There is widespread concern across Europe about the future of democracy, and in particular about young people’s apparent failure to participate, often attributed to lack of motivation or capability. The PARTISPACE project shares the concern, but questions the diagnosis. It starts instead from an assumption that the dominant understanding of youth participation in research, policy and practice is too narrow, often limited to institutionalised forms of participation, and ignores much of what young people do in public space. This bias is related to structures of social inequality, and thus is itself a part of the problem of democracy.
PARTISPACE aims at a rethinking of youth participation by analysing what young people do in public space, what it means to them and to what extent this can be understood as political, civic and social. The research question is: How and where do young people participate, across social milieus and youth cultural scenes? What styles of participation do they prefer and develop – and in what spaces?
The project has undertaken a comparative mixed-method study in 8 cities across Europe: Bologna (IT), Frankfurt (DE), Gothenburg (SE), Eskisehir (TK), Manchester (UK), Plovdiv (BG), Rennes (FR), Zurich (CH). The design included reviews of national youth policies, a secondary analysis of survey data, and a critical discourse analysis of European policy documents. Then, qualitative local studies were conducted consisting of 188 expert interviews, 100 group discussions and 96 biographical interviews with young people as well as 48 ethnographic case studies of formal, non-formal and informal participatory settings. Additionally, 18 participatory action research projects have been conducted by and with young people.
Policy reviews, discourse analysis, secondary analysis of surveys and expert interviews confirm the dominance of a narrow understanding of participation. Group discussions with young people in contrast revealed that they are highly active in public spaces, yet in most cases in informal ways. They are busy with coping with their lives which are structured by pressure to succeed, precariousness and discrimination. In so much as these practices of coping involve public space, they include claims of being a part of, and taking part in, society. Therefore, they are referred to as everyday life participation and thus as political (as distinct from politics).
PARTISPACE has studied a diversity of practices, some of which are recognised as participation whilst others are not. We have analysed their relationships with local contexts, spaces, styles, biographies, and learning:
- Local contexts differ according to socio-economic factors, discourses about youth, youth policy infrastructure and responsiveness, and youth discourses. Influence of national welfare systems is less direct, although regulation of access to education, welfare and good jobs affects social inclusion and citizenship. Where youth policies are most developed, forms of formal youth representation tend to be established. However, take-up tends to be low, they are criticised for tokenism and paternalism – aimed at forming ‘good’ citizens.
- Social space structures young people’s practices, and young people’s practices structure social space. A key finding is that young people are active in appropriating public spaces, turning them into places that are meaningful for them, where they belong and feel they have control, which fit with their youth cultural styles, and where they feel safe. Appropriation involves exploration, conquering and defending spaces as well as ‘boundary’ work: inclusion/exclusion, insider/outsider, and relevance/irrelevance are constantly questioned, contested or confirmed.
- Analysing young people’s styles of participation means asking not if and why young people participate, but how they participate in different ways, and noting the different and unequal recognition which different styles receive. Analysing differences in terms of (youth cultural) styles shows that not only forms but also issues matter. Young people participate only in ways that enable exploration of their individual and collective identities. However, there are also differences and distinctions reflecting social inequalities of life chances, risks, resources and recognition.
- Young people’s participation biographies reveal that searching for recognition and belonging seems to be the most important motive to engage. In some cases, this is linked to coping with critical life events, problems with peers, experiences of injustice or lack of self-efficacy. Where and how young people participate depends on a complex interplay of factors in individual biographies. Positive experiences with formal institutions, especially school, seem to be a condition for involvement in formal participation, whilst most young people prefer informal settings.
- The question of how young people learn to participate cannot be separated from the observation that across different contexts there is strong evidence of a ‘pedagogisation’ of youth participation: young people are being seen as not knowing or not wanting to participate and therefore needing education. There is little attention paid to structures of inequality and dominance or to young people’s competences and ideas. Rather than through teaching and training, participation is learned by doing. Adults can support this by recognising and offering young people dialogic reflection of their own activities in public space.
In sum, PARTISPACE findings point to the need to understand youth participation as relational (not individualised), based on experiences and relationships of recognition, as political (but not politics) and as often conflictual. Participation is rooted in everyday life practices structured by social inequalities and dynamics of social inclusion and exclusion. It evolves in public spaces and thus includes claims to be a part of, and attempts to take part in, society.
Taking this into account, policy and practice can support youth participation by:
- Shifting from inviting young people into formal participation to recognition of a diversity of practices in public space
- Making youth policies responsive and reflexive while increasing and diversifying funding making it accessible for young people directly
- Accepting and allowing for the enactment of conflicts as constitutive for participatory democracy
- Democracy is learned by doing, adults and professionals can support this by recognition and dialogue but power and rights should not be made conditional on prior learning.Democratising school to turn it into a place of experience and recognition of participation rather than of mere citizenship teaching
- Opening up public spaces for young people by providing additional spaces, accepting diverse use and appropriation of public spaces and giving access to abandoned spaces
- Developing and securing a reliable and diverse youth work infrastructure providing open spaces which are not instrumentalised for school, employability and entrepreneurship
- Addressing discrimination, inequality and precariousness by unconditional access to welfare, education and employment
- Developing a (European) Charter of Youth Rights – understood as living document – as a platform both for the conflict and the recognition aspects of youth participation.