chapter  4
12 Pages

Inventing adulthoods: a biographical approach to understanding young lives

In this chapter I argue for a biographical approach to understanding young people's lives. It is an approach that attends to the process of 'becoming', rather than fixing young people's 'being' through policy categories and research typologies. This contrasts with perspectives current in much educational and youth policy, where notions of success and failure are defined institutionally, fragmented according to the particular field involved (such as education, or health, or welfare) and temporally fixed at the point of an intervention or at moments defined by institutional time-frames. Such policy perspectives tend to be informed by research that is similarly focused on discrete policy arenas and produced through snapshots in time. But static conceptualizations of marginalization and exclusion can obscure an understanding of how and why young people act as they do, serving instead to attribute and individualize 'failure'. The biographical approach that I present here is rooted in a ten-year UK-based qualitative longitudinal study of 100 young people's evolving accounts of becoming adults. The main body of the chapter is taken up with an extended case study of one workingclass young woman's journey through the end of compulsory education, charting her choices, their consequences and considering how she negotiates a sense of personal competence over time. The case study demonstrates the biographical perspective and the insights that it enables. In order to contextualize her story I will begin by sketching the contours of youth transitions in the UK, before going on to describe the study and how we made sense of young people's changing accounts of becoming adult.