Kate Tilleczek: ‘Youth have a love-hate relationship with tech in the digital age’

Kate Tilleczek, a Professor and Canada Research Chair, and leader of the Young Lives, Education and Global Good program at York University in Canada is one of the presenters at the upcoming conference, and a key participant in the evolving program of research that we are seeking to develop.

In a recent article in The Conversation Kate reported on an ongoing research project she is conducting with colleagues that it is examining a range of well-being issues for young people that are related to their immersion in digital environments – environments that are profoundly shaped by process of global capitalism, and the relations that emerge from these processes of commodification, capital accumulation and surveillance.

The article and links provide provocations for thinking about the challenges we are working with in this space. As Kate and her colleagues observe:

Young people in our research asked that adults better attend to the myriad ways in which the digital age affects the well-being of youth. They showed how digital media affects all aspects of their lives in which well-being is measured such as health, education and social relationships. More interesting is that they said new analyses about the depth and paradox of young digital lives is required if we are to fully understand youth wellness.

A Sociological Imagination for the Anthropocene?

Part of what we are thinking in relation to this program/project/event relates to the forms of knowledge, and the types of knowledge practices that are capable of producing knowledge, that are available to the those who work in the fields we are part of.

Particularly when dominant modes of ‘world making’ tend to imagine knowledge as being in the service of…(returns on investment, new markets/opportunities, relevance to policy,…), rather than, say, knowledge for… or knowledge about…

  • What other ways of knowing are possible?
  • What other ways of producing knowledge are possible?

These questions become more interesting when we locate them in the institutionalised, intellectual knowledge production processes that characterise the ‘labour processes’ of contemporary knowledge workers (the intellectually trained) in the neo-Liberal University – where knowledge is thoroughly commodified in the service of…(education and training, work, qualifications, impact, quality, policy, stakeholders…), and knowledge practices are geared to producing knowledge of ‘value’ (quality, impact, policy relevant) in these terms.

And, here there is a rich variety of work across multiple domains/fields/disciplines, and across time (not just in an era of the ‘posts’ or the ‘new’), that continues to be engaged with these and related questions (for example, the featured image here comes from a blog called Philosophers for Change, and an essay by Kamran Nayeri on Economics, Socialism, Ecology: A Critical Outline).

I, for example, still think that Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition remains a powerful, provocative and generative engagement with knowledge/knowledge practices in their Techno-scientific-rational-capitalist mode.

For now, though, I want to reference a section in our recently published Rethinking Young People’s Marginalisation: Beyond Neo-Liberal Futures? In a chapter titled Thinking Technologies: A Sociological Imagination for the Anthropocene? we engaged in a limited way with some of these questions – as they connect to some of the challenges of unsettling some key orthodoxies in sociologies of youth.

The final section of that chapter is reproduced below (Kelly, Campbell and Howie 2018, pp.53-60).

A Sociological Imagination for the Anthropocene

Given the material and discursive spaces that produce governmentalised – institutionalised, rationalised, abstracted – knowledge practices there is no outside here. No vantage point beyond these spaces and relations. No God-trick we can play to rise above these processes, to do Youth Studies outside these processes. But, we can find, we can trouble and test, we can unsettle the limits and possibilities we encounter in doing governmentalised Youth Studies. One challenge for a governmentalised Youth Studies is to re-enchant a sociological imagination (after C Wright Mills, 1970) in ways the push up against, and trouble, the limits of what it is that counts as knowledge of young people: knowledge that comes from the biological, behavioural and social sciences. These are concerns that have, in many respects, a long history – a history that we have referenced elsewhere (Kelly 2011). This is a history of debate that has been characterised by things such as the critiques of the relationships between truth, art and science, Max Weber’s ideas about Science as a Vocation (and related concerns about the rationalisation of our lifeworlds), and Mills’ (1970) challenge to cultivate a sociological imagination. In his 1917 lecture/essay Science as Vocation Weber (1991, p. 139), for example, makes the following comments about processes of intellectualisation, comments that powerfully capture important elements of our concerns here. That hints at some of this things that are gained, that are lost, when, individually and collectively, we imagine that our intellectual knowledge practices, or thinking and writing, can produce and reveal the truth of the matter:

The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives…It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means.

Writing in the late 1950s C Wright Mills (1970, pp.13-14) suggested that the development of a sociological imagination gave us the ‘capacity to shift from one perspective to another’, to ‘range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self – and to see the relations between the two’. He situated this sense of imagination against what he identified as a bureaucratic ethos characteristic of institutionalised social science in the US at the time of his writing. He (Mills 1970, pp.114) made 5 points about the character of this ethos, points that echo loudly in many of the spaces in which governmentalised behavioural and social sciences are practised at the start of the 21st century:

(1) ‘In an attempt to standardize and rationalize each phase of social inquiry, the intellectual operations themselves of the abstracted empirical style are becoming “bureaucratic”’.

(2) ‘These operations are such as to make studies of man [sic] usually collective and systematized: in the kind of research institutions, agencies, and bureaux in which abstracted empiricism is properly installed, there is a development, for efficiency’s sake if for no other, of routines as rationalized as those of any corporation’s accounting department’.

(3) ‘These two developments, in turn, have much to do with the selection and shaping of new qualities of mind among the personnel of the school, qualities both intellectual and political’.

(4) ‘As it is practised in business – especially in the communication adjuncts of advertising – in the armed forces, and increasingly in universities as well, “the new social science” has come to serve whatever ends its bureaucratic clients may have in view. Those who promote and practise this style of research readily assume the political perspective of their bureaucratic clients and chieftains. To assume the perspective is often in due course to accept it’.

(5) ‘In so far as such research efforts are effective in their declared practical aims, they serve to increase the efficiency and the reputation – and to that extent, the prevalence – of bureaucratic forms of domination in modern society’.

So, in the doing of Youth Studies, we should try to imagine afresh the sorts of knowledge practices, the ways we have invented, and which we consider appropriate for producing knowledge about young people, about their life chances, life choices, life courses, about their marginalisation and disadvantage. We want to suggest that a re-enchantment of a sociological imagination could seek, as the late Zygmunt Bauman and others do, to push the possibilities that irony, ambiguity, allegory and metaphor offer for knowledge practices in 21st century social sciences. Would challenge the limits of what counts as evidence, as truth, as knowing in the governmentalised spaces in which we produce and enact knowledge. Bauman, possibly as much as, if not more than, many contemporary social scientists, provocatively embraced the challenge to re-enchant a sociological imagination (Elliott 2007, pp. 3-18). Bauman’s (2000, 2003, 2005a, 2006, 2007, 2008 a&b) prolific, innovative and suggestive cultural sociologies of liquid life have opened up a range of possibilities for exploring the globalised social, cultural, economic and political landscapes of the 21st century. For Bauman (1997, p. 119) a cultural sociology of liquid life is informed by a sociological imagination that embraces a ‘tolerance and equanimity towards the wayward, the contingent, the not-wholly determined, the not-wholly understood and the not-wholly predictable’.

This deliberate inconclusiveness, provocation and references to texts, ideas and sources outside of what might be called mainstream sociology is framed by Keith Tester (2007) in terms of irony, and in a re-reading and re-enchantment of the sociological imagination. For Tester (2007, p. 90) Bauman’s work sits – comfortably for some, less so for others – in a sociological tradition ‘that is ironic about the status of sociology’. Such a disposition ‘sees no reason to avoid certain books simply because they are found in different parts of the library, and which is concerned to recover the ambiguity of the human adventure from any trap into which it might fall or be pushed’. It is readily apparent, suggests Tester (2007, p.83), that Bauman’s sociologies of postmodernity and liquid life are ‘inspired to a considerable degree by literature’. For Bauman: ‘understanding human dilemmas and torments is not the sociologists’ privilege. Learning sociological methods may guarantee a job, but not wisdom and insight…I personally learned more about the society we live in from Balzac, Zola, Kafka, Musil, Frisch, Perec, Kundera, Beckett…than, say, from Parsons’(cited in Tester 2007, p. 83, our emphasis). Moreover, Tester (2007, p. 85) claims that ‘Bauman’s commitment to literature as a tool of irony, and therefore of the unsettling of the determinations of common sense’, is illustrative of his conviction that ‘the sociological imagination is quite independent of the discipline of sociology. One can be a paragon of the discipline and possess no sociological imagination whatsoever’. It is in this sense that Tester (2007, p. 82) locates Bauman’s work in a European literary tradition which is fundamentally concerned with an:

exploration of how the meaning of the world has been transformed, from the place of wide open adventure into which Don Quixote rode, to the place of petty yet life-threatening officialdom and administrative opacity in which Kafka’s unheroic heroes are consigned to dwell. How has it been that the transformation of a man into a beetle, which for Don Quixote would have been a call to arms…has become just one more family embarrassment?

Tony Blackshaw (2010, pp.70-71), in his contribution to a collection titled Bauman’s Challenge: Sociological Issues for the 21st Century, positions Bauman’s work favourably in relation to the kind of sociology practiced by Marx, Weber, Durkheim and others (the so-called founding fathers), and suggests that this hermeneutic or interpretive sociology ‘provides the well-spring of the sociological imagination’. This form of thinking, this imagination – that ‘intuitive and ethical frame of thought through which sociological ideas are arrived at’ – is ‘markedly at odds with the ethos that underpins empirical sociology, which is dedicated’, argues Blackshaw, ‘first and foremost’ to the scientific rigour of its methods. In Blackshaw’s (2010, pp.75-76) account of Bauman’s challenge sociology is ‘truthful when it is hermeneutical, not in the self-regarding ‘data discourse’ style of the sociology journals’ – which in a blind peer review process shaped by citation indexes and impact factors, and the audit practices that thrive on such things, might not have published the later Bauman – but in the ‘way that it sparks connections, like poetry’. In these ways, claims Blackshaw, Bauman ‘supplants the false coherence of empirical-evidence-tacked-on-to-social-theory-thought with the contrariness of cross-grained human narrative’.

None of this should be read as suggesting that we shouldn’t do youth studies. Or that the work that we do under the banner of youth studies is always in danger of being appropriated and used in ways that we would not want, by individuals and organisations that we would not want to be associated with. That is not our argument. Nor is it Bauman’s (or Foucault’s for that matter). Rather, it is a call to recognise some of the limits and possibilities of the spaces we work in, the relations that shape these spaces, and the practices deemed capable of producing knowledge that is often judged on some technical definition of its usefulness or policy relevance. Even its impact. At the shifting, contingent edges of these limits and possibilities ambivalence refuses to be tamed, refuses the clarity, the criteria of usefulness or impact that would render it easily translatable, technical, policy relevant. At different times, for different purposes these are the spaces that Youth Studies should co-habit, but not tame, not colonise.[1]

Donna Haraway is one of the more difficult, provocative, suggestive thinkers operating at, occupying, the edges of possibility, the limits of knowability, in relation to the things that ‘trouble’ us here. We want to pause our discussion, for it to be taken up in different ways in the chapters that follow, with a brief encounter with Haraway’s provocation to think about thinking. Haraway’s work has a long history, a number of trajectories, a humbling breadth and depth, and an often bewildering, always unsettling, series of connections and relations into, and across, what others would see as disciplinary boundaries. Even if she is best known for her location in feminist cultural studies of techno-science .[2] An essay titled, Staying With the Trouble: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene (Haraway 2016a), in a collection edited by Jason Moore (2016) Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism, is just one of many instances where her work can cause us to pause, or, indeed, to depart from.[3] She opens this long, complex, ‘troubling’ essay by asking:

What happens when human exceptionalism and methodological individualism, those old saws of Western philosophy and political economics, become unthinkable in the best sciences, whether natural or social? Seriously unthinkable: not available to think with. (Haraway 2016a, p.34)


What happens when organisms plus environments can hardly be remembered for the same reasons that even Western-indebted people can no longer figure themselves as individuals and societies of individuals in human-only histories? Surely, such a transformative time on earth must not be named the Anthropocene? (Haraway 2016a, p.34)

Leaving aside, for the moment, the merits or otherwise, the limits and possibilities, of naming the past, present and future state/status of various earth systems (including capitalism) in Anthropogenic terms, what Haraway (2016a, p.34) wants to do is ‘make a critical and joyful fuss about these matters. I want to stay with the trouble, and the only way I know to do that is in generative joy, terror, and collective thinking’.

Many of her recent essays trade – at different times, for different purposes – in what Haraway calls SF: speculative fabulation, science fiction, speculative feminism, science fact, string figuring. While the particular character of these diverse practices is not of direct interest at this time (What does sting figuring entail?), the list is suggestive of the array of purposes, the array of thinking and writing practices, that Haraway deploys. What we want to introduce here is the manner in which Haraway (2016a, p.39) encourages us to think about thinking, the importance, the ‘urgency’, of thinking about thinking, in a time that many name as the Anthropocene:

These times called the Anthropocene are times of multi-species, including human, urgency; of great mass death and extinction; of onrushing disasters whose unpredictable specificities are foolishly taken as unknowability itself; of refusing to know and to cultivate the capacity of response-ability; of refusing to be present to an onrushing catastrophe in time; of unprecedented looking away.

Haraway’s exercise in ‘collective thinking’ in this space puts into play a number of figures, three of which are of interest at this time. First figure: Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that the ‘banality of evil’ that she discerned both as a general possibility of the human condition, and as an actuality embodied in the figure of Adolf Eichmann is, always, if not only, about ‘commonplace thoughtlessness’. In the figure of Eichmann we encounter a ‘human being unable to make present to himself what was absent, what was not himself, what the world in its sheer not-one-selfness is and what claims-to-be inhere in not-oneself’ (Haraway 2016a, p.39). Such much does not ‘matter’ in what Haraway is calling ‘ordinary thoughtlessesness’:

The hollowed-out spaces are all filled with assessing information, determining friends and enemies, and doing busy jobs; negativity, the hollowing out of such positivity, is missed, an astonishing abandonment of thinking. This quality was not an emotional lack, a lack of compassion, although surely that was true of Eichmann, but a deeper surrender to what I would call immateriality, inconsequentiality…thoughtlessness…The result was active participation in genocide. (Haraway 2016a, p.40)

Second figure: Anna Tsing’s ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’. Arts that involve: ‘refusing either to look away or to reduce the earth’s urgency to an abstract system of causative destruction, such as Human Species Act or undifferentiated capitalism’ (Haraway 2016a, p.40. See, also Tsing et al 2017). For Haraway (2016a, p.40) Tsing suggests that ‘precarity – the failure of the lying promises of Modern Progress – characterizes the lives and deaths of all terran critters in these times’. Tsing, in these arts, ‘looks for eruptions of unexpected liveliness and the contaminated and nondeterministic, unfinished, ongoing practices of living in the ruins’.

Third figure: Bruno Latour’s demand that we learn, somehow, to think, and to tell, stories ‘outside the prick tale of Humans in History, when the knowledge of how to murder each other – and along with each other, uncountable multitudes of the living earth – is not scarce’ (Haraway, 2016a, p.45). In this telling, Latour observes how: ‘the fundamentals of geopolitics have been blasted open. None of the parties in crisis can call on Providence, History, Science, Progress, or any other god trick outside the common fray to resolve the troubles’ (Haraway 2016a, p.45). These new stories, Gaia or geo-stories in this thinking, might provide accounts of the predicaments that terrans find themselves in: ‘in which “all the former props and passive agents have become active without, for that, being part of a giant plot written by some overseeing entity”’ (Haraway 2016a, p.45). Geo-stories are, for Latour, stories of and by the Earthbound, where the Earthbound are ‘those who eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature’ (Haraway 2016a, p.45). Latour: ‘Some are readying themselves to live as Earthbound in the Anthropocene; others decided to remain as Humans in the Holocene’.[4]

Not all these figures will appear in later chapters. Others, because of our interests, because of the limits and possibilities or our thinking, our knowing, our writing, will stand in for them and their thinking. But, as we have tried to make clear to this point, there is danger aplenty in precarious times in thinking that all the thinking has been done, or that if we just deploy ‘right thinking’ in Youth Studies (Beck or Bourdieu or Foucault or…) then we can know what we think we, and others, need to know about young people’s marginalisation, now, and in post neo-Liberal futures. Youth studies as a field, even a hinterland, is multi-disciplinary, institutionalised, rationalised and abstracted (that is, governmentalised). It is a field characterised by its particular and its shared norms, conventions, conversations and discussions. Its shared and contested meanings. Its diverse conceptual and theoretical tools. By differing political orientations, objectives and strategies. A field that foregrounds and includes some things. Backgrounds and excludes others. A hinterland whose inhabitants have often heated discussions about whether the objects of youth studies are adolescents, teens, youth, young people, young adults. Whether these objects are ordinary, normal, deviant, delinquent, maladjusted, disadvantaged, privileged, at-risk, marginalised. Whether intelligence, personality, development, identity (‘crises’), family, peers, class, gender, ethnicity, geography, ability, disability, and/or sexuality cause or can explain deviancy, privilege, marginalisation, being normal.

Haraway (2016a, pp.38-39):

‘It matters what thoughts think thoughts.

It matters what knowledges know knowledges.

It matters what relations relate relations.

It matters what worlds world worlds.

It matters what stories tell stories’.

Haraway (2016a, p.45):

‘Think we must; we must think’.

[1] These engagements with Bauman’s legacy draws on Kelly 2015.

[2] Against a charge that her writing, in its ‘literariness’, lacks ‘clarity’, can be difficult to understand, is often unclear, Haraway responds in a way that points to why some/many struggle with her meanings and purposes: ‘And I always feel puzzled or hurt when that happens, thinking, God, I do the best I can! It’s not like I’m being deliberately unclear! I’m really trying to be clear!…However, I like layered meanings, and I like to write a sentence in such a way that, by the time you get to the end of it, it has at some level questioned itself. There are ways of blocking the closure of a sentence, or of a whole piece, so that it becomes/hard to fix its meanings’ (Haraway 2015, pp.54-55).

[3] This essay also appears, a more developed version, as chapter 2 – Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene – in her Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Haraway 2016b)

[4] Cited in Haraway 2016, p.45.

Entangling plastics and childhoods in the Anthropocene

The broadcast of David Attenborough’s flagship BBC television programme Blue Planet II has heightened our attention to plastics, especially in the UK. The final progamme in that series documented some of the damage that plastics are doing to the world’s oceans. Plastics have come to dominate environmental discourses to the extent that some environmental campaign groups have called for a re-balancing – given equally (or perhaps more) pressing problems such as climate change, desertification, flooding and the like.

Whatever the relative risk posed by plastics, one of the things that I struggle with is how we might (or might not), or should (or should not) seek to connect plasticky practices, discourses, materialities and processes with childhoods. As soon as one includes ‘children’ and ‘plastics’ in the same sentence, a range of images comes to mind, especially in the Minority Global North: of LEGO; of dolls; and, especially, of the range of claims about the artificiality or disappearance of contemporary childhoods. My question – which forms part of a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship called Plastic Childhoods – is to ask how else children and plastics are entangled.

In particular, I want to cut through some of the sensationalist coverage of children, and of plastics, and of children and plastics. I will do this through a range of methods that involve, to an extent, what Spyros Spyrou (2017) has provocatively termed a ‘de-centring’ of children from an analysis of childhood. I have argued that this kind of move might mean thinking beyond childhood (and youth) studies’ insistent focus upon children’s voice, agency and politics – although not at all meaning that we should dismiss our commitment to working with children. Practically, in my current project, this means, for instance, exploring the emergence of terms and images associated with childhood and plastics in social media networks. It also means an analysis of the literal presence of plastics (and especially micro- and nano-plastics) in children’s everyday environments and their bodies. Simultaneously, however, I bring children back into the equation by using the social media analyses in workshops with groups of secondary school students, and by involving those students in the collection, analysis and interrogation of the nano-plastics.

This urge to decentre children and young people is becoming increasingly widespread in writings on, from and beyond the Anthropocene, and particularly those that deploy new materialist philosophies. Although I think any decentring must be done with the greatest possible ethical, political and emotional care – and should not, in my view, be done solely for intrinsic reasons – I do believe that this move can be a progressive one that asks us to think and, especially, to write differently about childhoods. It can also encourage us to look elsewhere for traces of childhood that usually lie beyond our radar as childhood or youth studies scholars.

As an example, think of the massive oceanic trash ‘vortices’ that are gathering, circulating and dissipating in the world’s oceans. These vortices contain an amorphous mass of plastics, as well as woods, metals, vegetation, feathers, and marine life both living and dead. They have become – aesthetically, affectively – emblematic of our plastic problem. Take an image like the one below, taken from a video during a boat ride in the Caribbean (full video available here: https://boingboing.net/2017/11/20/boaters-stumble-on-massive-car.html)

figure 3. what

The video was taken on a tourist boat ride. At one point – as the music blares and the boat drifts through the vortex – a female American voice sounds from off-camera. She begins to list off a range of objects, whilst others are visible on-screen. Plastics – and, on occasions, the plastics constitutive of especially Western childhoods – are prominent: sandals, dolls, toy cars, bottles… . For me, watching and listening to the video is reminiscent of Bruno Latour’s (2005) analysis of the effects and affects produced by listing. As he argues, listing renders the most quotidian and taken-for-granted objects somewhat distant. That distance may be created by the listing (the cataloguing) done by trained professionals – the distance create by archaeological excavation and display, for instance. Or, in this case, that distance is created by a voice calmly and somewhat monotonously listing a range of everyday (childhood) objects encountered during what no doubt started out as an idyllic cruise off the coast of Honduras.

Watching this video raises a number of questions: both in terms of my immediate interest in childhood and plastics; and in terms of where, when and how we do childhood and youth studies. At present I don’t – and, I suspect, as a community, we don’t – have all the answers to these questions. Given the occasional emergence and/or absent presence of children (or, at least, objects associated with some kinds of childhoods), is this trash vortex a legitimate site for childhood and youth studies? Since they range from the very tiny (nano) the very large (planetary): how do we conceptualise and study the scales of plastics, as they become entangled with childhoods, when childhood and youth studies scholars scalar range is usually far more limited? How can we or should we seek to integrate children’s ‘voice’, ‘agency’, ‘politics’, ‘rights’ (etcetera) into analyses of phenomena like oceanic trash vortices? And, how can or should we link up objects/spaces like trash vortices with other objects/spaces of contemporary childhoods: toy factories; garbage heaps where some children work; bedrooms; digital technologies…? These questions could form starting points that might enable a broader and more critical interrogation of children’s entanglements with plastics, and I look forward to ideas, discussion and critiques as to how we might move forward in addressing them.


Kraftl, P., 2013. Beyond ‘voice’, beyond ‘agency’, beyond ‘politics’? Hybrid childhoods and some critical reflections on children’s emotional geographies. Emotion, Space and Society, 9, pp.13-23.

Spyrou, S. (2017) Time to decenter childhood? Childhood. 24:  433-437.

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)…’