Blog: Panicked notes of a prison ethnographer(-to-be)

As a crucial part of my PhD, I am about to start a nine-month period of ethnographic fieldwork in a closed prison.

After several months of  negotiations with gatekeepers on different organizational levels within the Criminal Sanctions Agency, carefully drawing up my fieldwork plans (including all the ethical aspects I could think of beforehand), being granted the permission to conduct the research and getting acquainted with the prison administration and staff, I was finally allowed entrance to the prison of my interest.

My mother recently asked me: “But what are you going to do in there?”

I gave her a rather lengthy answer about my onto-epistemological stances to ethnographic research and elaborated my visions of placing myself within the physical and social arrangements of the prison. I might have included some titbits of my Foucauldian conceptions on subjectivity and of my interest on the entanglement of governmentality and education within imprisonment. But I concluded with the more honest answer: “Then again, I have no idea.”

I feel like the dog in the meme. I have no idea what I’m doing.

I’m not merely entering a prison for the first time – which would most likely be a somewhat turbulent experience in any case. As if that were not enough, the current situation in the prison seems to be nearly chaotic. I’ll elaborate.

First of all, the prison facility is brand new, so everyone within it are bound to feel somewhat out of place. Surrounding the new physical environment is a set of significant reforms. The prison is designed to implement a new penal ideology, including changes in the staff’s work culture, prisoner activities, the prison’s physical arrangements and so on (which, by the way, is basically what my PhD is about). To ensure this, the staff’s job descriptions are being updated while the education for the field is being reformed as well. In line with other changes, the information system used in prisons is being modified. On top of all this, the Criminal Sanctions Agency is going through a significant organizational reform, which will most likely have some effect on the prison administration.

Oh yeah, and there is a raging pandemic going on.

(I won’t go into details here about the arrangements concerning the pandemic, but I will be able to conduct the fieldwork, provided I stick to strict precautions.)

Currently I am quite overwhelmed by the complexity and the magnitude of things that I’m about to face. How is one little PhD candidate to understand anything about such a tangle of complex issues? Let alone have something to say of it, peer-reviewed and publicly defended!

The clumsy translation of the working title of my thesis is Educational Imprisonment. The title seems ironic to me at the moment, as I feel trapped by my own choice of research subject – why the heck did I insist on doing ethnography in such a challenging context?! Couldn’t I just do some bloody document analysis and be done with it?

Well, one thing is for sure: it’ll be an education. At some point, I will have learnt something. Perhaps even something that matters. And I guess the only way to reach that point is to live through this panicky feeling of being completely clueless, incompetent, and out-of-place. Oh well.

This post was written on a Friday and preset to be published on Monday, during my first actual field day. To be continued, then. Yikes!

Liila Holmberg, PhD researcher

Recently published articles: Finnish policy futures of school spaces and knowledges. Open access.

In educational policy visions, it is customary to present Finnish school system as outdated and alienated from the surrounding society. Despite success in PISA, schools are allegedly the last bastion of resistance to the global changes in work and learning in the 21st century.

School architecture and new learning environments

In a new study, POISED researcher Antti Saari analyses recent policy visions in new school architecture and learning environments.

There has been a growing tendency – over the last decade or so – to focus on envisioning school architecture and the future of the comprehensive school network.

Finnish schools have been involved in a public debate about public buildings with dangerously poor indoor air, leading to either expensive renovations or building new schools altogether. Finland also has a rapidly ageing population, which – combined with growing urbanisation – means that schools are being closed in rural areas, while new and bigger units are being constructed in metropolitan areas.

In addition, the country’s success in PISA has meant there has been a surge in establishing education export initiatives, not only with regards to pedagogical expertise, but the whole ‘package’ of schools with curricula, technology and well-equipped facilities. All these features have created a bustling market for school architecture and new learning environments, which in turn would explain the high number of policy documents about future learning environments in the last decade.

Saari analyzes how visions of new learning environments operate as political fantasies that promise creativity, pleasure and fulfilment in flexible spaces.

Saari, A. 2021. Topologies of desire: Fantasies and their symptoms in educational policy futures. European Educational Research Journal. Online first version:  https://doi.org/10.1177/1474904120988389

Future knowledges

Another recent article traces the Finnish rhetoric of future skills and knowledges in educational policy documents.

Policy actors from ministries to think tanks and lobbyists highlight individuality, creativity and freedom as values widely recognized in the Finnish knowledge society. Yet allegedly this is not the case in schools, which are still organized according to structures of mass production, i.e. the same contents and methods for everyone.

In the allegedly outdated Finnish school system, knowledge is seen as a something that can be amassed and as retaining its value in the future. In the future, however no amount of subject knowledge in, for example, history or geography alone can serve the needs of society. It is rather general skills, mindsets and attunements such as creativity and flexibility that can enable individuals to adapt to different situations.

Janne Säntti, Petteri Hansen and Antti Saari analyze how policy rhetoric highlights play, innovation and improvisation as key principles to be adopted in envisioning future school knowledge and skills.

Säntti, J., Hansen, P. & Saari, A. 2021. Future jamming: Rhetoric of new knowledge in Finnish educational policy texts. Policy Futures in Education. Online first version: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1478210320985705

Uutuuskirja Kasvatusteoria antiikista nykypäivään kokoaa yhteen länsimaisen kasvatuksen aatehistorian ja filosofian

Kasvatusteoria on muovautunut länsimaissa osana poliittista ja aatteellista kehitystä. POISED -tutkija Antti Saari osoittaa kirjassaan, kuinka vallankumouksellisina pidetyt uudet opetusmenetelmät ovat toistuneet historiassa yhä uudelleen.

Kasvatustiede on moninaisten tiedekäsitysten ja tieteen hyödyllisyyden vaatimusten ristitulessa. Yliopistossa välitetty tieto esitetään keskeiseksi perustaksi asiantuntijatyölle, mutta toisaalta teorian ja käytännön välinen kuilu näyttää olevan kasvatustieteellisen keskustelun pysyvä ongelma. Kasvatusteorian historialliset kerrostumat luovat jännitteitä niin tutkijan, koulutuksen virkamiehen kuin opettajankin työhön.

Antti Saaren Kasvatusteoria antiikista nykypäivään esittelee ajalliset kerrostumat nykymuotoisen kasvatusteorian taustalla ja näyttää, millä tavalla menneisyyden käsitykset ihmisestä, kasvatuksesta ja yhteiskunnasta muovaavat käytäntöjä edelleen. Kytköksiin liittyy usein myös poliittisia ja aatteellisia aineksia.

Kasvatusteorian aineksia löytyy niin antiikin filosofisista koulukunnista, keskiajan yliopistoista ja luostareista kuin valistusajan kahviloista. Nykypäivänä oppimista ja koulujen kehittämistä koskevassa keskustelussa nostetaan usein esiin tehokkuutta ja yksilöllisyyttä painottavia opetusmenetelmiä, mutta samankaltaisilla lupauksilla on jo vuosisatojen pituiset juuret.

”Siinä missä keskiajalle saakka kasvatusteorioissa tukeuduttiin antiikin auktoriteettien tai kristillisten tekstien muodostamaan arvovaltaiseen opilliseen traditioon, uudelta ajalta alkaen kasvatusteoriassa on korostunut perinteistä irrottautuminen. Kasvatusteoreetikko toisensa jälkeen ilmoittaa keksineensä vallankumouksellisen kasvatuksen ja opetuksen menetelmän,” Saari kertoo kirjassaan.

Länsimaisen kasvatuksen aatehistorian ja filosofian kokoava teos on suunnattu erityisesti kasvatus- ja koulutusalan toimijoille.