Saturday, 14 March 2009

New research into participation, empowerment and social care Today I was in Eindhoven relishing a new role as 'publication coach' for several PhD students carrying out research on social work themes. The expectation is that I help the researchers towards some form of publication. In return, the peculiar privilege is that I hear at an early stage about some significant research issues and findings in social care, empowerment and community development. Like for example, this morning I heard about qualitative research into multi-disciplinary case conferences for vulnerable older people who live at home independently. You might have five or six professionals clustered in a clinic, talking about an older person, in their necessary absence. The research explores the awkward disempowerment implied - 'on what grounds can you take these decisions on my behalf, and not tell me about them?' Later I got to hear how participation in youth councils in the Netherlands might be percieved as spurious. According to the researcher, the rhetoric of involving young people in governance emphasises one of five discourses: representation, power, self development, responsibility, or efficiency. For example, a municipality might advance a policy of youth participation on the grounds of representation or simply of improving efficiency. The hypothesis is that tension between these approaches will have negative effects. As I understand it, the youth councils aren't exactly celebrated as empowering arenas as far as political decision-making processes are concerned, and there's a lot of room for understanding. One of the researchers has been looking at the social networks and cultural capital of immigrant entrepreneurs in the Netherlands. It seems that the power of their social capital is not in question: but low levels cultural capital, by comparison with Dutch entrepreneurs, are likely to be problematic. Most striking here is the extent to which the education system can be seen not as a platform for entrepreneurs, but as a mechanism for filtering them out. Then I got to find out about how young people in vocational education experience citizenship, in the home, workplace, school, neighbourhood and leisure activities. The early impression is that they experience school as a sharply undemocratic environment, and this has a negative effect on their sense of citizenship for the future. if this is so, as a policy issue it's not trivial. Finally, a chance to catch up with Laurens de Graaf, from Tilburg University, who I believe to be uniquely positioned with a wealth of research material to explore the similarities and differences between political and social participation. For example - is there really a clear gender distinction between community activists motivated by social involvement and those committed to civic governance roles? Do people migrate between the two? Is there a career path from one to the other? Do they share common values? So I quite fancy this role of 'publications coach'. It requires good listening skills, ability to appreciate the research topic and methodology, and to place it in the context of other knowledge and social policy, and some familiarity with the literature. If I can encourage...

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