Research: how television can shape the rest of your life

My original interest in the effect of TV on career choice came from a search for a theory that could offer the best explanation for the behaviour of the people I knew.

But I was also struck by examples on the career advice grapevine where applications for certain subjects were dramatically boosted by a TV series,a film, or a personality.

Enquiries from aspiring vets, botanists, flautists, forensic psychologists, even merchant bankers, increase as the careers of media personalities prosper. Researchers acknowledge that the media have a role, but as far as I knew the mechanisms had not been researched.

Most importantly, if we were absorbing or even learning about ideas for work from the media, to what extent were the media contributing to equality of opportunity by broadening people's awareness of work; or to what extent were they reducing freedom by reinforcing social stereotypes, and encouraging people to stay in familiar roles?

Our social horizon, or what we could imagine ourselves doing, is determined in some experts' terms by our habitus. I find the idea of an invisible, conceptual envelope easier, and believe it also offers a way of thinking about change. This envelope is partly shaped by the people with whom we identify, and most importantly by our immediate family or friends.

Autobiographies often refer to a role model who in some way helped the writers to stretch their conceptual envelopes. When a career adviser asks us what kinds of things interest us, our shortlist comes from within that envelope.

It would be difficult for advisers to haul someone out of their envelope; but they might be able to help them to enlarge it, which would involve understanding its original dimensions and determinants.

I interviewed 24 people, about a third of whom were young people in their first jobs, and two-thirds who were changing, or had changed, jobs in mid-career. Those making career changes were asked to keep a diary for one week of everything they watched, listened to and read. I planned it so that the week in question was Adult Learners' Week. I also talked to people who I knew would have some insight into the issues involved, including broadcasters and those in the Department for Education and Employment who were helping to prepare careers advice phone-ins.

I also talked to career advisers about what they saw as the role of television and radio in their work, individually and at seminars in Britain and in Copenhagen.

The individuals in my study bore out accounts about the power of the habitus on restricting real, open-ended mobility. They also supported my idea that the conceptual envelope could be a useful image.

Where career decisions had taken my respondents beyond family expectations, the envelope had been extended by gradual enlargement, often because of quite fortuitous events and experiences.

Teachers were, of course, an important influence. In some cases my respondents had been drawn to, or repelled from, their subjects, but more often the important thing was teachers' role as kindly supporters. There are real implications in this for the need for career education awareness, at least, to feature in initial teacher training. This would help teachers realise that while these individual friendships are humanly and professionally rewarding, there may be ways in which they could help those students to make better choices, and at least check out the validity of any choice involving their own subject, and the student's understanding of which options it opens or closes.

Television and radio had not been a source of new ideas for work among the people I interviewed, but they did help to enlarge the understand ing of some, once they had an idea for a job.

Such ideas usually came from an influential individual at home (often an aunt or cousin) or from a teacher. If they were already interested, they would then seek out or pay more attention to programmes which touched on that interest.

Some of my respondents referred to television-watching with a parent as a possible influence. One example was a young laboratory technician, the only one of her schoolfriends who had gone into anything to do with science, who said that she used to watch nature programmes with her father when she was small.

He had found it relaxing, and she associated the subject-area with moments of closeness with him. Several respondents referred to parental habits of television and radio use, and the way in which the family discussed programmes.

The experience from this study suggests that it is the significanc e of the activity of viewing to an important relationship, combined with the enthusiasm for the subject of that other person, that is at least as important as the spontaneous curiosity of the person concerned.

Even where people use television drama for information about a career and its associated lifestyle, individuals bring different things to it. A young policeman told me how he had watched The Bill every Friday as a teenager, with his friends.

Several had talked about becoming a policeman: one had even wanted to go into any uniformed job, but did not care if it was the army, the police or the fire brigade.

My respondent thought this ridiculous, because of what he saw as the opposite tasks of the police and the army: he knew about the police because his father had been a special constable. People see different things in the same programme, even when the social context is the same for both. Even if we cannot show it explicitly broadening career ideas, TV (and radio) can shape what we do at work.

I asked if the work had turned out as expected. The policeman said that The Bill had not prepared him for the long periods of boredom he found when he started. But when action was required, he said his colleagues switched into being TV policemen: they squared their shoulders and pulled in their stomachs and acted alert, as if the fiction had established the shared conventions about what it was to be a policeman in those moments. It can also give us ways of talking about work. The young doctor in the study said that she found Casualty useful for communicating with patients, because she could explain diagnoses to them by referring to cases from it.

But this power of television drama may be simplifying and narrowing our ideas about what work there is, and what it consists of. The doctor watched Peak Practice, but she talked bitterly about the distance between its sanitised plots ("Everyone's cured, or happy, or dies nicely") and the reality of the lives of her council estate patients.

Career education, for adults as well as school pupils, may have to start from these brightly-illuminated vignettes, but it must then try to help people to step back and take in the big, more realistic, picture.

TV's potential for narrowing our conceptual envelopes is strongest in relation to stereotyping. However, even this is complex, as shown by answers to questions about media images of science.

The general view was that the media caricatured science and scientists. When I reminded them of the quite broad media output to do with science (such as Tomorrow's World), those same people often remarked that they had not actually thought of that as science - they enjoyed it too much.

They often repeated the media-stereotyped scientist as a dishevelled man in a lab coat. But when pressed, several said that this was what their science teacher was like, and could not give TV examples.

While old movies may lean on stereotypes, TV is relatively innocent: the stereotype is in our heads. There is a role here for career advisers and other teachers to open young people's minds to the possibility of science-related careers, by drawing their students' attention to the broad range on television (and of course radio). Part of the problem may be their unfamiliarity with science-related careers.

Racial stereotyping, and the need for more black and Asian role-models on television, also came up. This is now improving - my respondents were after all looking back - but there is a long way to go in relation to the wallpaper characters in TV drama. An Indian respondent reported a friend's wry comment: "We don't have small corner shops in our blood."

The group of older career changers expressed heartfelt views about strength of ageist images on the media. Those in this group who were unemployed or anxious about their job prospects also expressed concern about media stereotypes of unemployed people, and the effect this has on employers.

This question of role models and identification is central to my question about extending the conceptual envelope of people making career decisions. We know from advertising that influence is strongest where people can identify with the people and the context of the story.

The evaluation of the 1994 Adult Learners' Week campaign on BBC television, Second Chance, showed that the most effective of the short slots used to raise awareness was the one that used EastEnders characters. The principle of using a member of our imaginary, "virtual" family to anchor it in our habitus is also at the basis of the highly successful radio weeks for young people, where ideas and information are mingled with the regular output from DJs on Radio 1.

Sadly, there were no TV clips in Adult Learners' Week this year. Although my career changers kept media diaries for that week, not one knew it was even on.

During the year, career specialists complained to me about the broadcasters' policy for making general interest programmes available for educational purposes (only a few with commercial potential are offered). New technologies may improve this. But in the meantime, television has a valuable part to play in career choice.

Ruth Hawthorn is now Admissions Tutor at Lucy Cavendish College. Copies of her recent lecture at the RSA, from which this is an extract, can be obtained from Amy Dick, TES Promotions, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY, tel 0171 782 3000

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