The Australian Educational Researcher

, Volume 42, Issue 3, pp 353–370 | Cite as

Making trouble: ethnographic designs on ruling relations for students and teachers in non-academic pathways



Since 2009, all Australian states require young people to be ‘earning or learning’ until age 17. Secondary schools and vocational colleges now accommodate students for whom the conventional academic pathways of the past were not designed. The paper reflects on a project designed to explore the moral orders in these institutional settings for managing such students in extended compulsory schooling. Originally designed as classroom ethnographies, the project involved observations over three to four weeks and interviews with teachers and students in five sites in towns experiencing high youth unemployment. The project aimed to support teachers to work productively in such classrooms with such students, under the assumption that teachers orchestrate classroom interactions. However, it became clear events in these classrooms were being shaped by relations and parties above and beyond the classroom, as much as by those present. Teachers and students were observed to both comply with, and push against, the layers of policy and institutional processes regulating their behaviours. This paper re-thinks the original project through the gaze and resources of institutional ethnography, to better account for the layers of accountabilities and documentation practices that impacted on both teacher and student behaviours. By tracing the extended webs of ‘ruling relations’, it shows both how teachers and students could make trouble for the institutional moral order, and then be held accountable for this trouble.


Classroom ethnography Institutional ethnography Compulsory schooling Absenteeism Morality Methodology 


  1. Atkinson, P., & Hammersley, M. (1998). Ethnography and participant observation. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.), Strategies of qualitative inquiry (pp. 110–136). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.Google Scholar
  2. Australian Government. (2007). National Statement on ethical conduct in human research 2007 (updated 2014).Google Scholar
  3. Ball, S., Hoskins, K., Maguire, M., & Braun, A. (2011). Disciplinary texts: A policy analysis of national and local behaviour policies. Critical Studies in Education, 52(1), 1–14. doi:10.1080/17508487.2011.536509.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Burawoy, M. (2009). The extended case method: Four countries, four decades, four great transformations, and one theoretical tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  5. Burgess, R. G. (2012). Autobiographical accounts and research experience. In R. G. Burgess (Ed.), The research process in educational settings: Ten case studies (pp. 251–270). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Burke, P. (2002). Towards a collaborative methodology: An ethnography of widening educational participation. Australian Educational Researcher, 29(1), 115–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Clifford, J. (1988). The predicament of culture: Twentieth century ethnography, literature, and art. Cambridge, MA, & London: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Coffey, A., Holbrook, B., & Atkinson, P. (1996). Qualitative data analysis: Technologies and representations. Sociological Research Online, 1(1), 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Comber, B., & Nixon, H. (2009). Teachers’ work and pedagogy in an era of accountability. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 30(3), 333–345. doi:10.1080/01596300903037069.Google Scholar
  10. Cormack, P., & Comber, B. (2013). High-stakes literacy tests and local effects in a rural school. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 36(2), 78–89.Google Scholar
  11. Demanet, J., & Van Houtte, M. (2012). School belonging and school misconduct: The differing role of teacher and peer attachment. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41(4), 499–514.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. DeVault, M., & McCoy, L. (2006). Institutional ethnography: Using interviews to investigate ruling relations. In D. E. Smith (Ed.), Institutional ethnography as practice (pp. 15–44). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  13. Dharan, V., Meyer, L., & Mincher, N. (2011–2012). At the receiving end: Are policies and practices working to keep students in high schools? New Zealand Annual Review of Education, 21, 119–141.Google Scholar
  14. Diamond, T. (2006). Where did you get the fur coat. Fern? Participant observation in institutional ethnography. In D. E. Smith (Ed.), Institutional ethnography as practice (pp. 45–64). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  15. Education Standards Analysis and Research Division. (2012). Pupil behaviour in schools in England. London.Google Scholar
  16. Eisenhart, M. (2001). Changing conceptions of culture and ethnographic methodology: Recent thematic shifts and their implications for research on teaching. In V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (4th ed., pp. 209–225). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.Google Scholar
  17. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  18. Gilbert, R., & Low, P. (1994). Discourse and power in education: Analysing institutional processes in schools. Australian Educational Researcher, 21(3), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Granite, E., & Graham, L. (2012). Remove, rehabilitate, return? The use and effectiveness of behaviour schools in New South Wales, Australia. International Journal on School Disaffection, 9(1), 39–50.Google Scholar
  20. Hammersley, M. (1990). Classroom ethnography: empirical and methodological essays. Buckingham: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Hammersley, M. (2006). Ethnography: Problems and prospects. Ethnography and Education, 1(1), 3–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Henry, M., Lingard, B., Rizvi, F., & Taylor, S. (2001). The OECD, globalisation and education policy. Oxford: Pergamon.Google Scholar
  23. Lather, P. (2006). Paradigm proliferation as a good thing to think with: teaching research in education as a wild profusion. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 19(1), 35–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Law, J. (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Luke, A. (2003). After the marketplace: Evidence, social science and educational research. Australian Educational Researcher, 30(2), 89–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Luttrell, W. (2000). “Good enough” methods for ethnographic research. Harvard Educational Review, 70(4), 499–523.Google Scholar
  27. Nichols, N., & Griffith, A. (2009). Talk, texts, and educational action: an institutional ethnography of policy in practice. Cambridge Journal of Education, 39(2), 241–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  29. Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B. (2010). Globalizing education policy. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  30. Robers, S., Kemp, J., Rathbun, A., & Morgan, R. E. (2014). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2013 (NCES 2014-042/NCJ 243299). National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  31. Scott, D. (2010). Education, epistemology and critical realism. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. Sikes, P., & Piper, H. (Eds.). (2011). Ethics and academic freedom in educational research. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  33. Skeggs, B. (1999). Seeing differently: Ethnography and explanatory power. Australian Educational Researcher, 26(1), 33–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Smith, D. (1987). The everyday world as problematic: A feminist sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Smith, D. E. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Lanham: AltaMira.Google Scholar
  36. Smith, D. E. (2006a). Introduction. In D. E. Smith (Ed.), Institutional ethnography as practice (pp. 1–11). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  37. Smith, D. E. (2006b). Incorporating texts into ethnographic practice. In D. E. Smith (Ed.), Institutional ethnography as practice (pp. 65–88). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  38. Stones, R. (1996). Sociological reasoning: Towards a past-modern sociology. Houndmills: Macmillan Press.Google Scholar
  39. te Riele, K. (2011). Raising educational attainment: How young people’s experiences speak back to the compact with young Australians. Critical Studies in Education, 52(1), 93–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Teese, R. (2006). Condemned to innovate. Griffith Review, 11. Available:
  41. Thomson, P. (2002). Schooling the rustbelt kids: Making the difference in changing times. Corws Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  42. van Zanten, A. (2011). Ethnography of education around the world. In K. Anderson-Levitt (Ed.), Anthropologies of education: A global guide to ethnographic studies (pp. 303–318). New York: Berghahn Books.Google Scholar
  43. Watson-Gegeo, K. (1988). Ethnography in ESL: Defining the essentials. TESOL Quarterly, 22(4), 575–592.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Watson-Gegeo, K. (1997). Classroom ethnography. In N. Hornberger & D. Corson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of language and education (pp. 135–144). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. Aldershot: Gower.Google Scholar
  46. Willis, P. (2003). Foot solders of Modernity: The dialectics of cultural consumption and the 21st-century school. Harvard Educational Review, 73(3), 390–415.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Wuthnow, R. (1989). Meaning and moral order: Explorations in cultural analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Australian Association for Research in Education, Inc. 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.SCPL, Faculty of EducationQueensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia

Personalised recommendations