Irish Children and Teenagers in a Changing World: The National Write Here, Write Now Project
Manchester University Press,
In her latest work, the Irish sociologist Pat O'Connor explores young people's accounts of their lives at the cusp of the millennium. Her examination of the lives of young people in Ireland at a time of immense economic, cultural and social change provides a unique lens through which to test some of the theories of identity in late modernity. Though increasingly a participant in the globalised world, Ireland remains a place that is relatively culturally and ethnically homogeneous, where the family unit plays an important role in structuring children's relationships to adults as well as their gender roles and relationships, and where the Roman Catholic Church and the State continue to mediate gender hierarchies. All of these distinctive features of Irish culture and society, O'Connor argues, may play a role in mediating the processes of individualisation that contemporary social theorists have described.
O'Connor's work is drawn from a large data set of texts written by young people, aged 10-12 and 14-17, who were asked to tell their life stories and to describe themselves 'and the Ireland that they inhabit' (p. 23) in order to provide a national data base and an archive. O'Connor and her colleagues engaged in a qualitative and quantitative analysis of a subset of these texts. They are guided by the notion that young people can help us to better understand 'youth' (2005: 10), though O'Connor points out the limitations of this method of understanding in that it may be difficult to assess how much the texts reflect normative ideas about childhood and adolescent identity (p. 25).
O'Connor explores several core themes in the book: love and work, time and space, and constructions of selfhood. Throughout the text, she is in dialogue with the work of Anthony Giddens (1991) and Ulrich Beck (1992) on identity and individualisation, examining some of the ways that the texts of Irish children both reflect and challenge these theories. She also draws extensively from the large body of work on youth studies, examining in particular whether theories about youth and childhood and structural embeddedness play out in the texts she examines.
O'Connor is perhaps most interested in the interplay between global and local, the power and performance of gender, and the ways in which relationships, as opposed to individual identity, still hold power in Irish children's lives. An important finding of this study is that young people expressed strong ties to the 'local,' even whilst living in a globalising context (p. 150), though perhaps their expression of ties to the local, such as their descriptions of the natural beauty of Ireland, perhaps engaged with the language of globalisation, such as that of tourism.
O'Connor, whose work has been concerned with gendered power, draws from her strengths in this area to provide an analysis of the role of gender in young people's texts. She is particularly interested in some of the ways that young people are 'doing gender' (Butler, 1991). For example, she focuses on young people's discussions of life style through this lens, pointing out that despite the fact that young people rarely mention their gender, they nonetheless engage in hegemonic behaviours connected to their assigned gender (p. 111). O'Connor also shows that gender is an important framework for the construction of young people's sense of self (p. 110).
O'Connor lays out the limitations of conducting textual analysis, and in particular some of the ways that these texts prevent an in-depth examination of some of the mediating impacts of the children's personal qualities, such as their class and where they are from. It may have been interesting to explore further some of the ways that the texts, as public documents, and in particular documents which are prospective, play a role in young people's expression of selfhood.
O'Connor's book makes some important claims about the significance of social and cultural context in analysing constructions of selfhood in late modernity. Ireland is a powerful example in this context, as it is a rapidly changing culture that still maintains some aspects of traditional societies. O'Connor's work perhaps creates an opening for a more in-depth qualitative analysis of young people's experiences and lives, particularly as Ireland becomes a focus point in the global financial crisis.
Beck, U. (199) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.
Butler, J. (1991) Gender Trouble. London: Routledge.
Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
O'Connor, P. (2005) 'Local embeddedness in a global world: young people's accounts,' Young, 13(1): 9-26.
University of Cambridge