Personal biographies and evolving institutions in New Zealand society: Cultural transmission of life skills and orientations. Vivienne Zhang & Nesta Devine. Why did George become a ‘problem kid’?.
Vivienne Zhang & Nesta Devine
After finishing his compulsory schooling, George (b. 1985) did sixth form and passed all the engineering graphics courses. Dropping out of school after fifth form was normal for most of his friends because their families were rich. He managed to secure a number of positions at mechanics workshops but these all ended badly.At the time of interview, George was back living with his father. He was jobless and had been convicted of four charges related to drugs and fraud. He was placed on a good behavior bond for up to 7 years without recording a new conviction. His criminal record is getting him nowhere.
What approach could improve our understanding of this social phenomenon or problem?
The difficult transition of ‘problem’ young people can only be understood fully if we take more account of their personal biographies and the institutional contexts and social practices that intricately interface with their lives.
Biographic narrative interview
MAIN NARRATION: using one single open-ended carefully designed narrative question, for example:
“Please tell me about the story of your life and your family; I am interested in your whole life. All the events and experiences that are important to you, personally. . . .” (Rosenthal 2004)
(argumentation vs. narration)
James: Dedicated rugby player for his entire school life; left school in fifth form. Three-month apprenticeship; a handyman; worked 18 months in a cabinet-makers; started working for his friend in a wood workshop and made colonial-style furniture; met his future wife.
H1: From an unqualified carpenter to a skilled furniture maker, we hypothesize that James probably saw more opportunity and stability in skilled work.
FH1.1: Would encourage his children to move towards a professional job or skilled trades - indicated by post-1980 economic policy.
James (b. 1958), a Baby Boomer (1945-1973)
YOpened shop with friends; problems concerning management of business (absence of managerial skills);James started selling his tools and machine. First child George was born in 1985, 3 months premature. Had respiratory problems and a shunt in his head to reduce excessive fluid.
H2: A turning point for the family; FH2.1: James would settle for working for someone else for a long time; or would go from job to job.
1993: Karen was born, James’s wife suffered allergy problems; stomach pains.
James worked a long way from home; on Saturdays his wife would be all day in bed. James did all the domestic chores. James’ parents’ health went downhill. He cooked meals for his own family every Saturday and for his parents every Sunday. James’ father passed away in 2007 and his marriage collapsed around the same time. Structural hypothesis: James is a loyal son and feels responsible for his family (orientation and patterns of actions).
Filial obligations and conjugal life (1985-2013)
Most of George’s peers left school at 15; George showed persistence in acquiring skills within the education system (patterns of actions): did sixth form and passed all the engineering graphics courses.
H1: George’s trajectory indicates an attempt to fulfill family and mainstream expectations (orientation). Against this normative practice is the background of a ‘liberal’ school environment and the dynamics of urban neighborhood culture where his primary socialization takes place (He and his schoolmates often took their parents’ cars and bought vodka for parties either in the north of Whangarei or in the bush), which might create conflictive identification.
FH1.1: We also felt that George was a sort of ‘exception’ in his peer group. His staying on at school could be interpreted as very risky in terms of the impact of not fitting in with respect to the world in which he has been socialized.
George’s first job: A mechanics workshop in 2003.
Lost this job as a result of drug-taking at his mate’s place and the resultant road rage.
The second job: Mechanic’s apprenticeship; got his own car and rented a house.
Dropped out as his friends got him drugs and he spent a lot of time with them at parties.
The third job: In a city mechanics; the boss got him managerial position
Was sacked for fraud.
At the time of interview, George was back living with his father. He was jobless.
The fact that George had secured a number of positions suggests he has worthwhile skills. But his conviction for fraud made it difficult for himto re-enter the job market.
Social Wage Policy; ‘the cult of domesticity’; the orienting principle was social equality, redistribution, and universality.
High expectations placed on them with respect to education and career; value for money and results; expansion of professionalization
Growing income disparities between households and increasingly uneven resource distribution both between and within regions.
Lack of formal sphere resources and socialization
George’s case shows us how difficult it can be detaching from one’s friends to achieve a personal goal.
Both George and his father show a lack of appreciation and use of other resources and support in the formal social spheres, and particularly in terms of issues in the workplace and career development, and evaluating opportunities and risky situations and their associated negative consequences.
The First Step Initiative
Mission statement: To help the young New Zealanders who have past convictions and who want to be ‘useful’ to start a new life of commitment, career and family.
Aim: To get the Ministry of Social Development and local city councils to consider giving George and other problem kids a chance by enabling them to work as car park maintainers or curbside collectors and helping them eventually to head back to their dream jobs?
Willing to mobilize resources to support
George’s problem is not simply due to the consequences of his drug use. Rather, the root causes of the problem of George's life are both structural and ideological in nature: The emotional connections and relationships with his peers who were engaging in inappropriate social behaviour; and with their parents and/or teachers tolerating their disengagement from school.Involvement in truancy and alcohol-fuelled parties seems an inescapable part of George and his friends' secondary school experience.
These connections and the accompanying behavioural practices enhanced the possibility of precarious development in later life for George.
There are implications here for schools and parents to develop sufficient support and school engagement strategies to develop appropriate relational identity and role models (Wengraf, 2002).
In this way, better life organization and planning outside school may be achieved by fostering ‘biographically sensitive reflexivity and relational group work’ (Wengraf, 2002, p. 264).
Social workers and school counsellors in institutions that help young people or socially excluded youth might consider facilitating reflexive self-in-situation self understanding and enhancing their awareness of their clients through biographical narration and exploring the connection between the lived life, the told story and the wider society. This would facilitate the detection of the underlying rules/mechanisms that contribute to the precarious developmental course of problem kids and help remove biographical blockages.
Such a methodology could produce explanations that take into account both individual biography and social institutions.
If you are interested in finding out more about the application of this methodology, please email me at: email@example.com
Reading: Prue Chamberlayne, Joanna Bornat, & Tom Wengraf (Eds.) 2002, Biography and social exclusion in Europe: Experiences and life journeys. Bristol, UK: The Policy Press.
Vivienne has completed her PhD work, Higher Education Choices and Decision-Making in China’s then and now, 1912-2012 , which examines the relationship between structural changes and institutional regulations and the experience and perception patterns of Chinese international students and their parents. Currently, with Nesta Devine, she is conducting a study of New Zealand families and their life journeys. The findings are being developed as part of this project.