Youth Studies and the Problem of Structure and Agency

There are a number of interests that drive the work of this blog – and the conversations we want to foster through the conference in Bilbao in September 2019.

These diverse concerns will be canvassed an a variety of ways in these spaces of the next months and beyond.

If you search The Journal of Youth Studies – possibly the most important Euro-American journal of youth studies (2017 Impact Factor: 1.724, 5-Year Impact Factor: 1.800, Ranking: 26/98 {Social Sciences, Interdisciplinary]) – for Anthropocene one item is returned: a reference to an article I published in 2018 titled Three Notes on a Political Economy of Youth

Google Scholar searches for young people and Anthropocene are not much more productive.

It is safe to say that what might, for now, be called Anthropocene thinking has not made many inroads into the field of youth studies – a multi-disciplinary space emerging from sociologies, psychologies, education studies, anthropological and cultural studies, human geographies…

It seems that the ‘field’ remains largely uninterested or immune from a whole variety of discussions happening elsewhere – in science, technology and society studies, the environmental humanities, human geographies,…

In this post I want to engage this ‘absence’ through the ways in which youth studies (and possibly early childhood and childhood studies), and sociologies of youth in particular, continue to ‘struggle’ with the ‘problem’ of structure and agency in seeking to make some sense of young people’s life chances, life choices, life courses. Continue, in many respects, to be in thrall to what Donna Haraway identifies as ‘human exceptionalism’ and ‘methodological individualism’.

What follows comes from the Third Note in Three Notes on a Political Economy of Youth (pp1296-1301)

‘…So, to the problem of agency and structure in youth studies. What does human agency – individual, collective, for the young and for the old – actually mean if we take seriously the arguments put forward under the umbrella of the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Third Industrial Revolution? What is/are structure(s)(ing)? What is agency? What or who has it, doesn’t have it? Would we know it if we saw it? What if we go looking for it and don’t see it, or can’t recognise what we think we are looking for? Why do we keep looking for it when we do Youth Studies? As Ian Hunter (1993, p.129) argued more than 20 years ago:

If by agency we mean human capacities for thought and action then, given the irreducible positivity, variety and dispersion of the technologies of existence and conducts of life in which such capacities are formed, it is implausible to assume that agency has a general form; and it is even more implausible to identify this general form with that special Western conduct that we call the formation of the subject.

In this note I want to suggest that many of the points raised by Côté, and France and Threadgold in the first installments of the debate in these pages revisit, in various, though fundamental, ways, many of the elements in another recent debate in the Journal about the usefulness or otherwise of the work of Ulrich Beck and Pierre Bourdieu in the doing of youth studies: a debate that was fundamentally about the structure/agency relationship in sociology in general, and youth studies in particular. Again, my initial engagement with that debate (Kelly 2014) raised a number of concerns that are worth re-visiting here. The debate that unfolded in the pages of the Journal (2009-12) between Dan Woodman (2009, 2010), Steven Roberts (2010, 2012) and Steven Threadgold (2011) was about the relative merits of the work of Ulrich Beck and/or Pierre Bourdieu for the doing of Youth Studies…My main intent there was to take up Dan Woodman’s (2009, 2010) suggestion in his contribution that in quite fundamental ways questions of ‘agency’ and ‘structure’ remain central to significant uncertainties (Latour, 2007) in the doing of Youth Studies.

Early in Woodman’s (2009, p.243) original 2009 Journal of Youth Studies article he argued that he was interested in the ‘emergence and use of the concept of choice biographies in the sociology of youth over the past decade, a concept that has been called, in critique, a “current pervasive theoretical orthodoxy”’. Woodman (2009, p.246) then provided a review of the ways in which both the concept of choice biography and, more broadly, the work of Beck has been used and critiqued in Youth Studies in the last 10 to 15 years. He spent some time discussing Karen Evans’ (for example, 2007) work on bounded agency as a response to a particular reading of Beck’s individualisation thesis. For Woodman (2009, p.246), Evans’ approach is representative of a tendency ‘to use Beck as a caricature to claim a middle ground between structure and agency’. In these debates about choice, structure, and middlegrounds, the problem of structure and agency, and the ability of these ideas to make sense of what young people do, and why, remains central. Woodman (2009, p.247) argued that while the ‘relative balance has swung back and forth, the vast majority of authors within the sociology of youth have proposed some kind of middle ground between agency and structure’. For Woodman (2009, p.247), occupying some sort of ‘middle position between structure and agency also makes sense in light of the way the history of youth sociology tends to be told’. In these accounts of what Youth Studies has done or should do, a ‘structuralist strand of school-to-work transitions research that has been historically critiqued for overemphasizing structure is contrasted to a cultural strand of youth research that is seen to have overemphasized agency’ (Woodman, 2009, p.247).

I have been interested in the problem of structure and agency in the doing of Youth Studies for a number of years. Recently I have approached the problem from slightly different angles. For example, at the Journal of Youth Studies conference in Copenhagen in 2015 I presented a paper that began with a reference to a moment early in Richard Flanagan’s (2014) Booker prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, where the main character Dorrigo Evans recalls his mother’s sense of what it is to live, to experience life, to accrue memories, to imagine the world and her place in it: ‘Rock to gravel to dust to mud to rock and so the world goes, as his mother used to say when he demanded reasons or explanations as to how the world got to be this way or that: The world is, she would say. It just is, boy’.

As I argued there and elsewhere (Kelly 2014, Kelly 2017, Montero and Kelly 2016), we go looking in young people for that thing we call agency when we imagine that the world doesn’t have to just be as we encounter it, as it sets limits and possibilities. We look to young people to be acting in and on the world in ways that we imagine signify that thing that we call agency. That thing which suggests a special way of being, thinking, doing, acting in and on a world that doesn’t have to be just as we find it. It is the special character of this purposeful way of being and thinking and doing that is most problematic for Youth Studies researchers who are on the look out for such things. Because that thing that they, that we, call agency is so special it is not to be found in the everyday, the mundane, the myriad acts of daily life. To be special, to be agency, it has to be something else. The question here, then, is not one of young people’s agency, but one of the making, the assembling of thinking, acting and doing into something we can ‘recognise’ as agency (Latour 2007).

John Law (2004), and others, would argue that the assemblage we name as the sociology of youth makes some things present, some things manifestly absent, and still more things absent as Other. Any assemblage, argues Law (2004, p.144), ‘makes something present by making absence’. The idea of assemblage, in playing with the relations between presence, manifest absence and absence as Otherness, tries to make explicit and imagine the consequences of the ‘crafting, bundling, or gathering of relations’ between these elements. Between what Law identifies as ‘in-here or present (for instance a representation or an object)’; between what is ‘absent but also manifest (it can be seen, is described, is manifestly relevant to presence)’, and, finally, between what is ‘absent but is Other because, while necessary to presence, it is also hidden, repressed or uninteresting’. My interest here is in what we might make present, manifestly absent or absent as Other in assembling the social (Latour 2007) in ways that try to accommodate those things we call structure and agency…’


‘…In my more recent discussions of Youth Studies and the problem of agency and structure I have suggested that Foucault’s work, the work of Bruno Latour (2007) on actor-networks, and the posthumanism of Rosi Braidotti (2013) – with their indebtedness to Foucault’s legacy – offer different, though related, ways of unsettling what it is that we make present, manifestly absent, and absent as Other in terms of this problem, in terms of what we call agency and who has it, in terms of what we call structure and what it is and what it does. My interest in this space is with the ways in which these different trajectories can trouble the character of sociological worlds and sociological humans, and the orthodoxies that assemble these worlds, these humans.

Toby and Sox

I have argued that the world as imagined in sociologies in general, in sociologies of youth in particular, is one that is inhabited and populated by humans – children, young people, adults. It is an Anthropocentric world. These humans have something called agency, and do and make things. These made things are, overwhelmingly, the only Others in this sociological world. These Others include cultures and subcultures, education and health systems, labour markets, a vast array of administrative, even governmental, programs, and diverse technologies (old and new, algorithmic, media based, war oriented, bio-genetic). The list here can be made long and complex. So, it is a heavily populated world. But if you go into the world – the ‘real’ world (the scare marks are deliberate, ironic and ambiguous) – then the world of sociologies of youth looks under-populated, even barren. The non-sociological world is much more bio-diverse, and richly populated with non-human Others. The sub-atomic and atomic. Proteins and hormones. Viruses and bacteria. Animals. Plants. Geology. Clouds. Ocean depths. Wilderness. Again, the list, and humans do like to catalogue, to classify these Others (and increasingly monetise and commodify them – the ‘value’ of wilderness becomes ‘real’ when it is assigned a ‘dollar-value’), can be made long, diverse and complex. And that is without leaving the planet and venturing into the vastly non-human scale of the cosmos. Rosi Braidotti (2013, p.55) suggests that George Eliot, in her novel Middlemarch, ‘has authored [her] favourite sentence in the English language’:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

Humans – child, youth, Adult – can, then, be made to look different to sociological humans – particularly if they are imagined as interacting and being shaped by these non-sociological Others (How does the warmth of the sun on your back make you feel, make you think, make you act…)

It is in this sense that I have argued that when young people encounter and are represented by sociologists what often emerges, at least in the published accounts of these encounters in which questions of choice and agency are said to be important, is an overwhelming sense of the young person as a more or less rational being, devoid of emotions or ambivalence. Pain, hurt, hunger, despair, anxiety, decisiveness, uncertainty, ambiguity, irony, humour, longing, desire, loneliness, companionship, love. If we want to we can say that many of these things shape and enable choice or agency. Though these things might be of interest to Youth Studies, they are not matters, solely, of sociological concepts such as class or individualisation or habitus or reflexivity. Such things can be readily experienced or felt or considered without recourse to any of these concepts, or to the wider institutionalised systems of thought from which they emerge and to which they give shape (Author 2014).

Finally, but not insignificantly, an emerging critical conversation in the history and philosophy of science, in media and cultural studies, in social theory, and in a variety of other fields is examining the roles played by algorithms (‘coding’) in structuring not just our exchanges, interactions, transactions, relationships and ‘likes’ in ‘digital spaces’ and ‘non-digital spaces’ – this distinction, which might once have been useful and ‘material’, increasingly appears as a ‘redundancy’ – but in re-making what we think of as ‘intelligence’, ‘consciousness’, and the very sense of what it is to be human, of human exceptionalism, of humans occupying some privileged space on the planet, in the universe(s), as sentient, acting organisms…Massimo Mazzotti (2017), in an essay titled Algorithmic Life in the LA Review of Books, covers much of the ground mapped by these critical conversations. As he observes, in tracing the shifting meanings of the term ‘algorithm’, and the material developments in ‘coding’ and its applications and structuring tendencies in the last decade, we currently:

rarely use the word “algorithm” to refer solely to a set of instructions. Rather, the word now usually signifies a program running on a physical machine — as well as its effects on other systems. Algorithms have thus become agents, which is partly why they give rise to so many suggestive metaphors. Algorithms now do things. They determine important aspects of our social reality. They generate new forms of subjectivity and new social relationships. They are how a billion-plus people get where they’re going. They free us from sorting through multitudes of irrelevant results. They drive cars. They manufacture goods. They decide whether a client is creditworthy. They buy and sell stocks, thus shaping all-powerful financial markets.

If, as Mazzotti, Grey (2015), and numerous others argue, humankind is, wittingly or unwittingly, by choice or not, increasingly living an ‘algorithmic life’ then, individually and collectively, socially, culturally, economically, politically and morally we will be confronted with opportunities and challenges that, together, further question what is that we understand as human agency:

for the simple reason that algorithms are not neutral. They are emblematic artifacts that shape our social interactions and social worlds. They open doors on possible futures. We need to understand their concrete effects — for example, the kinds of social stratification they reinforce. We need to imagine how they might work if they were designed and deployed differently, based on different priorities and agendas — and different visions of what our life should be like. Algorithms are powerful world-makers. Whose world will they make? (Mazzotti 2017)

In the context of the profound transformations, uncertainties and emergences of incredibly powerful non-human actants that I have only hinted at here, are ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ still appropriate terms, appropriate concepts for sociologies for youth? For the sorts of debates about Beck and Bourdieu, about a political economy of youth, that appear as significant in the doing of Youth Studies? What sorts of thinking, doing, being should sociologies of youth be concerned with? What relationships, practices, functions and consequences, what organisms, substances, actants, networks and apparatuses can be made present, manifestly absent, absent as Other in the doing of this work? Who or what might have that thing called agency in 21st century, bio-genetic, digital capitalism in which human exceptionalism looks increasingly problematic and provisional? As I have recently argued (Author 2017) the promise, the hope of re-making the world, can’t be invested in the autonomous, choice making, individualised human agent/subject. That is neo-Liberal capitalism’s game. It owns that subject. Structures and agency need to be re-assembled in ways that are fit for our times, and for new ways of understanding what it is to be a truly networked organism (Braidotti 2013)…’

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