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Chaotic Schooling: State schools and the making of (un)freedom in contemporary Brazil



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Souza, Caroline 


With this work, I explore and discuss the relationship between state-provided education and the making of substantive freedoms for urban Brazilian underprivileged populations. In Brazil, state schools for basic education, which are the ones attended by poor urban students, are highly recognised as low-quality institutions. Far from adopting any simplistic framework to blame the poor and their conditions of poverty for their own educational failure – or for the failure of educational institutions – here I endeavour to make sense of the conditions that render state schools in Brazil as a space prone to generate unfavourable life opportunities for underprivileged populations as well as for their teachers and for general school staff. Moreover, I endeavour to understand the extent to which state schools represent spaces of freedoms, hope, and resistance.

I adopt the definition of freedom provided by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s Capability Approaches to conceptualise freedom as opportunities to be, to do and to become valuable things in life. Here, I understand that formal education should provide people with a large and diverse set of life opportunities regardless of people’s socioeconomic background. As such, I depart from a strong sociological and historically based premise: the idea that Brazil, as a postcolonial state, has historically oriented its action toward fulfilling the interests of dominant groups, and of the dominant structures of power that sustain them. I argue that such a rationale orients the somehow necropolitical state’s management of poor people’s lives, in that poverty is maintained through its containment. Provided this context, I endeavour to critically perceive how freedoms and unfreedoms are made for poor urban populations. I focus mainly on the aspects of people’s lives that are prone to affect how they may benefit from formal education, and, most prominently, on state schools, a primordial institution in terms of its role in providing people with life opportunities and hence in promoting social justice.

Two main research questions I explore are: (1) What are the mechanisms through which dominant structures of power contribute to the making of (un)freedoms for underprivileged populations through state schooling in contemporary urban Brazil?; and (2) What are the implications of such relationships for the rethinking and reframing of formal education as a means to freedom for urban underprivileged populations?

This is an ethnographic study, mostly carried out with students and their teachers in two state schools attended by underprivileged children in Southern Brazil. With this work, I attempt to critically understand the reality behind schooling, school life and social life of poor populations in urban Brazil. I question the role of state schooling, and of the state itself, in determining and perpetuating conditions of poverty and social exclusion of underprivileged groups. By doing so, I advance the question regarding how formal education can be turned into an ally in the path toward the making of substantial freedoms for marginalised populations from postcolonial contexts as Brazil’s. My aim is to advance the discussion started with the work of the Brazilian Educator Paulo Freire on how to convert state schooling into a means to freedom for the oppressed.





Denyer Willis, Graham


Education, Brazil, Urban Poverty, Social Inequality, Politics, Public Policy, Postcolonial Politics, Basic Education, Freedom, Political Power, Resistance, Ethnography, Critical Black Feminist Ethnography, Capability Approaches, Critical Pedagogy


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Trust (Cambridge International Scholarships) and CAPES (Comissão de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior, Ministry of Education, Brazil)