“Those in power don’t listen”: Review of “Youth Participation in Democratic Life: Stories of Hope and Disillusion” by Bart Cammaerts, Michael Bruter, Shakuntala Banaji, Sarah Harrison & Nick Anstead (PalgraveMacMillan, 2016)

By Michalis Kontopodis & Myrto Nikolopoulou

NOTE: Dr Shakuntala Banaji will give the second annual Digital Society Network lecture on Monday 9th October, 4.15 – 5.30pm at the University of Sheffield. Further details will follow soon. 

In contrast to what may have been the case a decade ago, youth in Europe are currently significantly engaging with politics through and beyond formal modes of political participation. About 64% of registered voters aged 18-24 went to polls in the recent EU referendum in the United Kingdom,[1] and an estimated 85% of young people in Greece voted “No” to the bailout conditions in the country’s government-debt crisis proposed jointly by the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank in the Greek referendum of 2015.[2] Young people took actively part in the violent attacks in Paris and Brussels as well as in peaceful demonstrations against such attacks in 2015 and 2016, respectively. While many young people have set up community initiatives to support refugees in Greece or Germany others commit themselves to violent acts under the influence of extremist right-wing ideologies.

How do we however define “participation”, “politics” and/or “Europe”? What are the pertinent figures and views by the young people themselves as well as by other relevant stakeholders regarding youth participation in political life? Filling a significant gap in the relevant literature and research, the book Youth Participation in Democratic Life: Stories of Hope and Disillusion by Bart Cammaerts, Michael Bruter, Shakuntala Banaji, Sarah Harrison and Nick Anstead can be read as a highly valuable and timely contribution to mapping the current modes and levels of political participation by young people across a wide range of European countries (Austria, Finland, France, Hungary, Poland, Spain and the UK).

Youth Participation in Democratic Life is written in a very accessible way and describes in detail the theoretical frame, methodology and results of a large-scale research project led by renowned scholars from a variety of relevant disciplines such as media and communication, political science, political psychology and youth studies. It reviews a wide range of data generated through a highly innovative mixed-methodological design (combining documentary analysis, comparative secondary data analysis, large-scale representative survey of pre-voters [16-18 years old] and young voters [18- 30 years old], an experiment in e-voting, stakeholder interviews and focus group discussions).

The book consists of two introductory chapters with relevant theoretical and methodological contributions and five empirical chapters on: elections (chapter 3), European policymaking and representation (chapter 4), volunteering (chapter 5), participation through traditional and new media (chapter 6), non-participation and exclusion (chapter 7). It analyses and assesses the contexts, nature and the diversity of young people’s participation in European democratic life and explores their views regarding the political elites who appear to run the current so-called “representative democratic systems” as well as their attitudes towards volunteering, protesting, taking part in grass root community-based initiatives and employing traditional and new media for purposes of political participation. The authors manage very well to dig into details – for example when discussing quotes by diverse young people or relevant statistical data from the various local and national contexts. At the same time, in the last part of the book, they manage to provide the reader with a very good overview of the general issues that emerged through the data analysis, which in turn leads to a series of concrete and constructive recommendations for improving modes and levels of youth participation across Europe.

It is commendable that the book explores views and modes of participation by highly diverse young populations through sampling pre-voters along with young voters from 7 European countries – thereby including “active” as well as “excluded” youth. The book does not cover though refugee youth, which was the case in other publications by the authors (de Block, et al. 2005). It could also be interesting to shed more light on right wing youth by linking the analysis to further work by the authors such as the Mapping extreme right ideology by Bruter & Harrison (2011).

A main argument of the book is that youth may not regularly engage with the standard forms of political participation not because they are apathetic, but rather because the political offer does not match their concerns, ideas, and ideals of democratic politics. Diverse groups of young people feel that “those in power don’t listen” (Cammaerts, et al. 2016: 57). Youth are therefore critical against mainstream politics and traditional media and feel that they must not merely be given a voice, but also possibilities to participate in follow-up processes and to further shape the relevant debates and policy implementation. This empirical finding fits very well with studies of youth in non-European contexts (cf. Kontopodis 2014) as well as with recent theorizing on youth development and socialization (Stetsenko 2016).

Even if the term democratic life is used in the title and widely employed in the book, the authors question therefore legal and formal understandings of democracy. While official discourses fetishize certain and marginalise other forms of participation, the authors extend the term democratic life so that it covers every form of political participation young people may be involved into: from volunteering to NGOs or sharing political views on Facebook to participating in peaceful or violent demonstrations. What is more: according to the analysis, “democratic life” does not refer only to various forms of participation but concerns contents, as well: unemployment combined with the risk of poverty and social exclusion is a significant concern for today’s youth, and a major challenge to what they see as “democratic life”.

This insightful assertion can lead to the expansion of the notion of participation, and also addresses the question, whether all forms and contents of participation are considered as solely positive and desirable per se. When considering, for example, the recent initiatives where young people were involved in violent acts of extremist groups or when referring to young people’s participation in far right wing movements, participation can have totally different outcomes to what participation in democratic life entails.

Taking this analysis as a point of departure, future work could probably add further dimensions to the scope: How do young people in various European countries experience authority in institutions such as the school, the family or the church? How is democratic life experienced at micro-institutional levels and how does participation affect the “private” or “personal” spheres, which may entail gender-related power relations, family and peer-group dynamics and other forms of micro-politics? What is the potential that everyday and liminal expressions of young people’s political participation may entail (cf. Nolas, Varvantakis and Aruldoss 2016)?

Even if there is further work to do as to address such a complex issue, the wide array of analysis and the close attention to detail render Youth participation in democratic life: Stories of hope and disillusion a valuable and much needed contribution to the research literature in youth studies and the relevant disciplines such as political science, education, media and communication. We are looking very much forward to discussing the book with our BA and MA students in the years to come.

References

Bruter, M., and Harrison, S. 2011. Mapping extreme right ideology: An empirical geography of the European extreme right. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cammaerts, B., Bruter, M., Banaji, S., Harrison, S., and Anstead, N. 2016. Youth participation in democratic life: Stories of hope and disillusion. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

de Block, L., & Buckingham, D., and Banaji, S. 2005. Children in communication about migration (CHICAM): Final project report. London: Center for the Study of Children, Youth & Media, Institute of Education, University of London.

Kontopodis, M. (2014). Neoliberalism, pedagogy and human development: Exploring time, mediation and collectivity in contemporary schools. London and New York: Routledge.

Nolas, S-M., Varvantakis, C. and Aruldoss, V. 2016 “(Im)possible conversations? Activism, childhood and everyday life.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 4(1), 252-265.

Stetsenko, A. 2016. The transformative mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

[1] See https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/09/young-people-referendum-turnout-brexit-twice-as-high (date of access: 5-Nov-16)

[2] See http://www.tovima.gr/vimagazino/views/article/?aid=721833 (date of access: 5-Nov-16)

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