In this article, I propose to make a personal reflection on the recent publication of the piece of research called Participation, politics and young people. An approximation to the political practices, social participation and political leanings of young Catalan people (González, Collet and Sanmartín, 2007), of which I was the coordinator. In this piece of research, commissioned by the General Secretariat for Youth at the Institute of Governments and Public Policies, we analysed the way in which young Catalan people experienced and perceive politics. In the article, we look at the main contributions of this piece of research and later look at what effects language has on the political positioning of young people.
In order to achieve the objectives set, in the research we opted for the combined use of quantitative and qualitative methodological instruments. The backbone of the fieldwork was a telephone survey given to 3,300 young Catalan people aged between 15 and 29. Therefore, it is a very powerful survey with regards to the size of the sample. The large volume of interviews carried out enabled us to take on a detailed, rigorous analysis of the internal differences to be found among the various segments of young people. One of the differences which had a notable presence was that which referred to differences in the linguistic uses of young people, and especially to the habitual language used during their childhood.
From the statistical analysis carried out, we should highlight the significant presence the use of regression models had. This is a technique that enables us to observe the explanatory weight of the independent variables selected while neutralising the adulterated explanatory affects they have on each other.
At a methodological level, the survey was complemented by carrying out 21 discussion groups with young Catalan people aged 15 to 29. The perceptions and reflections of the young people had a fundamental role on interpreting the data from the survey. The discussion groups were held with young people of different social and demographic profiles, meaning that we were able to cover a wide range of heterogeneous perceptions they have concerning politics according to the different positions in the social structure
As its main thread, the article recovered the concept of folding. This is a theoretical concept we have created to synthesise the different logics of young people that we perceive from the different quantitative and qualitative empirical indices. By folding we understand the various appropriations that young people make of politics, reinterpreting their meaning. What can be considered to be politics and a political action is not something that can be taken for granted. Young people have redefined the semantic and practical barriers in such a way that the social uses of politics, the tangible and perceptible aspects in which it operates have undergone change. We will discuss this throughout the article.
Nowadays, it is commonplace in media discourses as well as in those of most of the general public to consider the collective of young people as being particularly affected by political passivism, particularly in contrast with the young people of some decades ago. It is true that most young people are not noted for their high level of political activism, but this does not mean that it is a particularly passive collective. The data from the research shows how the level of young people's political activism, at least during the months when the fieldwork was being carried out, is notable for a certain effervescence at all levels. Around 85% of the young people surveyed who were in a position to be able to vote -in other words those who were not born abroad and those who in the last elections before the interview were over 18- declared that they had done so. The number of young people who, the year before the survey, had participated in some activity considered to be political vindication was also notable. Almost three quarters of the young people declared that they had done at least one political action. For example, 30.1% said they had participated in a demonstration. This data places young Catalan people at the forefront of European young people's political activism.
The previous data would enable us to make a self-satisfied reading about young Catalan people, however this is not our intention. In any case, it does enable us to qualify some of the more negative impressions of the relationship between young people and politics. Young Catalan people do not participate any less than adults, to the contrary, they seem to be the social collective with most people willing to participate, depending on the circumstances and forms of participation. However, the most interesting thing that comes from the analysis concerns the nature of this activism.
It is mainly characteristic by being low-intensity activism. There are many of them who have done some activity that could be considered to be political, however the great majority participate in one-off activities that require little commitment, little dedication and little personal exposure. Therefore it is a light commitment. This refers us to one of the elements with which we have characterised the way in which young people experience politics: its symbolic folding. Participation is something that is developed very sporadically, however it becomes an act with a great symbolic power in shaping one's own identity, as it makes the young person perceive him or herself as an active individual who "moves". We call this tendency symbolic folding precisely because the action becomes, above all, an act of affirming one's identity.
"Moving" or "not moving" from a political point of view places young people on the mental map of youths as few other things do. It becomes a key element in the construction of the identity of those who perceive themselves as committed, to however smaller degree, in practice, to this commitment. In addition, the young people who position themselves on the scale of those who "move, whether to a lesser or greater degree (and most of them do so to a lesser degree) do so based on determined parameters of the politics. On the whole, they shun the more institutional forms of participation –apart from going to vote- and on the other end of the scale, the more transgressive and anti-system ones. Violence and other vindictive excesses are badly considered by the immense majority of young people.
On the other hand, another key question is the influence of the political contingency of the moment on the level of young people's political participation. The survey was administered a few months after the general elections of 2004. Both the data concerning non-electoral political actions -above all demonstrations- as well as the high recognized electoral participation reflects the important mobilising influence that the opposition to certain policies of the previous central government had in Catalonia. In the discussion groups carried out, the comments referring to reactive mobilisation against the participation of Spain in the Iraq war, the terrorist attacks of March 11th and how they were managed by the government were constant. The data of this survey shows how, in fact, we are facing a situation which created an extraordinary mobilisation.
On the other hand, the data concerning the electoral participation with regards to the referendum concerning the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia and the autonomous region and local elections there were later showed how the electoral mobilisation has not been consolidated. To the contrary, the levels of abstention grew to unprecedented levels. The effect would seem to be particularly pronounced among young people. The conclusion to be extracted is not that abstention among young people is very high; but that it is, in any case, a particularly fluctuating abstention. Increasingly fewer young people take their vote as an obligation, as a morally unavoidable obligation. On the other hand, voting is experienced as a right to be used in the case of situations that require a vote. This means that young people only exercise their vote when they consider that something is at stake and that their vote can involve a significant change. In this sense, it could be, as happened in 2004, that voting against a party has more ability to mobilise than voting for a party , above all in the face of the lack of trust and the disenchanted look that politics - understood in its most restricted sense - tends to awaken, in other words politics as a dispute between political parties to have the power to manage the resources and competencies of the state.
In the previous part, we looked at the political participation of young people and interpreted its meaning. In the second part, we would like to look more in-depth at the analysis of the minority of politically more active young people. Around a third of young people could be considered to be "politically active" in the fact that their political actions are not strictly sporadic. However, we should bear in mind that, of this third, many of them do actions that involve a very low level of commitment; we have considered active young people to be all those who have been involved in more than four political actions. Therefore, not all those who are "politically active" are by any means intensely active. In fact, at the time of the interview, only 5.9% of young people participated in associations and organisations or groups of a political or vindictive nature -from political parties to squatters - and those who had done so at some time was 11%.
The type of participative involvement in political movements and associations of the more active young people is different to traditional political participation. In the first place, participation is often linked to a way of enjoying free time, which increasingly constitutes the identity of the subjects -we are what we do during the time in which we do not have to deal with obligations- meaning that young people's participation usually takes place in a free time or identity-making dimension. Along the same lines, matters that concern young people and mobilisation are increasingly related to matters concerning the labour world and the productive circle, in addition to the area of consumption and freedom in constructing their own lifestyle. Altogether, this is what we have called free time folding.
In second place, we have moved on from yesteryear's militant activism to the impact activism that characterises the involvement of today's young people. The difference between one and another kind of activism lies in the fact that in militant activism a large number of the active individuals did a certain suspension of meaning with regard to the actions that the institutions in which they were militants asked them to do, while today, young people do not understand their political participation if it is not by finding direct meaning in each of their actions. Although in the past, militants accepted becoming a cog in the political machinery, today's young people participate because what they do at each moment responds to objectives that they understand. Therefore, it is not surprising that a great number of the political actions should have an educational or spectacular dimension, both of which are destined to raising political awareness in the general public, or that they should be organised without giving up a certain free time element. At the same time, political action groups tend to be more informal, more flexible and even discontinuous and do not have the structuring energy that they had in the past. The motor of the meaning of political action lies in the individual and not in the organisation. One of the young people interviewed gave us the following example of political activism which exemplifies the characterisation we have just described:
We could also add that very often the political participation of the minority of the more active young people is experienced as eminently youthful activism. Often reference groups are made up by only young people, and a large number of the active young people with whom we spoke recognize that this could only be maintained with difficulty once they started to take on the jobs or families that typically come with being an adult. Political activism is minority, but markedly youthful. It is part of a way of being young. The following statement given by one of the young people interviewed with a more activist profile reflects this.
It could be that political activism is becoming a kind of youthful rite in the construction of a determined personal identity. Suffice to say that a good part of the more inactive young people see in this activism, rather than a rite of identity, a kind of hidden curriculum typical of people of a certain social status, among whom youthful activism is part of their future professional career. We will take up this reflection a little later on.
So far we have looked at the matters concerning the objective participation of young people in politics. In this part, we look at the leading elements concerning the subjective impression that young people have about politics. We see what perceptions they have about politics, as well as their proximity or distance from it, cognitively as well as emotionally.
In general terms, politics does not awaken a feeling of positive adhesion. However, the reality is far removed from the caricature that illustrates young people as a group that does not care about politics. The information concerning the interest that politics awakens in them is that which reflects the position of young people most clearly. With regard to this, in the survey they were first asked the question concerning the interest that politics in general aroused in them. Most young people replied that politics interests them little (39%) or not at all (18.1%). Nevertheless, more than 4 out of every 10 young people said that politics interested them quite a bit or a lot. Afterwards, they were asked if they were interested in politics understood as being what happens in social and political areas on a local, Catalan, Spanish, European and worldwide scale. In these questions, the number of young people who replied that they were fairly or very interested fluctuated between 60% (European area) and 85% (Catalonia). The interest in politics shoots up if it is not considered in the more restricted meaning of the concept.
Based on the variables referring to the self-perceived competence to understand politics, the frequency with which it is talked about, and the interest in politics, we designed four categories of profiles of young people that summarise their different ways of being closer or further removed from politics: Young people who felt close (21%), far removed (39.3%), those who talk about it (17.4%) and those who are disenchanted (22.4%). The young people who feel close are those who habitually talk about politics, they feel competent and they show interest in it. Suffice to say that among these young people, a significant part of them have critical reviews of institutional politics, however close it may seem to them. The young people who feel distant are those who are most differentiated from those who feel close . They do not talk about politics, they do not feel competent and they are not interested in politics. Suffice to say that part of these young people are interested in what is going on at the social and political level in their environment (particularly on a local and Catalan scale). Young people who talk about it are those who show some emotional proximity to politics, but a cognitive distance. They talk about politics, they may find it interesting or relevant, but on the other hand they do not feel very competent. Young disenchanted people are characterised by being the complete opposite. They show cognitive proximity but emotional distance.
The previous paragraphs only aim to reflect on the complex nature of the position of young people towards politics. Beyond this heterogeneity, we can detect transversal elements that are typical of young people. These include, in the first place, the strong disrepute of politics. Most young people distance themselves from politics understood in a restricted sense, even if they show interest or knowledge or are politically active. Their disrepute or dislike is shown in different ways, which can even be opposing ones. It can be crystallised in the strictest political passivism or in forms of anti-system activism, and it can be justified through preparing varied ideological discourses, in the consideration of policies as something typical of the world of adults -a perception of some adolescents of a lower social status- or by means of more radical Manichaeist oppositions.