Emptiness and Rural Educational Imaginaries

This project, led by Professor Alis Oancea and involving Dr Mariela Neagu and Arzhia Habibi, is funded by the University of Oxford’s Department of Education small grants scheme. It pilots digital and remote ethnographic educational research in rural areas affected by demographic change where permanent school closures occurred. Emptying – the disappearance or radical reconfiguration of material and social relations that constitute a place (due to demographic change, migration, economic situation, COVID-19, etc.) – is an increasingly common global phenomenon. The project aims to describe how small or isolated rural communities and individuals in places that are ’emptying’ continue to live and become after permanent school closures – in order to understand and theorise the different senses of emptiness at play and their material, social, and cultural entanglements. The empty school buildings, objects emptied of function, and lost routines and calendars, together with the disappearance of part of the local labour market and community services and support network, do not only open a keenly perceived material and social hiatus within the community, but school closures also transform its rhythms, aesthetics, self-understandings, and imaginaries.

Dr Mariela Neagu is an independent researcher with a DPhil in Education and an MSt in International Human Rights Law from New College, University of Oxford. She has conducted research with hard-to-reach young people in different countries and has experience in policy and research. Voices from the Silent Cradles: Life Histories of Romania’s Looked-After Children is her latest book, and you can also find her on Twitter.

Arzhia Habibi is a DPhil candidate at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, conducting research on global and world citizenship education in Chinese higher education under the supervision of Professor Alis Oancea and Dr Nigel Fancourt. She uses ethnographic methods to engage, in Mandarin, with educators, students, and researchers in Chinese higher education institutions. Arzhia received her master’s degree from National Chengchi University, Taipei, and her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nottingham, UK. As a child, Arzhia lived and attended kindergarten in Fuzhou (Fujian province), China, for five years. These early childhood experiences inform her interests into how memory, belonging, longing, family, and community weave into a personal relationship with education and with Chinese-speaking communities. More broadly, she is interested in the intersection of anthropological debates and practices, and philosophical concepts, as well as the relationships, frictions, tensions, silences, and gaps that exist between the two fields of inquiry. You can find Arzhia on Twitter.

Collaborate with us

If you would like to find out more about the project or contribute a blog on a resonant aspect of your own research to the Field Reports section of our website, please get in touch by writing to emptiness@anthro.ox.ac.uk.