Provoked by Boredom: Experiences from Youth Confinement


“Boredom and Action—Experiences from Youth Confinement,” published in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (JCE), is based on my field study in a secure care institution (for US readers, a juvenile detention center) for young offenders aged 12 to 18 in Denmark. In the article I show how boredom is a key experience in daily life in secure care and that the young people deals with boredom through the generation of risk-taking action. I find that the young people do not fully engage in the institutional routines imitating daily life on the outside. Instead their main focus is on getting out and returning to their friends and family. “Doing nothing” becomes the young people’s embodiment of boredom and an active strategy signaling indifference towards institutional life and routines.

I find that boredom sits in the walls of secure care, not merely as an individual experience but also as a more general collective experience. The young people often declared themselves “bored” and at times even the staff admitted feeling bored. I was therefore surprised by the critical reception of my findings by certain parts of the field, particularly some directors of secure care institutions. The most critical of them invited me to visit his institution, stating, “Boredom may occur in other institutions, but in mine the young people are never bored.”

At first I was puzzled by his reaction. I did not see my findings as provocative, especially as I had earlier discussed them with both the staff and the young people at other secure care institutions without receiving any negative response. Indeed, the young people recognized the experience of boredom: one boy even said, “Then you have really been there” when I told him about my experiences of boredom at another institution.

I declined the invitation from the critical director, saying that I had already finished my study and was preparing to defend my PhD thesis, including the JCE article. I not only sent him a copy of my thesis but also invited him to come to my public PhD defense. Unfortunately, he didn’t reply, nor did he come to the defense. However, I know from the media that he remains critical of my research.

This experience led me to reflect on the following question: why was he so upset by my findings on boredom that he did not want to engage in a dialogue?

I think my findings upset him because he sees them as a critique of his work, in which he tries to create a structured daily life for young people who in every way lack structure in their daily lives outside secure care. He is trying to help young people abandon high-risk action by showing them the benefits of routines and structures. Rehabilitation through treatment and training is core values and an integrated part of the self-understanding at secure care institutions. Thus he could interpret as threatening my revealing boredom to be a highly relevant institutional experience that partly springs from the meaningless that young people experience when required to follow the institutional routines. To point out boredom as an experience central to these young people, both inside and outside secure care, indirectly questions the director’s institutional values and self-understanding.

Perhaps by not engaging in a dialogue with me, he can better maintain the self-understanding that at his institution the young people are never bored and thus better preserve his belief in the value of treatment and rehabilitation. Maybe I should have accepted his invitation and seen for myself that boredom was not part of his institution. Yet while such a visit might have nuanced my findings, it would not change what I had already both observed and experienced at other secure care institutions. I still experienced boredom and shared this experience with the young people I met. Furthermore, the boredom I found in secure care were not only tied to the concrete interactions of my fieldwork but also followed from the structures (e.g. loss of personal freedom, daily routines, uncertainty about the release date) shared across secure care intuitions and closely linked to the experience of incarceration.

One last point of reflection: this experience of criticism from the field raised the question of the relevance of the episode – does it really matter what one critical director thinks? I think his opinion matters because it shows that ethnography holds the potential to provoke powerful stakeholders in the field by actively listening to the less powerful. By identifying some of the hidden and repressive experiences of social life, ethnography can make transparent those experiences that people with power don’t wish to see.

Read the Original Article Here

Listen to the Podcast Here


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