Geography and Epistemology in the Production of Aspirations

london bus

This research has asked young people coming out of school in different geographical settings what they want to do with their lives. Ironically, this broad and potentially empowering question is often experienced as a burden that must prematurely negotiated. “Having to decide what you’re going to do for 60 years when you’re 15 is just insane”, remarked one participant. As discussed by Irving (2017: 25) elsewhere, small decisions in the present can have ‘radical consequences for a person’s future life’ and this is very much the case in the British education system. Young people must choose their GCSEs by 14, A-Levels by 16, and a degree, with implied vocations and justified price-tag, by 17 or 18. Each stage of specialisation reduces alternative possibilities with lasting, often lifelong, consequences.

In response to such pressures, school leavers often present narratives of serious, ‘responsible’ futures, such as chosen career or current plan. These are particular versions of  ‘aspiration’ that are tailored and performed (cf. Nichols and Stahl, 2017; Goffman, 1956), reducing the messiness of the future into sound-bytes that are often singular, simplified, exaggerated, or contrived. Such narratives of a ‘known future’ can serve both to appease enquiring adults and/or provide insulation from personal uncertainty. While often said with integrity, a more complex terrain of hopes and anxieties usually exists alongside. Concerns about ‘personal relationships, wellbeing, lifestyle and leisure’ that are central to young people’s lives (Stokes and Wyn, 2007: 501) have been shown to play an equally active role in their orientations towards the future. In this penultimate blog post of the project, we emphasise the significance of space – both known, virtual, and imagined – in producing and forming the focus of youth ‘aspirations’, more broadly defined. Through examples of: a rural school leaver eager to get away, media forms permeating youth fantasies, and the mutability of perceptions over time, we argue for a deeper appreciation of the epistemic, situational, and contingent foundations on which all aspirations are based.

freshers special

While some school leavers feared the distance and unfamilarity of leaving home, none were so keen to ‘escape’ their surroundings as ‘Sarah’ from rural Oxfordshire. During our interviews in May, August, and September 2016, Sarah was resolute in condemning the lack of vitality in her local area: “it’s very boring and just quiet. I just really don’t like it”. Her main aspiration was therefore to move away, at first to university in London and then permanently to America. The slow-paced lifestyle she was exposed to presented one particular version of the world – which she rejected. By giving her an idea of what she does not want in life, the geography played a distinctive role in shaping her inclinations and trajectory. Sarah was also critical about the monotony and routine she perceived at home: “every other day it will be the same meal, and next week, this day, will be the same meal, and it’s just so boring, and like you watch the same thing, at the same time…”. Through trips into Oxford and London as a teenager and through movies (where she has learned about America, having never been), Sarah juxtaposed these surroundings with an idealised, alternative future that she aspired to.

We suggest exploring the relationship between context (e.g. rurality, home life, the city), stimulation (e.g. comfort, rejection, excitement), and aspiration (e.g. to stay, leave, or change) through the lens of epistemology. School and family have a powerful grip on the kinds of knowledge and beliefs that young people are exposed to (cf. Foucault on power-knowledge); negotiating out of these institutions is therefore a process of unlearning, “sensitisation”, and re-socialisation. Nichols and Stahl (2017: 166) present the ‘post-school year as a space in which different aspirations become possible’ through the disentanglement of the self from school and its associated identities. We elaborate on this argument by pointing to the epistemic and situated nature of all relations and environments. Particular places (such as of work, rest, or leisure) and moments in time (whether chronological like age or cyclical like the weekend) can have their own distinct epistemological status. Changes after schooling, in and of themselves, are therefore likely to disrupt former habits (and limits) of thinking, providing a fertile space for new ideas. Alterations in bedroom, location, peer group, or routine – commonly experienced in synchronisation in the move to university – can amalgamate through a ‘compressed’ temporal experience of multiple futures at once. Previous blog posts have reported on the spatial facilitation of these transformative processes and the sense of novelty and agency induced by living independent from parents. The extent of radical change reported by school leavers (see December blog post) might even be described as a ‘paradigm shift’ in epistemology – akin to Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) notion that entails an episodic (not incremental) ‘revolution’ in the kinds of possibilities that are conceivable (though to be taken loosely and metaphorically).

How then, as social scientists, can we draw correlations between young people’s changing spatial/epistemic contexts, on the one hand, and their often-ambiguous aspirations, on the other? This project has sought to compare how urban and rural settings, as well as imaginaries, push and pull young people towards different objectives. In doing so, we have found that not only are the notions “urban” and “rural” awkward in definition and often false as a dichotomy, but the geographies affecting people’s lives are more multiple and complex than the location in which they dwell. Due to the time-space compression of globalisation, people are influenced by geographies well beyond their physical settings, imprinting a wide range of dispositions. See for example the poster, below, adapted from John Berger’s award-winning Ways of Seeing.

berger take 2

Berger refers to the endless advertising and media that permeate our lives, instilling an appetite for ‘fabulous rewards and objects and people’. The text evokes an imagery of searching near and far, ‘here? there?’ – though allowing for simulation, ‘nowhere?’. Media consumption provides fascinating examples of how young people grow to ‘know’ of possibility. Urban, mobile, and affluent livelihoods are usually exalted and normalised, to the extent that fictional portrayals of social life become markers of normality. In a bizarre cultural dynamic, audiences accept and often wish for lifestyles that they have never seen with their own eyes – and which may well not exist (see Rao, 2007 for non-elites watching Bollywood in India). The following extract from two school students in London demonstrates how such media can affect youth fantasies:

A: “When I was younger, I thought school in America looks so good – like, they get the school bus and… it’s like a childhood paradise the way they portray it”

B: “I kind of want to go to LA and Las Vegas. […] New York as well, yeah, and see like the set of Gossip Girl.”

Both students are aware of the media construction involved, referring to ‘the way they portray it’ and ‘the set’ – if anything, this is part of the appeal. As with Sarah, who wants to spend the rest of her life in America having only seen it on the screen, we see that even distant and (semi-)fictional geographies channelled through virtual spaces can have a very real impact on young people’s imaginations. Another rural school leaver commented that “society tells us what to do”, elaborating: “it’s how the media represents people and teenagers especially. In films they’re always going off travelling and it’s sort of there all the time.”

The totalising imagery evoked from being “there all the time” is pertinent. A similar degree of pervasiveness and “inescapability” can be said of the media that young people create and share among themselves. The digital contexts of Facebook, Instagram, and the like must be factored in as part of the persistent yet ever-changing environments that stimulate youth perspectives on the future. Participants described pressures to digitally convey ‘successful’ and ‘enjoyable’ experiences at the start of university for the accreditation of their physically distant friends from school. This evoked frequent themes of comparison, envy, and ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) whereby particular constructions of university life and the social futures this might entail made others reflect, often in emotive ways, about their own circumstances. Those that went straight into work from school described how online portrayals of university life forced them to ponder the ‘counter-factual‘ – the “what if” possibilities – had they taken a different route (see blog post).


This relates to a final point, on the contingency of aspirations. Human lives are hinged upon contexts and foundations that change over time, both through “natural” social processes, particular phases, and unexpected events. The versions of the future we tell ourselves and tell others – such as the “adult sounding” (cf. Moffatt, 1988: xv) narratives referred to at the beginning – are frequently subject to reflexivity, scrutiny, and doubt. For example, two Freshers have independently reflected on waking up alone in their university bedroom, thinking: “what am I doing here? I want to go home”. Kirsty Finn’s (2015) work emphasises the importance of a longitudinal approach to appreciate the changing and reflective nature of people’s lives and a similar methodology has been illuminating in this urban-rural study. Take for example Sarah’s email from last week (June 2017):

“Strangely, I feel like [where I’m from] is more like home than I did before I started university. Although I love London, I haven’t made too many friends at uni, not like the ones I have here so I wouldn’t say it feels like home.”

Two main points are emergent from her change in tone and attitude. Firstly we see how the comparative value of her ‘home friends’ was only made knowable through rupture and comparison; the familiarity and apparent ‘neutrality’ of her former situation prevented her from seeing this. Secondly, we see how difficult futures are to imagine, regardless of how committed our aspirations may be. Both points are ultimately epistemological: 1) we often do not know our positions or situations until they change (a.k.a. ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it’, often applicable to health and personal relationships); 2) how can we know a possible eventuality from a far-removed environment and without prior experience. This second point relates back to the introductory remarks on framing futures through the narrow prism of school subjects, HE, and work. Our research has found that work and even university futures are difficult to imagine a priori from the culturally dissonant contexts of schooling, home, and adolescence. This distance is something that can be addressed in policy. Further to simply an increase in work experience and university open days, we can think more about how the social structuring of such experiences (e.g. visiting in school groups versus alone) affects young people’s epistemic understandings of themselves in that plausible scenario.

To summarise this penultimate blog post: emerging findings suggest that aspirations, broadly conceived, are manifest through multiple intersecting spaces, relations, and schedules – both physical and digital. However, these configurations are also shown to  be contingent, never static, and never ‘neutral’. There is therefore a paradox in that geography and temporality are shown to be central foundations upon which aspirations are hinged; yet simultaneously, these ‘foundations’ are unstable and often ephemeral. In response to this “situatedness” and contingency, we therefore (speculatively) suggest that aspirations and futures should be explored not only through ontological questions of ‘being’ or ‘becoming’, but also through the social contexts of perception and epistemology.

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