Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice


2 Comments

Migration, education and employment: socio-cultural factors in shaping individual decisions in Orkney and Shetland

So, my latest paper has just been published in the Island Studies Journal. The paper is titled: Migration, education and employment: socio-cultural factors in shaping individual
decisions and economic outcomes in Orkney and Shetland. The paper unpacks some of the theoretical background to my research and discusses some of the initial findings from the first interviews in the project. I have summarised some of the key points from my paper below.
Island studies journal

Front cover of the Island Studies Journal Vol. 11 No.1

So in terms of the background to the project I start by discussing the potential role of place in shaping individual decisions. In order to do this I draw on the theoretical framework of Bourdieu, who broadly looks at the way that our social environment can become internalised and influence the decisions that we make (the internalised social environment is our ‘habitus’). Through this use of Bourdieu I challenge rational models of decision making which tend to assume that career and migration decisions are made on a purely economic basis, and suggest that social and cultural aspects of our environment also impact on our decisions.
Looking at the findings of the research project so far I cover two areas: higher education destinations and graduate destinations. Analysing the interviews with higher education students from Orkney and Shetland, these are the main findings I discuss:
HE destinations
  • “Proximity” is important in deciding where to study for university. This proximity is, however constructed in terms of social and cultural familiarity as well as simply geographical distance.
  • Personal challenge is an important part of going to university. Students typically chose locations which had an element of challenge but which were ‘close enough’ to remain manageable.
Graduate destinations
  • Graduates have typically developed more geographical confidence through being at university and at the point of graduation describe being able to live anywhere
  • However graduates still lack professional confidence, and typically see the first years after graduation as a key period to build up their professional experience. For many graduates it is felt that this may be best done away from their home communities.
  • There is a strong theme of wishing to return to the islands at some point in the future, this is often associated with having children and settling down, with the islands being identified in terms of familiarity, homeliness and comfort.
  • Some graduates do return home immediately, either viewing this in terms of ‘settling down’ or in terms of having a break from their studies and recuperating at home before moving away again. However even the graduates who return home more permanently  typically do not rule out perhaps ‘going south’ again in the future.
I finish the paper with further discussion and indicate a few areas for further research. In particular I note that there is a potential interrelation of place-based habitus with other forms of habitus – including occupational and class habitus. Class in particular is something I’m becoming increasingly interested in (as you will have seen from my previous blog) so you can probably expect to see more from me on that particular topic in the not too distant future!
I hope you enjoy the paper and as always if you’d like to comment to let me know what you think that would be fabulous – your comments are fantastic for pushing my thinking on these issues!

 


Leave a comment

The Outrun – one experience of growing up in, leaving and returning to Orkney

I have just read “The Outrun” by Amy Liptrot, and what a great read it was! Amy’s book is an autobiographical account of returning to Orkney from London and her struggle with alcohol addiction. Returning to Orkney, Amy reflects on her upbringing (on a sheep farm in the West Mainland), her drive to leave the islands as a teenager, and her return to the islands, newly sober. Trying to make sense of these movements, Amy’s book is a fascinating read for people interested in the experience of growing up on islands, and the movements of young people from islands.

AN88540349The Outrun by Amy

Much of what Amy describes will be familiar to other young people in Orkney and Shetland (and in fact young people in rural communities generally). In particular she describes having a ‘great drive to leave’ (p112) the islands, to experience life elsewhere, and to get off ‘the rock’. The world away from the islands is characterised as full of potential, as exciting and boundary-free (in contrast to the boundaried life of the islands). However, alongside this sense of excitement is a sense of risk, and of possibility tipping into excess, notably Amy describes the ‘temptations of the lifestyles elsewhere’ (p111) – with the word “temptation” summing up the attractions but also potentially the addictive or excessive nature of urban life.

 

Having left the islands for London life, Amy describes the challenge of maintaining a sense of ‘reality’ that encompasses these two very different lifestyles: ‘When I am in London, Orkney itself seems imaginary. I find it hard to believe that this life is real when I’m down there’ (p112). The challenge of creating a narrative (such as Amy’s book) or indeed to simply be able to understand your own personal story depends on being able to resolve contradictions and present a coherent narrative. Having two different experiences of lives can therefore present a real challenge – who is Amy when she is in the city, and who is she when she is in the country? One interesting potential for working with this tension appears in the book through the use of technology – Amy is online, blogging and communicating with a global audience even when she returns to Orkney and she notes that: ‘since I’ve been sober and in Orkney, I’m online more than ever as a way of keeping myself linked to the old life I’m not prepared to cut ties with.’ (183). Technology offers a way of ‘linking’ lives together, allowing her to ‘be’ in several places at once. However, the potential of technology goes further, creating a virtual space that feels more like ‘home’ than potentially either London or Orkney. She uses the internet to research what she is seeing in the sea and sky of Orkney, to connect with people, and to explore herself, she says ‘I’m using technology to take myself to the centre of something from my spot at the edge of the ocean. I’m trying to make sense of my environment’ and ‘often I feel as if my real life is inside the computer while my time back in Orkney and the people I see here are just a temporary intrusion’.

The world that Amy presents is certainly very ‘placed’ with Orkney and London being the two poles of her world, but at the same time technology allows her to be in-between, and in fact to create a space which is uniquely her own. This being ‘in’ two lives, and creating her own space is perhaps an  experience that, for Amy, with her own biography is relatively familiar. As the child of English parents who moved to Orkney she describes not really feeling like she belonged in Orkney, feeling ‘too big and too English’. However, this familiarity doesn’t mean that it’s a comfortable experience, and I couldn’t help remembering Giddens’ ideas about how globalisation and the rise of technology has created particular demands on people in terms of creating and maintaining their sense of self.

As well as wrestling with having two different lives, there is a challenge for Amy in terms of understanding what it is to have ‘returned home’.:

“I don’t want to have to admit that I’ve come back – that I’ve failed. I wonder if it’s possible to really come back once you’ve lived away for a while, or if it’s called coming ‘home’ when you never belonged” (p85)

With our cultural expectations of living a life ‘independent’ to our parents, it is easy to see how returning to a family home, to the resources of your parents may be experienced as a ‘failure’. In addition because Amy doesn’t feel like she ‘belongs’ in Orkney, she doesn’t have the comfort of returning to a wider social context that feels like ‘home’.

Not only does Amy struggle to find ways to think about her return for herself, but trying to explain her choice to others is even harder:

“I tell people I came here simply for the cheapest rent I could find. Although that isn’t completely true, I didn’t choose to come here to ‘downsize’ or ‘get back to nature’. It wasn’t my  plan to return home for recovery, it was more that I came back for a visit and got stuck. This is where I come from, not – like most English people in Orkney – where I chose to come to. The last year has been a gradual process of saying, ‘I’ll just stay for a few more weeks,’ for dyking or lambing, then for a few months the corncrakes, and now I’ve committed to a whole winter on Papay. Orkney keeps holding on to me.” (p143)

Here Amy is clear that where other people might move to Orkney for lifestyle reasons or for the nature, for her there is not so much ‘choice’. The fact that she is in Orkney is almost by default, and this makes it difficult to ‘explain’. Indeed it is quite possible that many of us end up in places (careers or locations) that seem to happen by default, or by accident and with limited planning. However, this doesn’t make for a good ‘story’ and as such we may rationalise these decisions, or (at least) present them as rational. But in this case, how can Amy present her decision? For her, as for other young people raised in the islands returning home may simply be a practical decision, and finding an interim job like being the ‘Corncrake wife’ can then be the reason to stay for a little while, and then a little while longer; and before you know it you are ‘stuck’, or as Amy says ‘Orkney keeps holding on to me’.

Overall the book was a fantastic read, very well written and absolutely fascinating for me from my research perspective. Amy’s writing is clear and honest and articulates a particular experience of growing up, leaving and returning to the islands so incisively. I have to say it was also a delight to read so many Orkney stories all woven together with Amy’s very personal story. As the cover matter states it is ‘astonishingly beautiful… a luminous, life-affirming book’ which I would strongly recommend – even if you are not studying a PhD in the experience of young people from island communities!


4 Comments

Aquapelagos and Island Careers: a case study of Orkney and Shetland

This week I published a paper in Shima: the International Journal of Research into Island Cultures titled “Career Decision making in Island Communities: applying the concept of the Aquapelago to the Shetland and Orkney Islands”.

Shima front cover

Front Cover of Shima: love the puffins! It reminds me of some great puffin-watching at Sumburgh Head a couple of years ago.

In this paper I take Hayward’s concept of the Aquapelago (which I have previously blogged about) and examine how useful it can be as a conceptual frame for thinking about island career pathways.

Hayward originally introduced the term ‘aquapelago’ as a way of redefining the ‘archipelago’, a term he felt had become too land-focused (focusing on the land spaces of an island group, rather than the integrated marine and land environment). His full definition of the aquapelago is:

a social unit existing in a location in which the aquatic spaces between and around a group of islands are utilised and navigated in a manner that is fundamentally interconnected with and essential to the social group’s habitation of land and their senses of identity and belonging.

(Hayward, 2012: 5)

My main argument in the paper is that the concept potentially offers a strong interpretive value when considering island careers for several reasons:

  • It refocuses and expands the concept of the island labour market so that it includes employment that may take place on and around sea spaces as well as land spaces.
  • Alongside conceptualising the labour market, it also focuses on the experiences of migration off, on and between islands. This allows for an integrated perspective on career pathways which considers migration issues alongside labour market issues.
  • It highlights the social and cultural context of island communities, and the role of space in the creation of ‘identity’. This allows for an understanding of the way the social and cultural context of islands may influence career decisions.

I then go on to discuss Orkney and Shetland using the lens of the aquapelago to pick out some themes about island career trajectories.

I would be really interested to know your thoughts on the paper!


Leave a comment

Changing times in Sanday

I loved this recording from BBC Radio Orkney! Not only is it great to hear the Sanday (Orkney) accent next to the Yell (Shetland) accent, but the interview with 75 year old Angy acts as a form of oral history, with Angy making some interesting comments about how island life has changed, and his own career journey within Sanday.

In 1943 when Angy left school (at 14) his ambitions were to go away, to get some kind of work and to see what was out there. However, his father had other ideas and bought more land meaning that Angy actually started work on the farm. Initially he was ‘not awful struck on it’ as a kind of career, but by the time he was in his 20s he was “underway wi’ it” and no longer minded to leave. This interested me because of his desire to go away and see new places, which is something that lots of young islanders also report today. What is also interesting is how after his initial decision to stay, life just kind of developed from that point and he became settled in his work even though it wasn’t what he’d really have chosen. I wonder how much that is true of people now too? That life sort of carries us along sometimes meaning that we become settled in jobs even if they weren’t really what we would have chosen in the first place?

Other comments from Angy that I found interesting were about the changes in island schooling – when he was at school there were a number of different schools on the island, and the island community itself was relatively divided between the ‘north’ and the ‘south’, who didn’t really mix very much together. Now all the children are based in the same school, and the island is less divided. Angy also talks a little bit about changing island demographics, including the fact that now there are more incomers on the island than ‘Sanday wans’ – but at how he thinks this is a good thing because without the incomers the island would have been ‘dead’. Indeed being open to change and development is apparent in his comments about the island economy too – when asked about priorities for the future Angy talks about the island needing more tourist facilities particularly in the North. However, he still sees farming as important in the future of the island because of the central place it has in the economy.


Leave a comment

The role of humour in the creation of island graduate identities

What I love about research is the way that interesting ideas come at you sideways. So, a couple of weeks ago I met a friend who is based at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney and has been researching the relationship between language and identity focussing on the community of Stromness from the 1960s to the present. She leant me her masters dissertation into the dialogical negotiation of cultural identity in Orkney and it was fascinating!

I particularly loved the discussion of Bakhtin’s work and the lens it can give to examining the construction of Orcadian identity. This reminded me of how much I loved studying Bakhtin in my first degree and got me thinking about how I could use my background in literature and literary theory in my current studies.

One of the statements that stood out from Becky’s research was:

“Bakhtin’s identification of carnival laughter offers a useful framework to describe how humour in Orkney acts not only against bigsy-ness [an Orcadian word that roughly translates as ‘arrogance’] and towards inclusiveness but at the same time is characterised by ambivalence, allowing things to be said publicly which can then be disclaimed by appealing to the fact that ‘everybody kens its only said in fun’” (Rebecca Ford, 2013, unpublished)

And this reminded me of how in my masters studies one of the key findings was that graduates looking for work in Orkney described avoiding talking about their degree because they didn’t want to seem ‘too big for their boots’ – that is they avoided being ‘bigsy’. And yet, at the same time they did need to show their skills / abilities in the workplace, and to be able to talk about their degree in contexts where it was relevant. I guess in this respect, there seems to be a high demand on graduates in a small community to maintain different identities, that are constructed in different ways in different settings, and yet, their identities must still remain consistent enough so that their identities don’t contradict each other. It is quite possible that carnival laughter plays a part in this, I suggested in my dissertation that in order to be successful, graduates commonly adopted a strategy that involved ‘downplaying’ their abilities directly (in speech) but making sure that they demonstrated their skills practically (through voluntary and community work particularly). Thinking about this in the light of Becky’s work, I wonder if the added advantage to this strategy is that it allows a particular form of self-deprecating humour – with graduates (humorously) downplaying their skills in a way that may actually ironically improve their reputation because the people they are talking to know that the graduate is really very capable indeed (they can see it from the work they’ve done).

One of the examples of humour in Becky's dissertation was a story about a library assistant who thought someone wanted a book about 'Thomas O'Quoyness' when actually they wanted a book about Thomas Aquinas (with 'Aquinas' and 'O'Quoyness'  being pronounced very similarly in an Orcadian accent).

Quoyness chambered tomb in Sanday. One of the examples of humour in Becky’s dissertation was a story about a library assistant who thought someone wanted a book about ‘Thomas O’Quoyness’ when actually they wanted a book about Thomas Aquinas (as ‘Aquinas’ and ‘O’Quoyness’ can sound very similar in an Orcadian accent).