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Spaces and Styles of Participation. Formal, non-formal and informal possibilities of young people’s participation in European cities.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PARTISPACE (Spaces and Styles of Participation. Formal, non-formal and informal possibilities of young people’s participation in European cities.)

Reporting period: 2015-05-01 to 2016-04-30

Social, political and civic participation of young people has been increasingly on the agenda of late modern societies. This accounts for municipalities concerned with engaging young people at local level, for national governments concerned with increasing trust of young people in institutions, it has been addressed by the UN Convention on Children’s Rights and – since the publication of the Commission’s White Paper ‘A New Impetus for European Youth’ (EC, 2001a) – it has also been at the centre of European youth policy development. The EU’s present youth strategy ‘Investing and Empowering’ claims: “Europe's youth need to be equipped to take advantage of opportunities such as civic and political participation, volunteering, creativity, entrepreneurship, sport and global engagement” (EC, 2009, p. 3). Among the reasons for this emphasis are:
- Integration of modern individualised societies more and more depends on choices and decisions of individuals. It is assumed that active participation contributes to both life satisfaction of citizens as well as to social cohesion. However, at the same time individualised identities are difficult to reconcile with collective issues whereby the meaning of participation undergoes a process of pluralisation.
- The increasing complexity of new mechanisms of governance requires new forms of legitimation of policy making and societal institutions beyond formal mechanisms of participation like voting or membership in parties and organisations. Especially, support for the process of European integration is assumed to suffer from the inadequacy of existing forms of legitimation and participation.
- This extends to the trend of activation in welfare, including labour market and health policies, as well as in education (lifelong learning). Where societies fail in providing young people sufficient jobs, education or training opportunities, social security and social services while making individuals accountable for their ‘choices’, participation is a discourse prioritising individual over collective claims.
- Youth policies suffer from a lack of visibility and strength: they are mainly underfunded, subject to changing political will, and unequally implemented. Youth participation serves to demonstrate that policy makers are concerned about youth without binding them to implement substantial policies. At EU level, participation fills the gap resulting from the principle of subsidiarity. Here, participation complements and is at the same time subject to the Open Method of Coordination.
- There are persisting – yet contested – concerns about a decrease and a social division of young people’s acceptance of and willingness to engage for society. Policies therefore address young people as “citizens in the making” (Williamson, 1997) aiming at providing them competencies for participation.
Concerns about a lack of youth participation are apparently confirmed by low intentions of young people to participate in European elections (cf. Eurobarometer, 2013) while recent protest movements – in France, Germany, Denmark, Greece, Spain, the UK, Sweden and Turkey – reflect conflicts both between young people and society in relation to different issues but also with regard to recognised forms of participation. Some conflicts relate to tensions between majorities and minorities, others to experiences of alienation in school, lack of jobs and life perspectives, between conservative, authoritarian state and modernised life styles, welfare cuts as reaction to ‘the crisis’ affecting especially young people, while in most cases several factors intersect. These protests are rarely accepted as forms of participation but criminalised and delegitimised as ‘riots’ (cf. Lagrange & Oberti, 2005). At the same time, policy makers but also representatives of youth or civil society organisations tend to reserve the concept of participation for officially recognised and formalised actions
A first process initiated with the beginning of the project has been the development of a glossary containing the key terms of the theoretical framework. This glossary serves first for a mutual understanding among the researchers involved in the project, second for communicating the particular approach of PARTISPACE to a wider public, especially the scientific community. This includes also the rather open concept of participation according to which all practices of young people in the public or addressing the public can potentially represent participation. The glossary will be further developed throughout the research process.
As a second step, country reports were produced containing information on young people’s living conditions, structures of education, welfare and youth policy, dominant discourses of youth participation and their relation with European discourses, the national state of art of research on youth participation, and finally contextual information regarding the cities in which the empirical research is conducted. These national reports have been analysed in a comparative perspective. The respective report on the one hand highlights a rather rhetoric and tokenistic reference to youth participation in the cities and countries involved in PARTISPACE. Programmes and policies of youth participation share an instrumental and ideological meaning. Youth participation means teaching young people to participate in a specific, institutionalized way once they are adult citizens (democracy education). It also means participating in activities which have already been defined and set up (normally by adults and/or institutional representatives) rather than initiating own activities or political protest. In the context of the active welfare state it increasingly serves to redefine responsibilities for life chances in terms self-enterpreneurship. On the other hand however, there are repercussions of different living conditions (unemployment and poverty) as well as of different structures of welfare, education and youth policy. For example, young people enjoy broader options for choice in Sweden. At the same time, in Bulgaria or Turkey youth policy structures are currently developed through EU programmes and funds for which a participatory agenda is conditional. Although, reference to participation shares the general ambivalences, at the same an increase of possibilities of expression and experimentations of young people can be witnessed. The comparative report has been published in the internet.
The analysis of this European discourses has been the third step undertaken and a draft report has been produced. Documents of the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the European Youth Forum have been analysed covering the period between 2000 and 2015. Key findings first concern the relationship and difference between the three actors. Although the Council of Europe has been the first actor on the European youth policy stage, since the White Paper on Youth the European Commission has been dominating the discourse. The Youth Partnership between Council and Commission have lead to an increasing convergence with the Council losing visibility while still representing a wider Europe. The European Youth Forum not surprisingly is most radical in criticizing tokenist participation rhetoric and barriers of participation, yet documents reveal a corporatist alliance with the Commission. In terms of development over the years, the discourse is characterized by a reference towards ‘full participation’ whereby an extension to education and employment is intended and thus participation tends to being reduced to adapting to current societal structures rather than influencing the own life according to own needs and interest within society. To some extent, this confirms the diagnosis of participation being reframed as an ideology of self-responsibility, especially with regard to lifelong learning and employability.
Still on the European
As regards progress beyond the state of art, it needs to be considered that PARTISPACE is still at the beginning of its research process. A first progress consists in the theoretical approach of the project which intentionally breaks with an apparent consensual meaning of participation as political, social and civic by extending it to young people’s everyday life practice. A second line of progress starts from the analysis of the relation between socio-economic status and participation that apparently deviate from previous research. This confirms the adoption of a broad concept of participation in order to get also other practices of young people in sight. A hypothesis is that social inequalities are reflected by unequal recognition of young people’s ways of acting and raising claims in the public. Third, comparative analysis of national contexts suggests that welfare, education and youth policy affect young people’s participation, yet less directly than expected. In contrast, in all countries and at European level, references to participation reveal to be ideological and instrumental. Fourth, young people are mostly concerned with surviving, succeeding and resisting education that takes more and more time of their lives. Consequently, leisure time should bring distraction and relaxation. This accounts for social and political engagement as well for which many young people are open and motivated – if it is compatible with their busy schedules and their vital need of fun.
The next steps of fieldwork will follow these traces in order to understand what participation means to young people and under what conditions becomes meaningful for them – individually and collectively. This will be achieved by reconstructing participatory group activities by ethnographic case studies as well as participation biographies of individual young people involved in these practices. Further, the participatory action research with young people evolving from these case studies will allow young people to be listened and visible directly.
In terms of societal impact and implications, we expect that PARTISPACE contributes to qualifying the picture of and discourse on young people’s participation in society. Especially, we expect to reconstruct processes through which issues and activities of groups and individuals overcome the threshold from ‘normal’ leisure activities to getting a wider visibility, recognition – and thus also self-awareness of participating in the public. The potential benefit of this knowledge most of all will concern how adults, institutions, policy makers and/or pedagogical professionals such as teachers, youth and social workers communicate with young people on what they do, want and need – whether this is in formal settings such as school, training or youth councils, non-formal settings such as youth work or associations or informal settings such as public places in the neighbourhood. The project will develop different ways of disseminating these findings and of multiplying the findings of young people’s own research processes.
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