Tracing Transitions: Young people, Nationality and Difference

There is an increasing interest in Finland on nationality, nationalism and processes of differentiation embedded in these. The Academy of Finland has initiated a Research Programme on Marginalisation, Inequality and Ethnic Relations in Finland, where a broad range of research is represented. One of the projects focuses on young people’s transitions, following their paths through post-sixteen education and training into the labour market and higher education and analyzing how gender, ethnicity and sexuality intertwine.

In the projects Gender and Nationality: Constructions of Being Finnish (1999-2001, and Marginalised Sexual Cultures: The Constructions and Deconstructions of Sexual Otherness (2001-2003, Academy of Finland,) and Juniperess-research collective my colleagues and I explore ways in which nationality in general, and Finnishness in particular, intertwine in constructions of cultural and social meanings whereby differences are integrated or marginalised.

We ask how constructions of nationality and of being Finnish are connected to space and place. Nationality is seen more as a dynamic process forming commonalities and difference rather than as a taken-for-granted framework. We concentrate particularly on ways in which gender, femininity and sexuality are intertwined with nationality, without forgetting other differences. We analyse citizenship and nationality as temporal processes, and focus on the past, present and future. We also ask how nationality and Finnishness are connected to space and place.

How transitions are traced

My own research focuses on young women’s and men’s constructions of being Finnish. I explore metaphors, iconography and associations of Finnishness. The aim is to search for exclusive ingredients which marginalise difference, but also for inclusive ingredients integrating difference. In collaboration with Dr. Elina Lahelma (Department of Education, University of Helsinki) we study post-sixteen transitions of young people. In this follow-up study we trace a group of students (63) whom we first met in a comparative, cross-cultural, collective ethnographic project Citizenship, Difference and Marginality in Schools – with Special Reference to Gender (Academy of Finland, Gordon, 1994-1998) when they started secondary school (7th grade, age 13/14). We now combine this ethnographic research with a longitudinal approach.

The data is collected in group interviews (using also associations, photographs and a memory folder) with 17/18 year young women and men. We explore how they read representations of Finnishness, how nationality is intertwined in the construction of differences, and how inclusive/exclusive constructions of nationality in general and being Finnish in particular are. We trace these students’ transitions, following their paths through post-sixteen education and training into the labour market and further and higher education. We analyse their conceptions about possibilities and limitations connected to transitions, their sense of agency, constructions of difference.

Us – here, them- there

We are interested in how young people understand, construct and deconstruct processes and practices of inclusion and exclusion. How are gender, ethnicity and sexuality intertwined? Although Finland has not been a colonial state, cultural constructions of ‘absent others’ draw from imperialist and colonialist thinking, whereby ethnic hierarchies privilege ‘us’, ‘here’, over ‘them’, over ‘there’. For example Paasi’s (1998) research demonstrates that representations in geography school books of other countries, and people in them, have been racist in the past. Our ethnographic research in schools suggests that ethnocentricity is still widely prevalent. With increased immigration and arrival of refugees, the absent others have become the most visible present others. However, there have been minority ethnic groups in Finland before now; women and sexual minorities have been present the others (Gordon & Lahelma 1998).


We use the concept of ‘resources’ to explore the means young people have available when accomplishing their transitions and striving for their imagined futures (Gordon & Lahelma, 2000). Young people become adults in the context of possibilities and limitations framed by resources at their disposal. These resources are formed through enmeshed social, cultural and economic dimensions of difference such as social class, gender, ethnicity, embodiment, sexuality and age. Young people’s lives are contextualised in local, national and global worlds, but constructed in particular spaces, with particular people. Our concept of resources reaches into the daily circumstances of the young women and men in our study. What is available for them and what is beyond reach in the constellations of small and big decisions about their current and future lives?

When we look at economic resources we consider the social class location of the young women and men. The financial means available to young people consist of parental resources, availability of part-time or casual work and support from the welfare state provision. Therefore social class location does not totally determine financial means; many young women and men supplement their means through their own efforts. But whereas for example young middle class women work in order to travel, working class young women may work in order to buy their clothing or save money for moving to a home of their own. The ways in which young people consume have a role to play in constructing who they are as individuals and how they relate to their peers.

Young women and men construct their futures in the context of linked lives (Thomson & al., 2000). People are important in the constellation of resources. Families, including parents, siblings and other relatives, are formed as tighter or looser frameworks. A tight family network can be supportive for young people, but it may or may not act as a resource for constructing their own imagined futures. Within interconnected networks young people can find a springboard for reaching out whilst staying connected, but such networks, if very controlling, can also impede the exercise of agency. Friends, partners, teachers and other professionals can similarly act as negative or positive resources.

Schooling is an important resource. Finland has a comprehensive education system, where until recently most young people attended local schools. Although social class and educational levels of parents are still connected to the educational paths of their children, education as a resource raises more complex questions, if we do not view attainment of middle class jobs as a self-evident criterion of success. Integration into the social relations at school provide one of the locations where young people construct their lives not only in terms of future orientation, but also in terms of interrelations and emotional processes.

Finally, spatial locations and spatial relations enter into the constellations of resources available to the young people. We have explored what spaces become, for the young people, important places suffused with social, bodily and emotional experiences.

Present others

When the new present others are talked about, the way in which they are represented is intertwined with ethnicity, gender and sexuality. When young people in our interviews discuss difference, for example when they talk about who can be a Finn, masculine hierarchies are constructed, and women remain marginalized in these. Sexual minorities are constructed as others – heterosexual, white masculinity is at the top of the hierarchy. These constructions are also connected to social class, with working class males as others. I have compared working class and middle class young men’s ethnocentric talk, and found surprising similarities as well as differences. Young middle class men are more likely to question racism, because they occupy a more privileged class position. We need to further explore how their ethnocentricity is constructed. For white working class men, privileged positions are available vis-a-vis gender, ethnicity and heterosexuality.

Middle class young women who are educationally successful and who are engaged in performing arts are cosmopolitans who travel a great deal, and question boundaries and borders between countries. They acknowledge their own self-interest – in order to be able to cross borders, they have to accept the right of others to do so too. Therefore their cosmopolitanism has a certain amount of self-interest. Moreover, when travelling, they can evade some of the gendered restrictions imposed on young women. For these women, some working class suburbs in Helsinki are more strange than European metropolitan cities.

Meanwhile, more ethnocentric working class young men live in these suburbs, and often have more contact with the now present absent others. Spatial relations are negotiated by them in smaller areas, and therefore having one’s own, local place, is more important. Tensions round space and place are more part of everyday life. Hierarchical masculinities are implicated in this process.

Forming commonalities

I have dwelled on two apparently very opposed groups – working class young men and middle class young women – in order to disentangle the contrast and in order to demonstrate ways in which social class, gender and ethnicity intertwine. All of these young women and men share the privileges of their own self-evident Finnishness. Their ways of conceptualising themselves and the world around them is imbued with the material, cultural, social and interpersonal relations they are positioned in. Self-interest is evident in their practices and ways of talking about these practices. Such practices are implicated in processes of differentiation, and in what social relations are significant in this. Their own positions are also intertwined in complex ways in their practices of forming commonalities, and who they are formed with.


Young people do not have homogeneous conceptions. The heterogeneity can be discernible between social categories, but it is also noticeable in one person. Young people construct their worldview and their social and political orientation with cultural tools at hand. They question current ‘othering’ processes whilst constructing their own agency in the context of growing into adult citizenship within a complex web of possibilities and limitations. They employ tools that are available. Although traces of constructing commonalities are often seen in most young peo-ple’s talk, creating differences is one way to position oneself as a powerful agentic individual. Their apparent self-interest is a response to an assessment of their own position.

Therefore processes of differentiation take place in the context of ambivalences in young people’s lives, whereby they balance between their rights and duties and their opportunities and obligations. Our continued task is to explore ways in which commonalities are constructed by these working class young men and middle class young women, as well as by the other young people in our study.

By Tuula Gordon


Gordon, Tuula & Lahelma, Elina (2000): Becoming and Adult: Possibilities and Limitations/Dreams and Fears, Paper presented at ‘Making and Breaking Borders’, Nordic Youth Research Symposium, Helsinki.

Gordon, T. & Lahelma, E. (1998): “Kansalaisuus, kansallisuus ja sukupuoli” [Citizenship, Nationality and Gender] in Alasuutari, P. & Ruuska, P. (eds) Elävänä Euroopassa: Muuttuva suomalainen identiteetti (Living in Europe: Changing Finnish Identity).Tampere: Vastapaino.

Paasi, Anssi (1998): “Koulutus kansallisena projektina – “Me” ja “muut” suomalaisissa maantiedon oppikirjoissa” [Education as a National Project – ’Us’ and ’them’ in Finnish geography textbooks] in Alasuutari, Pertti & Ruuska, Petri (eds) Elävänä Euroopassa: Muuttuva suomalainen identiteetti [Living in Europe: Changing Finnish Identity]. Tampere: Vastapaino.

Thomson, Rachel & Bell, Robert & Holland, Janet & McGrellis, Sheena & Sharpe, Sue & Henderson, Sheila (2000): “At This Point Everyone Turned against Me”: Critical Moments in Young People’s Narratives of Transition, Paper presented at Nordic Youth Research Symposium, Helsinki.

First published in NIKK magasin 1 2001 © NIKK

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