Youth studies and emancipation
by Jayeel Serrano Cornelio
The reflections offered in this blog are drawn from my experience having conducted doctoral work on youth in the Philippines. Sponsored by the Asia Research Institute, my project was about what being Catholic means to Filipino youth today. I conducted interviews and focus group discussions with around 100 tertiary students across different disciplines and types of university (state, religious, and private non-sectarian) in Metro Manila. Inasmuch as it engaged key theories in the sociology of religion, my project was also an attempt to initiate novel thinking in the study of youth in the Philippines. Here I will recount some of the issues I faced as a researcher and the encouraging developments that have influenced the way I see young people today. These reflections have in turn informed the project I am embarking on as postdoctoral research fellow at MPI.
Studies of young people, of course, are well developed in the West but, having been influenced by the Birmingham School, they have often cast youth as often harboring their own subculture with social problems that need to be resolved. Key ideas here include juvenile delinquency, generational gap, and youth angst among others. Researchers, therefore, can be antagonized – and seen as antagonizing.
It is this negative mentality about youth studies, I reckon, that a youth researcher will encounter in the field. In accessing youth organizations, for example, I felt that some adult coordinators were cautious about my own motives. My peers in youth studies have encountered this, too, and I recently dealt with this again when I contacted some organizations in Singapore for my postdoctoral project. But it is not entirely hopeless. I noticed that other gatekeepers could be sympathetic towards me as a youth researcher for seeing the potential value of my findings. Some of my contacts in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), for example, supported me because of this. (Here I note my observation that even some of the most sincere youth workers I met have felt that religious institutions are not giving enough attention to their young people. So they must have thought that my project could be eye-opening.)
I certainly agree with them and I have taken advantage of this openness. It is in this manner that I contest the tendency to see young people as a “problem sector”. While there is merit certainly in addressing the issues of young people, I align myself with other sociologists who see the emancipatory potential of studying youth. By surfacing their worldviews and navigating mechanisms, the adult world can better understand where young people are coming from (and not simply as a sector that does not fit the system). The caveat here, however, is that once I have established rapport with my youth informants, some of them started seeing me not just as a researcher but as an elder brother, counselor, and even potential spiritual mentor. With a humanitarian spirit, I offered what I could, but always maintaining tolerable professional distance.
Youth studies can indeed be emancipatory to young people in the sense that space is now afforded for them to break from social silence. In my research, for example, I have criticized the accusation that young Catholics are practicing “cafeteria Catholicism” or being random and thoughtless about their religion. This accusation, regrettably, is coming from religious commentators, theologians, and even some sociologists. What I have observed instead is that my informants in their own ways, whether with their friends or alone, are in fact thinking about the relevance of their faith. So I have interviewed professing Catholics, for example, who may not necessarily be attending Mass but would rather be spending time enacting their beliefs by volunteering for shelter-building projects in the province. In my work I have invoked “reflexive spirituality” to conceptualize their religious identity.
But youth studies can also be emancipatory to the adult world, not the least of which is the youth researcher. The recent turn of events with young people around the world involved in series of protests and social movements may be shocking to some and tiring to others. They can also be seen as protestations of a sector that has long been silenced. To me, however, the emotional outbursts reveal a lingering sense of hope that I have also seen among my informants. My interviewees have talked about their aspirations for their families and Philippine society. They have talked about wanting to be debt-free and being able to send their younger siblings to school. And they have also talked about wanting to serve the country.
These desires, of course, are subject to the structural inequality in the adult world they have yet to encounter. But to call them simply naïve may not be appropriate. As they are, my informants have been involved in various community projects in the Philippines, whether it’s shelter-building for the homeless or simply attending to the needs of an urban poor community.
Having seen these efforts made me think about their contribution to social development, which the literature again overlooks. This is the gap my new study attempts to address. For my postdoctoral project, I wish to unravel what young people in faith-based initiatives in Singapore think about their involvement and their “visions of development” for a fast-paced economic environment. I have a hunch that contrary to expectations that they are powerless in a highly controlled state, the exercise of their agency may in fact serve as critique to the developmentalist ideologies pervading their society.