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PROMoting youth Involvement and Social Engagement: Opportunities and challenges for 'conflicted' young people across Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - PROMISE (PROMoting youth Involvement and Social Engagement: Opportunities and challenges for 'conflicted' young people across Europe)

Reporting period: 2017-05-01 to 2019-04-30

The PROMISE research project ran from 1st May 2016 until 30th April 2019 bringing together twelve collaborating centres from Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, the Russian Federation, Croatia and the UK. Set against a backdrop of increasingly punitive and controlling policies and practices, the project responded to the problem of the supposed ‘social disengagement’ of young people across Europe. The aim of the research was to explore young people’s role in shaping society: past, present and future.

PROMISE explored young people’s responses to the challenges they face, focusing particularly on youth who encounter conflict with authorities. These groups of young people are often seen as the most problematic in terms of positive social engagement, frequently triggering negative and punitive responses from society and authority, which, in turn, gives rise to further marginalisation. Through an understanding of the experiences, values and attitudes of European youth (particularly those ‘in conflict’), PROMISE addressed barriers and opportunities for social engagement.

PROMISE gathered quantitative data to explore differences in youth attitudes and behaviour across Europe as well as employing ethnographic and participatory research methods to look more closely at youth engagement and innovation. We engaged a wide variety of young people labelled as ‘hard-to-reach’ from across Europe providing a space for them to document their situations and articulate their needs. Young people were at the heart of this research project. They shared their stories and their spaces with researchers, guiding the research and disseminating the findings. By employing a participatory approach including ethnographic, arts-based methods, young people were always at the centre of the research.
The work of the PROMISE consortium began with a review of the national historical context in each country, and at the European level, providing an account of challenges to, and opportunities for, youth social engagement. This was followed by an analysis of existing data gathered from about 8,500 young people from a series of datasets, to unpack the attitudes and behaviours of young people in the 10 participating countries across Europe. The resulting synthesis of national and European knowledge provided the platform for the conceptual development of the project, guided the development of the PROMISE survey and the selection of case studies, and informed subsequent interactions with practitioners and policymakers through national and European level networking groups.
The empirical phase of the project generated new qualitative data, with conflict-prone and stigmatised young people, from 22 case studies addressing their potential for resistance and innovation in the face of challenging circumstances. Finally, the PROMISE quantitative survey compared social and political engagement across the generations from 12,666 respondents.
We then moved from research to policy ensuring dissemination across the widest audiences using a range of traditional, creative and digital platforms to influence policy, practice and academic discussions. The PROMISE project has ended but dissemination is an ongoing process. We will continue to disseminate the messages and results from PROMISE to young people as well as to diverse groups of stakeholders in policy, practice and academia.
We are working to maximise conceptual and scientific impact through journal articles, conference papers and other academic outputs. The collection of outputs will contribute to academic discussions of theory and method in the areas of social policy, criminology, sociology, political science and research methodologies.

Instrumentally PROMISE will impact on policy and practice decisions, and work is on-going in each country to disseminate the findings to decision-makers and stakeholders. Towards this goal we have produced a series of reflections pieces focusing on key themes of the research. These are designed to be a gateway to the project, each containing ‘Five ways to make a difference’ with suggestions for policy and practice. Two of these themes are included below:

1. Stigma and labelling are key sources of disengagement, but there are ways of transforming negative stigma into positive engagement.
- We found that a key factor for transforming negative stigma into positive engagement was the feeling of belonging to a wider community of people sharing the same values.
We heard from young people who were stigmatised yet hugely motivated to campaign on an issue that affected them, particularly if they felt part of a wider community. The role of supportive older people was key to this sense of belonging.
- Not all, but most young people who are labelled as ‘troublesome’, are also those who have experienced the greatest disadvantages in life. These may include poverty, family breakdown, domestic violence, bereavement, problems at school and a lack of consistent, positive relationships and role models. A cycle of isolation from society and disengagement, leading to further negative behaviours and problems, develops easily for these young people, but is much harder to break.
Some of the young people we interviewed talked about a sense of not being trusted and of not belonging. This lack of trust is clearly a barrier to positive engagement in any society.
- For those who are stigmatised and labelled, stereotypes are easily created and often inaccurate, creating unnecessary fear of a group seen as more extreme than they really are. Sometimes the media, in the course of developing news stories to attract audiences, feeds into this cycle, creating further isolation and mistrust.
Some young people told us that by taking a stand for something they believed in, they came into conflict with other, more traditional groups who then labelled them, creating fear and hostility.
2. Systems and processes
- A huge barrier to young people’s engagement is conflict with systems. Many of the formal interventions they face (for example, the justice system, welfare system, civil, legal) serve to re-stigmatise and re-embed conflict, rather than to resolve it.
Finding ways to incorporate youth support in all areas (education, employment, social), particularly for those facing multiple life challenges, is crucial to their social and political engagement.
- Another hurdle to participation is a lack of investment in ‘alternative’ systems for young people. As well as mainstream institutions like schools and colleges, we need more informal systems to enable young people to express themselves and grow. Some may be run by charities or community groups, others might be established or run by young people themselves.
Many of the young people we talked to felt disconnected from their local community, particularly by those in power. If young people feel excluded and unwanted, without cultural or social opportunities and places to go, they will become more marginalised and disengaged.
- A key factor for all systems to succeed in getting the best out of young people is if they offer supportive and positive relationships. An overwhelming finding across all our work was that the more young people can trust, the more they will engage.
Even more than trust in political institutions, it is trust in other people that is most able to increase political and social engagement.