
In addition, the focus on strategic spaces has brought to the fore that stable strategics create stable tactics, promoting historical and generational continuity rather than change. Contemporary life at school is structured by a number of routines and rituals that, despite their contextual and historical situatedness, defy change. Tactics are the ways pupils ‘make do’ with strategics and although times and teachers change, tactics have remained more or less the same over time. However, depictions of Dutch youth culture in mass media generally portray contemporary youths as fundamentally different to previous generations, for instance by characterising them as the digital generation or as breezersletjes (breezer sluts). My analysis shows that life at school has remained basically the same (cf. De Waal 1989), despite large societal trends such as multiculturalism and digitalisation. Pupils learn from their teacher and from books, and in between lessons they prefer to talk with each other rather than play on the computer. During breaks, pupils go outside, where they spend time with each other shooting marbles and skipping rope.
The theoretical contribution of this article, i.e. the application of De Certeau’s strategic practices to youth culture, warrants more attention to the ways such practices produce inequalities, in terms of gender, ethnicity or other identity axes. A historical and comparative perspective might prove particularly helpful in the disentanglement of this production of difference. Through its empirical contribution, this article also intervenes in societal debates about youth. I have drawn from methods common to anthropology that favour a holistic perspective on culture. Furthermore, the conceptual tools from De Certeau bring a notion of power into the analysis, a notion that (often) lacks in marketing descriptions or psychological investigations. To quote Marx’ famous words: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’ (Marx 1852, 10). The same applies to contemporary youth culture.
1. This article is an adaptation of chapter 5 in Duits (2008).
1. This article is an adaptation of chapter 5 in Duits (2008).
2. Reasons for this decline are beyond the scope of this article, but see Duits & Van Zoonen (2009) for a discussion of the similar decline in empirical girls’ studies.
3. The key difference between primary and secondary school in the Netherlands is the division of pupils into separate levels. The CITO-test, a nationally used, standardised placement exam, determines the level of secondary education.
4. The routines and rituals are ‘socially established activity patterns that teachers and students pursue’ (Bromme 2002, 15462). Although they are result of pupil and teacher interaction, they are practices relative to the imposed strategic space.
5. Schools are referred to as ‘black’ when more than half of the school’s population is of non-Western origin (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek 2007, 20), although these terms are clearly contested.
6. The names of the schools, the teachers and the pupils are fictitious.
7. The Kantlijn returned to the renovated building in June 2006. Due to the end-of year play (see below), this classroom was hardly ever used. I therefore focus on the classroom in the temporary building.
8. The stay-on programme at the Kantlijn suffered the problems Van Daalen (2005) describes. As the programme is organised outside of school, these workers had no formal authority or means of punishment over the pupils.
9. This is an institutionalised ritual, and schools can buy different musicals including script and songs. See for instance www.jingo.nl/?page=musicals.
10. Today’s youth has been labelled the internet generation (Livingstone and Bober 2005), or varieties thereof. For instance, on a marketing weblog (youngmarketing.web-log.nl/youngmarketing/2006/07/generatie_etike.html) we can find today’s youth termed ‘cut & paste generation’ (i.e. the first generation that combines styles to express their identities), the ‘thumb generation’ (i.e. the first generation to have the thumb as is the strongest finger due to all the text messaging), and the ‘my media generation’ (i.e. the first, global generation that can customise (‘personalise’) their world).
11. A 2006 report from the Dutch Health Service suggested girls were having sex in exchange for gifts like a CD or a breezer (a fruit-flavoured rum drink). The term breezersletje (i.e. a girl that can be easily seduced to sex) became part of daily language and even made its way into Van Dale’s leading dictionary.
Linda Duits is Assistant Professor in qualitative methods of communication research at the Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam. She obtained her PhD in 2008 with Multi-girl-culture: An ethnography of doing identity (Vossiuspers/Amsterdam University Press, 2008). Her research focuses on youth cultures and has been published in, amongst others, The European Journal of Cultural Studies and The European Journal of Women’s Studies.
Address: Universiteit van Amsterdam, Kloveniersburgwal 48 1012 CX Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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