An exploration of ‘youth’ and their understandings of ‘democracy’ in a youth program

By PRIA Youth (Participatory Research In Asia)

    An exploration of ‘youth’ and their understandings of ‘democracy’ in a youth program

    About the Author

    PRIA Youth (Participatory Research In Asia)
    PRIA Youth Team
    New Delhi, IN
    2 Articles Published
    PRIA Youth (Participatory Research In Asia)

    PRIA Youth is the youth programming wing of the Society of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a global centre for participatory research and training based in New Delhi. PRIA promotes ‘participation as empowerment’, by building capacities of citizens, communities and institutions, to enable vibrant, gender-equal societies. PRIA’s experiences have clearly outlined the significant role which people’s knowledge and voices play, including those of youth, in bringing social change. Since 2017, in line with the organisation’s long-term strategy, PRIA Youth has engaged deliberately, actively and inclusively with young people across India as part of its Youth-n-Democracy (YnD) program. The vision of PRIA Youth is to support and foster our democracy and its democratic institutions, in which aware, active and engaged young citizens make democracy function in their lives, every day.

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    Project Summary

    PRIA’s ‘Youth-n-Democracy’ fellowship was created in 2019 to provide opportunities for young people to consider their place in society within India, whilst promoting active participation in democracy as a way to seek a more inclusive society. In collaboration with PRIA, this research project, led by Tess Westbrook, aimed to examine ideas of democracy among the fellows of the program, questioning the role ‘self and identity’ plays in shaping the youths’ understanding of their societal surroundings. The research outlined how self and Identity modules in the Youth-n-Democracy program helped the fellows become more introspective, which in turn allowed them to interact with others more openly and compassionately, which will hopefully further lead them to becoming more engaged democratic citizens.

    This project was informed by literature on civic engagement and active participation to illustrate the role of youth in the community and national development space. The research consisted of thirteen, semi-structured interviews: ten conducted with the fellows and three with the staff of the program. The resulting data collected from the interviews was coded into themes established for the fellowship programs: self, identity, democracy, motivations, outcomes, and interaction with wider society. The results indicated that the self and identity themes were the most informative and beneficial for each fellow interviewed. These themes introduced the fellows to new concepts and approaches useful to critically reflecting on engaged citizenship in a democracy. The participants felt that further understanding self and identity helped them to become more awakened democratic citizens, and this strengthened understanding in turn was visible in the social action projects which the fellows conducted. The fellows’ approach and interaction with democracy shifted from voting as the maximum involvement to a desire to work for a more equal society, and to promote additional democratic ideals that went beyond the scope of the program. The impact of the fellowship affected both the personal growth of the fellows, and through their social action projects, the wider community around them.

    Project Context

    This project conducted in 2020 was intended to focus on aspects of participatory research. However, the ongoing global pandemic made it difficult to carry out the full participatory nature of the research. Narrowing the access to participants, the project built the collaboration with PRIA staff members and fellows through online sessions and meetings. The researcher, Westbook, collaborated with PRIA on the creation of this project, with support by Trinity College Dublin. The fellowship program lasts nine months, and the researcher joined during the last three months of this years’ program.

    Prominent Indian economist Amartya Sen argues that ‘the interest and involvement of young people [is] important not only in the process of education, but also for their contribution to the development of harmonious society’ (Sen, 2011: 38). PRIA is an India-based organisation that is built on the ‘empowerment of the excluded through capacity building, knowledge building and policy advocacy’ (2020). The PRIA ‘Youth-n-Democracy’ (YnD) fellowship was initiated for college students and recent graduates with the aim to ‘engage and promote the participation of youth’ (PRIA, 2019a to 2019g) in democracy and the wider society through dialogue, education, and encouraging peer relations. The fellowship focuses on four key areas: Self, Identity, Society, and Change, and aims to highlight the importance of diversity through open dialogue to create a more inclusive and participatory idea of democracy among the young people who are involved in the program.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Background and Goal

    PRIA’s interest in how the Self and Identity modules in Youth-n-Democracy program manifested within the fellows and how the fellows view the module contents in relation to their current ideas and practices of democracy, provided the focus of this project. The purpose of the research was to examine the evolving understandings of democracy held by participants in a Youth-n-Democracy program through their interaction with two training modules, one on self and one on identity. The research also sought to examine how the understandings were utilized in the participants’ social action projects in relation to becoming more active democratic citizens.

    Literatures on “youth” and “democracy” were reviewed within the development practice and Indian society context in order to situate this research.

           Youth.  ‘Youth’ is a much disputed term in the development sphere (Flanagan & Christens, 2011), but this project used the parameters of the current PRIA YnD fellows, aged between 18 and 30. Over the past two decades, ‘the concept of youth citizenship and civic engagement has acquired prominence in research, policy and practice’ (Brady et al., 2012: 2). Civic engagement ‘refers to the ways in which citizens participate in the life of a community in order to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community’s future’ (Adler & Goggin, 2005: 236). PRIA’s YnD program supports active participation in democratic practices within communities with the aim of passing knowledge and confidence to others in the wider society to make the greatest impact. The literature argues that: ‘the study of youth’s civic competence needs to be expanded beyond the confines of formal knowledge of government and normative acts’ (Youniss et al., 2002: 125). This research explored how PRIA supports the fellows through the expansion of their knowledge to become more engaged in the community and with democratic practices beyond the bureaucracy of government. Volunteering is a key component of civic engagement (Adler & Goggin, 2005), and the final module of the fellowship consists of a social action project, which allows a fellow to spend time in the field working on a social issue that is important to them. It was anticipated that their interest and engagement with the topic would assist them in furthering and deepening their engagements, creating a ripple effect of knowledge and democratic practices.

           Democracy. This project utilises the term ‘democracy’ in the context of PRIA’s work to refer to ‘democracy in action: people working together to change their communities and society for the better’ (Harkavy & Hartley, 2009: 9). Youth involvement in democratic practices within the development space ‘owes much of its persuasiveness to talk about reciprocity, fairness, obligation, and social responsibility’ (Bessant, 2004: 401). However, the literature often ignores barriers to involvement in democratic practices that youth face such as the right to vote, freedom of movement, and access to employment. Harkavy and Hartley’s (2009) article on youth development and democratic renewal argues that youth involvement in democratic practices serves the purpose of: ‘building civic capacity’. Although this research project did not follow one specific formal definition of democracy, it focused on the idea that: ‘democracy is more than a collection of specific institutions, such as balloting and elections – these institutions are important too, but as parts of a bigger engagement involving dialogue, freedom of information, and unrestricted discussion’ (Sen, 2011: 2). It is these practices of democracy in everyday life – open conversation and inclusive debate – that PRIA champion and that inform the understanding of democracy throughout this research.


    This research project used qualitative methods. As ‘participatory research is not an individual exercise’ (Tandon, 1985: 266), the research incorporated collaboration with PRIA staff members and fellows through online sessions and meetings. This compromise (i.e., online meetings instead of a fully participatory process) took place due to the ongoing global pandemic. As this research is exploring an existing program, an evaluative methodological framework was most relevant.


    Ten fellows and three staff members of the YnD program participated in this research. The sample size was dictated by willing fellows and the time constraints of this project. Each interviewee was provided with a participant information sheet and asked to sign a consent form to ensure they understood the ethical considerations this research posed. All of the participants studied in Delhi at various institutes. During the application process of the fellowship program, PRIA prioritised a heterogeneous group by emphasising the importance of different backgrounds and beliefs. The fellowship group consisted of 11 males, 8 females, and one non-binary person; although the majority were aged 21, the fellows ranged from age 19 to 28; 85% of the fellows were current full-time students. The most popular languages spoken were English and Hindi; every fellow spoke both. However, multiple other languages were also listed as spoken by the fellows (PRIA, 2020).

    Data Collection and Analysis

    The data were gathered though multiple, in-depth semi-structured interviews. These interviews took place over Skype, WhatsApp and Zoom, and each interview consisted of around 10 questions, which were slightly altered depending on who was being interviewed. Each session was recorded and then transcribed using an online platform, and a critical analysis was applied. This approach was used to ‘identify ways in which material conditions (economic, political, gender, ethnic) influence beliefs, behaviour, and experiences’ (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003: 12).

    Following this, the data was coded into the themes developed for the fellowship program by searching for keywords and concepts in the data manually and grouping them together. The data was anonymised for this report. Numbers were assigned to each participant at random for confidentiality, and indicators such as gender were removed. For the purposes of this report, module themes – self and identity – were addressed, and the interview questions were guided by this focus.


    An introductory session over Zoom took place before the individual interviews to explain the project and introduce the researcher, allowing fellows the time to decide if they would like to participate while simultaneously beginning to build connections between the potential participants and the researcher. As the research took place remotely, it relied on the supervisors of the YnD program to make initial introductions over email between the researcher and the participants. The use of a gatekeeper to build a connection could present some bias due to the lack of choice the researcher had in choosing the participants; however the circumstances made this the only option.

    Results and Discussion

    Understanding Self and Identity

    The majority of fellows interviewed were of very similar mindset when beginning the self and identity modules of the fellowship: ‘I thought, what is there to think about self, we know ourselves’ (Participant 1). For one fellow, questions of identity were a reminder that: ‘we always have to introduce yourself when we meet someone for the first time. Introducing oneself comes with hesitation and lots with thinking. Before the Self module with PRIA I hated introducing myself’ (P8). All ten fellows interviewed cited the modules on Self and Identity as the most impactful or interesting.

    The fellows approached learning about the subjects of the two modules in completely different ways. For example, an exercise was done to encourage the fellows to consider the multiple identities they consist of, which four fellows referenced as an important moment for them in the fellowship. This art-based activity saw the fellows decorating masks with phrases on both sides to depict ‘inner’ self and ‘outer’ self. This activity was the first introduction to the fellows on how people and environments can alter ideas and perceptions of self or identity.

    When asked how to describe identity, the fellows initially did not give any clear or singular answers. Self, for one fellow, for example, was seen as ‘shaped by the social environment, but it is more of an internal, intrinsic thing. So, my thought process of how I feel, how I see things and how I perceive things, so this is all what constitutes the self’ (P3). Self as an internal and individual practice was echoed by other fellows, who explained that: ‘how I see myself, how I see my self-image, my self-esteem, how I see myself before windows’ (P4). Other participants understood identity as a product of the wider environment , believing identities to be more connected to others: ‘identities are how I perceive others, or like how I’m going to depict myself before you’ (P4). Others saw identity as more connected to self than the environment in which one is created, arguing that ‘identity, you can say, is a part of self because how I look up to myself or how I feel that I am, that is like an identity which is of self’ (P5).

    One of the supervisors for the YnD program highlighted identity as consisting of gender, sexuality, languages, caste, in comparison to identity being about how ‘they view themselves’ (P12). The Identity module encouraged levels of introspection, with one participant realizing, ‘I could identify myself as, you know, a very privileged woman in India’ (P3). Arguably, the Identity module had more impact on the choices of social action projects than Self, as discussions of gender in particular throughout the sessions sparked further interest to practically apply these ideas in the field.

    Social Action Projects

    The final module of the fellowship, Change, consists of a social action project of the fellows’ choosing on a social issue that they find the most relevant or interesting. The outbreak of the pandemic affected most peoples’ plans and social action projects were altered and carried out online as an alternative.

    One participant described living ‘a very sheltered life’ with no exposure to ‘feminism or politics’ (P6) which pushed them to study journalism and politics to fill in knowledge gaps; the fellowship presented an opportunity to explore social issues in depth. The interview referenced a conversation this participant had during their social action project on promoting gender equality through education and family planning in a Delhi slum: ‘she had these stereotypes about women in her own head that women are very passive and submissive, they don’t like to go out and do stuff’ (P6). The social action project of this fellow hoped to ‘initiate conversations about gender inequality in people’s homes and how they faced it; I did well-researched posts about a lot of stigma related to gender equality’ (P6). Having spoken previously in the interview about understandings of self and identity, the fellow linked their social action project to discussions of stereotyping in the self and identity sessions run by PRIA: ‘We were actually trained in a very open manner. So, it did, very consciously, come into my head, I did actually think that it was sort of aligning with what I’ve been taught previously’ (P6). This example illustrates the use of the social action project to apply concepts learned in the Self and Identity modules to practices of civic engagement and democratic participation.

    In comparison, two participants in the fellowship chose to do their social action project on male sexual abuse, as ‘males have to, you know, be masculine’ (P3) and these stereotypes make males hesitant to speak out about abuse. Their decision to take this social action project forward stemmed directly from the Self and Identity modules: ‘the idea of my research project which I’m working on is Sexual Abuse, which also came through this [self] module’ (P3). One fellow described the activity on identity used to question preconceived stigmas, which involved a discussion on stereotypical words associated with genders (P1). The social action project of this fellow was chosen to share the learnings from the Identity session with a wider circle of people. The fellow described how, in the future, ‘I will make sure that I created an environment for my own family so that people can really open up and talk very frankly, without thinking of any prejudices and you know, all the judgments that are out there’ (P3).

    The social action project, in one case, gave a participant a new sense of identity: ‘I have done my livelihood project [and] that gave me an identity that is doing good work’ (P11). This response combined youth civic engagement with PRIA’s use of Self and Identity teachings to promote more active participation in democracy. The social action project became a way to apply the participant’s new knowledge of identity.


    The fellows were asked about their experiences practicing democracy as youth before the fellowship and how this might have changed as a result of the program; they were also asked to define their understanding of “practicing” democracy. Participants were also asked how they believed PRIA understood and practiced democracy both within the fellowship and throughout the organization. This research purposefully avoids defining ‘democracy’ fully, allowing the fellows’ changing understandings and definitions to argue for varied approaches to the concept. This idea is reflected by the fellows themselves, when discussing the participatory element of this research: ‘I’ve got to know from people that their idea of democracy is not the same as my idea of democracy which was quite relevant’ (P1). From the fellows’ responses, the research showed that democracy had not been a prominent feature of life before joining the fellowship, and that the democratic interactions they had were understood as a bureaucratic practice, specific to government and voting: ‘democracy was only related to your voting, right? Which is still there, like I am 21 and I have given my vote. But democracy for many people here is only related to voting. That’s all’ (P1). One fellow admitted to no interactions with the practice before the fellowship: ‘for me before, I had never given a thought of what a democracy is’ (P3). Another participant reported that democratic practice came from a personal level: ‘the highest level of democracy I practice is in my home. My decisions of the home, I’ve got the freedom of speech, I’ve got the freedom to move wherever I wanted to’ (P1). The participant acknowledged that this individualistic approach to the practice is focused on the self, and not actively on the wider interaction and impact on the society.

    One fellow described PRIA’s approach as an organisation as: ‘practicing democracy at each and every level of their program’ (P1). Further probing of this topic with the fellows provided examples of the democratic culture that has been created by PRIA, such as: ‘you have all the opportunities to express yourself, plus everyone was treated equally, everyone was given equal chances’ (P1). A participant described how the fellowship’s focus on self and identity coupled with the level of diversity amongst the fellows pushed him to continuously ‘questioning what I knew, and then refining my thoughts’ (P5). The focus on diversity was highlighted by another fellow: ‘there’s a huge diversity of people in PRIA. You have people from across the country, though more people are from the northern part, and there are people with different sexual orientations’ (P2). The equality and diversity of the program are coupled with a participatory approach to the fellowship: ‘the very best thing that PRIA are doing during this fellowship is ensuring that the democratic participation for all the fellows is there, because they never, you know, they never told us they always asked us’ (P3). One of the facilitators for the organisation explained PRIA’s approach to democracy as: ‘not just elections, not just parliamentary elections, it happens every day, affects all of us, it’s taking decisions on education, what food we want to eat’ (P12). The elements that PRIA both teaches and promotes as an organisation seek to demonstrate how democratic practices are not necessarily linked simply to voting or government; it is an approach that attempts to impact how the fellows actively participate in democracy on a daily basis and in all dimensions of their lives.

    Within the literature on youth involvement in democracy, Bessant argues that: ‘democratic practice rests on the existence of certain institutions and a guarantee to observe basic human rights’ (2004: 398). Data gathered on how the fellows’ feel their approach to democracy has changed reflects this observation of the importance of basic human rights. One participant, who admits to have previously been less liberal-thinking than their peers, expressed that: ‘I think letting people have their rights, letting people have their own opinions, have their freedom of speech and have the right to access information’ (P2) is what practicing democracy looked like. Coming from Kashmir, their experience of democracy was having no choice, even: ‘in decisions where we are the major stakeholder’ (P2). A session on stakeholder analysis, during the Identity module, had the most impact on this fellow. The fellow chose to work on the issue of fake news for their social action project, hoping to teach people around them how to spot misinformation. They were motivated by the role misinformation and WhatsApp fake news threads played in the previous election, as ‘57% of Indians encounter fake news’ (P2), and decided if they could stop the chain of misinformation for the people around them, it would have a wider impact beyond that. Becoming more open toward others’ beliefs and opinions is a key marker of civic engagement, which includes: ‘expression of democratic values including toleration’ (Levinson, 2010: 321).

    An awareness of internal shifts in understanding ‘democracy’ was prominent in the interview data: ‘So [before] I was not practicing democracy and like, being silent is not, it’s not always an option. You need to speak up and raise issues’ (P4). This move toward democracy as a way to campaign for others is a prominent theme through the data collected, with one participant asking: ‘So how can I ensure that all the 1.3 billion people of India can participate? How can we ensure the participation of all the people in policymaking?’ (P3), when before they had only been to a protest and did not actively participate in democracy any further. The intersection between self and identity and democratic practices seemed to be understood at a deeper level: ‘we now specifically want to make a difference to how democracy functions, like how people understand things’ (P5). The act of civic engagement, wanting to assist others in furthering themselves, in combination with taking an active interest in democratic participation, was emphasized as a crucial understanding emerging from the fellows’ program.


    This research project looked to explore “youth” and their understandings of “democracy” through teachings of Self and Identity within PRIA’s ‘Youth-n-Democracy’ Fellowship. The project particularly sought to question how the fellows had become more active democratic participants through their application of their reflections on the Self and Identity modules to their subsequent social action projects. Through 13 interviews with both fellows and staff members, this project drew upon program evaluation methodologies and qualitative research frameworks to critically analyse data collected through the semi-structured interviews. The research was supported by academic literature on youth and democracy in the development space and the Indian context. The literature on civic engagement and active citizenship gave grounding to PRIA’s approach to engaging these youth in democratic practices. By questioning how fellows understood self, identity, and democracy before joining the fellowship, the research explored how the content of two program modules impacted the fellows’ emerging understandings. The research argues that encouraging an engagement with and reflection on ideas of self and identity among participating fellows increases their compassion and openness to other people’s opinions and beliefs. In turn, as demonstrated through their social action projects, the fellows were observed to be more eager to fight for equality and democracy. Specific examples of social action projects on the subjects of gender equality and male sexual abuse, illustrated how concepts from the self and identity module directly informed some fellows’ involvements in the wider community. Drawing on the ideas of active participation in democracy based on strengthened understanding of self and identity, PRIA utilizes youth civic engagement as a way to prepare young people for a future of integrating democratic practices into community life and deepening democratic understandings of life in Indian society.


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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    PRIA Youth Team. (2020, October 26). An exploration of ‘youth’ and their understandings of ‘democracy’ in a youth program. Social Publishers Foundation.

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