Faith, identity, status and schooling: An ethnography of educational decision-making in northern Senegal

This thesis draws upon fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork to analyse the ways in which parents and pupils navigate between secular state and Islamic schools in northern Senegal. Preference for Qur’anic schools among relatively well-off and high-status families counters several assumptions prevalent in international development discourse, namely that Qur’anic schools have little economic value and largely appeal to parents too poor to choose otherwise. I unpack these flawed assumptions, revealing their narrow preoccupation with economic utility and secular bias. I develop a more nuanced theoretical framework for understanding educational decision-making which does justice to the complexity of ideological, material and economic factors underpinning people’s evaluations of education;the influence of identities including ‘caste’, gender and being Muslim on educational aspirations;and the power relations underpinning family decision-making.

This analysis of inhabitants’ negotiations of the plural educational landscape contributes to several contemporary debates in anthropology and international education. I apply insights from the anthropology of religion and development illuminate how all of the education providers in this context are influenced by different epistemologies and ideologies which frame the role of faith in society in diverse ways. While rationalistic secularism dominates state policy and donor agendas, parents and young people’s strategies reveal alternative but nonetheless valid faith-inspired visions of development that deserve to be recognised. The findings also contribute to recent debates about piety within the anthropology of Islam. Although people’s preferences for religious schools shows that Islamic identity plays a role in shaping choice, piety is not always their main preoccupation and must be situated in specific contexts. Finally, educational trajectories in this context reveal the constant negotiation of caste-like hierarchies, of interest to anthropologists who study this phenomenon prevalent in West Africa.

Drawing these threads together, I conclude that people’s educational decisions are more complex than the dominant models in international development would suggest. Narrow models of decision-making impede our understandings of realities on the ground, and in turn reduce the possibility for policy which enables access to education that people themselves find valuable. Inspired by critical and transformative anthropology of education, I build on people’s micro-strategies of resistance, and circumvention of inadequate state school provision, to suggest alternative models of education which embrace a wider diversity of worldviews and address the needs of the socially disadvantaged.

Anneke Newman
PhD in Anthropology, University of Sussex
Awarded: January 2016
Supervisors: Professor Elizabeth Harrison, Professor Filippo Osella