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Comments Off on From no-go to trend: Generational perceptions on tattoo stigmas and trends

Linde Trommel


What drives people to get a tattoo and how are persons with a tattoo viewed by society? These questions intrigue me, as I have been thinking about getting a tattoo for probably two years now, but the permanence factor keeps me from doing it. What I found interesting is how my parents thought about the possibility of me getting a tattoo. They were very strongly against it. In their eyes a tattoo was something only rough or rebellious people would get on their body. They also commented that they thought a tattoo was kind of masculine. This surprised me because youth right now are very much into tattoos, and the tattoos that I’ve seen among my peers are usually very small, feminine and minimalist. This made me wonder if there is a generation gap in how tattoos are considered between young people today, the so-called “Generation Y,” and the parental generation, “Generation X.”

Getting a tattoo is a big trend right now. In the media, movies and pop culture, tattoos are seen everywhere. But not so long ago a tattoo was considered only something for bad guys and a huge stigma was attached to it. I wanted to find out how these perceptions on tattoos have changed, how it was perceived a generation ago and how it is perceived now. It seems that tattoos have become normalized, going from being deviant and stigmatized to a huge trend in a short time. Existing research mostly focuses on the motivational aspect of the tattoo, but I want to focus on the aspect of social perceptions, and how this differs between the two generations.

These days, even as tattoos have become a trend, in some situations people with tattoos can still feel stigmatized. For instance, in work situations, it is not appropriate to show a tattoo and it is not desirable to have an employee with a tattoo. “Visible tattoos still carry a negative connotation among employers and could be hurting your chances of getting hired,” so one study showed (Huffington Post, 2013). Some people, mostly older people, don’t get the whole trend and still stigmatize people with tattoos. But this also applies for young people; imagine being in a dark alley and a man covered in tattoos approaches you, you’d probably more scared than if that persons didn’t have any tattoos.

Tattoos are linked and used to be linked to multiple deviant youth cultures, such as punkers, rockers and goths. A tattoo is a way of showing who you are, what you stand for, and a way to show which youth culture you relate to. For instance, gangs usually have their gang name tattooed and goths have skulls tattooed. Tattoos have also been a form of rebellion; it’s a way of showing, I can do with my body what I want, parents or society can’t stop me. That’s why some parents dislike tattoos so much, they’re permanent and an act of rebellion in their eyes. Tattoos are most desirable when you’re young because then you deal with peer pressure and the need to fit in. A tattoo is mostly considered a badass thing by youth so if you have one you’re cool and badass. It’s easier to fit in if you’re cool and badass and people look up to you because of your tattoo. Also, youth are more impulsive, and would get a tattoo sooner than an adult. I do feel like it used to be a deviant youth culture thing and is now a trend for the masses.

This research paper attempts to answer the following main research question: What are the perceptions of two tattooed generations on tattoo stigmas and the seeming normalization of tattoos as a trend? The accompanying sub-questions are: What are the similarities and differences between the two generations’ perceptions? How do they feel about their tattoos and tattoos in general? Has their opinion changed over the years? In what way are the generations stigmatized? How does gender fit in that stigmatization? How is it possible that tattoo stigmas and the process of tattoo normalization simultaneously exist? How did generation X (and maybe Y) experience the process from a tattoo being stigmatized to becoming a trend?

The research consisted of six qualitative semi-structured interviews with six Dutch respondents with tattoos. Of these six respondents three were from generation X (respondent 1, 2 and 3) and three from generations Y (respondent 4,5 and 6). The age categories are for generation X: 45-55 years, and for generation Y: 18-22 years. The respondents consisted of 1 male (generation X) and 5 females. The researcher’s network was used to recruit respondents, with the use of the snowball method. The interviews were each about 45 minutes long and more of a conversation about their tattoos. The respondents’ names have been changed and their tattoos are not shown in this paper to achieve full anonymity.

Personal stories and experiences

Every respondent that has been interviewed has meaning or a personal story behind their tattoo. The meanings were all very personal and individual focused; only one respondent, Jesse, had a collective meaning to his tattoo. Respondent 1, Stephanie (48) has this beautiful, large tattoo of a koi carp embellished with flowers on her back and her arms with an extraordinary myth behind it which she got at the age of 32.

It is a tattoo about courage and perseverance. There once was a koi carp that was the most courageous of all, he tried to swim up a waterfall to fight a black dragon that was terrorizing a village. He failed after a hard, long struggle and was incorporated by the gods. They turned him into a white dragon so he could fight the black dragon and save the village.” (Stephanie)

She said that she hadn’t defeated her big, black dragon in her life yet but she had defeated multiple little black dragons. Her koi swims down, “as if he is searching for a new black dragon” (Stephanie).

Respondent 2, Jesse (53) has a tattoo of the logo of his year club of his fraternity on his bottom, which he got at the age of 25. The men of this club decided to give this as a present to each other when they graduated. “We thought about a present for the first graduating boys and could not think of anything other than a tattoo. It’s for fun, and I still think it’s fun” (Jesse). This I found truly interesting because he and his club distinguish themselves from the other year clubs and the fraternity trough this tattoo. In this sense his tattoo is adding to his self-identity and his group identity. And since a tattoo is forever he will always be remembered of his group identity and that part of his life.

Respondent 3, Anne (50) has a tattoo of a small sun on her shoulder which she got at the age of 30. “The meaning behind this tattoo is that I’m a very joyful person and I always knew that if I ever got a tattoo, it would be a sun. However, I mostly cover it up” (Anne). She has had similar necklaces for her daughters made so they could also wear them and be reminded of their mother and to sort of carry on the tradition without her kids having to have the same tattoo. She does strongly discourage her daughters to get tattoos, especially on a young age. When I asked her if she ever regretted her tattoo she had to think for a minute but after all said no, even though I saw some hesitation to some extent in her reaction. She was also the most against tattoos from all the respondents and had the most prejudges, from my point of view.

Respondent 4, Evelyn (21) has tattoos of three elephants on her ankle, a hummingbird on her shoulder and an arrow on her side which she got when she was 19, 20 and 21 years.

All these tattoos represent the hard battle that I struggled, and still am struggling. The three elephants represent my family and that I’m so lucky that I still have them. The hummingbird represents a personal battle that I’m still battling. And last the arrow represents a fun holiday but also to always look forward.” (Evelyn)

She grew up in a very tattoo-friendly environment, her parents have tattoos and supported her in her decision to get inked. She thinks that being in such an environment influenced her views on tattoos. She does think that she got tattoos easier because of the normalization of tattoos in her family. To her, her tattoos were not an act of rebellion but a way to remind herself how strong she is and that she already overcame so much on a young age.

Respondent 5, Monique (20) also has three tattoos which she got when she was 18 and 19 years old. She has an elephant on her side, a moth on her arm and an abstract picture of her and her best friend on her ankle. “The elephant and the one on my ankle are truly personal and meaningful but the moth on my arm is because I really wanted to have a tattoo of this particular artist and I really love it now” (Monique). The story behind the elephant on her side is very personal. The elephant tattoo that she has, has a prosthetic. This is an elephant that her father saved and nursed back to good health. After that he began a business to help other elephants as well and this elephant became face of the brand. Monique visited this specific elephant a lot of times and found this so unique and because of the connection with her father, that she wanted that elephant, with prosthetic and all, on her side. She now also works for this company so it’s truly a family business.

Respondent 6, Megan (19) has a tattoo of three little stars and one big star above them on her ankle which she got when she was 18 years old.“The big star stands for my father, who passed away and is now watching over us, her and her brothers, from heaven.” (Megan) When her father passed at a young age, she was struggling very much with it. To this day, she misses her father a lot, so on the age of 18 she decided she wanted to get a tattoo to commemorate him. This tattoo helps her in times when life is hard and she misses her father. In this way, she knows that he will always be there for her. Her mother wasn’t too happy with it at first, but now she accepted it and finds it a beautiful idea to immortalize her father.

The reactions that these respondents received from society on their tattoo are very different. Some almost only had friendly reactions; “People mostly react very positively because they think my tattoo is beautiful” (Stephanie). “Most people don’t see my tattoo so I don’t really get any reactions. But when I tell them most are impressed” (Jesse). Others also received negative reactions; The reactions I get are mostly very nice, a lot of compliments, but I have received a lot of negative reactions too, such as people who said I was too young to have a tattoo or they stared and stared. That makes me quite uncomfortable” (Evelyn). “In the spheres in which I find myself, more of a high-class scene, a tattoo really isn’t appreciated” (Anne).

The weirdest reactions that the respondents got were things like: “You should really cover that up” (Megan) and “It is such a shame because you have such a classical face” (Stephanie). This also connects to the stigma that tattoos aren’t feminine, further discussed below. The respondents do acknowledge that they became stronger because of their tattoos, the corresponding stigmas and the reactions. Stephanie also said that she thought that to have a tattoo you must “be confident and strong, because having a tattoo is for some people an invitation to give their unsolicited opinion” (Stephanie). Others think that their tattoo is a starting point to break the ice and start random conversations: “I really like it that people comment (positively) on my tattoos and ask stuff about them. I also randomly start conversations with people about their tattoos” (Evelyn).

Further, Evelyn and Monique felt they had some sort of link to other tattooed people, “you went through the same thing and you have some sort of unconditional respect for each other. I also think that tattoos are pretty badass and I like it when people see me as badass so that’s also where this mutual feeling of respect and bond comes from” (Monique). I found this rare bonding process very interesting. It seems they feel the tattoos are something that overcomes race, background an age and creates a mutual understanding and respect that I have never witnessed before by something else.

Generational differences

The differences between the two generations were very noticeable. What stands out is that when the older generation, generation X, got a tattoo they were relatively old, 25 and up. The younger generation, generation Y, all had their tattoos when they were under the age of 20. So, what’s interesting is that the older generation got their tattoo when I would consider them as adults and not youth anymore. When I asked the older generation why that was, they said; I think I’ve thought longer and harder about my tattoos than the new generation” (Anne). “I’ve thought ten years about my tattoo before I was sure enough that I wanted it forever on my back. You don’t see that much anymore” (Stephanie). So, in this sense tattoos are not only part of the youth culture and in the older respondents lives it was only part of their ‘adult culture’. In this way, their tattoo helped less with their shaping of their identities because they felt they already to some level knew who they were. But the tattoo helped them to be stronger in their own identity and the older generation does identify themselves with their tattoo.

The older generation feels that nowadays youth from the age of sixteen get tattoos just because they feel like it and because of the cool factor. They feel they were more original because back then tattoos were something rare and they really thought it through. Even though they were adults when they got their tattoo they still feel that with them it was more of big deal to get a tattoo and all three of them said that it was an act of rebellion. “But even though it was an act of rebellion, I got my tattoo at the age of thirty so you would say by then that you’re out of the rebellious stage of your life, haha” (Anne). “Mine was an act of rebellion because it was the first time I went on vacation without my kids because I was just divorced and it was a bit like “lekker puh”, and the start of a new time” (Stephanie).

The older respondents also feel there is a difference in reactions from the older and younger generations. Younger generations tend to think that tattoos are cool and something to look up to, a status icon. With society becoming more and more open to tattoos, the older respondents were raised with stricter parents and parents who were more influenced by the stigmas than the parents of the younger generation. Also, the surroundings where the older respondents found themselves where older, because they had their tattoos at a later stage of their lives. They feel back then the stigmas were really set in stone in society. There was a lot of parochialism. But now that stigmas in other fields are decreasing too, such as sexuality, gender and so on, society is more open to deviance and much less parochial. So currently they still get more negative reactions from people from their own generation and more positive reactions from the youth.

The younger generation also notices that it is more and more normalized to get a tattoo and some admit that if tattoos weren’t so normalized they wouldn’t have gotten one. “I have my tattoo because I think it’s cool, and of course this has something to do with the stigmatization but If I was to be characterized as a hooker, I wouldn’t have gotten one” (Evelyn). Evelyn said this after I told her about the prior stigmatization that tattoos were only for criminals, sailors and hookers. “When I see someone older with a tattoo I find them instantly three times cooler than a young tattooed person, just because in those days it was really hard to one” (Megan). Evelyn and Monique also felt similar. So, they do acknowledge that old people with tattoos had to face so much more stigmatization and they admire that a lot. They feel like when they got their tattoos it’s wasn’t really an act of rebellion. “Maybe against my parents a little, they still don’t really like my tattoo. But I definitely got my tattoos for myself and because I think tattoos are beautiful and not to break free from the system or something” (Monique).

The younger generation felt their tattoos helped form their identities more. This might be because youth are in the midst of trying to figure out who they are. It is why people always say that you should experiment with new things in your youth, because you don’t know exactly who you are yet, can have phases of who or what you identify yourself with (different youth cultures for example) and have few responsibilities. But with all these factors, including peer pressure, pressure from parents, pressure to live without worries and to experiment, it can still be hard to form an identity without getting influenced by the surroundings. The link between identity formation and tattoos is often more personal. Especially Evelyn, who got her tattoos after a difficult personal and family crisis, felt she found herself and her strength again after she endured the pain of the tattoo. “Even though the hard times of course formed me and who I am a lot, the tattoos were prove of what I overcame and I made me realize who I want to be and even more who I am now, after everything that has happened” (Evelyn). Monique felt like all the experiences in her life construct her identity and her tattoos are one of them. “[the elephant] made me feel closer to my family than I had before and made me realize how important my family and animals are to me” (Monique).


Stigmas are a major part of youth struggles, as youth need to deals with fitting in, being in- and excluded and defining their identity trough others. It is only when people get older that it is suddenly desirable to be original and different, but when you’re young you desire to be like your peers. Goffman defines stigma as “an attribute, behavior, or reputation which is socially discrediting in a particular way: it causes an individual to be mentally classified by others in an undesirable, rejected stereotype rather than in an accepted, normal one” (1963, p. 3). Thus, others are the ones who create a stigma, because of some social discrediting that would make us less human than the ones who create the stigma. The stigmatized mostly share the same societal norms, “he wants to be normal too”, and internalizes the deviant part of himself and that’s why it’s hard to break a stigma” (Goffman, 1963, p. 7). But while the stigma is thus individualized, all these individuals together also form a group of “deviant people” being stigmatized.

The stigmatization of tattooed people started with lower class professions such as sailors having tattoos so that, when they drowned, people could identify the body when it washed ashore (Irwin, 2001). Furthermore, it was a sign of being a real thug, used by criminals, gangs and motorcycle gangs. It was a way to distinguish themselves as real criminals and show how dangerous they were. Think of a teardrop tattoo on the cheek as a symbol for having killed someone or another symbol for going to prison. Gangs also use tattoos to show which gang they belong to, as a way of identifying which collective they identified themselves with (Irwin, 2001). It was also a way to show “that an individual possesses an attribute communicating their lack of conformity to societal norms” (Yang, Kleinman, Link, Phelan, Lee & Good, 2007, cited by Horne, Know, Zusman & Zusman, 2007). The gangs and criminals desperately wanted to show ‘the finger’ to society and its norms and showing their deviance as something that made other thugs fear them more. In that world fear meant power. Tattoos were a way to accomplish this. But in the late 1800s this rapidly changed. All of a sudden elites were interested in smaller, more elegant tattoos, but still, they were interested in tattoos! But then especially after World War I tattoos were associated with the deviant groups listed above again (Irwin, 2001).

In the 21st century, my respondents felt they were still struggling with stigmas. They do feel that people who have tattoos are considered being rough. Although they wouldn’t consider themselves as deviant persons or someone who falls outside of society’s norms, they still sometimes are being seen like that. “I never think something like: I wish I was normal, because I really don’t think that I’m abnormal. But in some parts of this country, especially conformed regions such as the bible belt, I am seen as deviant” (Stephanie). The other respondents also noticed that in rural areas, people are more narrow-minded and restricted about stigmas in general. “Besides my tattoo, they also stigmatize me there when I’m a female alone with my children” (Stephanie). “When I go to my grandma for instance, people there react so different from when I’m in the city. People are much more conservative in rural areas in my opinion” (Monique). Anne did feel like she was deviant, because in her surroundings there is still such a big taboo on tattoos. “I don’t show mine often, also because I think it’s not really classy to wear a shirt without sleeves.

Furthermore, they feel that in work areas tattoos are mostly not appropriate. “When I’m at work, even though I work at my dad’s company I always wear something to cover my tattoo. I didn’t the first day that I worked there, and people, mostly older ones, stared a lot” (Monique). “I work at a restaurant, and since my tattoo is on my ankle it barely ever shows. But I know that a tattoo on for instance my arm would not be appreciated” (Megan). “That’s the reason I always worked somewhere where my tattoos would be appreciated or at least accepted” (Stephanie).

All the respondents do feel the stigmatization is decreasing, especially the older generation. “In my line of work [tattoo journalism] stigmatization is a big part of the business. But when we talk about it, I notice that everyone in the business notices the decrease in stigmatization. Even the older generation: I know a 90-year-old woman who used to be against tattoo but is now ‘infected by the tattoo disease’ and started getting inked by the age of 90” (Stephanie). “I still feel stigmatized sometimes, but only by older people or my age. The youth only thinks tattoos are cool” (Anne). That is something that more respondents said, that they feel like the stigma is mostly decreasing because of the younger generations in society. The older people tend to hold on to the past and still feel like a tattoo shouldn’t be for a classy man or woman.

The youth is also still holding on a little to that stigma, because they are attracted to the rebellious appearance that a tattoo still has. Because the youth likes to deviate from the social norms, it is considered something to look up to if they do something taboo-breaking such as getting a tattoo. But if a tattoo’s stigmatization is decreasing, the cool-factor and the rebellious element also decrease. I noticed in the reactions from the respondents that they didn’t like the process of a tattoo not becoming rebellious anymore. “It’s too bad that the whole threshold to get inked is mostly gone now, nowadays people don’t really think that much about getting a tattoo anymore because it is almost seen as normal. The whole dangerous, exciting element of going in to some shady tattoo shop to get something you know people will find badass, is gone” (Stephanie). I already found this in the difference that the older generation feel like they had to overcome thing when having a tattoo and it being a rebellious act, and that the younger generation does not feel like that at all. The older generation also feels more stigmatized than the younger generation.

All the respondents also still stigmatize people with tattoos even though they have tattoos themselves. Most of them are aware of that: “When a tattooed person approaches me the first thing that still comes to mind is that they’re thugs. I think it’s something implemented in society, education and my upbringing” (Stephanie). “I still think that tattoos are low culture, something for the lower classes” (Anne). “I am aware that I don’t really like tattoos a lot, because they stand out so much on your skin. But maybe that’s also because I have mine on my butt” (Jesse).  It seems like this stigmatization is something so set in society and your upbringing that even when you are a part of this stigmatized group, you also stigmatize the same group yourself. This confirms Goffman’s argument about the stigmatized having the same societal norms and therefore internalizing the stigmas and stigmatizing others (1963, p. 7). It is very hard to lose prejudges, even if you are the prejudged individual yourself. These stigmas and prejudges are things that happen unconsciously in a split-second when you meet someone, the only way to get rid of this is to actively train this (Irwin, 2001). The younger generation, except Monique, felt they didn’t stigmatize tattooed people and thought that they were cool and they liked the rebellious act. This might have something to do with the stigma being decreasing and with the youth the norms are less set in stone so they have less prejudges.

Carroll, Riffenburgh, Roberts and Myhre (2002) also found in their research that “males having tattoos are associated with violence.” In this research females with tattoos weren’t considered violent. All the respondents mentioned they think that tattoos are more appropriate for men than for women. That aspect of toughness which a tattoo used to carry out, it being only for criminals, sailors, or gangs, is still visible. In research “women compared to men were more likely to report that their parents would never truly accept a visible tattoo. That women perceived less approval by their parents is consistent with research which documents that daughters have traditionally been viewed as needing more parental protection” (Gill, 1997, cited by Horne, Know, Zusman & Zusman, 2007). The female respondents felt more stigmatized than the male respondent. The female respondents felt they sometimes had to cover up their tattoos or have heard things like: it just doesn’t fit because you’re a lady, it’s not classy etc. Even tattooed people or tattoo artists are still influenced by this stigma. “The artists that tattooed me actually at first didn’t think that my tattoos fit me and said that they were too big for a woman.” (Stephanie). The interesting thing is that I gained respondent 1, Stephanie, because of the interview appointment with Jesse, so they knew each other. Jesse actually stigmatized Stephanie, saying: “I think that her tattoo is too big, it just takes over her entire appearance. You only see her tattoo and not her, no I don’t like her tattoo at all and don’t think it’s feminine” (Jesse). This also shows that the stigmatized stigmatize. All the respondents think that a tattoo can make a female more feminine, but even then, there are still norms about a tattoo then not being too big, not too dark and not too harsh but small and elegant.


As the great “tattoo king” said: “All this new knowledge from the Internet actually leads to some sort of superficiality. Everybody has the same tattoo” (De Lange, 2016). The paradox of tattoos these days is that tattoo stigmatization still exists but tattoos burst into a huge trend in pop culture suddenly. The moment of tattoos becoming a trend was the commence of the show “Miami ink”. These tattoo artists became known all over the world and celebrities suddenly wanted to be tattooed by these artists. And since many people look up to celebrities, that’s how tattoos flowed through to the masses (Thobo-Carlsen, 2014).

The respondents noticed this sudden change all quite consciously. They were aware that more and more celebrities openly displayed their tattoos and that more and more tattoo shops popped up, not only in big cities. Stephanie was actually a tattoo journalist at that time, so she experienced the rapid change very consciously. “On the tattoo conventions, more and more tattoo artists showed up that we [the ‘old’ community or gang] didn’t know” (Stephanie). Furthermore, she mentioned that “the old gang” has been more and more exclusive and excluding others. The young artists want to learn from the older ones, but since this normalization process the latter are afraid that they will lose business and they no longer want to share their knowledge. These old tattooists look down on this normalization process, this new trend of everybody having a tattoo.  They feel they are “the badass old tattoo artists” and that these new, young, trendy tattoo artists don’t belong to the true tattoo community. This has a classic feel of Elias and Scotson’s book The Established and the Outsiders (1996), in which the concept of exclusion plays a major part. The book describes the ‘old families’; close-knit families who lived in the city since it was founded. These are the established and the newcomers are the outsiders. Similarly, in this tattoo community, “the old gang” are the established and the new tattoo artists are the outsiders, simply based on who was there first. Just like in Elias & Scotson the “old gang” are the ones being looked up to by the new tattoo artists. But “the old gang” had a close-knit community where everybody knew everybody, and don’t want outsiders to destroy that community (Elias & Scotson, 1996).

Here the generation gap between the older and younger generation is also noticeable. The older generation, in this case tattoo artists, find it a shame that the tattoo trend is for the masses now. “Sure, it is nice that the stigmatization has lessened, but it has become way too mainstream” (Jesse). Tattoos used to be a medium to distinguish yourself from the masses and be unique. But now suddenly it seems to be more unique to not have a tattoo. The older generation feel they were unique when they got a tattoo and the youth right now is just following the masses like a sheep.

But the older generation does feel more socially accepted now than when they got a tattoo. Jesse and Anne also like the new trends of tiny tattoos, such as just the outlines of objects. Stephanie still likes the big tattoos more and thinks that it’s a shame that these are also fading away. The older generation also did experience the transition from stigma to trend more consciously, probably because they already had a tattoo at the time. The younger generation doesn’t really know any better and feels that the old fashion tattoos are just that, old fashioned. The rebellious part of getting a tattoo is gone for some of them. All the respondents do really like that because of this normalization process the stigma keeps shrinking.


The main goal of this research was to find out how tattooed people feel society judges them, or not all, and how they experienced tattoos suddenly being a huge trend and the start of de-stigmatization. This is called the start of de-stigmatization because the respondents still experienced stigmatization because of their tattoos. They feel the stigmas around tattoos are decreasing but are not absent yet. Yet because they think that in a few years, maybe a decade, the stigmatization around tattoos is completely gone or worse, that there would be a new movement of people who like their skin blank. Then the stigmatization of tattoo changes to first being rough to being a sheep that follows the masses. I was also interested in the difference between generations in how they experienced the process of stigma, normalization and the tattoo community. I was very interested in this because I don’t have a tattoo and am very curious how it must feel to have one and all of a sudden, the whole world judging and stigmatizing you.

In this research, there are a few paradoxes to detect. Firstly, the stigmatized tattooed persons also stigmatize people with tattoos. This surprised me, because it doesn’t seem to make sense. But if related to Goffman’s theory, it makes more sense. Stigmatized people have the same standards as the “normals” taught by society and upbringing. These norms are internalized; therefore, and even though you might have a tattoo yourself, you still stigmatize others just because those norms are so dominant and built in very deep (Goffman, 1963, p.7).

Secondly, even though the new generation is the reason that the stigmatization is decreasing and the older generation profits from that, the older generations stigmatizes the younger generation. But with a new stigma: them being a sheep following the masses with tattoos now being a global trend. They feel the youth are just taking tattoos because they feel like it and don’t think it through enough, considering that it’s on your body forever. The older generation also feel they had to go through so much to get a tattoo and face all these stigmas, and that the youth do not see it as a big step.

Thirdly, both generations feel positive about the stigma decreasing, as they feel more socially accepted and no longer an outcast. But, they also dislike that the rebellious and unique elements of getting a tattoo are weakened. This links to the paradox above, that tattoos are now more for the masses, that there is no special element to it anymore. Because it is something that you have on your body your whole life (most of the time), people like to have something unique. Of course, the meaning is very personal and unique to you, but if you see someone with the same tattoo you do feel a little bit like a copycat.

Lastly, overall there is still stigmatization about tattoos but at the same time they’re also a huge trend. This seems contradictive. Because of the tattoo bursting into pop culture, the stigma is decreasing and it has become more and more socially acceptable to get a tattoo. But since prejudges are so hard to lose it is questionable whether the stigmatization around tattoos will truly disappear.

During the research, I also found that I had quite some prejudges myself about the people who have tattoos. Previously, I didn’t know that Anne, Jesse and Megan had a tattoo and I was surprised that they did. Especially because two of them, Anne and Jesse, are from the older generation and are very refined people who I thought would be against tattoos. Anne as a matter of fact likes her own tattoos but doesn’t like tattoos in general. That was a hard thing to understand for me, why have one when you feel like tattoos are low culture. Moreover, she said she had never regretted her tattoo before. But after the interview when I thought it over, it made sense to some extent. She barely showed her tattoo to others, she has it on her shoulder, and really got it for herself and not to show off to others.

When I looked online for similar pictures of tattoos of the respondents (not featured in this paper), it only took me five seconds to find almost perfectly similar tattoos on google. This shows just how tattoos are no longer original. Respondents picked a tattoo because it stands for something truly personal for them, but there are thousands of people on the world with the exact same tattoo. This is what I see as the downside of the popularization of tattoos, although there were exceptions, like the ‘abstract picture of two friends tattoo’ of Monique. If I would get a tattoo I would also want something that is still original. Although in the past you could only pick tattoos from a picture book, even more people had the same tattoos probably. This research did make me more excited about tattoos and left me desiring for one more than ever.


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Global Youth Papers



It’s Friday night 5.00 AM in the weekend of Amsterdam Dance Event. I used to sleep at this time, but today I’m visiting a DGTL, one of the many dance events which is organized this weekend. I’m there with two of friends dancing the whole night on fantastic techno beats. Due to the late time I feel that I actually have no energy left, and my body says that we should better head home. I looked one my friends in his eyes and while we are having eye contact, it seems clear that we are thinking the same at this moment. The environment is too beautiful to go home now. The music is too good to go home now. And most of all, the people who are here now at this party are too pretty and kind to go home now. When I realise what a beautiful place this is, my tiredness vanishes suddenly. We have to stay here till 8.00 PM till the party is over.

The narrative as described above, is about my most recent techno rave party which I have visited. Every now and then I visit techno raves. In my opinion, the experience of such a techno rave is magnificent. This experience is not only the result of the fantastic music which is thrilling through your body, but also the whole atmosphere at these parties contribute to this impressive experience. Since I can say for myself that visiting techno raves is one of my greatest passions, this theme triggered me to discover more about it.

Raves and music festivals are becoming more and more popular. This is not only the case within the techno scene, but festivals in other music genres are growing as well. Especially in the summer season more and more festivals take place. Young people and students in particular seem to be the most important target group for these festivals and parties. Furthermore, festivals (and rave parties) are not only about the music and the artists who are performing. The whole total experience also plays an important role.

The growing popularity of (techno) festivals and raves goes hand in hand with another development. Techno raves are well-known about the high degree of drug use at these parties. The stimulating drug XTC, which is often described as a ‘love drug’, is the most commonly used drug at techno parties. But also other drugs as speed, cocaine or ketamine are used frequently in the clubbing scene. The current clubbing generation is often portrayed as a ‘chemical generation’ (Nabben & Korf, 2011). The number of young people who has ever tried an illicit drug at least once seems to grow as well (Nabben & Korf, 2011). This high degree of drug use can contribute to a terrifying image for an outsider who is not familiar with the techno scene. Mainstream thoughts about illicit drugs are usually quite negative, where drugs is seen as something scary and dangerous. There seems to be some truth in this thought, because the use of (illicit) drugs can indeed be dangerous. The use of XTC for example, can lead to sweating tremendously, depersonalization or an acute depression (Freese et al., 2002).  However, these probable dangers are negligible apparently in the eyes of a raver, since many ravers are using drugs frequently.

Judging from my own experience, I can confirm that there is a lot of drug use within the techno scene. When I’m attending a techno rave, it is striking to notice how many people are influenced by a stimulating drug. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to know whether someone has used a hard drug. Facial expressions of ravers betray usually if one has used a drug. All my friends who visit techno raves frequently, also admit that they use a drug most of the times when visiting a rave. Although it is still illegal to use XTC or other drugs at raves, it has become normalized to take a drug on such occasions. Techno raves seem unimaginable without drugs.

Research question & methodology

At first sight, there seems to exist an inextricable relationship between the techno scene and drug use. But what does this mean exactly? If a techno rave is an appropriate place for using drugs, there should be a reason for this phenomenon. In addition, people should have some feelings with this relationship. Therefore, the following research question will be the main point of this essay: ‘’How do young people within the techno scene experience the relationship between drug use and techno raves?’’ In order to answer this research question, I have conducted five depth-interviews with techno ravers. All research participants are aged between 19-24, three male and two female, and are all students at the University of Amsterdam. In order to guarantee the anonymity of my respondents, fake names will be used in the rest of this essay when quotes of my research participants are used.

The main reason for using depth-interviews as research method is because the stories of techno ravers should be understood. These life stories can create a valuable insider perspective of the techno scene. What exactly is the position which a raver takes within the techno scene? Once this position of techno ravers is explored, the next step is to investigate more deeply the research question. Does there really exist a relationship between techno raves and drug use? And what does it mean for a raver to take a stimulating drug on a rave?

The techno scene

Firstly, I will give a general description about the techno music in order to create a clear image of this world. This description is based on both my own experience and the interviews which I have conducted for this research. Let’s begin with the techno music itself: techno is a form of electronic dance music, in which the rhythm of a techno number has the same speed. The melody is often dark, in which the sound if often experienced as ‘space music’. At a techno party, there are several stages where the DJ’s play their music. Depending on the size of a techno party, there are several music stages. There is a dancing floor at each stage, where people dance to the music beats. At one stage sometimes ‘hard’ techno is played, while on the other stage a ‘softer’ form of techno is played. Dance floors are usually decorated with visual art, and laser shows are used in order to give a boost to the atmosphere. Besides the dance floor, there is usually also a ‘chill area’. Dancing the whole time on music beats can be quite tiring, so chill areas are appropriate places to rebuild your energy level.

In the techno scene, an important distinction can be made between festivals and indoor parties. Festivals take place during the summer season in open air, and are characterized by a more complete picture. Besides several stages where music is played by the DJ, festivals consist also of some areas with other attractions. There are hammocks, some extra chill areas at the lake, or you can do a spiritual session in a tent. In other words, festivals are characterized by a more complete image, where the experience of a party is much bigger than just dancing on the dance floor. The ‘dancing’ aspect comes forward more prominently at indoor parties. The dance floor is usually very dark in which light shows have a bigger emphasis than at outdoor festivals. There are fewer opportunities to relax, so a visitor is often bound up to the dance floor and the music which is being played by the DJ. It was mentioned in my interviews that ravers have a slight preference for festivals over indoor parties. Robbert explained that in this way:

I like indoor parties too, but festivals are for me something more special. I’m entering another world, everyone is free, the weather is good, and everyone is in a good mood. And it’s not just about the music at a festival, there are also other attractions. If I’m done for a while with the music, I can go play twister. All those aspects are not available at an indoor party.

During my interviews one of my first questions was usually how ravers ended up in the techno scene. The answers to this question were quite similar. All of my respondents were part of a circle of friends. Those friends were already visiting techno raves on a regular basis, and this consequently raised a curiosity to visit techno parties and festivals too. In other words, initially there were no specific characteristics of techno raves which attracted my respondents. Their involvement in techno raves happened because friends were doing that as well. Though my respondents were introduced into the techno scene by coincidence, they all mentioned that they were still visiting techno parties on a regular basis. Therefore, there should be some motivations why people visit raves. Two motivations came up in my interviews several times. These motivations are the music played at raves, and the good atmosphere experienced at a techno rave. I will elaborate these two aspects now, and it will become clear that ravers experience a strong relationship between drugs and these two aspects.

The music

A first aspect which came up in my interviews was the music played at techno parties. At first sight, it seems obvious that music plays an important role at techno raves. During the time you’re present on a techno party, you’re bound to the music which is played at the stages. As already mentioned, there are usually also some other attractions at techno parties. Nevertheless, the musical and dancing aspect is often seen as the main activity of techno raves. Because of this, one should think that almost all ravers do like techno music. However, three of my research participants mentioned that they do not experience any affinity with techno music itself. Sofie explained that in this way:

I actually hate techno, I even think that you cannot see it as a real music style. It’s just the same beat for 10 minutes long, without any song in the music.

Statements such as this are quite remarkable. There is no any affinity with techno music, but nevertheless Sofie loves it to visit techno parties frequently. Further, Sofie (and other raves too) has to spend approximately 40 euros in order to attend a techno party. Simultaneously, all respondents saw the music as an important factor to visit techno parties, even if an aversion with techno music is experienced. How can this be explained? The answer on to this question can be found in the drug experience of a raver. Out of my interviews became clear (and I can confirm that from my own experience as well), that XTC, among other things, gives you an effect in which music and sounds are experienced in a much more pleasant way than without XTC. Techno music isn’t just music anymore then, but the music turns into the best sound you’ve ever experienced. When my interview with Sofie continued, she mentioned in addition to the previous quote:

I don’t know, if I’m taking XTC the world changes completely. I do not like techno, but at a party the situation is so different. Normally, you dance on a music beat, but when I have used XTC, the music adapts to your dance moves. And that feeling is incredible.

The example of Sofie illustrates that by using drugs the meaning of techno music changes. This changing function of music is experienced as one of the main ingredients of techno raves. For that reason, Sofie and other ravers see drug use indeed as a condition to visit techno parties, and therefore experience a strong relationship between drug use and raves. Without the drugs, they won’t be able to enjoy the party. However, not all of my research participants shared the view of Sofie. Some of them have more appreciation for techno music in daily life. Dewi and Bram mentioned that they listened to techno music in their spare time too, and that this music can help them to get through the day. Therefore, Dewi and Bram don’t need drugs necessarily. This was caused, among other things, by the fact that they’re able to enjoy the techno music without using a drug, and experience to a lesser extent a changing function of music. That doesn’t mean that people such as Dewi and Bram don’t take drugs. They brought up that taking a pill on a techno rave can contribute to a magnificent experience, but they do not see it as a main condition. Bram looked a bit astonished when I asked him whether taking drugs is a condition to visit a techno party:

Of course it is not an obligation. Don’t get me wrong, I love the effects of some drugs. But the day before a festival I’m busier with other things such as the line-up. I’m thinking then, oohw I would like to see him, ooh and I would like to see him too! I get more excited about the music than the probable effects of the drug which I’m going to experience. And sometimes I even do not take a drug, because I’m satisfied with the situation as it is at that moment.

Bram remarked in addition that the musical experience at a rave is the most significant factor whether a rave is a successful rave. Drugs can strengthen the musical experience, and in that sense Bram also experience a ‘changing function of music.’ But this changing function of music and other positive effects of drugs are obviously not the most significant things on a rave for Bram. Thus, there is a clear division between techno music lovers and non-techno music lovers. The first group does not see a necessity to take a drug on a rave. That does not mean that the techno lovers do not take drugs most of the time on raves. The motivations for taking drugs only differs sharply with the non-techno music lovers, who see the drug experience as the main ingredient, which allows them to enjoy the music.

Considering this sharp division within the techno scene, it may be interesting to cite the concept of ‘cultural hierarchies’ (Thornton, 1995). This means that in each subculture exist a hierarchy of their members. This hierarchy is determined, among other things, by a division of the ‘hip’ and the ‘mainstream’ within the subculture (Thornton, 1995). Although the division of the hip and the mainstream was originally introduced to define a particular subculture against another subculture, it can be applied now within one subculture, namely the techno subculture. There seem to be two different groups within the techno scene. On the one hand, the group of ravers who do like techno music, and on the other hand, the group of ravers who do not have any affinity with techno music. The ‘techno music lovers’ see themselves as the leaders of the subculture, and can therefore be viewed as the ‘hip’ category. Dewi, who identifies herself as techno music lover (just like Bram), explained that in the following way:

I’m disappointed in some people who are visiting a techno rave. I’m there with my friends for a musical experience, but some people are taking too much drug, don’t have self –control anymore, and are primarily on a rave to go as ‘hard as possible’. I’m thinking then, ‘what are you doing here’?  These kinds of people are messing up the atmosphere on parties.

Dewi seems to have little understanding for some groups of people who attend techno parties. In that sense, she appropriates for herself a higher status within the techno scene on grounds of her advanced musical knowledge in comparison with others. In terms of Thornton’s theory, Dewi appropriates for herself a ‘hip’ status, whereas she gives other people within the scene an inferior status, which can be seen as the mainstream group.


Another aspect which came up often in my interviews was the atmosphere experienced at a techno rave. A few general quotes which were often mentioned in my interviews are ‘everyone is so pretty’, ‘ nobody is judging each other’ and ‘ it’s one big spacing community’. Thus, the good atmosphere primarily is expressed in terms of a ‘good click’ with other people. For this reason, the concept of ‘solidarity’ is applicable in this situation. Ravers experience at techno raves a high degree of solidarity towards other ravers. Many different theories about solidarity exist, but a general definition is that ‘’solidarity generally refers to the degree or type of integration in a society or within a social group’’ (Kavanaugh & Anderson, 2008, pp. 184). A high degree of solidarity can result consequently in a stronger collective identity of certain music scenes (Bennett, 1999).

The link between raves and solidarity within the electronic dance music style has been researched before (Kavanaugh & Anderson, 2008). This relationship seems to be complicated, but anyway, exist out of two components. On the one hand, solidarity within the techno scene seems to be caused by the ‘sense of belonging for other participants’ (Thornton, 1995; Kavanaugh & Anderson, 2008). This means that by being together, and dancing with each other, a certain connection with other ravers is created. Some studies even suggest that raves can function as a ‘meaningful spiritual experience’, which can contribute to an even greater solidarity (Hutson, 2000). On the other hand, solidarity within the techno scene is seen as a direct consequence of drug use. XTC in particular, is well-known for the emphatic effects towards other people. Due to the effects of XTC or other drugs, the solidarity towards other people should increase tremendously (Kavanaugh & Anderson, 2008). From this perspective, drug-use is seen as the primary cause of solidarity. This should mean that without drugs, solidarity won’t be imaginable within the techno scene.

Thus, there is ongoing debate about the role of drugs in creating solidarity within the clubbing scene. Since all of my research participants do experience a high degree of solidarity, it may be interesting in which way they experience the role of drugs towards solidarity. So, when a research participant mentioned something about solidarity, I tried to anticipate on this. I would like to show one example of that. During an interview with Thijs, he was very enthusiastic about ‘Pleinvrees’, a techno rave which Thijs visited one week ago. He couldn’t stop talking about all the beautiful experiences on Pleinvrees:

Thijs: Everyone was my best friend on Pleinvrees. Everyone had beautiful haircuts and beautiful shoes. And the music was soo wauuww magnificent. Everything was just so beautiful.

Me: Do you think that’s because of the XTC that you liked everything?

Thijs: Yeah, definitely. If I wouldn’t use XTC, there wouldn’t be any chance that I like all the shoes and haircuts and all that kind of stuff. But because of that, I was talking with unfamiliar people about the most useless and funny things. A certain interaction arose because of the effects of XTC.

This quote makes clear that solidarity may indeed be a consequence of drug use. Thijs emphasizes that XTC causes several effects which cannot be experienced when you haven’t used drugs. Those effects determine, among other things, what Thijs was doing and feeling on Pleinvrees. Those activities (such as talking with people about their ‘beautiful haircuts’), contributes to a certain interaction which this person wouldn’t do when he hasn’t used XTC. As a result, a stronger solidarity is being created with other ravers. This was one example of how solidarity emerges as consequence of using drugs. However, my interviews show that solidarity can be created in other ways too. Bram mentioned passionately:

If I meet people on parties who are vague acquaintances of mine, people of which you don’t expect that they visit those kinds of parties, then I’m hanging out with these people for the rest of the day sometimes. I even maintained extra friendships with these people after a techno party.

Another side of solidarity is shown here. This quote makes clear that solidarity at techno raves isn’t only caused by the use of drugs, but that also other circumstances can play a role here. This is an example where it is demonstrated that a raver meets familiar people by coincidence. Bram hadn’t expected those people here, which contributes to a higher degree of solidarity. This kind of solidarity fits well with the ‘sense of belonging for other participants’ theory of Thornton (1995). A friendship is created due to being together at one place, in which the solidarity increases.

Thus, both forms of solidarity of Kavanaugh and Anderson (2008) seem to play a role within the techno scene. Solidarity seems to be caused for a large part by the use of drugs, but the ‘sense of belonging’ felt with other participants is at least as important.

The meaning of visiting techno raves

Up till now I have described how ravers experience a techno party, in which the music and the atmosphere were the two most important elements of a rave. But perhaps more interesting is what this really means now. As Thornton (1995, pp. 5) argued, ‘’belonging to a club culture gives alternative interpretations and values to young people; it re-interprets the social world’’. One can wonder whether this reinterpretation of the social world also takes place at techno raves, because it is doubtful whether the techno scene is a subculture. Many visitors are just going to these parties by occasion, and have little affinity with techno music itself. Rather, the concept of a neo-tribe (Bennett, 1999) is better applicable in this case. According to Bennett (1999), youth’s musical and stylistic preferences are fluid and are constantly shifting between different youth culture groups. Since many ravers (at least in this research) are feeling that they’re not a full member of the techno scene, the concept of neo-tribe can be applied perfectly to the techno scene.

If the techno scene is a neo-tribe, what does it mean for the visitors to be part of this neo-tribe? My interviews show that the meaning of raving seems to differ again for each person. On the one hand, techno raves are primarily seen as an experience, which never will be experienced in other settings. Three research participants (Robbert, Sofie and Thijs) view it as an escape from the world, in which only the happening of a techno rave is important at that moment. Robbert explained that in the following way:

You’re having a dream night, where you’re dancing constantly. At this pink cloud you’re escaping from the world for a few hours, where only the party is important then. And that feeling that you don’t have any responsibilities is so enjoyable.

Robbert doesn’t experience any extra meaning in a techno party. He views a techno party as a world where there isn’t any connection with the ordinary world. In that sense, the techno scene isn’t a real subculture, but rather a place where you can release some emotions. Techno raves are experienced as if these parties don’t have a connection with the ordinary world, but rather as separate occasions. This view was shared by Sofie and Thijs, but not by Dewi and Bram. Bram, who attempts to visit techno raves every week, doesn’t see techno raves as an escape from the social world, but rather something which is connected with the ‘ordinary’ world.

From the moment that I started visiting techno parties, my life has changed completely. First I was a bit insecure about myself and was dealing with social problems, but due to raves I noticed there are also other forms of hanging out with other people in a more pleasant way. I’ve gotten more self-confident because of this, and I take this along to daily life.

This quote makes clear that a techno rave can be experienced in several ways. Besides the rave itself, Bram experiences several other aspects such as an increasing self-confidence. This is perhaps an individual case, which decidedly isn’t applicable for each raver. But this example shows the diversity of the techno scene, and that each raver can experience it in their own way. Each raver can give an alternative interpretation to the techno scene. The fact that someone can gain self-confidence from visiting techno raves, is in my opinion a beautiful phenomenon. It was also very surprising for me that someone mentions this. This goes to show that the techno scene is very multidimensional, as I argue in the conclusion.


In order to answer the research question, ‘’How do young people within the techno scene experience the relationship between drug use and techno raves?’’, I have attempted to outline a general image of the techno scene and the role that drugs plays in this scene. Outlining this image was a bit more difficult than I had expected, due to the fact that each respondent within my research had different opinions about the scene, and the position which they take within the scene differed too. Nevertheless, this research has demonstrated that the relationship between drug use and the techno scene is a strong one, but that there are large differences in how this relationship is experienced.

Broadly, there is a division within the techno scene, and this division is a determinant factor for how drugs plays a role within the techno scene. On the one hand, there is group of ravers who every now and then visit techno parties. Robbert, Sofie and Thijs were part of that group within my research. This group has less affinity with techno music and the techno scene in itself. Nevertheless, this group of people enjoys to visit techno parties every now and then. By visiting techno parties, they are able to step out of the ordinary world and to enter a dream world. But in fact, the techno scene doesn’t mean anything special for them. Techno parties are just occasions which this group of people just visit a few times a year. Because these people are visiting these raves just by occasion, drug is something which is inextricable related to this occasion. Drugs, in particular XTC, can make a techno experience much more intense. This intensification of a rave is expressed, among other things, by a changing function of music. This changing function of music is experienced as one of the main ingredients of techno raves for Robbert, Thijs and Sofie. Therefore, taking drugs is seen as necessary in the eyes of this group.

On the other hand, there is also a group of people who see the techno scene as an important part of their identity. Bram and Dewi were part of that group within this research. This group has a strong preference for techno music in daily life, and techno parties are the best occasions to find a sense of belonging. Because of this, they see raves as an alternative lifestyle, where you are together with people with the same preferences as them. Just like the first group, this group also uses drugs at techno raves, but the motivations for using drugs are quite different. There isn’t any necessity to use drugs, but rather the use of drugs can enhance the wonderful experience which it already is.

Because of the fact that the techno scene has grown enormously and just five interviews were conducted, it is quite hard to outline a general image of the techno scene. Each research participant seems to have other motivations for visiting techno raves. This was also the main obstacle during the research process. I was forced to look very far in the research data in order to look for similarities.  But perhaps, that’s a characteristic of the techno scene that it is so multidimensional and complex. Nevertheless, techno raves are offering something special for each visitor. Each visitor enjoys these kinds of parties, only the type of this pleasant experience differs strongly.

I look back to this research with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I did this research with much pleasure. The fact I am part of the techno scene myself definitely contributed to this. Conducting the interviews was the most pleasant part of this research by far. I noticed that my research participants shared this view, because I noticed a smile on their face during the interviews constantly. This was true for Bram in particular, who was talking sometimes passionately for a few minutes without I wasn’t able to interrupt him. That shows that people are willing to talk about this topic, and that all of them enjoy it to visit techno raves.

On the other hand, I have experienced difficulties while conducting this research. This was caused primarily because I’m part of the scene myself. Before I started this research, I had expected that being part of this scene would help me, but that was not the case. I had several assumptions when I started this research and especially in the starting point of my research I experienced difficulties with releasing my assumptions. However, the more I continued in my research, the more I realised that the techno scene is multidimensional. All in all, I have conducted this research with pleasure where I have learned a lot.


Nabben, T. & Korf, D.J. (2011). Drugstrends in het Amsterdamse uitgaansleven. NARCIS (National Academic Research and Collaborations Information System).

Hutson, R. (2000). The Rave: Spiritual Healing in Modern Western Subcultures. Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 35-49.

Thornton, S. (1995). The distinctions of cultures without distinction. In Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (pp. 1-25). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Bennett, A. (1999). Subcultures or neo-tribes? Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste. Sociology, 33, 599-617.

Freese, T. Miotto, K. Reback, C. (2002). The effects and consequences of selected club drugs. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Volume 23, Issue 2, September 2002, Pages 151–156.

Philip R. Kavanaugh, P.R. & Anderson, T.L. (2008). Solidarity and drug use in the electronic dance music scene. Sociological Quarterly, Vol.49(1), pp.181-208.

Global Youth Papers

Elke Berens


I moved from Rotterdam to Amsterdam in July 2015. I went from a twenty-one-square meter room to a room the size of a tiny walk-in closet. I was about to start my study in Social Sciences and there was not even enough space in my new room for a desk. Despite this drastic downgrade in size, my new room was 160 euros per month more expensive. The location is similar in both cities, not in the city center but quite close to it. Recently, I moved to another room in the same apartment, which is five square meters bigger than my previous room. This ‘upgrade’ in size costs me an extra 75 euros a month. This amounts to a 235-euro difference from my room in Rotterdam which was still seven square meters bigger than my current room in Amsterdam.

One could argue it was my own choice to pay this ridiculous amount of money in order to live in Amsterdam. This is true, but what strikes me most is not the cost in terms of money but in terms of effort and energy to get a room like this in Amsterdam. I was one of the very lucky few that got a room quite easily. I sent out several messages and got invited to a couple of viewings (what viewings in Amsterdam exactly entail will be discussed below). The first viewing I went to I was chosen straight away to become the new room tenant. But this sounds like a dream to many students in search of a room in Amsterdam. I am aware of the fact that I was extremely lucky and an exception to the rule.

This is not how it usually goes when searching for a room in Amsterdam. I see friends and others around me struggling to find a room or even get invited to viewings. For example, one of my German friends did not have a room before his study started, so he stayed over at my place for a couple of weeks. The same applies to my boyfriend who stayed over for a month until he found a room for himself. My new roommate from Belgium stayed in hostels for a month until she got the room in our apartment. Furthermore, many of my friends are still living with their parents, even though they no longer want to. It is simply because they have not yet succeeded in finding a room. They are all at the age of gradually becoming an adult, and living on their own is key in the process of transition to adulthood. It concerns me to see that so many young people are held back in doing so, therefore I decided to focus my research project on the difficulties of student housing in Amsterdam. The topic is particularly interesting to me because I have been on both sides, I have been one in search of a room and I have been one renting out a room.

Renting a room in Amsterdam

Renting a room in Amsterdam is usually a long and intensive process in terms of effort. For example, I have been at a point that I found my room too small and did not like my former roommates, but I chose to stay instead of looking for a new room because I knew that pursuing the dream of a new room would give me an extra daily ‘task’, which was a bit too much next to my study, job, friends, sports, and so on. The same applies to one of my friends who lives at Uilenstede, which is a student housing campus in Amstelveen, right outside Amsterdam. She does not like to live outside of Amsterdam at all, but she did not find the time to try and get a room in Amsterdam, because she is really busy with her Medicine study. Besides the effort it will take to get a room, a major hurdle is the high cost of a room in Amsterdam. Rents of 600 euros for a tiny eight square meter room in the center of Amsterdam are common. I would say the average price of a room in Amsterdam lies between 500 and 650 euros.

After considering all this, the Facebook advert hunt begins. There are other ways than Facebook to find a room, but since all my respondents, apart from one, got their room via Facebook, I will focus on that. When responding to a room advert on Facebook, it is not unusual to be one of 250 candidates. To be one of those 250, typically, you must meet several requirements, such as a specific gender, age, nationality, or lifestyle. It is a very common requirement that you are either a woman, speak Dutch, or that you are at the end of your studies. This makes renting a room all the more difficult for men, international students, anybody just starting their studies and students in general. When you do meet all the requirements you must still compete with around ten others who also fit the criteria. Thus, as one of my respondents said, there is only a one out of ten chance of being the “perfect fit for the future housemates” after going through all the previous stuff.

I will cite a real advert to give an impression of what they ask for. With ‘they’, I mean other students who are searching for a new roommate. In some cases, they are working people instead of students, who do not mind having students in their house or apartment. The students and working people are all renting as well, so none of them really owns the house or apartment. In very rare cases it is an individual or a couple who do own a house or apartment and have a spare room that they would like to rent out. The last option is that parents of a (new) student buy a house in Amsterdam for their daughter or son and that they can rent out rooms in that house. When this happens the rooms usually go to the daughter’s or son’s friends, so adverts like these are rare on Facebook. But December 11th one of these adverts popped up on the Facebook page ‘Zoekt kamer in Amsterdam community’ (‘Searching for a room in Amsterdam community’, 2016). Two girls, who just started their studies in September, are looking for another girl. It was quite a long advert, demanding that their new roommate should be a girl and should be around the same age as them. In addition, the advert stated: “We are searching for someone who does not mind having a drink or ten, likes to go out seven times a week, is a really good cook, can sing every top40-hit and someone who likes to clean up after us”. Of course, they are being a bit sarcastic, but this shows how serious and detailed requirements for a new roommate can be.

When meeting the requirements asked for, the candidate must send them a message to let them know that she is interested and would like to come to the viewing. She should tell a bit about herself in the message, such as what she studies, what her hobbies are, and why she would be a good roommate for them. She must make sure that she is convincing and funny, because they will probably get around 250 messages. So stand out! Once the ones renting out a room have made a first selection, they will send around ten invitations to a viewing. A viewing is an evening where the candidate can go and check out the room and meet the potential new roommates. During this viewing, it is very common to be seated in a circle with all the others; there will be drinks and the ‘landlords’ will ask questions. This usually lasts about one or two hours. Thereafter, the ‘landlords’ will choose who they liked the most and they will send this person an email or phone call to ask them as their new roommate. Overall, then, the search for a room in Amsterdam takes much effort, money, and persistence, and once selected for a viewing it is very important for the candidates to stand out, speak up and make sure they are being noticed and liked. This stressful reality is what many students in Amsterdam go through.

The research

The aim of my research is to find out how the process of renting a room for students works, what problems they come across and what they do when they do not succeed straight away. How do students, wanting to rent a room in Amsterdam, cope with the scarce supply of student rooms? With ‘student rooms’ I mean the rooms available for students in shared apartments in Amsterdam. Considering the many requirements that a student must meet in order to be selected for a room, I will also examine how discrimination plays a role in the process of student housing, and whether it is more difficult for international students than for Dutch students to get a room for that reason. Finally, I will examine what alternatives there are for students who do not succeed in finding a room straight away. Since there must be many students who are practically ‘homeless’, in the sense of not having a room for themselves, I am curious to see what they do about their situation.

First, I will explain three concepts that are relevant for my research: transition to adulthood, shelter, and discrimination. Transition to adulthood is the phase one goes through from being a youngster to becoming an adult. The period and length of this phase depends on various factors, including cultural and national context, while it can also vary among friends. Parents and upbringing play an important role in this process, too, as parents transmit personal values on what they find appropriate for their children at what certain age. Overall, being able to make one’s own decisions and living on one’s own are important matters in the transition. But are students at the age of 21, who are legally adult, really adults now? This is being doubted since the age of marriage and other traditional markers of adulthood, as well as length of education, got pushed back. Arnett calls this ‘emerging adulthood’:

This period is not simply an “extended adolescence,” because it is much different from adolescence, much freer from parental control, much more a period of independent exploration. Nor is it really “young adulthood,” since this term implies that an early stage of adulthood has been reached, […] and many of them feel they have not yet reached adulthood. (Arnett, 2004)

According to Arnett, there is ‘a longer road to adulthood’ for youth nowadays, which resembles the notion of ‘waithood’ coined by Muldering (2013). Although Arnett and Muldering use these terms to describe other youth issues, both can be used to describe an aspect of student housing in Amsterdam as well. Living on your own is a major part of becoming an adult or at least starting the phase of transition to adulthood. The scarce supply of student rooms in Amsterdam hampers students in this process, which means this period can be seen as ‘waithood’ and therefore ‘a longer road to adulthood’.

Second, I wish to highlight the concept of shelter. Having shelter may seem very normal to us Dutch youth in our twenties. But the world is bigger than our own and there are many exceptions to this rule. While it is part of our general knowledge that there are certain poor countries, cities or even specific neighbourhoods where having shelter is not a given, we are less aware that this lack of shelter can happen to middle-class youth as well. For example, in Japan, where ‘the socioeconomic equilibrium […] has been shaken’ due to several factors (Allison, 2012), material or social security for many of its citizens is no longer guaranteed, which leads to homelessness among significant numbers of people, including youth. Allison points to the phenomenon of ‘net cafe refugees’, or homeless people who do not have shelter and thus live in 24-hour internet cafes, and the prevalence of (young) adults who continue to live at the parental home. These are all middle-class people that had to change their dreams because of the negative change in the socioeconomic equilibrium (Allison, 2012). The situation in Japan is worse than in the Netherlands, but in theoretical terms this homelessness can be linked to the situation of student housing in Amsterdam. Due to the shortage of student rooms and the discrimination that comes along with the process, there are many Dutch youth who simply do not have shelter and therefore must solve this otherwise. They will stay at their parents’ house longer than they would have wanted, or stay at friends’ houses or hostels. This can hardly be compared to really poor people because these Dutch youth will never have to sleep on the streets. Still, it is striking that so many (mostly white) middle-class youth cannot find shelter in Amsterdam.

Finally, I wish to highlight that discrimination is a major problem in the student housing process. It strikes me that many Facebook adverts demand that the new roommate is an older or nearly finished student rather than a new student. While these are all students in Amsterdam, and thus part of the same ‘scene’ in a way, there seems to be a conflict within this scene nonetheless. During my research, I got the feeling that older students tend to stereotype younger students as “party animals or trouble makers,” as one of my respondents put it. This conflict within the same scene resembles Barone’s  (2016) description of a conflict between old guard Tunisian metal fans and new or younger Tunisian metal fans. The old guard does not accept the new group, even though the old and the new are part of the same scene (Barone, 2016). This is interesting to me as I used to see discrimination as something that only occurs between different groups, scenes, or classes, and not so much something that also occurs within one and the same category of people – in this case, students in Amsterdam. As I found out, within this category, discrimination in terms of gender, language, personality and appearance is quite prevalent, and it affects the student housing process.

To investigate how students experience these processes in their quest for a room in Amsterdam, I interviewed three Dutch students (two female and one male) and three international students (again, two female and one male), from Belgium, Austria and Germany. All the interviewees are between the age of 21 and 24, and currently have a room in Amsterdam. Besides these six interviewees, I discussed the topic with two other students who were struggling to find a room at the time of my research; I found their experiences to be very similar to those my interviewees went through.

Research findings

“Appearance and personality” was the most common answer my respondents gave to the question ‘what does it take to get chosen as the new tenant of a room?’ I noticed that this question really made them enthusiastic; they sat up, laughed and started a speech on how ‘nice’ or ‘cool’ you need to be to get a room. All of them mentioned to have paid extra attention to their appearance, like clothing, hairdo or makeup, on the night of a viewing. Interviewee 3 told me: “you have to be social and you are probably getting judged on your appearance, so it totally depends on what they like and you have to apply to their taste […] you only have one moment to shine”. This suggests people who are renting out a room are extremely picky in terms of personality and appearance, but who can blame them? They usually have the option of choosing between 250 persons, so how are they supposed to be ‘not picky’?

Being picky about appearance or personality looks a lot like discrimination, but now I’ve done my research I have a hard time really calling it that. In a sense, it is discrimination, because they are literally treating one person differently from another. But there are simply too many students wanting to rent a room, so how is it even possible for the ‘landlords’ to be objective. In terms of personality or behaviour I would like to cite interviewee 4, who made me laugh hard with her answer to the question above:

You need to be nice, actually you need to be so nice that it seems fake to you, but it shouldn’t look fake to them. So, you should pay attention on coming across sincere, although you are secretly exaggerating how nice you are. You cannot be boring either […] What is really important is that you adapt to what they like, but you shouldn’t nod at everything they say either because it is important that you show them that you are independent as well. It really depends on the people and it can be different at every viewing. Some people want a super spontaneous new roommate and others prefer a calm roommate, you never know. Every viewing is a new adventure where you must adapt to the situation and the people.

All the contradictions on how to behave made me think of Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of everyday performance. Goffman states that every individual is an actor, who prepares his role at a backstage (e.g. the bedroom or other private place) and performs it at the front stage (the viewing). He points out that life is all about impressing others (Ritzer, 2011). Amusing situations aside, it also proves the seriousness of the problem of student housing in Amsterdam. It is almost impossible for any individual to meet all the requirements asked for, let alone people who are introvert or shy.

In order to get invited to this kind of test, one should write a fantastic email or Facebook message in response to the advert. Interviewee 6 told me he had spent over two hours putting up a standard message, even though he had to adapt it a little every time he sends it to a new advert:

I wrote a message on how nice, how good of a cook I am and how I love to clean the house […] apart from that you really have to stand out, so for example, you send a picture with the message if you are really good looking, or you make funny jokes in the message.

Besides writing a great message, one should also pay attention to the impression made on one’s Facebook profile. My interviewees were one hundred percent certain that future ‘landlords’ will check out the candidates’ Facebook before inviting them to a viewing. Interviewee 1 mentioned:

Well, my brother for example, he is a really great, spontaneous and good looking boy, but his Facebook profile does not show that at all […] so he probably comes along very boring and I guess people would never invite him to a viewing because of that.

Evidently, then, searching a room through Facebook is not for everybody. Because of this and the effort it takes to get a room, all my interviewees agreed on the fact that it is easiest to get a room in Amsterdam via others. But this is only feasible for students who already have an extensive social network in Amsterdam.

This makes it all the harder for international students. I interviewed three international students and found that the process of renting a room in Amsterdam takes them much longer even than it does for Dutch students. All three international students had to find temporary shelter when their studies started, before finding a proper room. Interviewee 1 stayed at a friends’ house for three weeks before he got a room for himself, interviewee 2 rented two different Airbnb’s for a month before getting a room herself, and interviewee 5 stayed in a hostel for about five weeks. Furthermore, interviewees 1 and 2 experienced discrimination, as they came across many adverts that required them to speak Dutch, and they did not speak Dutch very well at the point of searching a room. Interestingly, interviewee 5, who is from Belgium, experienced discrimination in a different manner. Since she speaks Flemish, which of course Dutch people can understand, she did not have trouble with the language requirement. Rather, she experienced discrimination in the fact that many adverts demand that the candidates have a life of their own in Amsterdam, so that they would not be dependent on the roommates. Since she did not know a single person in Amsterdam just yet, so she knew she would be home a lot of the time, she did not dare to respond to adverts that demanded the ‘life of your own’.

These international students thus experienced a stage of ‘waithood’, having to wait to dive into the process of transition to adulthood (Muldering, 2013). Nothing is more adultlike than to go and live on one’s own, but these students had to wait for that. Contradictory to this, I feel this whole process of renting a room helps them develop in becoming an adult. Renting a room and everything that comes with it is something they never had to worry about before, because shelter is something their parents provided for them. Interviewee 5 had lived on her own before in Belgium, but one of her friends’ parents bought that house for her and three friends. So, finding a room there was not a problem at all. She said:

Renting a room in Amsterdam, and especially having to stay in hostels before that, really made me realise what comes to living on your own […] this was so hard compared to [my experience in] Belgium.


The process of renting a room in Amsterdam can be intense. My research findings further suggest that a form of discrimination does play a role in the process of student housing. By this I mean discrimination on the basis of gender, age, personality, appearance, lifestyle or language. Most of this discrimination occurs at the very beginning of the process, namely through the requirements found in the Facebook adverts. In most cases these adverts ask for girls, who are nearly finished with their study, speak Dutch, and have a ‘life of their own’ in Amsterdam. Personality and appearance are being ‘tested’ by the landlords through the messages to these adverts and the viewings. It is best to act very social and outgoing at viewings. Yet it is extremely difficult for students to stand out like that and get chosen for a room. There are simply too many students searching for a room in Amsterdam, which allows landlords to be picky and discriminating. I interviewed only white middle class students, and thus I am not able to say anything about discrimination on race. Therefore, my recommendation for future researchers would be to do interviews with people from different backgrounds. At this moment students have to come up with alternatives, like staying at hostels, friends’ houses or Airbnb’s. Of course, this is undesirable situation and much too expensive for students, who after all do not have a lot of money.

Concluding, there is indeed discrimination in the process of renting a room and there is not much students can do about it. Throughout this research, I got the strong feeling that all of this would be different if there were more student rooms, because we simply cannot expect landlords to be objective when choosing a new roommate out of 250. I feel like the Amsterdam government could and should try to realize this. After all it is extremely important that every youngster on this planet has shelter and gets the opportunity of developing themselves into an adult. For now, Amsterdam students respond to each and every advert on Facebook, take time in writing a nice message and do everything they can to leave a good impression at viewings. As interviewee 4 put it: Be strong, do not give up and most of all, be ‘so nice that it seems fake to you’!


Allison, A. (2012). Ordinary refugees: Social precarity and soul in 21st century Japan. Anthropological       Quarterly, 85, 345-370.

Arnett, J.J. (2004). A longer road to adulthood. In Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties (pp. 3-26). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barone, S. (2016). Fragile scenes, fractured communities: Tunisian metal and sceneness. Journal of Youth Studies, 19, 20-35.

Muldering, M. Ch. (2013). An uncertain future: Youth frustration and the Arab Spring. Pardee Papers, Boston University Pardee Center for the Study of the Long-Range Future, No. 16.

Ritzer, G. (2011). Sociological theory. New York: McGraw-Hill (pp. 218-219).

Zoekt kamer in Amsterdam community (2016, december 11).

Global Youth Papers

Kirsten Gutter

Few people don’t know that I have been playing water polo since I was 8 years old. In fact, the first thing people often know about me is the fact that I’m a water polo freak. That’s how much water polo means to me. Over the years, it has become such a huge part of my life, that I can state that I have two social lives: college and water polo. When I’m not at university, I’m either with my college friends doing some homework, or with my water polo friends at the swimming pool. When I was younger, people at school often called me crazy, telling me I needed to rest and needed to have a day off. It didn’t make sense to me. After a long day at school, all I wanted to do was just be with my friends at the swimming pool and play water polo! Why couldn’t they understand that?

Now that I’m older, I can understand why they always told me that. They just didn’t know what it means, dedicating such a huge part of your life to doing what you love most. They didn’t know about the other kids in my water polo team who were at the swimming pool every day. It often frustrated me that they just wouldn’t understand me. That’s why I loved being with my water polo friends even more. They knew what it was like, we all understood each other.

My team was great. We were all close friends and liked being together so much that we even saw each other in our spare time. Most of us still play water polo and we often see each other at the swimming pool. Although we are no longer together as a team, we will always have a special connection, remembering the times when we had so much fun. These days, most of us play water polo as a hobby, giving priority to work or school. But two of my former team mates still consider water polo their main priority. They train every day during a regular school week and often even give priority to water polo over school. They are part of the Dutch female water polo team under 19, which won the gold medal in the European Championship under 19 tournament in the summer of 2016.

When I think about what I had to sacrifice when I was younger, I almost can’t imagine what it’s like for these girls, dedicating their whole life to water polo. The people in my class back in the days couldn’t even understand me, let alone that people can understand these girls. Therefore, this research paper is about their (and their team’s) lives as gold medal winners: How does the collective experience of the Dutch female water polo team under 19 of 2016 contribute to their success story and their personal attachments? It focuses on how they’ve experienced being a professional water polo player and what role the team has played in this. Based on these experiences, it tries to understand how they’ve changed individually during this journey, how they stayed motivated to dedicate a huge part of their daily lives to water polo, and which factors contributed to their success.

Two girls were interviewed: Hester and Sarah. To guarantee their privacy, these are not their actual names. Hester, who was 15 years old during this research, has been a member of several Dutch youth water polo teams before she was chosen to be part of this one. She didn’t make the tournament but still has gone through almost the entire process. Sarah, who was 18 years old during this research, has been playing water polo ever since she could swim. In 2015, she was selected for the Dutch Olympic team but the team missed the Olympic Games the following year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I know the girls personally, which made them talk about their experiences relatively easily and made me understand their stories better. Although I have never played water polo professionally, in many ways I could relate to what they were telling me. Therefore, this research is partly based on some of my own thoughts and experiences. Sometimes reference will be made to them, to show where my interpretation might be guided by my own involvement.

I will begin with a detailed description of the team. What does a day in the life of a professional water polo player look like? Next, I will discuss what motivated them to sacrifice so much to be professional water polo players and what role has the team played in this? I will end with how this experience changed them as a person.

One team, one dream

These girls’ individual water polo journeys started years ago. They were part of several Dutch water polo teams before they joined this one. The first time they were chosen to be part of a national team, I was still part of the same team as Sarah (she was thus part of two teams). When I first heard about it, I wasn’t surprised at all. I was happy for her because I knew this was what she had always wanted.

From the very first moment I got to know these girls, I knew they were destined for something bigger. Both girls were so talented and very ambitious. I liked water polo and definitely had to sacrifice a lot of my time, but these girls were different. My teammates and I sometimes had to cancel a training because of school, but these girls were always present. Even then, when we were just kids playing water polo for fun.

At the time, the first step to a professional water polo career was WOCNH (Waterpolo Opleidings Centrum Noord Holland), a training centre for selected girls and boys in several age categories in the province of North Holland. For me, this was the first and only step towards a professional water polo career I took with them. We trained every Sunday for 2 to 3 hours. I loved that I was chosen and that I finally was part of something special in the water polo world, but I hated the training and to sacrifice my relaxed Sunday with my family for it. That’s why I quit early, the thought of being part of a special team wasn’t enough to keep me going. But these girls continued, they made the team and it was the start of their ultimate dream: to join the national female water polo team.

Shortly before this research took place, these girls were part of the Dutch female team under 19 that won the gold medal in the European Championship under 19 tournament in the summer of 2016, which means that they were almost living their dream. They were now dedicating their lives to water polo at a whole other level. The team was together for about one whole year (2016). Some of them have been training together for about six years, but they started training as a team at the beginning of 2016. During that year, Sarah’s weekly schedule consisted almost entirely of water polo. Four days a week she had to get up early to drive to the training centre with some of her teammates who lived nearby. Sometimes one of their mothers drove them, since they didn’t have their driver’s license yet. On Sundays she usually had a day off and the remaining two days were filled with training and matches with her team at her original water polo club. Although she was 18 years old and hadn’t finished high school yet, she fully focused on water polo and stopped going to school for a while.

During the summer of 2016, to prepare for the tournament, their schedules became even more professional. During the school year, not everyone could cancel school for training. So when school was finally over, the team started training five and sometimes six days a week. Hester told me about their daily schedule:

“In the mornings we did weight training for one and a half hour, then we got to rest for about fifteen minutes. Afterwards we got in the water for one and a half hour, then rest again for about two or three hours and then back in the water again for the last two hours. Really all day nothing but training. Only on Wednesdays we had the afternoon off. Oh and on Saturdays and Sundays of course.”

Training five to six hours a day and getting some rest in between shows that their weeks during that summer were filled with training. Some of them even stayed the whole week because they had to travel too far. They lived by the saying almost every water polo player (in the Netherlands) knows: “Water polo [is] a way of life”.

Both girls mentioned how close they were as a team. During the summer, they all got to know each other well and Hester told me that they really became friends. They liked being together so much that some girls spent more time together after a long training day. When I asked why they became good friends, Hester and Sarah both mentioned the goal they all shared. Everyone wanted to win the gold medal at the tournament. Moreover, they all understood each other. Hester told me that she could finally be her true self. At school, as I also experienced, she felt like no one understood her:

“Here, I am a different person than I am at school, because at school I am much more quiet because… At school everyone has different priorities, everyone goes to parties, drinks alcohol and smokes… But I absolutely don’t do that because I’m focused on water polo and at school nobody is. Here [with the team] I can totally be myself and at school I sometimes can’t talk about certain topics [with her friends at school] because I can’t relate to them.”

Hester points out their shared identities by telling that, in comparison with the people at school, the girls in this team can talk about relatable topics with each other. At school, everyone has their own hobbies and their own (conflicting) personalities. But everyone in this team shared the same dreams: to win the gold medal (together) in the short-term, and to become a professional water polo player in the long-term. They all knew what it’s like to sacrifice a huge part of their life to try to fulfill their dreams and that is what made them so close. Thus, the team provided a sense of belonging; they were finally surrounded by the people they have so much in common with.

Perhaps owing to this sense of belonging, they didn’t feel any competition between them, despite the fact that they started with fifteen girls but could only play the tournament with thirteen. While twelve of them knew from the start that they would make the team, three girls had to compete for the remaining position. Hester was one of them, yet she told me that there wasn’t any competition between them, because they cared about each other and knew how much they all wanted this.

The cohesion based on their shared goals and their shared understanding can be seen as a form of mechanical solidarity, a concept by Durkheim, which is solidarity based on similarities between people (Ritzer, 2014). It is this type of solidarity these girls showed. They not only shared the same goal, they also understood each other as a result of going through the same process. Although Durkheim states that in modern society people unify because of differences between them (organic solidarity), this shows that mechanical solidarity still exists nowadays.

Moreover, the team as a basis of a sense of belonging is in line with other studies about sport teams (Chin, 2016; Walseth, 2006; Spaaij, 2015). Sport teams can, for example, create feelings of belonging within minority groups by providing social support, by creating feelings of reciprocity and by creating feelings of identity confirmation (Walseth, 2006). Although the girls in this team aren’t a minority group as they are all white middle-class youth, the reasons for their feelings of belonging are similar. The minority group created a ‘we’ feeling through shared identities based on practicing the same sport (identity confirmation) (Walseth, 2006). This is exactly what Hester described; their shared identities are based on everyone being professional water polo players.

But this is not just a function of a sport team. Other youth groups can, for example by listening to the same music together, also provide a sense of connection (O’Brien, 2013). This shows, once again, that a feeling of belonging is constructed by shared activities. This team thus provided a sense of belonging as a result of spending the majority of their time playing water polo together, which resulted in shared identities.


My greatest motivation back in the days was the team. I loved water polo, but I loved it even more because of the fun we had. We played several Dutch Championships and of course, that was a great motivator. Thinking about being number one in your own country makes you want to train even harder. But I still could not have done it without my team. That was also one of the reasons why I stopped training at the WOCNH, as mentioned previously. I only knew some of these girls and even after a few weeks I still didn’t feel like I was a part of the team since we didn’t get along very well.

My own story shows that one goal is not enough to keep you going. So with this in mind, I asked the girls about their motivation to keep going. Dedicating your whole life to water polo is difficult, especially when you’re young and when you’re at the age of possibilities since many opportunities to change your future remain open (Arnett, 2004). So what makes them want to continue?

In analysing this strong dedication, I use a framework provided by Ryan and Deci (2000). They distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within: an individual wants to do something because it is amusing of satisfying. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from the outside: an individual wants to do something because it is rewarding. While intrinsic motivation is important, it is certainly not the most prominent. In my research I found that both types motivated these girls to achieve their goals and that the distinction is not as clear as it may seem.

As stated earlier, these girls shared two dreams: to win the gold medal and to become a part of the Dutch Olympic team when they are older. Both are extrinsic motivators. Their gold medal is a reward for all their hard work. Hester mentioned: “Precisely because we’ve been training for so long, precisely because we have been working towards our goal, we can keep going. You really work towards the tournament.” And Sarah told me: “That goal is very important. More important than your whole summer”. Besides, while Sarah is already part of the Dutch Olympic team, this team brought Hester (and the other girls) a bit closer to her ultimate dream. It can therefore be seen as a form of extrinsic motivation through identification (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Hester knew she had to go through this to get a chance to fulfill her dream, so she identified with the importance of her behaviour.

Their shared dream was only one of three motivators. The second motivator is important; it’s intrinsic. Hester mentioned that she liked to be around the girls:

H: “Being there for each other, to support each other when things get you down and telling each other that we can do this and that we will go for it together when someone is having a tough time… that’s a thing in team sports. Because if you ice skate for example, and you really don’t feel like going to the training, there’s no one to motivate you. And in a team, you tell each other that you all can do it.”

Me: “Has the team made it [this experience] more enjoyable?”

H: “Yes, without a doubt. I don’t think I could train on my own the whole summer. That’s just it…. I can do this, because I like it so much. I like it with these girls. That’s it especially, I just…. I often don’t feel like going to the training again. But as soon as I’m there, as soon as I’m with the girls I think, yes! This is fun!”.

Hester explains how important the team was to keep them going. She could not have trained on her own the whole summer; she needed the team to accomplish this. She further states that they supported each other by expressing their faith in each other and by emphasizing that they would accomplish their goals together. Moreover, the girls became close friends and just enjoyed being together. The training was not just about training, but about hanging out with each other. Sarah also mentioned that during the summer, they sometimes felt like everyone in the country was enjoying the hot summer days on the beach, while they were inside all day. But to her it was fine because she was with the girls; the fact that they were in this together made them forget about the downsides of sacrificing a summer. For Hester, who didn’t make the team in the end, it was the reason that she would do this all over again:

Me: “Would you do this all over again?”

H: “Yes, without a doubt [She smiles]! I think it’s nice to see that a group of girls all have the same goal, that they want to achieve that together and now…. in the end they win the gold medal. That’s of course the greatest thing ever. And if you win that… then… yeah they just did it you know. You really have that feeling like… I can’t really describe it. It’s just really beautiful.

Me: “Proud?”

H: “Yes! Very, very proud.”

The fact that Hester would sacrifice so much again, even if she knew she wasn’t going to make the team, shows how close these girls were. She’s proud to have been a part of this team. Thus, the second motivator was the team itself and this is an intrinsic motivator, since it’s not about any reward. It’s about being together and enjoying the solidarity and sense of belonging.

The third motivator was again an external one: these girls established a strong reciprocal relationship. They knew that they could only get through this together. Water polo is a team sport; you can’t win a gold medal on your own. Everyone in a team is important since everyone has her own tasks during a match. Winning a game is not a result of a talented individual player, but of the whole team working together. This is something the girls began to realise by training together for a long time, discovering everyone’s individual talents and by having faith in each other. This realisation entailed an introjected regulation, a form of extrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). There was a certain amount of pressure to behave as desired to avoid feelings of guilt. By not showing up on a training or by breaking the rules these girls not only let themselves down, but also their teammates. Everyone had to develop their own talents in order to make the team as a whole preform at its best. So they knew that they all, individually, had a major influence on the fulfillment of their collective dreams, realising that each team member can make a difference.

Thus, because of the cohesion, these girls developed a reciprocal relationship, which increased their cohesion. This didn’t happen overnight; Hester mentioned that there used to be some problems before they could work in unison. Some girls liked to party on the weekends, which was strongly frowned upon. The team talked to them and they slowly came to the realisation that their behaviour influenced the whole team, which made them stop the undesired behaviour.

These reciprocal relationships were a very important aspect of this particular team, because Hester and Sarah both mentioned that such relationships barely existed in their club teams. Both girls didn’t share their dreams with their teammates from the club. They played water polo for fun and didn’t sacrifice as much. Cancelling a training was allowed and happened rather often. Thus, in the club team, there was less cohesion, which meant that there was less reciprocity, which lessened the cohesion.

The extrinsic and intrinsic motivators overlap. First of all, the intrinsic motivator was an important one. Hester showed that it was a motivator in itself, but it also strengthened the second extrinsic motivator: the reciprocal relationship. It they weren’t such great friends the feelings of guilt wouldn’t have been as strong. Moreover, their shared goal (the first extrinsic motivator) was one of the initial reasons for becoming so close. But it was impossible to fulfill this dream without everybody working hard for it, so the reciprocal relationship was needed to keep them motivated. Moreover, this relationship increased their cohesion even more. Thus, because these motivators were mutually reinforcing, it can be stated that all motivators were needed to keep these girls going. These motivators contributed to the cohesion and thereby to the sense of belonging. One motivator was the cohesion itself, but the other two, the reciprocal relationships and their shared goals, contributed to the cohesion in the way that they created commonalities between the girls and that they supported cooperation.

Individual learning process

Before I started this research, I thought a lot about who I was. While writing this, I still don’t know who I truly am, but I do know that water polo has mostly made me the person I am today. The people, the disappointments, the victories, the hard times; I learned a lot from it. I learned that not everything will always go as planned and that sometimes things go wrong, but that this doesn’t mean that you have failed. Especially these harder times taught me how to handle disappointments and how to respect other’s individual way of handling these things. It can be stated that water polo has become a huge part of my identity, even though I just played it for fun. That’s one of the reasons why I asked the girls about how this experience changed them.

The other reason is that during their journey, all girls were between 15 and 19 years old, which means that they were at the age of identity formation (Gray, 2014; Arnett, 2004). According to Erikson, adolescence is the period when adolescents give up their childhood identity and form a new identity, which may cause an identity crisis (Erikson, [1968]; discussed in Gray, 2014, pp. 483). Arnett (2004), on the other hand, states that identity formation takes place during emerging adulthood, the period between adolescence and adulthood. This particular period is one of trying out various possibilities, which influences the emerging adult’s identity. Moreover, forming an identity is mostly a social process (Best, 2011). Goffman (as discussed in Best, 2011) states that one’s personal identity is formed by one’s social identity.

Another relevant theory for this section is Goffman’s frontstage and backstage theory (Goffman, 1956/2012; Ritzer, 2014). He states that people want to present themselves in a certain way (a presentation that will be accepted in the particular situation) by suppressing certain facts that don’t fit the situation (Ritzer, 2014). This is part of what he calls the front: “that part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” (Goffman, 1956/2012, pp. 49). In contrast to the frontstage, there is the backstage (Ritzer, 2014). The suppressed facts may show up here, because there is no need to perform at the backstage. Goffman further states that this performance influences the self: “In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality. We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons (Goffman, 1956/2012, pp.48).

The distinction between the frontstage and backstage, as well as the social aspect of identity formation, are closely related to the girls’ experiences. Because of the high team cohesion, this team was a backstage and frontstage at the same time. As stated earlier, Hester could finally be herself around the girls. She further explained:

I feel like I’m really a part of this team, that I can do something, that I’m good at something. Therefore, I am more confident here than at school, here everyone respects each other because everyone’s good at this”.

Thus, Hester felt respected here. She felt confident around these girls and therefore felt like she could be her true self. She didn’t have to hide her feelings, because the team understood her, unlike her friends at school. In Goffman’s terms, she didn’t have to suppress certain facts about herself here, which made the team function as a backstage.

But the team also operated as a frontstage. Sarah had to play the role of a leader. She was among the oldest and most experienced players, so she had to lead the younger and less experienced players. Sarah named it a role herself because she had to, it was a task assigned to her. And to fulfil a task properly, it is sometimes needed to hide feelings or personality traits (Ritzer, 2014), which makes this a performance (and thus a frontstage). But not only Sarah played a role. These girls had to be professional. They had to follow the rules, and sometimes had to set aside their emotions in order to keep functioning as a cohesive team. When things went wrong during matches for example, they couldn’t just give in to their emotions (like anger towards themselves or another player for making a mistake), but had to stay focused in order to perform at their best.

Both Hester and Sarah considered this positive: both learned from what happened at the frontstage. The age gap between the oldest and the youngest girls was relatively big: Hester and Sarah were respectively 15 and 18 years old. Hester considered this difficult at first: “I got pushed to talk to these older girls when I didn’t really know them”. But as soon as she got to know them, she learned from it; she now easily talks to people who are older than she is, especially in her team at her club. The age gap there is even bigger; some girls are above the age of 25, but Hester now talks to them more easily than she did before. Sarah experienced it in a similar way: because of her leading role, she felt like she became more extrovert. Thus, Sarah’s role became part of her personality.

This experience made Hester and Sarah stronger. They stated that they now have more perseverance, because they’ve experienced that they can push themselves to their limits. I already knew that they had much more perseverance than me, which was the reason I quit while they continued, but apparently the experience heightened their perseverance even more. Hester stated that this was also needed to make the team; giving up is never an option when you want to fulfill your dream. This led Hester to mention another crucial point: their similar personalities. They shared not only a goal, but also some personality traits. Not only perseverance was needed, but extroversion and ambition were crucial too. Without an ambitious personality, the girls would have never made the team as their goals could not be fulfilled within a short period of time.

Hester’s statement about her increased perseverance shows that existing personality traits were strengthened during their journey. Both Hester and Sarah also admitted that they already were extrovert. They didn’t consider themselves shy when they started this journey, but, as mentioned, did feel that they became more extrovert. So perseverance and extroversion were not only needed to make the team, but these shared personality traits were also strengthened during this experience as a result of it being the desired behaviour. Nevertheless, Sarah also stated that it’s very important to have different personalities in a team:

“You need opposites in a team. (…) There are negative and positive people, and if you look at everything positively, you won’t improve yourself. And if you look at everything negatively, you won’t improve yourself either. But if you sometimes look at things negatively and sometimes positively, you can improve yourself. You really learn from that. I experienced that myself. (…) I have experienced this personally, in my daily life. I look at things differently when I’ve been with the team. Because I notice that whenever I’ve been with Jong Oranje [Dutch Youth team] I look at things differently than when I’ve been with my team at the water polo club. These are very little differences, but I do change. (…) I have an example: because of the team [the Olympic team] missing the Olympic games, I became negative, I got into a downward spiral. I became very negative, a little too negative. And when I got back with the girls, I became a lot more positive because they told me to stop.”

Sarah tried to learn from the opposite personalities in her team by finding a way between positivity and negativity in order to improve herself. Sarah acknowledged that they all needed perseverance and ambition to keep going, but still stressed the importance of having opposites in one team to learn from. She continued:

“I now know what my weaknesses and strengths are, for water polo but also in my daily life. I can be quite hard on myself and on others, and my friend confronted me with that this summer. I sometimes… I expect a lot from myself and sometimes I can, unconsciously, expect the same from others. But if they are having a hard time, they can’t meet these expectations. They might feel like they have let me down then, when the opposite is true. (…) I now have a better understanding of who I am.”

This reveals a lot. First of all, note how she calls her teammate a friend. Second, the fact that her friend confronted her with her behaviour shows that they were utterly honest with each other, which allowed them to learn from their behaviour and gain a better understanding of themselves. This shows once again how close these girls were and how this played a huge role, also in their learning process.


The Dutch female water polo team under 19 of 2016 showed great team cohesion as a result of the sense of belonging, which kept them motivated and played an important role in their individual learning processes. Their shared goal to become a professional water polo player and to win the gold medal during the tournament was a huge motivator, which further strengthened the team cohesion. They realised they could only accomplish this together. This laid the foundation for the two other, closely linked, motivators: the team itself and their reciprocal relationships. The team turned out to be a central intrinsic motivator; these girls simply liked to be together and became close friends. This friendship established a strong reciprocal relationship, which was the second external motivator. To not devote all they had to their goal resulted in guilty feelings towards each other. This shows that extrinsic and intrinsic motivators overlap and influence one another.

Moreover, the girls’ shared feelings and experiences and their mutual respect made the team a place where they could be their true self, which made the team function as a backstage. They finally were surrounded by people that share the same feelings about water polo, the team provided a sense of belonging. But at the same time the team functioned as a frontstage, as they all had to play certain roles to make the team function like a real, professional team that could win the gold medal.

To make the team, they had to possess certain personality traits: perseverance, ambition and extroversion. It can be stated that these traits were strengthened during the experience, because of the desired behaviour. They are now more extrovert, as they felt they had no other option, they needed to be honest and tell each other everything in order to become and stay close. Moreover, they gained more perseverance as this experience pushed them to their limits. But the individual characters in this team also differed. This has proven to be desired, since this allowed them to learn from each other and about themselves.

The mechanical solidarity which these girls attest to is of particular importance in a broader context. This research illustrates one way in which youth seek togetherness in contemporary neoliberal and individualistic society (Ritzer, 2014). The team as an intrinsic motivator for providing a sense of belonging demonstrates how important it is for these young people to experience togetherness. Their experiences show that finding similarities between people can be an effective way of creating a strong sense of solidarity, even in this individualistic society.

Thus, in all aspects of this research, the team cohesion proved to be a key factor. It contributed to a safe environment where these girls could be themselves, which allowed them to improve themselves and made them more aware of themselves. It also made this experience a very positive one by keeping the girls motivated, which contributed to their successful story of winning the gold medal. It can be stated that this was a life-changing experience, since they fulfilled their shared dream, got a little closer to their other, more individual dream of being a part of the Dutch Olympic Team and since it was an individual learning process.

In the introduction I stated that water polo is a huge part of my life and that I am happy to share this with others. This feeling became even stronger during this research. Although I’m not a professional and probably won’t ever be (as I also came to realise during this research), I am proud to be a part of this community and share the love for this sport with these girls. Therefore, the sense of belonging is something not only these girls share, but I share with them too. Events like this, when people you know achieve something that’s not only important to them, but also to you (in a way that you are a part of the community) makes you realise how beautiful it is to be a part of a community like this. This research made me realise that I should never give up on something that has been a such a huge part of my life and I want to thank these girls for that.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


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Global Youth Papers

Sanne Kroon

Social media: many teenagers grew up with it. Facebook, SnapChat and Instagram slowly became an important part of their daily lives. As an 18-year-old respondent mentioned during our interview: “Though it might sound sad, I think it’s true; I’m pretty sure we can’t live without it anymore.”

It is fascinating that many people are willing to share their lives on social media; sometimes even strangers are allowed to see what users are doing at a particular moment. I saw many of my friends (mostly girls) being constantly active on popular sites like Facebook or Instagram. This made me wonder about the influence of social media on their lives. If it plays such a big role in their everyday lives, then what is its impact on, for example, their self-esteem? Perhaps they experience insecurities when they don’t get rewarding feedback from peers when posting something on their profile, or they feel the need to change their behaviour and appearances when seeing beautiful pictures from other girls. How important is it for teenage girls to represent themselves well to others? Are others’ opinions important for them?

Social media such as Facebook are often perceived as an environment that provides social support and positive reinforcement (PsychCentral, 2016). But what are the downsides to these platforms? What happens when people do have bad experiences with it, such as negative interactions? What are the risks of using it? In this paper, I am specifically interested in young teenage girls in the age category of 16-19 years. To what extent do they feel pressure due to social media? And are the younger girls more likely to struggle with insecurities, or conversely, are the older girls more sensitive to that?

My first reason for focusing on this particular group, is that teenage girls can be seen as a vulnerable group. The teenage years are crucial for girls in developing an identity of their own. This process of forming an identity can be a difficult one. As Ollech and McCarthy (1997) point out, girls experience a greater increase in anxiety, conflict, shame and self-doubt when faced with choice, in comparison with boys. Besides, we often hear stories that the internet can be a dangerous place for these girls. Not only because they can get in touch with people they don’t even know, but also because of the fact that that they might experience bullying, misunderstandings and meanness. But is this even true, according to these girls? Maybe they don’t see any dangers at all.

Secondly, this group is most active on various forms of social media. According to CBS, the Dutch Bureau of Statistics, girls spend much more time on social media than boys. So, for many young girls, social media play an important role in their lives. Another important conclusion was that most girls are very sensitive to rewarding feedback from peers; much more sensitive than boys (CBS, 2015). In my research I examined whether it is really true that their self-esteem gets a little boost when they receive many comments or likes on a picture or video posted on their profile. And whether it makes them feel insecure when they get negative comments, or whether this doesn’t bother them at all. Another question I wished to examine is how they respond to perfect pictures of good-looking models, so-called ‘fitgirls’ and celebrities. There might be a potential influence of social media on girls’ body dissatisfaction, because of the fact that they compare themselves to these models and celebrities.

Finally, I am part of this specific group myself. So I think it would be interesting to find out what girls who are (more or less) of the same age think and feel about the power of social media. In this paper I will describe teenage girls’ experiences and perceptions of social media. How do they act and feel, when they are (not) happy with the amount of attention they received on a particular post? How do they respond to positive and/or negative comments?  I will also describe how they respond to the constant exposure to beautiful pictures of others.

The research

To collect my data, I interviewed five teenage girls. I wanted to get in touch with girls of different ages, to see if there are differences between them, so eventually I interviewed 16-year-old Emily (I use pseudonyms to guarantee their anonymity), 17-year-old Monique, 18-year-old Nina, 19-year old Hanah and 19-year-old Sophie. Emily and Nina live in a city; the other respondents live in a close-knit village. All the interviews took about 30 to 40 minutes. I wanted the interviews to take place in a private setting, so I invited my respondents to my place or I went to theirs, if they asked me to. I was able to do so, because I selected respondents whom I already knew. As this can be considered a sensitive topic, I made sure no other people were in the same room during the interview, in order to create a setting in which they felt comfortable to talk freely. I tried to let them tell me a story about their experiences, and not to interrupt. While I had prepared some questions beforehand, I chose not to work through these questions, but tried to have a natural conversation with my respondents. I think that it was to the benefit of my research that I already knew my respondents, because sometimes it is more difficult to talk to a stranger about personal insecurities or feelings, than to talk about this to someone they already know.

I noticed that most of the girls found it an interesting topic to talk about, because social media is indeed an important part of their daily lives. Every day, they spend much time checking their Timeline. I was slightly shocked by what my 17-year-old respondent said. She admitted, while giggling, that social media is a very important part of her daily life: she spends four hours a day on social media. Her giggling made me think she was a little ashamed to admit that. Surprisingly, as it seems contradictory, this was also the girl who felt that social media has no influence whatsoever on her actions, thoughts and feelings. During the interviews I further noticed that, after the introduction and some easy and common questions, once I started to ask sensitive questions (for example about their insecurities and their self-esteem) some of my respondents, especially those I didn’t know very well, at first started to act a little detached. Some of them tried, for example, to avoid those questions. This reaction is of course understandable, and I had expected it beforehand. Therefore, I prepared vignette questions, in order to circumvent possible unease about sensitive issues. I told them to imagine a certain situation, and asked what they would do, or how they would feel if something like that happened to them. I noticed that it was easier for my respondents to answer these kinds of questions honestly, than answering questions which were about events that happened to them in ‘real life’.  This method certainly helped to obtain information about situations which were considered awkward and painful.

‘How do you represent yourself?”

The first question I asked all my respondents, was what kind of platforms of social media they currently use. It turned out that all of them used Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat. Second, I asked them how much time they spend on social media per day. How active are they exactly? What stood out to me, was the fact that social media play a bigger role in the lives of the younger girls; they spend much more time checking their timeline than the older girls I interviewed. For example, while 17-year-old Monique admitted that she’s active on social media about four hours a day, 16-year-old Emily said she checks her timeline about 3 hours a day. I see a significant difference when I compare this to the social media use of 18-year-old Nina, 19-year-old Sophie and 19-year-old Hanah; they all told me that they are active on social media for about 1,5 hours a day.

I was also curious what my respondents exactly post on social media. So I asked them if they only post pictures and video’s, or whether they also ‘inform’ their friends and followers what keeps them busy, and how they live their lives. In other words: in what way do they represent themselves to others? Most respondents answered that they only post pictures or videos.  I also asked them what kind of pictures and videos they post on their profile. How do they want others to see them? Do they, for example, only upload pictures, videos or posts of nice and pleasant events in their lives?  By ‘nice and pleasent events’ I mean, for example, pictures of themselves when having fun at a party, or enjoying a vacation. It is also possible that they do not only post pictures of nice events, but also show others their activities on a regular day. The former seemed the case with most of my respondents. As 19-year-old Sophie said:

I only post pictures of special occasions and nice events. When I’m going out with my friends for example. You want others to think you’re living a nice life. Or at least, I do.”

This idea of ‘showing others you’re living a nice life’, can be linked to Erving Goffman’s theory about the Presentation of the Self (Ritzer, 2014). People try to influence (and even manipulate) other people’s opinions about them. They want to impress others and in order to do so, they try to present themselves in a good way. They are performing, and therefore constantly play roles, sometimes even try to show characteristics which they don’t even have. This is called ‘impression management’: they want others to like them, and so they modify (consciously and unconsciously) their behaviour according to the real or imagined audience (Ritzer, 2014). This can also explain why many girls edit their photo by, for instance, applying an effect to it, or using a filter; to make it look more beautiful than it really is, in order to make a good impression on other people. This brings me to my next concept.

‘What do you think of my picture?’

Although not all girls mentioned it explicitly, I noticed that most of them found other people’s opinions very important. Some of them explained that they sometimes ask their friends’ opinions before posting a picture or video on social media. They said they think very well before posting a picture or video, because they have to be completely sure about it. They don’t want others to talk about them behind their backs. They want social approval.  As 19-year old Hanah said during our interview:

“I don’t want to be the talk of the town. That’s why I never post ‘risky’ pictures, like selfies, or other photos of myself. I don’t want others to think I’m full of myself or something. Typically, I only post pictures with my friends, and I only post it when I’m completely sure I look nice on it. I try to avoid gossip and negative stereotypes.”

These concerns can be linked to the problem of social pressure. In order to be accepted, and to be part of a group, individuals have to live up to certain expectations and judgements. If they fail to do so, there is a chance that they will be rejected by other members of the group. They can be excluded, and therefore no longer be part of the group; they become outsiders (Gray & Bjorklund, 2014). This also relates to larger debates in youth cultures studies on the relevance of ‘sense of belonging’; whether people see themselves as part of a group, scene, community or subculture, to be part of a certain group entails living up to certain expectations. People want to form an identity of their own, and be able to distinguish themselves from people from other (sub)groups. They want to show who they are and what is valuable to them.

One interesting finding of my research is that there seemed to be much more anxiety for exclusion and gossip with the respondents who live in a close-knit community. I saw clear differences among the respondents who live in a village, where everybody knows one another, compared with the respondents who live in a city. This anxiety for exclusion and gossip resulted from the strong social cohesion and social control in these communities. During the interviews, the respondents who live in a close-knit village talked more about gossip and stereotypes than Nina and Emily, who live in a city. Hanah, and the other respondents who live in a village, told me that they don’t want others to talk about them. This, for them, is a strong reason to be careful about their social media performance. They only post a picture when they are completely sure about it. The two respondents who live in a city did not even bring up this topic. Thus, feelings of anxiety differ among my respondents, depending on the community they live in.

This made me realize even more that the expectations of people close to a person determine (in a certain way) how one behaves – whether in real life or on social media – and what kind of behaviour is or is not considered permissible in a specific context. The difference I noticed corresponds to Elias and Scotson’s argument in The Established and the Outsiders, in which they analyse the differences between two communities. The one is a close-knit community, in which everyone knows each other (comparable to the village); the other community, or ‘zone’ as they describe it, is completely different, as people with many different ‘roots’ live here. There is no such thing as social cohesion in the latter type of community (comparable to a big city); many people don’t even know each other, and they all have different values. According to Elias and Scotson (1994), this accounts for the difference in the amount of gossip in these two zones, and also what social control can accomplish.

‘Can you like my picture, please?’

What I also tried to find out, is how the girls respond to the number of likes and comments they get. Is it really important to them, to have many likes on a post? And do they delete their post when this is not the case? 19-year-old Sophie came with an interesting answer to this question:

I don’t think it is very important that you get as many likes as possible on a picture you post on Social Media. Like what is the difference when you have 60 or 70 likes? Nothing. But when I get less than 10 likes, I’m asking my friends if they want to like my picture. Like, otherwise it’s kind of shameful. But I would never delete it, once I have posted it. Then everybody has seen it already. That’s even more embarrassing.”

Most of my respondents, irrespective of their age, had more or less the same opinion about this; getting many likes is nice, but it is not their main goal. It is not an obsession for them to get as many likes as possible. But, like Sophie also mentioned, getting almost no likes at all on a post is kind of embarrassing. Sophie told me that she has a way to fix this problem. She sometimes asks her friends for ‘help’. She does this, to avoid ‘these awkward and embarrassing situations’. So she asks her friends to help her (by liking her picture) in order to not make her look like someone ‘who doesn’t have an interesting life’, as she puts it. This made clear to me that Facebook is not just about individual self-presentation. Actually, real-life friends can help with one’s self-presentation. So what I found is that in order to impress others, some girls ask their friends to ‘help’ them. In this way, these friends enable them to present themselves in a ‘better’ way.

Getting few likes or comments can also be a learning process. They wouldn’t post a similar picture in the future, because then it is clear to them that others don’t pay much attention to these kind of posts. As 17-year-old Monique explained to me:

I’m definitely sure that I wouldn’t take the risk again, if such a situation [getting few likes] occurs. I just wouldn’t post such a picture again.’

The same applies to the number of followers on Instagram, or friends on Facebook; it is not that they very badly want to reach thousands  of people; they just want to keep in touch with people they know.  However, they think it is nice and interesting to have many followers, and a bit painful (and embarrassing) to have only a few followers. This is just ‘not done’, as 17-year-old Monique claimed. In other words: having many friends, followers or likes is not considered necessary, but still it is important to them, because having few is perceived as  embarrassing.

Apparently, young people don’t want to feel ashamed. Shame is considered an ugly, negative and painful emotion; an emotion that we often try to avoid (Kristjánsson,2014). When I asked my respondents indirectly (by using a vignette question) if their ego, or self-esteem gets a little boost when they receive many likes or comments, all of them said yes. Sophie mentioned during our conversation: “You get an idea of how other people look at you at that particular moment”. Self-esteem, as Gray and Bjorklund (2014) explain, is one’s feeling of approval, acceptance and liking oneself. They illustrate that we experience self-esteem as deriving from our own judgements about ourselves, but these judgements actually derive primarily from our perceptions of others’ attitudes toward us (Gray & Bjorklund, 2014). This could explain why getting many likes, or positive comments, could be valuable for these young girls. They develop certain perceptions and images of others’ attitudes towards them. And when they get many likes and positive comments on a post, they get the idea that others like them, or find them interesting. This could give their self-esteem a boost, and could help them with developing a confident attitude (Gray & Bjorklund, 2014). But what happens when they get negative comments? How do they feel about that? How do they fix those situations?

I asked the girls to imagine a situation in which they received a negative comment from a friend on a picture. I asked them a vignette question: what would they do? And how would they feel? Most of them answered that they wouldn’t delete it, except when it’s too embarrassing, and don’t want others to see it. Almost all of my respondents answered that they would feel a little uncomfortable, and some of them answered that they even would feel a little insecure. 16-year-old Emily describes:

“I wouldn’t delete it, but I think, depending of course on how ‘bad’ this reaction is, that it can make me feel a little insecure, especially when I wasn’t really sure about that picture or video in the first place. And besides, I really think it depends on who posted that comment. When it is, for instance, not a friend but someone else I don’t know very well; that would make it even more awkward.”

What I also found interesting (and didn’t know before I started this research) is that some of my respondents think carefully about whose picture on Social Media they like and whose not; they have a so called ‘like-strategy’ (an exception of this is 16-year-old Emily, she told me she likes everything she sees). So it is not the case that they only like pictures they actually enjoy. Like Monique explained to me:

“I only like posts of people I know personally, sometimes even without really enjoying it. I just think they deserve those likes. And maybe they will like your picture ‘back’ in the future, as some kind of return. I never like posts of famous people. Like, I think that feels useless; they already have so many likes. You don’t make a difference or something.”

This made me aware of the fact that girls do want to achieve something with their ‘like-strategy’; they use it as some sort of ‘agency’. Like Monique mentioned, she wants to make a difference, so she only likes posts of people she knows personally, who actually ‘need’ it. 18-year-old Nina also told me about this:

“I never like, or post a comment on a picture of someone I don’t like. Those people just don’t deserve it, even if their picture is very beautiful. But when I see a post of one of my friends, I almost immediately like it; that is just what friends do, you know. Besides, I know that they also like my picture most of the time, so I just feel like I have to do that.”

This ‘like-strategy’ reminded me of a psychological phenomenon; the reciprocity norm. As Gray and Bjorklund (2014) explain: “people everywhere feel obliged to return favors. This norm is so ingrained that people may even feel driven to reciprocate favors that they didn’t want in the first place” (p. 555-556).  As someone likes these girls’ pictures, they feel kind of obliged to like their picture ‘back’, as some kind of favor.

Models and celebrities

I also wanted to find out what happens when girls are constantly exposed to  pictures of good-looking girls. This could be models, but also celebrities, or ‘fitgirls’. Maybe their style inspires them. What is the influence of those pictures on their behaviour and their body satisfaction? Do they try to copy them in a certain way? And what happens when these girls compare themselves to others who live a ‘better’ life? Perhaps this comparison could lead to changing their actions. Or do they become, at a certain point, painfully aware of their own situation?

I realized that many girls mentioned that those pictures of videos of fitgirls give them motivation. What stood out to me, was the fact that older respondents (18 en 19 years old) admitted that they do feel the influence of these pictures and videos. This was different with my 16-year-old and my 17-year-old respondents. 16-year-old Emily even told me that she doesn’t even ‘follow’ all those models en celebrities, and 17-year-old Monique told me that those images don’t bother her at all.

Some of my older respondents catch themselves, sometimes unconsciously, comparing themselves to famous girls like Kylie Jenner or Gigi Hadid, and sometimes even (although they realize it is impossible) try to copy them. 19-year-old Hanah said:

“Of course I know that I can’t afford their way of life, but I do think it is nice to see how they live their lives. Sometimes their style inspires me. Then I think: wow, I want that too.”

She is realistic, and immediately says that she is aware of the fact that she won’t be able to copy them; she can’t afford to do so. She is well aware of her situation. But, as she added, that doesn’t mean that she also wouldn’t copy them if she did have the resources; then she probably would act the same as them. 18-year-old Nina admitted that those girls inspire her:

I do think I see those famous girls as some kind of role model, because I definitely feel some influence. They give me new ideas, about clothing, or make-up for example. But also those fitgirls; I want to look the same as them, so sometimes I watch the videos they post on their profile, and then I try to copy their sport exercises.”  

Nina admits that those pictures and videos of good-looking girls do have an influence on her body (dis)satisfaction; she isn’t completely satisfied with her own body, because her goal is to look as good as them. Thus, late teenagers are still very sensitive to those images on social media. Beforehand, I would expect it to be the other way round; it seemed more likely to me that the younger girls were more sensitive for these images on social media. I had this idea because these young girls still have to form an identity of their own. Besides, I thought that they would be less realistic and more sensitive to this kind of images. One reason for this  surprising outcome could be, that the older respondents are more likely to compare themselves to famous girls like Kylie Jenner or Gigi Hadid because these models are more or less the same age as them. They see that other girls their age live their lives completely different (with much more glamour).  This does impress them; some of them even want to copy those models. This in contrast to the younger girls, who told me that those images don’t bother them at all. Maybe the younger girls are more focused on themselves and their own life stage right now. Perhaps they will also experience these feelings of pressure when they get a little older.


All the girls I interviewed during my research told me that it makes them feel good when they receive many comments on a post on social media. They do appreciate it when people make an effort to post a positive comment on their post. They explained to me that their self-esteem does get a little boost, because they think it is important that others like them. Some of them even found it important that others think they’re living a nice life.  The same applies for the number of likes they get; it is nice to have many likes on a post, and a little awkward to have almost no likes at all. Sometimes, in order to avoid those awkward situations, they even ask their friends to like their picture. This feeling of awkwardness, which most of my respondents get when they receive only a few likes on a post, would prevent them from posting a similar post in the future. This made me aware of the fact that many young teenage girls find others’ opinions about them very important. They want to be socially approved. As a result, some girls think carefully before they post a picture on their profile. They have to be completely sure that they look nice on it.

Furthermore, most girls think it is kind of painful when they receive negative comments from peers. It is even more embarrassing when these comments come from people they do not know very well. So in this sense, they sometimes do experience insecurities due to social media. Still, most of them wouldn’t delete these comments, except when it is too embarrassing, and they don’t want others to see it. Many girls also talked about a ‘like-strategy’. It turned out that they think carefully whose picture they like, and whose not. Most of the time they only like pictures of people who, according to them, ‘deserve’ their like. And of course they hope that these people will like their picture ‘back’ in the future, as some kind of return. It was also interesting to find a difference between respondents who live in a close-knit village, and respondents who live in a city. Those who live in a village talked more about the risk of gossip and exclusion, than those who live in a city.

I do think, when hearing the stories of these teenage girls (and observing their attitudes and facial expressions while talking) that social media, sometimes without them realizing it, does have an impact on their self-esteem, and their need for approval by others. However, the extent of this social media influence differs among my respondents. And interestingly, an unexpected finding was that the older girls I spoke with told me that they sometimes do feel pressure, or experience insecurities because of the fact that they’re constantly exposed to all those beautiful pictures. Some of them explained that those images of fitgirls give them motivation to work out hard; they want to look the same as them. In this sense, social media does have an influence on their body (dis)satisfaction. Some of them also mentioned that pictures of models and celebrities inspire them. They try for instance to copy their clothing or hair style. However, they were aware of the fact that they couldn’t live their lives in the same way as those girls, whom they sometimes even see as their ‘role model’. This stands in striking contrast with the answers of the younger respondents, who told me that they hardly feel the need to change their behaviour due to social media exposure, while they spend much more time on social media than the older girls. However, they did admit that they sometimes experience insecurities due to social media.

In conclusion, I think we should all be aware of the potential impact of social media. This research made me aware of the fact that girls, who are more or less the same age as me, can experience a huge amount of pressure, sometimes without even realizing it. Because they have access to many different websites, they are constantly exposed to all those pictures. And what happens when they become very insecure, because of the negative feedback they receive from their peers?  We should not underestimate the influence of this phenomenon, not only the lives of young teenage girls, but on many other people as well.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


Elias, N. & Scotson, J. (1994). The Established and the Outsiders. Sage Publications.

Gray, P. & Bjorklund, D.F. (2014). Psychology. Seventh edition. New York: Worth Publishers.

Kloosterman, R. & van Beuningen, J. (2015). Jongeren over sociale media. Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek.

Kristjánsson, K. (2014). Is Shame an Ugly Emotion? Four Discourses – Two contrasting Interpretations for Moral Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 33, 495-511.

Nauert, R. (2016). Bad Experiences on Social Media Ups Risk of Depression in Young Adults. Retrieved from

Ritzer, G. & Stepnisky, J. (2014). Sociological Theory. Ninth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill International Edition.

Global Youth Papers

chevy-thumbnailChevy van Dorresteijn


A few times per week I go to the local gym to work out. On the mirror, right above the dumbbells, there is a sign that reads: If you are too weak to return your weights, please contact the fitness staff and the girls will be happy to assist you. Even though it is meant as a humoristic way of saying that people should put their training equipment back, it is but one of many examples of how modern-day society still thinks and behaves according to archetypical gender norms. One just has to look around and it is visible almost everywhere. For example, media coverage often focuses on male athletes. When at last attention is paid to female athletes, it is mainly at sports that have a more gender-neutral connotation, such as (field) hockey and tennis. Therefore, attention in these sports is more equally divided between males and females. There is hardly any sports where females receive substantially more coverage than their male counterparts. Read the rest of this entry »

Global Youth Papers

Alexandra van Veen


The ideal of a romantic relationship has been the subject of ideological change over time. Only 50 years ago, the average age for getting married was around the age of 20 (Arnett, 2004). Since then, this average age has steadily increased. Since romantic relationships have always played an important role in human life, many scholars have written about this theme. As can be derived from the existing literature about modern love, the general conclusion concerns a delay in getting into a serious romantic commitment. The aim of this paper is to find out why young people nowadays seem to be more cautious about getting into a romantic relationship. Collins (2003) gives the following definition of a romantic relationship: ‘Romantic relationships, like friendships, are on-going voluntary interactions that are mutually acknowledged, rather than identified by only one member of a pair. Romantic relationships, however, also have a peculiar intensity and the intensity can be marked by expressions of affection—including physical ones and, perhaps, the expectation of sexual relations, eventually if not now’ (Collins, 2003, p. 2).

According to psychologist Arnett (2004), the delay in getting into a romantic relationship has partly to do with prolonged education, birth control and the rise of women’s emancipation. But long before these developments, Marx and Engels already predicted a society where human values, including love, are exchanged for material values, like money (Marx & Engels, in Calhoun, 1996). This corrupts the authentic nature of human relationships that are naturally based on love and commitment.

But, the exchange of human for material values that Marx and Engels predicted is not exclusively characteristic for the last decades (Marx & Engels, in Calhoun, 1996). The discussion about the changing meaning of interpersonal relationships is an ongoing debate. From a sociological perspective, three main approaches can be distinguished that focus on changing interpersonal relationships (Bulcroft, Bulcroft, Bradley, & Simpson, 2000). Firstly, Weber (1925) argues that a characteristic of modernity and capitalist society is rationality. This rationality means that the focus in society is no longer on emotional aspects. According to Weber, this is not only the case in the formal or public sphere, but also in interpersonal relations. As a consequence, social relationships are becoming less emotional and more rational. Weber states that this rationalization of personal life has a negative influence on the meaning and quality of interpersonal (including romantic) relationships.

In contrast, Habermas’ (1990) approach on rationality as an aspect of modernity is slightly more positive. He acknowledges that rationality is a characteristic of modern society, especially in the formal and public sphere. The private sphere of interpersonal relationships is also influenced by the process of rationalization, but the consequence is not just a loss of the importance of emotion. The rationalization of the private sphere also means increasing self-reflection with higher quality relationships as a result (Bulcroft et al, 2000; Habermas, 1990).

A third view on changing romantic values comes from Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995). They argue that enhanced individualism and rationality lead to increased risks in partner selection. While the need for interpersonal relationships increases, the possibility for achieving such relationships decreases in a society that is marked by a high level of individualism. As the need for interpersonal relationships increases, the more important the successful maintenance of such relationships becomes. However, structures like individualism and a fast consumer society make it increasingly difficult to successfully maintain interpersonal relationships. This paradox increases the risk of getting into a romantic relationship; people need an intimate relationship, but at the same time the maintenance of this relationship is becoming increasingly unlikely to succeed.

These theories about changing romantic values provide a framework for the question that is central in this paper. The aim of this paper is to investigate the ways in which students in Amsterdam give meaning to romantic relationships. The changes in romantic values are confusing for many students, which is why lectures and articles about this theme are highly visited and shared (Tinder Love, 2016). The uncertainties young people face are mostly centered around the phase when they have been dating for a while with the same person, and start to like this person in a romantic way. Although it seems quite obvious that the other person is also romantically interested in most cases, labeling the relationship seems too serious a step for both men and women.

This research is focused on this ‘prela-phase’ (pre-relationship): when someone is involved in a romantic relationship but labeling the other as boy- or girlfriend is for some reason not happening. What does the label ‘relationship’ mean, what makes this label that important? Does the concept ‘relationship’ correspond with a different meaning over time? To answer these questions, I start with an overview of changes in romantic values over time. In the second part of this paper, I describe the romantic discourse of eight students in Amsterdam.

Changing romantic values over time

As mentioned before, the number of people getting married has dramatically decreased over the past 50 years. But there have been many other significant changes in romantic discourse over time. These changes will be discussed based on the model of Collins (2003). Collins has conceptualized a framework for the study of romantic relationships, dividing the romantic relationship into five different stages.

The first stage is the involvement stage. This stage provides information about the average age people are getting romantically active and view themselves as part of the dating scene. The second stage is the partner selection stage. This stage includes the degree of freedom of choice in partner selection and characteristics of the potential partner that influence the partner selection. The content of relationships is the third stage by which Collins (2003) analyzes romantic relationships. This stage tells something about the nature of the relationship. Is the base of the relationship mainly practical or romantic? The fourth stage is about the quality of relationships. This refers to what is seen as a high-quality relationship by both partners. The emphasis on both partners is made, because the experienced quality may differ between men and women. The fifth and last stage is about cognitive and emotional processes. This includes the degree in which romantic relationships are shaped by the individuals’ cognitive and emotional processes.

All these aspects of romantic relationships have changed over time in Western society (Bulcroft et al., 2000). In the period between 1750 and 1850, romantic relationships already became a more individualistic matter (Bulcroft et al., 2000). The involvement in romantic relationships and marriage became increasingly important, as it provided status and stability. Although love became a more important aspect, the partner selection was mainly influenced by economic motives. The content of romantic relationships was therefore often based on economic grounds. The increasing importance of love changed the meaning of a high-quality relationship. In contrast with previous times, personal fulfillment became increasingly important in marriage. In this time period there was an emphasis on cognitive aspects of romantic relationships, but a change was coming in favor of the emotional aspects.

The romantic discourse in the following period, between 1850 and 1960, was greatly influenced by this change. The average age for getting married became younger and more people chose for married life (involvement). The partner selection became more autonomous for men: they had increased freedom to choose someone whom they had fallen in love with. Love became therefore an aspect of the content of marriage. This increased freedom of partner selection was not the case for women, who were strongly restricted by social norms. Especially for women, marriage provided higher social status. All this contributed to what was seen as a marriage of good quality: religious morality, status and childbearing. So all in all the importance of emotional aspects, like love, became a more important aspect of marriage. But this emotional aspect was still restricted by many cognitive aspects, like status, social class and religion.

According to Bulcroft et al. (2000), the modern discourse about romantic values emerged around 1960. From 1960 to current times the focus of romantic relationships shifted from the family to the individual. This is in line with the rise of the individualistic society (Berting, 2006). The involvement in romantic relationships like marriage starts at an older age, but people do get involved in experimental romantic relationships at a younger age than ever before (Arnett, 2004). Partner selection became highly autonomous, which means a greater and more diverse potential partner pool. This lack of control by family members or social norms makes the partner selection not only more autonomous, but also more uncertain. The criteria for a ‘good’ partner are loose and this results in more personal criteria. As a consequence the importance of love as a content of a romantic relationship increased according to Bulcroft et al. (2000). A good quality romantic relationship is defined by a romantic relationship based on true love and emotional benefits for both partners. The link between a high-quality relationship and economic and practical benefits becomes less important; personal fulfillment for both partners is the highest goal. According to this view, the emotional aspects are more evident in present-day love life than ever before.

A contrasting approach on modern love comes from Bauman (2003). Bauman argues that the opposite is happening in present-day love life. In his book Liquid Love (Bauman, 2003) he states that modern love is a reflection of broader processes in contemporary society. Bauman views contemporary society as a liquid society. The most important feature of a liquid society is uncertainty. This uncertainty can be found in all aspects of life, such as flexible employment contracts, uncertain social norms and loose human relationships. This uncertainty has become an important and dangerous aspect of modern romantic relationships. Characteristics of present-day love are fast, flexible and unreliable relationships. All these characteristics are also applicable to the neoliberal market economy. Romantic values are therefore dominated by economic values.

The influence of the economic system on romantic relationships has grown to such an extent that we become shoppers for the perfect lover (Bauman, 2003). This way, love becomes a consumer good that has to be ‘purchased’. As love is seen as a consumer good, it is not particularly meant to last forever. As soon as the efforts for love become greater than the personal satisfaction one gets from love, the time has come to end the romantic relationship and ‘purchase’ a new one. In this sense, the rational aspect of love is more important than the emotional aspect.

In sum, there is an ongoing debate about the meaning of recent changes in romantic values. Bulcroft et al. (2000) point out that in the past there was less space for emotional aspects of romantic values. While Bauman states that with the rise of liquid love in modern society the emotional aspects in romantic relationships are disappearing. In the next section I will discuss romantic relationships of eight young people who are dealing with current changes in romantic values, to find out how they experience this change in romantic discourse.

Contemporary romances

For this research, two focus groups have been conducted, each group consisting of three young women, as well as two semi-structured individual interviews with two young men. In this paper they are designated by pseudonyms for privacy reasons. One of the men, Werner (26), is the co-founder of one of the latest dating apps in the Netherlands. He is single and very active in the dating scene. The other man, Jim (24), is in a two-year relationship at the moment of the interview. Five of the six young women (Lonneke, Lianne, Rosa, Sasha, and Lina) are single at the moment of the interview, only Nicky is in a labelled romantic relationship. All of the respondents are currently studying in Amsterdam and in the age range of 20-26.

Since I’m a student in Amsterdam myself, I consider myself to be an insider of the research population. More importantly, my respondents also view me as an insider of the group. On the one hand, this has advantages like sharing the same implicit language as the respondents and easy access to informants (Raby, 2007; Zackariasson, 2014). On the other hand, there are also disadvantages of being an insider. Assumptions made by the researcher can change the meaning described to a situation by a respondent. Furthermore, the role duality of the researcher can be difficult for both the respondent and the researcher. In my interviews this was the case, since most of my respondents are close to me. But all in all I believe that being an insider of the respondent group was an advantage in conducting the research. I knew something about the dating life of all my respondents and this helped in creating a sphere of intimacy during the interviews. Being an insider of the group has made it not only easier to gain access to the respondents themselves, but also to gain access to their inner feelings about romantic values.

Intimate relationships

When asked to describe the road to romantic relationships, one of the girls, Nicky, pointed out that the term romantic relationship was inaccurate for the relationships that students in Amsterdam involved themselves in. I asked the other respondents what they thought about the term and all of them agreed with Nicky’s comment. They preferred the term intimate relationship. They would rather view themselves as active in the dating world, but as inactive in the sphere of romantic relationships. This distinction is important to be made, because especially the romantic part appears to be lacking in many intimate relationships. When asked to describe what an intimate relationship means to them, all respondents gave a definition more or less similar to Collins’ (2003) definition of a romantic relationship. Werner, who has never had a romantic relationship but is very active in the dating world gave the following definition of the term:

An intimate relationship could refer to someone who you get physically intimate with. But it could also be physically and mentally intimate. I’ve been with girls that made me laugh, whom I trusted and had sex with.

Werner’s definition of an intimate relationship is more or less similar to the definition the other respondents gave to their intimate relationships. As Sasha, who labels herself as single for the last three years but who has had several intimate relationships in this period, describes:

‘It’s just something like a real relationship, but without the labeling and the long-term commitment.’

Since all of the respondents preferred to talk about intimate rather than romantic relationships, this term will be used from now on.

Participation in intimate relationships

All of the respondents had some experience with intimate relationships. When asked about their involvement in intimate relationships, Lina and Werner described a mismatch between their personal romantic values and their practices. Lina, who had four sexual partners and one intimate relationship that was based on physical intimacy, had the least experience with intimate relationships. Her only intimate relationship was two years ago and they usually met at a bar or another public space. Lina emphasized that, although this is her only experience with an intimate relationship, this dating style is not a  reflection of her romantic values:

I hear about people who are dating for like 6 months, but this just never happens to me.. It makes me kind of sad, I mean, everybody is dating, why aren’t I?’

This reflects the personal importance for Lina to be involved in intimate relationships. She feels frustrated, she wants to get involved with someone but it’s difficult to achieve this. It feels to Lina like no one is willing to get into an intimate relationship with her, or only at a physical level. On the other side of the spectrum, Werner had the most experience, yet he was also not pleased about his own involvement in intimate relationships. Werner has had more than 100 sexual partners and three mentally intimate relationships.

‘I know it’s sad and I would like to settle for something on the long run, but I just don’t know how to truly be open to someone. So the short term of an intimate relationship is an easy way to get at least some intimacy.’

He refers to his own sexual experience and intimacy as sad, so in a way he’s also emphasizing that his involvement in intimate relationships doesn’t reflect his romantic values. He feels like he’s unable to truly be involved with someone, but he still craves for intimacy. This leads to intimacy with many different persons to avoid commitment.

The other six respondents were to varying degrees pleased with their involvement. The number of sexual partners they had varied between two and twelve. Two of them had a romantic relationship, three of them described themselves as in the prela phase or in an intimate relationship and one of them was not in any kind of relationship with someone. The age when they became sexually active greatly varied. Lianne had her first sexual contact when she was eleven and she felt this was much too early. Lonneke had her first sexual experience when she was twenty-two. She felt like she had to become sexual active, because everyone else already was. The age when the others became sexually active varied between sixteen and twenty years old. They all said to be satisfied with the age they got involved in sexual relations.

To sum up, most of the respondents are content about their involvement in intimate relationships. The two who consider themselves as un- or overinvolved are less content about their involvement. The age of becoming sexually active differed between the respondents, but as for the extent of involvement the respondents who were somewhere in the middle of the ‘extremes’ were the most content about the age they got sexually active. It seems that average involvement amounts to feelings of success in the dating world while being different from the average creates feelings of failure and frustration. As we will find out in the following section, there are many different phases of intimate relationships. Feelings of failure and frustration are not only influenced by the number of intimate relationships one has experienced, but also by the phase these intimate relationships have reached.

Phases of the intimate relationship

Respondents used the term intimate relationship to cover a range of phases in relationships, with different content and qualities for each phase. The starting point can either be physical or emotional intimacy; some people start their relationship with sexual contacts, others with lots of (online) contact. Eventually also intimate relationships that had started with emotional intimacy ended in sexual contact. This state of intimacy could last for months and sometimes this is the ending phase. After a while, questions about exclusivity arise. In the exclusivity phase, both partners promise to only be intimate with the other partner. After this phase of exclusivity, arrives the prela-phase, when partners find out if they want to be in a labelled relationship. In this phase the underlying assumption is the end goal of a labelled relationship.

At the moment of the interview, Rosa has been seeing someone for five months. They are practically in a relationship, but exclusivity appears to be a difficult subject:

‘What if one of us kisses someone else? I would never do that and I would be devastated to find out he did.. But I don’t want to ask him to be exclusive, I’m afraid I might scare him.’

This phase is marked by uncertainties and insecurities. The first phase of an intimate relationship is all about experimenting and finding out what you personally want from the other. Once this decision is made, either the intimate relationship ends, or enters this state of uncertainty. One has to find out if the other is interested in something ‘more’. This is not something that simply can be asked and it may take months to find out. Jim has been dating for eight months with his girlfriend. He knew already after two dates he wanted to be exclusive. But it took him five more months to discuss this with her:

‘I was so in love with her, that it [exclusivity] only became more difficult to talk about.., Although I kind of knew she felt the same way… What if she didn’t and my question about being exclusive would make her turn away from me?’

His girlfriend later told him she was waiting for him to ask to be exclusive and if it would have taken him one more month she might have left. This emphasizes the importance of perfect timing: If you want to be exclusive too soon, you might scare the other with your crave for commitment. But if you wait too long, the other might think you’re unwilling ‘to give up your freedom’. All of the respondents made clear that timing is a crucial factor, if it goes wrong the other person might leave. As a consequence of the high importance of timing, both parties become afraid to bring up the question of exclusivity. Lonneke, who has had two intimate relationships that ended in this phase partly because neither of them dared to ask the exclusivity question, explains:

‘Yes of course I wanted to be exclusive. But I will never ask something like that, I mean if he wanted to be exclusive with me he would  have asked, right? At this point I was like, you didn’t ask me to be exclusive, so I don’t think you like me enough’

This kind of thinking is recognized by all of the respondents and could lead to a situation where both parties are waiting for the other to ask for exclusivity. They don’t want to ask it themselves, because the question puts them in a vulnerable position. If the other is unwilling to be exclusive this leads to feelings of rejection. If one dares to ask the question of exclusivity, there are many ways to do so. A few examples the respondents gave are the following:

‘He asked me if I wanted to kiss other boys. I replied I didn’t and then he asked me to be exclusive.’  (Lianne)

‘Well we found it out the hard way, I was drunk and kissed someone else. This made her upset and from then on I promised her to never kiss someone else and we were exclusive.’ (Werner)

‘I asked him if he wanted to be exclusive.’ (Sasha)

So there are different roads to exclusivity, but the question always brings up feelings of  insecurity. If the exclusivity phase is successfully reached, this provides a more stable intimate relationship. This phase creates feelings of comfort and security, both parties have shown to be willing to make some efforts for each other. The next phase is the labeling phase, which is the first step to the more serious phase of an intimate relationship.


After the exclusivity phase the step to a labelled relationship seems a small one to take. But many exclusive intimate relationships don’t make it through the labeling phase. Labeling is a way of saying that you’re into someone for the long-term. The anxiety of failure of this long-term commitment gives the label a loaded content. This feeling of anxiety can be produced by personal feelings or others reactions. The difference between the exclusivity phase and the labelled relationship is for all respondents a difference in responsibilities and commitment. Lina and Lianne talk about the meaning of labeling:

Why would you label? If it’s fun, no label is needed. It’s a big pressure to label something, I’m not sure if I’m ready for a label like that.’ (Lina)

Same for me. I mean if you’re in a relationship you have to meet the parents. It’s something more real if you label. I have many friends who practically are in a relationship, they’re doing everything together. The label wouldn’t change anything, but still it seems too serious.’ (Lianne)

According to them, the label has the meaning of making the intimate relationship real. This is exactly what frightens Werner the most. Werner tells that the ‘prela’ phase is a time for experimenting and learning more about the other. Once the label of a relationship is given, the time of experimenting is over. So in other words, you have chosen that the other is the one you like the most out of all the others. You choose to be with that person after a long time of experimenting, so the choice has to be a good one. As Werner puts it:

The non-labeling is because you want to make sure that everything is perfect. The moment you start to name it, it becomes a possibility to break up and it’s much more of a big deal from then on. This would feel like failure to me.’

So for Werner, the meaning of a label is admitting that the relationship is expected to last on the long-term. This anxiety for a potential break-up makes the meaning of a label so important that he avoids the potential break-up by not labeling a relationship. Rosa is frightened by the potential break-up in a different way. While Werner is scared for the personal feelings of failure after a break-up, Rosa is more scared for the reactions of others:

It’s better to just tell we’re not seeing each other anymore, instead of having to say you broke up. Then everybody is like omg how are you??’

When the label of a relationship is given after a very short time of being in the ‘prela’-phase, reactions from others indeed can be judgmental. Lianne tells us something about social norms and labeling:

Sometimes you hear people who are in a relationship after one month of dating, and then everyone is just like whatttt, you just can’t take something like that serious.’

It appears to be socially unacceptable to label too soon. This gives the label an even more pressuring meaning. Despite these pressures, people of course still label their relationship. According to both men and women, there’s a strong gender division in the way this usually happens. Both men agree with the women that the question preferably is asked by the man in a heterosexual relationship:

‘After one year I asked her if she wanted to be my girlfriend. I was completely sure about us and I knew she was too. I knew it was my job to ask it, and although it scared me it also makes you feel very … masculine I guess.’ (Jim)

‘I would be embarrassed if the girl asked me that question. I mean, man up, you want to conquer the girl, not the other way around.’ (Werner)

All the women agree with the statement that men are the ones who have to ask for the relationship to be official (label). Just as the question of exclusivity can be brought up in many different ways, the labeling question can be asked in different forms. Nicky was not very pleased by the way her boyfriend asked her to make their relationship official:

‘It took him ages to ask.. And then he asked me to be his girlfriend when we were having dinner in a super cheap Italian restaurant at Leidse Square. I mean come on.’

This disappointment shows that with the labeling question some expectations come up. Firstly the man has to ask the question, and secondly the question should be asked in a special way. It differs what is seen as special enough, as we can conclude from the following example:

‘I planned to ask her the question the night before, I brought roses and all that. But when I saw her I got nervous and gave her the rose, without asking it.. So I felt like ruining my chances for the night. I slept over and the next morning we were lying in bed, her head on my chess. I felt so happy at the time that I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut and asked her if she  wanted to be my girlfriend. It was a very romantic moment .’ (Jim)

In sum there are many anxieties about labeling a relationship. Once these anxieties are overcome, certain expectations come up with the labeling of a relationship. The question is preferably asked by men in a ‘special’ way.


In this research the focus was on changing romantic values in present-day society. Firstly it has been shown that the meaning of romantic relationships has changed in all five stages that Collin’s (2003) distinguished. People are getting involved and experiment with intimate relationships at a younger age, but a romantic commitment is made at an older age (Arnett, 2004). The partner selection has become an increasingly personal matter and love is an important aspect of the content of present-day labelled relationships (Bulcroft et al., 2000). A high-quality relationship means a relationship that provides benefits for both partners (Bauman, 2003). According to Bauman (2003) romantic relationships are shaped by rational analyses and on the contrary Bulcroft et al. (2000) state that emotional aspects are increasingly important.

These conclusions from existing literature on changing romantic discourse are partly in line with the way students in Amsterdam give meaning to their romantic values. Involvement of the interviewed students is mainly experimental. This changes the content of their intimate relationships. According to the respondents, intimate relationships can be divided into different phases with different content. Intimate relationships always start with emotional or physical intimacy. There’s an important difference between physical and emotional intimacy, this is no longer automatically related to the same person. The first phase is all about experimenting and can last for months. The following stage is the ‘prela’-phase. In this stage both partners promise to be exclusively intimate with the other partner. This phase is still about experimenting and finding out if the other is a potential partner for a labelled relationship. Even if both partners like each other enough to get into a labelled relationship, the question to label the relationship is a difficult one to ask. The labeling question brings up several anxieties and expectations for both parties. Preferably the man asks in a special way to label the relationship.

All the respondents used words like ‘anxiety’, ‘scared’ and ‘uncertainty’ to describe their feelings about transitions in relationship phases. On the one hand, all respondents expressed to eventually want a labelled intimate relationship. On the other hand, nobody wants to be the one who is the first to say this out loud. As a consequence, both partners get scared to ask for a transition into the next phase. This is partly because of personal anxiety about choosing the wrong person. The label of a relationship implies the expectation of a longstanding relationship. So before putting this label on the intimate relationship, the maintenance of the relationship has to be likely to succeed. In the labeling phase the thought of all those other persons, potential partners, who are nowadays so easily reached through social media, creates anxiety about choosing the wrong person. This corresponds to Bauman’s (2003) Liquid Love concept. According to Bauman it almost feels natural to look for improvement in every aspect of our life. One of those aspects that becomes the subject of this improvement, is our love life. The feeling of wanting someone better looking, funnier, sweeter, more masculine/feminine corrupts the feeling of being happy with the person in front of you. As a consequence, the experimenting phase could last for many months.

Besides this anxiety based on personal matters, anxiety about transition to the next phase of the intimate relationship is based on uncertainties about what the other might think. All the respondents are extremely aware of the fact that the other is also trying to find out if the partner might be someone to get a labelled relationship with. Timing of the transition to the next phase is therefore crucial. If questions about the next phase are asked too soon, this might have a negative impact on the way the other views the potential partner.

These feelings of anxiety and uncertainty can be traced back to the high degree of freedom of partner selection and the quality aspect (Bauman, 2003; Bulcroft et al., 2000). The most important aspect of a high-quality relationship is personal fulfillment for both partners. The high degree of freedom in partner selection creates possibilities in choosing the partner who seems to be able to provide most personal fulfillment. On the one side of the spectrum, this creates feelings of happiness about being with the person you want to be with. On the other side of the spectrum, it is exactly this aspect of freedom that creates feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. After all, if a high degree of personal fulfillment is lacking, there seems to be no reason to stay in the romantic commitment. Considering the high degree of freedom of partner selection, it might be the best option to look for another person who is able to provide a high degree of personal fulfillment. This gives the romantic relationship a more temporary and uncertain nature than ever before.

(Research paper written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


Arnett, J.J. (2004). A longer road to adulthood. In Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties (pp. 3-26). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bauman, Z. (2003). Liquid love: On the frailty of human bonds. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Beck, U., & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1995). The normal chaos of love. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Berting, J. (2006). De versplinterde samenleving: De gevolgen van moderniteit en modernisering in de 21ste eeuw. Delft: Eburon.

Bulcroft, R., Bulcroft, K., Bradley, K., & Simpson, C. (2000). The Management and Production of Risk in Romantic Relationships: A Postmodern Paradox. Journal of Family History,25(1), 63-92. doi:10.1177/036319900002500105

Collins, W. A. (2003). More than Myth: The Developmental Significance of Romantic Relationships During Adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 13(1), 1-24. doi:10.1111/1532-7795.1301001

Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Marx, K., Engels, F., In Arthur, C. J., & Marx, K. (1996). The German ideology, in C. Calhoun et al. (Ed.), Classical Sociological Theory, blz. 143-155

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Weber, M. (1925). Wirtschaft und gesellschaft. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

Zackariasson, M. (2014). Being Yourself: Identity and Self-presentation among Youths in Christian Youth Organizations. Young, 22(2), 153-170. doi:10.1177/1103308814521625

Global Youth Papers

Bright hairHannah Dol


I have dyed my hair in many colors before. Natural colors such as blonde, brown, black, but also unnatural, bright colors such as pink, red, purple and blue. Since I started dying my hair in these bright colors when I was about sixteen, so about six years ago, it seems to attract much attention. Not just from friends or people that I know, but also random people in the street. Most reactions are quite positive. People will scream something such as “Nice haircolor!”, or “Beautiful hair!” to me. There also seemed to be some people who saw it as an opening to try to flirt with me and come up with a clever remark about my haircolor. Anyway many people see it as an opening to start a conversation, probably because it is something unusual, something that stands out and they don’t see that often.

I never expected this much attention from dying my hair because I didn’t think about it being very outstanding at first. I just liked the way it looked and how it looks very happy and bright and creative. The creative part is probably because not that many people dye their hair in bright colors. Most people stick to “safe” colors such as blonde, brown or black.

Since I started thinking a bit more about subcultures and whether I myself belong to a specific subculture, I started thinking about my choice to dye my hair in bright colors. Does this make me part of a subculture? Because it is something out of the ordinary, it is not very “mainstream”. I found this a hard question to answer. Because if I do belong to a subculture, then what subculture is it? And is just having a bright hair color enough to make one part of a specific subculture? I started thinking about my own motivations for dying my hair and I came to the conclusion that it probably isn’t just about hair. I like rock music and I also enjoy some clothing elements from alternative subcultures (such as black clothing and Dr. Martens boots). I like the way alternative style looks.

But when I started thinking about what makes this look appeal to me it isn’t just the way it looks, it is also what it stands for. To me alternative fashion represents people who are open minded and don’t always follow the crowd, but are more willing to think for themselves. This to me is a good thing.

So this probably is part of the reason why I like bright hair colors so much. When I see someone with bright hair color (which is done in a nice way) I like it. I look for inspiration from people I see on the street, but most of my inspiration comes from the internet. I watch tutorial videos on YouTube and I follow people who have a style that I like and I follow their hair journeys to get some inspiration for myself and to try something new. There also are some websites (such as that are completely devoted to bright hair colors. Here people show what colors they have dyed their hair and how they got it this way. They also show timelines of all the hair colors they’ve had and they get a lot of comments from other people who appreciate bright hair colors.

I wanted to find out what motivations other people have for dying their hair this way and standing out in this way. Because it is so unusual and very bright, people notice you for it very easily, so you probably have to be quite motivated to do it anyway. In this research I sought to find out what motivations other people have for dying their hair in bright colors and whether it is “just about hair”, or whether there is more to it, such as alternative subcultures and alternative morals that may come with it.

Bright hair colors were first introduced in the United Kingdom in the punk scene around 1980 (Cartledge, n.d.). These styles were picked up by teenagers who wanted to express their individuality and rebellion against conformist society ( These days it seems as if strict subcultures don’t exist as much as they used to. In this research I will see if bright hair colors are still connected to alternative subcultures, but also if it still is such a statement as it used to be. Whether it still is a way to express your individuality and your rebellion against conformist society.

The main question for this research is: “To what extent is having bright hair connected to alternative subcultures?” To research this topic further, this research question will be split into several sub questions. Firstly people’s personal motivations for dying their hair in bright colors has to be researched to get a general idea of this group of people. This will be researched through the subquestion: “What are people’s motivations for dying their hair in a bright color?” As mentioned bright hair colors used to be a way to express rebellion against mainstream society, it is interesting to see whether this still is the case. This will be researched through the subquestion: “Is having bright hair still a form of rebellion against mainstream society?” The final subquestion is about the role of social media, because many websites and online tutorial videos about bright hair appear to be available on the internet, which could mean there is some form of an online community. This will be researched through the subquestion: “What is the role of social media in having bright hair (and alternative style)?” For this research two methods were used. First an online ethnography was used and after that there were also interviews conducted.

Online communities

Since so much of the bright-haired community is online, such as tutorial videos and sites where people post their hair timelines and talk about hair with each other, this was a good place to start the research. A website that is fully dedicated to bright hair colors is Here people share pictures of their hair colors and they discuss how they got a specific hair color and they help each other by giving tips. This site is a social forum in the way that people connect with each other because they have a common interest, namely bright hair colors. But the website pays less attention to people’s individual motivations behind their bright hair colors. So just from this website it can’t be inferred whether these people view themselves as “alternative” or whether they can identify with alternative subcultures. It is still interesting to see that these days people with similar interests can meet each other via the internet. Something like this probably wasn’t possible in the past, but since the coming of the internet people with similar interests can bond in such a way.

Many videos about bright hair colors can be found on YouTube. Most of the videos are tutorials where people tell their viewers how to they got their hair a certain color and they can also give each other advice. But because these people have a channel with all sorts of information, more about their personal lives is shared with their viewers. So even though one of the videos is just about, for example, “How to dye your hair bright pink”, this person can also have some videos about more personal issues that don’t necessarily have to do with their hair color, but by comparing what different people with bright hair colors have in common an image of these people can be drawn. - Specialist in Hair ColourThe people I have been following for some time on YouTube who dye their hair in bright colors do this because they feel they are part of an alternative community. This includes people who identify as being goth, punk, emo, scene, or just alternative in general. Many of them don’t necessarily identify with one specific subculture, but they take some inspiration from one style and some from another style and this way a unique style can be formed that fits with that person. These style elements can be hair (bright hair colors), but also certain clothing, shoes, jewelry, etc. Forming a personal style by only using certain elements is described as a “supermarket of style” by Ted Polhemus. He states:

“Street style “tribes” offered (and, for many, seem to have provided) that sense of community and shared identity that is so difficult to find in contemporary society. But while significant remnants of many of these subcultures remain scattered around the globe, such commitment and group identity have become less typical of the twenty-first century. Such looks are now, typically, plucked off the shelf of the post-modern “supermarket of style,” tried out, promiscuously mixed with other looks, and then discarded” (Polhemus, n.d.).

Bennett also mentions that subcultures are not as solid and static as they used to be, he speaks of neotribes instead of subcultures (Bennett, 1999). But even though these style elements might not belong to a specific style or subculture, for outsiders, the ‘mainstream’ people, they might still be viewed as alternative. These days many young people form their style in the way Polhemus describes. Their style is very individual. They do it for themselves, trying to express themselves and form a unique style that fits their personality. Such a person doesn’t necessarily have to be part of a broader subculture and behave a certain way and only interact with people of that subculture. Take, for example, videos on YouTube such as “Grunge-inspired Lookbook” by Roxxsaurus. She mentions beneath her video:

grunge inspired lookbookHey guys! so many of you are into the whole grunge scene when it comes to makeup and fashion so I decided to create these outfits for you as some inspiration. This is what grunge fashion is to me, it’s my interpretation and I hope you enjoy it!

Grunge seems to be a style that is derived from a subculture, but nowadays young people take elements from it such as tattoo choker necklaces or Dr. Martens and put these elements into their own style. There are more video’s such as this one where people do a grunge makeup look on themselves or show a grunge outfit even though they don’t look like this all the time and they are not necessarily part of a grunge subculture. Similar videos can be found for gothic or emo makeup or clothing, or punk-inspired clothing, etc.

There are also numerous videos on bright hair. When searching on YouTube for “How to dye your hair bright pink”, for example, many videos will come up. One of the videos is titled “Considering bright hair m’dear?” by lauraacanfly where she discusses the pros and cons of having bright-colored hair. She mentions the same issues as are mentioned by my interviewees discussed below. She talks about how difficult it is to get a job with bright pink hair and how people on the street stare at her, but how she still likes to do it because it makes her an individual and how it is a conversation starter. She says, ”I don’t like how people start identifying you with your hair, like: Oh that’s Laura with the pink hair!” It makes someone “the person with the bright hair”, because this makes someone stand out. So, while people with bright hair like to stand out with their bright hair, at the same time they don’t because to some people it becomes all they can see.

Another video about this subject is “Misconceptions about bright colored hair” by Kiera Rose. She says: “For some reason when you have bright colored hair, it makes people think that you are very outgoing, but this doesn’t have to be the case”. She was in a BBC documentary about mental health issues, as she suffers from serious social anxiety, but people commented that she was faking it because if she would have social anxiety she wouldn’t dare to stand out with her hair like that. She says: “When people stare at me when I have blue hair, I don’t mind that they stare because they are looking at my hair, but if my hair would look normal and people would stare then my mind would race and I would think what is wrong with me and I would make up all these things in my head”. This made sense to me because this is something I also experience. I just wasn’t aware of this before I heard someone else say it out loud. It isn’t the main reason why I chose to dye my hair this way but it might have to do with it. For Kiera Rose having bright colored hair helps her to deal with her mental problems. This will be further discussed below.

Reasons for wanting to look different from the mainstream can be very diverse. I have found three reasons that seem to be the most important. It can be a creative outlet in which you express your artistic views through a creative and colorful appearance. The people that died their hair in bright colors generally were also very much into makeup and many of them were makeup artists. This became apparent because I follow quite some people on YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram for their makeup skills and quite a few of them have had bright hair colors. For other people it can be because they identify with alternative subcultures, which implies that they are more open-minded people who don’t adhere to society’s strict rules on what is acceptable and what isn’t. This can be only about appearance but also about moral standards; for example, being open-minded can mean that someone thinks that all love is equal, not only heterosexual relationships but also homosexual relationships, etc. So this is about feelings of belonging towards alternative people.

A third reason is the feeling of not fitting into mainstream society; a person that feels like an outcast may want to express this feeling that they have on the inside on the outside. This can be because someone has been bullied or because they have different life experiences (such as traumatic experiences) from their peers, which entails that they don’t connect on the same level. It might also be that they feel different because they have something that makes them feel different such as a disorder. Although we shouldn’t generalize, it was very striking that many of the YouTubers who dress alternatively and dye their hair in bright colors had some experience with mental disorders such as depression. This became clear as they also made videos about these experiences. Of course, not all people who dye their hair in bright colors have a mental disorder. Not at all. But it does seem logical that someone who feels different on the inside from most people (the “mainstream” people) internalizes this feeling of “being different” so much that they don’t even want to fit in in a regular way, they have made the feeling of being different their own and they also express this on the outside for the world to see.

Because many people have these feelings of “feeling different” (which doesn’t have to be negative as it can also be related to one of the other reasons), and express this through, for example, bright colored hair, this automatically identifies them as being alternative, which makes it easier for other alternative people to identify with each other and form bonds with each other. Thus, even though it is very much about individualism, it is also about being together with other people like you, about feeling and forming bonds. These bonds don’t have to be in the “real world”, many of these bonds are formed through online communities, such as YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram and Forums.

This can be illustrated by the reactions people get when posting pictures of their hair on the site, for example: “Absolutely stunning. I’m always amazed how beautiful you are and how well you do your dyejobs. I think you are a great colour inspiration”. Here people can follow each other by viewing their hair timelines and trade tips with each other. Another example which demonstrates that these online communities are about more than just hair are the comments on YouTube videos where people share not only trading tips on how to dye hair, but also personal problems such as the mental health issues mentioned earlier. YouTube provides an important platform this way, where people give the YouTuber feedback and ask questions and the YouTuber will then make a video about it or answer questions in the form of a “Q & A” (questions & answers). I myself started following some YouTubers just because I thought their hair looked cool and as I continued following their videos other subjects such as personal problems came up as well, and these people offered advice that has also helped me along.


Besides analysis of online content, interviews were used to find out about people’s motivations and opinions about bright hair colors. The people with bright hair that you meet in daily life aren’t necessarily the same people that visit the online communities. It proved to be quite hard to find suitable respondents to interview. For the first interview a friend with green hair was interviewed (Ana; all names are pseudonyms). This girl knew quite some other people with bright hair colors, but meeting them was very hard to arrange so the best way to reach them was by sending a questionnaire with open questions – such as, “What do bright hair colors represent for you? What do they stand for?” – in which they were encouraged to give as much information as possible about the subject. These people could later be reached via Facebook messenger if more clarification was needed about their answers. Five respondents were interviewed this way. All but one of them (Sara) were Dutch. A seventh respondent was interviewed via chat (Tirza) because she didn’t have the time to meet in person due to a busy work schedule. By doing the interview via chat rather than a questionnaire it did become more personal, as chat allows for immediate follow-up questions to see what someone means specifically by saying something a particular way. Because the interviewee was a personal friend, there already was a relaxed and open atmosphere.

In the following, when referring to “most of the interviewees” this is because they all had similar reasons and views on a particular subject. When something someone said stands out this person will be mentioned separately. Not all interviewees are cited here, but their opinions are still expressed here because they felt the same way as the other interviewees about certain subjects. It was an interesting coincidence that most of the people interviewed had dyed their hair blue, and stated that they had a specific love for blue hair, although they liked bright hair in general.

The first interviewee was Ana, she is 20 years old and a first-year student of artificial intelligence. She comes across as a kind and open-minded girl who likes to laugh and make jokes. Her hair wasn’t colored at the moment of the interview, it is brownish with an outgrown blondish color, but it used to be bright blue. Ana said that she dyed her hair this way because she “just liked the look of it”. She didn’t feel she did it because she belonged to a specific subculture or wanted to rebel against mainstream society. She was part of a subculture though, her hobby is “fur suiting,” this is when people dress in animal suits together and go on the streets and interact with people there, like playing with children and just having fun in general. She didn’t think bright hair colors are specifically part of this subculture although there were some other people in the subculture who also dyed their hair in bright colors. She thought this is mainly because many of her friends are a bit “alternative” in general and bright hair does appeal to these people. Her main motivation was that she likes being individual. She feels that because there are so many people on earth you have to do something special to stand out and to look special. This was a theme that many of the interviewees mentioned. Young people these days are very much into individual expression, and part of that is expressing themselves through their appearances and style. They see dying their hair in a bright color as a fun, happy way of doing this.

Other interviewees also mentioned that they dyed their hair in a bright color because it is very important to them that they can do what they want and be their own person, since they didn’t have positive experiences with this in other parts of their life. For example, one of the interviewees, Jennifer, a 20 year old girl with bright blue hair, has Lyme’s disease and because of that can no longer walk. Because of this disease and other events in her life she feels that much has been taken from her and she doesn’t have control over most of the things that happen to her. For her, dying her hair is something she has decided on by herself, something she likes, and even though other people, such as her parents, classmates or an employee may not like it, she does it anyway. So it seems to be a form of agency to get back control over her life and identity. Because it is something that she has control over and something that makes her happy. This makes it a very personal thing to do. I found this very interesting that something as simple as dying your hair can have such a deep meaning to someone.

All the interviewees mentioned that “doing their own thing” is very important to them. They don’t like to follow the crowd and if they like something because it feels good to them they do it. This is something which they associate with alternative subcultures. So even though they were not part of a specific subculture associated with bright hair colors, they do feel an association with “alternative people” and “being alternative”.

Another interviewee was Tirza, a 29 year old young woman with a master’s degree who now has a full-time office job. She used to have a lot of bright hair colors when she was younger, such as bright pink hair, but now it is back to her natural color, blonde. Tirza comes across as a very open-minded and kind girl. It wasn’t hard for her to express her feelings and she had a clear view on things. This could be because she is slightly older than the other interviewees so she had thought about subjects such as identity and style more. Tirza mentioned that “being alternative” really is a mindset. It is about doing what you like no matter what others might think of it, not only regarding your appearance, but regarding your mindset in general. She gave a funny example to illustrate: “If you might feel like playing in a kid playground and jumping into one of those barrels filled with balls (in Dutch: “ballenbak”), you will do this just because you feel like it and it doesn’t matter what other people think of it”. So to most of them it is about more than just their appearance.

All of the interviewees received plenty of reactions on their hair color. Most of the reactions were very positive. Such as, “I like your hair”, or “I wish I would dare to do that”. Some of them also receive weird or flirty comments from men as some people see it as a way to start a conversation. However, most of the interviewees said they didn’t necessarily dye their hair because they wanted to stand out and receive reactions, but mostly because they like it themselves. Regardless of the reactions they still kept dying their hair anyway. Even the creepy remarks would not keep them from dying their hair. For example, Ana mentioned that when she had green hair and she was shopping in a supermarket an elderly man told her: “Jij bent een groentje en ik een grijsje”, which sort of translates to: “You’re green (which in this context means an inexperienced young person, in a kind of sexual way), and I’m grey (which means that he is experienced and older).” This was very creepy and threatening to her. Having bright hair certainly can provoke some interesting and weird reactions. It is as if because their hair isn’t very normal that people can also react in a way that they normally wouldn’t do. As if people suddenly can say things that normally would be seen as inappropriate because such a hair color is sort of “innapropriate”. This can also be linked to the idea of ‘deviance’, it seems as if because people with bright colored hair deviate from the norm the norm of social values doesn’t apply to them.

Although most of the reactions the interviewees experienced were positive, they still sense a lack of understanding for why people choose to look alternative. Jennifer mentioned that at a job interview her future employer told her that it was her own choice if she wanted to be hired or not because she probably would get bullied because of her hair color (and also because of the fact that she can’t walk). This was very shocking to me. Tirza mentioned that because of negative reactions such as “Gothic!”, or “You stupid alto!” she disliked those “mainstream” people even more and this made her want to rebel against it even more. So for her, dying her hair really was about rebelling against mainstream society and this is what she likes about it.

When asked about the do’s and don’ts regarding bright hair colors (because do’s and don’ts could mean that there are rules which could indicate that it is a subculture), most of the interviewees mentioned that people should just do what they like. This individualism and doing what you like, as mentioned earlier, is an important part of being “alternative” and something that all of the interviewees thought about in a similar way; it was contrasted with following fashions. Lara, a 20 year old student with bright blue hair, mentioned that she didn’t like it when people dye their hair in a silver, greyish color because she thinks that people only do this because it is in fashion and because other people do it too. She said: “If everyone just starts dying their hair because it is hip, this way dying your hair in bright colors could become “normal””, and she viewed “normal” as a negative thing because then bright hair colors wouldn’t be special and alternative anymore, but would become mainstream and loose its meaning of an alternative mindset.

This becoming mainstream of bright hair colors seems to be gradually happening already. The interviewees mentioned that bright hair colors are already becoming more “normal” since celebrities such as Katy Perry and Nicole Richie are dying their hair in bright colors. These pop icons don’t really have any associations with alternative subcultures, they just think bright hair colors look “pretty” and this way it may lose its meaning. This erosion of meaning of alternative styles is quite common in pop culture. Something is started by an alternative subculture and it is later picked up by a brand or a celebrity and suddenly it becomes cool for mainstream people so that it loses its meaning and becomes less interesting for alternative-minded people. A similar process can be seen in subcultures such as skateboarding. Style elements such as Vans or Nike shoes were a part of the skateboarding subculture, but after big corporations became involved, skateboarding became very much commercialized and more mainstream so that it became less interesting to the alternative skateboarding community (Lombard, 2010).

Most of the interviewees did mention they looked at pictures or videos online for inspiration. For example, Sara, a 21 year old French exchange student of Social Sciences with bright green hair said that she wanted green hair for a long time and she always searched for pictures of green hair on Google and Pinterest and this way she formed an idea of what she wanted for herself. But to all of the interviewees it wasn’t really more than inspiration. They like bright hair colors and they also like bright hair colors on others. But just because two people both have a bright hair color doesn’t automatically mean they have something in common and they should be friends (to say it bluntly). Most of them did have friends who have bright hair colors, but they thought this is mostly because people who are a bit “alternative” are attracted to like-minded people. This seems very logical, that your friends are just people who are a lot like you and think about things is a similar way.

Opposing an undiscerning mainstream

Subcultures don’t really seem to exist anymore like they used to according to the respondents. Tirza mentioned she used to protest with other alternative people (like punks) but that this wasn’t really happening anymore. She thought that these days a lot of “being alternative” is about style and music and no longer necessarily about issues such as political views or anything. The other interviewees also mentioned this. It seems that style has become more of an individual thing. People take certain elements from a style that they like, and many take their inspiration from the internet or from people they meet on the streets. It is mostly about expressing themselves and not so much expressing that they are part of a certain subculture. It still has bonds with what subcultures used to stand for, such as being open-minded and doing what you like, not following the crowd. Having bright hair is still very much intertwined with this. Mary Bucholtz has something to say about this in “Youth and cultural practice” (2000):

“The explanatory power of resistance becomes less adequate as youth identities move further away from the class-based cultural styles that the concept was designed to account for. … [Youth cultures] are better understood as founded on a politics of distinction, in which [cultural practice] is tied not only to pleasure or social identity but also to forms of power. This is a very different kind of oppositionality than is implied by the concept of resistance, for it is based not on a rejection of a powerless structural position but rather on a rejection of an undiscerning mainstream culture”. (Bucholtz, 2002: 541)

To me it was very interesting to see that it really isn’t just about hair. Talking to people and hearing their personal motivations opened new views for me. This also made me think about my own choices about dying my hair in bright colors and I came to the conclusion that it definitely is about more than “just hair”. I like being identified with alternative subcultures and what they stand for, I like being an individual in a world where there are so many people. I feel the same way as the interviewees, so these views together with the reasons mentioned earlier do create some kind of bond.

(Research paper written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


Bennett (1999). Sub-cultures or neo-tribes? Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste. Sociology, 33, 3, 599-617.

Brake, M. (2013). The Sociology of Youth Culture and Youth Subcultures (Routledge Revivals): Sex and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll?. Routledge.

Bucholtz, M. (2002). Youth and cultural practice. Annual review of anthropology, 525-552.

Cartledge, F. Punk style. Via:

Hebdige, D. (1995), Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Critical Quarterly, 37: 120–124. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8705.1995.tb01063.x

Lombard, K. J. (2010). Skate and create/skate and destroy: The commercial and governmental incorporation of skateboarding. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24(4), 475-488.

Moran, I. P. (2011). Punk: The do-it-yourself subculture. Social Sciences Journal10(1), 13.

Polhemus, T. Street style. Via:

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Global Youth Papers

indexElsemieke Tijmstra & Ester van Rooij


I have eaten meat all my life. When I got older, I noticed that my grandmother did not eat meat when we did. I got curious and asked her why and she told me that she did not like meat because she did not see that piece of meat on her plate, but only a whole cow or a chicken. I was only about five or six years old, but I still remember this because I found it strange that I did not have the same feeling my grandmother had, while I did love animals so much. When my niece became a vegetarian a few years later, I started thinking about it more, but I never came to the point I really wanted to become a vegetarian myself.” (Elsemieke)

Since a few years, more and more people in our surroundings seem to have become vegetarian or even vegan. On the worldwide web more and more blogs are being written about vegetarianism and veganism (What’s with all the hype around being a vegan?, 2011). In August 2009, Doctor Oz spoke on the Oprah Winfrey Show about a revolutionary new berry called the acai berry. Since this broadcast of the show, a new hype started. This berry was a start of the ‘superfood hype’ (Kimbal, z.j.). This hype encouraged people to change their diet and adopt a ‘healthier’ lifestyle, since this berry was believed to contain huge amounts of antioxidants and therefore it would be very healthy. After the acai berry, other superfoods became popular too, like spelt, quinoa, goji berries, chia seed, among a huge amount of other products. When searching for articles about veganism, it seems like the amount of blogs and magazines writing about veganism increases around 2011. Apparently, in this year, the trend of going vegan or becoming a vegetarian increased strongly compared to previous years. Together with the hype of the superfoods, the trend to stop eating meat is reaching people all over the world. Also, going vegan seems to be a hype too, just like the superfoods. Going vegan seems to be more a hype than becoming a vegetarian, because there have always been a certain number of vegetarians. Going vegan seems to be something new. The vegan hype is getting more media attention when celebrities start participating in challenges to adopt this lifestyle for a certain amount of time. For instance, Jay-Z and Beyoncé accepted the challenge to eat vegan for a month (‘Jay Z and Beyonce: Vegan power or celebrity hype?’, 2014).

While searching for information about non-meat-eating lifestyles, it becomes clear that opinions about this topic differ widely. On the one hand, people argue that it is healthy to eat meat and unhealthy for the human body to stop eating meat and that this can even be dangerous on the long-term. On the other hand, people argue that meat is unhealthy and causes diseases, so not eating meat will be healthier.

Apart from the health concerns, animal cruelty is given as a reason to change to a non-meat-eating diet. Lately, there have been numerous meat scandals in The Netherlands. In 2013 the first big meat scandal came to the surface. In this case, beef was mixed with horse meat, which is a cheaper kind of meat, but sold as pure beef. At the beginning of 2014 the Nederlandse Voedsel- en Warenautoriteit (NVWA) discovered a similar situation, in which horse meat was being sold as beef (Timmer, 2014). Not only those meat scandals received media and political attention, after those scandals more documentaries appeared about meat production, for example documentaries made by ‘De Keuringsdienst van Waren’ and ‘Zembla’. Those documentaries focus on animal cruelty in the bio-industry, but also about effects on the environment due to meat production, as shown in the documentary Cowspiracy: the sustainable secret (2014). The recent attention for such scandals, might make people more aware of the meat they are eating. It could even be a reason to change to a non-meat diet.

Other reasons to change to a non-meat diet we found are climate change, change in lifestyle, influence of family and peers, but also the influence of surroundings. Media or rather social media play a huge role in the daily life of youth nowadays, which suggests that social media can influence the decision to stop eating meat. Because there are so many reasons to change to a non-meat-eating diet, we find it interesting to research this topic.

Our main research question is: ‘What is the difference in motivations between youth who stopped eating meat before this was a hype and youth who stopped eating meat after this became a hype?’ We are interested in the motivation of youth to stop eating meat. Youth are able to continue but also break with norms, cultural practices and traditions. They are able to influence society, through creating a society in which they want to live. It is also fascinating to see how this particular group is influenced by external influences since they are entering a time of discovering themselves and how they reclaim their space in society.

We decided to split our interviewees in one group of people who stopped eating meat before the year 2011, and one group that stopped eating meat after 2011, as we decided that the hype of becoming a vegetarian or vegan started in 2011. We are interested to see whether there are differences in motivations between these two groups, and to what extent they have been influenced by the hype. We have interviewed thirteen people in total. Six of those interviewees belong to the group who became vegetarian before 2011. The other seven belong to the group who became vegetarian after 2011. To make clear who belongs to which group when quoting an interviewee, the number of years for which they have been vegetarian will be mentioned behind the name of the person quoted. Those who have been vegetarian for approximately five years belong to the ‘after-group’. Those who have been vegetarian for more than five years belong to the ‘before-group’. By making this distinction, we will try to find if there is a difference in motivations to become a vegetarian between the people of those two groups.

We interviewed the thirteen interviewees through semi-structured interviews. Some of the interviews we did face-to-face. Other interviews were conducted over the phone, due to limited time and the inability to make an appointment with every interviewee. We don’t think this has influenced the reliability and credibility of the interviews. All interviews were held in Dutch and all of the interviewees have a Dutch nationality.

The table below gives an overview of the respondents and their cited motivations for adopting a non-meat-eating diet. The names in italics are those who have changed their diet before 2011. All names are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of the interviewees.

Interviewees Animal cruelty Environmental change Family, peers, surroundings Health Other
Milou (21) I I I No choice
Josje (43) I
Kate (22) I
Sophie (17) I I
Anna (20 I I
Liselot (25) I Change in life attitude
Marijke (23) I I
Elsa (23) I I do not need meat
Henk (47) I
Bert (22) I Does not feel right
Anouk (20) I I I
Isa (46) I No choice
Chantal (21) I I

Although there are different kinds of diets which do not contain meat, we will not make a distinction between all these differences. We will explain the types of vegetarians here. The first type of non-meat diet is semi-vegetarianism where people avoid meat, poultry and fish most of the time. The second type of vegetarianism is pesco-vegetarianism, where people avoid meat and poultry, but do eat fish. Lacto-ovo-vegetarianism is again a different sort of vegetarianism where people do not eat meat, fish, and poultry, but they do eat milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs and other dairy products. Then there are the vegans who avoid products of animal origin altogether (Pribis, Pencak & Grajales, 2010). We do not make a distinction between all these types of vegetarians, because it is hard to draw a line between the different kinds of vegetarians. Instead, we will use the term ‘non-meat-eaters’. This term contains all of the types of vegetarians. ‘Non-meat’ includes red meat and poultry, but excludes fish and shellfish.

Non-meat eaters in numbers

Data show the number of vegetarians around the world is on the rise. A research conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group showed that, in 1994, approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population was vegetarian. In 2000 this percentage had risen to 2.5 percent and in 2003 2.8 percent of the U.S. population could be considered vegetarian. 2.3 percent represents approximately 7 million people (Stahler, 2006). In 2015, this 2.8 percent has risen to 5 percent of the U.S. population, which means that now 16 million people in the U.S. are vegetarian (Watters, 2015). According to an article in the Huffington Post (2014) about the rise of veganism, approximately 42 percent of the people who do not eat animal products claim that they went vegan after they saw an educational film about this topic. 69 percent of the people said they went vegan to support the ethical treatment of animals.

In the European Union the number of vegetarians is between 2 percent and 10 percent in 2013. According to a research by LEI Wageningen UR in 2012, 4,5 percent of the Dutch population was vegetarian or vegan. This would be approximately 750.000 people (Dagevos, et al., 2012). According to Ethisch Vegetarisch Alternatief, a Belgian NGO, 2 percent or 3 percent of the Belgian population was vegetarian in 2012 (Knack, 2012).

In other part of the world, for example in Israel, 2,6 percent of the population was vegetarian or vegan in 2010 and that percentage has grown with the years (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 2014). In India the percentage of vegetarians in 2013 is around 31 percent. This high percentage is due to the fact that a large majority of the population in India is Hindu and they don’t eat meat for religious reasons. The number of vegetarians in the world is growing (Project on Livestock Industrialization, Trade and Social-Health-Environment Impacts in Developing Countries, 2003). Only a small percentage of the population in industrialized countries could be described as a vegetarian or vegan. Those lifestyles are more common in parts of the world where religion plays an important role in the daily life of the population. Vegetarianism is a growing minority in the West (Meat Atlas: Facts and figures about the animals we eat, 2014).

While searching for vegetarians who wanted to participate in our research, we didn’t come across many men. According to an article in the Huffington Post, of all vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. the vast majority is female. In 2009, when about 1 million people were vegan, 79 percent of those people were women. In 2013, women still make up 79 percent of the vegan group, and 59 percent are female vegetarians (Huffington Post, 2014). We figured that in 2015, this will be no different. Women will surely still be the majority of these groups. For our research we interviewed two men and eleven women, so this majority according the Huffington Post is consistent with our research.


“It was normal for me”

The reasons to adopt a non-meat diet are very broad and vary per person. In this paper the focus will be on some motivations to adopt a non-meat diet. The choice to stop eating meat is a personal one. A non-meat diet is chosen for different reasons depending on age, gender, religion, educational level and overall health beliefs. In 1992 a study published that the highest number of vegetarians, 46 percent, had chosen a vegetarian diet for health reasons. The same study found that 15 percent chose to be vegetarian for animal rights reasons, 12 percent because of friend/family influence, 5 percent for ethical reasons and the least, 4 percent, had chosen to be vegetarian because of environmental issues. 18 percent indicated ‘other reasons’ (Sabaté, 2001).

For most of our interviewees, it was a gradual process to stop eating meat. Others didn’t find it weird or hard because of the influence of their parents or peers. Anouk (1,5 years) says:

“I was 19 when I stopped eating meat. It was somewhere during my first year of college about 1,5 years ago. I started to think more about what I was eating. I dare to say that my education has some influences on those thoughts. I wanted to do something to help the earth.”

Also Sophie (1,5 years) wants to make a change:

“It was normal for me to change my diet. At home I didn’t experience any negativity. I just want to help stop climate change because we need the world. Not eating meat gives me the idea that I am doing something.”

Environmental change is not the only issue our interviewees want to change. Animal cruelty is another problem our respondents want to help solve. Chantal (11 years) says that she stopped eating meat after watching a documentary about chicken slaughter. She found it so disturbing and wrong that she decided to stop eating meat at the age of ten.

When Kate (10 years) found out at the age of seven that meat is a dead animal, she did not want to eat meat any more.

“Each time I saw meat, I saw a dead animal. I still see a dead animal when I look at meat. I find it so disturbing. When I am in the supermarket, I walk by the meat shelf as fast as I can, because I cannot look at it. ”

Anouk (1,5 years) decided to stop eating meat due the possible health issues.

“I read a lot that animals get hormones in order grow quicker and bigger. Those hormones also enter our body when we eat the meat. I did not like that idea. I believe that too much hormones in your body has a bad influence on your body. That is why I stopped eating meat.”

Most youth we have spoken with chose a non-meat diet for reasons of either environmental change, animal cruelty or health reasons. Youth are unhappy about the current situation surrounding the way animals are being treated or climate change. They try everything within their power to make changes. In this case that means to stop eating meat, in order to change the situation. By deciding to stop eating meat they try to do something about it. It gives them the feeling of power. They do not have to watch the situation getting out of hand without doing something. The change of diet empowers them and they believe that even though it is only them who stop eating meat, it is one person less for whom meat has to be produced. This gives them the feeling of being part of something bigger and that they really can make a difference.

Other interviewees told us about the struggle of changing their eating habits. Kate (10 years), for instance, had a hard time convincing her parents to allow her to stop eating meat. Not only convincing parents that it is not difficult to cook without meat turns out to be a struggle for some of our respondents, but also convincing themselves can be difficult. Marijke (3 years) says:

“I stopped eating meat when I was 20 years old. I wanted it for a while back then, but I never had the courage and the energy to really do it. I thought it would be hard to cook without meat. When I found out that this wasn’t the case at all, I soon became a vegetarian.”  

Sophie (1,5) is getting really enthusiastic about cooking without meat.

“You know, there are many delicious recipes. You get more creative when you cook without meat. I have this cookbook, a present form my sister, which is amazing! All sort of vegetarian meals, I have made almost all of them.”

Also Liselot (5 years) stopped eating meat due to the same thoughts about meat. It didn’t feel right for her to eat something which has been killed. All three want to have more control over their health by controlling what enters their body.

Changing to a non-meat diet is not the hard part, the tricky part is being able to hold on to a non-meat diet, according to some. As Anouk (1,5 years) admits:

“I have not been a vegetarian for that long and I did love meat a lot, maybe I still do love meat, so it has been quite hard for me to stick to a non-meat diet.”  

Also Sophie (1,5 years) had a hard time to hold on to her vegetarian lifestyle.

“My parents and sister all eat meat. Even though they cook separately for me, every evening there is this meat smell which makes it so much more difficult not to eat it.”

Since Chantal (11 years) stopped eating meat, her parents cooked different for her. Gradually her mother also started to share her diet which made it easier for her to hold onto it.

“It is awkward when you are the only non-meat eater”

Everybody will be influenced by their family, peers and surroundings according to different social learning theories (Grey & Bjorklund, 2014). We experience this with our own eating habits. They are much the same as our family and our peers. This made us wonder about the role of family, peers and surroundings in the decision of youth to change their diet to a non-meat one. Families include parents and siblings, meaning the inner family who have a direct influence on the upbringing of youth. Children learn to eat certain types of food when they see their parents or other adults eat it first (Grey & Bjorklund, 2014, p. 139). So when a family sticks to a non-meat diet, children will not learn to eat meat, according to Grey and Bjorklund (2014). This can influence the choice of young people to either continue a non-meat diet or start eating meat. This is very accurate for Milou’s (21 years) situation.

“My whole family is vegetarian. It started with my great-grandmother. My grandmother didn’t eat meat either because of her mother and her husband, my grandfather, stopped eating meat because of my grandmother, just like my father stopped eating meat because of my mother. I have never eaten meat or fish in my life, except for a few bites of some products, just to try it.”

Obviously, Milou’s family has had a huge influence on her being a vegetarian. She never really had a choice, which she sometimes finds a shame. In general, she is happy to be a vegetarian and living like this, but sometimes she wishes she would have had a choice.

“My stomach and intestines aren’t used to meat so when I do eat it, my stomach and intestines will be upset and it feels really bad. Also, when I tried a bite of meat and fish, it felt really weird mentally. It felt like I had literally an animal inside of me. It was not a nice feeling.”

In other interviews it became clear that family doesn’t always play a role in the decision to quit eating meat. Sophie (1,5 years):

“I am the only one in my family who does not eat meat. At first it was hard to eat with the family while they would still eat meat, but after some time you get used to it. After some time the meals my parents made for me got better. You know that you get really creative when you do not eat meat? My family supports me in my decision and I am grateful for that.”

Not only family members influence the choices of young people, but also peers have the power to steer choices of people of their age, like friends, classmates, teammates and neighbours. Children learn not only from watching adults but also from watching each other (Grey & Bjorklund, 2014, p. 472). This also applies when a peer changes his or her eating habits, for instance to a non-meat diet. Other peers see this new diet and might want to try this. This might be due to the fact that youth become ‘concerned about looking and behaving like their peers’, according to Grey and Bjorklund (2014, p. 484). A choice is not only influenced by people but also by wider social surroundings, such as schools or universities, work and social class.

As stated above, not only family may or may not play a role in the decision to stop eating meat; peers can also influence the decision. For instance, when peers already have a non-meat diet it is more ‘normal’ for someone to make the decision to change diet. Sophie (1,5 years):

“A lot of my friends are vegetarian or even vegan, so it was not strange for me to stop eating meat. In my group of friends it was already common.”

Anna (1 year) was also influenced by a friend of hers who was already a vegetarian. She was already considering to quit eating meat, because she already only ate poultry, since she didn’t like red meat. Her friend told her about the climate issues which would be caused by the meat industry. Together with her feelings about animal cruelty, Anna then decided to quit eating meat.

Family, peers and surroundings do not always have a positive input on the decision. In some cases, like Anouk’s (1,5 years), who is surrounded by people who eat meat, it is difficult for her to stay on her non-meat-eating diet.

“In my surrounding, most people eat meat. I tend to eat most of the time with others who have to consider my diet. This makes me feel uncomfortable, because they always have to make something different especially for me.”

Social surroundings can have a great influence on feelings concerning  a non-meat diet. Kate (10 years) feels this very strongly. Her family, boyfriend and his family all eat meat.

“When I cook, I do cook meat because Wouter (her boyfriend for four years) likes it. I feel sick when I have to cut it, but I love him enough to make it for him. However, I only buy organic meat for him. When we eat at his parents’ house I feel uncomfortable because his parents eat meat and I do not. I feel awful that they have to cook something different for me. I feel annoying, because they always have to take into account that I do not eat meat. One time we had fish for dinner, which I do eat on occasion, but the fish was not filleted yet which made it really hard for me to eat. I did not dare to say anything about it.”

More changes in lifestyle

According to Erikson’s life-span theory, as discussed in Grey and Bjorklund (2014, p. 483), adolescence is the stage of ‘identity crisis’, meaning that a young person is searching for a ‘new’, more grown up identity. In that context, youth can see changing lifestyle as a way to identify oneself with the image of who they want to be. Identity according to Jenkins (1996, in Macionis & Plummer, 2012, p. 227) is ‘our understanding of who we are and of who other people are and, reciprocally, other people’s understanding of themselves and of others’. During this time, youth thinks about life, changes and problems. This helps them to create an image of who they want to become. To reach that goal, youth have to make changes in their lifestyle.

Banning meat from their diet is for some of the interviewees not the only change they made in their lifestyle. Anouk (1,5 years):

“About 1,5 year ago, I stopped eating meat. Recently I tend to eat more vegan. For instance, breakfast and lunch are almost always vegan while dinner is pescotarisch, which means I do not eat meat, but I do eat fish.”

Very gradually, Anouk is changing her diet again. She said that this is happening without really thinking about it.

Elsemieke: “Have you made any other changes in your lifestyle?”

Liselot (5 years): “Yes, I did.”

Elsemieke: “Can you give me an example of some of these changes?”

Liselot (5 years): “I try to be more aware of what I am doing, thinking, feeling, eating and drinking. I try to live consciously. I started following yoga and meditation lessons, I cycle more instead of going by car. I try to eat as many local, seasonal and organic products as I can and least as possible pre-packed products.”

Liselot (5 years) did not only change her diet but her whole lifestyle, like Marijke (3 years) did. She does not use products which are tested on animals. Neither does she wear or buy leather or uses pillows filled with real feathers. Marijke (3 years) said:

“If you’re going to watch your diet, what happens if you stop eating meat, you will become naturally more aware of how ‘bad’ some things are.”

For some of the interviewees, to stop eating meat was not the first change they made in their lifestyle. Kate had already more or less stopped eating dairy products because she felt ill after consuming these products. Both Anouk (1,5 years) and Marijke (3 years) first changed their diet by eating only organic meat instead of ‘normal’ meat. Not only is buying only organic meat a change in lifestyle, but buying other organic products like vegetables is a change in lifestyle too. Kate (10 years):

“I try to buy as much organic products as I can, but this is really expensive. My dad’s new wife inspired me to do this, because she always buys organic products. I also only buy eggs of chickens who had a relatively good life. In this way I try to help the animals.”

Something that stood out in the interviews, was that the respondents said that it was easier to maintain a non-meat diet because of the many meat substitutes. Kate (10 years):

“Because going vegan or becoming vegetarian is a hype, you have so much more choice in the supermarket than ten years ago. This makes it easier. I now can sometimes cook meat substitutes for Wouter instead of meat, he is fine by that, as long as he still gets his meat.”

Likewise for Sophie (1,5 years), who says :

“Since there are so many options, it easier to cook for my parents as well as for myself. You can get really creative with the vegetarian and even vegan diet.”

At this moment there are meat substitutes in the supermarkets that look and taste like real meat. For people who just adopted a non-meat-eating diet this helps them adjust to this new lifestyle. Some of our interviewees argued that this is a bad thing, because it makes the step to eating meat again smaller. However, some did say that it is a positive thing that the meat substitutes look like and taste like real meat since that may stimulate people to choose a non-meat diet or eat a meat substitutes instead of real meat for some days per week. Also variation in different meat substitutes could have pushed some youth who were still doubting whether they would stop eating meat or not. There are more things to eat, which makes it easier to cook, according to Anouk (1,5 years).

Tweet: ‘I stopped eating meat! #feelgood #loveit #healthylife’

Social media play a big part in the lives of youth. We saw more and more posts on Facebook about trying a non-meat diet, environmental change and animal cruelty. This made us wonder how social media influence the choice of youth to stop eating meat. There are many different types of social media, but the main focus is on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and blogs. Social media are used to share life experiences by using photo’s, text messages, videos and sharing articles from other media. Social media have been in use ever since the internet was accessible for youth. Chatrooms, for example, have become places where young people can express their feelings, which Slama (2010) calls the ‘agency of the heart’ (p. 325). Sherry Turkle suggests in her TED Talk (2012) that the youth live more and more in a virtual world. Ideas and events which take place in the virtual world can influence the opinions of young people. This implies that youth might also be influenced to stop eating meat through social media, because on social media many other young people tweet, blog and talk about a non-meat diet.

However, most of our interviewees claim that their choice to become vegetarian is not influenced by social media, which is quite surprising to us. We thought that the “after-group” certainly would be influenced by social media, since social media are now such a bigger part of everyday life than a few years ago. It is possible that they are unaware of the influence of social media on their behaviour. As Marijke (3 years) told us, media and social media did have a slight influence on her decision:

“I think that social media has a bigger impact than people might be aware of. You see so much on Facebook and television for example, all of which influences your way of thinking, even if it is just a tiny little bit and even when you are not aware of it. You read about stuff, you see little clips on topics. Think about ‘Keuringsdienst van Waren’, petitions, and charities. Because of things I read or saw, my urge to become a vegetarian became bigger.”

While our interviewees claim that they are not influenced by social media, they do not deny the use of social media to gain and spread knowledge about not eating meat. Sophie (1,5 years):

“I can imagine that some young people are influenced by social media. I think that those people are active on those media. I am not and think that is the reason why I am not influenced by this. Because when you are active on social media, like posting pictures, sharing stuff and commenting on things, you are quicker in contact with ideas to stop eating meat.”

One of our interviewees has recently become a member of a Facebook group for vegetarians. According to her this site does not influence her. She mainly uses it to find recipes and feel connected with other non-meat-eaters.

Social media are not only used to inform oneself, but also to convince others to embrace the non-meat diet. For instance, Kate (10 years) told us she used media to convince her parents.

“I used to search for information, documentaries and articles about vegetarianism on the Internet. I did this to gather enough information to convince my parents that I could stop eating meat. When I saw a documentary about a girl who was vegetarian and cooked for herself because her parents did not want to cook without meat, this was an argument I used and I did cook for myself for some time when I finally was allowed to stop eating meat.”

This is one example of how social media can be used to promote a non-meat diet without it influencing the motivations to do so.

Social media can be used in several ways, either to convince family and peers of the decision to stop eating meat or to get information on a non-meat diet. Even though our interviewees said that they are not influenced by social media this is not a fact. It is possible that they are unaware of the influence of social media on their decision to abandon meat from their diet. Our respondents also think that some youth might be influenced by social media.

During the interviews, it became clear that the main reasons to stop eating meat were animal cruelty and environmental change, we categorized those as moral reasons. Youth are in a period of rapid growth in sophistication of moral reasoning and the development of the moral self-image which is linked with identity (Grey & Bjorklund, 2014, p. 488). In those years, youth are developing the ability to think in an abstract manner, which will help them to think and argue about moral issues. To stop eating meat because of animal cruelty or climate change are ethical reasons which are decisions based on the developed moral self-image.

“Meat is a dead animal”

Animal cruelty includes the breeding, transportation and slaughter of the animals which is seen as immoral due to suffering of the animals and the violation of animal rights, which can be a motivation to stop eating meat (Beardsworth & Keil, 1993). For Josje (38 years), Kate (10 years), Anna (1 year), Marijke (3 years) and Anouk (1,5 years) animal cruelty was the main reason to become a vegetarian. Many of them and other interviewees said they are against bio-industry. They do not approve how the animals are treated in the bio-industry, knowing that they have no space and are with way too many in a stable. They prefer that animals are able to walk outside without being forced to eat as much as they possibly can to grow fat as fast as possible.

Anouk (1,5 years) says that even though she ate organic meat in the past, she started to question where the meat really came from. And whether the approved meat really is as animal friendly as it is stated to be. How strictly are those rules followed? Because she had issues with this and a hard time believing that the meat was really animal friendly, the choice to stop eating meat was suddenly easier for her to make. As for Anouk (1,5 years) it was not literally identifying meat as an animal, but more the condition under which the meat was ‘fabricated’.

For Kate (10 years) the motivation to stop eating meat was when she realized that meat comes from animals.

“I never wanted to eat meat again when I found out that it came from a dead animal. My parents made me eat it, but I always started crying. One day I had to cut chicken breast and I was crying so hard that my dad said “Okay, fine, you can stop eating meat!” I was 12 or 13 years old then, but it took maybe two whole years before my parents would allow me to stop eating it.”

The same goes for Josje (38 years):

“One day when I was seven years old, I asked my mother where the meatballs we were eating came from. She told me that it was meat from a cow. I was shocked and I never ate meat again in my life. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I suddenly had cravings for my grandma’s meatballs. So strange! I tried to eat one, but my body refused. I puked afterwards.”

Not all youth who adopt a non-meat-eating diet, sympathize with all animals. Sophie (1,5 years) says:

“Naturally I object to animal cruelty, but I cannot sympathize with all animals. For some animals I find it harder to see them as abused than others. For instance, I can sympathize with a chicken that lives with 30 other chicken in a small cage. Whose beak is chopped of so that she cannot kill the other chickens. While I cannot sympathize with a fish. They are alien to me. This is why I still eat fish sometimes.”

Also Anouk (1,5 years) keeps eating fish because it is not ‘real’ meat in her eyes. On the other hand, some sympathize with all animals. Kate (10 years) sympathizes too much with animals, according to herself. She does eat fish due to health concerns, otherwise she misses too much of the vitamins and nutrients her body needs to function well. While she does eat fish, the fish has to be fileted and without the skin. Shrimps have to be peeled, because otherwise she will not eat them.

“Once we were in a restaurant and I ordered shrimps, because there was no vegetarian dish. I thought they would be peeled already, but it turned out they were not. With tears in my eyes I peeled them, continuously thinking to myself ‘They are already dead so it is better that you eat them otherwise they have died for nothing.’ I buried the head and the skin under a napkin so that I didn’t have to look at it. I saw it as a way to give the shrimps a proper burial.”

There seems to be no difference between the group that stopped eating meat before the hype and the group which adopted a non-meat-eating diet after the hype. Both groups agree that eating less or no meat means less animal cruelty, due to the fact that there is less demand for meat and therefore less animals that need to be bred, fed and slaughtered for human consumption.

“We need the world”

Stock breeding produces emission and an extreme amount of manure, but also transport, storage and packaging of the animals and the meat have a negative effect on the environment (Voedingscentrum, z.j.). The animals in the meat industry need to be fed, as much as possible, to let them grow as fast as possible. Producing the forage for all these animals, takes its toll on the environment and is said to be causing climate change. For example, the procedure to produce Parma ham is not very environmental friendly. The pigs used for the Parma ham are transported from, for example, The Netherlands to Italy to be slaughtered. Only when the pig is slaughtered in a certain area in Italy, one is allowed to call it Parma ham. If the same pig is slaughtered elsewhere in the world, the same ham has a different name and is not allowed to be sold under the name Parma ham. After the slaughter the Parma ham is transported back to the country of origin. For some youth these kinds of situations are a reason to stop eating meat. Anouk (1,5 years) said that the environment was, and still is, her main motivation to stop eating meat. Also Anna (1 year), Elsa (1 year) and Sophie (1,5 years) say that they changed their diet due to environmental change. As Sophie (1,5 years) recalls:

“My main motivation to stop eating meat is the environment. At school we watched a documentary about coral riffs. I was shocked to see how much damage fishing ships do to these riffs. Off course I do not like to see animal cruelty but I think that environmental change is a bigger global problem.”

According to Sophie, though, not everyone has to adopt a non-meat-eating diet. She argues that it is not necessary for everybody to quit eating meat to solve the climate change problem, but if everyone would be eating less meat, it would help to fix this problem.

“Not everyone has to become a vegetarian of vegan. But I think that it would help to eat less meat than we are consuming now. If everyone would only eat meat three of four days a week, it would be so much better for the environment. There will be less emission since fewer trucks are needed to transport the meat to the supermarkets and animals to the slaughter.”

Not all interviewees agree with this theory. For instance, Kate (10 years) claims that it is not that easy to say that eating no meat will change the environment for the better. She saw a documentary about how the production of tofu – which is often eaten by many non-meat-eaters – has a negative influence on the environment and climate too. And when you do no longer eat meat, you will start eating more vegetables, which also have to come from all around the world. This has a negative impact on the environment. Therefore she does not think you can say that being a vegetarian is directly better for the environment.

The interviewees who stopped eating meat after the hype have given environmental change as a motivation to change their diet more often than those who stopped eating meat before the hype. This is an interesting finding. The reason for this is not completely clear. As a side note on this correlation, it could be that recently more media- and political attention is being given to the environment and the problem of climate change. Youth who decided for example 10 years ago to stop eating meat may not have thought of climate change because the effects of climate change were harder to see than they are now. Another possible explanation is that when youth decide to stop eating meat when they are still a child, they may not yet be able to understand climate change. At that age animal cruelty for example speaks more to them since they know what animals are and that you have to treat them right.

“Missing vitamins”

The final motivation focused on in this paper is health concerns. Health concerns include all health reasons for why young people stop eating meat. Health concerns could be on the increase because some big international news and health organizations, like the BBC, The Huffington Post, the World Health Organization, and in The Netherlands the Voedingscentrum, have all reported that eating meat is unhealthy. A diet without meat would reduce the risk of cancer and prevent heart diseases (Gallagher, 2013). The claim is that not eating meat means having a healthier heart. However, a non-meat diet has to be planned carefully so that the human body get all the vitamins and minerals it needs (Burr & Sweetnam, 1982). This is something that some of our interviewees also noted, such as Milou (21 years):

“I have not eaten meat in my whole life. I do read things about that meat is unhealthy for you, mostly red meat, but I don’t really dove into these researches because it does not concern me. So I do not really know that much about it. I do know that because I am a vegetarian, I don’t get all the nutrients a human body needs. I struggle with getting enough vitamins and nutrients and I had to go to the doctor twice with fatigue related complaints, which were caused by a lack of vitamin B12. I had to go to the doctor every month to get an injection with vitamin B12. Because of this, I sometimes think about starting to eat fish every once in a while.”

This shows just how important it is to get all the nutrients for the body. Just like Milou (21 years), Kate (10 years) knows that having a non-meat-eating diet results in not getting all nutrients the human body needs. She doesn’t think it is healthy to stop eating meat completely. She claims that you will have a lack of vitamin B12 and iron.

“It is normal for humans to eat meat. Meat contains vitamins and other important things you need to be healthy.”

However, even though some claim that they know that not eating meat is unhealthy since their bodies need certain vitamins and minerals, they still do it. Sophie(1,5 years):

“Since I stopped eating meat I take extra vitamins, because I need them.”

Both groups know that it is unhealthy but by taking extra vitamins they try to solve this problem. Again, there is no difference between the group who stopped eating meat before it was a hype and the group that changed their diet after the hype.

Another recent trending topic related to health concerns is that the media increasingly reports about added hormones in meat. These hormones seem to be unhealthy for human beings and seem to cause diseases (Storrs, 2011). Marijke (3 years) argues that she did not want to eat meat anymore, because she did not want to take in the hormones and antibiotics which tend to be in meat. Along with animal cruelty, this was her main reason to become a vegetarian. Anouk (1,5 years) said that during her education, Bedrijfs- en Consumentenwetenschappen, she learned about meat modification. What she learned about all the toxics that are used to create the best meat, shocked her. This helped her in her decision to stop eating meat.

Others will argue that with a non-meat diet they will lose weight (‘5 reasons to try a vegetarian diet’, 2014). Since obesity is a major issue nowadays, a very modern health concern, people can be motivated to stop eating meat in order to lose weight. Another reason to change diet is when the body does not react well to meat. For Liselot (5 years), health concerns played an important part in the decision to stop eating meat.

“Meat did not taste as good as it used to and my stomach would get a little upset when I would eat meat. It just didn’t felt right, physically and mentally. So I gradually stopped eating meat, and now I feel so much better.”

Through the interviews we have not seen a difference between the groups on health concerns. Both the interviewees who adopted a non-meat diet before the hype and those who stopped eating meat after knew that not eating meat meant having to take pills for the vitamins the human body lacks.

“It is normal for people to eat meat”

Just as meat-eating youth have a certain stereotypical image of non-meat-eating youth, this is also the other way around. During the interviews this was an interesting topic since we as researchers are both meat-eaters. It is interesting to see that most of the interviewees are completely fine with meat-eating youth. As Milou (21 years) says:

“I think it is really normal that people eat meat. The human being is an omnivore after all. Even though it is piteous for the animals, it is nature. I do think it is good when people eat organic meat. In general I don’t think in a bad way about people who eat meat, but I do think that a lot of people could eat less meat than they do now.”

Neither Milou nor any of our other interviewees are against people who eat meat, but all of them would like people to eat less meat. They all stress that it is everybody’s own choice, just like it is their choice not to eat meat.

Other aspects our interviewees mentioned, was that meat-eaters are ignorant in the sense of unknowing. Kate (10 years):

“I am not against eating meat. But I sure am against the bio-industry and how animals are treated and think that people need to be more aware where the meat comes from.”

So meat-eating youth should not only eat less meat, but should be also more informed where the meat they are eating comes from. Anouk (1,5 years) is more direct about this topic:

“I do think that people who eat meat are hypocrites. They do eat meat, but do not dare to slaughter the animal they are about to eat. In my opinion this is very contradictory. Or when people say that they shower less than ten minutes because of the environment, but eat steak at dinner. Then that shower of less than ten minutes does not matter anymore, eating that steak is worse for the environment than those showers of ten minutes. I get frustrated when thinking about it!”

Or according to Josje (38 years):

“I make no distinction between meat-eaters and vegetarians. Everybody has to do what they want. I do not want interference from others, so I won’t interfere with others too. As long as no one is forcing me to eat meat, it is all fine by me. I do feel like vegetarians get judged a lot by meat-eaters. My opinion is that as a meat-eater you are allowed to make comments on vegetarians, only when you shoot your own cow, slaughter it and prepare it all by yourself!”

Liselot (5 years) likes it when people understand her choice and not just the superficial idea of it.

“I try not to judge, everybody is different. But it is nice when people are sympathetic to me to not eat meat. It is even nicer when someone understands it on a deeper level, and often this is someone who is also vegetarian or someone who lives consciously and makes conscious choices about their lifestyle and nutrition.”

Other vegetarians as ‘not real vegetarians’

Just as non-meat-eating youth have an opinion about meat-eating youth, they also have a certain image of non-meat-eating youth, just like we had before we started this research. We know a few vegetarians ourselves, of which a few are quite condemnatory against meat-eaters. They come across as very aggressive and because of the rejection they are causing, they put other vegetarians in a bad light too. We do not blame them for being a vegetarian, so they should not blame us for eating meat. Through the interviews it became clear that actually all of our interviewees thought the same way about this. They also did not like the vegetarians who acted in this aggressive way and said that this will only have the opposite effect. Milou (21 years):

“I sometimes catch myself thinking about other vegetarians as ‘not real vegetarians’. I know this is stupid, but I think this is because almost everybody I know has not been vegetarian as long as I am. Also it is just part of my nurture. My parents have a strict idea in their head of when you are a ‘real’ vegetarian and when you are not. For example, when people don’t eat meat, but do eat fish, I see them as ‘not real vegetarians’. I’m glad though, that so many people have stopped eating meat. Even when they have stopped eating meat for a while and then started again. I find people who try to force others to become a vegetarian annoying. In my opinion this is not the right way, you cannot force someone to stop eating meat.”

Not only Milou (21 years) thinks that some vegetarians or vegans are creating a negative image for the group they belong to, by being so aggressive to meat-eaters. Kate (10 years) says:

“I find a lot of vegetarians and vegans very annoying. They give other vegetarians a bad name because they are telling others that they are doing it wrong and telling them they are ‘murderers’ for eating meat. This is how vegetarianism gets a bad name. I am not like that at all. I even feel like people could find me annoying when I am having dinner with people I do not know that well and have to tell them that I am a vegetarian. They have to take into account that I do not eat meat and that is not always a nice feeling.”

Anna (1 year) states the same opinion, she finds people who are forcing others to become vegetarians also annoying.

“I personally feel better when I don’t eat meat, which has nothing to do with others. People who talk about their vegetarianism and brag about it on Facebook or something annoy me, to me it feels like that is not the point of being a vegetarian.”

Not all our respondents were negative about other non-meat-eating youth. For instance Anouk (1,5 years) approves of other non-meat-eating youth. However:

“I do make differences between people who do it for the environment, people who do it for the animals and people to do not eat meat, because they do not like it. I have more respect for the people who really do like meat, but out of principle do not eat meat.”

Sophie (1,5 years) is also quite positive about other non-meat-eating youth. She had an image in her head of non-meat-eating youth who would be “activists, have an alternative music choice and clothing, dopey, and extreme involved in different issues”. Sophie is happily surprised that this is not the case, according to her.

“Everyone is just normal. Very relaxed. Not pushing others to adopt the same diet.”

This is the complete opposite from what Anna (1 year), Kate (10 years) and Milou (21 years) told us. This is possible due the other non-meat-eating youth our respondents know or their perception of what it means to have a non-meat diet.


When we started this research, we had a few expectations, of which most turned out not to be true. We expected to find a difference in motivations to adopt a non-meat diet between the youth who stopped eating before it became a hype and those who stopped eating meat after the hype. This was not the case at all. The reasons were the same for both groups, with the majority mentioning animal cruelty and climate change as their motivation to stop eating meat. We did expect that animal cruelty and environmental change would play a major role in the decision to adopt a non-meat diet, however we expected that there would be a significant difference between the two groups. Our expectation was that the groups who stopped eating meat before the hype would mention animal cruelty and environmental change as their main motivations to stop eating meat and the groups who stopped eating meat after the hype would mention health concerns more often. It is interesting to see that animal cruelty and environmental change are almost always combined motivations for our interviewees to adopt a non-meat-eating diet. Our respondents said that they were quite shocked when they learned about the bio-industry and where the meat they ate every day came from. They did not approve these animal abusive meat production and wanted to do something. By not eating meat they feel like they have power to contribute to stop the bio-industry and slow down, if not stop, climate change. The main motivation concerning animal cruelty is the bio-industry. All interviewees named the bio-industry in the interviews as something that has to be stopped. Only a few mentioned animal rights and the treatment of animals. Environmental change is a big, worldwide issue which needs to be solved. The interviewees mentioning the environment as the main reason to stop eating meat, felt like they made a difference and contribute in the long road to a better environment.

The second most mentioned reason to stop eating meat is health concerns. Through the interviews we have not seen a difference between the two groups considering health concerns. Both groups, the interviewees who adopted a non-meat diet before the hype and those who stopped eating meat after it became a hype, knew that not eating meat would have a negative impact on their body. Our interviewees knew that they had to take extra vitamin pills since their bodies would lack certain nutrients. This did not stop them in their decision to quit eating meat. The reasons to have health as an motivation to stop eating meat are, however, diffuse. Some respondents mentioned that they felt ill after eating meat, while others mentioned the hormones in the meat as a heath concern.

Another surprising result concerns the influence of social media. All interviewees said that they were not influenced by social media, but do believe that some youth are influenced by it. The reasons our interviewees gave us were that they are not as active on social media as others and therefore not that easily influenced by it. However, it is hard to not be influenced by social media since it has taken up a great part of youths’ daily lives. We believe that youth are influenced, even if they say they are not. It is possible to be influenced by certain (social) media without registering it. Unconsciously, youth can be influenced by for example the pictures of animal cruelty or an article about hormones and antibiotics in meat. Still, it is not possible for us to state whether social media really did or did not influence the decision to quit eating meat, since according to our interviewees social media do not play a role in the decision in changing their diet to a non-meat-eating one.

Neither have we found a difference between the two groups in their lifestyle changes or influence of family, peers and surroundings. Only one interviewee said that she changed her diet due to a change in her lifestyle. She suddenly had the idea that she had to change her lifestyle since the got another attitude to life. Furthermore, there are no specific things our interviewees changed in their lifestyle neither is there a structure which each group follows in our created groups. In both group, some of the interviewees had started eating organic meat before quitting eating meat altogether. As said earlier, we ourselves are both influenced by our parents’ eating habits, as are some of our respondents. Their family never ate meat, so they did not eat meat either. This has influenced their diet choice significantly. However, except for those three respondents, most of our interviewees were not influenced by their family. Nor did any of them say that they are influenced by their peers. Some did mention that it was not strange for them to adopt a non-meat-eating diet, since their friends had the same diet, but other interviewees had friends who did eat meat. It is not always something they talk about with their peers. It is possible that the interviewees could be influenced by their peers, while they were not aware of it. This could be the case when friends had already stopped eating meat and therefore it is not that alien anymore as it otherwise might have been. Surroundings did not play a role in changing to a non-meat-eating diet but did make our interviewees quite often feel uncomfortable. Many of the interviewees mentioned feeling awkward and annoying when they were in company of others who eat meat, because those people had to take into account that they would not eat meat and cook another dish for them.

We interviewed some people face-to-face and others over the phone. We do not think this has influenced our interview results, although we were not able to see the body language of the people we interviewed over the phone. What could have influenced our results, is that we knew some of the interviewees beforehand. This is an advantage because we did not need to establish a relationship with the interviewee since we already had one. However, it is possible that, because we already knew each other, not all answers were completely honest. But this is an issue one will also have with unknown interviewees. Another thing which could have influenced the answers was that most of the interviewees knew that we both are meat-eaters. This could have resulted in less passionate answers, but it can also be a trigger to answer passionately about a non-meat diet in trying to convince to stop eating meat. Also, through the snowball effect we were able to speak with a whole family about changing to a non-meat diet. The results from this family can be biased since the family members have likely influenced each other in the way of thinking about a non-meat diet.

Another fault in our research could be that we created the two different groups and categorized our interviewees in them, based on the number of years they have not been eating meat. This to distinguish between youth who stopped eating meat before it became a hype to change your diet to a non-meat-eating one, and youth who stopped eating meat after this hype. It is possible that the last group is influenced by all the information which has come with the hype and that because of that their motivation has changed unconsciously. We have made the distinction between the two groups at the year 2011 to the ‘before-group’ and the interviewees who adopted a non-meat diet after the year 2011 belong to the ‘after-group’. But 2011 is four years ago and much could have changed in those four years. It is possible that youth who stopped eating meat in, for example, 2009 are also influenced by the hype, even though the hype was not at its peak yet. The same goes for youth who stopped eating meat after 2011. It is not said that all youth who stopped eating meat after 2011 are certainly influenced by the hype. We generalized youth into those two groups without real evidence that they are or are not influenced by the hype of changing your diet. This might be why we have not found a difference in motivations to stop eating meat.

For further research it might be interesting to organize a focus group with youth from before the hype and after the hype. This might be a better way than only one-on-one interviews to search for a possible difference in motivation between the two groups. Then the research can observe where the groups have different views or have similar ideas.

Ultimately, this research has changed our way of thinking about eating meat. We already were quite aware of where our meat came from and the circumstances in which the animals have to live before they are slaughtered. But interviewing the non-meat-eaters put things more into perspective. Still, to stop eating meat altogether is something neither of us is willing to do. Ester loves meat too much to stop eating it and Elsemieke also thinks it cannot be healthy for a human body to not eat meat. So, we will not become vegetarians after this research, but we sure are more aware of eating meat.

(Research paper written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context, ASW)


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Global Health Papers , Global Youth Papers

Illustratie - Jannes Broekman Jannes Broekman

We are currently part of something that is bigger than all of us. The speed and magnitude of it are overwhelming. Some people believe we can do nothing about it, that it is out of our hands. Others think we are able to engage more actively in it, that we can actually change and shape it. I am talking about the Internet revolution, spurred by globalization. During the previous century, technological developments surpassed all predictions. An obvious indicator of this revolution is a recent development in music. Before the Internet came along, people had to buy cd’s or listen to the radio. Now music has digitalized onto the Internet, it is like dust in the air flowing above our heads. People can listen to whatever they want and whenever they want to. As a consequence, the music that artists make these days is influenced by the Internet. The orientation of music is now much more global. Because of this, popular music has become commercialized even more. It seems to me that a lot of artists primarily think about the commercial possibilities when writing new songs. Still, a lot of people like the music, that is why it is so interesting from a commercial point of view.

However, I have noticed that some young people think differently about this. They do not like commercial music and look for an alternative. They start listening to music that is not primarily made for mass consumption or music from past periods. This trend is not only found in music, but in social media as well. Many people feel that the speed and magnitude of the revolution and globalization is too much. They simply do not like it. So, as a reaction they put off their iPhones and listen to alternative types of music. The mainstream thoughts and ideas are simply not shared by everyone. I have noticed this phenomenon among youth especially. I recognize it in myself as well. I definitely do not listen to today’s popular music, I wouldn’t even dare to guess who is leading the Dutch Top40. So, my choices in music are influenced by this digitalization and commercialization. I like to think that I rather listen to music that is made to be music instead of a commodity. This subject therefore speaks to me. This is just one example of a reaction to this ‘new’ society and I am very curious to see how other young people might react to it, especially in the field of music. To try to satisfy my curiosity I drew up a fitting research question: ‘To what extent do youth experience aversion to the ongoing commercialization and digitalization of society, in particular in music?’

The reason I focus on youth is that they actually grew up and are still growing up in this era of digitalization, commercialization and the Internet. Furthermore, by looking at youth, we can gain an interpretation of how this trend is developing in society. So, it is especially interesting to look at this subject from their point of view. To answer my research question I have conducted semi-structured interviews with three young people in Amsterdam. I selected these respondents, because beforehand I noticed a hint of this aversion in their music choices, which seemed to make them suitable respondents for my research. My focus in the interviews was on how they looked upon commercialization and digitalization in society and if indeed they felt aversion to it. Therefore, my first subquestion is: ‘How do youth feel about the ongoing commercialization and digitalization?’ Furthermore, to answer my research question, I needed to know how their views of the ‘new’ society affected their taste in music. Here, I wanted to see how they acted as individuals in the context of society. Therefore, my second subquestion is: ‘How does this reflect in their music choices?’ By conducting interviews with my respondents in which these questions were discussed I hoped to come to a complete answer to the research question.

Digitalization, commercialization, and rationalization

To create an understanding of the commercialized and digitalized world as I intend to explore, it is important to revisit a few classical scholars, namely Weber and Habermas. Even though their theories date from the first half of the 1900’s they are not so outdated, because they discuss modernity and are very useful when used in combination with newer, recent theories. An important underlying theory of Weber is his theory about rationalization. He describes in his book about Protestantism and capitalism that the spirit of capitalism is characterized by formal rationality (Ritzer, 2010, p. 148). This is (social) action that is focused on means-end calculation (Ritzer, 2010, p. 137). The purpose of this action in the context of capitalism is to create profit in a manner that is most effective. Habermas elaborated on these ideas. He distinguished between a system and a life-world (Ritzer, 2010, p. 225). The system is the world in which economics and politics are dominant. According to Habermas, purposive-rational action (comparable to Weber’s formal rationality) is the central point of the system. All (social) action in the system is strategic; to get the best for oneself. The life-world refers to culture, social networks and community, briefly value. Communicative action, in which discourse is central, is dominant in this world (Ritzer, 2010, p. 291). Habermas writes that the system could take over the life-world (‘colonization of the life-world’) (Ritzer, 2010, p. 225). Communicative action, then, gets partly replaced by purposive-rational action and this creates a loss of value. Habermas argues that modernity constantly carries this tension between the system and the life-world. It can be argued that this is more or less what is happening in the contemporary music industry. Music is part of culture and community; it is supposed to contain a certain value and meaning. It seems that rationalization, alongside modernity, in a sense has colonized the music industry. The system is now more dominant in the music industry, which makes this a fitting example of the tension Habermas describes. The colonization has led to commercialization of music. Everything is now for sale. Music has been made into a commodity from which record companies want to create wealth. The big industry is almost void of substantive, qualitative value.

When combining these theories of Weber and Habermas with recent theories about digitalization and globalization, we come to an understanding of the subject. Jordan (2013) elaborates in his book how Internet has changed society as a whole. He starts with a description of the influence of the Internet on society: “With the Internet came not just email, electronic discussion boards, social networking, the world wide web and online gaming but across these, and other similar socio-technical artefacts, also came different identities, bodies and types of messages that changed the nature of communication and culture” (Jordan, 2013, p. 1). Furthermore, he divides this society into two historical periods, a pre-Internet and an Internet-dependent historical period. He hypothesizes that the dividing factor between the two periods is communication. In his research he tries to compare the communicative practices of these two periods (Jordan, 2013, p. 15). Many scholars share his view and so do I. Like Jordan writes, the Internet-dependent historical period has significantly changed people and their cultures. Everything is now Internet-oriented. Music is also influenced by this digitalization of information. With the upswing of the Internet it is much easier to spread music over the world. This puts an extra dimension to the rationalization described by Habermas and Weber. The Internet and digitalization have made purposive-rationality even more dominant; people can create even more wealth from it.

This point is illustrated once again by the quantitative research of the impact of digital music distribution conducted by Ahn and Yoon (2009). One of their conclusions is that digitalization has an unambiguously positive influence on the consumer surplus (Ahn & Yoon, 2009, p. 306). This notion coincides with my interpretation of contemporary society. Since music is much easier to obtain for people from all over the world, producers create music for the masses. This is the rational option to create wealth from music. So, music gets more and more commercially oriented. It is made into a commodity much more easily.

“Artists just do it for the big audience”

My findings from the interviews generally give the same idea as these theories. From what my respondents say can be inferred that they have a similar interpretation of modern society. When I addressed this subject to Loran, a 24 year-old student, he immediately sighed and started speaking in a more cynical manner. With this attitude he said:

“Yeah, this might be a good reason why I definitely do not support the Dutch Top40 and all that commercial music, because of the whole commercial thought behind it. I mean, everything only seems to evolve around making money and thinking ‘oh, I’m going to make this kind of music, because this’ll make me popular or this’ll make me a lot of money.’”

So, his idea of the popular music industry in modern society is that it is purely focused on money. He addresses this commercialization very often during the interview. This quote adequately demonstrates the rationality Habermas and Weber talked about. Loran gives an example of a thought process of artists in the popular music industry: if an artist makes a certain kind of music, he will become popular and make money. This illustrates perfectly how the system, with its strategic action, could be dominating the life-world.

I interviewed Loran in his room in an apartment in Amsterdam. I knew beforehand that he sometimes deejays himself, so I was not surprised to find a lot of vinyl records on his shelves. On top of his desk stood two turntables surrounded by a few large sound speakers and in the background a percussive beat was playing. Loran seemed very comfortable talking about his music taste and style, but when it came to the topic of commercialization and digitalization he had a harder time putting his feelings into words. The first thing I noticed during the interview was that he immediately felt a recognition of this aversion to digitalization. He was not hateful towards it, but he simply did not like the music it brought forward. He tried to describe it in a very music-technical way. He prefers analog music over digital music. This is probably the reason for his large vinyl collection. His aversion also became very clear in his party life. He generally tries to avoid the large commercial parties and he often frequents underground house or techno parties. One reason he does this, he says, is:

“I personally think that’s real, it’s not that deejays start playing music here that is expected of them. (…) I deejay sometimes myself as well, a party now and then, mostly with friends, so a lot of people know now that I have deejaying as a hobby. So, I’m often approached like ‘do you want to deejay at our party?’ Well, the first questions I ask them are ‘what kind of party are we speaking of?’, ‘what kind of people will be there?’ and most importantly ‘can I play my own music?’ (…) And if the answer is no, I won’t do it. Not even if they offer me 300 euros! I won’t do it because I do not support it.”

So, Loran refuses to play at parties where he cannot play his own music, where he cannot be real. He says it is about the consideration that a deejay has to make between staying authentic and making money when he feels he’s getting more popular.

The Internet-dependent historical period is characterized by an increase of scale in which music is distributed. Loran definitely sees the advantages of this. He thinks that it is now easier for anyone to start producing music. From his tone, though, I could notice that he considered the disadvantages more important than the advantages. According to him, this increase in scale, has led to the fact that there is “much more crap available”. Before digitalization, he says, it was much harder to get noticed, so you had to be really good as a deejay to become popular.

From the beginning of the interview with my second respondent, Milja, it was obvious that she agrees with Loran’s opinion on commercialization and digitalization. However, she had a somewhat less outspoken opinion. When I asked her if she thought artists nowadays write music for money, she let it sink for a while, then nodded and said:

“Yes, I definitely think you can notice that, I mean, that artists just do it for the big audience and just to sell. (…) This is probably because there is a lot more money going around in the business these days. A big influence on this must have been the Internet. (…) So, I do think artists are too commercial.”

I met with Milja at her parents’ house. She is a student at the University of Amsterdam and 19 years old. When I entered the room, she put on a song by U2, ‘I Will Follow’. She told me her father was a big fan and that they had been to a few concerts together. She spoke about her feelings and opinions with a kind of restraint, as if she wasn’t really sure about what to tell me. So, most of the time her answers were a little short, but they were actually very clear and useful. The biggest problem for her with commercialization was that it seemed like artists do not really write songs with their hearts anymore, they just write for the money. Writing with the heart is what makes music authentic for her. This is one of the reasons that she is somewhat against commercialization. Another point she cites is that music these days becomes much more alike. She sees a homogenization of music:

“I mean, digitalization and the contemporary commerciality have obviously made music much more monotonous, that it all sounds alike. So, the main thing for me is the music itself to which I have developed something like an aversion. I know that this music is more or less a consequence of commercialization, but it’s not that I’m against commercialization and digitalization per se.”

Thus, it is clear that she is not really against commercialization, but more against the music it puts forward, although she indicated that she liked commercial music now and then as well. So, it is important to remember that she doesn’t have a direct aversion to commercialization and digitalization, but more of an indirect aversion via music.

To get back to the phenomenon of homogenization of music Milja suggested, it is useful to hear what Ricardo has to say about this. He also sees this homogenization as an important aspect of commercialization of the music industry. To answer my question about the influence of commercialization and digitalization on music, he says the following:

“Music is being put into some kind of cluster now. So, that there’s more like one certain kind of music and less different kinds of music. People just write that which falls in a certain type of genre, you know. You see this on software like Spotify as well. If you want to be placed in a playlist of a certain genre on Spotify, you have to write in that genre. So, there’s a lot less experimenting by artists these days in my opinion.”

An important thing Ricardo mentions in this quote is Spotify. With the rise of the Internet there have been many commercial corporations that allow people to stream music. Ricardo is a loyal user of Spotify. To him, this is a very important advantage of digitalization of the music industry. Throughout the interview Ricardo seemed a bit more optimistic than the others. My observation of this might have been a bit biased, because Ricardo was constantly laughing about everything. He even cracked a smile when we talked about the negative sides of the contemporary music industry. I interviewed him in the living room of his apartment. A bit further down the hall, we could hear Loran deejaying. Ricardo played ‘Cucurucu’ by Nick Mulvey, a catchy, yet well composed song, to my opinion. Through the use of Spotify and comparable software, he said, people are now able to easily create their own playlists. According to him this is a great way for youth to express themselves in an overwhelming digitalized industry.

“I think it’s enhanced the possibilities of giving your own twist to music. People used to buy cd’s and tapes and I think they then quickly bought a cd that’s easily applicable, like ‘oh, there’s a Top40 cd, there have to be some songs on there which I like’. Plus, I think that it’s much easier to browse on Spotify than in a music store. (…) I actually really like to search for new music. And this is so much easier on Spotify, because then you hear the first 20 seconds and then you click on the next.”

So, what is clear about this quote is that digitalization gives youth a new way to get to know new music, and a new way to express their individuality in their music choices. It might even be argued that it gives youth a sense of agency in this digitalized and commercialized industry. Nonetheless, Ricardo does give some arguments against the industry. For instance, he says that most of the music that is made with a commercial goal in mind lacks purity. It is not authentic to him and the songs do not last long. On top of that, he suggests that the radio and other media screw up most of the songs, because they play them over and over again. Just like Milja, Ricardo doesn’t have a direct aversion to commercialization and digitalization of the music industry. He actually sees the advantages of it. But he does think that most of the music it produces is all the same, not authentic and that it gets ruined by the media.

Authenticity and nostalgia

As I’ve made clear in the introduction and with the help of the interviews, some young people are developing some aversion to this ongoing commercialization and digitalization of the music industry. They feel that the value and the meaning of music have been lost. This concurs with Habermas’ idea mentioned earlier, about the system taking over the life-world, in which communicative action makes place for Weber’s purposive-rationality. Some young people are starting to look for alternative music. Music that actually keeps its value and is not made into a commodity by the record companies or the artists themselves. In this respect, the notion of authenticity in the article of Pennycook (2007) can be very useful. He describes it as “being true to oneself (…) with relation to social contexts” (Pennycook, 2007, p. 103). It is all about the question what real music is. To me, real music is when artists write what they think is beautiful; when it keeps its substantive value. So, when music becomes to commercial it loses its realness, its authenticity, for me. Although this is a very personal interpretation, I think a lot of young people can relate to this idea. They feel they cannot relate to commercial music nowadays, because it has lost its realness. This can lead to a preference for contemporary alternative music, which is not primarily made with a commercial future in mind, as well as nostalgia for music produced before the digital era.

Hayes (2006) elaborates further on this authenticity. He questions why a lot of young people actually reach back to old LPs to satisfy their desire for ‘authentic’ music (Hayes, 2006, p. 52). Also, he discusses the term nostalgia. According to Hayes, young people look back at old times and see a time in which artists could express themselves in their songs with a certain autonomy, without much influence from their label and economic commercialization. This gives their music a degree of ‘authenticity’ that music from the contemporary, digitalized period often doesn’t have (Hayes, 2006, p. 52). Furthermore, nostalgia “has enabled these young people to operate with a reinvigorated sense of agency in an arena of cultural production and consumption largely overdetermined by corporate interests” (Hayes, 2006, p. 67).

“It’s just a feeling that comes with the music.”

Thus, authenticity and nostalgia are important concepts in discussing alternative music tastes. Authenticity is a very personal, subjective notion. It is what makes music ‘real’ to people. Furthermore, nostalgic feelings that the respondents carry make it clear to interpret their attitude towards the contemporary society. These two terms were the basis of my questions about music choices in the interviews.

An important influence in Loran’s music choices is his party life. When he, as a teenager, went to some parties where they played house and techno, he became a fan. He even managed to organize some underground techno parties with some of his friends. He was so interested in this kind of music that he turned to deejaying himself. He now has a very large vinyl collection. An important part of his music taste is his preference of analog vinyl tapes over digital music. Furthermore, he doesn’t like the commercial music these days. To the question in what way his favorite music differs from commercial music, he answered:

“I’ve noticed that Top40 music is pretty simple and often sampled or sort of cleverly stolen from other songs. And what a lot of people say about house and techno is that they think it’s monotonous, well that’s part of it, but it’s often also technically very well produced and it’s just a certain sound you do or do not appreciate. And this might be hard to explain, but it’s just a feeling that comes with the music.”

So, in his opinion, commercial, popular music is somewhat simpler than his favorite music. I tried to get a more accurate description from him about what makes his music so good. When I introduced the notion of authenticity to him, he found it easier to explain. To him, authenticity means to play whatever you want as an artist. You shouldn’t be influenced by anything other than love for your music. If that is the case, the music is real. This is important for him too when he deejays himself. He often finds this ‘realness’ in older styles of music:

“The instrumentals are a bit more technical I think. The songs possess more depth and I definitely like the vocals much more. These days, much more gets made electronically and not analog, I think that is a real pity. So, yeah, older music subconsciously has my preference I guess.”

It seems that nostalgia is very important in his music taste. He has adopted a lot of music styles from his father, such as classic rock and jazz. They even share vinyl records and discuss music. Loran finds autonomy to be important for an artist. So, his opinion on nostalgia concurs with the findings in Hayes’ research (Hayes, 2006, p. 52). To conclude, Loran also has an indirect aversion to commercialization and digitalization. This aversion is expressed in his music tastes, especially house and techno. He thinks commerciality corrupts the authenticity of an artist and this is why he listens to a lot of alternative and nostalgic music.

Just like Loran, Milja has an indirect aversion, although her music taste is very different from Loran’s. She actually begins by saying how much she dislikes techno and house, because there are barely any lyrics in the songs. Her opinion is that digitalization and commercialization have resulted in homogenization of music, which in turn has resulted in techno and house. It is interesting to see that this view differs greatly from Loran’s view, because Loran actually finds his escape from the commercial and digital society in this techno and house. This difference is probably the effect of different interpretation of the genres. So, Milja doesn’t like techno and house but she does like a lot of other styles. These styles do not necessarily have to be alternative to commercial styles, because she sometimes likes these as well. She thinks, however, that commercial songs from this society lack depth and good lyrics. For these things she reverts to older music, that her mom and dad listen to. This is music that she really finds authentic. She describes her personal interpretation of authenticity as follows:

“I do think it’s very important that music is pure in a sense. The musician really has to mean what he writes, if you know what I’m saying. It doesn’t just have to be a song that he knows will sell good, like Pitbull or anything like that. It has to come straight out of an artist’s heart. (…) Sometimes, nowadays, artists lose their authenticity. Songs get written for them and music starts to sound alike. (…) So, I don’t really listen to that music very often.”

In contrast to Loran, her aversion to commercialization and digitalization of music isn’t that pronounced. She is a bit more optimistic. This becomes clear when she laughed and said that she does listen to some commercial music sometimes. However, from her answers and the way she talked about popular music, it became obvious that she does feel this aversion now and then. But this aversion is not really against commercialization itself, it is more about the music that it creates. This is a theme that comes up with Loran and Ricardo as well. It seems as if they do feel this aversion to commercialization subconsciously and they express it through their music taste.

It is interesting to see that my three respondents have a very different taste in music. Loran primarily likes techno and house, Milja likes everything except techno and house and Ricardo likes music with “just a guitar, like folk and indie music”. He doesn’t like music that is in the Top40, because the songs very often have catchy and cheap melodies. Furthermore, he says that the radio (which he listens to a lot) plays these songs over and over again and this ruins the music. What he finds important in music is that it is made with standard instruments, not electronic ones, and the singer has to have a great voice. This is what makes music authentic and real to Ricardo. He elaborates on this by saying:

“It has to be pure and real. Just keep it simple, you know. Just a guitar and a voice or another instrument and a voice. Those songs without too much decoration, those songs that you hear live and think ‘oh, it’s that song’. (…) Artists just have to make music like they’re sitting at a bonfire or something, haha.”

As I’ve explained earlier in this essay Ricardo feels that as a consequence of digitalization youth have the possibility to find more freedom in their selection of music. With software like Spotify, people are suddenly able to find all the songs they like and put them in a playlist. This gives Ricardo a new way to find those songs that he finds authentic and good. He can even find some old, durable songs. He finds durability to be a quality that some old songs possess and new, popular songs do not. So, in that way he does try to find alternatives to commercial, popular songs in a feeling of nostalgia. According to him, older music has not really been influenced by commercialization. However, he does stress that his music choices are just a matter of taste. For him, he doesn’t listen to alternative music to rebel against the modern music industry. So, again, we see that Ricardo has an aversion to the music of commercialization and digitalization and not against society per se.


In my interviews I examined how youth feel about the ongoing commercialization and digitalization and how this reflects in their music choices. Loran was the first emerging adult I spoke too. He is a deejay himself and has a strong opinion about the contemporary music industry. Firstly, he thinks the business is purely focused on money. According to him, this is a bad thing, because music should not be about money. As a deejay, he said, you should be able to play your own music. There is a point in every deejay’s career where they can either go for the money or for authenticity. He clearly indicates that the right thing to do is to stay authentic. His music choices support his opinions about the contemporary music industry. He loves techno and house, mainly because of underground parties he used to frequent and organize himself. As a deejay and a listener he finds it important that an artist makes music he wants. He frequently finds this authenticity in older music and this is the reason for his nostalgia. So, Loran has an aversion to commercialization and digitalization, because he thinks the focus of music is wrong. This aversion can also be clearly inferred from his choices in music and parties.

Milja has a much less outspoken opinion than Loran and is quite reserved. Her opinion is that music should be written and played from the heart, while it is predominantly written for profit nowadays. She also agrees with theories from scholars who have said that the Internet has played a big role in commercialization and digitalization of music. She suggests that this has led to homogenization of music. She says that this is clearly visible in techno and house and this is primarily why she doesn’t like these styles. She does like a lot of other styles however, especially when they have depth and good lyrics. For her authenticity is when music is written from the heart, which can also include commercial music. So, the most important conclusion from her interview is that she doesn’t have a direct aversion to the ongoing commercialization and digitalization. She does, however, have an aversion to some of the music it brings forth, because it is written with a focus on money.

Ricardo is the most optimistic of the three respondents. He reminds us that there are a lot of positive aspects of commercialization and digitalization. Most importantly, it has given youth a lot of new possibilities to express their individuality and freedom. They are able to easily search for music and thus assemble their music taste. However, Ricardo states just like Milja that popular music has become more homogenized. Furthermore, he thinks that the overload of commercial music isn’t really authentic to him. Real music to Ricardo is simple, with standard instruments and a great voice. It is important to see that Ricardo doesn’t have an aversion to commerciality, he actually sees the advantages of it. However, he doesn’t really like the music it produces.

These findings lead to a conclusive answer of my research question, which was as follows: ‘To what extent do youth experience aversion to the ongoing commercialization and digitalization of society, in particular in music?’ Well, on the one hand my respondents recognize the negative aspects of the contemporary society. This becomes especially clear in their music choices. All three of them simply do not like the commercial music, because it lacks authenticity and is focused on money. They have different ways of dealing with it, Ricardo uses Spotify and Loran reaches back to vinyl records. On the other hand, Milja and Ricardo have only to some extent a direct aversion to commercialization and digitalization itself. They realize that it also has many benefits. Nonetheless, Loran does have this aversion to commercialization and digitalization of music to a greater extent. Furthermore, authenticity has proved to be an important component in the construction of young people’s music tastes. Returning to Weber and Habermas, my respondents often find authenticity in nostalgic music, because they feel this music has not yet been polluted by rationalization. According to them, this music has been created in a period in which the system has not yet colonized the life-world.

Finally, it is important to reflect on a few things. Firstly, at the beginning of this research my opinions about the contemporary society were a bit biased. I didn’t really give the positive aspects a fair chance. I knew they existed, but the interviews have made me realize that they are as important as the negative aspects. Society is very complex and there is not just one interpretation. Secondly, in future research it might be helpful to organize a focus group. This will create a discussion in which the respondents can build on their opinions. Such a focus group might also create a sphere in which respondents are eager to contradict instead of please me. Lastly, I think it is important to remember that everyone is an individual with their own tastes and choices. People are active beings that have their own interpretation of commercialization and digitalization. There is no right or wrong and people should respect others for who they are.

(Research paper written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context, ASW)


Ahn, I. & Yoon, K. (2009). On the Impact of Digital Music Distribution. CESifo Economic Studies, 55(2), 306—325.

Hayes, D. (2006). “Take Those Old Records off the Shelf”: Youth and Music Consumption in the Postmodern Age. Popular Music and Society, 29(1), 51—68.

Jordan, Tim. (2013). Internet, Society and Culture: Communicative Practices Before and After the Internet (1st edition). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Pennycook, A. (2007). Language, Localization and the Real: Hip-Hop and the Global Spread of Authenticity. Journal of Language, Identity and Education, 6(2), 101—115.

Ritzer, G. (2009). Globalization: A Basic Text (1st edition). Wiley-Blackwell.

Ritzer, G. (2010). Sociological Theory (8th edition). McGraw-Hill.

Global Youth Papers

lianne-van-goethem-illustratie2Lianne van Goethem


As many other students, I have a part-time job to be able to afford living on my own, buying groceries, and going to university. My job is at a well-known retail shop at a very busy train station, a place where a lot of people come by every day. Many of my colleagues are other students my age, around 20 years old, and working part-time. But, besides the older full-timers, there are also many colleagues my age who work there full-time and no longer go to school or college. These young full-timers grabbed my attention. I became interested in their experiences in their ‘working life’ at this young age, as well as their aspirations for the future. I could understand why they work full-time, because it earns them money and they can live off of that money. Yet to me it did not make much sense for young people not to study, because, in my view, young people can develop themselves fully through studying. However, in my research I found that young full-timers also learn from their everyday experiences and develop their own skills and sense of self-worth through their performances at the workplace.

Working youth

Because youth are seen as being of great importance to a society’s future, youth studies generally focus on the development of youth through education and cultural activities. Little attention is paid to young people in the work field. The little literature there is, is mostly concerned with part-time working youth, assuming that they combine paid work with study. Also, research on young workers’ behavior, attitudes and values is primarily focused on family background and influences (Loughlin & Barling, 2001). Very little is known about the everyday experiences and practices of young employees during their time at work.

According to Loughlin and Barling (2001), working at a young age can be harmful. Early and long exposure to work has been related to more stress, lower school performance, alcohol abuse and illegal activities. The authors suggest a correlation between the age young people start working part-time and a predisposition towards remaining in the workforce full-time. They further point out that the quality of work plays an important role in the development of young workers’ attitudes, values and beliefs. When working in ‘poor’-quality jobs – associated with insecurity, low income and no opportunities for learning new skills – they are more likely to be cynical about their job and less motivated. When working in ‘good’-quality jobs – associated with learning new skills and developing themselves in their work and social interactions – they are more likely to be motivated and happy in their ‘working life’ (Loughlin & Barling 2001). The question remains whether these definitions of ‘poor’ and ‘good’-quality jobs also correspond to the experiences of the young workers themselves.

For a different approach to the experiences of young workers, I will use Goffman’s theory of performance (1959, discussed in Calhoun et al., 2012). Goffman compares life with acting, setting a stage for the performer, with an audience observing. The audience influences the performer and the performer influences the audience. In this case, the workplace – the well-known retail shop at the busy train station, let us call it Shop X – is the stage. The young worker is the performer. The young worker has a way of acting and he or she accepts the audience: the coworkers, the managers and the customers. I am interested in those ways of acting. By observing the performances of young full-time employees, and comparing them with those of older employees and part-time employees, I have aimed to gain deeper insights into their values and attitudes.

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Scott (1990) provides further insights that are also useful for this research. He also focuses on performance, using terms as public transcripts and hidden transcripts. Hidden transcripts refer to discourses, gestures, speeches, or practices that are excluded from the public transcripts. The public transcripts are those speeches, practices and gestures resulting from the exercise of power. My research is mostly concerned with hidden transcripts, which represent critiques from the oppressed social group. The critiques go on offstage, where power-holders cannot see or hear them. This can be seen as a form of agency. Scotts’ theory can thus be related to Goffman’s theory and more general literature about oppressed social groups. In this case, the young full-timers at Shop X can be seen as an oppressed group, being dependent on the company they work for, the company that owns all the retail shops at this train station. They don’t have much to say for themselves at the workplace and rely on the decisions made by the invisible big bosses and the managers on site. But like the oppressed social groups discussed by Scott, they don’t undergo oppression passively. Dealing with oppression, young full-time employees can have the urge to put their own stamp on things.

This view of young full-time employees as an oppressed group can also be seen in the larger context of the global economy. One hallmark of the current global economy is the process of individualization of risk and performance. There is a need for more flexibility, plurality and risky forms of employment in the workforce. Employers consider what is best for them, and not specifically for their employees. Therefore they prefer part-time workers, such as students like myself, who are more likely to be able to work the increasing irregular work hours. Regardless of the work hours, young employees are preferred as they are more easily discarded in case of necessary lay-offs. Young full-time employees are thus dealing greatly with these new risks and insecurities (Mills, 2004). How does that affect their visions and aspirations for their future?

The research

My research was guided by the following main question: How do the everyday work experiences of young full-time employees at Shop X shape their self-performance at the workplace and their work-aspirations for the future? The three points of interests – everyday work experiences, self-performance and work-aspirations – formed the basis for the following sub-questions: What are young full-time employees’ everyday experiences at the workplace? What acts – of resistance and adjustment – do they develop in their self-performance? How do young full-time employees view their future?

Performance can best be studied through participant observation. Since I myself work part-time at Shop X, I am already participating. During the participant observation, in-between serving customers and doing the other tasks I get paid to do, I have focused on the performances of the young full-time employees, but also on those of other young part-time employees and older full-time employees. How do they handle customers? How do they talk with coworkers? What do they say about their work? What do they say about their work environment? Do they seem happy with their work? These are some of the questions that I considered during the observations.

In addition to the participant observation, I have interviewed five young coworkers. Loosely framed around the theoretical concepts discussed above, the interviews were meant to reflect deeper on their views and experiences. This paper presents the results of these interviews and several weeks of observation. First, a day in the life of a young full-timer will be described. Then, four themes will be discussed based on the research findings, thoughts and ideas from myself and the young full-timers interviewed. These themes are affectivity; complaining; handling criticism and complaints; and aspirations. The paper will conclude with answers to the research questions, linked to previously described theories and youth agency.

A day in the life of

The train station where Shop X is located is the most important central point in the city. It is also one of the busiest train stations in the Netherlands, being connected to a lot of foreign stations. Thousands of people come and go by this station every day; commuters, students, tourists and people taking a day trip to the city. The shops in the station vary from food stands, book shops, magazines and even clothing stores. Because the trains ride almost 24/7, those shops also have very long opening hours. Most open at 6 o’clock in the morning and close at midnight, and often even later than that. Because of this there are several 8-hour shifts for employees in the shop I work at. The morning shift starts at 5.30 AM, and ends at 2 PM. At 2 PM there is an in-between shift that ends at 10 PM. At 4 PM the employees for the evening shift come in, they close the store at midnight. Next to these shifts, there are also more flexible shifts, based on rush-hours. These hours are between 7 AM and 9 AM, 11 AM and 14 PM and 17 PM and 19 PM. Those are the times commuters come to go to their work, lunchtime and the time commuters go home from their work.

What does a day of work at Shop X look like? Having an in-between shift, I start at 2 PM. I come in fifteen minutes early, because we are supposed to be present at least five minutes before our shift starts. This is because coworkers from the morning shift want to go home on time, and we have to take over. While I am on my way to the canteen to get dressed into my working clothes, I meet the supervisor of that day and also the manager. I get instructions as to where, at which department, I am positioned that day. Today it is the ‘take-away’. It is the part of the store where we prepare sandwiches, sweet treats, our typical sausages and other hot meals out of the oven. This part of the store is relatively small, and it is almost always very busy with customers, so we have to work hard to make sure all the products are ready to be sold. Usually we work at this department with at least four people. Two at the service and cash desks, one at the oven to bake and one making sandwiches. Every position involves specific tasks that have to be done.

When I come in at the ‘take-away’ I say hello to my coworkers and check the day planner. This day planner holds information about who works which hours and who is at which department. Today, I am taking over the person making sandwiches. Before I start my shift she explains how things are going. She tells me how busy it has been so far, what sandwiches she has already made in advance and what things she has already cleaned. The one making sandwiches always has to make sure the workspace is clean and the products are cooled.

When I have taken over the sandwich department I start making the sandwiches that are sold out. This is actually what I will be doing most of the time; making the sandwiches that are sold out or almost sold out. Sandwiches are always fresh this way. I also make sure I make some extra before rush hour starts. During rush hour, I can never keep up. The person at the oven also has to deal with this; making sure that everything is baked in time to be sold during rush hour. Because of this, all employees working at the take-away try to help each other. We work closely together and communication is really important. Especially the person making the sandwiches and the person at the oven give each other a lot of instructions and help each other out. Sometimes working that close together can have quite negative effects. Not everyone agrees with each other all the time, and a lot of irritation can build up. Overall, the principal attitude at work is: ‘Just do it, and try to have fun while you’re at it’.


Because of the fact that it is always very busy at the shops at this train station, there are also a lot of people at work there. Most shops are very small, so they literally work close together. The social environment is very important for the employees, since we have to work with people all 8 hours of the shift. Those coworkers are also very different. There seems to be some sort of division in employees. First, there are the older full-timers, mostly working morning shifts, and needing to take care of their families; second, there are the part-timers, mostly students working the afternoons or evenings; third, there are the young full-timers who have chosen this for job; and finally, there are the young full-timers who didn’t choose this job. This division is actually maintained by the management; it is practical for planning purposes.

The young full-timers are the most flexible employees when it comes to being available for shifts. They don’t go to school and are not yet dealing with children they have to take care of. So they are often used to fill all the shifts that the older full-timers and the part-timers cannot fill. Their hours can be very different. One week they can work the in-between shifts, but the next week they can also work the evening shift or morning shift when there is a shortage. Because of that they work a lot with both the older full-timers and the part-timers, while older full-timers and part-timers almost never work together.

This puts the young full-timers in an ‘in-between’ position. This becomes especially clear in the different sense of humor and how people act and react around each other. The young full-timers seem to understand both the older full-timers and the young part-timers, while the latter two groups often don’t understand each others’ ways and jokes. Or they just don’t think their humor is funny. For example, when older full-timers work together, they can act quite weird, they make funny noises, sing silly songs and make sexually tinted jokes. But that can change in a matter of seconds. The whole atmosphere of making jokes and laughter can come to an end because of one single word or action. The part-timers are almost always joking, but in a subtler manner. It seems they can do both things, joke and work, at the same time.

One young full-timer sort of described her own ‘in-between’ position. She mentioned that she sometimes doesn’t understand why older full-timers can suddenly act so angry and serious, just like that. She sometimes wished that the older full-timers that she works a lot with could also make jokes all the time. She likes the fact that part-timers do that, but then she often feels she cannot make the same sort of jokes as they do. She thinks part-timers joke a lot about things they experience in college or when going out to party and the things they experience there. She finds those stories very nice and interesting. On the one hand, she can relate to those stories, being young and liking to party too. On the other hand, she cannot understand them, because she doesn’t experience those same things in the same way. For example:

‘Those part-timers often live with roommates, you know, that must be very nice. They experience a lot of funny things, like playing around the house and being able to go out and come home when they want to. I would like that but I am still living with my mother. I don’t really have another choice, because I don’t get the finances that they get for their studies. And I also don’t make that much money here. So yeah, my life at home is a lot more boring I think. I still have to take my mothers’ wishes into account, I can’t go partying and come home at 5 AM on a Thursday, because I’ll wake up my mother but also because I have to work the next day!’


One aspect that is clearly present in the everyday lives of all employees at the train station, especially at one particular store, is complaining. It seems that not a day goes by correctly. There is always something wrong. Issues everyone complains about include the planning of the shifts, the actions of the manager and the assistants, the ideas that come from the bosses at the headquarters, and the behavior of some customers.

Everyone that comes in at work always first checks the day planning. And it is almost always the case that not enough people are present during the day. When someone calls in sick, it is even worse. Employees talk about it with each other, and they come to the conclusion that there is always at least one person missing and that there are just too many things to do for which at least one person extra is needed. So when someone calls in sick there is never any back-up. In that case employees will say:

‘We’ll do our best to get everything done and to make sure the line of customers doesn’t get too long, but it’s not our fault if at the end of the day a lot of things aren’t finished.’

This statement is mostly made by employees working the evening shift, they have to end the day. Those evening shifts are mostly filled by young full-timers or part-timers. With such a statement they make clear that some things are not their responsibility, but that they do have the motivation and skills to try to fix the things that the managers failed to do. It is the managers, or the bosses at the headquarters, that failed in making good arrangements for the back-up plan and the necessary extra employees.

One other thing that a lot of employees complain about is the manager and his assistants. Employees tell each other that they are the only ones working hard and that the manager and assistants are often not doing anything or just checking their phones, joking around with each other and telling others what to do. All employees, both full-timers and part-timers, are also annoyed by the fact that they often have to work overtime to help and get things done, and that especially the manager always leaves exactly at 4 PM, and sometimes even earlier.

‘That is just not fair, it’s like he doesn’t even care!’

The big bosses at the headquarters are not liked very much by the employees either. According to the employees, those bosses have no clue whatsoever about the work and activities nor any practical knowledge. Sometimes they come to the store and have a look around to see how things are going. At that moment they always have a lot to say and new ideas that they think will work very well. Not only when they are coming by, but also through emails they send in ideas to keep employees posted. The big bosses are often the subject of jokes. Employees, mostly the young and older full-timers, can have a big laugh about the idea of working closely together one day with one of them, and then trying to explain the simplest things to them:

‘Simple things they probably can’t even do!’

The behavior of some customers is also very often the source of complaints. Most employees get annoyed by the fact that some customers don’t greet and are rude towards them. Some customers are very arrogant and act very ‘diva-ish’. These complaints seem to provoke a specific form of behavior, especially among the older full-timers. For example, one time I saw an older coworker refuse to help a customer until he responded to her saying ‘Hello’ or ‘Good afternoon’. She kept repeating her greeting for minutes, until the customer understood that he had to respond. Only when he did, did she help him. A few days later, when I was working a morning shift with one young full-timer and two older full-timers, I noticed that the young full-timer did the very same thing. Later on, I interviewed her and she told me she was very proud of her work and she wanted to do her job properly, but she couldn’t stand it if customers were not nice to her or seemed to look down on her. She had seen how that older full-timer handled those rude customers, and she decided that was a very smart thing to do.

We have to stand up for ourselves sometimes, you know. I work very hard here and I like doing it. So when some people come in that are acting stupid, I have to show my confidence and react to them’.

This shows that experiences at work can influence performances directly. This young full-timer has been socialized at the workplace in a specific way, seeing and learning how other full-timers handled specific experiences and then using this in her own performance. Which for her increased her sense of self-worth as a proud employee.

The statement above comes from a young full-timer who had chosen to do this job. It seems that she, and other young full-timers who chose this job, view the behavior of the older full-timers as an example. The effects of rude and arrogant customers are different for the part-timers and the young full-timers who didn’t choose this job. Even though they also complain about some customers, they seem to not take it too seriously and just let it go by. The part-timers and these other young full-timers are not as actively adapting their performance to those customers as the older and younger full-timers who chose this job do.

Handling criticism and complaints

Next to the fact that employees are complaining, they also have to deal with complaints and criticism on their account. The headquarters and the management, other employees and even some customers sometimes complain about employees or criticize their work.

The division of the four groups described before becomes clear again in dealing with criticism, especially criticism coming from the headquarters or the management. The young full-timers who chose this job and older full-timers are often very proud and motivated and they want to do well. They listen carefully to criticism and make a well thought of decision in how to handle it. They take it seriously. Even when the criticism turns out to be unfounded and the management or headquarters has the wrong ideas, they first listen before they ‘make fun’ of management and headquarters or change it into complaining about them. The young full-timers who didn’t choose this job and most of the part-timers seem to not take criticism so seriously. They often just let it pass by, just like the unfriendly behavior of some customers.

Employees also have some things to say about each other and the way they work and do things. Especially the older full-timers seem to criticize the part-timers a lot. Mostly about the way they do their job-related activities but also about their attitudes. Older full-timers tend to think that part-timers are lazy and not serious enough. But while the behavior of the part-timers resembles that of young full-timers who didn’t choose this job, the older full-timers never seem to criticize those young full-timers the way they criticize part-timers. They seem to feel more sympathy for young full-timers, even if the latter didn’t choose the job and arent as proud of it.

Part-timers seem to be the ones dealing with the most criticism coming from other employees, but they are also the most accepting of that criticism. They are more likely to accept criticism coming from either older or younger full-timers. Some casual conversation with other part-timers made clear that they accept this criticism because they do not really care about it. One part-timer said:

Whatever makes them happy.’

While the young full-timers seem to be more reluctant than the older ones to criticize part-timers, they also won’t accept criticism coming from part-timers. This is also true for older full-timers, criticism coming from part-timers is not appreciated. Criticism coming from young full-timers, whether they chose this job or not, will not be accepted by older full-timers either. One day, a part-time employee criticized the way in which an older full-timer did her job. There was a very long line of customers and one customer wanted something that was sold out, a sandwich. The part-timer stated that the full-timer, who was in charge of the sandwiches that day, could make one for the customer. The older full-timer did not agree with this, because she was busy cleaning and planned to make the sandwiches in about half an hour. The part-timer objected and they began fighting. All other employees, especially the young full-timers, were shocked when the part-timer then decided to quit. She stated that she couldn’t handle this kind of attitude and that she couldn’t work with her again. Casual conversations after this event made clear that most young full-timers were going to keep their criticisms to themselves for a while. They did not want to start a big fight and work with irritation and awkward situations. There was no use for these fights.

Sometimes customers criticize or complain about employees. A customer may complain, for example, about an unfriendly employee, not being able to understand or hear the employee, or wanting something that is sold out. A tense or uncomfortable situation can arise from that. Most of the time those criticisms from customers are not fair from the viewpoint of the employees. Sometimes employees just let it go, but other times they can react in a way that can create a big fight. One time, a customer began yelling at a young full-time employee and even invited her to go outside and fight because she started to yell back. A customer can also complain through the telephone or an email. They can fill in a form to make an official complaint about someone. A manager first sees the complaint and then decides whether or not it is necessary to talk to the employee at issue. Handling those complaints is mostly done in a quiet and calm way.

In general, it seems that complaints and criticisms coming from headquarters, management and other employees have more impact than complaints coming from customers. The information coming from customers almost never influences further behavior, only prompting direct reactions such as an argument. Criticisms coming from headquarters, management and other employees can change some actions, as employees take it in, reflect on it and adjust their further behavior.


When it comes to ideas and wishes for the future the division in young full-timers is of great importance again. The young full-timers who did not choose this job are often more pessimistic about their workplace and about their future there. One young full-timer, for example, has a diploma in hairdressing and wants to find a job as a hairdresser in the near future. For now she thinks it is fine to work at the shop, but she does not expect it to last. This aspiration resembles the ideas that part-time employees have about the future. These students also have different goals than to work at Shop X at this busy train station forever.

As for the young full-timers who did choose this job, their wishes for the future also vary. One young full-timer I had a conversation with told me that she used to be team leader, a supervisor, but that she had been set back to be a normal employee, because of some issues she had with another supervisor. She said she had a lot of thoughts and ideas about how to improve the workplace and generally how to make the store more successful. But because of her earlier experiences as a supervisor and the fact that she had been set back, she did not want to be in that position again.

‘It’s fine like this I guess. It’s not like they are going to listen to me this time. It isn’t even that special, to be a supervisor’.

She based this statement on the fact that she wasn’t listened to the first time, and that, even as a supervisor, she had no ‘special’ or different influence on decisions or anything than any normal employee had. This can be seen as one form of hidden transcript, a complaint about the fact that there are differences in status of employees, but not really differences in job-activities and influence. At least from her point of view.

Other young full-timers who had chosen to work at this job seemed to be more motivated to continue. One person I spoke with thought he could teach the older employees to be more flexible, stating that many of them could learn from the young full-timers. Another young full-timer who is very motivated and proud of her work did think that she could grow and develop herself in this particular workplace, but she also thought that:

[Being a supervisor] or something like that would be too hard. What I do now is also really important.’

The difference between this employee and the employee who used to be supervisor lies in the fact that the latter had experience in both situations, and that the former accepts the ideas about supervisors that are ‘written in the public transcript’, as employees with more influence and more difficult tasks to handle.


It is clear that not all young full-time employees share the same position, thoughts and aspirations regarding the workplace, at Shop X in this busy train station. However, there are some interesting patterns in work experiences, self-performances and work-aspirations. Regarding the first sub-question of my research – What are young full- time employees’ everyday experiences? – I have found that working with people, coworkers and customers, and complaining and dealing with complaints are important aspects of the everyday work-experience.

To answer the second sub-question – ‘What acts do they develop in their self-performance?’ – we need to take into account the division in employees. Young full-timers who chose the job seem to adopt the acts of older full-timers, for example in the way in which they handle rude and arrogant customers. Humor also plays a major part in developing appropriate acts. Young full-timers seem to be able to switch between different senses of humor, relating to both older full-timers and part-timers. Some ways of joking are directed at the management or the headquarters, and also include complaining. Making jokes, behind the bosses back, is a way of resisting. Scott’s (1990) theory is thus very present in this research. The way employees make jokes about the bosses is a hidden transcript. It is also a way to influence their work and the workplace where they can. Being at the whims of the changing global economy (Mills, 2004), their acts of complaining and making jokes are one form of agency that also gives them a sense of control.

The answer to the last sub-question is made clear in the last theme about aspirations. ‘How do young full-time employees view their future?’ This is different for each young full-timer. Some want to develop themselves at this workplace and others want to continue their ‘working life’ elsewhere, based on different ideas. It seems that work aspirations for the future are not very present in the daily lives of young full-time employees.

To answer the main question – How do the everyday work experiences of young full-time employees at a busy train station shape their self-performances in the workplace and their work-aspirations for the future? – it can be concluded that everyday work experiences differ for each group of employees. Yet they all include and influence complaining, handling complaints and dealing with coworkers and customers. Work-aspirations are partly based on the direct experiences of working at Shop X at the busy train station, and partly on earlier experiences in workplaces or school programs. Aspirations are also very different for each individual young full-timer. Each individual has his or her own story that influences their performances at the workplace as well as their aspirations. This means that we cannot make general statements about young full-timers as one ’oppressed’ or ’resistive’ social group.

In the introduction I stated that I believed young people can develop themselves fully through education, and that part of me couldn’t make sense of the fact that some young people choose to work full-time instead of studying. Now, having done this research and having paid close attention to the activities, experiences, and performances of young full-timers, my coworkers, I believe the workplace can also be of great importance for the development of young people, and not only for making money. At the workplace young people are dealing with all sorts of people, customers, coworkers, managers, and a work-system. Just as students are dealing with other students, teachers and education-systems. The work-place can also be seen as a learning environment.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J., Pfaff, S. & Virk, I. (2012). Contemporary sociological theory. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Loughlin, C., & Barling, J. (2001). Young workers’ work values, attitudes and behaviours. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 74, 543-558.

Mills, M. (2004). Demand for flexibility or generation of insecurity? The individualization of risk, irregular work shifts and Canadian youth. Journal of youth studies, 7(2), 115-139.

Scott, J. (1990). Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. Yale University Press.

Global Youth Papers

Marte Ydema - Illustratie1Marte Ydema


Ritalin is a prescription stimulant drug developed for treating attention disorders like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), but it is increasingly used by students for studying purposes. Its effects are highly similar to the effects of cocaine and amphetamines (White, Becker-Blease & Grace-Bishop, 2006). I became interested in Ritalin instantly when I experienced the effects of the drug myself. One night I was studying with someone I know well, who had been taking Ritalin without prescription. When he offered me to try Ritalin as well I first refused the offer, but I became curious about the effects and tried it after all. I was startled by the effectiveness of the drug, which made me extremely focused and kept me studying for 6 or more hours straight. I felt trapped in a tunnel vision; without being distracted by hunger, thirst, physical inconveniences or other distractions I wanted to keep reading and studying. I felt I had to know every detail in the text. Dull information about the personal lives of classical sociologists suddenly seemed super-interesting and fascinating to me.

I was also startled by the side effects of Ritalin: I got very cold, had sweaty hands and feet, I lost my appetite and heavy emotions seemed to be oppressed. Thinking about the effectiveness, but also the troubling side-effects I experienced, I became curious about how other students, be it medical or non-medical users, experience the use of prescription stimulants. What does Ritalin mean to them and their lives? Is Ritalin a magic cure, or a tragic curse? I also wondered what students think of the acceptability of Ritalin. Does increasing prevalence of use also induce widening acceptance or normalization of Ritalin? Or is non-medical Ritalin use considered a form of cheating? In this paper I explore these questions, as well as questions regarding how Ritalin use relates to broader concerns about our educational system. Could it be that a ‘pharmaceuticalized university’ has emerged, in which problems have to be solved with medications to keep up with the pace and teaching methods?

In the United States the use of prescription stimulant drugs like Ritalin has been steadily increasing (White, Becker-Blease & Grace-Bishop, 2006; Esteban McCabe, Knight, Teter & Wachsler, 2004; Moline & Frankenberger, 2001; Judson & Langdon, 2009). With this use, misuse and abuse are inevitable. Much literature about non-medical use of prescription stimulants provides evidence that misuse and abuse is a growing problem among students. Most of this research is conducted in the United States. As a Dutch student, however, I think this trend is present among students in the Netherlands as well. In recent years the Dutch media have paid much attention to the increasing prevalence of medicine use among young children, but reports about non-medical use of prescription stimulants are rare, and thorough qualitative studies are virtually absent. To prevent misuse and abuse, but also for our society to create a healthy conduct towards the use of prescription stimulants, research about Ritalin use is highly relevant and needed. In this ethnographic study, I try to illuminate this subject from a student point of view.

Six in-depth interviews were conducted to explore the questions and issues stated above and other aspects related to prescription stimulants use. The following main question is central to this research: What are the attitudes of Dutch students who use prescription stimulants towards the use of those prescription stimulants for academic purposes? The attitudes explored in this paper focus on experiences of Ritalin use, both positive and negative, the reputation of Ritalin with regard to health risks, the nature of Ritalin use according to the respondents, and the perceived necessity of Ritalin use for study purposes.

Ritalin use can be analyzed in a broader, global context. An important question central to this analysis is: Why do students use Ritalin? Ritalin is often mentioned in relation to ‘pathologization’ and ‘medicalization’. Pathologization refers to the trend to classify behavior as abnormal and therefore as a disorder or disease, and medicalization is the related tendency to treat those abnormalities with medicines. An underlying force to these developments is the idea of ‘malleability’; the idea that life can be influenced and formed to one’s own will. In this paper I will explore if the use of prescription stimulants is related to global processes of malleability in any way, as some researches argue (Miller & Leger, 2003). Of course this is hard to assess, so I will limit my discussion to students’ own attitudes towards the use of prescription stimulants and associated feelings of individual malleability and agency.

Giddens has argued that being a purposive agent is an inherent part of being a human. Humans can reflect upon their actions and discuss why they take certain actions (Stevenson & Knudsen, 2008). This is also the case with practices involving Ritalin use. In this paper I will try to call attention to the role of agency in relation to Ritalin use. Are Ritalin users active decision-makers in taking Ritalin? Do they think Ritalin is a changing agent in their lives, or do they feel it is a mere tool to increase their agency? Either way, do they think using Ritalin is ‘normal’?


Karl Popper, seen as the founding father of science philosophy, once said that all science is based on a marsh of human input (Dehue, 2012). Nowadays we are increasingly capable of detecting the physical and neurological causes of diseases. But as Popper’s quote illustrates, in defining the boundaries of diseases there are always normative aspects involved. What do we classify as normal, and what do we classify as abnormal? This is perhaps even more the case with psychological disorders, since these are often not attributable to a physical cause or visible disability.

ADHD and ADD have recently attracted much attention, especially because of the growing prevalence and associated problems as mentioned before, but also regarding the related diagnostic process. ADHD is seen by some as a controversial disorder (for example Singh, 2012), and there are concerns that the current standards of diagnosis leave too much room for over-diagnosis (Bloemink, 2011). After all, ADHD is merely the name for a cluster of symptoms that are decided on by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM), and the criteria used to diagnose ADHD or ADD are becoming more flexible (Bloemink, 2011), as more types of behavior are being marked as ‘abnormal’. The flexible norms about abnormality exposes the degree of pathologization in our society.

Pathologization and the related medicalization are creating dilemmas for our society. Should we treat a diagnosed disorder with medication or should we try to solve the problem in other ways? Medicalization is often referred to as the tendency to treat all possible abnormalities or deviations, whether they are life-threatening diseases or small inconveniences, with medicines. ADHD and ADD, and the drugs used for their treatment, are very evident subjects in the debate on medicalization. In ten years time the number of persons that take Ritalin has risen from 40,000 (2002) to 200,000 (2012) (Dehue, 2012).

Both pathologization and medicalization are seen as underlying causes – as well as effects – of ‘malleability’. If an individual has a disorder he or she is expected to do something about it, more and more often in the form of medicine-taking. Toby Miller and Marie Claire Leger (2003: 1) highlight the way in which Ritalin thus becomes ‘a part of modernity’s project of turning people into individuals—in this case, a kind of US transcendence fantasy—which, along with discourses and institutions, promises to transform young subjects and biocosmetically alter their futures.’

It is undeniable that the idea of malleability through medicine use is already present in schools and universities. The roots of this phenomenon, however, are not easily dismantled. Medicalization could have an effect on schools, creating a demand for prescription stimulants by providing them, but developments in the educational system could also be creating this demand. The most likely scenario is that developments in education together with medicalization are affecting students, and according to many scholars in harmful ways.

Tazin Karim (2013) analyzes Ritalin use in what she calls a ‘pharmaceuticalized university’. She notes that many anthropologists have argued that the increasing availability of pharmaceuticals has generated a sense of agency on healthy Americans who feel they could benefit from these medical technologies for non-medical purposes. She states that if society continues to value performance over learning, this ‘pharmaceuticalized culture’ will only grow larger. More students will think that Ritalin is a good solution to raise their grades. To discourage Ritalin use, she advises to change the teaching strategies that are currently implemented at schools and universities, like replacing a ‘one assessment model’ with multiple mid-term assignments and exams. The question is, could a pharmaceuticalized culture, or medicalization, also be affecting students in the Netherlands?


To examine this issue, six in-depth interviews were conducted with tertiary education students about their views on Ritalin use. Three of them were medical users of Ritalin, two were non-medical users, and one was a non-user. The initial plan was to focus on ‘students’ in the broadest sense by interviewing medical users, non-medical users and non-users, so that students with different relations to Ritalin would be represented. Because of the limited scope of the research, and because the narratives of Ritalin users proved to be so interesting and extensive, I decided to focus on the attitudes of Ritalin users. After changing the focus from ‘student attitudes’ to ‘user attitudes’, the interview conducted with the non-user became less relevant. Still, it was useful to see if any striking differences could be noticed in this interview, which turned out not to be the case. In the end the interview was not used for quotes or anecdotes, but it did serve to expand my general understanding of attitudes towards Ritalin use. It must be said that the distinctions that were made in prospect of the research between medical users and non-medical users proved to be flexible. In two cases medical users obtained Ritalin without a prescription, and in two cases non-medical users diagnosed themselves with ADD. One of these non-medical users was in the process of getting officially diagnosed.

Besides taking a student point of view, I also assumed a somewhat critical perspective in this research. In a study about ‘smart drugs’ (drugs that enhance cognitive achievement), Canterbury and Lloyd  (1994: 198) stated that: ‘Nootropics may be to the human mind what steroids are to the body.’ This statement illustrates what interests me about the topic, and at the same time aptly summarizes my opinion as a researcher, with an emphasis on ‘my’. Do people really need Ritalin, or are there alternatives for people to cope with their problems? I am curious to find out what other students think of the above statement about nootropics. Because of my own opinion on Ritalin, I asked my respondents certain questions to stimulate critical thinking. In this way, my somewhat critical opinion led to interesting and critical stories and anecdotes. During the research, I tried to be aware of my subjective point of view at all times. Furthermore, I tried to make sure that my opinion was never dominant or insulting, to give all the space needed for respondents to talk about the subject.

The interviews with my respondents lasted for an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. Some respondents were unknown to me before the research, some were acquaintances, and some were friends. The use of prescription stimulants is not free from taboos and disapproval, and speaking to people whom I already knew and had a trust relationship with gave me the chance to talk freely about otherwise sensitive topics. The people whom I did not know, however, proved to be no less open and willing to talk about personal topics. All names in this paper are fictional.

Marte Ydema - Illustratie

Is it a magic cure…

‘I was tying my laces, and it just made me cry. For the first time I was actually tying my laces, and not… [thinking about something else] I grounded on earth.’ (Lotte, talking about the first time she took Ritalin)

It was quite a while ago for Lotte, a 23-year-old student who has been taking Ritalin for ADD, four years actually, but her first experience with Ritalin was still vivid and clear in her memory. Everything finally made sense to her when she got diagnosed with ADD four years ago. She mostly got good grades, but she always had trouble concentrating and planning her schoolwork. The low grades she got for listening comprehensions were unexplainable, and that is why her school finally noticed that something had to be wrong. She still lives at home with her mother, father and younger sister. Her father and sister have both been diagnosed with ADD as well. At the moment Lotte does not have her own prescription, but she gets Ritalin from her younger sister.

Lotte is not the only one I talked to who does not have her own prescription, but gets Ritalin from family. Roderick, a 21-year-old student, gets his Ritalin from his younger brother. Roderick is not diagnosed with ADD yet, but at the moment of the interview he is involved in a diagnostic process. Jasper, a 21-year-old student, does have a diagnosis for ADD, but he gets his Ritalin from the mother of one of his friends, who is a psychiatrist. He tells me that he could get a prescription for ADD so that he can get his own Ritalin, but that would take time and effort, and that this way it is much easier. Bram, a 21-year-old student, is the only student I spoke to who takes Ritalin every school day on a medical basis. He has his own prescription. Mo, a 22-year-old student, takes Ritalin on a non-medical basis. He gets Ritalin from friends. He tells me that, while he feels that he has some gradation of ADD or ADHD, he does not really feel in need of a diagnosis.

Lotte tells me that only after she started taking Ritalin, she realized that she had been living in a ‘dream world’ all the time. When she takes Ritalin, she feels as she is alive again. She feels motivated and awake. Similar stories were told to me by other students. Roderick tells me:

‘I found it quite heavy. Normally, a thousand things rush through my head, but after using Ritalin I only had one goal, and that is studying, studying, studying.’

To Roderick the effect was absolutely overwhelming, he tells me. Jasper tells me:

‘It is a bit like shutting your brain off [verstand op nul], and you can completely commit yourself to something.’

Also Bram has a similar experience with Ritalin:

‘There is chaos in your head [without Ritalin], it’s all a bit more organized [with Ritalin]. Your thoughts are not going everywhere.’

Regarding the functional effectiveness of the drug, all respondents are positive. There seems to be a consensus among them about the functional effects. Ritalin helps them in doing schoolwork. For Lotte, Ritalin also helps her in planning and organizing her work. Ritalin is perceived by the respondents to clear their mind; to enable them to focus on one thing. They all say that Ritalin makes studying much easier. Jasper explains that it really helps him to do more in a short time. Without Ritalin, he would not be able to concentrate enough, and would not be able to learn as much as he has to.

… or tragic curse?

‘I have quite a lot of problems with side effects, so I really don’t think it’s relaxed. I get a bit ‘brain dead’ [hersendood] I think.’ (Jasper)

Side effects play an important role in the use of Ritalin for most of the students. Before I even mentioned the subject myself, it was automatically introduced, because side effects affected important aspects of their lives. Jasper stopped taking Ritalin on a regular basis because he experienced too many side effects. He felt emotionally unstable, became aggressive, had weird dreams and felt down. He thinks Ritalin makes people ‘mind dead’ [geestdood]. Furthermore, he is also troubled by physical side effects. He does not like the fact that Ritalin takes away your appetite, another reason that he takes the pills as little as possible. At the moment, he only takes Ritalin when he thinks he really needs it to concentrate, mostly during exam weeks.

Side effects also play an important role in Lotte’s life. She started taking Ritalin when she was 19. In the beginning she took three pills a day, usually two in the morning and one in the afternoon. However, not long after her first pill she stopped, because she experienced many side effects. She lost a lot of weight, and her hands and feet got really cold, and sometimes almost turned blue, purple, or even black. She went to the hospital because of her cold hands, and she immediately had to get an electrocardiography (a visual scan of your heart activity). She tells me that nothing was wrong in the end, but she is still troubled by cold and blue hands and feet, also known as Raynaud’s phenomenon (a disorder which causes spasms in the blood vessels). Just like Jasper, she now only takes Ritalin if it is really necessarily. She seems to be worried about the healthiness of the drug in general. When asked if she ever gave Ritalin to someone without a prescription, she answers that she would be too afraid that something bad would happen to that person.

Roderick and Mo also mention side effects, both physical and mental. Roderick mentions a whole bunch of physical side effects:

‘I had lots of side effects. I was extremely cold, especially my hands and feet. But on the other hand, you do start to sweat. Your heart rate rises excessively. Your whole blood pressure rises. And you loose your appetite; the whole day you don’t eat anything. And it is also laxative. These are all things that made me think; it’s not just common doping [huis-tuin-en-keuken doping]. It has its disadvantages. That is one of the reasons why I don’t just do it during the week.’

Mo tells me that Ritalin makes him feel somewhat tired, weak and feverish. Moreover, both Roderick and Mo mention that Ritalin can change your character: it makes you dull and anti-social.

Tim is the only one who tells me that he is not troubled by side effects. The only thing that is important for him is that he does not take a pill late in the evening, because it makes him sleepless. However, he does give pills to friends sometimes, and he hears about side effects from them. It is therefore, he tells me, that he is a lot more cautious now when giving Ritalin to friends. He explains that if he reads the medical instructions he often thinks to himself that he should stop giving his Ritalin to friends.

Ritalin is ‘real crap’

Side effects do not only have a direct effect on the lives of the students I spoke with. Ritalin’s reputation with regard to health and safety may largely be dependent on it. While students praise the functional benefits they can achieve with Ritalin, namely concentration and focus, and a ‘clear mind’, they are negative about the many side effects which most of them experience. Except for Bram, all the students think that Ritalin is something you have to be careful with. Lotte is quite worried about the health effects of Ritalin. She says:

‘It is real crap [troep], and I don’t understand why other students use this just… just extra.’

She does not seem to be too concerned with ethical issues. If students want to use Ritalin for academic benefits she can understand, but she thinks that people should not be messing with it because of the health risks. To back up her argument, she points to the possible risk of having a sudden heart attack. Jasper thinks that Ritalin is crap as well. But he is less worried about the healthiness of Ritalin. He uses other drugs quite often, so he says it would be hypocritical to be worried about it. But still he also wants to use Ritalin as little as possible. This also applies to Roderick and Mo.

Ritalin as a functional tool

‘I do not really care about it. [Ik lig er niet wakker van].’ (Roderick, talking about non-medical use for academic purposes)

When talking to respondents, I got the overall impression that they are not really concerned with ethical issues. Lotte continuously mentions the health aspect, by saying that non-medical Ritalin use is very dangerous, but she thinks that students should make their own decisions regarding using Ritalin or not. When I confront them with the question if Ritalin use could be seen as cheating, some respondents changed opinion a few times, which illustrated that they had not thought about ethical concerns before. After thinking about it for a while, all respondents responded that Ritalin use is not really cheating. Several metaphors used by the respondents illustrate their opinion. Bram sees Ritalin as a tool which makes concentrating easier, but not as a wonder drug doing all the work for you:

‘If you, for example, went clubbing the night before and the next day you go to a lecture, then it is not efficient to sit in the lecture hall because you are too hung-over or you can’t concentrate. That is the same with this [Ritalin]. I don’t really need it, but it makes it all a bit easier and more efficient. So why would I live without?’

He also makes a comparison with doping. He tells me:

‘It’s not, at least that’s what I think, as cycle racing; that somebody uses doping, and that someone gets better than the rest. It’s more; it’s just a sort of tool that you… [does not finish sentence] Look, if everybody just has a better bike, then it’s just fine.’

Lotte also uses a doping metaphor to illustrate her point::

‘If you take doping, it directly influences your physical performance. But if you take Ritalin you get more controlled, and that does not influence if you’re smart or not. You can take Ritalin, and then still postpone everything.’

Jasper uses a surprisingly similar metaphor:

‘Doping influences everything, it’s often with endurance sports that doping is used. That is influencing the total sport. Ritalin gives you a ‘little push in the back’ [duwtje in de rug].’

Because Ritalin is seen as a tool, and not as a super drug, Ritalin use is not seen as cheating. Mo puts it this way:

‘If you are short of time, it’s just a handy tool to use. So it’s actually not really cheating, it’s more of a tool.’

It is clear that respondents use their agency here to make active decisions, and also expect this from their peers. Respondents feel like they make active decisions about when and why they use Ritalin. Their statements show that they think people make their choice to use Ritalin themselves. Statements as, ‘Why wouldn’t I use it?’ (Roderick), illustrate this, or as Jasper puts it:

‘If it really upsets you that people are cheating, then why don’t you just take Ritalin yourself?’ 

Just as Miller and Leger (2003) state, Ritalin to some extent induces individualization and medicalization; everybody is expected to work on his or her own future and to alter his performances with medicines if possible. It can be stated that Ritalin use is more or less accepted by the students.

Marte Ydema - Illustratieflip

A life without Ritalin

From the interviews I noticed that side effects generally play an important role in the lives of respondents. They want to take Ritalin as little as possible, because they feel Ritalin is crap or unhealthy. Nevertheless, I discovered that they feel they have to use Ritalin, that they really need it. An interesting finding is that this idea was present among medical users, but also among non-medical users. When asked if, regarding the many side effects he experienced, he thought the advantages were still overruling the disadvantages, Roderick answers:

‘In my case it is, because otherwise I just can’t do it. I have to [take Ritalin]. Otherwise I just don’t have… Otherwise I just can’t learn, and I don’t have any motivation.’

Lotte, Tim and Jasper all mention that they need Ritalin because something is different in their brains due to the ADD or ADHD. Because of those disorders, they are otherwise not able to concentrate enough on their schoolwork. Ritalin takes away or eases the problem for them. The latter conclusion creates a really interesting paradox; while most of the respondents experience severe or troubling side effects, they still feel the need to use Ritalin. Why would that be? Part of the answer may be related to Karim’s (2013) theory of a ‘pharmaceuticalized university’, in which problems have to be solved with medicines to keep up with the pace and teaching methods. Narratives from respondents did point in that direction. Jasper admits that he uses Ritalin to learn a lot in a short amount of time, and that he actually always starts revising too late. He says:

‘It [Ritalin] makes learning a lot easier, because actually I always start too late. And then I actually do need Ritalin to cram so much subject material in one go.‘

Even though Jasper blames himself for starting too late, I think that it is the task of schools to intervene here, by training students to adopt healthy learning habits.

When I ask him what his life would be like without Ritalin, he says that he would not be able to do so much subject material in such a short time. If he would adjust his learning behavior by starting to revise earlier, making his assignments and following the week planning, he believes he would not need to use Ritalin. It is only when he starts the weekend before, that he really uses Ritalin. He also tells me about one really nice course, which he thought was so interesting that he did not feel the need to use Ritalin.

When Lotte is asked what her world would look like she gives a really interesting answer:

‘Then I would never know how it feels not to be dreamy all the time. But I think there would be other solutions. Not with concentrating, but for example; I am with an ADHD talking group at the moment, about organizing your work, and that really helps. So that is another kind of solution. External, to get your life back on track.’

Mo sees this almost the same way:

‘If I had a month to learn for my exams, then I wouldn’t need Ritalin. Then there would be some days when I would be focused for half a day. But at the moment, now I’m probably going to use it, because I still did not learn for my exams.’

Lotte explains that she thinks schools are not adjusted to students with learning problems.

‘It would be ideal if schools would adjust to people who are not that quick with learning or who have focussing problems, instead of the other way around. Because at the moment it is like this: take a pill [gooi er maar een pil in] and then you’re good enough to fit into the oiled machine of education.‘
[Me: ‘So actually it would not have to be necessary?’]
‘Yes, that’s my opinion, but that’s just not possible in this society.’

This latter statement is really interesting. Respondents to some extent think that the educational system is the cause for their Ritalin use. Even students who are diagnosed with ADHD or ADD say that if they had other tools like coaching, more time, or alternative schedules, they would be able to succeed in college without the drug. Ritalin is just a tool to make things easier for them. The fact that Jasper does not take Ritalin for a course that he really likes, could also tell us something about the current educational system. If students would be motivated for all courses, maybe they would not need Ritalin after all.


All of the respondents are positive about the functional effects of Ritalin. They get more focused and concentrated, and they can empty their heads. However, almost all of the respondents are troubled by side effects. Some even altered their way of living and way of Ritalin use because of the side effects. Respondents mention both physical and mental side effects. Ritalin is not seen as a super drug, but as a tool that gives them support during studying. That is one of the reasons why Ritalin use is not considered cheating; when you take Ritalin it does not mean that the work is done automatically. Respondents emphasize the student’s own responsibility that is still needed to succeed in studying. It could be concluded that normalization of Ritalin is indeed occurring; respondents think that it should be a student’s own choice taking Ritalin or not. This could be interpreted as a sign of medicalization; if it is possible, why not take a pill to enhance your performance?

There is a contradiction in experiences and attitudes towards Ritalin: despite troubling side effects, respondents still feel the need to use Ritalin. When thinking about a life without Ritalin, however, they acknowledge that there are other ways to solve their learning problems. The fact that they feel the need to use Ritalin despite the side effects must mean that there is a pressing motivation to use it anyway. Respondents talk about the educational system as if it could be one of those pressing motivations. If they had more time, or started earlier, got coaching or alternative schedules, they think that they could still be successful in their studies. Because they do not experience these advantages at the moment, they feel the need to take Ritalin to be able to succeed. This is a really interesting finding, and more extensive research would be really valuable. To see if a ‘pharmaceuticalized culture’ is indeed arising in the Netherlands, more research is needed.

It is important to note that I certainly do not deny the existence of ADHD or ADD, or that I deny that students with learning or focusing problems do not need extra help and attention. But based on my research findings, solutions could be provided to give students the opportunity to function without Ritalin. If courses would be more interesting in the eyes of students, there would be less need among them to use Ritalin. Furthermore, more time and attention could be offered to students who have problems with concentrating. Moreover, students who have studying problems could use training to learn how they could study effectively and begin studying on time.

This study shows that studying students’ perceptions of Ritalin use is important if we want to understand its underlying reasons and mechanisms and comprehend it in the broader context of a pharmaceuticalized university culture. Ritalin should not be normalized, and we should make sure we remain critical of its use and associated practices.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


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