Accent profiling, power imbalances and access to Higher Education: A case for the return of anthropology to schools

Teaching anthropology in schools is promoted as a path for British pupils to face the world they live in from culturally contextualized perspectives. However, this focuses on understanding worlds outside of their own. This case study turns the anthropological eye inside, instead of inside out.

The lack of anthropology as an an A-level option in schools may reflect a perception of the discipline as outdated with stereotypical imagery dating back to the 50s. For contemporary anthropologists, the disciplines’ ethos and praxes span widely and are as diverse as the people who practise it. However, the British public’s exposure to anthropology is largely limited to museums, newspaper articles and TV programmes for entertainment. As a long-misunderstood discipline, anthropology has work to do. I argue that contemporary anthropology needs to return to schools in a contextualized form where concepts such as “ethnocentrism” and “culture” are communicated without outdated classics.

I examined feedback from my first-year undergraduate anthropology students at Durham University, to investigate ‘the language of anthropology’ by exploring why some students found anthropological lexicon and Higher Education’s linguistic structures hard to navigate. It became clear that the way terms were presented and students’ disconnections with academic conjunctures weighed more than the terminology itself. Anthropological knowledge(s) in academia are communicated through certain linguistic structures.  These legitimized structures perpetuate specific power relations, as one student put it, ‘anthropology sort of sounds pretentious’. It is, thus, about sounds; the musicality and tone of anthropology was worth revising. More than what was taught, disconnections lied on how and who was teaching it. Although academic presence at universities is increasingly diverse, there is still a predominance of white southern-English males talking to students about a stereotyped “other”. Students whose background differed from those in the pedestal were discouraged to find their place within such an unfamiliar discipline.

While teaching at The Brilliant Club, a national education charity, I designed and delivered a KS4 and KS5 linguistic anthropology course at 9 state schools in County Durham and Newcastle, entitled: ‘What language do humans speak? An anthropological voyage through linguistic relativism’. Students from year 7 to 12 discussed language ideology, class, and power in the context of access to Higher Education (HE). Accent profiling and resulting power imbalances ranked high in the obstacles that are often unintendedly promoted in today’s HE. Despite the need to approach such issues critically, linguistic profiling and its impact on belonging to academic worlds has rarely been considered.

I don’t really belong here. I mean, look around… I am not really the type who succeeds here.’[1]

After examining inequality in contemporary society in the context of education, pupils felt equipped to navigate previously unfamiliar and daunting systems with a developing agency that allowed them to exercise their identities freely. Anthropology highlights and speculates where disconnections and connections may be and allows pupils to navigate through systems that might not have been specifically constructed for them.

(delivering a linguistic anthropology course at local state schools with the Brilliant Club) 

I never thought about language in that way… It now makes perfect sense (…) I have sometimes felt inferior and uncomfortable and I thought it was my fault… that I had to change.’ [2]

The intersections of linguistic profiling, language ideology, and power relations within the UK have rarely been approached critically in academia and public spheres. This overlooks the structures we inhabit and inherently perpetuates the social imbalances we interrogate. The UK’s accent diversity is rich, counties like Durham feature a variety of accents, often within the same household. The wealth of their linguistic history and contemporaneity cannot be reduced to stereotypes that categorize such diversity as undesirable and situate people and places within static zones of linguistic thriving. Inequality and identity constructions can be approached and challenged through anthropological analyses. These debates belong in schools and universities. Much has been achieved, however universities and academic paradigms have a long way to navigate before they are places where diversity is fully acknowledged, included, and promoted.

Dr. Elena Burgos-Martinez, FHEA,

Department of Anthropology

Durham University &  Royal Netherlands Institute of Linguistics & Ethnology


[1] This excerpt is part of student feedback gathered as part of research conducted in 2015 and 2016 at different departments in Durham University. This example represents a majority of opinions amongst a minority of students.

[2] Comment given by a year 12 student, obtained after placements at local state schools with the Brilliant Club.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply