Collin, P. (2009) The Making of Good Citizens: Participation policies, the internet and youth political identities in Australia and the United Kingdom. PhD Thesis, University of Sydney.
This thesis examines the relationship between youth participation policies, the internet and young people’s political participation. In recent times youth participation policies have become an increasingly popular solution to a range of perceived ‘issues’ related to young people: either problems of youth disengagement from democracy or their exclusion from democratic processes.
At the same time, young people’s lives are increasingly mediated by information communication technologies: identity, social relationships, learning and cultural, political and economic practices are embedded in the internet and mobile usage. Consequently, the internet is being increasingly utilised to promote and implement the aims of these youth participation policies. Despite the need to understand the relationship between policy and practice, research rarely considers the relationship between policy, practice and young people’s views and experiences.
This thesis addresses this gap in the literature by looking at what participation means in youth policy, in the practice of non-government organisations and for young people themselves. It engages directly with young people’s experiences and in doing so moves beyond questions of mobilisation and reinforcement. Instead it examines the diversity of ways in which young people conceptualise and practice participation, both online and offline. It also relates their views and actions to broader changes in governance and democracy and draws on contemporary theories of political identity and citizenship to make sense of the way that young people view, and exercise, citizenship.
This study draws on original qualitative research generated in a comparative study of Australia and the United Kingdom. The experiences of young people in two national non-government organisations are studied and explored in relation to the policy discourses on youth and participation in each country setting. This study has drawn on participant observation, document analysis and in-depth interviews with twenty four young people and eight executive staff and board members across the two country settings.
This thesis provides an in-depth account of how young people conceptualise and practice politics. In doing so, it argues, firstly, that the political identities of young people are shaped by dominant discourses of youth and participation and that youth participation policies are transforming the ways that young people conceptualise participation and engage in participatory activities. Although participation policies are often intended to connect young people to government policy making processes, young people remain cynical about the interest and ability of governments to recognise and respond to their views. They see governments and politicians as remote from their lives and the issues they cared about. Comparatively, they demonstrate a passionate commitment to causes, to personally defined acts incorporated in their everyday lives through local volunteering and contributing to national initiatives. Furthermore, these young people reject traditional hierarchies, show significant commitment to action over ideology and value the cultural and interpersonal dimensions of participation. They often conceptualise participation as everyday acts through networks that transcend traditional models of membership-based organisations, of state-oriented politics, of locally-based action and of formal and informal policy making processes.
Secondly, young people use the Internet for a diverse range of participation activities. The internet facilitates activities which bring together the political, cultural, social and economic dimensions of young people’s lives. For instance, participatory activities, friendships, study, hobbies and consumer activities were often interwoven as young people discussed participation. However, the picture that emerged in this thesis is that the agency and autonomy that young people value in online participation contrasts starkly with government policies which favour structured, managed, prescribed processes for youth participation both on and offline.
Thirdly, whilst participation policies have opened up new access points to policy-making from which young people have traditionally been excluded, they tend to legitimise managed forms of participation and de-legitimise others. Consequently, participation policies, in their present form, tend to exacerbate, rather than remedy problems of elitism and can further alienate young people from political elites. Furthermore, as discourses of participation are becoming more prevalent in the non-government sector, young people are increasingly oriented away from government towards other actors. This thesis finds that young people are becoming more, not less, alienated from formal politics as they find more resonance in non-government processes and feel more excluded from the processes of government.