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Unfolding lives

Unfolding lives: Youth, gender and change

Rachel Thomson
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  • Book Info
    Unfolding lives
    Book Description:

    The process of becoming an adult in contemporary times is fragmented and unequal, shaped by chance, choice and timing. Unfolding lives presents a unique approach to understanding the changing face of youth transitions, addressing the question of how gender identities are constituted in late modern culture. The book follows individual lives over time, enabling the reader to witness gender identities in the making and breathing new life into static analytic models. At the heart of the book are vivid in-depth accounts of four young lives, emblematic of broader biographical trends. They reveal how inequalities and privileges are made in new and unexpected ways, through practices such as falling in love, coming out, acting out and religious conversion. A focus on temporal processes and changing meanings captures what it feels like to be young and shows the creative ways that young people navigate the conflicting and changing demands of personal relationships, schooling, work and play. Unfolding lives is also a demonstration of a method-in-practice, describing how longitudinal material can be analysed and animated to realise the relationship between personal and social change. Written in an accessible style that breaks the conventional academic mould, Unfolding lives is a compelling and provocative read. The book will be an essential text for students and academics involved in youth and gender studies as well as those interested in new directions in qualitative research methods and writing.

    eISBN: 978-1-84742-776-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. ONE The breadth and depth of youth transitions
    (pp. 1-12)

    In 1996, with a group of colleagues, I began what was to become a 10-year longitudinal study following a generation of young people making the transition to adulthood. The research began in secondary schools in five contrasting areas within the UK, reflecting the very different environments and opportunities that shape young people’s destinies. When we first met them, the young people were aged between 11 and 16. The last time we interviewed them, in 2006, they were all in their twenties.

    The Inventing Adulthoods study has generated a unique record of the lives and times of a generation of young...

  2. TWO A method-in-practice: constructing longitudinal case histories
    (pp. 13-28)

    One of the aims of this book is to outline a method-in-practice, to show how it is possible to construct in-depth case histories from a qualitative longitudinal archive. This chapter introduces the field of biographical methods, formulating some of the challenges of working with repeat interviews, and explores the boundaries between primary and secondary analysis that are a feature of longitudinal research. It then outlines the design of the original Inventing Adulthoods study, before describing and evaluating the analytic strategies employed in producing the case histories presented in Chapters Four to Seven.

    There has been a resurgence of interest in...

  3. THREE Gender and social change
    (pp. 29-44)

    This book is concerned with the ways that lives unfold over time and identities change as young people grow into adulthood. Questions of gender are at the centre of the account: what it means to move from a being a boy into a man, from a girl into a woman. This chapter sketches the conceptual landscape for the book, framing the overall project and introducing a theoretical vocabulary. It is organised in two parts: the first considers the argument that gender identities have been subject to a process of detraditionalisation, outlining late-modern and feminist accounts as well as arguments emerging...

  4. FOUR Going up! Discipline and opportunism
    (pp. 45-66)

    In this chapter I will explore the successive accounts of Sherleen, a young woman of African Caribbean heritage living in inner-city London. Sherleen was interviewed four times between the ages of 13 and 16 by Sue Sharpe, who conducted each of the interviews in a room at Sherleen’s school. I approach this material as a secondary analyst and have spent time absorbed with audio tapes and interview transcripts, looking for ways in which to tell the series of linked narratives that are within this body of data. A fifth interview was undertaken with Sherleen in 2002, after the first draft...

  5. FIVE Going down? Caught between stasis and mobility
    (pp. 67-88)

    We first made contact with Stan in 1997 when he was aged 16 and attending one of the schools in which the Youth Values study was conducted, a high-achieving state school located in an affluent, leafy suburb in the commuter belt. Stan completed a questionnaire and took part in a focus group discussion but was not selected to be interviewed. We made contact with him again in 1999, when he was invited and agreed to participate in the second stage of the study. He was interviewed three times, at ages 18 (1999), 19 (2000) and 20 (2001). In addition, he...

  6. SIX Coming out: from the closet to stepping stones
    (pp. 89-110)

    In this chapter I develop the case history of Devon, drawing on interviews that took place over a four-year period between the ages of 18 and 21 and a memory book. I first met Devon in 1997, when he participated in a focus group as part of the Youth Values study, held at a lesbian and gay youth group. His first interview took place in January 1999 as part of the Youth Values study. Subsequently he was interviewed in March 2000 and November 2001. After this chapter was written Devon was interviewed again, in February 2003, and an account of...

  7. SEVEN Acting out: rebellion with a cause
    (pp. 111-132)

    Karin is a white Catholic young woman from a working-class background, living in a city in Northern Ireland. This chapter draws on data generated by a series of four interviews with her between the ages of 16 and 19 as well as a memory book. The interviews were conducted by Sheena McGrellis, and initially took place at school and subsequently at the university. Karin had also been involved in a focus group and pair interview when she was 14, as part of the earlier Youth Values study.

    Through Karin’s successive narratives it is possible to gain a sense of gendered...

  8. EIGHT Interruption: from explanation to understanding
    (pp. 133-152)

    Despite a growing interest in temporality as an aspect of social life, it is still unusual to find explicit discussions of the passage of time and the generation of hindsight as aspects of sociological production (Kemper and Peterson Royce, 2002; Mauthner and Doucet, 2003; McLeod and Thomson, 2009). And while there has been a move towards making the silent academic author a more explicit presence within texts (Coffey, 2002: 324), the academic self is by definition compelled to display a command over the ‘data’ and the temporality of the production process (Skeggs, 2002: 351). In practice things are messier, recursive...

  9. NINE Conversation: reading between the lines
    (pp. 153-170)

    Integrating the individual and the social, agency and structure, the temporal and the spatial has been a central yet thwarted project in contemporary social theory. Approaches that focus on the individual, such as Anthony Giddens’ (1991) notion of the ‘reflexive project of self ’, or even Foucault’s later work on the practices of existence, have been criticised for failing to relate the self to their social horizons (McNay, 2000), for downplaying the embeddedness of the subject (Scott and Scott, 2001; Plumridge and Thomson, 2003) and for universalising cultural forms available to some but not others (Skeggs, 2004). Conversely, accounts which...

  10. TEN Youth, gender and change
    (pp. 171-180)

    The four case histories that lie at the heart of this book represent singular lives, formed through the articulation of social location through time, and in relationship with the lives of others. Each presents a different combination of gender identity, subjectivity, and social and cultural possibility – giving rise to distinct narrative themes. For example, in Sherleen’s case history (Chapter Four) we see the importance of the intergenerational family in a project of upward social mobility. In Stan’s case history (Chapter Five) we encounter how downward social mobility may be mediated through shifting masculinities. In Chapter Six, Devon’s transition from...

  11. APPENDIX: The case history data sets
    (pp. 181-182)