Reflections on the ‘missing middle’: April discussion

Sarah Weakley 

Our April meeting focused on the idea of a ‘missing middle’ in both youth studies and in childhood studies research. While the concept is a popular one among youth researchers interested in transition outcomes, I (as one of these researchers) was interested in whether this concept was prevalent (or even present) in other fields. The small but mighty discussion included a mix of quantitative and qualitative researchers from youth and childhood studies. Below are just some of my thoughts as they relate to my own research on youth: however, feel free to comment below if you see these issues arising in your work as well (or email me!).

By its nature, quantitative data allows researchers to explore the ‘middle’ subgroup of observations/cases, all dependent on what characteristic is used to create these subgroups: educational achievement (eg by GCSE scores), income, self-reported health, etc. In the policy work that I focus on, young people’s interaction with the benefit system, the structure of the welfare system and its use of means-tested benefits removes the majority of young people (including the ‘middle’) from an analysis from the start. However, if this analysis was done using another country’s data (Norway, for example, whose welfare system touches citizens at all levels of income), the analysis would necessarily capture those in both the ‘low’ and ‘middle’ parts of the income distribution. While this is a relatively simple example, it captures one major element of what the concept of the ‘middle’ entails – that context matters. In much of youth policy research, the ‘middle’ is dependent on income, employment and education; but are these the only yardsticks by which a subgroup is chosen for investigation? Or, are the use of these groups counterproductive to an investigation of all young people’s experiences during their transition to adulthood?

I must admit that at times my research feels like I am not engaging with this silent majority of young people; that I am part of the ‘problem’ of not getting their experiences out there. However, given that my work first and foremost is on policy, is my research scope almost limited by the lack of government policy and government interaction with this group? (You can’t research what doesn’t exist?) Given the very few policy levers in place for young people overall, and even less for those in the middle, it is perhaps more challenging to have a policy-focused quantitative project for youth in the middle than I may first have thought.

My time chatting with an ethnographic education researcher about her work in schools was also helpful in understanding whether the concept of a ‘middle’ exists in her experience. Because her research focuses more on the practice of creativity in a classroom rather than any sort of ‘assessment’ of creativity (thankfully because those assessments have fallen out of use), the concept of a ‘middle’ is perhaps less useful. I expect that this may also be in the case in other research contexts in childhood and youth studies where a particular intervention or practice is the topic of study. However, as an offhand comment she mentioned that within the classroom she observed the students sorting themselves into groups when asked by the teacher how they feel their skills are in a particular task (cold/warm/hot). This idea of self-assessed ‘middle-ness’ may point to the ‘middle’ as something that individuals themselves may express.

As with most theoretical discussions of this type I came away with more questions than answers: is this concept best used as a way to identify a group for study? Is self-assessed ‘middle-ness’ an area that is under-researched? Is the ‘middle’ meant as ‘average’ or ‘normal’ – and are they often conflated? What does it say about our society that we may be less interested in this group than others?

Some interesting pieces on this issue for youth research in particular, including work by Edinburgh researchers Vernon Gayle and Chris Playford:

Playford, C.J., Gayle, V. Connelly, R. & Murray. S. (2016). Parental socioeconomic influences on filial educational outcomes in Scotland: patterns of school-level educational performance using administrative data. Contemporary Social Science 

Playford, C. J., & Gayle, V. (2016). The concealed middle? An exploration of ordinary young people and school GCSE subject area attainment. Journal of Youth Studies, 19(2), 149-168. (Using English & Welsh Data)

Connelly, R., Murray, S., & Gayle, V. (2013). Young People and School GCSE Attainment: Exploring the ‘Middle’. Sociological Research Online, 18(1), 6.

Roberts, S. (2011) Beyond ‘NEET’ and ‘tidy’ pathways: considering the ‘missing middle’ of youth transition studies. Journal of Youth Studies 14(1)

Special Section of Sociological Research Online 18(1): The Marginalised Mainstream: Making Sense of the ‘Missing Middle’ in Youth Studies


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