Girlhoods and social action: an intersectional approach to working-class girls' participation

Taylor-Collins, Emma ORCID: 0000-0003-0385-9163 (2022). Girlhoods and social action: an intersectional approach to working-class girls' participation. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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In this thesis I explore how working-class, mainly racially-minoritised girls at three schools in London’s poorest boroughs participate in social action.

There are multiple discourses about what it means to be a girl in the contemporary global North. These inform how girlhood is thought about, talked about, and practised, and shape expectations about how girls should be. The ‘successful girl’ is expected to attain academic and extracurricular achievements that destine her for a ‘successful’ future; the ‘good girl’ is expected to be docile and to be caring; and girls’ lives are shaped by ideas about authenticity or ‘being yourself’. Yet girls experience inequalities that can make these ideals difficult to achieve, especially working-class girls. They make important contributions to society despite experiencing significant challenges, but these girls tend to be invisible in the media and in public policy beyond concerns about their sexuality or educational attainment, and are often assumed to be White British.

An important arena in which working-class girls contribute to society is through social action. In recent decades, successive UK governments have promoted youth social action – activities that make a positive difference to others or the environment, like volunteering – through initiatives to address inequalities in access and to boost participation. These usually consider inequalities along class lines, with strategies to address them involving removing practical barriers to involvement. However, inequalities are present in the experiences of social action and its consequences as well as in access to it. They are felt not along single axes such as class or gender or race, but instead by how these categories intersect. Inequalities are also not only experienced on an individual level but are shaped by how power operates across multiple domains (Hill Collins, 2000); discourses of girlhoods are embedded in these domains. This conceptualisation of inequality and power – an intersectional approach – is missing from policy and practice concerns. Moreover, what ‘counts’ as social action may be excluding important aspects of working-class girls’ participation.

I find that working-class girls are expected to become successful by working hard at school and doing certain kinds of social action, but that this cannot guarantee their success; it therefore constitutes ‘hope labour’. Expectations to be good lead to the girls having to do as they are told and spending much of their time at home, where they are expected to be caring by doing care work. I argue that this care work should be considered social action. Finally, I show that the girls value authenticity (‘being themselves’) but find it difficult, and that feeling (in)authentic can both enable and constrain their social action. I identify a discourse of the authentic girl in which social action can be both self-transformation and self-expression. In doing so, I provide insight into how power and inequalities shape working-class girls’ lives and their participation in social action, and I show how an intersectional girlhoods approach can enhance our understanding of how social action might truly be more inclusive.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Social Sciences
School or Department: School of Social Policy, Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races


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