Exploring young children’s social identities: performing social class, gender and ethnicity in primary school
This thesis explores how young children perform their social identities in relation to social class, gender and ethnicity in primary school. In doing so, this study contributes to a growing body of literature that recognises the complexity and intersecting nature of children’s social identities, and views children as actively performing their social identities within discursively shaped contexts. The study operationalizes intersectionality as a sensitising concept for understanding the particular ways in which social class, gender and ethnicity are performed differently in different contexts, and for conceptualising the categories of social class, gender and ethnicity as constitutive of and irreducible to each other. An eight-month long ethnography was conducted in an urban Scottish primary school with young children (aged five to seven). Data were generated mainly from participant observation in the classroom, lunch hall, playground and other spaces of the school, interviews with children and staff, and from gathering a range of texts and documents (e.g. legislation and school displays). The findings of the study show that social class, gender and ethnicity intersect in the complex ways in which children perform their social identities. Particular identities are foregrounded in specific moments and situations (Valentine, 2007), yet the performing of social identities is not reducible to either social class or gender or ethnicity alone. In addition, age, sexuality and interpersonal relationships (e.g. dynamics of ‘best friends’, conflicts between dyadic and triadic groups, family relationships) all intersect within children’s social identities in particular moments. Thus, social identities need to be understood as deeply contextual, relational, and mutually constitutive. Emotions play a significant role for how social identities are invested with meanings and values and produce complex dynamics of belonging and being different. The study highlights the importance of the educational setting, the policy and legislation context and wider social inequalities for shaping the discourses within which children perform their social identities. Tensions and ambiguities – e.g. between ‘diversity’ and ‘inequality’ – in the relevant policies and legislations fail to address the different underlying dimensions of social justice in relation to social class, gender and ethnicity, and these tensions are reflected in staff’s discourses and practices, resulting in the foregrounding of certain aspects of diversity and the silencing of others. This study also highlights how through performing social identities in certain ways, wider social inequalities become manifest. Children are aware of and contribute to powerful discourses of social stereotypes and inequalities. Children also engage in the ‘politics of belonging’ (Yuval-Davis, 2011) by constructing dynamics of ‘us’ and ‘them’, engaging in processes of ‘othering’, and drawing boundaries around certain forms of belonging. The findings of this study emphasise the need for both a reflective practice in educational settings, as well as for policies and legislations to acknowledge and address the complex, intersecting nature of children’s social identities and the multiple dimensions of social justice.