Social control and fragile autonomy: The construction of adolescents’ agency in outreach youth work

(In Finnish: Sosiaalisesti kontrolloitu, hauraasti autonominen)

Tarja Juvonen

This doctoral dissertation examines the construction of agency among young people on the threshold of adulthood who are, or risk being, socially excluded. Adolescence involves many choices and decisions that impact later life, such as leaving the parental home and transitioning to independent living, establishing financial independence, making decisions about education and careers, and starting a family. An essential part of adolescence is the pursuit of autonomy and finding one’s place in the adult world and its social order. Adolescents who cannot attain these goals are easily rejected as non-adults who fail to meet social expectations for different age groups and life stages. This rejection has the effect of excluding them from full citizenship. Emerging adulthood is particularly challenging for adolescents living in vulnerable circumstances who feel they are not yet ready or able to make decisions about their life. The choices they must make may also involve options that adolescents find dissatisfactory or difficult to handle.

This dissertation explores young people’s agency from a relational perspective, emphasising the social and contextual basis of agency rather than its individualist foundation. The relational perspective relates to autonomous agency primarily because the construction of autonomy can require the context of human relationships and mutual dependency. In contrast, an emphasis on agency that stresses individuality and independence may engender feelings of loneliness and insecurity as well as of going through the motions of a life with no true sense of meaning. People who work with and support adolescents should also bear in mind that wellbeing depends substantially on the ability of individuals to connect with others. A lack of relationships and a feeling of loneliness characterise the lives of many socially excluded and disadvantaged people. The relational perspective is particularly obvious among those without relationships.

This dissertation employs a constructionist philosophy and a relational viewpoint. It focuses on outreach work and, more broadly, the service network that strives to help young people. The research data comprise documents from 2001 on street-based youth work, recordings from the development seminar of a working group, interviews with young people encountered during outreach work in 2010 and 2011, the working group’s focus group discussions and recorded client visits. The four scientific articles included in the dissertation use content analysis and the voice-centred relational method to consider the themes of control, the construction of autonomous agency and the concept of having-to as it pertains to young people. The first of the articles discusses elements of control in outreach work. The three other articles explore the theme of agency and the associated relational perspective. The second and third articles examine the construction of young people’s autonomous agency, first in tense meetings with outreach workers and the authorities, and then from the perspective of the challenges of independent living. The fourth article analyses the construction of adolescents’ agency from the viewpoint of cultural expectations, particularly the concept of having-to.

The results of the articles inform the concluding section, which addresses the two research questions: How is the autonomous agency of young people constructed in the tense relationship of social control, professional support and having-to, and how is the relational approach connected to the construction of young people’s autonomous agency? The results demonstrate that various social structures and service systems provide a framework for the construction of agency, particularly among young people who are or risk being socially excluded. Even the most autonomous individual must deal with certain “have-to’s” and is the subject of control through both societal and social relationships. Both control and culturally defined having-to are factors that define the limits of agency based on freedom and choices. As clients of outreach work, adolescents who are or risk being socially excluded must negotiate with various societal representatives about the limits of their autonomy and range of choices and must respond to the expectation of stronger agency.

Young people’s experience of their agency and place in the world depends partly on social ties, relationships and the various resources available to them. Strengthening the agency of young people encountered through outreach work requires long-term partnership and support to help them succeed in the challenging transition to adulthood, which is limited by having-to. Interaction in outreach work, the parties’ meetings or failures to meet each other, plays an important role. Those involved in such work have the power to profoundly affect young people’s lives as well as their ideas of themselves and their significance. External compulsion or decisions made without the adolescents’ contribution do not improve their self-understanding or autonomous agency, which are important to any definition of a good life.