The Political Identities of Young Europeans
Young Europeans’ constructions of identity and citizenship:
This was a qualitative investigation into how young people (aged between 11 and 19) are constructing their personal identities, and becoming aware of their actual or potential European citizenship. It focused on two groups of countries: the candidate states of Turkey, Croatia, Iceland and FYR of Macedonia, and countries that have joined the Union since 2004 - (the ‘Baltic States’ (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the ‘Visegrad States’ (Hungary, Czech Rep, Slovakia, Poland), the ‘Black Sea’ states of Romania and Bulgaria; and Cyprus. (Croatia became a member of the EU during the study, in 2013.)
This map shows these countries in orange. The countries in green are the subject of my 2014-16 study).
The project took place between 2010 and 2013. My travel and subsistence costs were supported by the funding of my Jean Monnet Professorship. I am grateful for the European Commiussion's support through this award. Fieldwork took place between January 2010 and November 2012.
In all, I spoke with 974 young people, in 160 focus groups in 97 different schools in 49 locations across these countries. These discussions form the empiric basis of this study.
The principal account of the project is published as a book: Constructions of Identities by Young New Europeans: Kaleidoscopic Selves, published by Routledge (July 2014).
On this page:
What I did in each city or town
Articles and chapters
London Metropolitan lecture series (with video links)
An overview of the research
I conducted focus groups with small groups of school students about their perceptions and views. These young people are at the ‘border crossing’ of Europe, and their perceptions – and that of those who teach them – are of particular interest and importance. What is their image of Europe in relation to themselves and their future? How do their teachers recognise this, and how those responsible for teacher education?
Social identities are increasingly recognised as being both multiple and constructed contingently within a context that includes the idea of Europe. Young people are developing identities that may include a range of intersecting dimensions, including gender, age, region and European. A growing number of young people in parts of the European Union are acknowledging an at least partial sense of European identity alongside their national identity: the degree to which this is acknowledged varies by nationality, gender and social class, as well as by age.
European integration depends on the development of a shared construction of at least some elements of Europe, and this is particularly true of these particular young people. It may be a shared conception of a Europe of differences, or a conception of the Europe as seeing its fractured past as ‘the other’, or of an emergent shared youth culture. Understanding how new young Europeans construct their idea of Europe, their role in it, and what it means to be European is of value and importance to a very wide audience.
What I did in each city or town
In each location, I worked with two schools, and in each school I talked with a group of about six 12-13 year olds, and a similar group of 15 to 16 year olds. I was not looking for the ‘best’ or the ‘worst’ schools, or ones that are unusually specialist. As there were two schools in each location, I tried to ensure that they represent different social areas or groups in the city or town.
Which young people? I was not trying to make a representative sample, but to look at the diversity of views. But I aimed at an approximate balance of male and female students. I was not concerned with legal nationality or status, but young people whose home is now in the country (so if there were significant minorities or migrants, I tried include a number). In all these visits, I was accompanied by a University/College colleague who acted as an interpreter for the discussions when necessary, and who discussed fine points of meaning with me.
I used focus groups, rather than discussions or interviews for this project. The purpose of the focus group was to let the participants discuss ideas, as far as possible letting them start with the vocabulary and expressions that they bring to the group, rather than ‘supplying’ words and concepts that may make them focus in ways that they would not otherwise do.
A summary of my principal findings
Each young person advanced a diversity of identities, changing over the course of each conversation: identities were contingently performed, according to the context of the particular discussion, the historical moment and the specific audience. While there was certainly fluidity in this, to describe identities as liquid, as Bauman has done (2000), is to suggest amorphousness: it implies that the identities constructed were shapeless, subject to physical laws of fluidity, merely filling the available spaces – and it denies agency. Despite the flexibility and acrobatic twists, there were patterns in what was said.
The metaphor that I would offer for the process of constructing identities is that of the kaleidoscope. Each individual used a palette of materials, configured in patterns that change as though one is looking through a lens or a filter: light is refracted and reflected in patterns that may be symmetrical, varying as the configuration of the mirrors. At different moments and contexts, the individual’s pattern changed - but it remained constructed from the same basic range, some materials more prominent in some patterns, obscured in others. What is seen - the momentary, situational, observer-dependent pattern of identities - is contextually contingent on the lens of circumstance, the audience’s perspective, the culture, the moment of discourse.
How do these young people differ? Differ as being ‘new’ Europeans in these countries, or in being a new generation, the post 1989 cohort? My argument has a number of elements.
Firstly, aspects of these countries’ status (newly joined, or potentially joiners) of the European Union encourages citizens and residents to reflect on their national or country affiliations, and the nature of their feeling of being part of the European Union. Identities are reconfigured to include new dimensions and relationships, particularly among this generation.
Secondly, the historical nature of many of these countries leads to particular potential for seeking to be European, being part of western European economy and culture. Both the pre-1945 experience, and surviving the events of 1945-89, have brought most of these countries a shared sense of being denied what they see as the political and economic advantages enjoyed by western European countries from 1945.
These two elements create a consensus and synchronisation: their emergence, post 1989, as independent countries has led them to look westwards to the European Union, and there is a corresponding trend in the identities constructed by these young people.
A third element is that these young people, born post-1989, only have vicarious memories of the first two. The combination of experiences – EU membership, soviet domination and the break of 1989 - have led most young people towards two conclusions. Firstly, they have a strong and sympathetic sense of why their parents’ and grandparents’ acted as they did, and why these earlier generations constructed the post 1989 states in which they now live; but secondly, they are liberated from the fears, memories and antagonisms that shaped the political orientations of earlier generations.
Their country was constructed, considered in isolation, in positive cultural terms. There was appreciation of the heritage, the language, and the cultural practices of the people, and the natural assets of the country. There were some reservations about the behaviours of some fellow country-people - often described as their ‘mentality’ - and this was particular evident in the constructions of a ‘balkan mentality’. There was generally a less positive attitude towards the civic elements of the country, and politicians’ behaviour often detracted from identification with the country. This feelings in some of disempowerment and a lacking of agency, and in others a desire to take action - or rather, to take action when adult - to change the situation.
These created a sense of benign patriotic affection for their country: a broad cultural affinity rather than a passionate commitment. This became particularly apparent when they discussed how they felt that their parents and grandparents identified with their country. Older generations, they felt, had a more nationalistic identification, which they frequently ascribed to the older generations’ experiences of the second world war and the communist periods, and the struggles to maintain national identity. There appeared - from the young people’s perspectives of their own identities - to have been a generational shift.
Identification with the country was modified when they began to compare their position with other states, particularly to countries that they thought had alternative civic structures and processes. Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus were constructed as being politically different from their country: this was the point at which political rights and freedoms were foregrounded, and their own country’s civic institutions were perceived more positively. Enthusiasm for the civic waxed and waned as the lens changed.
Europe, on the other hand, looked at from within, was largely constructed positively in terms of its civic institutions and practices. This was seen both at the personal and instrumental level - the freedom of movement - and at the level of economic and political support. Enthusiasm for the political support of the European Union was expressed sometimes as a bulwark against perceived threats, or as a buttress for democratic processes, or as promoting human rights. These civic features led them to modify their earlier comments on their country’s political practices, recasting them more favourably in the context of Europe. There was much less certainty about European culture: in every country there were some expressions of being excluded from European culture, or even whether European culture could be said to exist. It was very hard for most to pin down any specific characteristics of Europe with which to identify: the real Europe, if it existed at all, lay to the west. There were also concern that a European culture threatened their own country’s culture. But European culture sometimes emerged when other cultures were defined as non-European, as inappropriate for EU membership.
Young people felt that older generations’ views of European identities were constructed within their perceptions of national identity. Many young people saw their parents’ and grandparents’ identities as constructed by their lived historical experiences of conflict, war and antagonism, which supported both their more nationalist perspective and their sense of distance from being truly European. Many contrasted this with their own sense of being ‘true Europeans’: making a contrast with another generation shifted and strengthened their sense of European-ness.
These young people are adept at managing identities, drawing on sources not limited to the accounts of the school curriculum or of the family. They call on media, including social media, to illustrate and support their constructions, in a way that is sophisticated and global. They construct themselves as different from their parents, with different horizons and landscapes, and alternative narratives of the past. An important part of this process of differentiation appears to be a different sense of ‘being European’, which they are able to combine with a continuing sense of affection for their country.
Further information and dissemination
I have conducted round table discussions with my collaborators in these countries, and given lectures - a series in London at my University and elsewhere, and published papers and chapters as well as the Routledge book.
Constructions of Identities by Young New Europeans: Kaleidoscopic Selves, London: Routledge (July 2014).
Articles and chapters:
Border Crossings: Young Peoples’ Identities in a Time of Change 1 - The Baltic States and Turkey (2010) in P. Cunningham & N. Fretwell (eds), Lifelong Learning and Active Citizenship. London: CiCe https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/Research/cice/pubs/2010/2010_189.pdf
Border Crossings: Young Peoples’ Identities in a Time of Change in Claudiu Mesaroş (ed) (2011) Knowledge Communication: Transparency, Democracy, Global Governance. Timisoara: West University of Timisoara, pp 65-82
(With V Zuzeviciute) Border Crossings, moving borders: young people’s constructions of identitries in Lithuania in the early 21st Century. (2011) Profesinis Rengimas: Tyrimai ir Realijos, 20 (Kaunus, Lithuania) 38 – 47
Moving borders, crossing boundaries: Young peoples’ identities in a time of change 2 - Central Europe: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia (2011) in P. Cunningham & N. Fretwell, Europe's Future: Citizenship in a Changing World: London: CiCe https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/Research/cice/pubs/2011/2011_130.pdf
Communities and Others: Young Peoples’ Constructions of Identities and Citizenship in the Baltic Countries. (2012) Journal of Social Science Education, 11, 3, 22-42
Controversies and Generational Differences: Young People’s Identities in Some European States. (2012) Educational. Sciences 2 2 pp 91-104; doi: 10.3390/educsci2020091
Ross, A., Issa, T., Philippou, S. & Aðalbjarnardóttir, S. (2012) Moving borders, crossing boundaries: young people’s identities in a time of change 3: constructing identities in European islands - Cyprus and Iceland in P. Cunningham & N. Fretwell (eds.) Creating Communities: Local, National and Global. London: CiCe https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/Research/cice/pubs/2012/2012_480.pdf
Identities and Diversities among Young Europeans: Some examples from the eastern borders. In Gonsalves, S. and Carpenter, M. (eds) (2013) Diversity, Intercultural Encounters and Education. London: Routledge, pp 141-163
Young Europeans’ constructions of identity in the new countries of Europe. (2013) European Civil Society Platform on Lifelong Learning (EUCIS-LLL) Magazine. 2. pp 10 -12 (also at http://www.eucis-lll.eu/eucis-lll/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/LLL-MAG2-EUCIS-LLL2.pdf
Intersecting identities: young people’s constructions of identity in south-east Europe London: Cice: Proceedings of the 15th CiCe Annual Conference (2013) (publication awaited)
Intersecting identities: young people’s constructions of identity in south-east Europe, in Uvanney Maylor and Kalwant Bohpal (2014) (eds) Educational Inequalities: Difference and Diversity in Schools and Higher Education. London: Routledge
Moving borders, crossing boundaries: Young peoples’ identities in a time of change 5: Constructing identities in some former Yugoslav States: Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia (May 2014): Proceedings of the 16th CiCe Annual Conference, forthcoming
Discussions with academics in each region:
Riga (December 2010): Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania
Plzen (September 2011): Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary
Watch this on video:
Girne (May 2011) Turkey
Bucharest (June 2013) Bulgaria, Romania
Imagining and constructing intersecting Balkan identities: young people’s constructions of identity in Romania and Bulgaria. Keynote to the Eurofringes. Intercultural networking strategies Conference,. Bucharest, Romania
London Metropolitan Lecture Series ('Jean Monnet Lectures')
Young Identities in the Baltic (January 2011)
Young Identities in Turkey (June 2011)
Young Identities in Poland, the Czech republic, Slovakia and Poland ( 26 October 2011)
Young Identities in Cyprus and Iceland (12 January 2012)
Changing constructions of identities by young people in Romania (20 June 2012)
Changing constructions of identities by young people in Bulgaria (11 December 2012)
Changing constructions of identities by young people in Slovenia (23 May 2013)
Balkan and European - Young people’s constructions of identities in Croatia (23 July 2013)
Macedonian Young People: Constructing Identities in a Contested Country (25 March 2014)
Kaleidoscopic Identities: Young people constructing identities in the New Europe (2 June 2014)
Phase 2: Scandinavia
This project relied on a great number of collaborators and supporters, to all of whom I am very grateful:
Bulgaria: Katia Christova, Evelina Kelbetcheva, Katya Simeonova, Galia Slavcheva and Mirela Vasilva;
Croatia: Branislava Baranovic, Iva Buchberger, Bojana Culum, Karin Doolan, Ivana Jugovic, Iva Koustic, Vesna Jelena and Matic Kovak;
Cyprus: Arzu Altugan, Stavroula -Philippou and Christos Theodopolos;
Czech Republic: Ivona Cindlerová, Martina Gűberová, Jana Heczková, Jan Lašek, Jelena Petrucijova, Marta Šigutová, Pavel Vacek and Daniela Vrabcova;
Estonia: Kristi Köiv, Edgar Krull, Urve Läänempts, Eve Magi and Sulev Valdmaa;
Hungary: Noémi Büki, Marta Fülöp, Ákos Gocsál, Márk Kékesi, Zsuzsanna Pressing, Eva Szabo and Hajnalka Szavas;
Iceland: Sigrún Aðalbjarnardóttir, Kristín Dýrfjörð, Ragný Þóra Guðjohnsen and Eva Harðardóttir;
Latvia: Etina Annuskanc, Zoja Cehlova, Igors Ivashkins, Catherine Kozjuhina, Anna Liduma, Marina Marcenoka, Sandra Rone, Anna Tatarinceva and Gerda Vogule;
Lithuania: Giedrē Bagdonaitē, Jurgita Norvaišaitē, Alina Petrauskienē, Irene Zalieskiene and Vaiva Zuzeviciute;
Macedonia: Aleksandra Arsik, Nedmiran Beqiri, Tajna Jovanoska and Qufli Osmani;
Poland: Hanna Ciéslak, Jolanta Desperat, Laura Górecką, Adam Grabowski, Beata Krzywosz-Rynkiewicz, Agnieszka Kwiatkowska, Agnieszka Lobocka, Grzegorz Mazurkiewicz and Dorota Misiejuk;
Romania: Carmen Ceobanu, Ciprian Ceobanu, Magda Ciubancan, Magda Danicu, Carmen Dutu, Alin Gavreliuc, Aurora Goia, Tudor Iordachescu, Simona Laurian, Elena Mazareanu, Eleana Mitu, Monica Oprescu and Monica Secui;
Slovakia: Petra Fridrichová, Iveta Kovalcikova and Ivan Ropovik;
Slovenia: Marjanca Pergar Kušcer, Cveta Pucko, Andrea Sinjur, Tore Sørensen and Urban Vehovar;
Turkey: Gökçen Ardiç, Ceren Civelek, Yunus Eryaman, Kevser Gürel, Alp Kanzik, Şahan Savaş Karataşlı, Ebru Aktan Acar, Marcel Mečiar, Nilüfer Pembecioğlu and Nuran Tuncer.
From the British Council Daniela Bavcandzi and Mark Levy helped me find contacts in Macedonia.
My informal advisory group: Aigrún Aðalbjarnardóttir (Reykjavik), Tilman Allert (Frankfurt), Miquel Àngel Essomba (Barcelona), Nanny Hartsmar (Malmö), Elisabet Näsman (Upsalla), Cveta Pucko (Ljubljana) and Titi Papoulia Tzelepi (Patras).
Ian Davies (University of York, UK), Carole Hahn (Emory University, Atlanta USA) and Marko Hoare (Kingston University, UK).
London Metropolitan University: Angela Kamara, Marko Bojcun, Azru Altan, Tania Muscat, Marta Pinto, Jana Šulíková, Rita White, Teresa Carbajo-Garcia, John Gabriel, Malcolm Gillies, Sumi Hollingworth, Merryn Hutchings, Carole Leathwood, Ayo Mansaray, Mike Newman, Jayne Osgood, Colin Rainey, Brian Roper and Chris Topley.
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