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Youth Cultures and the Making of Citizens

An examination of the lived experience of young people in secondary schools in two very diverse cultural settings - France and India - and how they negotiate their way through textbooks, and interact with peers and the larger society in the making of their identities as citizens in a changing world.





i nterested in the lived experience of

Youth Cultures and the Making

young people as they negotiate their way through school texts, pedagogic practices,

of Citizens

and interactive processes, including peer cultures, in the making of their Meenakshi Thapan i dentities as citizens in a changing world.

An examination of the lived experience of young people in secondary schools in two very diverse cultural settings

– France and India – and how they negotiate their way through textbooks, and interact with peers and the larger society in the making of their identities as citizens in a changing world.

This is an abridged version of an article presented at the EU conference on Cultures of Governance and Conflict Resolution held at Delhi and the Institute of Advanced Studies at Shimla from 20-23 November 2008. I am grateful to Balveer Arora, Angela Liberatore, Peter De Souza, and other participants for their comments and suggestions.

Meenakshi Thapan (citizencivic.09@gmail. com) is with the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.

rocesses of global movement, a lthough increasingly about physical and psychological traversals, and the movement of people giving rise to the experience of fluid identities, are really about exclusion and difference. Borders are crossed, within nations and transnationally, but simultaneously, in the context of the nation and nationhood, there is an experience of “othering”, undoubtedly heightened post-9/11 in the western world, and entangled with the webs of history in Asia’s, and indeed in Europe’s, troubled past and present. The movement of people transnationally has therefore resulted in fluidity in identities, a well-worn trope in studies of migration, but concurrently, within nations, in the production of more specifically grounded identities in relation to the nation. My recent work attempts to understand how the spaces of secondary schools in different cultural and regional contexts seek to develop, build or create national identities. I am particularly

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In these contexts, what binds the experience of young people in these cultures? What makes them so similar even as they rest in different cultures, languages and indeed civilisations that are distinctive in their markedly dissimilar social and c ultural realities?

I am concerned also with an understanding of the psychological dimensions of citizenship, experienced through e motions such as belonging (as to belong contains the experience of an emotional tie or even love for the nation) and how this is produced in young minds, through b odily practices and emotional bonds. Like Veronique Benei, I seek to focus on “the emotional and embodied production of the political” (2008:7) through educational spaces. However, I depart from B enei in my contention that this production, although present in schools, takes shape and form through contestation and negotiation, as student cultures never fully accept what they are supposed to a ccept and in that sense I am concerned

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with the c reation of citizenship ideals by students themselves in the process of identity formation in the spaces of schools. The relationship between belonging, an aspect of the experience of i dentity, and exclusion, the experience of othering, is fraught with the struggles and dilemmas of seeking to be part of a legitimate space that belongs to the “authentic” citizen. I have sought to u nderstand this relationship in diverse global settings, namely, France and India, with vastly different historical, social and cultural contexts that to my mind all c onnect, perhaps not in their language of justice, equality, democracy and secularism, but certainly in the conditions of v iolence and social exclusion that prevail in spite of their apparent commitment to j ustice and democracy.

It is important therefore to locate the threads that might tie together at some point and be disengaged at others, in this complex and heterogeneous global space that we all understand as modernity. The problems that beset the constitution of identity in relation to citizenship are not isolated dilemmas of societies in their p articularity, rather, they are a predicament of contemporary society that is based on frameworks that increasingly celebrate individualism, separation, and difference. I therefore suggest that the problems that are apparently distinctive to a society because of a certain history, or political and socio-economic framework, become similar to other societies, that have different histories but face s imilar dilemmas in d ifferent forms in modern times.

Inability to Connect

At the time I conducted fieldwork in May 2006, France had experienced extreme violence in Parisian suburbs as an outcome of discrimination against north Africans and their marginalisation both socially and in the labour force.1 The banlieues (outskirts of a city) are perceived as urban spaces “where tension and violence prevail as modes of collective expression” (Kastoryano 2006). Families in these spaces do not choose to live there; they are forced to do so due to poverty and lack of upward mobility. And the permanent nature of the settlements in the suburbs is, it is argued, the bastion of “non-integration” (ibid). To quote in full:

Rage has settled in those spaces. It is expressed through violence. Verbal violence, political violence, and physical violence guide interpersonal relations in public; it has its own rules and is part of the “street code”…with a specific language and accent. Violence gives the neighbourhood a territorial and ethnic collective expression, a means of ruling by provocation. Acts are localised. Solidarities are made, unmade and remade. The combination produces a fragile and incidental structure that appears mainly as a challenge to the law.

In these “high priority urban zones”, there are schools that exist as “high priority zones of education” in an apparent affirmative action that seeks in fact to “reinforce the negative images of these territories of identities” (ibid). I therefore did not consciously study a school in such an area but sought to instead understand schooling processes at a college (middle school), the college Francoise Derre (a pseudonym), in a south-eastern suburb of Paris. My objective was to understand the contemporary scenario in the teaching and understanding of civic education at a college which was not obviously located in the more troubled northern outskirts of Paris. If we can understand the so-called “normal” and the ordinary, that seeks to produce and reproduce the “normal”, the authentic, the domain of difference and deviance might become clear. It is when we can understand how civic education is transacted in schooling spaces that are considered problem-free that we can begin to understand how the construction of the normalcy creates or results in difference, marginalisation and exclusion.

My findings suggest that the college makes a rather focused and sustained effort every year to build a bond with the nation through the sacrifice of human life and the spectacle of war through, for example, annual visits to Verdun. There is a failure, however, in the students’ inabilities to connect with the purpose. Their goals, urges, desires rest in the life of the student culture which is articulated in the senior classes through the presence of a culture of drugs and the peddling of drugs within school premises. The school therefore represents the space where drugs and different forms of violence take shape and are routinised. These forms of violence range from bullying and ragging, known as le racquet and the more frightening forms where students attempt to strangulate other students until the “last moment”, as the principal told us with horror. There are also verbal taunts against children who are Jews and against girl students. Keeping a “check” on the violence and security of the college for students becomes the main priority of the ministry of education in addition to its routine tasks.

At the same time, students’ responses to a question about their favourite figure from history from among Louis XIV, N apoleon, Robespierre, Danton and Marat elicited the selection of Louis XIV by onefourth of the class. Their reasons ranged from “Because he was loved by women”, to “Because he is a personality who was important in history and even if he was bad, he was not consciously bad” to “He is the only king who reigned for a long time and he contributed to the blossoming of France”. There is almost a casual concern with history and its figures. There are a few students who do however admire N apoleon for his ambition, his ability to strategise and conquer new territories, for his taking a “new step to help humanity”. One student however mentioned his aversion to Napoleon’s use of violence. On the whole, students exhibit a lack of concern in matters of national importance, and even chide the researcher for asking meaningless questions.

The Classroom and Beyond

In the context of urban Indian schools, we find that the relationship between understandings of identity and citizenship is fraught with tensions and uncertainties as there are conflicting expressions and understandings of citizenship based not just on the varying backgrounds of students that endow them with different forms of capital but, most importantly, on the i mages and understandings of citizenship given out in the classroom and beyond. This complex situation plays itself out in the lives of students who experience identity and subjecthood in vastly different ways. The H indu obsession with the Muslim “other” has existed for several decades in Indian s ociety but has taken dangerous forms in the riots that have taken place in recent

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years in which thousands of Muslims have lost their homes and their lives. The relationship between the Muslims and the Hindus has a history which points to the continuous mistrust between them in spite of close friendships and networks among individuals and families. This has created a certain anxiety in sections of s ociety that believe they have reason to fear the textbooks in schools that have portrayed Muslims in a particular way and this has been the subject of several studies in education.2

My emphasis however is on the fact that students do not actually remember very much of what is written in texts as the pedagogic encounter in most state and many private schools rests on the “dictation of notes” as its primary method of pedagogic communication. Students take down these notes with the express purpose of merely repeating them in the annual examinations and with no further interest in them. They usually do not engage in a dialogue with teachers out of fear of reprimand and are apparently passive participants in the process. They are however rather clear that they can provide their own understanding of the historical and contemporary moments that frame interpersonal relations in particular directions. In this process, the Muslim is always the enemy, located in the tragedy of the political partition of the country and the demonisation of Muslims by the rhetoric of textbooks, right wing organisations and the painful memories of those who lived the difficult and traumatic times of division and conflict. This is the scenario in which students express their under standings of what it means to be a “good” citizen in the contemporary moment of I ndia’s modernity.

The idea of the “good” citizen, in Indian schools, serves to dwell on and reproduce ideas about the “practice” of good citizenship through developing certain socially desirable behavioural traits and practices. This is done through developing a respect for authority, the rule, the law, socially constituted and legitimised norms for good behaviour that are rewarded and reproduced, and through rituals and ceremonies in school, a reiteration of national ideals, a celebration of collective life and the value of an ideal community. The obedi ence that is sought to be inculcated reflects a concern with developing a p articular kind of s ubjectivity that recognises the necessity of compliance and agrees to submit, rather than question, in view of the complexities that prevail among the school lives of children. Apart from this limitation, the more damaging omission is the complete lack of actively developing a concern and empathy for others regardless of their caste, class, religion, or gender.

My study of a government school located in a crowded, working class area of northern Delhi, shows the extent to which students are completely alienated from the efforts of the state to inculcate nationalist values.3 The writings of standard nine students, for example, point to their complete disavowal of privileging the authority of the textbook in articulating their preference from among the leaders of the national struggle against the colonialist regime. They voice their preference for Bhagat Singh who, in their minds, used violence and led a passionate struggle against authority and British rule. Although an almost equal number of students prefer Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh over other leaders, Bhagat Singh is valorised for his spirit of sacrifice and points to the ideals of aggression, violence, and fearlessness within an overall language of social acceptability, viz, the value of “sacrifice” for the nation state. Although textbooks do not “teach” this particular contribution made by Bhagat Singh, students seem to have imbibed it through Bollywood films, television, folklore, comic books, all of which influence student constructions of valour and heroism. The peer group further develops these understandings into a more coherent perspective and provides legitimacy to that which would otherwise remain embedded in the “private” worlds of children, unspoken and unknown to others, especially teachers and other adults.

Textbook teaching does not prepare students for supporting violence but clearly, the student culture remains committed to its own values and perceptions of India’s past and its role in the present. Gandhi’s emphasis on non-violence is not understood by these youth who view him in fact as a traitor, betraying the cause of freedom for moral and idealistic causes such as non-violence and truth. In informal conversations, standard 12 students refer to Gandhi as sautela bapu (step-father) and hold him squarely responsible for the Partition. They clearly do not accept the official discourse of how India’s freedom movement flourished under the leadership of Gandhi. In addition, they have a heightened sense of patriotism to the nation which is marked by their idea that the p olicing of borders is necessary in order to keep out the dangerous Muslim other embodied in the figure of the Pakistani national. They extol the virtues of violence in dealing with the hostile and dangerous other. In this manner, they have developed their own understanding of being a “good” citizen in modern India, that is caught in the twist of a troubled past and the politics of the fundamentalist right. This then is their “moral and political engagement with the world” as they see it.

The Indian students’ appropriation of “sacrifice” as a symbol of valour and patriotism is in stark contrast to the French students’ rejection of the sacrifice of French soldiers in the war. It is the flamboyant

Review of Labour
Forthcoming (May 30, 2009)
Power, Inequality and Corporate Social Responsibility: The Politics of
Ethical Compliance in the South Indian Garment Industry – Geert De Neeve
Defragmenting ‘Global Disintegration of Value Creation’ and
Labour Relations: From Value Chains to Value Cycles – G Vijay
The Effects of Employment Protection Legislation on
Indian Manufacturing – Aditya Bhattacharjea
Revisiting Labour and Gender Issues in Export Processing Zones: – Mayumi Murayama,
The Cases of South Korea, Bangladesh and India Nobuko Yokota
Work and the Idea of Enterprise – Nandini Gooptu
Household as a Site of Production: Informalisation and

Fragmentation of the Workforce – Kalyan Sanyal, Rajesh Bhattacharyya

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Economic & Political Weekly


Louis XIV who is their preferred leader. The Indian students reject the symbols of peace and collective life that are placed before them by the school in its efforts to promote patriotism and nationalism. In turn, they accept violence as the singular way of life to maintain borders and keep nations secure. Violence appears to be a significant component of the school lives of French youth as well. Violence therefore appears as a recurring motif in youth cultures in two vastly differing societies and constitutes their lived experience. In this context, how do we understand the “idea” of the nation, and students’ relationship to it, as it is shaped in different spaces of schools? What is the experience of citizenship for the heterogeneous populations in different societies? And why has violence captured the imagination of young people around the world? Is the nation state a complete failure as it is unable to understand and support the diversity of its p eople? These are questions for further r esearch and in answering them, we need to perhaps focus on the students belonging to “minority” populations to understand better their lived experience of b eing “o thered”, excluded, and marginalised, and the relationship, and emotional bond, that they develop to the nation in the context of this experience. It is through our understanding of the complex and vexed experience of becoming citizens in different s ocieties that we might then b egin to under stand the causes of violence in c ontemporary times.


1 I spent a month at a middle school outside Paris in 2006 where I participated in school activities, i nterviewed teachers and students, observed c lassroom



processes, and joined students on excursions outside school. I also collected data through the use of a questionnaire. I am indebted to Alexandre Hobeika for his invaluable assistance in this process.

2 See, for example, Krishna Kumar (2001), Manish Jain (2004), among others.

3 Fieldwork at this school was conducted in 2006. I am indebted to Varun Roy for his help in the collection of data, his meticulous attention to detail and sustained effort in gathering information of different kinds, including interviewing students and teachers, participating in school activities of different kinds, administering a questionnaire, and just being there.


Benei, Veronique (2008): Schooling Passions: Nation, History and Language in Contemporary Western India (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Jain, Manish (2004): “Civics, Citizens and Human Rights: Crisis Discourse in India” in Contemporary Education Dialogue, Vol 1, No 2: 165-98.

Kumar, Krishna (2001): Prejudice and Pride: School Histories of the Freedom Struggle in India and P akistan (New Delhi: Viking).

Kastoryano, Riva (2006): “Territories of Identities in France” in Riots in France, http://riotsfrance.ssrc. org/Kastoryano; accessed on 10 April.







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