Young People and Politics

Posted Wednesday May 27, 2009 by Lisa Gunders in |

I’m sure that I’ve written about this topic before on this blog, but for the life of me can’t find it in the archives just at the present.

Much is made in the research literature, and also in popular discussion, about how ‘young people’ are not interested or involved in politics (or indeed civic participation, as my last post went on about). A colleague and I remarked a couple of years ago that there did seem, however, to be a growth in grass roots political activism that wasn’t necessarily connected to political parties and that was based around particular areas of social life or issues. This has been borne out in recent research, and is variously referred to as “advocacy” politics, “issue politics”, “new” politics, “life” politics, or “sub-politics” (Dahlgren and Olsson 494-495). Increasingly, the point is being made that much disconnection from traditional politics is because people don’t feel that politicians and institutions are listening to them, and this is no less the case for young people (Couldry, Livingstone, and Markham 189; Couldry 394; Harris and Wyn 335-6).

I also formed the opinion while teaching Communication and Cultural Studies that many of the students were interested in politics, despite their disavowals, and that given the right atmosphere and opportunity they would passionately discuss issues that were important to them. Unfortunately, reduced tutorial time, increased tutorial size, and a consequent focus on trying to get through the ‘content’ that the students need for the next piece of assessment rarely provides the right atmosphere and little opportunity. However, occasionally we did stray into ‘real’ political discussion and it was well worth the diversion from the planned activities.

These things have come together in an article that I’ve been just been reading by Anita Harris and Johanna Wyn. They argue that many young people in Australia are thoroughly embedded in the local—family, school, peers, neighbourhood—and that their ideas about politics and engagement are similarly grounded. Thus, even though they feel marginalised by mainstream politics, when they can relate social issues to their own local, lived circumstances, they do indeed become politically active. Harris and Wyn claim that young people also use the internet for discussion of politics, but that this similarly takes place in the bounded and familiar; so far more likely on MySpace and mixed with personal writing on blogs than on formal political sites and discussion boards. I am aware of one such blog, but had rather thought this might have been the exception rather than the rule.

So, I’m interested in a couple of questions and would appreciate feedback from the ‘young’ and ‘not so young’ people out there:

1. In your experience, are young people interested in politics, conceived of as local issues? Are young people only interested in local issues? Are young people only interested in issues that affect them?

2. Does this limited circle of interest also apply to older people, who are similarly said to be increasingly disengaging from politics?

3. Why are young people so focused on the local, if this is indeed the case? Thirty to forty years ago young people were pushing the connection between the local or personal and the political. Why the swing so far back the other way?


Couldry, Nick. “Communicative Entitlements and Democracy: The Future of the Digital Divide Debate.” The Oxford Handbook of Information and Communication Technologies. Ed. Robin Mansell, Chrisanthi Avgerou, Danny Quah, and Roger Silverstone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 383-403.

Couldry, Nick, Sonia Livingstone, and Tim Markham. Media Consumption and Public Engagement: Beyond the Presumption of Attention. Consumption and Public Life. Houndsmills, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Dahlgren, Peter, and Tobias Olsson. “Facilitating Political Participation: Young Citizensh, Internet and Civic Cultures.” The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture. Ed. Kirsten Drotner and Sonia Livingstone. London: Sage, 2008. 493-507.

Harris, Anita, and Johanna Wyn. “Young People’s Politics and the Micro-Territories of the Local.” Australian Journal of Political Science 44.2 (2009): 327-344.

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