The History of Youth Cultures: Understanding International Influences, National Frameworks and Local Lived Experiences

This post originally appeared on the Four Nations History Blog in February 2015.

Different regional, national and international perspectives are essential to understanding the history of youth cultures. Without understanding international influences, national frameworks and local lived experiences we cannot fully understand how young people have formed and shaped their cultures.

In Four Nations terms the frameworks of Youth Service policy are decidedly English. The Youth Service after the Second World War only included England and Wales in the landmark 1960 policy The Albemarle Report, even then with scant reference to Wales.[i] However, when looking at the regional youth club associations and individual clubs themselves it became clear that, even at the time, national policy frameworks were only so useful in understanding youth clubs and how between one quarter and one third of people used them.[ii] Youth clubs varied hugely, influenced by a range of factors, including the young people that attended them.

For example, in Liverpool there were clubs supported by long-established links with public schools, settlement clubs, church clubs, grassroots community clubs and roving youth workers in perceived trouble-spots using a minibus as a club. To say that these clubs existed against a local backdrop of industrial decline, unemployment and changes to housing in Liverpool in the post-war period would be to do a disservice to the way Liverpool’s unique history shaped the youth work happening there. It was a dynamic relationship with youth work organisations responding actively to City-wide and micro-local circumstances.

Youth culture also had a role to play, and one which cut across national boundaries. Adrian Horn’s discussion of Americanisation is pertinent here when looking at the local variations adopted by beat and skiffle groups in Liverpool to create the ‘Merseybeat’ sound.[iii] This sound was nurtured in the local youth clubs; places where bands formed, practiced and performed alongside the City’s central commercial venues. There were perhaps ten bands playing the local scene for each one that gained international or national recognition, but for the young people attending dances and live music in Liverpool’s Youth Clubs they were all part of their local youth culture.

This is evident in London too. In 1960s London, we are accustomed to hearing about ‘Swinging London’ and its vibrant scene. However, South London had its own variants of youth culture and subculture, including rival Mod and Rocker youth clubs and local sound system cultures. The glamour of the west-end clubs existed for the few, and as David Fowler rightly points out, it was the local Palais de Danse in Streatham rather than the glitzy Soho nightclub that was the site of everyday youth cultures, as indeed was the youth club for those that used them.[iv]

This indicates that both one and four nations approaches to the history of youth have their limitations. What is required is an understanding of how international influences, national structures and local circumstances came to shape young people growing up in the post-war period. This research began with an examination of 25 years of policy on youth and the Youth Service. It included reference to the problems of youth such as delinquency and indeed local case studies have added grounded examples to how youth work and delinquency can be linked. See Kate Bradley’s earlier post on this blog for more. Often though, national policy blurred and ameliorated as much as it revealed.

What does this mean for Four Nations frameworks? As previous posts have rightly pointed out, there is immense value in looking at our approach to history using the lens of different nations. The same applies to looking from local perspectives, though we should bear the metropolitan fallacy in mind. It is not that a four nations or national approach is not appropriate, but by delving below the national level to the micro local, we are encouraged to think critically about how we use these categories, to use them more explicitly and to talk to fellow historians about what we assume, conceal and reveal in the process. Looking at national youth organisations and literature on youth cultures has provided a national context, but is only by trying to understand youth cultures within individual youth clubs and local communities that this research has come to understand the myriad forms they have taken and the fluidity within them.

[i] Ministry of Education, Report of the Committee Appointed by the Minister of Education on The Youth Service in England and Wales (Albemarle Report), London, HMSO, 1960

[ii] Davies, Bernard, A History of the Youth Service in England, Volume 1, Leicester, National Youth Agency, 1999, p. 56

[iii] Horn, Adrian, Juke Box Britain- Americanisation and youth culture 1945-1960, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2009

[iv] Fowler, David, Youth Culture in Modern Britain c.1920-c.1970,Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain

In an earlier blog post I talked about my visits to wild archives and some of the problems inherent in using these kinds of sources. At the time I was aware of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives and the work Georgina Brewis had been doing, for example her blog for NCVO Eight reasons charities should be interested in their archives.

A surprisingly well-ordered wild archive

A surprisingly well-ordered wild archive, but what should the organisation do with it in the long term?

Georgina has since put in, and won a bid for funding for a British Academy Research Project on Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain which aims to look at best practice and practical guidance for voluntary organisations on digitising and preserving their archives. I am delighted to have been appointed as a part-time Research Assistant on this project.

Unsurprisingly, I wholeheartedly agree about the value we should be placing on voluntary sector archives. Not only are they invaluable to researchers but they can also be a huge asset for the voluntary organisations themselves; they are an evidence base, they contain crucial insights into an organisation’s history and identity and they contribute to a wider understanding of the place of that organisation in our society. Even outside of academia, understanding the full history of welfare and society is important at a time of significant change in our welfare state. Without recourse to the archives, histories and identities of voluntary groups, their role and importance may be lost in wider and public understandings of what welfare is, as well as what it has been.

I have several exciting challenges in this Research Assistant role; organising the launch event at the British Academy on the 5th June 2015, learning about digitisation and records management, drafting guidance for voluntary sector organisations, and piloting and refining this guidance with voluntary sector partners.

There will be updates on the project via the NCVO blog, voluntarysectorarchives.org.uk, the University College London Institute of Education and a range of partner organisations. I will also be posting some updates here about my role and perspective. In the meantime, I have plenty to be getting on with!

Child Poverty Action Group Witness Seminar

On 6th January 2015 I attended a Witness Seminar at the Institute for Contemporary British History on the history of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in the 70s and 80s, as part of their forthcoming 50th Birthday celebrations. Not only was I interested to hear about how such a high-profile organisation had handled the huge political and policy changes of those particular two decades, I was also interested to see this group form of oral history in action for the first time. Continue reading

Archives in the wild: researching local youth clubs in London and Liverpool

Early in my PhD I had a conversation with my supervisors about locating the relevant sources for my research. We knew it would be a challenge and it was a significant factor in how I chose my case studies. While the main youth associations in London and Liverpool had both deposited significant amounts of material in the London Metropolitan Archive and Liverpool Record Office respectively, until the bulk of the research began it was hard to know what individual club archives would be found, and indeed what state they would be in. Finding the stories of individual clubs, members and workers was one of the reasons I wanted to do this research and so I also chose to do oral history, but I hoped that some clubs would still have documents from the last few decades. Continue reading

Liverpool old and new: the Museum of Liverpool and Liver Building

Walking Liverpool: dynamic understandings of youth and youth work in Liverpool

I have just got back from an exhausting but excellent research trip to Liverpool where I have been immersing myself in the history of youth clubs and youth work as well as getting to know the city a little better. On the second day, while visiting a club whose papers I have read, I was reminded of Lucie Matthews Jones Blog ‘A Walking Historian’ in which she describes the connection that walking can give her to her research. Having spent time this week exploring the spaces in and around some youth clubs in Liverpool I have felt a little of what Lucie describes in her blog. I understand better how the spaces clubs occupy shape and have been shaped by the City, its history and its people. This in turn gives me a different appreciation of these places when I see them discussed in documents. They are not passive, static buildings and streets. They have an active, dynamic role to play in shaping the young people and youth work histories of Liverpool. Continue reading

How long does a PhD take?

This title could well read ‘How long does a PhD take!’ That would perhaps reflect the sense that though I have travelled a great distance towards completing my PhD in the last three years, it is not finished yet. I am entering my continuation year, or ‘writing-up’ period as it is also known. The terms of my funding mean that I will soon stop receiving the payments that have sustained me for the last three years. I am looking for work to fill the gap and know from colleagues who were never lucky enough to get funding that this will mean new pressures to deal with.

However, that is not what has me blogging today. I am blogging because it has become clear to me over the last year that expectations of how long it takes to complete a PhD thesis vary and sometimes contradict each other. This has meant confusion, pressure and doubt about myself which has not helped me get any nearer to submitting. In writing this post I want to start a conversation about how we set expectations with PhD students and how we develop systems and processes that deal with the variation between PhD students and theses. Continue reading

Reflections on blogging

I am sure no one has noticed that my blog went quiet for a while. Without airing my personal life via social media, the last few months have been a time where I felt I needed to hunker down and blogging just could not be a priority. Now that I’m adapting to a new normal I have been thinking about returning to the blog and how my motivations for doing so have changed.

I had clear reasons for starting my blog:

1. To communicate with my research participants. Using interviewing methods, I wanted an online presence where I could find and talk to research participants, eventually feeding back the results of my interviews.

2. To communicate with other students, academics, and researchers. I like reading about other people’s research and I like to be able to talk about some of the common experiences of researching and the PhD. I enjoy using the blog and twitter to talk to people about a wide variety of things – research methods, the voluntary sector, policy and current affairs. As a PhD student without any books or journal articles to my name, blogging also provides a way for people to find out about my research outside of the formal publications which I will need in the near future.

3. To develop my writing for different audiences. It is important for me to develop my writing, both in terms of working on those important formal documents such as my thesis, but also in terms of going  beyond academic audiences. I like using my blog to communicate to a range of audiences and know that being able to communicate my research outside of formal academic structures will be increasingly important.

However, with my recent blog-sabbatical I have also been reflecting on the downsides to blogging and my experiences of blogging to date. In the past I have written posts as part of a team of authors for the Voluntary Action History Society blog and more recently, here, on my own blog. The former provided an opportunity to write short posts contributing to a regular forum for talking about voluntary action history and topical developments. There was an editorial structure and a plan for who would blog when. As one of a team of contributors, I found that there was less of a time commitment than individual blogging can require, but still the opportunity to be topical and responsive. Sometimes I wrote posts a few weeks in advance. On other occasions I wrote a post and got it published within a day in an immediate response to something. When I started my own blog I knew that to blog regularly would require a time commitment from me, and so it was likely to be a different type of blog.

Time pressures aside, there are other reasons why my blog is the way that it is. Firstly, I do not write much about my thesis research. This is in part because my research has not been developed enough for me to be ready to put it in a public forum for wider feedback. I have been unsure where certain avenues of research were going. I think in the future the blog could be a good place to disseminate research and formulate ideas around my research, but personally I do not think I am there yet. I would like my thesis to be more developed before I begin to write about it in a completely open forum. I am also to concerned to read other bloggers accounts of having their research lifted from their blogs and used elsewhere. I will have to work hard enough to disseminate my research, without someone else doing it and not even putting my name next to it.

I’ve also thought about how blogging links to my wider online presence and the time I physically spend online. Not only is there a time commitment involved in being a regular blogger, but you can be part of conversation taking place 24/7.  I could spend all day talking to other researchers, academics and interested people about different areas of my research and policy experience. Earlier this year, immediately preceeding my blog-sabbatical, I was simply spending too much time online and I needed to take a step back. I decided to stop my phone from notifying me about emails and twitter between certain hours every day and I am extremely glad I did. Yes, it is great that you can be online all the time talking to other people, but it is important to realise that it might not be the best idea for your ‘work-life balance’ if you are.

However, overall I have found blogging to be a really positive experience. When I think about the pros and cons and the time I have taken away from my blog, I have realised that I miss it, and more than that, that it is a useful and effective tool in my research. It has been really important for contacting people I might want to interview. I have had over 350 hits on my posts about recruiting oral history participants and dozens have retweeted or shared it. While I have also been developing methods to reach those who do not use the internet, I have been able to reach a large group of potential participants this way. I know it has been effective because a significant proportion of my interviewee recruitment has come via the contact form on my blog. It has been very important in being front-of-house for my research.

With this in mind I have been thinking about my slightly neglected blog, how I might return to it and how it might work differently to fit in with the stage in my research that I am at. I originally thought I needed to blog regularly or not at all. In the interests of my wider work and life interests, I am unsure whether this remains the case. Maybe I should try to blog smarter, rather than blog more?

The posts where I have offered (unsolicited) advice to fellow PhD students have been the second most popular on my blog after my oral history posts. I’ve had over 150 hits on my posts reflecting on my experiences of applying for PhD funding and supervisor absence. The next most popular group of posts are event reviews. These two types of post, where it is my opinion and experience that are in the foreground, have been generally well received and it is tempting to think that this might indicate how I can blog more effectively in future. Perhaps I should set out my personal stall a bit more – with more policy comment and personal opinions and a little less reservation about how a future employer might view my blog?

On reflection, I think that blogging should be something you find useful rather than something you feel pressured to do regularly. For me, I think posting something new should be based on having something to say rather than something I do as a matter of course. I am aiming to make my blog work for me, and not make myself work for my blog. When I do this, I enjoy it more.

What do other bloggers think? I’d be especially keen to hear the opinion of people at a similar stage to me, so PhD students and Early Career Researchers. Why do you blog and how do you fit it in with wider work and life strategies?