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Young people constructing identities in the transition to higher education

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:42 authored by Hilary Lawson
The research is a study of 12 young people constructing identities in the transition between sixth form college and university. Identity is conceptualised as fluid and self-reflective. Giddens’ (1991) work on the reflexive project focuses on both narrative and reflexivity in the construction of identity, and this research uses the tool of narrative to capture the subjective experiences of the young people. Narrative methodology is shown to produce rich and detailed data and it both constructs as well as captures stories. The research process itself becomes part of the young people’s identity work. The young people are embedded in a social and historical context of late modernity and I endeavour to interrogate how structural forces shape and constrain identities. Some analysis of agency and choice in relation to identity is forwarded. The research findings foreground the student identities of the young people and explore what being a student means for the young people. Being in transition and issues of liminality are associated with this student status. The nature of transition is interrogated drawing on literature from anthropology and psychoanalytic theory among others. Transition is experienced by the young people as a space of betwixt and between-ness which has four particular effects on identity. Firstly, transition encapsulates a quality of temporality which concerns both the present and the future. It pushes the young people to conceive of making the transition to university as an opportunity to make a ‘fresh start’, and the new identity is future-oriented; transition shapes future as well as present selves. Secondly, transition disrupts the normal flow of life and often involves choice-making. Making choices, particularly those which will have future implications, brings identity into sharp relief through reflexive processes. Thirdly, transition to university involves moving into a broader landscape bringing encounters with a wider range of people. This forces issues of similarity, difference and otherness into the frame. Identities are reflexively constructed through understanding of similarity and difference, and transition provides the space where the young people are faced with both possibilities and limitations. On the one hand the broad social mix of university students provides an awareness of heterogeneity that the young people had not experienced before, with all the potential for new identities this opens up. But on the other hand, butting up against otherness and difference in this way solidifies and limits identities. Fourthly, transition precipitates mechanisms for connectedness. Connectedness- that is, the all-pervading and on-going relating with others; peers, friends and family- dominates the narratives of the young people and is significant in both social capital and support, and also identity. Cross-gender friendships are prevalent and are shown to have significant effects on identity. The role of emotion in social interaction is also analysed drawing on concepts of emotional capital and emotional literacy. Links are made between emotion and narrative and the place of emotions in the research process is also discussed. Giddens’ work on identity emphasises the role of reflexivity and yet the concept is not well analysed. Professional discourse is drawn on to open up the concept. The different ways the young people engage in reflexivity are demonstrated and reflexivity is found to be both contextdependent and also related to self-learning. The need for reflexivity is also applied to the research process. Narratives are co-productions and research authenticity calls for transparency and reflexivity of the researcher.


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