Spotlight: the Athens' conference
An interview with Airi-Alina Allaste, Tallinn University, Estonia
Airi-Alina Allaste – professor in Sociology, the School of Governance, Law and Society in Tallinn University, Estonia
Professor Airi-Alina Allaste, could you please introduce your research interests and working experience briefly to the readers of the Newsletter? How did you get inspired to become a youth researcher in the area of sociology and where has research taken you?
I have always identified myself as a youth researcher, I became interested in youth cultures when I was young myself and for some reason never lost that interest. Recently, I have been studying youth participation society in a wider sense and I am familiar with problems young people face today. I believe that the European project with 15 partner countries, entitled as Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement (MYPLACE, 2011–2015 – S.O.), in which I participated, has had a crucial importance on making sense of young people’s lives and social participation.
What, in your opinion and at the current point of time, are the most powerful and intriguing questions in the field of study?
I am not sure. I can point out specific questions in youth studies that are more important than others, but probably we need a wider approach to all issues. In our society, which is in crisis, in many ways young people tend to be in the most difficult situation. No one can frame their life experiences merely with their own culture and country anymore: young people today share similar problems across countries and are interconnected in several ways. I believe that youth studies could have the greatest importance to impact society. Youth issues need to be acknowledged, analysed and solved on a global level. That makes it thrilling and demanding at the same time.
You have been appointed to an international advisory board of the CATCH-EyoU project, composed of 11 professors and researchers from Europe and other parts of the world with the task to provide input and new insights to the research and maximize the impact of the whole project. With this purpose, you just participated in the first open conference of the project in Athens and in the working meeting before that. What are your main impressions?
The project meeting where I participated was impressive – well prepared presentations and vivid discussions! It seems that studies in different working packages are very well designed by their leaders and at the same time negotiated together with all partners. Discussions, especially around theoretical approach and (pre)defining of empirical study were passionate and different epistemological approaches were recognisable. Compared to the projects I have been involved myself previously, I think that in the current project, even greater emphases is put on social impact of the research.
How would you comment on the session “Strategies and projects to promote youth active citizenship in Europe” you chaired and in which you presented the results of your own study? What viewpoints and ideas did you find particularly salient or noteworthy?
A great speech was given by Ilaria Pitti (a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Örebro University in Sweden – S.O.). She studied grass-root alternatives to official service, provided to migrants and homeless people and initiated by leftist youth groups. Both the activities itself (described practices of solidarity) and the good presentation of a well-conducted empirical study were really inspiring.
As I remember the discussion in this particular session got quite heated as the finger was pointed at the question whether young people’s opinion and feedback on decisions to be made by the organizations and authorities is actually wanted or not. For example, their voice is welcomed in the discussion on so-called soft topics but when it comes to “hard” topics like money or infrastructures their participation is not so welcomed anymore. How would you comment on that?
I think that today, youth engagement and involvement is part of the “politically correct” rhetoric and agenda which, at least the policy makers and youth work practitioners, have to follow. Many go beyond that: there are practitioners who work with young people who are very devoted and sincerely consider young people’s opinion important. But some… some youth workers tend to have a bit patronizing attitude that sets the opinion of young people, implicitly, in the context of secondary importance. And sometimes youth involvement might be also a “subsidiary activity” with the main purpose of showing outside that young people are included. However, I would point out difference in attitudes rather than between “soft” and “hard” topics where young people’s involvement is desirable.
Are there more crucial issues that you find particularly crucial that have not been so thoroughly discussed?
I consider defining youth participation extremely important, since it influences more widely how we approach young people. A large proportion of young people who do not participate in any formal organization is, in many cases rather far from being passive or apathetic as is often generalized. Interaction in social media, signing petitions, attending marches etc. could be also seen as participation in public arena. Even if the academic literature in social studies is vast on the topic, this knowledge has been under-recognized by the general public but also by youth policy makers so far. So, I would stress more the importance of dialogue between researchers and practitioners.
Finally, let me ask about your opinion on the CATCH-EyoU project, its mission and range of activities. How the aim of the project and different work packages fit today’s situation in changing Europe?
First, the aim as defined in the project – “to bridge the gap between young Europeans and EU Institutions” is definitely more than actual, considering the different manifestations of rising populism in several European countries, and that, at least partly, are related to alienation from the EU. It looks that different work packages cover the topic well. The International Youth Panel within the framework of the CATCH-project, as a partner organization to the universities, illustrates well the involvement of young people and, from my point of view, is a fresh approach in academic project design.
Signe Opermann, University of Tartu