The role of youth work for integration – challenges for data collection during the COVID-19 pandemic

//The role of youth work for integration – challenges for data collection during the COVID-19 pandemic

Manfred Zentner | PhD Candidate, Danube University Krems, Austria

There is a life beyond work and family, at least some claim, there is a concept like leisure time. The third place, described by Oldenburg 1989 as the non-structured sphere beside home and family (first place) and work (second place), is of high importance for leisure. It is a place you visit voluntarily, a place, where you can be without obligations. For the process of socialisation of children and youth, we can draw parallels here with Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, where family, kindergarten, school, church and leisure activities are situated in the same microsystem surrounding the individual and influencing human development. Youth work provides such a third place in the microsystem of a young person and therefore is often seen as the third agent of socialisation beside family and school. Thus, youth work in Austria is a main actor in supporting and promoting integration and inclusion in society. The definition of youth work in Austria follows on the one hand European and international concepts and principles of youth work, on the other hand, obeys to a Federal logic of funding. Youth work is youth-centred, participatory and – most of all – voluntary. An additional element is the concept of non-formal and informal learning in youth work. On the other hand, it can be segregated following organisational structures in Austria:

  1. verbandliche Jugendarbeit” is based on membership of young people in NGOs – often lead by youth themselves (e.g. Scouts, voluntary fire brigades);
  2. offene Jugendarbeit” is characterised by low-threshold offers to young people without any membership (e.g. in youth clubs and youth centres), and
  3. Jugendinformation” offers information important for young people in a youth friendly way.

During the last decades, the profile of young people who visited youth centres, youth clubs or youth organisations changed due and parallel to the changes in population in general. The percentage of non-Austrian citizens in the age of 10 to 24 years (roughly the age group of youth work users) increased between 2002 and 2019 from 10% to 18.3%. Simultaneous, the ratio of foreign-born young people in Austria grew in this age group from 10.9% to 15.9%.

These developments indicate an ongoing change in the composition of the primary target group of youth work in Austria. One might expect massive effects on orientation of youth work itself and its approaches, but recent research proves different.

In my ongoing research project on “The role of youth work for integration”, I applied a mixed-method approach to identify the understanding of integration among youth workers from different fields and regions in Austria.  I planned to compare this with experience of users from youth work with and without a migrant background. In the first step, qualitative interviews with youth workers and youth work experts coming from the different institutional and regional background were conducted to collect the different perceptions of integration and integration work in extra-curricular youth work in Austria.

Interesting enough, the interviews with experienced youth workers point to the fact that the methods and approaches used in youth work did not change thoroughly. Nevertheless, youth work is seen as a major contributor to the successful integration and inclusion of young persons with migrant background in the Austrian society in the past providing them with space for self-development and allowing intercultural exchange. This was furthermore attested in an online survey among more than one hundred organisations and institutions offering youth work.

One further step of the research would have been the data collection among young people using youth work offers. It was planned to have discussion rounds with young people in youth work during weekly group meetings in NGOs like scouts, but also in youth centres or even in parks. This qualitative approach needs the support of youth workers, since the topic of integration and inclusion in youth work – and eventually in society – is sensitive. Talking about sensitive topics like mutual respect in the group, the reality of inter-cultural exchange and its potential effect, individual experiences of discrimination, about individual expectations, wishes, and disappointments needs trust. Trust not only among the debaters but also between the participants and the researcher. In the setting of youth work, the main trust relation is between the young person and the youth worker / youth leader. In qualitative research in youth work, this trust relation can be transferred to the researcher; especially if she/he has experience in youth work/pedagogy and if the youth worker trusts the researcher.

Focus groups and real groups are a promising approach to gain usable research results. These group discussions are successfully used in youth research based on a certain understanding of principles of qualitative research: Qualitative research describes social phenomena as they occur naturally. As we know, theoretically, no attempt is made to manipulate the situation under study as is the case with experimental quantitative research. An understanding of a situation is gained through a holistic perspective. In this case, the holistic perspective has to focus on the setting of youth work.

The third place is always visited on a voluntary basis; one can leave any time they want. This creates a challenge whenever doing qualitative research with a group of young people in the setting of youth work. Young people in youth work are participating voluntarily – especially in open youth work, they decide in every situation if they want to stay inside or change the situation. The composition of participants in a group discussion in youth centres or in parks might even change during the discussion – especially if the relationship between interviewer and group is challenged by different influences. To keep the discussion going among the same participants is already a daring task in “normal” times, but in the setting of “new normality” during the COVID 19 pandemic it turned to a real problem. Here are the main reasons for this:

  1. Youth work offers and youth centres were closed: To stay in contact with the users was challenging already for youth workers. To allow other people to use the newly established ways of communication (e.g. online group meetings) was declined in most cases.
  2. Even in the one case where we were allowed to participate in the group meeting, no trust relation could be established – since the transference of trust from youth worker/youth leader to researcher could not be established.
  3. Online discussions are not the setting of young people meeting in youth work offers. Therefore, this approach is an experiment and not even a model of the real situation. This setting promotes young people with more experience in online meetings and favours those with higher communication skills.
  4. Also, other group discussions show the latter tendency, but off-line real meetings enable trained moderators / researchers to react on non-verbal signals of participants and to support their input into the debate.

And maybe in this special case most important:

  1. The pandemic and the measures taken (lockdown, distance, mask) had a significant influence on the lives of young people. Many young people, especially from more vulnerable groups we often find in youth centres, are severely impacted by COVID-19: increased psychological challenges, anxieties, loss of social contacts, unemployment are overshadowing other aspects of their lives. Covid 19 and the lockdown are influencing any discussion on other topics, be it on environmental issues, discrimination, or gender equality, and these issues are debated focussing on the impact of Covid on them.
By |2022-10-05T11:04:50+02:00December 9th, 2020|PhD Conference|