People & Research: Katariina Mertanen examines critically policies and practises aiming to reduce young people's social exclusion

The AGORA Research Centre brings together a wide diversity of researchers and research groups interested with current issues of social justice and equality in education. Here, we present you with their research. This week we present Katariina Mertanen whose PhD examines critically the policies and practises that aim to reduce young people’s social exclusion in Finland and in the European Union.

What are your research top­ics? 

In my Ph.D research I study policies and practises aiming to reduce young people’s social exclusion in Finland and in the European Union. By looking at both policy documents and following different education and guidance programmes, I have been able to answer how young people are governed, and with what criteria young people are described as ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ for social exclusion and marginalisation. I am especially focusing on the ways in which young people are steered in these policies and their implementations towards a ‘desirable’ future both for young people and society as a whole.

As my key concepts, I am using a framework of governing through precariousness, therapization and employability. With the help of these concepts, I have found out that young people’s social exclusion as a phenomenon is more or less tied to the economic growth and labour market policies. Young people named to be ‘at risk’ of social exclusion in policies are depicted as a risk to the future prosperity of nation states, and to themselves. Hence, the practises aim to facilitate these young people’s transitions towards a normative state of being – through education, therapy, teaching employability skills and so on.

How does your research re­late to is­sues of so­cial justice and equal­ity?

In relation to social justice and equality, my research shows how young people’s social exclusion is much tied to issues of poverty and other societal issues. Although youth policies are presented as universal, as something that affects all young people, the measures aiming to prevent social exclusion, such as youth workshops and outreach youth work, target those young people who already are in disadvantaged position. This universalism and talk about ‘everyone having equal opportunities’ does not seem to hold true in the practises of youth support systems, where already disadvantaged young people are targeted with a leverage of losing one’s social security benefits if they do not comply to participate.

Tell something about your latest/​​​current research?

In my latest article “What’s the problem (represented to be) in Finnish youth policies and youth support systems?” I explore this tension between universalistic aims and different support systems targeting different groups of young people. In the article, I experiment with Carol Bacchi’s policy analysis methods, that asks what kind of problem representations seemingly neutral policies produce. Bacchi’s main proposition is, that policies are always a representation of some desired future or state of being, that current situation disrupts in one way or another. This enables to look to measures and suggestions in policies from a very unique point of view and helps to ask what is the ‘problem’ that policies are aiming to solve. I am applying this insight to analyse both youth policies and their implementations in Finland.

My key findings show, that the ‘problem’ of young people Finnish policies and practises are aiming to solve, are employment and immaturity of young people. The ‘solutions’ for these problems are on the other hand coming from two very different ways of thinking about the relationships between the state and individual – neoliberal rationale, and more paternalistic welfare-state based rationale. In both policies and their implementations is an inbuilt tension. In neoliberal rationale, young people are seen as agents, who have right and responsibility to make rational choices, to aim towards their own goals and to success in life without anyone interfering these pursuits. Yet, young people are seen as immature, impulsive and lacking insight and self-awareness, so they need careful control, counselling, and guidance in order to make ‘right’ decisions.

What kind of dis­cus­sions would you wish to ini­ti­ate with your research?

I hope that my research helps us to understand the ‘impossible’ situations young people are put to every single day. At the same time, they are talked as a bright future hope that needs freedom and possibilities, or as a potential threat to both society and to themselves.

Find out more also at Katariina's Researchgate profile.

Published 26.5.2020