About this project

Young people’s participation has been dominantly framed through a youth deficit model wherein “expectations have spread about a disenchanted, frustrated, apathetic youth cohort” (della Porta, 2019:1408). Yet, despite challenges such as unemployment and diminishing social services, young people around the world have taken central roles in social movements – using and developing ‘new’ tools (e.g. social media) for voicing out dissent. Disrupting dominant political and social norms surrounding climate change, racial and gender inequalities and COVID-19 responses, young people shift between being framed as “screwed Millennials” (della Porta, 2019:1582) and as agile, “dangerous subjects” (Power 2012:417). With their activism, some have faced state violence, delegitimization and criminalisation.

This youth-led participatory research project will bring a literacy perspective to critically explore youth activism in the Global South.

Informed by the concept of ‘literacy as social practice’ (Street 1993), this project’s theoretical starting point is understanding literacy as multiple (as in ‘literacies’), embedded in everyday life and constructed through relationships of power. Going beyond an instrumental view of literacy and learning that dominates current scholarship in this area, this project will examine how literacies play a role in mediating power relationships within the groups. It will explore how young people co-produce knowledge and reflect on their shared and/or shifting identities towards innovative social action. I will investigate how they use texts (e.g. campaign posters, protest slogans, infographics) and communication technologies (e.g. ‘traditional’ and social media) in representing their struggles, sifting through multitudes of information (including ‘fake’ news), conveying their messages to diverse stakeholders and maintaining solidarity despite dangerous responses from state and non-state actors.

With a focus on Global South contexts, this project will carve out a specific, publishable research area that brings together cognate fields of learning and literacy studies, youth studies, development studies and social movements theory. By investigating the role of literacies in young people’s voices and acts of dissent, this project will contribute to critical theorisations on the links among youth activism, learning and social change within shrinking civil society spaces. The project will also engage with non-academic audiences and stakeholders by exploring how findings could lead to a more dynamic approach in supporting civil society spaces for young people and recognising the youth as active actors of development and social justice.

Research Objectives

O1: To investigate youth experiences of activism and explore how they contribute to further conceptualisations on the links between literacies and youth civic participation

O2: To design new methodological approaches for conducting youth-centered participatory research

O3: To engage with a variety of stakeholders – including youth leaders – at the local, national and international levels in co-designing new approaches, languages and literacies (e.g., a manifesto and/or call to action) to engage young people in social and political processes.

Research Questions

RQ1: How do young people understand activism and how do they (continually) ‘learn to become’ activists?

RQ2: How do young people learn about and respond to issues brought about by ‘new’ and changing challenges (particularly the COVID-19 pandemic) alongside inequality and sexual health challenges?

RQ3: How do youth social activists co-create, engage with and respond to literacies as part of their activism and how do these shape their social positions, power relationships, identities and futures (e.g. gender inequalities)?

RQ4: What roles do literacies practiced in/through different mediums (digital or more conventional) have in influencing young people’s strategies and tactics for inciting social change and expanding civic spaces?