Article: Young people and national identity: can youth work provide ‘border crossings’?

Author: Charlie Baker | Tags: , , , , ,

Charlie Baker explores conceptions of British identity among young people in Birmingham and considers the implications for youth work. She argues that in the post-Brexit United Kingdom, youth work needs to offer a critical pedagogy that enables young people to cross the 'borders' that exist between different groups and to facilitate dialogue and understanding.

This article considers young peoples feelings of British and national identity, based on research with a group of Asian and white young people in Birmingham just before the 2016 EU referendum. The research was conducted with young people through detached youth work sessions and centre-based sessions with British young people, some of whom were second generation migrants. The research was conducted to explore whether the young people had a sense of British identity and, if so, how they defined and thought about this.

Hall (1994: 225) stated that cultural identity is:

…a matter of ‘becoming’ as well of ‘being’… Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories, but like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation.

In the period before the 2016 referendum, national identity was arguably becoming more prevalent in public discourse. This can be seen in the Government’s counter extremism legislation which focuses on integration with British culture and conformity to British values (Home Office, 2015). Alongside this, particularly Muslim young people feel pressure to place their British identity over their religious, cultural or ethnic identities (Ahmed, 2015).

Young people’s ethnic and national identities

Jenkins (2006; 2008) argues that identification is an interaction between relationships of both similarity and of difference. Whereby, both individual and collective identity are as much an interactional product of ‘external’ identification by others as of internal’ self-identification. Mead (1934) considered the concept of the self and drew distinctions between two processes which form the ‘I’ and the ‘me’. He argued that we develop as individuals in response to the attitudes of others; that when interacting with others we take in or incorporate aspects of their attitudes towards us. The ‘me’ identity develops through seeing its form in the attitudes that others take towards it. It consists of the attitudes of others that have been incorporated into the self (Miller, 1973). In the current Brexit climate and with the rise in nationalism and populism, young people from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds might arguably feel pressure to exhibit an explicit British identity.

An Ipsos Mori survey (2005) found that white young people in England struggle to differentiate between being English and British, with the two terms used interchangeably by them. The report highlights that English young people are less likely to think that their English identity is more important than their British identity, in comparison to Scottish or Welsh young people (38% among English people compared with 60% for Welsh and 85% for Scottish young people). The survey also found that young people from a dual heritage background have more of a sense of ‘Britishness’ within their identity (43%) compared with white British young people (29%). Furthermore, the study found that young people from minority backgrounds know that sometimes they are not fully accepted; and often state that being ‘British’ is more important to their sense of identity than where their family originated from (Ipsos Mori, 2005). Similarly, Terrell et al. (2018) conducted a study on the young migrant generation living in Brexit Britain. Within this, over 1,110 young people aged 12-18 years old completed an online survey. The majority of the young people asserted a sense of belonging to Britain whilst simultaneously feeling a sense of ‘in-between-ness’. The nationalist discourses adopted by the media have raised issues around migration, belonging and Britishness. Mejia and Banaji (2017) argue that young people in the UK today feel both powerless and unsettled about their futures after Brexit, regardless of which side of the debate they supported.

Dhooleka Sarhadi Raj (2000) conducted research with young Hindu people to explore the notion of religion as an ethnic resource rather than a product of ethnic identity. The study found that a young persons identity formation involved a conscious choice of different categories, and that ethnic identities are chosen by young people for themselves. This challenges understandings of identity that apply fixed categories of ethnicity, community and culture to people. It needs, instead, to be recognized that young people choose whether to adopt certain identity characteristics. Dhooleka Sarhadi Raj (2000) argues that applying these fixed categories to people causes identity to be viewed in a simplistic and statistical light, where in fact the stability of someones identity is being challenged constantly in subtle ways. Lefebvre (1992) argued that a person exists in a ‘trialectic’ of perceived, conceived and lived space. Their interactions and experiences impact on what is perceived, conceived and lived – and this is likely to impact on young people’s sense of identity, especially where they experience tensions between these.

The concept of ‘critical border pedagogy’ was considered as key to breaking down misunderstandings and creating shared learning opportunities by Coburn (2011) who argued it is where conditions are created for young people to cross boundaries and shape new identities. Learning about meaning and understanding is shaped by time and place, by physical environment, by social relationships, and by the individual or collective ideas of those involved in the learning process (Wenger, 1998; Wallace, 2008). The social construction of these boundaries ultimately means that they can be socially deconstructed through the challenging of ideas and open dialogue and developing an alternative narrative (Giroux, 2005). It has been argued that youth work offers a space for young people to come together for such ‘border crossings’ (Coburn, 2011).

Research Methods

For this study, I conducted semi-structured interviews with sixteen white and Asian young people between 15-19 years old. The interviews consisted of both closed and open questions about their sense of British identity and how they perceive their identity has changed over time. There were a higher proportion of young men who completed the survey (three quarters of the sample) as opposed to young women. As such, this paper focuses primarily on the young men’s responses. Just over half of the young men were white British and the remaining young men were Pakistani or from other Asian backgrounds. All of the young women interviewed were white British. The Asian young people were all second-generation migrants. The interviews were not recorded as they took place during the ebb and flow of the youth work sessions on the street and in the youth centre. I chose not to add this formality as it was important to hear their views through informal conversation to avoid them feeling like their views were under scrutiny. I explained the purposes of the research and obtained their consent to ask the questions and make notes during and after the interviews.

Young people’s interpretations of British identity

As part of the interviews, I provided discussion prompts in the form of key symbols that might be associated with Britain and Britishness. For young Pakistani men, the three characteristics they associated most with a British identity were the Union Jack flag, being born in the UK, and having a British passport. By comparison, the white young men considered the main aspects of a British identity were the use of drugs and alcohol, support for the royal family and speaking English. The young women identified speaking English as the most important characteristic of a British identity whereas it was the third most popular symbol of Britishness for the white young men. White young men most often stated that support for the royal family was the most important characteristic of a British identity.

Behaviours and attitudes such as use of drugs and alcohol, football club affiliation, eating traditional ‘British’ food and supporting the royal family were common identity markers among the white young men. Whilst the Asian men considered supporting the royal family to be a key marker, they tended to focus more on concrete markers of belonging such as holding a British passport, being born in the UK and speaking English as key to claiming a British identity. 

The young people spoke about what it means to be British and how or if the British identity has changed over time. The young Asian men all agreed that it had changed over time. One reason they stated for thinking this was that they felt British people had become more racist, as some said they had experienced this personally. Also, they felt that there are more cultures within the UK and diverse traditions that have changed British culture over time. Whilst these feel somewhat contradictory, there was a clear sense of change over time as experienced through their own interactions with society. For the white young men, the majority did not say that British identity had changed over time, instead they felt it hadn’t changed over time or they were unsure if it had. In contrast, the young women felt that it had changed over time with only one of them saying that they didn’t think that it had changed. The white young men who felt that British identity had changed over time also expressed some nationalist views and argued that it has changed in negative ways because of an influx in immigration. There was a sense that being English or British should be an identity marker only if your ethnic group was white, with them viewing people of other ethnic groups as only belonging to their ethnic group and not being able to be British as well.

The responses outlined here offer some insight into the young peoples ideas and views about British identity and what it means to be British, as well as some of the tensions and complexities of claiming a British identity. Both the Asian young men and white young women considered the British identity to have changed over time and across different generations whereas the white young men did not think it had changed and some expressed nationalist sentiments. Some of the Asian participants considered the changes to British identity from a race perspective, arguing that racism has changed over time with the influence of the media and the influx of far-right movements like the English Defence League (EDL). As such, their understanding of changes to British identity were in some sense in parallel with the white young men’s view of it as more static, and both reflected a growth in nationalist expression and a recognition of increased multiculturalism in Britain. One of the Asian participants expressed that they had been subjected to a hate crime and they believed such actions were fuelled by the media persistently questioning whether Muslims belong in Britain. Several participants focused on British identity being defined by key markers of inclusion such as holding a British passport, a UK birth certificate and speaking English, particularly for those who were second generation migrants in Britain. Even though the research identified several common themes which young people considered to be a part of a British identity, it also had elements of individual interpretation and personal meaning which was dependent on other factors such as the young person’s heritage, culture, religion and sense of belonging.


The findings of this research offer clear implications for youth work. Coburn (2011) argues that youth work can provide the space and opportunity for young people to cross boundaries, both physically and socially and through dialogue to broaden their understandings of each other. As such, youth work practised as ‘critical border pedagogy’ should facilitate the breaking down of barriers and challenge the exclusionary discourses surrounding Brexit. Whilst the young people involved in this study did express some nationalist sentiments, they were engaging in youth work settings where they were able to interact with individuals from different religions, ethnicities and backgrounds. More research is needed to establish the impact of this youth work engagement on their understandings about British identity and inclusion of each other over time.

Lefebvre (1992) developed the concept of the trialectic, arguing that a person has perceived, conceived and lived space. This research touched on young people’s lived, perceived and conceived ideas of British identity drawn from their experiences and interactions with society. The research showed that Asian young men and white young men had different ideas and answers for what characteristics they considered to be part of a British identity. Through continued interactions with each other and the dialogue facilitated through youth work, these are likely to change in ways they would not have otherwise done. The research findings offer a challenge to youth workers in the post-Brexit climate to facilitate such border crossings with young people.

Youth & Policy is run voluntarily on a non-profit basis. If you would like to support our work, you can donate below.

Last Updated: 23 June 2020


Ahmed, S. (2015) ‘The Voices of Young British Muslims: Identity, Belonging and Citizenship’ in Smith, M. K.; Stanton, N. and Wylie, T. (Eds.) Youth Work and Faith: Debates, Delights and Dilemmas, Lyme Regis: Russell House.

Coburn, A. (2011) Liberation or Containment: Paradoxes in youth work as a catalyst for powerful learning. Journal of Youth and Policy 106.

Dhooleka Sarhadi Raj (2000) ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ Promoting religious identity among young Hindus in Britain, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 23: 3, 535-558.

Farrimond, H. (2013) Doing Ethical Research. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hall, S. (1994) Cultural identity and diasporain Williams, P., and Christman, L (eds) Colonial discourse and post-colonial theory: A Reader, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp. 392-401.

Home Office (2015) Counter-Extremism Strategy [] Accessed 17/4/2020.

Ipsos Mori (2005) Young People and British Identity, The Camelot Foundation, Available Online [] Accessed 05/04/2020.

Jenkins, H (2006/2008) Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lefebvre, H. (1992) The Production of Space; John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, USA, 7–8.

Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, self, and society from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Oxford: Chicago Press.

Mejias, S., and Banaji, S. (2017) UK Youth Perspectives and Priorities for Brexit Negotiations, Available Online [] Accessed 10/04/2020.

Miller, D. (1973) George Herbert Mead. Self, language and the world, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Terrell, N., Sime, D., Kelly, C., and McMellon, C. (2018) Belonging in Brexit Britain: Central and Eastern European 1.5 generation young people’s experiences, Wiley, 1-10.

Wallace, D. (2008) Community education and community learning and development, in Bryce, T and Humes, W (eds) Scottish Education: Beyond Devolution. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Charlie Baker is a qualified youth worker and is currently studying for a PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London.