Space, Place and Ecology as Challenges for the Sociology of Youth

by David Farrugia and Paula Geldens

For much of the twentieth century sociologists left the analysis of the physical world to geographers…and other social scientists…The historical neglect of the physical world in sociology is odd given that many of its founders gave critical attention to this dimension. (Kim, LaGrange and Willis, 2013)
In this essay we want to make case for better theoretical recognition of the fundamental importance of space and place in analyses of young people’s lives, and to suggest that better attention to rural and regional young people is one step on the way to achieving this. We want to argue that now more than ever, the sociology of youth must develop a ‘heterogeneous and multi dimensional use of place’ and that this would be achieved if place was to attract ‘the same reverence’ as age, class, race and gender in our work’ (Geldens, 2005). Our essay traces the marginalisation of rural and regional young people from the sociology of youth back to the “founding fathers” of sociology, and locates the absence of a spatial perspective as part of the establishment of the European metropole as the emblem of modernity. In the present essay, we want to move beyond this metropolitan focus to invite a more nuanced dialogue with place, arguing that rurality, and place in general, represent a challenge to the sociology of youth.

Metrocentricity, Placelessness, and the Marginalisation of the Rural
From a brief look at the theoretical frameworks and research directions currently driving work in youth sociology, one could be forgiven for assuming that the most conceptually significant young people live in the metropolitan centres of the United Kingdom, Western Europe, the United States and Australia. It appears that, in the main, the experiences of young people in rural and regional places, as well as those outside the global north, have failed to penetrate the conceptual frameworks with which we engage. Rural young people, and discussions of place in general, are often absent from the way in which we routinely give shape to our intellectual field.
Here we argue that the development of a perspective which acknowledges the importance of place in young people’s lives is one of the most significant conceptual challenges facing contemporary youth sociology. Our argument here is motivated by concern about the generalising of knowledge developed about the centre to the periphery, as well as a desire to emphasise the growing importance of place in the experiences and life chances of young people today. While spatial processes have always been important, deepening geographical inequalities and the increasing significance of trans-local flows of economic and cultural capital mean that place has a renewed significance for young people in late modernity. We argue that a spatial perspective means more than merely noting geographical differences in young people’s lives, but incorporating place into the heuristics and conceptual frameworks which define and animate our field.

Metrocentricity, Eurocentricity, and the Marginalisation of the Rural
Connell’s (2007) arguments concerning the Eurocentric origins and focus of our discipline provide a starting point for understanding the conceptual challenges of a spatial perspective. According to Connell, the establishment of sociology as a discipline involved drawing together and instfsitutionalising a theoretical canon which defined sociology’s objects of study and outlined the conceptual problems that the discipline was to address. The work of Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, followed in particular by Parsons, have been placed into a narrative of disciplinary progression which has shaped subsequent work in sociology. From the metropolitan centres of Western Europe, the founding fathers wrote narratives about the foundations of modern societies which in the 1960’s were drawn together to establish the disciplinary canon that is now taught to undergraduates. These authors made a number of conceptual distinctions which continue to shape modern sociology, including the sociology of youth.

One was the distinction between pre-modern and modern societies. Sociology was to be the discipline which studied modernity, focusing on issues such as the functional division of labour and its relationship to different forms of social organisation, the consequences of industrialisation and the emergence of class inequalities under capitalism, and the cultural changes associated with modernity, in particular the emergence of bureaucratic rationality as a means for organising the social world. While claiming to study the social as such, these narratives defined modernity as a process which took place in the bourgeoning urban spaces within European nation states and which constituted sociology’s object of study. In one fell swoop, the rest of the world was defined in opposition to the characteristics which defined sociology’s object of study, forming the backdrop against which modernity was defined.

The distinction between pre-modern and modern societies also mapped on to a distinction between rural and urban places. Foundational sociological thinkers such as Durkheim, Tonnies and Marx all created theoretical distinctions between urban and rural places which were fundamental to their theories of social change. For Durkheim (1933), modernisation describes the movement from simple, homogeneous and static societies which offered a narrow range of identities to their members (mechanical solidarity) to complex, heterogeneous, rapidly changingsocieties (organic solidarity) with increasingly differentiated and individualised identities and experiences. Similarly, Tonnies’ distinction between gemeinschaft and geselleshaft (1974) describes a movement from community-like social bonds held together by collective identities and expectations, to an impersonal and individualistic modernity. Marx and Engels (1970) describe the history of capitalism in terms of urbanisation, which they hold partly responsible for the alienation of modern identities. Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity, Tonnies’ distinction between community and society, and Marx’s distinction between pre-capitalist and capitalist societies all describe modernisation as a process of urbanisation in which rural ways of living give way to an urban modernity. The rural and the urban, the pre-modern and the modern, are theoretical dichotomies that have shaped sociology into a discipline which excludes perspectives outside the metropolitan centres of the West.

Metrocentricity, Aspatiality and the Neglect of the Rural
In the sociology of youth, the lives of urban young people continue to be taken as emblematic of young people as a whole, erasing rurality, and space itself, from theory in the sociology of youth (Cuervo and Wyn, 2012). This unacknowledged metrocentricity, which continues into the theoretical perspectives driving contemporary youth studies, has led to a fundamental aspatiality in many areas of the sociology of youth at a time when geographical inequalities are deepening. This is perhaps best illustrated by examining the place of rural and regional young people in the geography of contemporary youth inequality.
One of the most significant priorities of the sociology of youth has been tracing the consequences of deindustrialisation and the movement from a manufacturing to a services economy on young people. Consequences of these changes, such as the fragmentation of the industrial class structure, the collapse of the youth labour market, and the increasing complexity of contemporary youth transitions, have been understood through theories of late modernity. These theories attribute these changes to (amongst other things) the accelerating liquidity of capital amidst an increasingly globalised, deregulated world economy. According to Giddens (1991), globalisation has also meant that contemporary identities are decoupled from stable moorings such as class or locality, and have become products of individualised reflexivity made possible by the transnational availability of cultural symbols. The outcome of these arguments is the vivid image of a homogeneous reflexive modernity in which identities are constructed without reference to the local.

This image has obscured inequalities between urban and rural young people that have deepened due to the very changes the theory describes. In Australia, many rural and regional places have historically been dependent on a narrow range of industries, typically manufacturing or agriculture. With the gradual disappearance of manufacturing work and the dominance of global agribusinesses over a shrinking collection of family farms, the structural foundations of many rural places have been reshaped. In some cases these places have reinvented themselves as tourism economies, turning rural towns into consumer goods for the urban middle class. However, in many cases manufacturing and agricultural work has been replaced with nothing at all, creating a complex network of geographical inequalities across the country. As opportunities for economic participation and cultural consumption become increasingly located in a narrow range of “global cities” (Sassen, 2012), one consequence of these geographical inequalities is a reshaping of rural young people’s relationship to urban spaces. The issue of mobility and youth outmigration from rural areas has become increasingly significant, and interacts with class relations in rural communities (Jones, 2004). Young people who wish to return must often draw on urban educational capital in order to build lives for themselves in their rural communities (Cuervo and Wyn, 2012), a process which describes complex flows of educational capital that transcend urban / rural divides. Rural places which develop tourism economies also present challenges to young people brought up in old working class cultures, creating forms of reflexivity that change class and gender relations in local communities (Kenway, Kraack and Hickey-Moodey, 2006). Contemporary structural inequalities are profoundly spatial, and contribute a geographical dimension to educational inequalities, class relationships, and changing gendered identities (Weirenga, 2009).
The changing landscape of geographical inequalities faced by young people mean that narratives of a homogeneous reflexive modernity simple will not do. Neither will generalisations about movement from an industrial class structure to a post-industrial service economy, which excludes places that have shifted from reliance on agricultural economies to a more or less total absence of economic opportunity. And neither will the frequent elision or tokenistic mention of place, such as research projects situating themselves within ‘various geographical locations around Australia’, ‘Victoria’, or ‘areas representative’ of the state in which the study took place.
Here we want to argue that place is important and that failure to explicitly engage with the ‘space’, ‘place’ or ‘ecology’ within which young people are making their lives is akin to the error of mechanically applying pseudonyms in educational research in which ‘a particular school in a particular town or neighbourhood studied at a particular historical moment [provides for the school to] be treated as if it were a placeless, timeless, representative instance of school’ (Nespor, 2000). That is:
“…place is not just a setting, backdrop, stage, or context for something else that becomes the focus of sociological attention, nor is it a proxy for demographic, structural, economic, or behavior variables…Everything that we study is emplaced; it happens somewhere and involves material stuff… place is not merely a setting or backdrop, but an agentic player in the game—a force with detectable and independent effects on social life”. (Gieryn, 2000)

What is required is a thoroughly spatial youth sociology that is alive to the geographical dimensions of youth inequalities and the complex relationship between local and global processes that make up contemporary young people’s subjectivities. In this, our position goes beyond the call for greater attention to be given to young people in rural/non-urban/urban fringe/remote/isolated/village/periphery and other ecological locations, as well as concerns about decontextualisation – which inevitably mean that the life-chances and experiences of those inhabiting the urban, by default, speak for all. While these are important, they are steps on the road towards a more spatialised youth sociology that theorises the geographical dimensions of the biographical transitions and lived subjectivities of contemporary youth. As a heuristic, spatiality contributes another dimension to traditional analyses of young people, demonstrating the significance of issues like mobility and translocal cultural and economic flows. Spatial perspectives challenge the metrocentricity of contemporary youth sociology, alert us to new dimensions of existing theoretical concerns, and thus represent a pressing theoretical challenge to the sociology of youth.

Connell, R. 2007. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin.
Cuervo, H. & Wyn, J. 2012, Young People Making it Work. Continuity and Change in Rural Places. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Durkheim, E. 1933, The Division of Labour in Society. The Free Press, London.
Giddens, A. 1991, Modernity and Self Identity, Polity, Cambridge.
Gieyrn, T. 2000. “A Place for Space in Sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology, 26, pp. 463-496.
Jones, G.W. 2004, “A Risky Business: Experiences of Leaving Homes among Young Rural Women.”, Journal of Youth Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 209-220.
Kenway, J., Kraack, A. & Hickey-Moodey, A. 2006, Masculinity Beyond the Metropolis. Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke.
Marx, K. & Engels, F. 1970, The German Ideology, Lawrence and Wishart, London.
Nespor, J. 2000. “Anonymity and Place in Qualitative Inquiry.” Qualitative Inquiry, 6, 4, pp. 546-569.
Sassen, S. 2012, Cities in a World Economy, Thousand Oaks, Sage.
Tonnies, F. 1974, Community and Association (Gemeinschaft and Geselleschaft), Routledge and Kegan Paul,
Wierenga, A. 2009, Young People Making a Life, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills.

Dr David Farrugia
CRN Post-Doctoral Fellow
University of Ballarat

Dr Paula Geldens
Lecturer in Sociology
Swinburne Univeristy of Technology


About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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