PhD Presentation Series: Amy Vanderharst

I’m Amy, a podcast enthusiast (do yourself a favour and listen to Knowledge Fight. Seriously.) and a second year PhD student at the University of Melbourne. My research is looking at young people’s (18-25-year-old) experiences of loneliness: exploring what loneliness is to young people, its effect on everyday life, management strategies, and causes ascribed to its development. I’m using a combination of interviews and a diary method as my research framework. Participants are asked to do an hour-long introductory interview, followed by a diary task where for a week they share their day’s experiences of loneliness and connection through an online app. In the final interview, we talk in a bit more depth about these diary entries.

While I like to think that this topic came to me during a class exercise in a subject I was teaching, interest in loneliness found me long before that time. Like many, when growing up I struggled to find ‘my people’ and connect with others. Listening to the wider public discussion about loneliness, being lonely seemed an older person’s problem and if I was lonely as a young person, I had spent too much time on social media and become socially inept. This was obviously worrying information for a young person. Yet the more I read about loneliness in journalistic and academic literature, I realised that outside of conversations about social media, young people’s voices were largely missing from our discussion about what it is to feel lonely, why we might feel it, and what we do to manage it. This is precisely what I hope to contribute to this field with my PhD research.

In Australia, research on loneliness is predominantly conducted in the psychological field. This means that loneliness has been considered mostly in its relation to mental health or as a function of evolutionary biology. More recently, Australian sociologists Adrian Franklin & Bruce Tranter have turned their attention to the phenomena, theorising loneliness’s existence and apparent increase in line with Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity thesis. I aim to extend our sociological understanding of loneliness using Carol Smart’s sociology of personal life. A sociology of personal life resists a top-down understanding of human life, wherein changes in individuals are “interpreted as fitting in with wider and over-determining trends” (Smart 2007, p.13). A sociology of personal life instead calls for a realignment between empirical research and theoretical analysis through attention to embeddedness, memory, emotions, and relationality.

I began data collection (or “the fun part” as I like to call it) about a month ago and so far, some interesting themes have emerged from the preliminary data. Time, or the lack thereof, is looking to become a key reason why young people say they feel lonely. Flexible work and education schedules are difficult to synchronise between friends. Young people are keenly aware of how stressful this ‘flexible’ life is for themselves and for the people they care about. In times of trouble, the young people I’ve spoken to so far avoid sharing their worries for fear of adding to other’s work and emotional load. To avoid feeling like a ‘burden’ to others in this busy form of life comes loneliness.  To ask about loneliness also gets to the core of what connection is and what it feels like. So far, connection feels like being equally valued with others and not feeling interchangeable with someone else. It is precisely you – you – with your specific constellation of feelings, thoughts, knowledge, and experiences that is valued, and you cannot be swapped for anyone else (even if they’re much cooler than you). I’m excited to see how these themes will develop, change, and be added to with more input from other young people.

The challenge with research, I’ve found so far, is keeping the balance. Research is one big BOSU ball we’re teetering on top of as life throws personal, ethical, methodological, theoretical, and conceptual curveballs at you one after the other, seeming to call for a near-Matrix level of agility. How do you balance humility with imposter syndrome? Your own ethics with other’s? Writing with reading? Being a ‘researcher’ with being a human? And particularly with my research, how to balance being a young person researching young people? This last point is something I continue to manage, for it brings its own particular set of ethical considerations. My youth and uniform (i.e. jeans and a t-shirt) seemed to avoid any confusion in the minds of my participants that I would be an authority on therapy or would be there to help find solutions to problems. Instead the confusion can come from the fact that we are peers. We’re roughly the same age, may have similar interests and experiences, we may even live in the same area. The boundary between researcher and listening friend can be easily blurred, especially when asking about loneliness. It requires active reflexivity, empathy, and careful attention to manage.

 

Twitter: @AmyVanderharst

Email: avanderharst@student.unimelb.edu.au

 

If you are a PhD candidate working on a project related to the sociology of youth please consider writing a post for our series spotlighting the fantastic work being done by PhD candidates in this area. To talk ideas please contact Julia Cook (julia.cook@newcastle.edu.au) and Signe Ravn (signe.ravn@unimelb.edu.au).

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