In line with the theoretical framework explicated above, this paper adopts a feminist post-structuralist epistemological perspective. In other words, ‘reality’ is understood as relational and socially constructed through discourse. However, we do not take a strong relativist position, in which all competing accounts and interpretations of reality are accorded an equal ‘weight’. Rather we adopt a weak relativist epistemology, drawing on an intersectional feminist political commitment to what Susan Bordo (1990) termed ‘baseline realities’, that enables us to identify, name and challenge inequalities such as sexism, racism and classism (as ‘real’), while also recognising the social construction and performance of racialized, gendered and classed identities and inequalities. From this perspective, reality is understood as socially constructed, but some discursive constructions and performances are recognised as being more powerful (e.g. oppressive or liberatory) than others. Moreover, from this position, we conceptualise the effects of inequalities as being experienced in ‘real’ (discursive and materially meaningful) ways.
The data reported in this paper were generated over the course of a 9 months research and development programme that was conducted with nine teachers from six inner London schools as part of a longer, 5 years Enterprising Science study. The wider study comprised a partnership between universities (University College London and King’s College London), the Science Museum and the funder (BP). The wider project involved three main, different strands of work but findings reported in this paper came from the research arm of the third strand, which sought to examine the social and cultural factors that shape student engagement with science within classrooms. Three of the participating schools (Coleville, Mareton and Northfields—all pseudonyms) are state-run, co-educational schools which, at the time of the researcher, recorded within ± 20% of the GCSE results of other schools within their local area (GCSE’s (General Certificate of Secondary Education) are series of exams students take in the UK when they are 16). The schools had relatively high proportions of students who spoke English as a second language and were registered as eligible for free school meals, compared to other schools in the same region. Schools were purposively sampled to include high proportions of from communities that are traditionally under-represented in science and who have lower levels of ‘science capital’—a concept that we have previously developed and described elsewhere (Archer et al. 2015a, b). In each of these three schools we worked with two teachers who taught at least one class in the 11–16 age range (Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4). The other three participating teachers, who taught at three different schools, had all taken part in a professional development course that had been conducted in one of the two preceding years, as part of one of the earlier phases of the project (details of which can be found in King et al. 2015). These teachers had all expressed an interest in being involved with future phases of the project. Details on the participating teachers and their classes are provided in Table 1.
As detailed in Table 1, the sample comprised a spread of year groups (1 × Y7 class, 3 × Y8, 3 × Y9 and 2 × Y10) and attainment (set or track) groupings (4 × bottom set, 2 × middle set and 3 × top set). With the exception of students in Ms. Smith’s school, students were predominantly from working-class and a range of minority ethnic communities. The most frequently spoken languages across the student sample were Urdu, Bengali, Turkish, Polish and Portuguese.
In this paper we draw primarily on data from field notes of classroom observations and discussion groups with students. Fieldwork was conducted by the research team (who are listed as paper authors), all of whom are middle-class women and of whom four are White British, two are White European, one is White American and one is British Chinese. Our conceptual position rejects any simplistic distinction between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ (insider/outsider) positions within ethnographic fieldwork. Following Nancy Naples (2003, p. 8), who argues that ‘ethnographers are never fully outside or inside the ‘community’’, we understand power relations between researchers and participants as complex and negotiated, ‘flowing’ in myriad ways during any research encounter, albeit with the overall balance of power tending to remain in favour of the researcher, who predominantly has the privilege of framing, interpreting and representing the research process. Our intersectional approach also complicates any simplistic notion of researcher–participant ‘matching’ (e.g. by intersections of gender, ethnicity, social class, age, region, dis/ability, and so forth). Although we recognise that differences in the (multiple) structural positionings and experiences between researchers and participants will inevitably have implications for the social construction of the research process and the interpretations and knowledge produced. While there is no simple or fixed formula that determines, as Diane Reay puts it, what differences our differences make within the research process, we agree that it is useful for researchers to reflect on the potential implications of the knowledge and interpretations we produce, not least with regard to the representation of Others (see discussion).
Working in classrooms
Each class was observed by one or two researchers over the 9 months period (September 2015 to June 2016). Researchers attended classes approximately every 2–3 weeks over this period. Researchers typically sat at the back or the side of the classroom and recorded field notes either by hand (using pen and paper) or on a lap top computer or iPad. Observations were guided by an ethnographic-inspired approach, attempting to capture ‘rich’ descriptions of the classrooms, including how students behaved, what they were doing during the lesson, what they said, how they interacted with the teacher and peers and whether they appeared to be engaged with particular aspects of the lesson, or not. While we did not use a formal ‘check list’, the research team did spend time before the observations discussing the various aspects of the classroom that we might want to capture and our understandings of what constitute ‘thick’ descriptions. For instance, we agreed, where possible, to try to capture group dynamics (e.g. which students we interpreted as being more or less dominant), bodily gestures and movements, facilitation from teachers and the content of student discussions as well as other events of note. Given the complexity that we were seeking to capture, we also tried, where possible, to have two researchers in the room (one focusing on the teacher and one focusing on the students), in order to generate as rich field notes as possible and to allow for us to explore differences in interpretation between researchers.
In this paper, we present and discuss our researcher-led interpretations of what we observed and what teachers and students from these classes told us in interviews and discussion groups about their experiences. This is not to imply that we are adopting a positivist position, whereby we accord our interpretations the status of being a window on some objective reality. Nor do we follow a strong relativist position of seeking to elicit and present (without researcher interpretation) a range of participant-driven articulations of their experiences in these classes. Rather, we adopt a sociological analytic approach, which formulates a theoretically-informed/driven interpretation of both our observations and the experiential accounts of participant teachers and students that were produced by the socially constructed research process. The goal of this interpretive exercise is to identify and unpick some workings of power that we feel may have social justice implications. For instance, our approach means that we may accord a different value to one set of performances and articulations (e.g. those that we, as researchers, interpret as ‘sexist’) compared to another set. Moreover, our interpretations may not accord with the views of all our participants (e.g. some students recounted experiencing these particular performances as oppressive, whereas others, but notably those performing them, did not). However, we offer our interpretations as ‘just’ interpretations, albeit interpretations that attempt a degree of transparency in that they make explicit the conceptual assumptions that have been brought to bear within their construction.
Towards the end of the field work period (April–May 2016) 13 discussion groups were conducted with 59 students—see Table 2. The aim of these groups was to elicit students’ experiences and views on their science classes and on our emergent analytic themes. For instance, we identified particular examples from the lessons and asked the students for their views and experiences of these—such as, what they had thought of this topic and the way it was framed, what they had liked or disliked about it. We also asked which students they considered to be a ‘science person’, or not, and the reasons why. We also asked about student participation within classes (e.g. do all students contribute equally in class, or not?) and specifically probed for students’ views on gender dynamics, which included asking students’ views on some of our specific interpretative observations (for instance, where we had noticed that girls tended to speak less often and less confidently in a specific class). Although we sought to conduct discussion groups with each teacher’s class, this was not possible in every instance. Discussion groups were conducted in a quiet space, usually an empty classroom, during class time and varied in length between 20 min and 1 h, depending on the time available. Potential student discussion group participants were identified and grouped by teachers, dependent on parental consent to participate.
Consent for student and teacher participation was obtained from school managers and personal consent was obtained from all teachers prior to the commencement of fieldwork. Parental and student consent was obtained to collect, report and use the data for participating students. While we made efforts to obtain informed consent (e.g. taking time to explain the research process to students and making clear how their data would be used and treated) it should be noted that very few students had prior experience of much knowledge of social scientific research and some students had to interpret the forms for their parents. While we did seek to use the teacher interviews and the student discussion groups to share—and get participants’ views on—our emerging interpretations, the timings and scope of the project precluded any meaningful attempts to co-construct knowledge with participants. Hence authorial power remained with us, as researchers, and the interpretations we offer are made from our partial and privileged perspective as researchers.
In line with our theoretical framework, we understand identity performances as combining talk, gestures, embodiment and behaviours. Analysis of the field notes and discussion group audio transcripts was carried out by the lead author, followed by a secondary checking by all the other authors.
The lead author undertook the analysis, as detailed below, which involved an initial theory-driven search of the data (guided by the question, what were intelligible and unintelligible performances within the classrooms?) The coded examples arising were then explored comparatively (e.g. to what extent were these examples similar or different and agreed upon, or contested, between different data sets and contexts—for instance, did students in the discussion groups agree or disagree with teacher accounts and researcher observations?). Analyses were conducted through an iterative process of moving between the data and theory. The final analyses and coding were checked by all authors. Following an ethnographic approach to qualitative data analysis, themes were interrogated as to their prevalence within the data, convergent and divergent examples were explored and data were analysed in relation to the three data sets. Where there were examples of divergence, we have attempted to make this clear in our reporting—for instance, we have written previously about how what teachers said that they valued (as student performances of science identity) did not always tally with what we observed in classrooms nor with what students reported that they thought their teachers valued (see Archer et al. 2017).
Data were then analysed using a discourse analytic approach informed by a Butlerian conceptualisation of gender identity as performance, as discussed earlier. As Erica Burman and Ian Parker (1993) discuss, discourse analytic approaches differ from more general approaches to discourse analysis, in that they do not attempt a close, ‘micro’ textual analysis but rather look for patterned talk (i.e. discourses) within the data. A key feature of a discourse analytic approach is looking for how power is organised within talk and drawing out the social implications of particular constructions. In other words, our analysis asks: What is the talk ‘doing’? What is being normalised or defended? Where is the locus on power within a particular construction—whose interests are being asserted? Who or what is being othered? What is normalised or closed down? As explained above, while our analyses attempt to take seriously the voices and views of our participants, our discourse analytic approach is very much a researcher-led analysis. Hence, following numerous discourse analytic researchers, such as Margaret Wetherell and Jonathan Potter (1992), the paper reflects and privileges the researchers’ interpretations and representations of the discourses at work within our participants’ talk, rather than participants’ own interpretations per se.
We began by searching the data to identify examples of when teachers and students described or performed ‘intelligible’ and ‘unintelligible’ performances—that is, behaviours and talk that were valued and sanctioned as ‘good’ or appropriate ways of doing science and those performances that were silenced, marginalised, criticised or complained about by others and that was positioned as inappropriate or ‘wrong’ ways of being in the science classroom. This process identified two main intelligible performances. The first comprised performances of ‘good student’ identity, which—drawing across the observations, teacher interviews and student discussion groups—coalesced around students being behaviourally compliant with school rules, putting their hands up to answer teacher questions, talking science, completing their work in a timely and conscientious manner and being generally docile and supportive of the authority of the teacher. However, as discussed later, data from the observations and discussion groups suggested that these ‘good student’ behaviours were not always recognised by teachers and students as authentically ‘scientific’ and hence intelligible.
The second performance was one that we interpreted as being a more powerful, dominant performance, which we termed ‘talking science through muscular intellect’. This performance involved students asserting both social and scientific dominance in a range of ways, and was widely recognised as a legitimate (if not, the most legitimate) performance of science. It was performed particularly during teacher-centred, whole class discourse (often during question and response segments of the lessons). However it was also noted as being performed during small group discussions (e.g. boys calling out and interrupting other groups’ discussions or trying to get the teachers’ attention while they facilitated a different small group) and during the (very infrequent) times that classes engaged in practical work (e.g. shouting out the ‘answers’ to the teacher or other students while they were meant to be engaged in personal or small group hands on inquiry). It is this performance of ‘talking science through muscular intellect’ that we focus on in this paper.
We sought to unpick the constituent elements of this performance, producing three main features of the performance: competition; controlling class talk; and policing class talk. To identify talking science through muscular intellect as a performance of ‘masculinity’, we used Becky Francis’ (2000) gender binary tabulation, which details the traits dominantly associated with masculinity and femininity within contemporary British culture and maps out the relational nature of these traits. For instance, Francis’ details how talk, practices and resources that are organised around public displays of competition are dominantly configured as performances of masculinity and how talk and practices associated with nurturing and childbirth are dominantly configured as feminine. Finally, we searched the data to identify instances of how other students experienced and constructed performances of talking science through muscular intellect and identified any instances when performances of talking science through muscular intellect appeared to be disrupted or challenged.