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Race and Youth Policy: working with young people
Race and Youth Policy: working with young people

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6 Policy as discourse

Describing policy as a ‘discursive achievement’ means that it seeks to establish certain ideas about how society is and how it might be changed for the better. Policy statements work hard to persuade practitioners and the public at large that their analysis of the problem is irrefutable and their prescriptions for change irresistible.

The notion of discourse is helpful in raising awareness of the processes through which changes to the ways of thinking about the work done with young people are mobilised and enacted through language. So ‘young people’ become established as a category of persons, or ‘youth work’ is established as a category of activity, which can then be named, investigated, discussed and legislated for. However, these understandings of what it means to be a young person or ‘youth’ are socially constructed and change according to time and place. The way in which children and young people were seen in pre-industrial societies was quite different from our contemporary understandings.

This is a black and white image of 6 people standing against a wall, their heads are cropped out.

Foucault (1980) raises our awareness of the close relationship between language and power and the processes through which certain ways of speaking, writing and thinking gain more attention and carry more weight than others. Discourses, then, create conditions which make certain courses of action seem ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’. They work to ‘highlight certain things as “real” problems whilst marginalising others’ (Apple, 2006, p. 9).

Discourse is about how meanings are created and sustained to look like common sense interpretations which no right-thinking person would want to argue against.

Discourse provides a tool for analysing policy, allowing the ways in which problems are framed and prescriptions are presented to be scrutinised more closely. This allows attention to be paid, not only to descriptions and the ways in which they construct certain objects as knowable and known, but also the techniques through which certain descriptions are worked up to become more persuasive than others, effectively marginalising or silencing alternative accounts.

The ability to control discourse can be a vital source of power. As Zareen Zaidi and colleagues (2021, p. 74) argue, not only government institutions exert power within society, it is also maintained through individuals – and in terms of racism this comes from ‘top down’ policies and ‘bottom up’ from individuals within these systems.

Stephen Ball points to the ways in which discourses embody the effects of power by defining the limits of expression and imagination, as ‘discourses are about what can be said and thought, but also about who can speak, when, and with what authority’ (Ball, 1990, p. 2). This can be linked to the negative discourses which focus primarily on the underachievement of Black Caribbean boys in schools rather than focusing on achievement, or to those surrounding young mothers who are claiming benefits. The processes through which meaning is created are not neutral or naturally occurring; rather they are political, contestable and open to critical analysis.

While this might sound like ‘Big Brother’ – imposing certain ways of speaking, writing and imagining – Foucault saw discourse as not simply dictated by those in power, but as more fluid and dynamic, open to reworking into different meanings which might subvert or resist the original intention. So, while some voices will be more powerful than others at any given moment, there are always spaces for resistance and possibilities for the emergence of new narratives. Meanings, which are often taken for granted, are not fixed but always in flux and open to negotiation. They do potentially open up spaces and possibilities for working with policy, not simply working within policy.