This is the website for a research project entitled: ‘The role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations’. It is being carried out by Heather Mendick, Kim Allen, Laura Harvey and Aisha Ahmad between September 2012 and July 2014, it was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Why did we do this research?
We had noticed growing concerns in the UK that celebrity is impacting negatively on young people’s aspirations. Politicians and teacher unions had spoken out on the ‘dangerous effects’ of celebrity, expressing fears that young people just want fame (as footballers’ wives or Reality TV stars) rather than achievement based on hard work and skill. We wanted to critically engage with these claims and so based our study on research suggesting that celebrity informs young people’s educational and career aspirations in complex ways. We set out to explore how accounts of aspiration within celebrity (e.g. stories of success, talent and self-realisation) shape young people’s imagined futures.
What were our research questions?
What discourses (powerful and conflicting social stories) of aspiration circulate in celebrity representations?
How do young people take-up these discourses in talking about their own aspirations?
How do discourses of aspiration in celebrity and young people’s take-up of these relate to social class and gender?
We focused on social class and gender because a large body of research shows that these are central to young people’s educational and career aspirations and choices.
How did we do it?
This youth-centred study combined individual and group interviews with celebrity case studies. We worked with around 150 young people in six English comprehensive schools that cater for students from a range of class and ethnic backgrounds (two schools in each of: London, a rural area in Southern England and a city in Northern England). At the start of the school year, we accessed about 24 participants per school, half in Year 10 (aged 14-15) and half in Year 12 (aged 16-17). Just prior to Years 10 and 12 students make key option choices about their futures (pre- and post-GCSE), and these age groups are highly engaged with celebrity as well as being the focus of public debates on celebrity. We conducted four group interviews in each school. These explored how young people talk about their own and other people’s aspirations and how celebrity features in their life. We then returned at the end of the school year to conduct individual interviews with 51 selected participants (about eight per school). These interviews looked closely at how individual students’ educational and career aspirations relate to celebrity and to their social class and gender.
Between school visits, we conducted case studies of 12 celebrities, including those who generated positive and negative reactions from participants. We selected men and women from a range of class backgrounds and fields (e.g. sport, music, Reality TV). We analysed discourses of aspiration in each celebrity’s coverage in three media outlets over six months and selected other material (e.g. Twitter feed, autobiographies).
This is the first UK-based empirical study to examine celebrity’s significance in the construction of young people’s aspirations. It has theoretical significance for scholars in education, sociology and media and cultural studies. It has practical significance for Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance services, policymakers concerned with young people’s aspirations, media educators, teachers of Personal, Social and Health Education and youth workers. We engaged users through: conference presentations, academic and practitioner journal articles, an accessible project website and social networking strategy, an advisory group of representatives from key fields, communication events, a range of blogs and other outputs. After completing the research we communicated the findings in collaboration with Dr Akile Ahmet and are now working on a book to be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.