As I sit in my quiet but chaotic study, staring out of the window and wondering whether I can justify stopping for another cup of tea, I find myself wondering why I have spent the last three years doing social research for my PhD. It is a question that I often see (or imagine I see) on people’s faces when they ask what I do, especially since a friend blustered in response to my explanation: “And are my hard-earned taxes funding you?”
My PhD is looking at secondary school pupils’ constructions of social justice. I have learnt not to tell the general inquirer this, as it is open to a number of misinterpretations, including the assumption that I am studying youth offending and that I am a radical communist. In fact, what I want to understand is how young people apply principles of fairness and justice to the social order that they see around them. I want to understand the different ways in which young people deploy concepts of fairness and justice to talk about their school and their society. I am attempting to do this by conducting a series of group interviews with small groups of 11 and 14 year olds in a range of different schools. I began with 110 participants, although there has been some attrition, so only about 80 have taken part in all three interviews. So far the groups have discussed what they think makes a fair or unfair school, examples of fairness and unfairness they see on the television and around them, whether they think a fair world is possible or desirable and what they think needs to happen to make the world fairer.
I often explain to my interviewees that my interest in my topic stems from my time working in education policy research, where I observed that many policy makers seemed to have no idea why I was so concerned about educational inequalities. While this is true, I think the interest in my topic can be traced much further back in my past. I might go back to the short period I spent living overseas as a child, my involvement in the Jubilee 2000 “Drop the Debt” campaign as a teenager, time living in and working in a deprived area of South Wales, or my experiences living in a diverse area of South London. As I learnt more and more sociology I began to make sense of these experiences using theories of habitus, structure, culture, agency and ethics. I became convinced that I live in a deeply unequal nation in a massively unequal world. I also began to understand that my actions contribute to maintaining and recreating that world order. I wrote in my initial research proposal that studying constructions of social justice is important because “constructions of social justice may be used to justify the reproduction of inequality, but they may also be used to challenge and transform unjust social structures”. So I began my research with the aspiration that it would prompt people to consider and debate constructions of social justice and thus take a step towards a fairer society and a fairer world.
Of course, I didn’t know when I set out to do the research that 2010 would be such an interesting time to be studying young people’s ideas about social justice. “Fairness” is trumpeted as the key principle behind decisions about cuts, and is also becoming a rallying call for protesting students. Within my secondary school participants, one group that two years ago told me they were unlikely to do anything to stop unfairness have joined the “Save our School” campaign, which they justify using the language of fairness and justice. Another group spoke passionately about the impact student fees might have on them, denouncing the proposals as unfair. I am still convinced when I go back to the foundation of the research that it is worthwhile and important.
And sometimes when I am in school with young people, I remember this and am encouraged. I look forward to days when a conversation with a teacher prompts them to say “I’ve never thought about it like that before,” or when a student says “I enjoyed talking about that, we never discuss that kind of thing in school.” But more often I find it is a struggle to convince myself that the research is worth doing. On days when casual acquaintances suggest that political affiliation is all in the genes, or when tell me there’s no point in researching fairness because Britain is a land of opportunity, I despair. On these days I worry that understanding young people’s ideas about social justice will make no difference to the world at all, let alone contribute to making it fairer. I guess ultimately it will be desperation that drives me to finish, rather than naive idealism. As for the impact of the research – we will all have to wait and see.
Sarah is a PhD researcher in Sociology at the University of Reading.