Barrie Thorne, “Borderwork,” and the Social Space of Schools

If someone had told me that the way to pick a research project was to scan my bookshelf, find my absolute favorite studies, and figure out what they have in common, I’d have done a school ethnography. It was Barrie Thorne’s Gender Play (1993) that made me want to go to graduate school. I just learned that she retired and thought it might be a fitting time to talk about how much her work inspires me.

When sex role theory was the way to talk about gender, scholars and activists interested in discussing gender inequality focused on key socializing institutions (where “sex roles” and their associated expectations were thought to be primarily produced) like the family, education, religion, etc. I have always thought that school ethnographies emerged out of this period – though Parsonsstructural functionalism seems a distant memory to much of this research. Incidentally, Barrie Thorne was among the group of feminist scholars who collectively explained why sex role theory was and is inadequate as a theory.

[SIDE NOTE: Terms like “class roles” and “race roles” were never as popular as “sex roles.” Yet scholars dealing with race and class were certainly navigating similar concerns. Paul WillisLeaning to Labor (1977) is a prime example, illustrating how working-class youth are making a choice to enter working-class jobs. But it’s a choice that is structured by much more than their individual desires.]

Lately, I’ve gone back through a number of my favorite school ethnographies to read more about how scholars discuss the role of space in the structuring of children’s experiences of school, the perpetuation of inequality within schools, and the fostering of performances of self at school.

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