Studying the aspirations of youth can tell us a lot more about their worlds

Aspiration is an implicit element of development that inspires action for change. Yet there are increasing concerns about the individualised and instrumental use of aspirations in development practice. In a recent special issue of the European Journal of Development Research focusing on youths’ aspirations that I guest-edited along with Nicola Ansell and Peggy Froerer, we argue that aspirations should be recognised as socially produced and as positionings by young people in presents shaped by remnants of pasts and the uncertainty of futures. In this post we detail what’s inside the special issue.

Development discourse is thick with aspirations (Frye 2012; Jakimow 2016). Planning for and bringing about desired change is key to development practice and the longing for a better life constitutes a main driving force for people’s continued engagement with development interventions despite their all-too-frequent disappointments (De Vries 2007; High 2014). Thus, aspiration is an implicit element of the very idea of development.

Yet, increasingly the concept of aspiration has come to feature explicitly in the development studies literature. Reflecting trends in the Global North, this is perhaps most evident in studies focusing on children and youth (see for example: Morrow 2013). Now that some years of schooling have become the norm for most young people the world over, raising aspirations has become a policy mantra to increase learning outcomes, while in other contexts young people’s aspirations are seen as unrealistic because they are ‘aiming too high’.

The academic challenge of working with aspirations is that it may end up promoting ‘individual investment in institutional pathways for self-improvement while protecting these same institutions from blame when these pathways do not lead to the imagined outcomes’ (Frye 2019: 724). At the same time, futures do matter and are unavoidable. This is especially true for children and youth who often spend considerable time in future-oriented institutions such as schools.

These challenges necessitate the need to discuss aspirations more deeply, appraise what it has to offer for studying children and youth in context of development, while also being mindful of problematic uses of the concept. To this end, the European Journal of Development Research has created a Special Issue titled ‘Youth, aspiration and the life course: development and the social production of aspirations in young people’s lives’ that Nicola Ansell, Peggy Froerer and I guest-edited.

We recognised the need to find some answers to basic questions that include:

  • What do we mean when talking about the term ‘aspiration’?
  • How do we conceptualise it from a social sciences perspective?
  • And what is its analytical value in studying young people’s aspirations in contexts of development?

The collection builds on Arjun Appadurai’s (2004) oft-cited text ‘The capacity to aspire’. He pointed out that aspirations ‘are never simply individual’, but ‘always formed in interaction and in the thick of social life’ (2004: 67). We have developed this starting point further on the basis of recent philosophical, sociological and anthropological work on theorising aspiration and desire.

On this basis, the Special Issue takes a critical stance against strands of development research that merely treat aspirations as ‘mental models’ that can be tweaked easily by having people watch certain videos, send them regular text messages, etc. The case in point is the 2015 World Development Report titled ‘Mind, Society, and Behavior’ (World Bank 2015). The World Development Report draws on behavioural economics, neuroscience and social psychology and presents interventions seeking to raise or redirect aspirations as a relatively inexpensive addition to the development practitioner’s toolkit.

The articles in the Special Issue are based on research that problematises the normative and instrumental approach to aspirations that underpins the World Development Report. Rather than judging young people’s aspirations as too high, too low, or of the wrong kind, the authors set out to understand young people’s orientations towards desired futures – whatever these might be, and however these might be expressed. These could be longer-term futures related to desired occupations, but also more immediate futures in which an orientation towards a desired future emerges as important for asserting a particular identity in the present.

Ultimately, we sought to make a balanced intervention in research and practice focusing on aspirations in relation to young people in development. One of the questions that was asked (and answered) is:

How are aspirations socially produced as part of young people’s lives? And what can we learn from this?

Young people’s aspirations do not predict futures. In fact, the work of aspirations is an ever-unfolding dynamic through which possible futures and particular pasts come to have a bearing on the lived moment of the present. Gaining some control over this, however fragile, vague or illusive this may be, is key to making life meaningful, perhaps especially so in adverse and rapidly changing circumstances.

These points were unravelled on the basis of research with widely diverse groups of children and young people, and in relation to varying development issues. The list of contributing articles includes research with:

In addition, two articles focus on youth in China. One concentrates on youth in vocational schools who are often considered as ‘non-aspirational’ (Ole Johannes Kaland), whereas the other focuses on young people who did enter university. This latter illuminates the high price young people end up paying for realising China’s national aspiration of educational expansion (Willy Sier).

And finally, one article moves the lens away from young people themselves and critically discusses development organisations’ knowledge claims about rural youth’s aspirations about farming futures (Ben White).

Collectively, the articles underscore the importance of appreciating aspirations as socially produced, and therefore never just an individual property. In contexts of development characterised by rapid and dramatic change, strategies for realising a realistic future that were valid in the recent past are rapidly becoming irrelevant, obsolete, or may have become closed-off altogether. This emphasises the importance of conducting research with young people themselves and taking seriously their aspirations as they are positioning themselves in presents shaped by remnants of the past and uncertain futures. The Special Issue is a dedicated effort to furthering this research agenda.

This text is a highly condensed version of the editorial introduction of the Special Issue.


Appadurai, A. 2004. “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the terms of recognition.” Pp. 59-84 in Culture and Public Action, edited by V. Rao and M. Walton. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

De Vries, P. 2007. “Don’t Compromise Your Desire for Development! A Lacanian/Deleuzian rethinking of the anti-politics machine.” Third World Quarterly 28(1):25-43.

Frye, M. 2019. “The Myth of Agency and the Misattribution of Blame in Collective Imaginaries of the Future.” The British Journal of Sociology 70(3):721-730.

High, H. 2014. Fields of Desire: Poverty and policy in Laos. Singapore: NUS Press.

Morrow, V. 2013. “Whose Values? Young people’s aspirations and experiences of schooling in Andhra Pradesh, India.” Children & Society 27(4):258-269.

World Bank. 2015. “World Development Report 2015. Mind, Society, and Behavior.” Washington: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank.

About the author:

Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.

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