Reflecting on an ISA session addressing Andy Furlong’s legacy

Julia Cook, University of Melbourne: 

The International Sociological Association World Congress, held in Toronto from 15–21 July, brought 5,500 delegates from 115 countries together to discuss the history, contemporary debates and future of sociology. Among the many paper sessions, round table discussions, plenary sessions and keynote lectures were a wealth of vibrant and timely contributions from the Sociology of Youth Research Committee (RC34). Of particular note – and perhaps of particular interest to the TASA Youth community – was a session reflecting on the work of Professor Andy Furlong who stood at the forefront of youth studies both in the UK and internationally from early in his academic career until his death in January 2017.

The session, entitled ‘Key Thinkers in Youth Sociology: Reflections on Andy Furlong’s Legacy’ was convened by Johanna Wyn and Dan Woodman and brought together seven academics who had collaborated with Andy, or whose work had been influenced by his significant contribution to the discipline. The session began with an introduction delivered by Johanna and Dan who reflected on the breadth of Andy’s collaborations, particularly acknowledging the strong relationships that he established with his many collaborators around the globe.

Tracy Shildrick presented the first paper, reflecting on the famous concept of the ‘epistemological fallacy’ which Andy developed with Fred Cartmel (initially presented in Young People and Social Change, 1997). The concept was discussed in relation to fieldwork that Tracy conducted with Andy in Middlesbrough and Glasgow (UK), the findings of which were used to challenge popular accounts proclaiming the myth of families and areas in which no one had worked for several generations.

Jenny Chesters, writing with Hernan Cuervo and Johanna Wyn, then drew Andy’s work into dialogue with contemporary debates concerning precarious work, the gig economy and the rise of ‘the precariat’ as a specific social class disproportionately populated by young people. Jenny drew particularly on Andy’s concept of the three zones of employment (traditional, liminal, and marginal), developed with John Goodwin, Sarah Hadfield, Stuart Hall and Kevin Lowden in Young People in the Labour Market: Past, Present, Future (2017). Drawing on this concept, Jenny presented findings from the Life Patterns study, considering whether the participants’ high level of investment in tertiary education was rewarded in the labour market, focusing particularly on their struggle to secure full-time permanent employment and reflecting on the impact that falling into the liminal zone of employment had on other spheres of their lives.

Akio Inui then discussed Andy’s enduring interest in Japanese youth, and the common difficulties that young people confronted in the late modernity whether they lived in the West or East. Akio again discussed the concept of the epistemological fallacy, linking it to the Japanese phenomena of hikikomori. Akio’s contention that Japanese youth experiencing this phenomenon turned their anger about adverse labour market conditions and increasingly challenging norms around working life inward, rather than targeting it at government or market forces, resonated with several of the other papers presented in this session.

Henrietta O’Connor, writing with John Goodwin, then drew the audience back to some of the key themes that Andy focused on in his PhD thesis. Specifically, Henrietta discussed a collaborative project that she, John and Andy began in 2011 which drew on some of the data that Andy collected in the 1980s during the early stages of his career to examine how young people’s working lives have changed between the 1980s and 2008 – two periods of economic instability in the UK. Although fascinating findings were presented, this work remains ongoing, leading Henrietta to reflect on the challenges of resuming work on a collaborative project in the wake of Andy’s death.

Carmen Leccardi then continued the session by reflecting on the inspiration that she has taken from Andy’s work. She addressed the relevance that Andy’s work had for understanding the temporal dynamics characterising young adults’ lives. While Andy’s work did not engage explicitly with notions of temporality, Carmen illustrated how key aspects of his work – for instance, his timely reflections on the ways in which youth labour market conditions evoke the classic structure/agency debate, and the increasingly non-linear nature of school-work transitions – provide generative insights for understanding the temporal dynamics that young adults’ lives. Carmen dwelt especially on the issue of agency, discussing how young adults often struggle to relate productively to an increasingly transient present, and in so doing evoked the recurrent focus on how young people cope with increasingly adverse structural conditions that resonated throughout the session.

Following on from the focus on temporality, Valentina Cuzzocrea discussed how Andy’s work relates to the notion of mobility. Shifting the focus of the session, Valentina looked forward to consider how Andy’s work can be used by current and future youth researchers to understand young people’s experiences of geographical mobility as they pursue what has been termed the ‘mobility dream’. In so doing she considered key metaphors – niches, pathways, trajectories and navigations (see Evans & Furlong 1997) – that have echoed throughout Andy’s work on youth transitions, considering how geographical mobility could be integrated into these existing means of viewing transitions.

Kate Tilleczek presented the final paper, discussing her collaboration with Andy on a project entitled Digital Media and Young Lives over Time. Kate’s discussion of this project, which collected ‘digital portraits’ of young people’s online activities, presented a balanced and timely commentary on the digital age, clearly standing apart from the moral panics that commonly dog discussions of youth and new media both within and outside of the academy. Kate’s discussion of this fascinating work also provided a fitting end to the papers presented in this session as it left the audience with a strong statement of the breadth and the timeliness of Andy’s contribution to the sociology of youth.

By bringing together Andy’s collaborators and interlocutors this session ultimately paid homage to an incredible legacy. However, it also made clear that Andy’s contribution to the discipline is ongoing due to the continued work of his many talented collaborators, and to the impact that his work has had, and will have, on several generations of scholars.

 

(This article was first published on the tasayouth blog. Thanks to the group’s conveners for permission to republish it. The photograph of Andy Furlong is used with permission from the University of Glasgow and Prof. Furlong’s family. Ed.)

 

 

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