Logics of difference: Middle school girls orient to schooling

Patricia Susan Buck, University of Pennsylvania


This ethnographic project examines the processes through which thirteen racially and socio-economically diverse eighth grade girls develop differing orientations to schooling. In it I interrogate what Levinson and Holland (1996) refer to as the “paradoxical potentialities” of schooling to serve both as a ladder of opportunity and site within which citizens are prepared for active engagement in the civic sphere and, alternately, as a fundamental mechanism of social reproduction. Data is gathered through interviews with study participants, parents, teachers, and administrators, systematic observation throughout the school sphere, and document collection. In the study I describe the development of three distinct orientations to schooling: privileged, resistant, and democratic. The major finding of the study is that the production of divergent orientations to schooling is informed by students' active meaning making around the different differences represented at the school. This meaning making is given shape both within and against material realities of girls' lives and the school's larger, institutionalized Liberal discourses of diversity and meritocracy and revealed and instantiated through participants' identity work, relational dynamics, and forms of academic engagement. Overall, this study suggests that scholars interested in the democratic potential of schooling can look to students' developing logics of difference. Such logics serve both a reflection of the current status of students' meaning making around fundamental democratic principles and an area of possibility from which to foster an appreciation of plurality, community building, and active participation in the civic sphere. Study findings call upon educators to appreciate the significance of students' critiques of one another, schooling, and realities of social inequity and socio-cultural difference. The pursuit of democratic schooling falls upon our ability to guide students in the development of a consciousness of self that is, at once, accepting of difference and an active and critical voice within the civic sphere.

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology|Secondary education|Developmental psychology

Recommended Citation

Buck, Patricia Susan, "Logics of difference: Middle school girls orient to schooling" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3109157.