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  • Theorizing Resistance and Intimacy in Youth Studies
  • Lisa Weems (bio)


“Resistance” is a key term in the fields of childhood and youth studies. In what follows, I suggest that we rethink the use of this term as it is deployed currently in youth studies scholarship because particular theoretical exclusions, ideological superiority, and moral certainty haunt its definition. As a researcher and an educator committed to social justice, I am not interested in dismissing the concept of resistance altogether. In order to reach a more fruitful discussion of the term, however, it is necessary to address its historical limitations in practice as well as to imagine new possibilities for its treatment in critical discourses. To this end, I propose the analytic of “intimacy” as a way both to augment and to amend our thinking about issues of youth and cultural struggle. I argue that the concept of intimacy calls attention to the embodied nature of power, subjectivity, and citizenship. As such, the construct of intimacy allows researchers to attend to the affective, historical, and socio-cultural dimensions of childhood and youth as ethnographic subjects and symbolic figures. Furthermore, intimacy permits more dynamic images to animate our sensibility of the “tense and tender ties” of cultural politics (Stoler, “Tense” 3).

Many scholars of cultural studies in education credit Paul Willis with coining the term “resistance,” especially in the context of schooling, counterculture, and youth participation in both.1 Based on an ethnographic investigation of a school in an industrial town in the United Kingdom, Willis argued that working-class males created and sustained a “culture of resistance” with/in schools because of its emphasis on “feminine” ways of being that involved discipline, obedience, and “book knowledge” (12–18). According to Willis, the lads included in the study resisted the authority of their teachers and administrators rather than learn how to master or to conform to this discipline. He concluded that the counterculture of resistance was paradoxical because it actually resulted [End Page 134] in solidifying the lads’ future in such working-class jobs as manual labour.

Since Willis’s classic study of working-class lad culture, resistance has remained one of the most prominent terms in studies of counterculture, youth, and social change (Dolby, “Popular” 266). In fact, elsewhere I suggest that youth studies scholarship has become something of a cottage industry that has created a certain “brand” of resistance (“Commodification” 73). This form of youth studies scholarship incorporates the Freireian notion of education as empowerment and the practice of freedom. As a result, this literature tends to conceptualize resistance as a form of youth agency, foregrounding individual and collective acts of resistance as liberation from hegemonic norms. In this way, resistance is viewed as part of larger political and moral ideologies that are cognitive, intentional, and even instrumentalized.

Although a useful and popular term that draws our attention to the ways in which youth exercise agency, the term “resistance” also has been somewhat fetishized and (at times) accompanied by thin analyses of specific cases. Unfortunately, much of the scholarship on resistance as it has been deployed in youth studies has continued to frame power (in various forms) as operating on a single axis or in a single dimension (Weems, “M.I.A.” 58).2 This pattern is particularly troubling since two of Willis’s colleagues at the Contemporary Centre for Cultural Studies (CCCS) noted nearly forty years ago the ways in which such a definition of countercultural resistance conflates resistance with white, masculine counterculture.3 In other words, the field of youth studies perpetuated the association of the term “resistance” with white, working-class, masculine counterculture.

Often, resistance serves as a shorthand that elides nuanced complications of the multi-dimensionality of texts, contexts, affects, and effects. Specifically, much of the contemporary work in youth studies privileges investigations of particular socio-cultural identities, cultures, and subcultures. It is important to note the distinction between identity and subjectivity. Following the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, I emphasize subjectivity as an assemblage of multiple subject positions and desires within and among persons of all ages—positions and desires that are discursive but not necessarily cognitive, intelligible, or coherent. In this way...


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pp. 134-147
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