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Seminar Four

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Seminar Four - Discourses of Childhood and Youth


The lecture focussed on the idea of how "childhood" is a social construction - rather than a taken-for-granted category, sociologists have highlighted how different ways of thinking and talking about childhood emerge at different points in history, and often in opposition to the ways other people think about children. One way of thinking about this is through the sociological notion of DISCOURSE.


Structural Nature of Discourses


The term 'discourse' in sociology is most strongly associated with the work of Michel Foucault. It refers to the ways we talk about subjects, in the media, politics and society generally, and this in turn, discourses affect the ways we think about subjects. As such, it is a powerful and useful way of analysing the influences on how individuals think. They exist outside the direct influence of any one individual, and are built up through their repeated use in a whole variety of social and cultural ways: in other words, discourses are part of social structure. We cannot exist outside discourses - when discussing or thinking about a subject, we are influenced by what discourses we have available to us, and when we listen to what people have to say, we interpret their contributions through expectations, values and behaviour associated with a particular discourse. Foucault linked the idea of discourse with ideas of power: those groups in society who can control the dimensions of debate; the assumptions with which we work; the acceptability or otherwise of certain views - hold incredible cultural power, that can use dominant discourses to justify their power.


What is a Discourse?


What counts as a discourse clearly depends on the area under discussion. Lets think, as an example, what constitutes something as 'funny'. Here we might find discourses that address norms and expectations of behaviour; targets of humour; stereotypes, 'folk devils' and comic personaes; limits to humour and structures of 'jokes'. Lets explore this area further: here is a joke recently emailed to me:


A man and a woman who had never met before, but were both married to other people, found themselves assigned to the same sleeping room on a Trans-continental train. Though initially embarrassed and uneasy over sharing a room, they were both very tired and fell asleep quickly, he in the upper bunk and she in the lower.

At 1:00 AM , the man leaned down and gently woke the woman saying,

'Ma'am, I'm sorry to bother you, but would you be willing to reach into the
closet to get me a second blanket? I'm awfully cold.'

'I have a better idea,' she replied. 'Just for tonight, let's pretend that we're married.'

'Wow! That's a great idea!' he exclaimed.

'Good,' she replied. 'Get your own f****** blanket.'


After a moment of silence, he farted.


Hardly a classic, but if we look for the discourses in this, we can see that the joke addresses, directly or indirectly, personal space, marriage, sex, language, and the joke "works" because we know what the expectations are (you work out what the expectations are), and then turns them on their head. A huge amount of humour works with this basic premise: we 'know' what to expect, and the joke upsets those expectations. This can be simple linguistic puns (e.g. When is a bus not a bus? When it turns into a corner) or more elaborate constructions of personaes which challenge our existing expectations (if you ever get the chance to see John Thomson in an early guise as "Bernard Righton" do so: he combines our expectations of a traditional (sexist / racist) comedian (fairly obviously Bernard Manning) with the discourse of political correctness (eg. "There's a Black fella, a Pakistani and a Jew in a nightclub having a drink..... what a fine example of a integrated community") (watch this YouTube link for more ). The (great) humour comes from being able to challenge both the assumptions of traditional comedy, and the political correctness, and in fact the structure of a joke. The point is, though, that we are all aware of these various discourses, and Thompson plays with them to great effect.


In Sociology and Criminology, discourses address some specific expectations. In criminology and/or the sociology of social problems, for example, we tend to have discourses that encompass a definition of a problem; an idea of the levels and trends involved; some ideas of causes of the problems, and a notion of an effective response or solution to the problem.


The Competition of Multiple Discourses


Importantly, the theory of discourse recognises that there are completing discourses: there is no one position that inevitably holds a monopoly over defining boundaries of any one topics of concern, though there may well be dominant discourses, and alternatives. In addition, different groups in society are likely to have particular dominant discourses.


If we return to the 'humour' example, you could discern a range of discourses that could define 'funny' in a range of different ways: school-children; traditional comedians; alternative comedians; feminists; religious groups; age groups; ethnic groups (e.g. Jewish humour); pub humour ; family humour etc. - all these groups represent different discources, which are not all compatible.


In short, discourse theory rejects the idea of their being a single dominant framework through which we all see the world, and recognises the diversity of views within society. We are all influenced by, and possibly conciously choose, discources we find appealing, but can also be influences by a whole range of discourses.


Seminar Task


Do one of the following:


1. Collect newspapers articles (from different sources, including internet archives) on one of the following topics:

- Corporal Punishment in Schools

- The provision of leisure activites for 'problem children'

- The right of parents to physically chastise their children


Analyse the text in the articles to decide what discourse, or discourses you think are represented there in regards to children and/or young people.




2. Log on to a general web-based discussion page (eg. Yahoo Answers), or set up a discussion in another forum (eg. Facebook). Ask a question about what people think "we" SHOULD  do about a youth related problem. Record the answers after a day or so, and similarly analyse the discussions to pick out different discourses.



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