On Friday morning last week (24/07/2016) the UK woke up to the outcome of the referendum vote on EU membership. The blogosphere, social media and mainstream media are awash with attempts to make sense of what happened, as have my own conversations with others over the last three days. These ‘furious’ sense making activities that go on in and around such big, and largely exceptional, political events is something we wrote about last year in relation the Greek referendum.
One of the early commentaries about the distribution of the votes has been about the age of voters. Tweets were shared about how the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ votes differed according to age. It has since emerged that level of education, and whether or not a voter held a valid passport, were stronger predictors of whether a remain or leave vote was cast, and while those younger people that did vote overwhelming voted to remain, theirs was a lower turn out at polling stations compared to older voters (for more details see the FT analysis of demographics behind the referendum outcome; and with thanks to Janet Boddy, and her son, for alerting me to this detail which I had not yet picked up).
MYPLACE, a large, mixed methods EU funded study of young people’s social participation in Europe, provides some evidence-based background reading on young people’s (16-25 year olds) views and experiences of politics in the run up to the referendum. Notably it casts a light on how young people in the UK, compared to European peer groups, engaged with issues relevant to the referendum, especially their views on the benefits of membership to the EU, their levels of trust of the EU, and their perspectives of key topics that shaped public campaigns in the run up to the referendum, notably their views on migration and welfare.
This is an innovative study because, as well as its simultaneous breadth and depth of fieldwork, it situates social participation in historical and cultural traditions of both totalitarianism and populism in Europe. In other words, it acknowledges that political participation does not occur in a vacuum, it is rooted in place, time and culture, all of which will be important analytical tools for future research and analysis of young people’s social participation in general, and in relation to the referendum in particular.
In the Connectors Study we are interested in the relationship between childhood and public life and how an orientation towards social action emerges in childhood, and we take a similar approach to locating participation within national-cultural contexts, and historical and biographical time. One way, however, in which our study deviates from existing research on youth participation, is by engaging with participation beyond its relationship to suffrage and public opinion formation, the dominant paradigm for thinking about youth participation. We are also working with a much younger age group of ‘young people’.
Having just finished 18 months of intensive ethnographic fieldwork in three cities (Athens, Hyderabad, London), we are about to embark on analysis of the data looking for instances of younger children’s experiences, encounters and engagement with ‘the political’ in their everyday lives. The mean age of our sample at the time of recruitment was 7 years old and over the last 18 months we have spent a considerable amount of time learning about the lives of these 45 children and their families living in different parts of each city and representing a range of different social, economic and political experiences and positions.
The choice of a younger age was not accidental. The continued focus on the teenage years and early adulthood in youth participation research leaves a skewed picture of activism across the lifecourse and especially at the edges of age – as if political awareness and experiences started at 16 and ended with starting a family (the latter a variable life transition). Thursday’s referendum shows that both ‘edges of age’ are important in shaping shared political landscapes.
But what does political activism, politics, and ‘the political’ look like in childhood?
There is a small body of research on political socialisation that has come in and out of fashion over the years, and which varies on its focus on children’s roles and interventions into their socialisation. The age group represented in those studies is slightly older than ours, and much of the focus is on verbal manifestations of ‘socialisation’ while also acknowledging just how ephemeral these are. So this literature is both helpful (political socialization in childhood happens) and unhelpful (but it’s difficult to witness) in thinking about the relationship between childhood and public life as this unfolds on a daily basis. Our own intuition was that ‘the political’ is experienced dynamically across the lifecourse even if it’s not always visible. So how might it be ‘captured’ for analysis?
In parallel to our fieldwork and literature reviewing, one other approach we’ve been using to help us think creatively about the ways in which we can re-animate our understanding of the relationship between childhood and public life, is to ask people about their earliest political memories.
The initial impetus for thinking about earliest political memories emerged out of necessity. In February 2013 I received the welcome news that my proposal for this study had been shortlisted for interview. The interview would be held sometime in May. At the same time, I was due to give birth to my son at the beginning of April. The timing of these events meant that I needed to have the pitch and presentation prepared before I went on maternity leave. I did all this creating, what I felt to be a compelling visual narrative about why it was important to fund a piece of research on younger children’s participation. A few days before my maternity leave started another email from the ERC landed in my inbox: this year candidates will not be able to use powerpoint presentations. In a state of panic, and with little energy or time left to create anything new from scratch, I found myself thinking of other, powerful ways to convey the validity and importance of researching the political in younger children. I thought of my own encounters with ‘the political’ that permeated my childhood. Growing up in Athens in the 1980s there was always a sense of ‘something happening’. Political conversations, verbal sparring between different family members, and intergenerational teasing were a stable backdrop to weekly Sunday family lunches. At the time, I didn’t understand the content of these discussion but I knew their rhythm and their feel intimately, knowing very well who would ‘fall out’ with whom when. I also remember walking home from school in the center of Athens one day to arrive outside my parents’ work place opposite the then Chemistry Faculty of the University of Athens, which was once again under occupation by anarchist groups, and this lunchtime surrounded by the MAT police, tear gas hanging heavily in the air. A policeman looked down at me as I tried to cross the cordoned off area to reach my parents: ‘what are you doing here little girl?’ ‘My parents’ work over there,’ I said timidly pointing towards their building and worried about what I might do if I was not allowed to cross the cordon. He escorted me to the door. I was 7 at the time.
So with those thoughts in mind, I decided to email my own personal and professional network to find out if memories like these – that showed how early on politics enter our lives – were salient for others too. The outcome was fascinating both in terms of the range of experiences shared, what counted as ‘political’, and the different orientations that contributors had towards those memories and experiences (humorous, sad, ambivalent, allegorical, and in some cases no memories of a political nature, however defined, at such a young age). I’ve continued to ask the question in informal encounters, and now I find that the memories are often offered to me without prompting when I talk about the research I do.
It was this initial ‘needs must’ thought experiment to find a quick and convincing way to convey the essence of the research in short and pressurized space of time that then led colleagues and I to engage more formally with political biographies in two different national cultural contexts. Our paper on the (im)possible conversations between activism, childhood and everyday life presents a reading of the autobiographical writing of ‘red diaper babies’ in the US from the 1930-1960s, and the experiences of occupying schools in Greece in the 1990s (the paper is here). The outcome of this process has been a tentative framework for engaging with our data that foregrounds the emotional, the emergent, and the fluctuating in political being in the early years (and indeed across the lifespan); this is a framework that we are currently applying to our participant observation data with children and to interviews with their parents.
Call all this food for thought, call it anecdotal theory, call it sociological imagination at work, call it what you will, our experience is that the question of ‘earliest political memories’ is captivating, generative, and imaginative. And so, we want to ask more people about their earliest political memories. We are now launching a more formal collection of such ‘earliest political memories’ in order to get a broader cross-section of memories. If you are reading this post and would like to contribute your own earliest political memories you can do so here. And please do pass the link on to others who you know may be interested.
Meanwhile, back to last Friday, and on a related reflexive note.
Ruptures in everyday life can be very informative about the very lives that were disturbed. Last Friday I woke up at our usual time of 05.30-05.45, to a message from my husband, who was on EST, which I knew, but didn’t want to acknowledge, was a ‘soft landing’ for the news I was about to read on my phone. The news left me feeling personally bereft, my own identity and values shaken to their core. Later on Friday morning when I dropped off my son, now aged 3, at our childminder’s, she, I and another parent discussed the referendum outcome. The conversation, its tone and its intensity, were very different to the more usual ‘how did he sleep’ and ‘he’s eaten a good breakfast’ discussion that happens at drop off. My son picked up on this. Normally, he runs off to play the minute we arrive at his childminder’s, barely remembering to say goodbye to me. On Friday he hovered in the hallway with us listening. It wasn’t long before he’d nestled up to me, embracing my legs, and then asking to be picked up and held. He clung onto me tightly and wouldn’t let go, the conversation continuing around him. When it was time to leave I had to peel him off my body, with a thousand reassurances that ‘it’s okay’, his lower lip trembling, the expression on his face communicating the heartbreak I felt.
As I headed to meet a friend for a post-mortem coffee – one of many, over the last 72 hours – I walked through the park outside our local primary school. I’ve done this route before a number of times, on a Friday morning, to the sound of mundane conversations: arrangements for the weekend, local gossip, and school life. Today I was arrested in my stride by the following words.
‘Do you know we are leaving the EU?’ there is no pause for the response as the speaker continues. ‘Did you see the pound is dropping? Like in war time’. My eyes, having caught up with my ears, spot the speaker. It’s a boy, he’s talking to two friends, another boy and a girl, they seem to be waiting for their school day to commence. I can’t quite tell how old he is but intrigued by the discussion, and being a terrible guestimator of age, I muster the courage to approach him and to ask him in person.
‘Excuse me, do you mind me asking how old you are?’ He looks at me bemused, a stranger asking his age.
’11,’ he tells me.
I could leave it at that and depart with just a ‘thank you’. But the quizzical expression on the boy’s face encourages me to complete the interaction, and to provide him with an explanation for my interest. ‘I’m really impressed that you know all that!’ I tell him feeling lifted, for the first time that morning, by his awareness, ‘Keep it up!’ I say and smile broadly at him.
He looks embarrassed and pleased, his mates grinning at him in affirmation and bemusement. The loose circle they were standing in closes in, and their voices becoming more hushed as I walk away caught up in my own thoughts about the referendum and the political in early childhood.