Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Kevin McDonald.
Struggles for Subjectivity: Identity, Action and Youth Experience.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 231 pp. $96.25 cloth (0521662796), $33.99 paper (0521664462).

The author sets himself the ambitious task of making sense of the reality-constructions of groups of marginalized youth in suburban Melbourne. The task is ambitious because it attempts to demonstrate that these social constructions hold the hope for sociologists to gain insight into forms of youth agency and resistance to “social logics” that will help them understand the “diversity of microgroups and lifeworlds ... that [have] profoundly destabilized” the sociological enterprise (p.1). According to the author, the current “kaleidoscope of microcultures seems to be better understood by advertizing agencies than by sociologists.” If these bold assertions do not alienate prospective readers (most of whom would be sociologists), the book’s succession of extreme claims are likely to, right to the end where we are told that “if sociology is to contribute to the struggle of imagining new ways of living ... [we must be] up and out at dawn, listening to questions being asked in languages we do not yet understand” (p. 218). Just how did the author become over-involved with his informants to the point of counter-transference? The theoretical foundation seems to require that the researcher ultimately surrender his or her sense of reality and morality to the informant, regardless of how dysfunctional or immoral the stance.

The theoretical foundation of this book comes from the sociology of action and experience of French sociologists Alain Touraine and François Dubet. These sociologists claim that sociology is no longer “the study of societies,” but rather of “the experience of social actors confronting” different social logics in multiple terrains (p. 9). Rejecting the meta-narrative reductionism of much of postmodern theory, the sociology of action and experience looks to the concrete narratives that actors construct to give coherence in a world undergoing “deinstitutionalisation and desocialization” (p. 5). Faced with an increased fragmentation of identity, social actors must engage in their own emotional triage and act as dissidents and “resistance fighters” in order to assert their “subjectivity” (p. 7). Although this sounds like the process of individualization studied by late-modernists like Beck and Giddens, the individualization thesis is curiously not explored in this book, perhaps because its common-sense appeal takes the wind out of the more radical subjectivism (standpoint epistemology) of the author’s preferred approach.

This book will appeal mainly to sociologists who prefer subjectivist epistemologies (nominalist ontologies, qualitative methodologies) and who have a strong anti-objectivist bias. The author attempts to let the informants speak for themselves through the transcripts of group sessions in which various social logics are the topic of discussion. An interesting “sociological intervention” developed by Touraine is utilized by which research groups comprising some 150 informants, which met up to 15 times, are taken through three stages of intervention: (1) collectively constructing their realities in terms of conflicts; (2) confronting face-to-face as a group the people who represent the conflicts (e.g., a police officer, the mayor, a personnel manager); and (3) having alternative constructions of reality presented to them by the researcher “in order to initiate a process of self analysis” (p. 19). With this methodology, readers are taken through lively and revealing group discussions involving the sense of living in a dilapidated suburb, dealing with class exclusion, feelings of racism (the researcher admits to being embarrassed that some of his informants were like this), gang membership, anorexia nervosa, and other experiences of marginalization and stigmatization. At the level of description, and to some extent analysis, this is a valuable contribution to the literature on youth and identity.

The strength in this book lies in its sympathetic, descriptive treatment of the lives of these young people, all of whom have some difficulties in making the transition to adulthood. These difficulties range from unemployment through health problems to career crime. The author is on firmest ground in his account of activities like graffiti writing and “bombing,” and in his application of the innovative technique of sociological intervention (the latter of which will unfortunately not likely become known to those most likely to employ it because of the polemical nature of its underlying theory). He is on shakiest ground, however, with his over-analysis of the transcripts and his search for deep meaning in them (expressions of “social creativity,” of which he finds few). Readers will be reminded of Freud’s attempt to develop a psychology based on the study of neurotics; in this case, there is an attempt to build a sociology based on the study of dysfunctionals. Moreover, the noble savage conception of young people implicit in the author’s approach leaves him in a bind when it comes to explaining how racist and violent some of these young people are, and it will leave the reader skeptical that their rants about their oppression will provide scholars with insights into how we are to liberate the human spirit (or give people “freedom and dignity,” as the author puts it).

There is more of merit, and more to criticize, in this book that cannot be mentioned in a short review. However, my hesitancy in recommending this book to others is in submitting them to a constant barrage of anti-objectivist statements, which are both unnecessary and contradicted by the author’s own construction of reality (e.g., we are given a detailed treatment of the demography and unemployment statistics of the research location, as well as an objectivist analysis of globalization). It is unfortunate that some of those who employ qualitative methods feel they must justify themselves by attacking alternate positions. More mature readers could appreciate a sympathetic ethnographic description of these young people’s sometimes desperate lives without having the analysis itself spun in claims of superiority over other approaches. More seasoned sociologists can appreciate the merits of subjectivist analyses when properly applied, as well as the merits of objectivist analyses when they are appropriately applied. Surely, a mature sociology is multifaceted. And surely, even in a complex world, adults should not expect their offspring to teach them how to “imagine new ways of living,” before taking action to protect their offspring from the deleterious effects of globalization.

James Coté
University of Western Ontario
March-April 2000
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