Now that I’ve completed the intensive phase of the research I’m reflecting on what the findings tell me, how they address my research questions, and what my plans are for the next (extensive) phase of the research.
As I described on 6th February, my research design has two parts: an intensive phase which explores the relationship between place and conceptions of aspirations (A), and an extensive phase which explores the relationship between space and content of aspirations (B). Place and space are not independent: places are the conceptions that individuals have of a particular space, and these conceptions of space will be shaped by a potentially infinite range of factors such as the individual’s family background, their social class, their identity, their social capital and so on (C). In exploring the association between place and aspirations, then, it’s impossible to disregard the significance of these factors because they are inextricably bound up in an individual’s sense of place. These same factors will also be implicated in shaping a person’s aspirations directly, via a range of additional mechanisms that may have nothing to do with place (D) – an individual’s aspirations may be shaped by the socialising influence of family background or the cultural and material imperatives of social class, for instance.
As a result, if my findings tell me that place does appear to shape aspirations (as indeed they do), it’s certain that factors such as family background, social class, identity and social capital will be playing a role here, in two senses. Firstly, these factors are implicated in the process by which a person creates a sense of ‘place’ from a particular ‘space’ (C). Secondly, these same factors will shape aspirations directly, through a range of mechanisms independent from place (D). My findings from the intensive phase suggest that place does indeed seem to shape aspirations. Firstly, the interviews provide a number of individual, case-specific instances of aspirations being shaped by place. Secondly, at the aggregate level there is an association between the dysfunctional conception of Wythenshawe and the material conception of aspirations (see March 25th). So the question arises: does this association with place suggest that aspirations are being shaped by place, or by other factors (either via place (C), or via other mechanisms (D))?
My sample for the intensive phase (the interviews I conducted) was drawn from three groups, designed to capture young people with high, average and low predicted attainment at GCSE. The aim here was to attempt, in a simplistic way, to explore the effect of the additional factors that might shape a young person’s aspirations as well as their conception of the area they live in – their family background, their social class, their identity, social capital and so on. Predicted attainment is a good indicator of differences in these factors, and it was easy to sample the young people based on their predicted attainment.
This stratification by predicted attainment turned out to be significant: the dysfunctional conception of Wythenshawe (which was strongly associated with the material conception of aspirations) was held exclusively by young people with low predicted attainment. As a result, there is a strong association between low predicted attainment and the material conception of aspirations. The question therefore arises: is it place (a particular – in this case dysfunctional – conception of Wythenshawe) that is producing the material conception of aspirations, or is it predicted attainment, and the multitude of additional factors it stands as an indicator of (whether these factors are functioning via C or D)?
In my findings I argue that there is both a sensible theoretical justification, and substantive evidence from the interviews, for inferring that the material conception of aspirations is shaped by place – where ‘place’ is the dysfunctional conception of Wythenshawe these young people have. Particular features of ‘place’ – namely, material hardship, occupational insecurity and benefit dependency – are clearly linked to particular features of the way young people talk about their aspirations – namely, a focus on decent remuneration and job security. As I say above, the dysfunctional conception of Wythenshawe, like any form of ‘place’, is a product of Wythenshawe’s spatial characteristics and the particular situation of the individual young people interviewed (via C). The factors captured by predicted attainment are almost certainly at play somewhere underneath the association between the low attainment group, their dysfunctional conception of Wythenshawe and the material conception of their aspirations. I can acknowledge the role of these factors (indeed, I couldn’t do otherwise), but I’m faced with a decision as to whether to explicitly consider their individual significance on the young people’s conceptions of their aspirations.
I could, for instance, broaden the scope of the extensive phase of the research to consider the effect of factors such as family background and social class on aspirations, as a way of unpacking their contribution to the association between place and aspirations. This would be possible with BHPS and Understand Society data. However, I’m not keen to expand on the extensive phase in this way. Instead, I intend to take ‘place’ at face value, whilst acknowledging the various factors that produce it. By face value, I mean understanding place (the way in which the young people I spoke to understand and talk about Wythenshawe) without enquiring as to the specific importance of the various factors that go into shaping that notion of place. The factors in the middle of the triangle are important constituents of any full account of place and any outcomes that place may shape (such as aspirations), but I don’t have time to consider their specific contribution to place and aspirations. Extending the extensive phase of the research to consider these additional factors would dilute the focus of the extensive away from a deliberately specific notion of space (an area’s Index of Multiple Deprivation Score and its Output Area Classification) which I adopt for its relevance to the existing literature and current government policy. I’m limited by time and resources, I set out to explore a particular notion of place and a particular notion of space, and I won’t expand my research design at this stage. I will, however, need to argue in clear terms that I acknowledge the significance of the factors in the middle of the triangle in shaping young people’s aspirations, and that the association I’ve discovered between place and aspirations – specifically, the dysfunctional conception of Wythenshawe and the material conception of aspirations – will ultimately have something to do with these factors.
On a separate note, it’s occurred to me that the extensive phase of the research could consider the role of place as well as space in shaping aspirations. For instance, survey items on individuals’ views of their local area could be taken as (very simple) proxies for ‘place’ (their conception of the area they live in). I need to look at their BHPS and Understanding Society datasets to see if there are relevant variables, but this could provide a nice complement to the intensive phase.
For now, I have BHPS data geocoded to LLSOA which I can use to explore the relationship between area-level deprivation and aspirations, and Understanding Society data coded to the Output Area Classification which I can use to explore the relationship between area type and aspirations.