Youth Citizenship and Politics, Part 1: Trends in Europe and the UK.

By Emily Rainsford (Politics & International Relations) and Rebecca Ridley (School of Education)

A recent series of cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary workshops organised by Dr James Sloam of the Royal Holloway (University of London) and Centre for European Politics set out to discuss and challenge the alleged crisis of young people’s political participation and citizenship. The workshops were focused around three questions: How do young people participate politically? What makes young people participate politically? And who participates? The events took place throughout February and March 2013 in a small room in a corner of the Royal Holloway University’s Founder’s Building.

The first workshop was dedicated to a European perspective. Speakers at the workshop were drawn from across Europe and included Henrik BangErik Amnå, and Elvira Cicognani. The following workshops focused on the ‘crisis and transition’ of young people in British democracy and aimed to bring together academics and practitioners where speakers included Andy Furlong, David Kerr (Citizenship Foundation) Kierra Box (Community Matters), and Hugh Starky (Institute of Education). There were many important themes discussed throughout the workshop series. In a series of three blog posts published on Politics|Upside|Down, we will report on those that caught our attention.

Conceptualising engagement

A key theme in the debate on young people’s political participation is actually not whether young people participate, but how they participate. Henrik Bang started off this discussion at the first workshop by presenting his argument about the new types of citizens, the expert and everyday maker that have emerged due to a shift in the norms of engagement, particularly among young people, from a duty to participate to a will to make a difference. Because there is no room for this kind of engagement in formal politics, young people turn their attention elsewhere. This idea that young people are politically active, but in a different way was a central theme that ran through the workshops. Ben O’Loughlin looked at how this was expressed online and what new technologies do to the repertoires of action. James Sloam asked what consequences this might have on young people’s political voice and influence over policies that affect them. Matt Henn explored the differences between voters and non-voters and found that there was a strong aversion to politics amongst the non-voters, suggesting that abstention is not just apathy, but driven by strong negative feelings towards the political process. Peter Kraftl  presented research showing how young people live their everyday lives and use their communities, and highlighted the role they play in social integration. Peter Hopkins presented his and Liz Todd’s findings from the Occupy movement in Newcastle, a real world example of the alternative forms young people engage in. From a practitioners perspective Kierra Box from Community Matters pointed out that voluntary sector organisations work with a wide view of what the political is but the government has a much more narrow which again highlights the clashing values highlighted by Bang. From a slightly different perspective looking at a new but rather institutionalised form of participation, Mark Shepard presented data on the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) exploring whether they were representative, and what impact the participation had had on the members. The results showed that SYP was representative of the youth population and had positive effects both personally and professionally on its former members.

The wide range of research that was presented across the workshops highlights exactly how diverse the field of youth citizenship and politics is. It brings together ideas from politics, sociology, human geography, psychology and education to give a more holistic view of who, how and why young people participate politically. As such it is a stimulating, and challenging, field to work in that is gaining more recognition, not the least seen in the recent setting up of a PSA specialist group on Youth and Politics and it will be very interesting to follow the development of the field.

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