Volume:7, Issue: 2

Aug. 1, 2015

If school students are members of informal youth groups, what should schools do?
Belyaev, Gennady Yu. [about]

KEY WORDS: schoolchildren, systemwide - phenomenological approach, informal youth associations, goals, values, forms of interaction.

ABSTRACT: Modern Russian youth is stratified by differences in social positions, ideological motives, as well as ethnic stereotypes, diversity of faith and lifestyles.  Is social education still possible under such circumstances? The researcher gives a positive answer to this question and provides observations and proofs to the fact that the participation of schoolchildren in informal youth associations empowers their socialization in the surrounding society.  Another research question raised in this paper is whether schools and teachers should cooperate with informal associations where their students are members? The author shows that informal youth associations and schools could become allies under certain social and educational circumstances. The paper discloses the necessity for teachers to understand basic goals, aspirations, and directions of most common youth associations.

Introduction: the problem as it is and as we see it

Whose responsibility in the schools is it to set standards of social behavior, interaction skills and life values? Since schools are an integral part of the society, the teacher is expected to professionally solve all the issues of education and character building. My research shows that it is incorrect to reduce the present-day goals of a teacher only to educational ones and ignore the questions of who and in which manner is involved in the process of education. Schools are increasingly facing the situations when the initiative of socialization is taken over by shady (in terms of goals and values) informal youth groups while the social education authority is assumed by youth leaders who are calling for antisocial pranks.

Perhaps, the current situation can also be explained by the lack of understanding the real nature of events, phenomena and changes affecting young people. Today, teachers’ social authority roles are gradually decreasing; they are being replaced by a powerful “anti-school” influence of informal youth groups, whose efforts and impact on young people have nothing to do with teachers’ social education activities. This shift of authority often leads to additional socialization problems, painful generational conflicts and a “generations’ gap”, or even social violence and acts of racial and religious hatred. What can the school do in this situation? Should teachers call police for help or employ some new and pedagogically more adequate methods? Should teachers act impulsively and rigorously or become more flexible and careful while reacting to the situations when their students express themselves in the manner of the so-called notorious “youth riot”? Should modern schools suppress youth subcultures or learn to provide adequate response to them? In my opinion, these questions constitute both – a serious problem and a social challenge.

It seems to be quite reasonable that youth communities are gaining more weight as participants of current socialization processes by affecting their immediate environment, acting as collective subjects of social education, attracting and recruiting young people as well as remolding them, and occasionally challenging the systems of family, religious and school education (6; 10; 22). Such communities shape traditions and lifestyles, basic ideals and identifiable behavior patterns. Informal youth groups have an increasingly tangible influence on school life. The signs of such influence may include various students’ interest groups, new behavioral patterns, attitudes to learning, teachers, older people, etc. In particular, these signs are found in new leisure activities, interaction among various  groups of teenagers in the same neighborhood, and even in the growth of social tension, especially among numerous ethnic and faith based youth groups.

Without claiming to hold a panacea for the aforementioned problem, I would like to share some ideas, conclusions, and suggestions based on a collective research.

Youth groups as informal communities: a research paradigm

The term “community” serves as a conceptually common, generic and consolidating notion for all groups, groupings, organizations, associations, and movements. In this particular aspect, community has been studied and discussed in numerous publications connected with Lyudmilla I. Novikova’s research school. Along these lines, socialization is seen as a random and relatively controllable process while the task of the school is to make this process quite manageable, value oriented and “purposeful” by integrating education and character building through pre-set educational goals and preferential life values. Such goals and values should be culturally acceptable by the society at large and provide the environment for the school to live and the new generation to socialize. Social and moral education is interpreted as a certain value-oriented framework that teachers create to provide most favorable conditions for children’s personality development (13; 15; 16; 19). Schooling should be considered as a certain type of cooperation, dialogue, and student teacher interaction that helps to empower students’ personality growth and self-actualization (1; 3; 20). If there is no collective of students and teachers together or, if for any reasons, there is no desire to create and/or ‘cherish’ it, teachers will lose important means to understand teenagers or have influence on them. That is why the idea of a collective is crucial or central within this paradigm, which has a long and successful history of its application in schools: social education is realized within a collective that, in its turn, contributes to the increasing sense of community and organization (13; 16). The term “community” seems to be the most preferable for our study as it allows us to apply a phenomenological approach to the analysis of any groups, associations and communities as evolving social bodies with their inner logic, integrity and tools of influence on their immediate social, ethnic and religious environment.

Youth communities are nothing less than groups and groupings, communes and associations, unions and movements – both real and virtual. They may be centralized or online, structured or amorphous, real or imaginary. Most importantly, we may see them and understand their goals and values through their typical activity (A.V. Mudrik) (15). It means that a significant number of young people (aged from 13 to 30) spontaneously strive for self-organization through activity-related communities. Such communities become strong and influential “actors” – agents and subjects of socialization. Nearly every informal youth community represents some subculture and tries to become an active cultural or countercultural mentor for its members (3). Teenagers are attracted to informal communities because the latter offer access to something which neither family nor school or traditional associations may provide (27). Social education in such communities takes place without parents’ or teachers’ knowledge, and it pursues different goals and values. An unstructured movement, e.g. via flash mobs, provides their members with a more powerful social education than a structured organization.

Informal children’s and youth communities are unique in their own way, mostly as subjects of a purposeful influence on the formation of the social individual as a personality with his/her specific qualities, behavior and interaction patterns, outlooks and ideals. As a rule, the subjects here are older referential, significant and well-known people, adults or “nearly adults”, within the age limits of youth but possessing all the rights to somehow inherit or translate a cultural or countercultural tradition of a particular community – a group, organization, party, union, association or movement. But it is this very enculturation phenomenon which turns any informal association into a community constantly comparing itself, its positions and roles with the key social institutions like government establishments, schools, etc. Informal communities may describe themselves as parts of political or religious organizations, clubs, or branches of public organizations which enjoy young people’s trust.

As a rule, any subculture may be identified by its core values, norms, traditions and cultural forms which are different from and at the same time take their roots in those accepted in the general culture (12; 17). Various forms of social standards and freedom of conscience may be found everywhere and define the life of a certain ethnos or society whereas the nature of a subculture is relative. For example, an active young Russian Orthodox may be seen as a representative of a subculture in Estonia. Or a young representative of the Russian grunge rock from Moscow or St. Petersburg will have a touch of subculture somewhere in the Lipetsk region of Russia.

Teachers need to understand that the present-day civilized society allows multitudes of the so-called subcultures or even countercultures (22; 24). In each case, the new social connections and experience of social self-expression acquired by young people provide them with certain social skills and cultural background necessary for their active transition to adulthood. The school may channel these aspirations into the socially conformal route by adopting the informal groups’ means, style, strategy and, most importantly, their life goals. It must be also remembered that all existing dogmas once used to be novelties. It is worth mentioning the “youth riot” phenomenon from the late1960s fueled by the “angry young men” ideas (8). Despite the social institutions’ crisis caused by that riot, the society managed not only to cope with it but also to become more diverse and more enriched with the new meanings of the inter-generational dialogue. Such cases entail some risk as an ill-informed school or university faculty may be caught unawares, as it happened in the universities of Sorbonne or Harvard (2; 24).     

It should be noted that a counterculture might give birth to new versions of social reality (both good and bad). Consequently, it is very important for Russia and the United States to study the experience of teachers dealing with “teenagers at-risk” in correctional labor facilities (2; 17; 18). It is equally important to understand that irrespective of their social status, ethnic or religious affiliation, ideological differences, political sympathies or antipathies, membership in various cultural or sub-cultural communities, young students constitute an integral foundation of social legacy and represent the citizens of the country without which a school as a sociocultural institution is not vital or sustainable.

A system and phenomenology: how do they unite in an attempt to deal with interrelationships between the school and informal groups?

The existence of the human being is conditioned by systemwide connections and relationships. As early as in the 1980s, Bert Hellinger combined his systemwide approach and phenomenological method to study family and its close social environment. Later on research showed that this method is applicable for any social system because any human being reveals him/herself in interrelationships with the significant environment and can be studied phenomenologically through the mirror of these interrelationships (with the family, work teams, a classroom group, etc.). In the 1990s, a systemwide and phenomenological approach was successfully applied by G. Weber, M. Varga von Kibed and I. Schparrer to analyze teenagers’ development and their perception of the world and the need for personally significant contacts. The approach was also used to describe the development of small groups and associations depending on the immediate environment and referential social institutions. I believe that the method will also work with a typological description of complex, closed and open social systems in their functional integrity of the community and organization. In this particular case, I tried to employ this method in describing informal youth communities (3). The phenomenological paradigm (which is represented in practical psychology by Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychology) presupposes that any phenomenon should be described in a way it exists in its real-life relationships and connections. Alfred Schütz’s method of “interpretive sociology” served as a link to combine the system and phenomenological paradigms, which became the starting point in developing our analytical approach (23).

The following criterion was used to evaluate a youth community: the choice of priority relationships and activities within the group and with respect to the world around (arranging leisure time, exchanging information, choosing most desirable interaction participants, contacts and forms of activity, etc.). It is vital for the analysis of social interaction between the school and new subjects of socialization (1; 11; 19; 26). This approach (applied by the Center of the Strategy and Theory of Education, Russian Academy of Education) to methodology may be called systemwide - phenomenological. In accordance with the “multi-subjective education concept”, developed by the Center in 2009, maximum attention has been paid to the value-based characteristics of a specific youth subculture community including its declared goals, cultivated values and world outlook ideals, activities, as well as its attitude to the society and a social individual, older generations, its homeland and the world, nature, culture, and civilization at large (3).

Lyudmilla Alieva, a prominent researcher of children’s communities, shares an opinion that practically any youth community provides social education not only to its members, but also to other young people around it (1). According to A. Mudrik (15), the present social education goals and value-based priorities for youth are put forth not only by traditional participants but also by public, cultural and religious organizations, children’s associations, youth subculture communities, etc. As an antithesis to the notion of social education, it is worth using A. Mudrik’s term of “dissocial education”, as an education provided in social communities, which do not comply with the conventional sociality or traditional moral norms, but do not violate the law. It is necessary to understand the internal processes and purposes of interrelationships, to reveal their social or antisocial potential and to find out how an individual is being raised in informal youth communities and movements. There is a vital need for cooperation (4; 6; 12) of the social education participants committed to the humanistic development of the personality of youth (e.g., volunteers of informal communities involving high school and university students as well as income-earning young people) including their joint resistance to the influence of the dissocial education participants like punks or Goths (5; 7; 14; 15). Some informal individuals and groups are ready for cooperation with schools or supplementary education institutions (as they often function in sport or tourist clubs and community centers) and include young archaeologists, volunteers, environmentalists, tourists, spelunkers, anime lovers, members of historical reconstruction clubs, and bikers (at least, some of them). Informal groups and individuals, open for dialogue, are ready to help teachers to involve socially “restless” young people into interesting and career oriented activities.

If to use “socially-oriented activities” as a criterion, then public youth movements, communities, organizations and groups may be classified as:

  1. Prosocial and culturally conformal, including:
    1. All children’s and youth associations created/designed within institutions of official and supplementary education as well as most youth communities created or designed within public and political organizations, e.g., The Youth Korczak Center, etc. (10: 21).
    2. Amateur non-political associations: volunteer and sports communities (canoeists and tourists), some children’s and youth informal and even subcultural communities (gamers, net bloggers, World War II scouts or bikers); cooperation with them could be useful in the process of enriching social and educational interaction experience with the new generation “unassociated youth”.
  2. Formally prosocial but countercultural. This part of informal and subcultural youth communities is not widely spread but very powerful in shaping young people’s minds; it is possible to keep in touch with them via dialogue and negotiations (9).
  3. Dissocial and culturally inappropriate (asocial criminal groups and pro-fascist extremist movements); contact between them and educational institutions is unacceptable – it may become possible only for the sake of re-socialization of its members, for the purposes of public security, and may be realized exclusively by specially qualified experts (7).

To an outsider, who is not qualified in the field of education, the role of an adult leader in such groups seems insignificant. Although the research shows, the presence of an adult leader in any informal youth community may not seem evident, and his/her role as a teacher latent, it does have a constant and enormously significant value (4; 25). The role, though informal, of a teacher as a mentor in the self-determination process of the informal youth community participants, is much broader, deeper, and more unusual, than it is commonly assumed. A strong, influential and trustworthy teacher does not have to be a real living adult – s/he may be the hero from the past or a fictional character.

An example of the possible power of interaction between the school and an informal youth community is a subcultural youth association of Tolkienists. Judging by their main activity, key ideas, values and methods to implement their own social education potential, this group may be considered a configurative, nonpolitical, and social community (which does not violate the existing legislation). This is a community advocating escapism (escaping from the primitive everyday reality), it is aimed at achieving individual self-determination by actively participating in the game. This community has its own laws, regulations and rites which separate it from other youth movements; it is actively promoting itself and recruiting new members mostly through socializing leisure activities.

The school and informal associations: time to establish a dialogue?

The length of this paper does not allow for an in-depth analysis of numerous Russian and international studies concerning young people’s attitudes and values regarding their own identity and self-determination in a cultural and countercultural environment. As for this particular research, I have come to the conclusion that socially developed youth communities are able and ready to interact with other social participants and institutions for the purpose of young people’s socialization and social education. Such communities include Volunteers helping elderly, people with disabilities or low-income people, clubs of war and historical reconstruction, the so-called “role players” indirectly connected with some artistic and engineering intellectuals, theater and drama lovers, sport clubs, local lore lovers as well as some networking communities (gamers, cyber sport, etc.). Youth volunteer movement, especially popular in Moscow and St. Petersburg, has become a notable phenomenon in the Russian public life. It is aimed at practical community service, improvement of welfare and people’s physical and moral health. Volunteering is also gaining its popularity in Krasnoyarsk, Krasnodar Region, and Kuban. It is possible to make a general conclusion that the moral potential of the youth volunteer movement is the “new blood” influx into the social and educational forms of work with children, teenagers, and college students.

Interaction between educational institutions and the informal movement of the Great Patriotic war scouts helps young people to prepare for the military or police service, promotes sports and a healthy lifestyle. I assume this tradition must be revived and remain free of any socially suspicious and criminal additives. The current revival of sport and sports associations can already boast apparent success, but the role of teachers is still weak. Without school and informal associations it will be impossible to revive the system of DOSAAF (Voluntary Association for Assistance to Army, Air Force and Navy) and GTO (Ready for Labor and Defense). It may be very useful to strenghten cooperation of school with informal associations of divers, spelunkers, parkours, etc. It is of special social value to involve the potential of military, sport and tourist clubs in order to teach young people first-aid skills required in emergency and rescue situations.

A certain community service task may serve as a stimulus for a social and educational interaction with informal communities provided that the participants have established a clear dividing line of responsibilities. Such community service needs may include social help to people with disabilities and war veterans, cleaning local parks, planting trees and shrubbery, retention of snow on fields, dam repairs, voluntary street patrols, decorations for some celebrations in the local community, etc. Practice shows that, given such tasks, teenagers work and perform well, relying on more competent or trustworthy peers rather than on adult mentors or supervisors (6; 26). The principle of a configuration, considered by many psychologists as some kind of a social and cultural hindrance, will, with the right attitude, work as a completely new and efficient tool of young people’s self-organization. Pro-social and positive individuals and groups could neutralize dissocial informal ones. The “Antifa” (anti-fascist) association is opposed to Nazis; Volunteers keep the so-called “gopniks” (non-educated delinquents or street muggers) knocked back. Contrary to the deeply rooted myths of adult “experts” on teenage psychology, young people try to be rational and obey the established rules rather than break them; moreover, they are seeking to fulfill their commitments. The unwritten code of honor serves as the most powerful regulator in the activity of pro-social youth communities, both “formal” and, even more apparently, “informal”. The motives of solidarity, determination to win and the feeling of pride by being part of the group are extremely efficient factors in teaching young people to become productive members of the society. These motives have been successfully tested and verified in practice by educational systems and cultural forms of social education, first, in Great Britain, Japan and Germany, and later on in practically all world civilized social and cultural practices where youth initiations play a very important role. Russian social education traditions, which put a great emphasis on the commune and collective, are no less significant and should not be discarded.

It is such organizational and business principles that regulate students’ production teams, sport associations, young tourists’ clubs and other types of pro-social youth communities. This is a way to lay the foundations of social experience within the framework of teenagers’ secondary socialization. Here it is possible to discern and make use of the social and cultural feedback effect, which teenagers produce on their youth community within their close social environment. Public safety activities in the neighborhood may and should be carried out in a friendly atmosphere of cooperation with a number of local informal youth groups or even with their help. It is also useful to establish cooperation among informal youth groups and environmental agencies (to take care of local forests, monitor conservation areas, develop ecotourism, reorganize biological stations and ornithological clubs run by comprehensive and vocational schools, lyceums, colleges and universities, etc.).

It seems to be fruitful to hold various sites for dialogue (9) in order to find ways of interaction between informal groups and museums, theaters or other cultural organizations. The youth avant-garde legacy of the 1920s (e.g., LEF or the Left Front of Arts, a widely ranging association of avant-garde writers, photographers, critics and designers; futurists, drama studios, etc.) may be employed in self-actualization of youth groups. Today, modern role-playing groups, clubs of historical reconstruction and many other associations can preserve and continue this legacy.

Some conclusions

This study shows that, given certain social and educational conditions, informal youth communities and schools may become allies. Obviously, this is a promising area in the theory of education and an urgent issue in its practice within a complex and contradictory modernization of the diverse and multiethnic society. By analyzing the developing trends regarding characteristics, settings and values, which are typically common for pro-social youth communities, the school faculty in charge of socialization and social education will be able to establish a better understanding of both socializing and social education potential of such youth associations. There is a chance to work out the most adequate strategy and tactics of the dialogue, which will gradually develop into cooperation and even social partnership at local and regional levels.


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1 This publication was supported by the grant from the Russian Humanitarian Science Foundation, Project # 14-06-00088.

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