ECER Populism Rountable Abstracts

The Implications Of ‘New Populism’ For Education And Ethnography – The Implications Of ‘New Populism’ For Education And Ethnography – Co-Chairs: Bob Jeffrey, Carl Bagley, Francesca Gobbo, Lucie Jarkovská

In some Anglophone Northern societies, the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump have been described as an anti-establishment revolt by people who object to the consequences of Globalisation and liberal elites deciding for people the values that should be dominant. These revolts emanate from across the political spectrum, across classes and in other parts of the world apart from the North, such as South Africa. They are reacting variously to the ways in which global elites make all major decisions concerning trade, labour employment and accruing of wealth and the way they have been able, with the help of liberal governments, to ensure there is a supply of cheap labour to maintain their profits to the detriment of indigenous populations and at the same time ensure low taxes for their corporations by threatening to move their centres abroad to low income countries. At the same time a cultural elite is accused of driving forward human rights policies with little engagement of working people and communities.

One consequence of these actions has been a tendency to revert to nationalist rhetoric and a desire to reinstitute nationalist government, heavily supported by right wing groups and we can see ‘Populist’ leaders taking more and more autocratic powers with the support of ‘the people’.

Education, particularly in the North is charged with needing to convey the values for the next generation society, while contradictorily, it has become increasingly instrumentalised towards the values of the neoliberal economic establishment. Ethnography also has a large part to play, for at its core is a methodology that focuses on re-presenting the values, experiences, tensions and dilemmas of people within education. Part of the response to the Populist upsurge has been a call to listen to those who feel disenfranchised, ‘forgotten and left behind’, and to represent them more fully in terms of policies and moreover to re-engage their political perspectives and actions at the heart of political decision making.

Again, ethnography has a lot to offer all educational research to unpack and re-present the lived realities of people in education and those related to it indirectly.

This roundtable will listen to speakers from different European countries and beyond concerning the effects of these political developments on their particular constituencies and discuss how we can increase the use of ethnography in educational research to better respond to these new global complexities.

This Populism Roundtable will commence with an overall theoretical perspective of the nature of Populism (Maeder – Switzerland) followed by eight contributions focusing on three areas.

The first area outlines some empirical aspects of the current situation in terms of Populism, firstly in a white working class in a rural community in the North East of England (Bagley-UK), details of how a small region in Italy has legislated to provide a local dialect of language teaching of Italy to celebrate a specific cultural identity (Gobbo-Italy), a text examining a ‘Populist’ mantra to delegitimise gender equalities and LGBT rights in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic (Jarkovská – The Czech Republic) and finally a comparison of two different forms of Populism, the first, a transformation agenda in the South Africa Student Movement and by contrast a nationalistic populism from Scotland in terms of independence aligning with neo-liberal governance (Swanson – South Africa and Scotland).

The second area focuses on system perspectives, the first on the hidden influence of social media elites (Page-UK) and the second area comprises of  two suggestions for ethnographic research, on Elites (Sancho-Gil-Spain) and ‘with’ socially marginalised groups (Dennis-USA).

Introductory Perspective

Implications of “New Populism” for ethnography and education

Christoph Maeder, University of Teacher Education Zurich (Switzerland);

The election of Trump in the U.S., the Brexit-vote in U.K. and a growing distrust against the European Union as expressed e.g. by Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, but also other related phenomena like the growing critique of globalisation seem all to point to a new and coming age of populism. But when Cato insisted on the destruction of Carthago at the end of every speech he held in the Roman senate, he also was a prototypic populist. Populism as a form of thinking and arguing hence is neither new nor rare. It is a constituent genre of political speech and action. As such it can either be threatening or unbanning. Sometimes it is both at the same time.

In the centre of populist arguments, we find simplifications of complex political things like negotiation processes, organisations, effects of migration and other forms of institutional life regarding power. Such genres of simplification are widely available in the political field. If something complex and complicated becomes part of a populist discourse, we are exposed to brute simplicity. Such a simplicity remains at least dubious for the knowing, but it can also be used as a strategy by the educated to obscure complexities for others for whatever reasons.

Encounters of populist simplicity where complexity lures in the background are a challenge for ethnography and education as well. As ethnographers, we reconstruct in minute detail the complexity of the social by paying attention to different perspectives, using a multitude of types of data, engaging with different theories and so on. In a nutshell, we can say ethnography being the opposite of populism, if we take both as ways of describing, analysing and influencing the social order. But I guess this antagonistic arrangement is only the beginning of thinking about populism and ethnography. I consider it being very thrilling e.g. to reconstruct the production of populism on different levels and in different settings by means of ethnography. Herewith ethnography can contribute to a deeper and thicker understanding of how populism is made, distributed and how it works. A fascinating discrepancy would open this way: to understand political simplification in the form of populism we use highly sophisticated research methods!

And when it comes to the educational field, namely educational policy, populistic simplifications are abundant. Think of all the generalizing singulars like “the outcome”, “the school”, “the teacher”, “the learner” etc. I suggest tentatively they stand as small elements of a populist political genre in education. Hence my argument is that populism could make a promising topic for educational ethnographic research within the educational sector. The big question remains of course how to teach those exposed to, and maybe misled by populist thinking what is happening?

Section One – Empirical Research

“There is nowt for us here and nobody gives a shit” Ethnographic reflections on populism and a white working class rural community in North East England.

Carl Bagley – Durham University

Recent political developments in the US and Europe have been heralded as signifiers of populism; an ideological concept whose relationship with liberal democracy is contested and complex. The paper engages with notions of populism to critically reflect on ethnographic data derived from a three year study in a white working class rural community in the North East of England. In particular it draws on participant observation and interview data with young people and adults (N=30) and their sense of identity and perceptions about living in a community devastated by years of economic deprivation. The study reveals the ways in which for these white working class individuals there exists strong feelings of frustration, anger and abandonment; feelings which bring to the surface issues of race, class an politics which are perceived as challenging their identity, values, livelihood and voice.  The paper suggests how arguably in terms of populism, these individuals notwithstanding any validity of standpoint are bringing to the fore aspects of public contestation which political elites have largely chosen to avoid discussing and failed to engage.

Populism and its performative effects: the case of Veneto legislation on the Veneto “language”.

Francesca Gobbo – University of Turin

2016 has been recently defined as the year of populism because of Brexit and the political and communication characteristics of the U.S. elections and of their results, but, besides those two macro events, populism has long since impregnated political discourses and actions in many European countries where the need to re-establish states’ borders, recognize and revive national and/or local identities, reintroduce national currencies and block the arrival of refugees and immigrants is loudly proclaimed and often “successfully” enacted. In Italy, and specifically in the NorthEastern Veneto region whose governor is from the League, the regional Council passed – by a close majority – a law that, among other no lesser objectives, introduces teaching and learning the Veneto “language” in schools as a way to acknowledge, strenghten and enact “the” Veneto people’s identity. Living in a Veneto town (Padova) and being a native speaker of the local “language” (or dialect, as most people would say), I would like to contribute to the round table on populism by presenting and trying to answer a few questions, such as:

  • What can the spreading of populistic calls and populistic political measures mean for a nation, and then for educators and researchers with a European and international perspective?
  • In particular, what can the above mentioned political and social goals mean for ethnographers who belong to an intellectual tradition whereby in learning about others, one also learns about her/himself, though one often risks that in studying others (even if they live around the corner and are neighbors) s/he might simplify and essentialize their complex identities? This question goes beyond the research realm, and it takes into account the history of populism (or narodničestvo in Russian). If originally populism described a revolutionary movement, today it refers to various movements or parties that, regardless of their differences, share some common traits, such as an “idealized representation of the ‘people’”, that are often defined in generic terms, and celebrated as carriers of positive – usually traditional – values, on the one hand, and, on the other, the tendency to devalue forms and procedures of representative democracy by favoring plebiscitarism, and supporting charismatic leaders rather than the traditional parties’ representatives.
  • Returning to the NorthEastern Italian scenario, how can the re-definition of a language as a “minority” language (as in the Veneto law) affect the citizens-speakers (in terms of perception, and performance, of themselves as a minority)?

They Come to Take Your Children: Moral Panics Over Childhood and Sexuality in Central Europe

Lucie Jarkovská, – Masaryk University, Brno, the Czech Republic

The paper compares recent initiatives against sex education in three central European countries: Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. Childhood is typically seen as innocent, which inadvertently brings about constant risk that this innocence will be corrupted. Sexuality is constructed as one of the greatest dangers threatening innocent child. Connection of childhood and sexuality has become an effective strategy used by populists to delegitimize gender equality policies and LGBT+ rights in particular and in general to question values of European integration, human rights and civil society. It easily activates tens emotions with enormous socially divisive potential.

In Poland and Slovakia sex education is used in direct homophobic and anti-gender equality political actions. Mobilizing around sexuality has a huge political potential. In the secular Czech Republic sexuality does not have such a political potential and the anti-sex education campaign in comparison with the Slovak and Polish one failed in terms of public attention as well as in political actions that followed. However the notion of endangered innocent child proved to carry its potential to promote agenda of Czech populist initiatives and present it as more universal when free from direct homophobic and anti-gender attacks.

Nationalist popularism – North and South, Left and Right: the complex place of Ethnography and Education.

Dr Dalene Swanson University Of Stirling;

Popularism has emerged around discourses on the nation state even as globalisation has claimed to transcend such national categories. Skeptics of globalisation have argued that it has had the effect, contradictorily, of heightening the role of the nation state as a hyper-real construct rather than diminishing it. Skeptics would further argue that the new emergence of nationalist popularism correlates with a perceived failure of globalisation and its emphasis on neoliberal governance. Popularist national discourses have emerged in particularly situated ways where they have given rise to the emergence of both right-wing and left –wing movements, often at extreme poles to each other, entrenching national divisions and diminishing the possibility of consensually-driven dialogue ever more. The situated nature of these popularist emergences can be witnessed in the Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must fall, and Science Must Fall student movements across South African university campuses, which have called for an Africanisation of governance structures, and decolonisation of what has been perceived as irrelevant and colonising European knowledge being taught at SA universities; knowledge structures perceived as assisting in maintaining unequal social relations in that context. These calls have aligned with a rejection of neoliberal governance of national institutions such as SA universities that were quickly restructured according to neoliberal logic after democracy in 1994. The transformation agenda in South Africa has been arrested in its political trajectory in its failure to secure proper transformational change towards greater social equality, and for its underlying neoliberal inheritances. By contrast, in Scotland, nationalist popularism has emerged around discourses on independence from the United Kingdom, which at face value appear leftist, but are deeply aligned with nationalist rhetoric that aligns unproblematically with neoliberal governance logic emanating from the Scottish govt., thus conflating potentially contradictory ideological discourses as a consequence. Nationalist popularism is thus contradictory and complex and often ideologically hybrid. To understand its effects and to be able to respond from global justice perspectives will require deep intellectually engaging work. The increasingly critical role of a robustly critical and participatory Education along with an actively politically-responsive ethnography becomes ever more important within the current global condition.

Section 2 – System Perspectives

‘Populism’, puppets and pedagogy

Mich Page

This paper explores the impact of ‘populism’ on UK teachers and considers its driving force within a ‘post-truth’ milieu, from an auto-ethnographic position.

Populism is defined as giving people what they want[1]. This implies homogeneity of wants: patently impossible. There is however, a popular alignment against the powerful, wealthy, intellectual, establishment. This backlash is characterised by TV programmes such as ‘Strictly Come-Dancing’ and ‘Bake-Off[2]’, and anti-elitist political comments such as Michael Gove’s, ‘I think the people in this country have had enough of experts[3].’

We live in an age of – anything goes[4]!

Where does that leave teachers? By virtue of our professional role, teachers are intellectual experts. Teacher remuneration and social-status have recently been devalued, and fully qualified teachers are no-longer required in all classrooms. Our expertise has also been undermined by the proliferation of on-line information. At the click of a mouse, most questions can be answered- so why do we need teachers? Of course, the concurrent debate relates to our ability to judge between sensible, useful information and utter rubbish or worse, misinformation. I value Wikipedia and Google-Scholar for example, but place less confidence in celebrity blogs. In a post-truth era, people still need to discriminate, to judge all this easily accessible, often convincing, information.

Technology has freed students from needing to learn ‘stuff’, while simultaneously bombarding us with huge quantities of unstructured information. The news today comes from social media rather than considered expert opinion. Facebook, Twitter and Mumsnet have more influence than Newspapers. How long will it be before teachers-as-experts in the classroom are replaced by another technological fix?

This technologically driven wave of populism will continue while the ‘experts’ behind this momentum are invisible, unaccountable and unelectable. It is these unseen technocrats who are the new elite, pulling the strings by controlling the algorithms that deliver exactly what we want. They are the puppet-masters. These technocrats control what we want to know, what we do with it and how we do it.

Teachers will become technicians!

Section 3 – Future ethnographic research approaches

Ethnography of the unknown, unspoken, (in)visible

Juana M. Sancho-Gil – University Of Barcelona

In the context of this roundtable, ethnography as the presentation of empirical data on human societies and cultures, is the dimension that interests me most.

During years, I have been studying educational cultures. Years ago, we detected delays and blockades in the arrival of educational resources from the central government bodies to schools, and I proposed to study the “administrative culture” of distribution by “following a box”. The process would have implied interviews to key informants and observations in different offices. But the specialist that designed the resources and were in charge of the first delivery told me we would not be allowed to do such study. I was surprised as schools were opening us their gates and head-teachers, teachers, students, and families eagerly offered us their time and, in general, were happy to exposed the elements of their cultures. Why other people, in “higher” positions, and, therefore, with more responsibility -o different responsibility- did not want to have their cultural work patterns uncovered?

This idea accompanied me for years, and four or five years ago, in paper session of this network, I openly asked the question: why we only do ethnography about the “the weakest link of the social and economic chain”?  Governments, that have to be accountable for citizens even if they are not really the ones ruling the world, are reluctant to have their culture represented graphically and in writing. Let along the really powerful ones, they do not want to be studied, to be exposed, to be visible. They maintain their values, rules, strategies, work and acts in the greatest of secrets. Think for example of de Bilderberg Group (, off all the groups directly responsible and benefitting from the current war and economic refugees’ crisis, or the big  corporate world, as represented in TV series such as Mr Robot (

We even do not know who they are and which roles they play in the different groups they belong to. But we should make ethnographic studies about them, we should understand the cultural, economic, social and political values of those ruling the world.

The Ethnographer as Public Scholar in the Age of the Anti-Factualist “Populism”

Barbara Dennis  – Indiana University

Politically charged anti-factualism draws to the foreground a need to once again confront the relationship of facts and values through public scholarship. One of the more basic counter-facts of the contemporary scene is the story that locates the rise of elitist materialist fascism under the guise of “populism.” Ethnography is well-positioned to not only understand this relationship through the ordinary practices of policies and lifeworld logics, but also raise for dialogue any critiques and contradictions that those policies and logics bury through the way the fact/values relationship is established in popular culture and lived experience. Not only can ethnographic scholarship contribute such a response to the rise of anti-factual “populism”, but it can also contribute to the creation of conversational opportunities within cultural moments that can help ethnographers speak with people whose lives are complicated through the smearing of facts and the misappropriation of values.



[3] The Telegraph. 10th June 2016.

[4]  Paul Feyerabend 1975 Against Method. London: New Left Books