Inventing adulthoods: a biographical approach to understanding youth citizenship

Thomson, Rachel; Holland, Janet; McGrellis, Sheena; Bell, Robert; Henderson, Sheila and Sharpe, Sue (2004). Inventing adulthoods: a biographical approach to understanding youth citizenship. The Sociological Review, 52(2) pp. 218–239.



Traditionally adulthood and citizenship have been synonymous. Yet adulthood is changing. In this paper we explore the ways in which young people’s evolving understandings of adulthood may contribute towards an understanding of citizenship in the context of increasingly extended and fragmented transitions. The paper draws on a unique qualitative longitudinal data set in which 100 young people, from contrasting social backgrounds within the United Kingdom, have been followed over a five year period. We first present the themes that emerged from a cross-cut analysis of the first of three rounds of interviews distinguishing between relational and individualised understandings of adulthood. We then present a model we developed to capture the ways in which young people sought out opportunities for competence and recognition in different fields of their lives. This is followed by a case study that follows a young woman through her three interviews, illustrating the way that these themes can appear in an individual trajectory. We offer this model and case study as a way of exploring a more subjective approach to citizenship in which participation is not deferred to some distant future in which economic independence is achieved, but is understood as existing in the present.

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