Eric Carlin: Young people, alcohol and (the troubling concept of) ‘resilience’

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to present in Cardiff some thoughts about young people and alcohol drawn from my PhD research which is exploring the usefulness of theories of ‘social exclusion’ and ‘resilience’ to describe contemporary youth transition experiences in Pilton, a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Edinburgh.

My fieldwork was conducted between July 2012 and March 2013 and I am currently analysing findings and writing up.  I recruited young people (aged between 16 and 23) and people who work with them from youth centres and colleges and advertising in the local community newsletter. I also held two focus groups with local mothers.

The theoretical context has been strongly influenced by the sociology of Norbert Elias, who believed that human beings are engaged in a ‘civilising process’. He argued that we should study the constantly changing figurations that  individuals, families and others in society engage in with each other. I therefore prioritised finding out how young people view and define their worlds and what and whom they believe influences them, exploring the dynamic networks in which they are engaged.

Greater Pilton (West Pilton, East Pilton, Drylaw, Granton, Muirhouse) is one of Edinburgh’s three major peripheral estates. There has been a lot of demolition and rebuilding since the 1980s. Houses range from 1930s tenements to recent social-housing and owner-occupation developments. Greater Pilton’s population is around 27,000. Although Pilton is a poor community, with significant challenges, it’s also a diverse and vibrant community, with strong networks, many large extended families, with a history, a present and a future.

My general findings have been that young people in Pilton experience poverty and economic precariousness. They feel stigmatised by others and they can also be harsh in judging themselves and those around them. They live with a constant fear of violence at an individual level, while they also experience what Wacquant calls “violence from above”, institutional violence from the political and social systems that marginalise and disadvantage them. They develop sophisticated strategies to be safe, including building strong peer networks and relying on support from extended families.

Within this context, alcohol and alcohol use is ubiquitous and normalised. The cheap price of alcohol, its easy availability and constant marketing, including using social media, are described by young people as influencing this. They actively describe making decisions to use or not to use illegal drugs, whereas alcohol is just part of the fabric of everyday life. Often it is experienced as celebratory, marking special occasions or cementing family relationships or friendships. However, its use is also experienced as damaging to the local community, a key factor in leading to anti-social behaviours and a risk to the health and well-being of individuals.

Nonetheless, I found little evidence of pressure from individual peers to use alcohol (or to engage in illegal drug use). Young people described themselves as having a high degree of agency around these matters. Contrary to many depictions of places like Pilton as being static and one-dimensional and the people as belonging to an ‘underclass’, the experiences of the young people in my study, including those related to alcohol, are diverse and take place in a complex and dynamic context.

‘Social exclusion’ emerged as a useful way of broadening definitions of poverty. I would argue that policy makers have increasingly used it in ways that stigmatise and blame poor young people for their own predicaments. In the context of neoliberal hegemony, concepts such as ‘resilience’ are used to encourage conformity with mainstream norms. One of my research conclusions is that, at best, ‘resilience’ has to be considered as a harm reduction measure. Helping young people in places like Pilton to acquire ‘resilience’ skills should not take precedence in longer term policy over actions to reduce the social and economic disadvantage that plays such a huge part in making their lives so difficult.


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