Sevasti-Melissa Nolas a Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at the University of Sussex, and a member of the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth (CIRCY) also at Sussex. Here she shares her early love of making lists of books to read, and discusses the two pieces of work which most shaped her postgraduate and doctoral study at the LSE.
As with any biographical narrative it’s hard to know what the relevant starting point might be: life, unlike narrative, is far messier and indeterminable, with multiple fits and starts. For me there isn’t one book in particular that inspired me to become a student, and then a researcher of human relationships and group dynamics, although there are a number that have punctuated that journey.
As a child, teenager, and young adult I read a lot of literature: Greek, English, American, French, Spanish, Czech, Latin American, Australian, whatever I could get my hands on. I remember keeping a list of all the books I had read with what now seems like the cute aspiration of reading all great (and not so great!) literary reads out there, ever. Mysteries and epic stories of intergenerational family drama were some of my favourites. Literature has definitely played a role in shaping the sort of intellectual writing I gravitate towards, and most of the reads below as well as being important contributions to knowledge, tell a good story.
My undergraduate years were characterized by a somewhat eclectic reading list. An interdisciplinary degree in Linguistics at the then School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at the University of Sussex exposed me to the themes that have continued to mark my interests: language, mind, logic and the subjective character of experience; as well as endowing me with a strong aversion to behavioural, reductionist and mechanistic explanations of human activity and everyday life. Classic reads like Thomas Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat? or Daniel Dennett’s Can Machines Think? and The Intentional Stance shaped my early thinking about key philosophical challenges such as minds-bodies, common sense-science, and agency-structure. These debates were the beginning of a long love affair with the philosophy of science, which like any good affair has remained in the shadows, never taking centre stage in my own work but always informing it from the wings.
But it was the lack of a historical and cultural perspective on these issues, and the absence of real people, their lives, and experiences in these debates that led me to the social sciences. Some fruitful, though largely unplanned, intellectual off-roading exposed me to the interstices of culture, class, and gender which now inform my research on children and young people’s participation rights and welfare. Straying into the anthropology section of the Sussex library provided a chance encounter with Evans-Pritchard’s classic work Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande and an opportunity to engage with issues of culture and the logic of unfamiliar belief systems. An Erasmus exchange in France exposed me to William Labov’s classic sociolinguistic studies on Martha’s Vineyard, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, and Language in the Inner City leading me in turn to think about the relationship between language and class (and making for some great arguments with self-styled language police encountered over the years). And a copy of Virigina Woolf’s A Room of Ones Own gave me a nascent language with which to talk about gender relations.
With these interdisciplinary and eclectic foundations I moved on to postgraduate and doctoral study at the LSE. During this time two pieces of work marked my thinking. The first was Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern; a book that turned my entire worldview upside-down and sideways at the same time, helping me to break away of the binaries that had shaped my earlier encounters with philosophy. We Have Never Been Modern is a critical, creative and witty read that I would unreservedly recommend to anyone. I continue to appreciate Latour’s arguments about the arbitrary and artificial nature of our social categories, the sociomateriality of human experience and the assemblages of natures-cultures that make up our social worlds, and the philosophical approach to doing social science. As well as being an intellectual turning point in my thinking, this little purple book also later gave me and my (now) husband something to bond over as we took those first tentative steps into our relationship almost 10 years ago. And while we won’t be naming our first child, due in the spring, Bruno, he will probably not escape the influence of an actor-network view of the world.
The second book that sticks out for me is Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, which has played a pivotal role in my thinking about participation. Since the ratification of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child (1989), children’s participation, the practice of eliciting children’s view on decisions that affect them, has become widespread in working with children and young people. Meanwhile, traditions of community development, participatory planning, and public health have long used a range of participation practices to involve those targeted by various interventions or being supported in grass-roots social change initiatives.
A number of models proliferate in the practice to support children and young people’s participation derived from these various traditions: ladders, pathways, and most recently tensions, have become popular. Yet, many of these models still promote an adult centric and professional, not to mention static, view of participation– a governance paradigm, as I call it. Like all those attempts to model common sense using Artificial Intelligence, they fail to tell us much about children and young people’s lived experiences of participation within project settings, as well as beyond, as these experiences evolve over time and unfold in a number of overlapping relationships.
Michel de Certeau’s work was instrumental in providing me with a lens through which to focus on the everyday and the creative production (or poiesis, as he calls it) of participation. His work helped me to focus on the making of everyday life, through practical details, storytelling and little acts of resistance. His language is especially well suited for thinking about bringing ‘to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of ‘discipline’’ (1984:xiv-xv).
And while children and young people weren’t the original impetus of his study of community life in the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood of Lyon, the social milieu of Western childhood and youth, characterized as it is by high levels of anxiety, regular moral panics and conflicting representations of children and young people, provides an excellent space in which to study the ducking and diving of children and young people’s everyday lives as they strive for legitimate membership in their different communities.
As for my own childhood aspirations of reading all the great literary reads ever, I would love to report that my list has grown ever longer but it seriously stalled round about the time I started doing my PhD. The aspiration is still there and my love of stories and storytelling has stuck with me (as has my obsession with making lists but that’s a different blog post). At the moment, I am slowly making my way through Naguib Mahfouz Cairo Trilogy which I’ve wanted to read for a while. I guess some things just take time.
Sevasti-Melissa Nolas a Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at the University of Sussex, and a member of the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth (CIRCY) also at Sussex. Her research is concerned with children’s participation rights, children’s welfare and increasingly issues around women’s health and well-being. Common across these areas of research is an interest in the dynamics of participation and how these contribute to personal and social change across the lifespan. She also holds the role of Public Engagement Ambassador with the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and edits the Social Work at Sussex blog and CIRCY blog.