The Problem with ‘Civic’
A Snapshot of Young People’s
Civic Engagements in 21st
Century Democracies
Dr Shakuntala Banaji, Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media,
Institute of Education, University of London: [email protected]
•To touch on some of the political and civic
action being taken by youth on and offline
with a view to problematising: a) the lack of
differentiation between young people and
b) the constant differentiation between
young people and ‘others’ in this discourse
•To problematise the notion that civic
knowledge, engagement and action are
ends in themselves
•To question the idea that civic and political
engagement and action are always benign
(democratic) and hence desirable goals for
young people
Methodology/Theory: speculative
Based on:
1. A survey of eighty UK civic websites and their associated
organisations, groups and campaigns (60 percent youth
orientated, 40 percent more general in reach)
2. Qualitative interviews (in London and Bombay) with
young people aged 7-25 following the wars against
Afghanistan and Iraq and the July 7th London Bombings
3. In-depth interviews with young Indian and British-Asian
cinema-goers about films, gender, politics and ethnicity
4. Seven years teaching 11-19 year olds in London schools
‘Young people’ - disengaged from civic life and
an idea that is often expressed at the beginning of books, funding
proposals, research articles and projects - my current project,
Civicweb: Young People, The Internet and Civic Participation
is a case in point:
There is growing concern
about young people’s
apparent lack of interest
and involvement in politics
and in civic society.
Of course young people
are not a
True, research suggests that (especially
working-class) young people
hold few positions of power in government and
aren’t hugely enthusiastic about voting in elections and
sometimes are poorly represented in voter turnout
express varying degrees of anger, mistrust, cynicism,
scepticism or boredom in relation to formal politics
(government and political parties)
While predictable, the first two findings are
worrying. The third is more complicated.
Do these findings add up to the kind of
overwhelming lack of interest in a broader
politics and civil society that has frequently
been attributed to young people?
We don’t want to be the “fossil generation”: French green campuses campaign
[Civic] issues engaging young people in the UK include…
The environment
eating disorders
social discrimination
children’s rights
gender rights
youth justice
school and pedagogy
students’ rights
climate change
employment and justice systems
fox hunting
global corporations
animal testing
voting age
immigration and ‘white rights’
Young people are part of a range of civic
organisations: some are run by youth, for youth
Some lobbying and campaigning on youth-specific
Some are run by experienced adult
campaigners; some left-leaning, some
others are tied in to international evangelical
But are young people more imaginatively
engaged and active?
“What we are seeing is a mass generational
migration from old-fashioned forms of participation to
newer, more creative forms.”.
They’re certainly not less
involved - but perhaps
its more fruitful to ask
where civic/political
involvement leads….
The case of the anti-Iraq war protests
As opposed to
asking what the
effects of civic
action are on
youth, let’s ask:
‘What often
happens when
youth take
challenging civic
or political
What did all the anti-war protests prove about
how ‘democracy’ works in the UK?
When governments ignore civic and political
protest, the result can be frustration, anger and
Three years later: still protesting…
What’s the connection between ‘civic’
engagement and democracy?
• Calls abound for young people to ‘get
involved’ in politics and civil society
organisations; civic action is seen as
a marker of ‘good citizenship’.
• But who is a ‘good citizen’? And is all
civic action benevolent? Or rather,
does it necessarily contribute to
Predominant analyses hold that civic action is
by definition benevolent and democratic
Our definition of civic activity encompasses the notion of
the public good: The end result of a community’s civic
education activities should be to engender within the
community’s residents a commitment to participating in the
betterment of that community. [This] must also include an
attachment to justice, a willingness to serve beyond selfinterest, an openness to all those who share the rank of
citizen... Activities that are designed to harm, diminish, or
exclude others, or deprive them of their rights, are not civic
activities, even when conducted in the public realm by
groups of active citizens. (Montgomery et al, 2004: 17-18)
The case of an Indian ‘civic-political’ movement: the
VHP (World Hindu Organisation) youth wing and RSS
(National Volunteer Corps) youth cadre
Health and
Training for
anti child-labour
Who are the RSS Youth?
• Created around 68 years ago, along the lines of the Hitler
Youth, the RSS runs training camps for young ‘volunteers’
• Practice martial arts, listen to speeches about pure Indian
blood and ‘sewa’ or ‘community work’
• Undertake local initiatives like literacy for rural (Hindu) children
• Volunteers insist that they want to ‘help their community’
(defined as Indians or Hindus); and to help their
motherland/nation – India
• They have a strong ethos of obedience, hierarchy and
• These youth do not get into trouble with their parents; and are
often highly motivated at school and in community work.
Civic activity is not necessarily pro-democratic
Website of a related
fascist youth organisation
RSS youth – many
teenage boys – demolish
centuries old Babri
Mosque in North India.
‘Those visions of obedience and patriotism that are often and
increasingly associated with the personal citizenship agenda can
be at odds with democratic goals…Indeed, government leaders
in a totalitarian regime would be as delighted as leaders in a
democracy if their young citizens learned the lessons put
forward by many of the proponents of personally responsible
citizenship: don’t do drugs; show up to school; show up to work;
give blood; help others during a flood; recycle; pick up litter...
These are desirable traits for people living in a community. But
they are not about democratic citizenship. To the extent that
emphasis on these character traits detract from other important
democratic priorities, they may actually hinder rather than
make possible democratic participation and change.'
(Westheimer, J. & Kahne, J. ‘What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of
Educating for Democracy’: p 6-7)
Real democracies rarely live up to ideals
• 1) Should we endorse political involvement per se, in any political
‘community’, however exclusive or authoritarian or aggressive, as
being better than ‘apathy’, ‘mistrust’ or ‘cynicism’? In tandem: Is
reactionary civic involvement better than no involvement?
• 2) Do most governments in most democratic nations actually
behave (as opposed to speak) as if they want an engaged,
challenging and critical citizenry or are many ‘channels of
communication’ on offer merely apparent, rather than real?
• 3) Is there ever just a single ‘public’ for whom one can define a
notion of ‘the public good’ and on whose behalf all civic/political
actions are urged and taken? How, then, is democracy
strengthened by defining CIVIC action as de facto benign,
altruistic and democratic?

The Problem with `Civic` - Institute of Advanced Studies