Young European citizens are at the heart of a ‘crisis of representative democracy’ and, according to recent accounts, distrusting of political systems, institutions, and social elites (e.g. Newton, 2001; Mishler and Rose, 1997; Seligman, 1997; Kaase, Newton and Scarbrough, 1996). However, it is plausible that this claim arises from an institution-led normative understanding of youth participation and not from an analysis of what young people actively do for themselves, their community and wider society. Against this backdrop, and aiming at a deeper understanding of an individual’s life as a social being part of a larger sociocultural context, a focus on individual biography is essential in order to explore the “told life” (i.e. subjective meaning making with regard to one’s individual life course and the participation experiences embedded within it).
The aim of the biographical analysis is to explore the relationship between biographies and young people’s styles and spaces of participation. The analysis conceives of social and political participation as a crucial element of a young person’s biography and, vice versa, argues that the biography is integral to participation experiences. The analysis, which includes 16 biographies across the eight European cities, is twofold. First, we explore how participation trajectories (careers) emerge and develop differently, why young people decide to engage and for how long, and who (significant others) or what (turning point) contribute/ support this decision and in what way. Second, we explore the ways in which biographical experiences relate to and bring about young people’s participation, based on the idea that a biography is a subjective construction of a life story, and an ongoing and changing identity process that over time links the past, present and future in terms of subjective meaning and continuity.