Educational Anthropology is a sub-field of anthropology and mainly associated with the work of George Spindler, considered to be a leading figure in this area of research.
The field of anthropology is concerned with cultural transmission, which involves the sense of identity between generations, which is sometimes known as enculturation, as well the transfer of identity between cultures, which is known as acculturation. The main focus of educational anthropology is the cultural aspects of education, both informal and formal education. This field of study is rich with ethnographic research into schools as cultural institutions and schooling as a cultural process.
Educational sociologists and anthropologists have been studying the role of education and schooling in American culture for more than 40 years. References to this can be found in Spindler's influential 1987 book Education and Cultural Process: Anthropological Approaches. In this he argues that the majority of research has focused on the role of schooling in the transmission of culture.
Mary Henry's findings on how schools with students from different socioeconomic groups use time is explored in the book School Cultures: Universes of Meaning in Private Schools (1993). Further research into educational anthropology by Gordon and Lahelma in 1996 examines the ways schools use and teach a sense of spatiality to students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Frame's 1991 book Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban High School Albany and MacLeod‘s 1996 work Ain't No Making It, Leveled Aspirations in a Low-income Neighborhood, examined the ways schools and schooling contribute to cultural identity.
Another influential writer here is educational anthropologist Wendy Luttrell. She wrote in her important book Becoming somebody in and against school: Toward a Psychocultural Theory of Gender and Self-making in 1996. In this work, Luttrell describes how educational anthropology, education and schools affect a person's sense of self, identity and meaning. Other leading writers in this field include Bennett and LeCompte, who wrote The Way Schools Work: A Sociological Analysis of Education (1990). Along with Butler and Wintram, authors of Feminist Groupwork (1991) they concluded that for females, African Americans and people from lower socioeconomic classes the schooling experience is "generally one of subordination, isolation, and silencing."
Researchers in the field of educational anthropology have discovered that schools are both "gendered and gendering institutions." Parker claimed in his essay Engendering School Children in Bali, that schools as cultural entities and institutions reflect the broader U.S. culture and its patriarchal gender roles in their structure, organization, curriculum, and interaction patterns among employees. At the same time, schooling is a cultural process in which students learn and develop their own sense of gender identity. The development of gender identity is based on the full range of the schooling experience, from explicit textbook instruction to social life and interpersonal interactions.
Spindler and Spindler wrote in The American Cultural Dialogue and its Transmission (1990) that the desire to uncover and understand cultural processes has led anthropological researchers to focus significant attention on teachers, administrators and guidance counselors as cultural agents and on the cultural elements of their work in schools. However, anthropology lecturer Rebekah Nathan went one step further with her educational anthropology investigation. She went undercover as a freshman at an unnamed large state university somewhere in the Southwest to discover what life was really like for a freshman.
In her book My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (1995), Nathan discovered that whatever budding intellectualism students felt, it was quickly quashed by the need to fit in. She found that the community on campus no longer existed, with students preferring to hole up in their dorms with a handful of friends. Most students did not have the time to study due to work commitments and Nathan also reported that most white students had a ‘diversity-free' experience.
Although some experts working in the field of educational anthropology claimed to love her work, many felt it was highly unethical and were critical of this field of study. In 1989, anthropologist Michael A. Moffat penned a book entitled Coming of Age in New Jersey. In this work he revealed what he had learnt while posing as a student at Rutgers University, although his account is believed to have included far more anecdotes about sex and drugs.