Imagining the Future: Youth Transitions in Urban and Rural School Contexts

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This post introduces a comparative study of transitions into early adulthood in the UK. Over the coming year, our research team will track the movements, imaginations and aspirations of young people as they complete compulsory secondary education and move on – whether to higher education, employment, un/under-employment, or elsewhere. The study begins with final year students in secondary schools in one urban (London) and one rural (Oxfordshire) setting. Through the summer and beyond, we will ethnographically pursue a range of these students’ geographical, institutional and experiential trajectories. Our aim is to grasp the potential role of space, place and schooling in shaping young people’s aspirations and to capture the changing social relations and cultural formations during this period of transition.

The research may be seen as part of a growing interest in “futures” within the humanities and social sciences, as epitomized by the ASA and EASA conferences this summer: Footprints and futures: The time of anthropology (Durham); Anthropological legacies and human futures (Milan). We are interested in the range of futures that are being reckoned, on what scale, with whom, and with what symbolic or emotional associations. Futures may be uncertain, clear, banal, severe, romanticized or feared. Yet as well as asking what futures, there is the broader question of what shapes aspiration, and what socializes young people into different temporal, as well as spatial, orientations.

The question of what facilitates or inhibits opportunity for young people is one that has been well explored. We will be drawing from the theory and the classic case studies, yet begin the fieldwork as inductively as possible. Primacy will be given to the experiences and articulations of the future that are bound within the everyday dynamics of young people’s lives, beginning with group and individual interviews and participant observation during the final months of Sixth Form life. This will, on the one hand, privilege the voices of young people, yet simultaneously, not detach them from the social, spatial and discursive context in which they are embedded and produced.

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We are aware that “the future” of young people can be of more concern to adults, such as parents, teachers, politicians and researchers, than it is to young people themselves. This is all a part of the complex array of symbolic relations between generation and temporal orientation. We will therefore reflexively assess the extent to which concerns about “the future”, and particular kinds of “future”, are being imposed upon school leavers at an institutional, familial and cultural level – as a well as a methodological one, through our presence and enquiries.

The research team is composed of Dr. Patrick Alexander, Prof. Graham Butt and myself, John Loewenthal. The project builds upon Patrick’s experience in school ethnography, in particular, his current study of aspiration and imagined futures in secondary school contexts in the US and UK (blog here: Graham’s expertise in the fields of geography and education propels our enquiry towards the interpretation of space, place and schooling and how these give meaning to young people’s lives. The project will also parallel my own doctoral research (under the supervision of Patrick and Graham), examining how university graduates in London and New York relate to “the future” during the lifestyle changes that follow the completion of their degree.


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