An analysis of the characteristics of epistemic culture in community youth work professionals in Northern Ireland

  • Alastair Scott-McKinley

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis argues that professional youth work in Northern Ireland has a distinctive knowledge culture, shaped by context, history, policy and local priorities. When discussing knowledge culture, the study uses the theoretical concept of epistemic culture proposed by Knorr Cetina (1998, 1999). Epistemic culture is seen as the specific knowledge practices which influence how a specific discipline or profession relates to knowledge. Jensen, Lahn, Nerland et al (2012) extended the study of epistemic culture to other professions in Nordic countries. These studies focused on four essential elements: these are histories, priorities, orientation, and preferences. This study extends this approach to an investigation of the epistemic culture of professional youth workers in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is a study of how professional youth workers access, use, generate and mediate knowledge. The study seeks to analyse these characteristics in the current policy context. The study is conducted in a policy environment where Priorities for Youth (DE 2013) is the principal influence on youth work. In this context, planning, management information systems, performance and evidence of outcomes are emphasised. Therefore, the study examines how the epistemic culture of professional youth workers might be in flux in light of these new priorities. The study makes use of a qualitative approach and is located in the social constructivist perspective. Due to the importance of context, the data collection used in the study is the episodic interview technique (Flick 1997, 2000) which is sensitive to small changes in context which accumulate over time. The study uses grounded theory to code and analyse data in an emergent framework approach (Charmaz 2016) in order to generate theory. The study therefore provides a rich description of the histories, priorities, orientation and preferences of professional youth workers’ epistemic culture. In addition, in considering the contemporary context, the study proposes an emergent theory of ‘circumventing strategies’ to explain the ways in which professional youth workers experience and mediate professional knowledge in the current policy context where a managerialist and performative culture dominate. The four approaches outlined in the theory of circumventing strategies outline both the epistemic strategies and the emotional labour that professional youth workers expend to work within a culture that is alien to their own profession’s development. The emergent theory provides valuable insight into how the experience of the focus on outcomes and performance is not monolithic within the sector but is rather informed by the experience of the practitioner, organisational setting and structures within the youth service itself.
Date of AwardMay 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorKristian Lasslett (Supervisor) & Gordon Marnoch (Supervisor)


  • Youth work
  • Epistemic culture
  • Northern Ireland
  • Performativity
  • Youth policy
  • Knowledge culture

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