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La oficina: An ethnographic study of language and power in second grade peer play

Benjamin Channing Forbes, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation reports findings from a study of the social interactions of second graders as they engaged in daily periods of classroom free play. The purposes of the study were: (a) to examine how students used oral language and literacy practices to construct social identities and status relationships; and (b) to analyze how these everyday literacy practices and peer relations on the local level of the classroom were linked to broader, macrolevel social relations. The study focused on a group of children—consisting primarily of working-class Latina and African American girls—who played regularly in a play office that was set up in the comer of a Spanish-immersion classroom within an urban elementary school. Data collection included thirty-one hours of audio and videotape. Analysis consisted of thematic analysis fieldnotes, taped data, and students’ written artifacts, and microanalysis of key peer-play events. The microethnographic analysis combined Fairclough’s (1989; 1992) approach to critical discourse analysis with Bloome and Egan-Robertson’s (1993) framework for analyzing intertextuality as a social construction. The findings show that children used literacy practices, and formed complex play identities and relationships, which drew upon multiple discourses, including domestic family life, the adult workplace, the peer group, and romantic love. The results of the study were ambiguous and contradictory: girls defined themselves as strong females in their interactions with boys and in their fantasy play as ‘bosses’ of their own ‘companies’. However, their conceptions of being ‘boss’ were closely bound to performing clerical tasks and child care. Girls both sustained and resisted traditional love ideologies in the contradictory ways that they appropriated popular-culture texts. The results of the study indicate that peer-play literacy practices and social interactions are not politically neutral, but rather are deeply connected with how children form identities, status relationships, and ideologies of gender and class. Social theories of discourse need to develop more dynamic terms for adequately describing the complex, ambiguous, and contradictory processes in which subjectivities and relationships are constructed in children’s everyday peer play.

Subject Area

Elementary education|Preschool education|Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Forbes, Benjamin Channing, "La oficina: An ethnographic study of language and power in second grade peer play" (1999). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9920602.