A Psychosocial Approach to Shame, Embarrassment & Melancholia Amongst Unemployed Young Men and Their Fathers

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A Psychosocial Approach to Shame, Embarrassment & Melancholia amongst Unemployed Young Men and their Fathers

Luis Jimenez & Valerie Walkerdine

School of Social Sciences
Cardiff University

Abstract:

This paper uses a psychosocial approach to explore young unemployed men’s resistance to work they describe as ‘embarrassing’ and ‘feminine, in the context of the closure of a steelworks in a town in the South Wales valleys. In doing this, it also responds to Kenway’s et al study (2006) of rural unemployed men which claims that melancholia is a key cultural norm mediating fathers and sons responses to unemployment whilst preventing both to engage with the demands of current available work. In our interview based study, with young men as well as their mothers and (where possible) their fathers, we found a community riven with complex feelings about masculinity and femininity, projected onto the young men in such a way as to almost scapegoat them. The presence of melancholic responses is also present in our study but is not so strong as to be depicted as a “cultural norm” for all these men –as Kenway et al suggest. Instead, the experience of the young men is marked by embarrassment and shame and they feel bullied and shamed by their families, peers and others in the community for not being able to find gender-appropriate work. The implications of these findings for understandings of youth male unemployment and education are considered.

Introduction

This paper seeks to explore discussions about melancholy as the main way of coping with unemployment amongst rural men in raised by Kenway, Kraac and Hickey-Moody (2006) in the light of research carried out by the authors in south Wales. Kenway et al’s discussion of melancholy is very interesting, focussing as it does on an attempt to understand the persistence of dispositions associated with manual work among men in locations where that work has disappeared. Our own research took place in a town in the south Wales valleys, which had lost its major employer, a steel works, in 2002. This closure had a devastating effect upon the small town and while many young and older men managed to make the transition to other forms of work some did not. In particular, some young unemployed men refused to take available work because it was considered embarrassing and feminine. Consequently, we received funding to follow this up and conducted a small psychosocial interview-based study of six young unemployed men (17-24) and their parents with the aim of further understanding the phenomenon we had encountered. Kenway et al’s idea of melancholy was very suggestive, but what we found was that their idea while suggestive was over-general. In this paper therefore we set out some of the issues that arose in our analysis of the interview data in an attempt to make more complex and specific the issues of what happens psychosocially in such circumstances. For the young men and families we worked with, there was a great deal of pain and difficulty around this issue, with the problem well recognised by other members of the community. For example, stacking shelves in the local supermarket was considered too embarrassing to contemplate. These are young men who left school with no qualifications and therefore for whom no ‘skilled’ work is available. The range of unskilled work is very limited, but we were struck by the fact that the young men in our first study would rather go without work than take the embarrassing work. This was of great concern in an area with 39% youth male unemployment (Nomis, 2008) and in which heavy industry was almost non existent. Our interview data indicated a level of distress that needed to be understood. The experience of the young men is marked by shame, and they feel bullied and shamed by their families, peers and others in the community for not being able to find gender-appropriate work. By contrast, in Kenway et al’s...
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