Learning for the past: What is a classic ?

We have been undertaking retudies for some time now and thinking about the need to revisit classic studies as part of our sociological analysis. Here is the introduction to a paper we have been working on and need to finish soon.

John Goodwin and Henrietta O’Connor

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Following our various journeys in and around numerous past/historical/legacy school to work transition projects, from the 1960s through to the 1980s, we have developed a broader interest in the history of ‘youth studies’. More precisely the restudies we have initiated has necessitated us developing some understanding of the genesis of those particular legacy projects and, as a consequence, we have been introduced to a wide range of researchers and writers who all have contributed to the field of youth studies during the last sixty or so years. The need to revisit what had been done before was important in aiding our understanding and appreciation of the nexus of inter-relationships in which these legacy projects were developed, funded, operationalised, researched and disseminated. In so doing we have been exposed to a range of studies previously unknown to us and, we suspect, which have now simply become obscured by the passage of time for many others.

For us these dusty book jackets of ‘studies past’ hide a veritable treasure trove of what was once ‘state of the art’ research on the sociology of youth, and what constituted youth studies, but which is now largely forgotten or just simply ignored. Yet this seems both wasteful and saddening as there is so much still to learn from legacy research and there are so many studies which deserve to be revisited or reconsidered. The fact that they are not, and that such legacy studies are so readily overlooked is, we would argue, problematic for a number of reasons. First, the process of ‘disregarding’ is part of a broader tendency that assumes that all that legacy studies, and associated research monographs contain, are ‘old’ not only in a chronological sense but also in terms of their utility i.e. that these studies have nothing ‘new’ to articulate of offer that is not already known. This relates to the dominant progress model of scientific knowledge that undergirds much of social scientific research – a model of research which posits that knowledge is a linear product that ‘flows’ in one direction towards greater ‘clarity and truth’, with each discovery building upon the last. Dunning and Hughes (2013:126) illustrate this approach by evoking Elias’s metaphor of swimmers diving into the ‘stream of knowledge at particular times and places’. The stream of knowledge ‘flows’ yet the dominant trend is to view the place we ‘dive in’ as the point from which all advancements originate. What about the accumulated knowledge downstream? As such a re-reading of any text, be it five years old or fifty-five years old, has the potential of offer new and original insights or to prompt new thinking when the ideas the contained within are considered via a ‘contemporary lens’ or are reconsidered in the ‘present context’. Indeed, these legacy studies, as with other materials that document social life, have ‘considerable value as both the subject and object of subsequent research’ (Hughes and Goodwin 2014: XX).

Second, again as we have argued elsewhere, the overlooking of past youth studies is not simply a process of moving on but is also reflective of the ‘fetishisation the present’. This is something particularly relevant in the context of youth studies which, as a subject matter, almost lends itself to a prioritisation of ‘contemporary’ issues at the expense of all else. Yet such an approach implies that the ‘here and now’, or the issues of contemporary youth are somehow hermetically sealed off from what went before. Or more problematic what ‘issues’ there are ­– be it youth unemployment, youth culture/subculture – emerged out of nowhere. Such an epistemological fallacy prompts us to consider more and more ‘what is now’ rather that how did we get here/how did this come to be? Yet discussions and explanations are narrowed if youth studies research remains focused only ‘…on contemporary problems. One cannot ignore the fact that every present society as grown out of earlier societies and points beyond itself to a diversity of possible futures’ (Elias 1985: 226).

Finally, unless past research has attracted the sobriquet of ‘classic’ then for many it is simply not worth bothering with. Why re-read it? However, who is it that determines what is or becomes classic study (or otherwise) in social science research? Of course there are those studies that have moved debates and ideas forward, or have operationalized ground-breaking research designs or where findings have significantly shaped subsequent research agendas for many years to come. Yet these are often value judgements. However well intentioned or deserved in some respects the ‘classic’ tag may be unhelpful in that it could detract from those perfectly useful ‘other’ studies which still have a great deal to offer studies of youth. This is no way meant to detract from ‘classic’ studies but to simply suggest that the broader oeuvre of youth research may have considerably more of value to offer and studies, be it from ten, twenty or even fifty years ago should not be always readily dismissed, disregarded or diminished purely because it isn’t ‘new’ or ‘newsworthy’.


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