No Place for Women Among Them?

These are questions that can be addressed watching routine classes. Regular classes usually consist of an hour of practice: where individuals and pairs work on specific movements and short routines of 2-4 movements: followed by a roda. Here the players form a circle, singing and clapping, and two contestants go into the roda to play-fight-dance together for a minute or so, and are then replaced by another pair until everyone has had a turn. There may also be lectures on the history of the game, or a music lesson, or a singing lesson, and some teachers end the session with samba. Beyond the regular sessions which take place two or three times a week, there are special occasions, such as baptisms (batizados), (6) belt ceremonies (passa de corda), public performances, workshops from visiting mestres, and associated classes in maculele (a dance display with batons) and dance (e.g. samba). There may also be street rodas or spontaneous rodas in parks in good weather. All these can involve trips away: from Birmingham to Barcelona, from Oxford to Budapest or more mundanely from Birmingham to Swindon or vice versa. Such trips, which are both serious (master classes) and a display of loyalty (did the teacher from Manchester get more of his discipulos with him to Budapest than the teacher from Swindon?) are also a good reason for parties, and building up social networks. (7)


The ways in which teachers create axe, recruit and hold their discipulos, produce students serious enough to gain higher belts, structure their classes, and make a living are all fascinating research questions. These are all research questions that do not need participation and as these are gradually resolved it may be possible to move on to other questions I have yet to formulate. Later papers will, address these and other, as yet unheralded, issues (Stephens and Delamont, forthcoming a and b). This paper is more preliminary: it focuses upon what I have learnt about the inadequacies of my previous studies and my previous fieldwork on teaching. Until I began the capoeira study I had not recognised several basic facts about all the previous fieldwork I had ever done, and most of what I had supervised. I had been, I realised, very unreflexive about several taken for granted features of all the field sites and the social relationships within them. It takes an unfamiliar setting and topic to shake one’s complacencies (Becker, 1971; Wolcott, 1981).


Reflections on the Fieldwork Process


There are eight ways in which this fieldwork is remarkably different: its locations, the noise levels, the main medium of interaction, the physical demands on me, the chaotic scheduling and uncertainty, the display of bodies and the physical contact. These are explored in turn. The research done over a career has, I now realise, been done in very similar locations: mostly classrooms with fixed walls and closed doors, and with seating and flat surfaces, including seating for me, where the people are mostly relatively immobile. The general ambience has been quiet, or was meant to be quiet. The main interaction in the places I have done ethnographic research has been verbal: words, spoken and written, are the central feature. Much of my observation has been conducted sitting down, or standing as still as possible in one place, in reasonably stable temperatures. The two papers I have published on PE are both of this kind. Delamont (1998) is based on a double lesson spent entirely in the girls’ changing room examining kit and feet. Pugsley, Coffey and Delamont (1996) draws on written texts provided by students remembering PE-related urban legends they have been scared by in their school days. Normally, the sites when I have observed have been formally organised: there are written rules, timetables, text books, routines explicitly and implicitly agreed by the participants. The research has always been characterised by some uncertainties: would a difficult child truant on the day I was observing? Would a particular teacher ask me not to attend a specific class? Would a research group in a laboratory move to such a technical level of discussion that I could not make any sense of it? However, these were research uncertainties, about my data collection, not uncertainties about the setting’s very existence. I had watched some physical education classes, but very verbal ones in which pupils were taught games or sports that I had done myself as a school child, where my focus was the teachers’ talk and the pupils’ behaviour as pupils. Finally, in all the fieldsites I have ever observed, all physical contact, except formal handshakes, has been rigorously avoided, and care has been taken to stay clear of spaces where clothing is changed.


On every single one of these issues, I now realise, I had behaved in a very non-reflexive way. I had not really made any of the eight dimensions problematic, nor anthropologically strange. A year of observations of capoeira has forced me into explicitly recognising how narrow my ethnographies of teaching have been. Of course I knew that ethnography of things other than teaching were not done in the ‘same’ conditions as my work: ethnographies of fishermen (Jorion, 1982) or the homeless (Hall, 2000) or Cretan shepherds (Herzfeld, 1985). I have taught ethnographic methods and the findings of qualitative research for thirty years, so theoretically I should have been prepared for the physicality and uncertainties. But ‘knowing’ and experiencing are different things. In the next few paragraphs I have reflected on the eight issues where, I now realise, I have been unreflexive.

The capoeira classes take place in locations where young people are comfortable – or more comfortable than me – and where the physically fit, and the musically talented are at work and at ease. Classes have taken place in a dance studio, with ballet bar and mirrors, in a youth club, a dojo, a commercial bodybuilders gym, a church hall and a students’ union. In several of these locations the capoeira is next door to practice rooms for bands, whose emulations of The Pixies or The Prodigy come through inadequate sound barriers. The capoeira classes have followed ballet, karate, kickboxing, kendo and yoga classes, so that small girls in tutus or very large men in fiercesome helmets are leaving as ‘we’ arrive. Some of the facilities have changing rooms, but most of the men just change in the ‘hall’, and everyone leaves all their belongings in heaps on the floor. Mobile phones ring. People regularly start setting up for the next event, including sound systems, lights and the instruments, before the capoeira is over. In almost all these settings observation means me standing, squatting, or sitting on the floor – and moving swiftly and unobtrusively about, avoiding any suggestion that I am watching young men changing their trousers. These locations are all very different from the classrooms and staffrooms where I normally do fieldwork.


What has really forced me to reflect on the limited nature of all my previous fieldwork however is the physical nature of the capoeira and the physical demands it places on me. I had never recognised how much I had always done research sitting down for long periods, where I could write on a hard surface, and where what I focused on was words (written and spoken) and how the spoken word led to the written word (‘Open your rough books and write this down’) or vice versa (‘The new rules are on Page 7, read them and prepare to discuss them next week’). I had studied some physical activity, but that was often subordinated to words as well. In this project there are very few words, these are often inaudible, and the physical movement of bodies – theirs and mine – are the central focus. One command (‘Ginga’, ‘Change’, ‘au’, ‘negativa’) is often all that 40 people need, one sentence (‘Follow your foot’, ‘kick the beginners gently’) is often the longest verbal instruction they get in a five minute segment. In that sort of teaching, what on earth do I write down?