From Human Activity to Underlying Entity
The next example that we will use to illustrate the conversion of human activity to underlying entities takes its departure from studies (Aikenhead, 1996, 1998, 2001; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999) conducted within a social anthropological and sociocultural tradition (cf. Geertz, 1973; Lemke, 1990), in which cultural identity is a central concept. We will show how these studies make use of previous research results and develop these into underlying structures, entities, and causes in new contexts. The studies deal with group-level analyses and are situated in an ongoing discussion concerning the importance of students’ cultural identity as it shapes their ability to take part in and become active members of science.
In his article “Science Education: Border Crossing into the Subculture of Science”—which has the laudable goal of creating equal opportunities for all students in science irrespective of gender, class, or ethnicity—Aikenhead (1996) describes science as a specific subculture. In accordance with other colleagues in the field, he demonstrates that students coming from other so called subcultures, such as family groups or peer groups of Native American, African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, and European-American origin, have unequal opportunities for learning a school science emanating from a Western European tradition. Analogous with our first example, we show that what people do and say is initially categorized, then labeled, and subsequently treated as entities (viz., subcultures). Finally, the essential state of belonging to a certain subculture becomes the underlying cause for the fact that students have unequal possibilities of crossing the border into the subculture of science.
To make our point concerning the conversion of student activities into underlying entities in the articles by Aikenhead and colleagues, we need to know what kind of empirical basis they build on. Going back in time, we can see that Aikenhead explicitly builds his argument on empirical studies made by Costa (1995). In her article “When Science Is ‘Another World’: Relationships between Worlds of Family, Friends, School, and Science” Costa presents a sociocultural basis for her studies and cites Lemke (1990), according to whom “science does not stand outside the system of social values…. It depends on socially shared habits, practices, and resources that each individual [has] because she is a member of a community with a history and a system of basic values” (Costa, 1995, p. 331–332).
In the article, Costa examines the relationship between the attitudes toward science in a number of students and their social background or, as she puts it, between students’ “worlds of family, peers, and school and the world of science and the scientific community” (p. 315). Costa interviewed 43 high-school students about their family conditions and friends as well as about their perceptions and attitudes of science. She writes, “all [interviews] began with me asking students to describe a ‘typical day in school’ and included questions about their science class, future goals, and feelings about and definitions of science, technology, and scientists. Several interviews, however, shifted focus rather quickly, as students provided their own categories” (Costa, 1995, p. 316).
Moreover, Costa made classroom observations, which also contributed to the final categories emanating from the study. Thus, the point of departure for Costa's study is human activity, that is, what the students were saying and doing as they took part in two particular practices, namely interviews and classroom work (Figure 1, Stage 1).
Next, Costa finds patterns in these activities (Figure 1, Step 1 to Stage 2) and divides them into five categories (Figure 1, Step 2 to Stage 3). Her final student categories are as follows:
- Potential Scientists: Worlds of family and friends are congruent with worlds of both school and science.
- “Other Smart Kids”: Worlds of family and friends are congruent with world of school but inconsistent with world of science.
- “I Don't Know” Students: Worlds of family and friends are inconsistent with worlds of both school and science.
- Outsiders: Worlds of family and friends are discordant with worlds of both school and science.
- Inside Outsiders: Worlds of family and friends are irreconcilable with world of school, but are potentially compatible with world of science.
Aikenhead picks up these categories and argues that the students’ narratives emanate from the specific “subcultures of their peers and family” (Aikenhead, 1996) to which they belong and, thus, from within which they are talking. In that way, Costa's categories of student activity are turned into cultural entities, subcultures (Figure 1, Step 3 to Stage 4). This step may be exemplified through the following quotation from Aikenhead: “If students are going to cross the border between everyday subcultures and the subculture of science, border crossings must be explicit and students need some way of signifying to themselves and others which subculture they are talking in” (p. 26).
Finally, the differences between these subcultures and the scientific culture are inferred to explain why students vary concerning their difficulties in being socialized into the latter (Figure 1, Step 4 to Stage 1). We can see this from Aikenhead in 1996: “Science seems foreign to the vast majority of students in school science, whether they live in Western or non-Western communities,” and then in 2001: “This foreignness arises from differences between students’ life-world cultures and the culture generally embraced by the scientific community” (emphasis added).
Consequently, the problem here is neither the passion nor the care with which Aikenhead and his colleagues plead the underprivileged's cause. Aikenhead (and others) have listened carefully to students’ personal narratives. They have observed that they talk about, for instance, nature in different ways. Native Americans’ narratives are characterized by accommodating, intuitive, and spiritual wisdom, while science is described as aggressive, manipulative, mechanistic, and analytical (Aikenhead, 1998; Peat, 1994). In every culture, they claim, there also exist subcultures in terms of, for instance, social class, gender, or religion, each having different norms, values, and expectations constituting barriers that need to be overcome to access the scientific subculture. We do not even see any real problems with employing the metaphor of culture for talking about what students do and say. But we do find it problematic that, just as in our first example, Aikenhead and his colleagues are “put[ting] the cart before the horse” is that concepts, such as subcultures that were created from an analysis of human activities (e.g., students’ narratives), are inferred as the causes for students’ difficulties in school in the first place. Aikenhead explains “learning becomes culture acquisition which requires students to cross cultural borders from their life—world subcultures (associated with, for example, family, peers, school, and media) to the subcultures of science and school science” (p. 37. Emphasis added).