“You can’t sit there”: How students claim and police school space through sitting

This is a guest post by Dr Siobhan Dytham, a researcher at the University of Warwick, UK whose interests are in secondary and higher education, equality and social justice, and sociology of education. The post is based on Siobhan’s ethnographic research in a secondary school in England, part of which was published recently in the British Journal of Sociology of Education – the article (open access) is available here.


“You can’t sit there”: How students claim and police school space through sitting

Students spend most of their time at school sitting. Whether in classrooms, in dining halls, on benches or walls outside, or perhaps even on the floor in corridors. When we think about space in schools we tend to focus on the physical rooms and spaces; the classrooms, the canteen, the playground, the corridor. But the people in schools are part of the space. They take up space, move around the space, and interact with each other to decide how to use, share or protect their spaces.

Although students spend a lot of time doing it, sitting in school is a risky business. There are social ramifications for students who sit with the ‘wrong’ people, and disagreeing with someone can mean being cast out by your friends. Having no one to sit with can be very upsetting for students, and in my recent research study the girls described how they have even not attended school because they did not have anyone to sit with (Dytham, 2018).

This study was part of an ethnography in an English secondary school which educates pupils from ages 11-18. I spent a year in the school because it is really important to build up trust with students and to get to know the school to get any real depth to the research. I observed lessons and social areas and I met with five different friendship groups weekly to talk about their lives and experiences. We also did a ‘walk-and-talk’ activity where the students showed me around their school and took pictures of the spaces that they thought were important. This study revealed that far from being trivial or accidental, the sitting rules and rituals in secondary schools serve very specific purposes, namely, ownership of space, ownership of people, exclusion and control.

When students talked about the spaces in their school they would say things like ‘our corridor’, ‘my seat’, ‘my corner’. Students have a sense of ownership of these spaces and exclude others from them by telling them that they cannot sit there or physically preventing them from doing so. Referring to a space he sat in at lunchtime, a boy explained “it’s my corner and it pisses me off when people sit in it”.

As well as having meaning to students on an individual level, the spaces that social groups sit in are seen to reflect the friendships and relationships within the group. For example, Isabel explains that the different friendships within her social group can physically be seen by where they sit during lunchtime.

Laura:                    we’re in different lessons and stuff, well some of us are, and then at lunch we just come together

Isabel:                    yeah but at lunch you can still see the difference because they’ll be one half where they’ll all sit and then we’ll sit the other half

As well as reflecting relationships, sitting was used by students to alter relationships. Allowing or denying a person to sit with you is a powerful tool to punish a student for undesirable behaviour. Michaela’s friend, Amber, was joining her school so she asked her friends if Amber could sit with them. But Michaela’s friends actually took this as opportunity to exclude Michaela from their group. Michaela explains:

Amber was coming about a week or two later and I even asked the others like a week later and I was like “if it’s alright with yous can Amber sit with us?” and then I think it was Jess was alright with that everyone was alright with it until Mia went and said I slagged them off then Jess was like “I don’t want you sitting with me, Amber can but I don’t want you”.

When it was felt that Michaela had behaved in a way that her friends deemed undesirable (by ‘slagging them off’), they could punish her for this by no longer allowing her to sit with them. In this way the students used sitting as a method to control their social group and exclude those who do not comply.

Students spend a lot of their time at school navigating these sitting rules and rituals. Therefore, understanding this social process and how students turn this in to a tool to claim ownership of space and people, and to control and exclude others, means that adults could better support students in navigating the challenge of sitting. This could potentially have positive impacts on school inclusion, bullying prevention, and even attendance. These simple social relations have real impacts on students’ lives and need further study if we are to truly understand and support students through the school experience.

The full article: ‘Dytham, S. (2018) The Construction and Maintenance of Exclusion, Control and Dominance through Secondary School Students’ Sitting Practices, British Journal of Sociology of Education’ is available (open access) here: https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2018.1455494 Siobhan is on Twitter: @SiobhanDytham and email: s.dytham@warwick.ac.uk

With thanks for the cover photograph to Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Cranhill Secondary School, Glasgow, 1967) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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