Conquering Novelty: Negotiating Agency in New Times and Places


Transitioning away from the school, family, and friendships of one’s youth into new conditions at university exposes young people to novel possibilities. Through emerging findings from our research, we have noted how transformative the transition out of school has been and highlighted the amount of learning that transition involves, through adaptations and realisations. Last month, as throughout the project, we discussed the significance of place in shaping young people’s changing identities. We here develop the analysis, drawing upon ethnographic insights from a group of first-year university students in London. A combination of social and symbolic attributes in their new urban space have encouraged a creative appropriation of mundane phenomena and an inversion of previous rules and temporalities. It appears that the disrupted foundations of schooling and distance from family, alongside the novelty of a new social environment, have led to an increased sense of agency. We do, however, conclude with some caveats and counter-arguments.

The group of London students collectively come from Reading, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Dover, Maidstone, Leicester, and rural Norway. They are all males and were recruited whilst playing football during Fresher’s week. The group have often expressed their excitements at quickly becoming “like family” with a group of previous strangers. One of the ways in which they have transcended this paradox from “stranger” to “like family” has been through the symbolic construction of group identity. For example, since September they have kept a Christmas tree, found on a drunken night out and duly appropriated as a mascot. The tree has it’s own name and Instagram account and the group find great amusement photographing themselves with it while drunk in iconic London destinations. Part of the tangible yet unspoken novelty of the tree is how far they have strayed from traditional conventions: the fact that it is named, celebrated, and given an online profile; the fact that it is being used outside of the Christmas period and not in a family or domestic context; and the fact that something so odd as a tree is kept in one of their bedrooms and taken around the city on public transport.

An obvious factor enabling this increased freedom has been the lack of parental supervision. One Fresher in Manchester even said, “at uni you can basically do whatever you like”. Yet the dynamics at play are more complex than simply the absence of parents. Leaving school and shifting location have also opened a space to test and challenge previous rules and inhibitions. For example during a focus group in the London students’ kitchen, one participant left after 35 minutes, only to return inside a shopping trolley, from which he participated in the rest of the interview. This is another instance of “differential uptake” and the subversion of norms: he is sitting in the trolley rather than pushing it; he is partaking in an interview from a supermarket appliance rather than a chair; and he is inhabiting an adult space – a kitchen – with an incongruous object that has been displaced from elsewhere. The laughing group clearly enjoyed their newfound power of being able to distort the common codes of conduct in a kitchen (and even an interview). Similar modifications of mundane spaces, such as the decoration of doors and walls, is a common cross-cultural aspect of student culture (Nathan, 2005); such practices are popular in portraying youth identity and demonstrating a sense of ownership and control over objects and spaces that can be called one’s own.

cigarettes and lottery
Newfound legal entitlements – exciting for some?

Such testing of boundaries and expansions of behaviour warrant reflection on the rules, routines, and restrictions that young people have to undergo throughout their “training” in the home and in school. On this point, Durkheim (1895: 5) remarks how habits are systematically policed: ‘from the very first hours of his life, we compel him to eat, drink, and sleep at regular hours; we constrain him to cleanliness, calmness, and obedience’. Here, the students are exposing their former socialisation and the conventions of society by “breaking the rules”. This increased sense of power and capacity to reject normalcy can be seen explicitly in students’ commandment of time. Throughout childhood and adolescence, time is moralised and controlled: one must be at school each day by a certain time, and then punctual to each class, before returning home and often being in bed before particular deadlines. One mustn’t “waste time” such as on video games and must organise evenings and weekends around all-important homework.

By contrast, and likely in reaction, many student schedules are more nocturnal and hedonistic, as well as less efficient. One Thursday in the pub a Fresher from the London group explained, “all I got done today was speak to TFL [Transport for London] and order a new Oyster Card. I was going to do something else but then [X] asked if I wanted to go to Tesco’s and then we started drinking.” Smiling, sat next to him in the smoking area, one friend proudly remarked, “that’s student life mate”. While such a stereotype does not represent the entire student body, such a malleable and nonchalant commandment of time is not uncommon among students. That evening the group explained that they were staying up that night in order to buy Stone Roses tickets that went on sale at 7 a.m. on Friday morning. Again, while unspoken, excitement could be felt in the novelty and absurdity of conducting an ordinary activity (purchasing tickets) in an unconventional way (staying up all night). The act of casually conquering the night – a previously regulated and forbidden terrain – insinuates newfound agency being explored and exercised, via their new independent space.

It is worth reflecting also on the irony of student experiences being marked on the one hand by the freedom to reject or ‘waste’ capitalist constructions of time (see Pels, 2015; Thompson, 1967) while simultaneously being defined by the looming and interwoven pressures of academic performance, mounting debts, and the encroaching need to translate university activities (whatever these may be) onto future employability.

manchester flyer
A flyer for a student night in Manchester. The notion of ‘orderly conduct’, familiar from schooling, is mocked by encouraging behaviour that is anything but. Hyper-sexualized images advertising women’s bodies promote the dynamic of reacting against convention (orderly conduct) to unlock formerly forbidden possibilities (naked bodies and sex) – albeit in a more vulgar and sexist way.

In conjunction with this argument, there are, however, various ways in which school leavers’ agency is curtailed. When headed into the city one evening with the students in London, one didn’t have enough money on his Oyster Card and so went home, prompting (loud) discussion on the train about how transport use and trips to the city had to be carefully rationed. Such regulation is contrary to the “unrestrained” attitude that “going out” often gives off. Indeed, it is important to remember that many of those that did not apply to university did so predominantly because of the financial deterrent. As we have demonstrated, post-school experiences can be radically different – and less ‘agentive’ – for those young people not in higher education (and similar may be said for those at university, though still living at home). Elsewhere, nearly all BME school students in London smiled and shook their head when asked if they had considered universities “up North” or in Scotland. Unlike for many of their white counterparts, distance from familiarity didn’t present itself with such exciting or plausible connotations.

Implicit boundaries and hesitations can also be seen among the group of Fresher’s in London. One candidly reflected on the downsides of leaving home: “to be fair, you do miss it [home], lots of people have been getting homesick. I mean my mum used to do everything for me, like make my food and wash my clothes, now all of a sudden I’ve got to work it out for myself”. Such reflections tell a less boundless story, indicating a more gradated move towards “independence”. This was exemplified during our first encounter, playing football in Fresher’s week, when one participant got a nosebleed – not his first of that week. He explained how his mum was getting upset as she thought his nosebleeds were because he had been smoking. When asked why he didn’t just not tell his mum, he looked confused, as the option had never occurred to him. Of course you tell you’re mum that you’ve got a nosebleed! This raises important questions about when and how parents cease to be the governors and guardians of their children’s bodies. It seems that while new spaces, slackened rules, and altered company have enhanced certain understandings and articulations of possibility, the re-negotiation of roles and relationships is ongoing – such as continues throughout life (Giddens, 1991).