No Place for Women Among Them?

The fieldwork is physical in another way that marks it out from any other project I have ever done. Because of the Brazilian and Portuguese ambience, the teachers and students hug each other, and kiss on both cheeks, in an unselfconscious and routine way. I might therefore shake hands with a visiting Mestre when I am introduced to him, but when I thank him at the end of a class we would probably kiss on both cheeks or hug, and the next time I saw him I would expect to greet him that way. So too with the Brazilian and Portuguese male students I see regularly, who cheek kiss each other, me, and all the regular women students they know. With British men, the male Brazilian and Portuguese students normally follow the British pattern of hand shakes or affectionate thumps on the shoulders (‘How’s it going, man?’). I shake hands with most of the British men rather than thumping them, and kiss those I know well, but the female students often kiss all the men, or hug them, before every class. As these greetings often occur in the road outside a hall, or milling about in the doorway, they sometimes startle passers by, although not as much as the noise of the berimbau, or someone turning cartwheels to warm up. The embraces and kisses do not seem to be sexually predatory or intrusive: rather the regulars are behaving like Brazilians, and it is part of the axe of a good class. New students, or visitors from other clubs, can have their isolation intensified because no one hugs them, but the teachers spot new faces, and go over to shake hands and welcome them. As I reflect on how ‘routine’ it is for me to hug my main informants, however, it makes the total lack of any physical contact in every other piece of fieldwork I have ever done seem remarkable, whereas before it never was. It was a taken for granted that an ethnographer did not touch teachers or pupils or parents or the caretaker. No school ethnographer that I know of bounced up to greet the head of woodwork at the beginning of every lesson, was kissed on both cheeks and asked ‘Hey, doctor, are you happy?’. Or if they were, it is not in the confessional literature. Twice or three times a week in this fieldwork a capoeira teacher embraces me and makes just such an enquiry: its Brazilian.


Conclusions: The Janus Lessons


Janus faced both ways. As this fieldwork progresses I look backwards at years of school ethnography done and supervised, and forwards into the capoeira project. Some of the paradoxes of the former alert me to the potential of the latter.


In my original ethnography of St Luke’s (Delamont, 1989) I watched gym, hockey, and lacrosse. In the ORACLE project, there was observation of netball, gym, soccer, swimming, dance, rugby and cross country running. (Delamont and Galton 1986) In a subsequent project on mainstreaming pupils with learning difficulties there were lessons in athletics, trampolining, weight lifting, table tennis and badminton. However I never broke into a sweat, and, indeed in the ORACLE project observation of PE lessons produced the paradox that many pupils of 9 – 14 moved more in other lessons than they did in PE, just as they drew less in art than in any other classes. That is not true in capoeira: the physical activity predominates. That forces me to rethink what school PE might be like in other situations, and how little I had worked hard at thinking beyond the paradox. 

David Hargreaves (1982) once argued that most educational researchers were too clever and had been too successful at school ever to empathise with lower ability pupils. He proposed an imaginary curriculum for his own school days made up entirely of woodwork, a subject he hated and was useless at, to develop an empathy with the unacademic, and create true ‘distance’. Capoeira certainly works like that: I would be hopeless at it, and struggling to understand it provides a good ‘underdog’, ‘incompetent’ angle. Perhaps I will have more empathy with my students in future.


Thirdly, all the capoeira teachers I have seen expect both instant obedience, and a high level of discipline and loyalty. Whether the order is to cartwheel up the room; to wash, iron and wear the correct kit three times a week; to eschew the siren song of other teachers and other lineages for five years; or to drink nothing but water in a pub for six hours before a public display; students treat such orders very seriously and even obey them. No university student I have seen in twenty years would sit still for a lecturer either issuing such orders, or requiring such loyalty, and there is nothing in the ethnographies of British higher education to suggest my experience is unusual. Watching the combination of enormous gaiety, axe, and a visible hierarchy with explicit orders, is salutary.



Fourthly, my fieldwork skills are certainly being stretched and developed as I have shown in this paper and consequently my teaching of ethnography will be better. It is clear that I need to do much more reflexive thinking about my body, and my sense of rembodiment, both retrospectively as I recall a career as an ethnographer, and in the future. That is a hard task and an important one.

Fifth, it is clear I need to read more widely about research on physical activities and gender (e.g. Hickey, Fitzclarence and Mathews, 2002), and think critically about whether there are implications from this fieldwork of value to those scholars. My impression is that many of those who study physical education are highly skilled practitioners, often with fit, disciplined bodies, who take those bodily qualities and embodied skills for granted as part of their research ‘kit’. Perhaps there is a fruitful dialogue to be had around this.


Finally, it is important to ask, and answer, the question: is this educational research? Yes of course it is: learning and teaching are in progress. For twenty years I have argued that Becker (1971) and Wolcott (1981) were correct, and educational research needs challenges to its familiarity. Delamont (1981, 1992, 2002, 2005), and Delamont and Atkinson (1995) are the clearest articulations of this argument. With the capoeira classes not only the familiarity of teaching and learning, but of my own ethnographic self, is challenged. The capoeira class allows me to watch young men and women teaching, learning and working together to master new skills. It is not a conventional educational setting: it is leisure or sport or dance or even mysticism. The Brazilian atmosphere is pervasive, and it is certainly very “other”. It is a “different” classroom. In the capoeira class there is explicit teaching by the master, and the transmission of tacit knowledge and skills. There is rote learning, and peer tutoring. There are students from several races and both sexes. The valued skills are physical and mental. It is a good place to watch and explore teaching, learning, assessment and evaluation.