Abstract. Early school leavers (ESL) are defined as 18-24 years old persons
without qualification at upper secondary level who are not participating in
education or training. During the last years, they have gradually become a
target group of EU and Austrian education and labour market policies.
Attention at ESL as an issue of social research has increased during the last
years with a focus on quantities, reasons, consequences and solutions along
with sociology of education’s interest on social inequalities and their
reproduction. The aim of my research is to approach ESL outside of a
problem and solution framework, seeking not to pre-suppose but to
reconstruct the meaning of ESL for young people who match the definition.
Still I take the problem-framing of the phenomenon into account and make
it an issue of my research. Hence I address ESL in a very open qualitative
perspective via biographical analysis and I investigate ESL as discourse.
The purpose of my study is thus to combine both a biographical and a
discourse-analytical perspective on early school leaving. These objectives
can be distinguished into a twofold set of research questions: Related to the
biographical approach, I ask how early school leavers appropriate ESLdiscourse along ‘lifelong biographical work’. Which elements of the
discourse/s do they select? In what different ways do they refer to the
relevant discourse/s? Related to the discourse approach, I ask how ESLdiscourse/s structure biographies of early school leavers. In what kind are
early school leavers constructed as subjects of policies? How are selfperceptions as early school leavers constructed?
In combining biographical analyses and discourse analyses I in both cases
apply a methodological approach based in sociology of knowledge.
Regarding the analysis of biographical-narrative interviews I use Gabriele
Rosenthal’s ‘biographical case reconstuction’, a hermeneutic-reconstructive
approach composed of five different analytical steps. The dialectics of
experiences and narratives on experiences are taken into account and their
relatedness is used as basic principle for the interpretation of biographies.
During the first analytical steps, both perspectives are systematically
separated in order to reconstruct the sequential configuration of the
experienced life-story as well as the sequential configuration of the narrated
life-story and in the end to relate both perspectives to each other. Regarding
DOI: 10.22363/09669-2019-283-289
the analysis of policy documents related to ESL I refer to Reiner Keller’s
sociology of knowledge program of discourse analysis. According to this
approach discourses as perceived as constructions of reality and as
institutionalized frameworks of knowledge and the potential of creative
handling discourses is highlighted.
My first analyses show the complex ‘problemness’ in the biography of an
early school leaver (‘Robert’). In his problems structure both his
experienced and his narrated life-story but their meanings are very complex
and in part contradictory.
Questions of the threshold between legitimacy and guilt arise; they exceed
the fact of school drop-out, and are related to wider societal knowledge
about the have-to-be structure of problems. Robert represents a case of
relating his biography to discourses on counselling – in applying the logic of
problem solving via identifying triggers and sources, reflecting, and
bettering. This finding can be connected to ongoing discourses of
individualization and meritocracy shaping the understanding of
responsibility, legitimacy, and guilt. Questions of guilt seem to be inherent
in ESL discourse, but go beyond the fact of school failure.
Keywords: early school leaving, biographies, discourse, problem framing,

Gabriele Pessl
Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna, Austria, e-mail: pessl@ihs.ac.at
ORCID ID: 0000-0002-7775-8974

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