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The range of work with young people
The range of work with young people

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‘Family resemblances’ between practices

As the previous activity illustrates, there are a lot of widely different activities and services available for young people. Might they be too diverse to be considered under one umbrella term of ‘working with young people’? How would we recognise ‘work with young people’ when we see it? And what assumptions, if any, can we make about it when we do see it?

This is a difficult and much debated question. One way of looking at it (discussed in Banks, 2010) is to think of work with young people as a ‘family of practices’. This is a development of an idea from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argued that many ordinary, everyday words are difficult to define, but that does not mean we do not understand them. He took as his example the word ‘game’.

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called “games”’ – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! – Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. – Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

(Wittgenstein, 1968 [1953], pp. 31–2)

Similarly, Sarah Banks argues that even if there is no one feature or set of features that is common to all the practices that we might call youth work, these practices have a ‘family resemblance’ (2010, p. 6) of the kind Wittgenstein described. In this course, we will be looking at a ‘family’ of types of work with young people. These will have a variety of names and at times we may find it difficult to define characteristics that they all have in common. However, we will readily find the kinds of overlapping and criss-crossing similarities about which Wittgenstein and Banks write.

The next section starts to look more closely at the range of settings where work with young people takes place and to suggest ways in which we might describe these settings – taking into account the similarities and differences that will arise within a ‘family of practices’. In this way, we will continue to develop our ability to recognise and discriminate between the different kinds of provision on offer to young people.