Thompson, Ron, Russell, Lisa and Simmons, Robin (2012) Spatial dialectics and social exclusion: young people not in education, employment or training. In: European conference on educational research, 18 - 21 September 2012, University of Cadiz, Spain. (Unpublished)

The language of exclusion is dense with spatial reference and metaphor. Social exclusion is often defined in terms of multiple deprivations affecting particular neighbourhoods and localities, and the excluded are discursively positioned as 'outside' or 'disconnected from' an included majority. For young people outside education in 21st-century England, these spatialities permeate their lives and profoundly affect their experiences. Although the origins of the concept of social exclusion in European Social and Christian Democratic traditions has entailed some emphasis on social integration and limited forms of redistribution, in neo-liberal policy discourse the excluded are often constructed as a deficient 'underclass', lacking employability and dependent on welfare (Levitas, 2005). Such discourses are spatially referenced, with certain practices and cultures ascribed to particular locations - so that the relationship between place and underclass is reified and politically exploited. However, as Wacquant (1999) has argued, the association between 'underclass' behaviours and place is part of a class-based polarisation of space arising from de-industrialisation, macro-economic policies and increasing inequality (see also Simmons and Thompson, 2011). Consequently, researchers working with young people deemed to be 'at risk' of social exclusion must seek to uncover the social, material and discursive relations embedded in the spaces participants inhabit.

This paper reports on the first eighteen months of a three-year longitudinal ethnographic study of young people in a post-industrial urban area of northern England who have been officially classified as NEET (not in education, employment or training). Drawing on structuration theory (Giddens, 1984) and Lefebvre's (1991) dialectical triad of perceived, conceived and lived space, the paper analyses how young people are constrained and enabled by spatial structures relating to family, work, learning and welfare.

The central research questions of the paper are:
• How do social, material and discursive relations enter into the construction of places and spaces for NEET young people - including official spaces (such as learning sites, guidance centres, welfare benefit offices) and informal spaces, both private and public? [Conceived space]
• How do young people encounter these places and spaces? [Perceived space]
• How do young people draw on their knowledge of social space to understand, use and contest spatial structures? [Lived space]
• How are spatialities implicated in reproducing or interrupting marginalisation?

We conceptualise structure as existing in and through the knowledge and practices of historically and spatially situated agents and institutions; drawing on our ethnographic data, we investigate how young people comprehend, use and encounter the places and spaces they inhabit, and the role of spatialities in reproducing or interrupting marginalisation. Following Lefebvre (1991), we interpret lived space as the dialectical outcome of perceived and conceived space - the co-extensive spaces of, respectively, material events and abstractly conceptualised spatial relations. Embodying both of these spaces whilst being ir¬reducible to them, lived space is the arena of Lefebvre's connaissance – “less formal or more local forms of knowledge” (Elden, 2004: 190) and Giddens' (1984) practical consciousness. Within this conceptual framework, we trace how young people use their knowledge to negotiate and contest their spaces.

The ethnography explores the experiences of 23 young people as they move in and out of various forms of education, training, employment or other spheres. So far over 150 hours of participant observation has been conducted in young people’s homes, schools, colleges, training providers, benefit offices, charity events, parental homes, work placements, car journeys, and cafes. Field notes detail young people’s use of space and time; behaviour as learners; and relations with tutors, careers advisors, benefit office staff, social workers, friends and family. Conversations and 47 semi-structured interviews with participating young people, 'significant others' and practitioners also contribute to the corpus of data, alongside photographs (some taken by young people and others by the ethnographer) and documentary evidence. Life-course maps (Webster et al. 2004) are used in discussion with young people to record significant events, both past and present. Data is analysed using Carspecken's (1996) five-stage critical ethnography, which allows us to connect local practices, understandings and relations with broader social structures and distributions of power.

Local spaces resonate with the global, and discourses of individualisation, neo-liberalism and globalisation give specific form to the realisation of the spaces experienced by 'at risk' young people. Recognising the significance of a 'spatial turn' in educational theory (Gulson and Symes, 2007; Raffo, 2011), we expect that our conceptual framework will contribute to understanding how young people, as knowledgeable agents, participate in social practices which both structure, and are structured by, their spaces. Our research so far suggests that official spaces sometimes negate and sometimes empower young people’s agency, and the interplay of structure and agency within formal and informal places of being shapes young people’s experiences of inclusion and exclusion. We aim to further uncover how social relations are reproduced or contested in certain discourses within certain spaces, which may interact in inclusionary and exclusionary ways. The transferability of our findings to other European and international urban contexts will also be discussed.

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