Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research

Making sense of the social world


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Dr Steven Roberts

Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Sociology


Room G3.10, Gillingham Building
School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research
Chatham Maritime, Kent, ME4 4AG

I am a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Sociology at the University of Kent's School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR). My research interests are quite diverse, but centre around the youth stage of the life-course. Within this, I am interested in how issues of social class and gender shape, influence and constrain young people’s transitions to adulthood independence and their experiences of education, employment, consumption and the domestic sphere.

I joined SSPSSR in August 2012, prior to which I was a lecturer at the University of Southampton for two years. Before becoming an academic I held various management and training roles in the private sector. I'm also the head of an on-going not-for-profit project that enhances oral English and teaching skills among primary and secondary school teachers based in rural parts of Southern China. I also contribute to the politically inspired blog ‘The Ragged Notebook’

Education: I am entirely a product of a University of Kent education, having been awarded a fully funded ESRC 1+3 studentship to complete my MA in Social Research Methods and then a subsequent PhD in Social Policy at SSPSSR. Prior to this, I obtained a First Class (Honours) degree in Industrial Relations and Social Policy, taught jointly at SSPSSR and Kent Business School. My teaching qualifications and status as a fellow of the Higher Education Academy were also obtained at Kent.

Find me:

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Also view these in the Kent Academic Repository

    France, Alan and Roberts, Steven D. (2014) The problem of social generations: a critique of the new emerging orthodoxy in youth studies. Journal of Youth Studies. ISSN 1367-6261.


    Over the previous seven years the application of a social generation paradigm or ‘theory’ has gained increasing currency as a method in analysing young people's relationship with the life course. Whilst not a new concept or approach its resurgence and reconfiguration to ‘new’ times has seen some writers positioning it as a ‘new orthodoxy’ or ‘consensus’ within youth studies. In this it is seen as providing a conceptual framework that better helps us understand the complexity of circumstances and conditions that shape youth identities in late modern society. In this paper we examine and explore the underlying assumptions and claims that are made by those advocating the social generational paradigm, raising questions and seeking further clarification on a number of key themes. We accept youth studies needs to move beyond ‘old models’ that define and understand social context as a simply a tension between ‘structure or/and agency’ or as a ‘flavour’ to social action. To conclude therefore we propose the need to have an approach that is ecological and both accepts ‘social change’ and ‘continuity’ as critical parts of the life course, one that recognises the nature and influence of power and social reproduction, especially for different social classes, in shaping the experience of being young.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2013) Youth studies, housing transitions and the 'missing middle': Time for a rethink? Sociological Research Online, 18 (3). ISSN 13607804.


    A recent but growing trend in studies of young people's lives has been to highlight that there is a 'missing middle' in the youth studies research agenda. It has been argued that much youth research focuses on either successful or very troubled transitions to adulthood, with the lives of those who might simply be 'getting by' representing an empirical absence. Building on previous work that has addressed how such a missing middle can add to our understanding of educational experience and attainment, labour market engagement and participation, and issues of identity, this paper pays attention to the housing transitions, careers and aspirations of a group of 'ordinary' and apparently unproblematic working class young men. Because they do not represent groups that have been of especial interest in youth studies to date, their experiences problematize the on-going utility of dominant conceptual frameworks used to explain housing transitions. In addition to their 'lack of fit' with ideal type typologies, the young men also reveal the shifting nature of attitudes towards communal living 'which is traditionally associated with middle class students' in combination with the continuing role of social resources as a determining factor in their housing transition. © Sociological Research Online, 1996-2013.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2013) Boys will be boys… won’t they?’: Change and continuities in contemporary young working-class masculinities. Sociology, 47 (4). pp. 671-686. ISSN 0038-0385.


    This article contributes to the literature concerning the construction of working-class masculine identity in a context of unprecedented social transformation. Drawing on qualitative interviews with 24 young men currently employed in the retail sector, this study finds that contrary to much research on masculinities young working-class men are able to resist dominant and hegemonic cultural ideals. The respondents demonstrate a very different attitude towards the ‘emotional labour’ required in the service sector than is often documented, while also rejecting notions of traditional gendered domestic responsibilities in respect of their futures as potential partners and parents. Congruent with other emerging research in this area, the reference point for an ‘acceptable’ masculine identity appears to have shifted, with some young working-class men’s lives, at least, illustrating an attenuated or softened version of masculinity.

    Magrath, Rory and Anderson, Eric and Roberts, Steven D. (2013) On the door-step of equality: Attitudes toward gay athletes among academy-level footballers. International Review for the Sociology of Sport. ISSN 1012-6902.


    In this semi-structured interview research, we investigate the attitudes of 22 academy-level association football (soccer) players who are potentially on the verge of becoming professional athletes. We find that, as a result of these men belonging to a generation holding inclusive attitudes towards homosexuality, independent of whether they maintain contact with gay men, they are unanimously supportive of gay men coming out on their team. Thus, this research supports a growing body of literature suggesting that teamsport culture is no longer a bastion of homophobia in the UK. Their support includes athletes being unconcerned with sharing rooms with gay players, changing with them in the locker rooms, or relating to them on a social and emotional level. The only apprehension they maintain is that having a gay teammate might somewhat alter homosocial banter, as they would not want to offend that individual.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2013) The reality of downward intergenerational mobility. Policy Network/ Center for American Progress. pp. 141-146.


    The problem of youth unemployment is often recognised as a consequence of the financial crisis and ensuing austerity measures but it is actually part of long-term trends in the youth labour market. Despite this, there are considerable numbers of young people who remain off the policy radar

    Roberts, Steven D. and MacDonald, Robert (2013) Introduction for Special Section of Sociological Research Online: The Marginalised Mainstream: Making Sense of the 'Missing Middle' of Youth Studies. Sociological Research Online, 18 (1). pp. 21. ISSN 1360-7804.


    Research in the field of youth studies has produced many important insights and has been influential in critiquing, shaping, and changing our understandings of, and social policies in respect of, young people's lives. The social scientific focus has, rightly so, oftentimes been on those young people more obviously situated on the margins of society and possibly at risk of becoming excluded or disconnected from it. There has been some occasional and direct research interest in the lives of more advantaged young people who follow more successful youth transitions through extended education. Often, however, it is taken for granted that those on 'slow track transitions' are 'successful' - and un-problematic in social policy terms. Regardless, in adopting this dualism successful versus unsuccessful transitions, slow-track versus fast track trajectories, advantaged versus disadvantaged youth research is in danger of ignoring the experiences of young people who fall somewhere in-between.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2012) Gaining skills or just paying the bills? Workplace learning in low-level retail employment. Journal of Education and Work, 26 (3). pp. 267-290. ISSN 1363-9080.


    This paper analyses the workplace learning experiences of young male retail employees. Deeming formal education highly unattractive, the pursuit of lifelong learning and continuous development for such people relies on workplace learning. Their experiences, however, over several years and across various retailers painted a grim reality. Sector-level accreditation (at National Vocational Qualification level 2) was characterised as stigmatising and indicative of deficiency to prospective employers. These qualifications, indeed all formal in-house training, were positioned as lacking in quality, inauthentic and an unnecessary cost for employers and government. Effective learning was, instead, experiential and situated, with (limited) expertise cumulatively developed through doing the job. The paper moves beyond valuable, yet well rehearsed, arguments regarding which groups get access to training opportunities and a focus on upskilling those who are least qualified. Instead, this investigation asks whether current workplace learning provision in retail can provide genuine opportunities for advancement and development for 'moderately qualified' young people employed in the lower levels of the labour market-a section of society whose learning experiences and needs are often overshadowed by a polarised focus between Not in education, employment or trainings, and those undertaking apprenticeships or HE. © 2013 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2012) 'I just got on with it': The educational experiences of ordinary, yet overlooked, boys. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33 (2). pp. 203-221. ISSN 0142-5692.


    In the 1980s, researchers established the need to document and analyse the educational attitudes, behaviours and outcomes of 'ordinary kids' as a means of developing a holistic account of school experience. Yet, while significant attention is given to extremes in educational attitudes and behaviours, 'ordinariness' tends to remain overlooked in contemporary research and policy discourses. This article contributes to this void by presenting data from a qualitative study of young men's school-to-work transitions. Their educational experiences at both compulsory and post-compulsory levels illustrate a distinctive middle-ground, defying typically conceived dualisms of resistance or engagement. Alongside research interest in the extremes of 'success' and 'failure', such ordinary experiences can enable us to reinvigorate and refine our conceptual repertoire. © 2012 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2012) One step forward, one step Beck: A contribution to the ongoing conceptual debate in youth studies. Journal of Youth Studies, 15 (3). pp. 389-401. ISSN 1367-6261.


    In a time of rapid and unprecedented social change, the concepts we use to make sense of the ways in which young people understand and interact with the world are very much under the microscope. Some researchers argue that we need to reinvigorate our conceptual repertoire, while others argue that our theoretical tool box still has the capacity to consider continuities as well as change. Building on an earlier paper, this article provides a rejoinder to recent contributions to this debate written by Woodman and Threadgold. Attending to some misunderstandings, misinterpretations and oversights, the article aims to clarify and re-emphasise some important points I have made previously. In particular, the article argues for a coherent and comprehensive critical review of Beck's corpus before we uncritically and readily incorporate his perspectives into our ways of theorising the contemporary social world. © 2012 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2011) Traditional practice for non-traditional students? Examining the role of pedagogy in higher education retention. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 35 (2). pp. 183-199. ISSN 0309-877X.


    The current agenda for widening participation (WP) promotes equal access to higher education (HE), yet it also implicitly requires institutions to develop support strategies to ensure a successful learning experience and good retention for different groups of students. The objective of this article is predominantly reflected in the latter goal and considers student retention, rather than recruitment. Specifically, it focuses on whether non-traditional students' experiences of teaching environments could potentially contribute to 'drop-out', ultimately enhancing our understanding of what role pedagogy might play in WP retention strategies. Using a qualitative framework, the views of a group of non-traditional students are presented, focusing specifically on their experience of teaching provision, and the extent to which it matched their expectations of HE. Consideration is then paid to the students' views to garner an account of solutions they deem to be essential in tackling negative experiences and subsequent attrition. The present project should have wider appeal for those interested in understanding how student-centred research can help deal with the challenges faced by WP students. © 2011 UCU.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2011) Beyond ‘NEET’ and ‘tidy’ pathways: Considering the missing middle of youth transition studies. Journal of Youth Studies, 14 (1). pp. 21-39.


    Jones' (2002) discussion of polarised transitions and the ‘fast and slow lanes to adulthood’ espoused by Bynner et al. (2002) are good examples of how dualistic language often permeates youth transitions discourses. This often results in transitions research concentrating on a dichotomy of experience during the youth phase. The primary purpose of this article is to develop the argument for the inclusion of detailed documentation and analysis of the transitions of intermediate groups who fall between the lines of this dualism. These young people constitute a ‘missing middle’ in relation to youth studies and UK educational policy. To support this argument, the paper turns to the results of a qualitative study of 18–24-year-old, male, front-line, retail employees in the South-East of England to illustrate how some young people do not find themselves neatly situated on one side of such categorical cleavages. These young men are following neither a NEET (not in education, employment or training) pathway nor a ‘tidy’, government preferred, route through post-compulsory education. Thus, studying such seemingly ordinary young people can contribute towards developing a more holistic understanding of youth in the contemporary period.

    Haverig, Anika and Roberts, Steven D. (2011) The New Zealand OE as governance through freedom: Rethinking 'the apex of freedom'. Journal of Youth Studies, 14 (5). pp. 587-603. ISSN 1367-6261.


    Against the backdrop of social, economic, and demographic changes of recent times, Arnett has proposed his theory of 'emerging adulthood', essentially a new stage of the life-course between adolescence and adulthood. Arnett sees emerging adulthood as a distinct, historically unprecedented period demographically, subjectively, and in terms of identity explorations. Furthermore, he claims that this time typically involves independence and represents the 'apex of freedom' in young people's lives where they 'have more freedom to decide for themselves how to live than they have ever before or will ever have again'. In this article, we expand on existing critique aimed at Arnett's concept, in particular with respect to his understanding of emerging adulthood as the 'apex of freedom'. To exemplify the limits of Arnett's theory, we use Nikolas Rose's theorisation around governance through freedom and apply it to qualitative research material about the working holiday phenomenon in New Zealand - an essential element of emerging adulthood, which, superficially, seems to offer unlimited options for self-exploration, choice, and freedom. Rose's approach, however, illustrates that freedom and constraint are intertwined and that as emerging adults in New Zealand insert themselves into OE discourses, they are governed through freedom. © 2011 Taylor & Francis.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2010) Misrepresenting 'choice biographies'?: A reply to Woodman. Journal of Youth Studies, 13 (1). pp. 137-149. ISSN 1367-6261.


    This paper provides a reply to Woodman's (2009) recent argument that youth studies often incorrectly attribute the concept of 'choice biographies' to the work of Ulrich Beck. Drawing heavily on Beck's own words, this paper contends that youth researchers might not be making this association unduly. Consideration is paid to some conceptual issues outlined by Will Atkinson, which Woodman has not appeared to consider, that challenge Beck's rejection of the relevance of structural analysis. Further, a review of some empirical evidence countering Beck's theory of 'individualization' suggests that 'middle-ground' positions in youth sociology can arguably be justified. Finally, it is proposed that Woodman's defence of Beck is partly a reflection of an alignment of focus between Beck's theoretical repertoire and Woodman's preferred method for understanding the youth period - the concept of generation. © 2010 Taylor & Francis.

Edited Books

    Snee, Helene and Hine, Christine and Morey, Yvette et al. (2015) Digital Methods for Social Sciences: An Interdisciplinary guide to research innovation(forthcoming). Palgrave Macmillan ISBN N/A. (submitted)

    Hamilton, Myra and Antonucci, Lorenza and Roberts, Steven D. (2014) Young People and Social Policy in Europe(forthcoming). Work and Welfare in Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, 272 pp. ISBN 978-1137370518. (in press)


    In Europe's current economic and socio-political climate, young peoples' exposure to social risks is escalating. This edited collection provides the first in-depth analysis of youth as an important case for contemporary social policy. By combining social policy and youth studies, the book explores the effects of both the economic crisis and austerity policies on the lives of young Europeans. This timely publication focusses on two fundamental contemporary challenges for European welfare states: the changing conditions faced by young people, characterized by precarity and social exclusion; and the role of social policies and welfare sources in shaping youth transitions. Through a unique combination of comparative studies and case-studies studies conducted across Europe by leading experts, the book covers a number of policy areas relevant to youth transitions including education, labour market, housing and social security policies. This book will be essential reading for academics, policy-makers and students interested in understanding how welfare states are responding to the challenges faced by young people.

    Roberts, Steven D. (2014) Debating Modern Masculinities. Palgrave ISBN 9781137394835.


    According to social commentators, masculinity is in crisis as a result of profound social transformation. This kind of public discussion of the behaviours of boys and men points to a presumed need for policy intervention to act as a corrective to the apparent crisis in masculinity which presents (young) men as both at risk and also a risk to others. This is counter to recent scholarship that has documented positive changes in the performances and expression of contemporary masculinities. Such academic research has suggested that we are witnessing the emergence of more inclusive masculinities, no longer predicated on homophobia, marginalization or subordination. This edited collection critically interrogates both sets of claims, firstly deconstructing and rejecting the masculinity in crisis discourse, before engaging in an internal debate about the implications of social change upon the identities of contemporary boys and men and for the ways in which we theorise contemporary masculinities.

    Atkinson, Will and Roberts, Steven D. and Savage, Mike (2012) Class Inequality in Austerity Britain: Power, Difference and Suffering. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 208 pp. ISBN 9781137016379.


    When the Coalition Government came to power in 2010 in claimed it would deliver not just austerity, as necessary as that apparently was, but also fairness. This volume subjects this pledge to critical interrogation by exposing the interests behind the policy programme pursued and their damaging effects on class inequalities. Situated within a recognition of the longer-term rise of neoliberal politics, reflections on the status of sociology as a source of critique and current debates over the relationship between the cultural and economic dimensions of social class, the contributors cover an impressively wide range of relevant topics, from education, family policy and community to crime and consumption, shedding new light on the experience of domination in the early 21st Century.

Book Sections

    Roberts, Steven D. and Hine, Christine and Morey, Yvette et al. (2013) 'Digital Methods as Mainstream Methodology’: Building capacity in the research community to address the challenges and opportunities presented by digitally inspired methods. project_report. National Centre for Research Methods(NCRM)


    Digital methods (i.e., use of online and digital technologies to collect and analyse research data), have been utilised by a variety of disciplines. In an era in which social life is increasingly played out online, such methods offer different ways of asking new questions and generating new data. However, digital methods raise some concerns for researchers, such as maintaining ethical research practices, avoiding unrecognised biases, and keeping up with the pace of contemporary technological developments. Despite over a decade of innovation and some notable achievements, digital methods have yet to be fully accepted into the mainstream. This network for methodological innovation, funded by the NCRM in 2012-13, aimed to build capacity in the research community to address the opportunities and challenges that digitally inspired methods present for social research. Through a series of three seminars, the network brought together researchers from a range of disciplines and career stages to map out, engage with and advance current debates in digital methods. The network showcased a cross-disciplinary range of contemporary social science research projects that effectively and innovatively utilise digital methods; and, finally, identified future roles for such methods within the mainstream of social research. Through three one-day events, which included a range of keynote speakers, ECR/PhD student talks and seminar discussion and activities for all attendees, the objectives included: ? To inspire social researchers to deploy relevant, effective, innovative, digital methods; ? To identify future training needs so that the wider social science community can make use of digital methods; ? To foster networks for sharing of expertise between social scientists from a variety of disciplines and career stages, and computer and information scientists; ? To provide networking and dissemination opportunities and provide a space to share expertise for researchers at all career stages; This report provides an overview of the key debates that stimulated the initial interest leading to the emergence of the network and outlines the critical issues that were discussed and developed during the course of the project funding period from spring 2012 to spring 2013. Details and further information, including downloadable content, presentations and other outputs stemming from the seminars, can be found on the project website (


    In recent years, research and policy activity has primarily been concerned with the numbers, experiences and trajectories of apprentices and university students, or with the lives of ‘spectacular’, more obviously economically marginalised groups of young people who are entrenched in issues of social exclusion and deprivation. Many young people with level two and level three qualifications, however, directly enter the labour market. This sizeable but unspectacular group remains overlooked by policymakers as well as researchers. These young people undertake new forms of employment in an increasingly polarized job market, rely on on-the-job training rather than higher education to enhance their human capital and compete more and more with graduates who cannot find jobs to match their own newly acquired high skill levels. The net result is that this middling group ends up becoming trapped, with limited chances of progression, for example in the retail sector where 31 percent of employees are aged 16 to 24. The ongoing policy focus on level 2 qualifications does not serve these young people well. Policy-makers use qualification levels as a proxy for skills, but disregard the negative returns and by extension the lack of genuine progression as a result of obtaining such qualifications. Achieving a qualification – any qualification – it seems has become a proxy measure of successful outcomes over and above what people actually do in their jobs, what they are actually paid, what they can afford, or whether they have genuinely improved their capacity to be more productive. Greater employee engagement in company training and development programmes can better align business needs with individual needs for progression. At the policy level, skills policy needs to place greater emphasis on whether achieving a qualification enables employees to perform better and progress.

Total publications in KAR: 33 [See all in KAR]
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My PhD was an in-depth qualitative analysis of the transition to adulthood of ordinary and often overlooked young men. With the broad notion of youth transitions still serving as a significant influence, my current primary research interests include work-based learning provision and skill development in the service sector and the experience of non-traditional students in HE. These core issues are aligned to a secondary research interest in young people's wider transitions in the realms of housing and family, and specifically the relationship between all of these strands of the transition to adulthood and how they are mediated by the dynamics of social class and gender.

My work to date has included a mixed methods approach, combining secondary analyses of large scale data-sets with qualitative data collection to illuminate how social issues at the micro-level are situated within a broader context at the macro-level. I'm also interested in methodological innovation, especially the development and use of digital technologies and all the debates that follow.

Current projects/funding:

‘Young Adulthood: Aspirations and realities for living and learning in the 21st Century’ – funded by the ESRC for their Secondary Data Analysis Initiative, in co-operation with Ann Berrington, Centre for Population Change, University of Southampton.

'Young people's views on the labour market' (UK arm of a tripartite international comparison of school pupils' perception of the labour market during the recession, run by the University of Ballarat (Aus))

Employability as part of a project of the self or employment as a means to an end?: Understanding students' pursuit of 'earning while learning' (Small scale exploratory project looking at undergraduates' motivations for part-time job hunting during their studies and consequences of not being successful)

'Digital Methods as Mainstream Methodology'- Network for Methodological Innovation (funded by the ESRC's National Centre for Research Methods, aiming to engage with key debates about the use of technology in research and build capacity in using digital methods across the social sciences - in collaboration with University of Manchester, University of Surrey, University of West of England, and Trilateral Research.

I am interested in supervising either PhD or Masters level research in the broad area of youth transitions or issues to do with young adulthood. Please email me for further discussion if you are seeking supervision in these fields.


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At Medway, I convene the stage 2 module 'SA550: Principles and Practice of Social Policy' and contribute lectures to 'SA311: Social Problems & Social Policy', 'SO306: Introduction to Sociology', 'SO647: Sociological Research Methods' and the dissertation module SO551. I also contribute to the Masters level module 'SO886: Worlds of Work' and the first year undergraduate module ‘SO336: Sociology of Everyday Life’ at Canterbury.

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I am co-convenor of the BSA youth study group and a board member of the ESA Youth and Generation Research Network.

Editorial: I am on the editorial boards of the Journal of Youth Studies and Sociological Research Online, and I'm also a peer reviewer for British Journal of Sociology; Sociological Inquiry; Journal of Youth and Adolescence; Educational Review; Education, Knowledge and Economy; Journal of Further and Higher Education; Palgrave Macmillan Book Proposals; Routledge Book Proposals; Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (Portuguese Foundation for Scientific Research) Research Grant Review Panel; ESRC Research Grants

I am also Visiting Fellow at University of Southampton.

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Employability is an area which I research and teach about, but it's ultimately a key concern for governments, employers and potential employees in all industries. As well as the varied and, at times, more subject specific knowledge you develop in your studies at SSPSSR, me and the rest of the team are here to help equip you with skills that employers want and which will make you stand out from the crowd. 

To help you be the best job candidate you can possibly be, we organise and run a range of activities that will help enhance your employability and ensure that you are able to transfer your newly-acquired university knowledge and skills into the workplace

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Telephone: +44(0)1227 823072 Fax: +44(0)1227 827005 or email us

SSPSSR, Faculty of Social Sciences, Cornwallis North East, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NF

Last Updated: 25/11/2014