The Phenomena of Age (rounded to 3 decimal places) by John Moriarty

28 Mar

11.689 was the mean average age on September 1st, 2000, expressed in decimal years, of the 5,285 people who completed a questionnaire for the Belfast Youth Development Study (BYDS) between 2000 and 2005. That number is derived from the date of birth supplied by each partcipant, which can be entered into an operation standard to most data packages (Excel, Stata, etc.) which counts the number of days between the date in the cell and another date you supply. I supplied the closest likely date to the participants’ first day of secondary school. Given their age in days, you then divide that number by 365.25 to get the number of years since their date of birth.
11.689 equates to 11 years and 244 days, which is almost precisely 11 years and 8 months. The standard deviation, which I’m obliged to report beside any mean, is 0.313 years, around 114.5 days. The standard deviation is like an average of how close everyone is to an average, so on average everyone was just under 4 months either side of the average starting school. The youngest was 10 years 231 days and the the oldest was 13 years and 62 days.

Now say something about age. What is it like to grow older, to become an adolescent in this society?

For some, the self-contained facts above are as far as statistical analysis can proceed without regressing into conjecture. Others might question the value of those facts themselves. Who cares about the mean age of a theoretical school-starter, was there anybody even born on the “average birthday”? (Answer: 28 were born one day either side of the average). Still others are plain bored already.

I calculated this age variable because I wanted to find out how the rate of cannabis use among and individual’s classmates affects the likelihood of that individual having used cannabis. In most studies (mine included) the older the participant, the more likely they have used an intoxicating substance. So that I didn’t confuse the effect of being older with the effect of being in a class with more cannabis users, I used the age variable to control for this effect. The best estimate I have of the effect of age is that having been been 10% older when starting school (which equates to just over 1 year older in this sample) is associated with an increase of between 7% and 8% in the likelihood of having used cannabis by third year of secondary school.

But what does this really mean? Does this even pass as sociological knowledge? What does it mean to say that an individual’s age  determines their behaviour? Surely we are not constantly aware of our age, particularly in an environment where everybody is of equal status and approximately the same age. And surely everybody ages and matures at different rates in any case. And even if this were fact, what do we do with this information; propose that people be younger?

To understand age as a phenomenon, one needs to exit the stats lab and get one’s hands dirty. Find some teens and talk to them. Ask them how they feel about being 11 (or 23 or 72 or whatever age they are, though you may feel be rude asking). Chances are, it’s a window into their world and they’ll tell you something of what it’s like to be them. You can read it back later and examine how much reference they make to “age markers”, to how the current phase of their life relates to the overall narrative of their life so far and from here out. If the conversation dries up, you might want to ask about birthdays, or how they perceive slightly older/ slightly younger/ much older/ much younger humans (as Lynn Johnston has done to good effect). If you’re interested in drugs, ask about drugs, see if they make the link between being older and smoking more dope.

Alternatively you could analyse public discourse, find idiomatic representations of age. You’ll find that some of these directly confront the idea that age is a mathematical fact, e.g. “Age is just a number, you’re only as old as how you’re feeling” (or, as I recently saw on a birthday card “who you’re feeling”). You could analyse the politicisation of age, from the march of the pensioners in Dublin 2008 to save universal medical cards for OAPs, to the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders in Britain in 2006.

Then you write up the interesting bits and that’s your contribution to the literature on age. Is that it?
Perhaps it doesn’t have to be.

Perhaps we didn’t look closely enough at the data we had to begin with. Young people who were 11 in September 2000: what else can we say about them? They were born between 1988 and 1990. They were between 4 and 6 when the 1994 PIRA Cease Fire began; between 8 and 10 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Being from Northern Ireland, many will have witnessed a key period in the evolution of discourse in the region, though in a diversity of ways.
We know that by the time of the second survey the following year, they will have seen and read news about aeroplanes flying into the Twin Towers, at around age 12.
We know that David Beckham will have been one of the most famous people in the world for most of their childhood, while the career of Britney Spears, who is 7 years older than them, will begin an infamous decline before any of them have taken GCSEs.
We know that mobile phone ownership is beginning to increase as they are starting school, and that in a short few years this will be their main mode of social communication.
We can guess that only a few tech-aware individuals will have heard of Google before starting school, but that by the time they are 23 in 2012, the search engine will be used over 320 million times per day worldwide, and its name passed into standard English.

In all of this, we don’t know which aspects, if any, would feature if we were to read back on anything they were to write or say about growing up. But we have some hints of the cultural era they belong to. We can even extrapolate, if we wish, that any study of the BYDS survey, partially captures these phenomena, provided we are cautious about the breadth of our claim.
Above all, we can posit that those at the elder end of the age distribution will have experienced all of these events differently from the youngest in the sample, by dint of having been at a different developmental stage at the time of each event.

My point is this. There is much valid criticism which can be offered about quantitative approaches to social science, particularly on how genre of research is presented. Here I’ve tried to illustrate how a variable can be mathematical in nature, but touches on perhaps the quintessential human experience, the passing of time. I believe the mistake would be to rule out one source of information in favour of another, be it ruling out the experiential in favour of the mathematically demonstrable, or vice versa.

I’ll be speaking about the interface of quantitative and qualitative research at the SSPSW Postgraduate Conference on Friday at 10:30am. I hope to prompt a lively discussion and that, in the mean time or afterwards, you’ll take the time to comment below.


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