Helen Manchester – Teenage Kicks: exploring cultural value from a youth perspective

Nandos, chips and mapping: approaches to researching with young people

The words ‘skinheads’, ‘punks’, ‘emos’, ‘goths’ and ‘geeks’ conjure particular images, emotions and often specific musical genres and attitudes. From the dawn of ‘youth culture’ in the 1950s, scholars in cultural, literacy and youth studies have proposed that a generational account of cultural experience is necessary in order to provide a rich and coherent analysis of culture and the way it is valued. These cultures were seen as productive spaces where ‘common symbols and meanings’ were generated, meanings that often diverged from adult accounts. There was also a recognition in these studies, of the distinctive importance of everyday cultural experiences to young people, which were often viewed in opposition to high culture. These early studies also began to illuminate divisions between young people, taking class, race and gender seriously. Over the same period, sociology has increasingly come to recognise the importance of generational accounts of social phenomena; making visible the ways in which age plays a role alongside class, ethnicity and gender in shaping society and social values.

Meanwhile studies of young people’s social and recreational uses of new media propose that there may be a new fluidity of movement between young people’s everyday experiences of culture and their encounters with more formal cultural organisations (partly as a result of the emergence of a range of digital practices) and that it no longer makes sense to pigeonhole cultural experiences as ‘high’ or ‘low’. We will draw on both the more recent generational and digital cultural analyses of youth culture as well as the longstanding theorization of ‘youth cultures’ from cultural studies, sociology and youth geographies in our research project exploring cultural value from a youth perspective.

Our collaborative research project is working with 12-18 year old young people in Bristol who are differently involved in cultural activities across the city. We’re working with the Arts Council England bridge organisation for the South West, RIO (http://realideas.org/) who are supporting us to gain access to diverse groups of young people as well as in opening up communication with policy makers nationally.

Our project will provide a young person’s perspective on their ‘actual experiences’ of culture and what it is they value about these experiences. Our methods will draw on the team’s prior experience of participatory and collaborative research viewing young people as social actors and producers of knowledge in their own right. We approach our task understanding that young people are not ‘schooled’ in the jargon and discourse of cultural value. It will be revealing to see how young people conceptualise notions of cultural value and impact at the level of the individual, organisation, and society; and whether young people are able to articulate these notions in more concrete, grounded and practical ways. We believe that, with the support of adults, young people’s voices will enable some deconstruction of the current cultural discourse, cutting into a relatively stuck and sometimes sterile debate in new and refreshing ways.

We’ve been negotiating access to groups of young people through local galleries, schools and youth centres and have so far spoken to adults and some young people about the kinds of creative techniques and approaches they use/enjoy. In the more formal organisations we’re working with ‘participating’ young people who are used to being asked to talk about their cultural lives and experiences in round table discussions and are often asked to produce mind maps and written notes. However for young people who are less confident in these situations we’re trying to find different ways of including their voices. Several people we’ve talked to have suggested that we’d probably find young people more willing to talk if we take them to Nandos or if we ask them to take us on a walking tour of their neighbourhood, perhaps stopping for chips on the way. Others have said we might ask young people to visually ‘map’ their experiences, take photographs or produce short devised drama pieces that express their cultural lives. We’re looking forward to experimenting with some of these approaches in order to ensure lots of different kinds of young people are able to tell us about what they value culturally in their lives.