Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Youth Research in the 1990s: Time for (Another) Rethink

by Christine Griffin
School of Psychology, University of Birmingham

P. Cohen (1997) Rethinking the Youth Question: Education, Labour and Cultural Studies. London: Macmillan. A. Furlong and F. Cartmel (1997) Young People and Social Change: Individualisation and Late Modernity. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.
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J. Roche and S. Tucker (1996) Youth in Society: Contemporary Theory, Policy and Practice. London: Sage, in association with The Open University. J. Wyn and J. White (1996) Rethinking Youth. London: Sage.
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One of the most obvious legacies of the 'turn to text' that has been felt across numerous academic disciplines over the past few decades has been the increasing trend towards self- reflection amongst researchers and the deconstruction of key categories and concepts. Youth/adolescence has been the focus for concern amongst academics and policy makers throughout most of the 20th century, and especially over the past 40 years. Whilst many texts related to youth and the 'problems' posed by particular groups of young people would be prefaced with rationales concerning the moral panics of the day, relatively few analyses have posed the question "why is there so much research and/or policy-related interest in young people?" or "why does youth research take particular forms in given historical and political contexts?", although an important exception is the influential text on British youth cultural studies, Resistance Through Rituals (Hall and Jefferson, 1975). Despite their somewhat different disciplinary and theoretical orientations, each of the books reviewed here devotes some attention to their reasons for studying 'youth' and focussing on young people's lives. This critical and self- reflexive perspective directs the gaze of researchers (and readers) towards the historical and political contexts in which young people are living and in which researchers and policy makers are looking at something called 'youth'. Such a perspective also addresses the diversity of young people's lives, challenging the uniformity of the category 'youth' by examining the importance of relations around gender, sexuality, 'race' and class, nation and locality in young people's lives.

These four books also have rather different - and by no means uncritical - approaches to the arguments associated with postmodernism and post-structuralism, and with the view of youth research as (in part) a reflection of wider political contexts at specific historical moments. Each text addresses these issues with varying degrees of depth. None of these books takes an entirely uncritical moral panic around 'youth' (or particular groups of young people) as its starting point, and that in itself marks something of a departure for academic work in this area. Long established moral panics over 'youth' are still alive and well, however, as illustrated by some of the policies emerging from Tony Blair's new Labour government. These include legislation on parental responsibility for young people's offending behaviour, and dawn to dusk curfews on under 16 year olds, the first of which has already started in Hamilton, near Glasgow.

Two of these books include the word "rethinking" in their titles (Cohen and Wyn and White), and of the other two, both share an interest in how young people's lives have been "changed" (Furlong and Cartmel) or can be "reshaped" (Roche and Tucker) in the context of contemporary capitalist societies. In part this terminology could be said to reflect the pervasive sense of youth as a period of transition, fluidity and formation, but I think all of these texts, in different ways, address issues relevant to the reassessment of approaches to understanding youth and young people's lives. In this sense, Blair's New Labour is out of step with moves amongst academics and practitioners concerned with young people.

Andy Furlong and Fred Cartmel's text rests on the assertion that "the life experiences of young people in modern industrial societies have changed quite significantly over the last two decades" (p. 1). They argue that young people in contemporary industrial societies "have to negotiate a set of risks which were largely unknown to their parents; ... irrespective of social background or gender" (p. 1). In some ways Furlong and Cartmel's text has 'youth' as its secondary focus, since they see the study of youth as an ideal means of presenting evidence in support of their argument in favour of a revised form of structuralist analysis, following Giddens (1991) and Beck (1992). This does not mean that the book has little to say about young people's lives in Britain and elsewhere, simply that its arguments revolve around questions of social structure, risk and individualization. Furlong and Cartmel's central argument, which will be familiar to anyone who knows the recent work of Giddens and Beck, is that structural forces remain active in shaping social relations in contemporary societies. However, as collectivist traditions such as trade unions weaken and individualist values intensify, people are increasingly likely to perceive the social world as full of risks that must be negotiated at an individual level.

Furlong and Cartmel make the distinction between "subjective feelings of risk" and "objective levels of risk" (p. 7) in a manner that would certainly be anathema to postmodernism, but they also argue that perceptions of risk are always socially constructed. Key themes in their discussion of 'late modern' societies include fundamental shifts in transitions from education systems to labour markets for all young people; and extended periods of semi-dependency as many young people face delayed and disrupted transitions from their families of origin regarding domestic and housing arrangements. Furlong and Cartmel argue that the influences of peer groups and the media on young people have become increasingly powerful, and they make a strong argument against the proposition of cultural theorists such as Featherstone (1990) that style and consumption have superseded social class in shaping young people's lives. They reiterate the importance of class (and to a lesser extent gender and 'race') in structuring the forms that 'transitions to adulthood' can take for different groups of young people. Young People and Social Change reviews research on the lives of young people in education; transitions to the labour market; family life and patterns of dependency; health risks and young people; crime and insecurity; politics and participation. Furlong and Cartmel end by arguing that both Beck and Giddens place too great an emphasis on "the significance of individual reflexivity" (p. 113) in an unashamedly realist approach which sees young people's increasing sense of personal failure and insecurity as arising from their mistaken assumptions about the demise of interdependency and collectivity.

Jeremy Roche and Stan Tucker have compiled a rather different text. Youth in Society is a companion book to an anthology of young people's words which is designed to support a new (and very popular) Open University degree on Working with Young People. This course reader is made up of relatively short contributions with the dual aim of encouraging critical reflection and insights into the complexity and diversity of young people's lives. That diversity includes issues of disability and sexuality as well as class, 'race' and gender. Chapters cover issues such as children's rights; citizenship and political participation; racial formations of youth; racisms and masculinity; a critique of the western psychological model of adolescence as ethnocentric; recent changes in youth work, community work and welfare services for young people, and in education and training provision; housing issues; young people and the labour market; the youth justice system; young people and family life, friendships and peer groups; youth cultures and sub- cultures; young people with disabilities; questions of intervention and abuse in work with young people; and communication between adults and young people. This is an extremely broad range of topics, as might be expected in a course text, and contributors address four main themes. These include firstly, the ways in which young people are represented and how they construct themselves; secondly, debates on young people's rights and claims to citizenship, their status as social and political subjects and questions of accountabilty for adults who 'speak for' young people. The third theme addresses the issue of diversity and difference between young people, and the final theme concerns services aimed at young people, from youth work to the youth justice system. Different chapters address various aspects of these four themes, although there is some degree of overlap.

The book provides an accessible and fairly comprehensive picture of key arguments and issues in contemporary British research and 'practice' with young people. As an introductory text, its strength is in its breadth rather than depth of coverage, and in the juxtaposition of debates in academic research, social policy and service provision in one text. The book also includes contributors from various academic disciplines, reflecting the transdisciplinary nature of debates in youth studies, although in some respects this presents a somewhat over- optimistic picture. This is also the only one of the four texts under review that devotes any significant attention to the role of sexuality as a structuring feature of young people's lives, or even acknowledges the existence of young lesbians, bisexuals or gay men. There is a sense here that the frequent comments about acknowledging diversity amongst young people in the other three texts do not always inform the framework through which 'youth' is being reassessed to any significant extent, and certainly not as far as sexuality is concerned.

Rethinking Youth by Johanna Wyn and Rob White is the only one of these four books not to focus on the position(s) of young people in British society. The authors are based in Melbourne, Australia, and they examine youth research and young people's lives in a range of contemporary industrial societies, including Britain and other European countries, the USA, Canada and Australia. Once again, we see a stress on difference and diversity as the authors challenge traditional views of youth as a homogenous group. Like Furlong and Cartmel, Wyn and White argue that the conditions of young people's lives have seen considerable economic, social and cultural changes over the past few decades. Like Furlong and Cartmel, there is a tendency to pay more attention to the operation of social relations around class than those of gender and 'race', although the latter are by no means overlooked. Wyn and White go further than their British counterparts in emphasising the central importance of social class and economics as fundamental structuring forces on young people's lives.

From this starting point, the bulk of Rethinking Youth addresses three areas that have been important in youth studies: development, sub-cultures, and transitions. The book ends by looking at marginalisation, examining the diversity of young people's experiences in school, the labour market and in wider society. Despite their deconstructive critique of the apparent uniformity of 'youth' as an age stage, Wyn and White are distinctly wary of postmodernism and post- structuralism, prefering to stay with a structuralist analysis that stresses the centrality of social class and the economy in shaping young people's life chances. The book provides a clear and concise account of different conceptualisations of social class as these might be relevant to young people's lives in advanced industrial societies. It also presents a well-argued critique of the view of young people as social problems, which is so commonly used to differentiate between the supposed majority of 'normal' young people and the apparently deficient, deviant, deprived and/or disadvantaged minority that are constructed as either actively disruptive or passively at risk (see Griffin, 1993). Wyn and White marshal a range of arguments and empirical evidence that contradicts this proposition, and address the dilemmas posed by the distinction between a normative majority and an apparently deviant minority for practitioners working with young people, especially in education. Like Youth in Society, Rethinking Youth should prove useful for practitioners as well as academic researchers. It was also a welcome change to see a detailed discussion of social relations around ethnicity, 'race' and class from the perspective of Australian society, as well as the more usual and dominant focus on Britain and the USA.

The compilation of Phil Cohen's work, Rethinking the Youth Question, addresses many of the issues raised by the other three texts, but in a more personal and politically engaged manner. As one of the most influential writers and activists (to use a rather old-fashioned word) in British cultural studies, whose work on youth cultures and working class community presaged Reseistance through Rituals, Phil Cohen was one of the first to link issues of class, culture, locale and community in a study of white working class young men's lives and territorial struggles in East London during the late 1960s, and he remains one of the foremost British theorists of cultural formations around 'race', racisms and ethnicities, especially with regard to the lives and representations of young people. Rethinking the Youth Question is a collection of reprinted pieces spanning over 25 years, each with an informative commentary, a new and autobiographical introduction to the book, and the addition of several new pieces. The book records a sort of continuity in Cohen's personal and political engagement with 'the youth question', and in so doing it manages to sidestep the whole question of "is it worse or better for young people now compared to five/ten/twenty years ago?" altogether.

In his introduction, Cohen discusses his reaction to being described as a 'maverick' by one reviewer, and in many ways this is an apt description of his position and his work. Cohen remains on the outside, not just of mainstream youth research, but also of the radical trendiness of British youth sub-cultural studies, and it is this which gives him such a novel perspective on the conditions of young people's lives and the ways in which 'youth' are represented. Cohen also remains commited to making connections between ethnographic research and radical political work which involves young people as more than a token presence. It has never been easy to make these kind of connections, but it became incredibly difficult during the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Despite all this, there are many areas of similarity between Rethinking the Youth Question and the other three books under review. Like Wyn and White, Cohen argues for the need to rethink the youth question, and like Furlong and Cartmel, he would want to retain an emphasis on the place of social class in shaping young people's lives. Cohen is also ambivalent about the value of postmodernism and post-structuralism for working with young people and understanding their lives, in research, political and educational work.

In many respects though, Rethinking the Youth Question is quite diffferent from the other three books under review. Firstly, it has a strong autobiographical theme, and secondly because this is linked to a broad and detailed historical analysis spanning the past 30 years, which covers the period of the new and reprinted pieces. Thirdly, although some pieces do present 'broad- brush' and relatively abstract theoretical formulations concerning young people's position(s) in an expanding process of globalisation, there is a strong sense of considering young people's lives within specific local contexts. And finally, the book is more sophisticated in its treatment of a number of key issues: especially 'race', racism(s) and ethnicities in Britain; and, of course, the central importance of examining the role of culture in local contexts. The book is divided into three main sections: on class, gender and 'race' in urban youth cultures; on "transitional subjects"; and on "unsentimental education". The first section comprises six chapters on different aspects of youth cultural practices, including pieces from Cohen's work with Dave Robbins on 'Knuckle Sandwich'; on 'policing the working class city'; and on territoriality and working class (male) youth.

The second section is made up of two chapters: one entitled "rethinking the youth question", which in many ways is the centre-piece of the book, and the other concerning Labour's policies on young people in the 1980s. The former is a long analytic piece that emerged from a critique of the attempt by some 'mainstream' youth researchers to return to traditional empricist projects in the mid-1980s after what Cohen calls "the brief flirtation with theory and critical ethnography" (p. 179) during the late 1970s and early '80s. In this chapter, Cohen argues forcefully for a new agenda for youth research and policy in 1990s Britain. Cohen argues for a rejection of "youthism" or the ghettoisation of young people as a separate and different set of beings, advocating the use of four cultural (as opposed to socio-linguistic) "codes" through which to think about young people's lives and the construction of their identities. Drawng on Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital, Cohen's four codes revolve around vocation, inheritance, apprenticeship and career, and he outlines an ambitious research programme concerning the geneology of these codes which would "focus on their function as autobiographical grammars and on the 'habitus' in particular forms of family, education and labour process" (p. 180). In the third section of the book, the three final chapters take the form of case studies illustrating what this type of research project might look like in pracice. These include pieces on the teaching of cultural studies in schools and further education, and the value of postmodern approaches for radical pedagogical practices.

As someone who has (and still is) involved in the debates around 'youth' both inside and outside of academia to which Cohen refers, I would dispute some of his arguments, especially concerning the politics of gender, 'race' and class in youth research and youth work, and on the impact of feminism(s) in this arena. There is a tendency to caricature (some) feminist approaches as simplistically separatist (and therefore bad) without acknowledging the political context in which such feminist analyses, actions and practices emerged. To some extent Cohen follows this path, and I would not agree with his characterisation of early feminist youth work with girls as involving middle class feminists working with working class girls, for example. There were certainly class dynamics of this kind in operation in some Girls' Work projects, but they cannot be understood without reference to sexuality or 'race' - or to mainstream youth work, which is, and largely remains, single sex work with (heterosexual) boys and young men, with a token female presence here and there. Cohen is unusual however, in the extent to which he is prepared to critique his own earlier work in the light of feminist and other debates, whilst never losing sight of the political context in which these debates took place.

One of the political developments since the mid-1980s in youth work, and more recently in youth research, has been a more systematic approach to working with and understanding young (and not so young) men as gendered social beings. This has coincided with a shift from focusing on Black youth in studies of 'race', young women in studies of gender, and so on, to an emphasis on the processes involved in racialisation, sexualisation, gendering and class-location of all young people in different contexts. The chapters by Les Back, and Gargi Bhattacharrya and John Gabriel in Youth in Society are illustrations of this approach. This emphasis on the social, cultural, psychological and economic processes through which 'race', class, gender, dis/ability and sexuality are produced and reproduced in practice by various groups of young people is, for me, one of the major shifts in recent approaches to social research. It takes us away from the simplistic concern with 'sex (or race) differences' to a more dynamic place in which the relationship between social structures and individual agency is transformed. The mistake that I think both Furlong and Cartmel and Wyn and White make is to assume that this shift removes the importance of structural forces altogether - and of course for some researchers, that has been the outcome. In Rethinking the Youth Question, Phil Cohen is, I think, striving to develop an analysis of processes of (in particular) racialisation, gender and class formations in which structuralism is not lost altogether, but transformed through a critical engagement with post-structuralist and postmodern frameworks. He does this in part by arguing for the detailed analysis of local contexts and cultural practices in relation to broader political and policy debates.

Each of these texts is useful in different ways and for different audiences. All are eminently readable, and as such are of potential value for use in social science courses relevant to the study of youth and young people's lives. These texts will also be of interest to academics, researchers and practitioners in this field. Although there are a few exceptions, all four books manage to present their arguments without romanticising or demonising youth or particular groups of young people to a significant extent. I am not arguing that we are seeing a simplistic 'march of progress' forwards into a newly enlightened approach to work with young people or representations of their lives, but it is important to recognise, as Cohen's text demonstrates, that it is no longer possible to write or talk about 'youth' in precisely the same terms as twenty, even ten years ago.


BECK, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.

FEATHERSTONE, M. (1990) Consumer Culture and Post-Modernism. London: Sage Publications.

GIDDENS, A. (1991) Modernity and Self Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Oxford: Polity Press.

GRIFFIN, C. (1993) Representations of Youth: The Study of Youth and Adolescence in Britain and America. Oxford: Polity Press.

HALL, S. and JEFFERSON, T. (editors) (1975) Resistance through Rituals: Youth Sub-cultures in Post-War Britain. London: Hutchinson.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997