The phenomenology of aspirations

I’ve recently been reading Sara Ahmed’s book The Promise of Happiness and this has set me thinking about the phenomenology of aspirations.  In her book, Sara makes some references to aspiration and social hope, but doesn’t dwell on the effects (and affects) of those social policy interventions that have sought to work on young people’s aspirations in Britain over the last fifteen years.

As I’ve said before, aspiration (at least as it is understood and promoted in recent British social policy) is a particular expression of neoliberal social hope.  Widening participation interventions that seek to raise young people’s aspirations also function to orientate young people’s lives towards particular imagined life courses that are consistent with this expression of neoliberal social hope.  They are designed to instill in young people a wish for, and a commitment to, a future where they go to university, enter professional graduate employment and are able to be socially mobile and economically self-reliant, seeking privatised solutions for their well-being.

In practice, these widening participation interventions also seek to re-orientate young people geographically, in relation to their home neighbourhoods.  To have your aspirations raised is also to have your horizons broadened.  Young people living in the most socially deprived neighbourhoods in the country are encouraged to look beyond the places where they live to imagine how life could be different.  It is not enough to want to go to university, to have their aspirations (truly) raised, a young person is encouraged to aspire to a middle class habitus and dream of moving away to university.  Physical, spatial mobility is closely linked to the social mobility being promoted in these policies.  This is another way of denigrating (white) working class communities.  Young people from these backgrounds are being taught that there is nothing of value in their home communities.  To have one’s aspirations raised is to want to leave friends, family and home behind.  It is hardly surprising that widening participation initiatives have perhaps been least successful amongst those young people deemed most in need of intervention.

And this brings me to my final point (for now).  The effect of these attempted re-orientations differs depending on the relational geographies of the home neighbourhoods in which the young people they target live – how connected they are to other places – and on the life trajectories of individual young people and their families.  Not all socially deprived neighbourhoods, or the people who live in them, are the same.  It is possible to live on a low income, in an area that scores highly on the indices of multiple deprivation, and still have a wide range of connections with different people that extend across social difference and across space.  This is one reason why I think young people from some minority ethnic communities have done relatively well out of widening participation initiatives.  If your family experience is one of transnational migration; if you and your family sustain kinship networks that extend around the globe; or, if you attend a church, mosque or temple that brings you into regular contact with a group of people engaged in a diverse range of livelihoods, jobs and careers, you are likely to be aware that the way you live your life, here and now, is not the only option open to you. 

So, while I am suspicious about the ways in which the imperative for young people to ‘broaden their horizons’ has become enmeshed with the imperative to raise their aspirations for a privatised neoliberal future, I do also see value in having wide horizons.  Conscious experience of what Doreen Massey would call ‘place beyond place’ can serve to widen your horizon.  Wide horizons, although at times unsettling, can reveal new options and possibilities.  I am critical of how widening participation initiatives envisage only one course across that widened horizon; but I am interested in how widening our horizons may also hold the potential for fostering social relations and social hopes that exceed neoliberal aspirations.

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