So it’s been a crazily busy year for us at CelebYouth: kicking off the website, finding our six case study schools, doing 24 group interviews and collecting data for our 12 celebrity case studies, taking part in a range of events, and now starting on our 48 individual interviews. These individual interviews are an opportunity to explore participants’ education and work aspirations, the influences on these and intersections with gender, class and celebrity. In this post, Laura and Heather pull together some of their initial thoughts on the first 17 interviews in our two rural schools in the South West that we’ve called Hardy and Merlin.
To explore the relationship between locality and aspirations, we start the interviews by asking what it’s like to live in their local area. Perhaps because we’re Londoners, we were surprised that not many of the young people talked about wanting to leave the locality to go somewhere with more going on, and those that did talk about leaving – for education, work or other reasons – often expressed a desire to return at some stage in their adult lives. Laura grew up in the South West herself, and while she enjoyed living there as a teenager she was quick to move away when she turned 18. While most offered one or two critical comments – such as noting lack of job opportunities and leisure activities in the area for young people under 18, or a discomfort with everyone knowing who you are – there was a widespread and genuine affection for where they lived and an appreciation of the beauty and closeness of nature and of the opportunities those afford.
One impact of the area on these young people’s aspirations was perhaps that the armed forces featured more strongly here than in other schools. Three of the 17 we interviewed were considering work in the armed forces. Arhcibald Brunel (participants chose their own pseudonyms) appreciated the discipline and enjoyed his work in the cadets and particularly with guns. Julia Rosie talked about the influence of taking part in an outdoors expedition with the school on her desire to join the Army. Peter York’s aspiration towards the military were more ambiguous, the Royal Marines band offers a way to make a living as a musician, but as he said ‘the only problem is, ‘I’m not really one for going out and shooting lots of people’. Another student, Will Smith, talked about how he’d abandoned an earlier aspiration to work in the Royal Air Force when he’d become aware that the cadets’ had a strong recruitment agenda.
As part of the interviews, we’re also asking participants directly about our twelve case study celebrities – Beyoncé Knowles, Bill Gates, Emma Watson, Justin Bieber, Kate Middleton, Katie Price, Kim Kardashian, Mario Balotelli, Nicki Minaj, Prince Harry, Tom Daley, Will Smith. We provide participants with pictures of the 12, invite them to imagine these celebrities were their age and went to their school, and ask:
- Who would you want to be friends with and why? Who would you avoid and why?
- How do you think they’d get on with other students? How do you think they’d fit into the different friendship groups?
- How do you think they’d do academically? In which subjects do you think they’d do best?
This task has generated some fascinating responses, and provides further insights into how young people engage with celebrities as part of their identity work.
Tom Daley, Emma Watson, Kate Middleton, Prince Harry and to a lesser extent Will Smith and Beyoncé, came up as people most would want to have as friends. Reflective of the ways in which Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber and Katie Price attracted some of the most negative comments in the group interviews, they were named as people you’d want to avoid: often presented as those who’d be in the school’s popular group and focus excessively on their appearance and on maintaining their social status. However, one participant offered an interesting interpretation of Nicki Minaj’s multiple alter-egos, comparing her ‘remaking’ of herself to his own experiences of overcoming bullying after primary school. Few appeared to recognise the photo of Bill Gates (who had featured strongly in the group interviews even as an ‘ideal’ celebrity because of his charitable activities) though several had firm ideas about him once he’d been identified. People also said very little about Kim Kardashian perhaps they couldn’t identify her either from her picture – despite her also being referenced frequently in the group interviews. Mario Balotelli was mentioned only by (mainly male) football fans .
We’re using memory work to explore young people’s aspirations. This is a moving part of the interview, as participants share their first experiences – of climbing a mountain, scoring a winning goal, singing in public, seeing an animal dentist at work on a horse, and so on. Some participants told us stories about memorable conversations with parents, grandparents and teachers.
We wanted to design an interview schedule that would try to avoid what Les Back has called ‘enforced narratives’ demanded of youth – particularly around aspiration, as Kim explored in a post on this blog after attending a talk given by Professor Les Back. As Kim, Heather and members of our advisory board have found in previous research, direct questions about young people’s futures can be difficult to answer, or produce narratives that would be considered ‘appropriate’ in terms of career choices. We chose to begin with talk about celebrities’ own lives, focusing on what participants felt made them happy, unhappy, successful and unsuccessful. We then asked participants to reflect on their own lives in the same way. We were surprised that many of the responses focused on the desire to have close family and friends, including being able to support current and future family members and have reasonable financial security, although at least one participant seemed to feel trapped by the expectation from family and school that these were things to which he ‘should’ aspire. Some were interested in the experiences the future could hold, such as travel, living overseas and leisure. Three participants in Merlin talked about living in the US, drawing on their memories of representations of the US on television and film, with one participant describing a New York apartment he imagined as a fantasy home.
What we’re trying to find out in this research, is the role of celebrity in young people’s aspirations. We’ve no idea, as yet, how we’re going disentangle celebrity from other influences that feature in young people’s accounts. For example, Heather spoke to John at Hardy School whose multiple sporting interests are now focused in two directions: basketball and trampolining. Although John didn’t know many of our case study celebrities, because his sports take so much time that he watches little TV, some celebrities were important to him. In particular, Michael Jordan was a huge influence on his relationship to basketball and he preferred Jordan to more recent stars such LeBron James because of his personality. However, how do we relate Michael Jordan’s influence, to the impact of his mum taking him to gymnastics when he was three, his rivalry with his sister who also trampolines, his parents’ ongoing support for his sporting activities, the evening and weekend access he has to his school’s basketball courts and the walking and other outdoor/sporting opportunities available in the rural area where he lives?
Finally we wanted to get a sense of how young people understand and conceptualise the broader landscape in which their aspirations and transitions take place and unfold, and how social class and gender might shape their and other young people’s lives. Accessing young people’s understandings of ‘inequality’ is not easy, as Sarah Smart and others have explored. We therefore had to think creatively about how we might access these perceptions. We decided to ask our participants to explain to a newly-arrived alien (who speaks English) what it’s like to be a young person today. The role of technology such as social networking sites, and dealing with negative perceptions of young people featured heavily in their answers. Many talked about navigating life as a young person as difficult but also of the need to have fun. Participants were reflective of the difference between dream futures and their realistic possibilities. We probed differences between young people, asking them if certain futures were more possible for some young people than others. Young people talked about the impact of tuition fees, their geographical location, gender, social class, and disability in relation to the opportunities open to them, as well as more local factors within their schools and communities. Our interviews took place in the week before GCSE and AS exams began, so the impact of their exam results weighed heavily in our conversations.
At the same time as conducting our individual interviews, we are conducting our initial round of coding of the focus group data in Nvivo. Each time we read through the interviews, we find more rich data, patterns and connections between the group and individual interviews as well as the data we are collecting on our case study celebrities. This post reflects some initial observations from our fieldnotes. We are looking forward to sharing further reflections here as we work our way through the analytical process.
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