Room for growing up: youth and the significance of the informal world in an urban environment

Meesters, Joos (1); Jansen, Erik (1); van Ewijk, Hans (2) (2018). 'Room for growing up: youth and the significance of the informal world in an urban environment' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


HDCA 2018 Conference: Human Development and Social Inclusion in an Urbanizing World


Room for growing up: youth and the significance of the informal world in an urban environment


Joos Meesters (1), Erik Jansen (2), Hans van Ewijk (3)

Submitted by: Dr. Joos Meesters (HAN University of Applied Sciences, NL).

Presenting Author: Meesters, Joos

Topics: Social inclusion Youth, Citizenship, Civil Society, Agency of Youth, Participatory Methods

Main Keyword: Youth





In this paper, we apply the capability approach as an interpretation framework for a dissertation study on collective and shared responsibility in raising children. The starting point is that young people develop agency through learning with and from others in their immediate environment, thereby developing their capability to aspire as well as their aspirations (see Hart, 2012). In the study, the informal world of teenagers and young people in the Netherlands was investigated (see Meesters, 2018). The informal world is defined as the unorganized spare time which youth spend at home, on the street, and in the virtual space in which they are active online. In the informal world, we make a distinction between the private space, the public space and the virtual space. All three spaces influence the development of young people’s autonomy, their social behavior and their participation in the public domain. From the perspective of a young person who grows up in a hybrid environment and does not know any better, these spaces blend. Studies providing insight in the perspective of young people themselves are rare and have led to the research question for this study: What meaning do young people attach to the informal world and what does this imply for their growing up?



To get insight in the way young people experience their capability space, participatory and narrative research methods, such as focus-groups, art-based procedures and collaborative procedures, were applied ensuring that young people’s perspectives were leading throughout the study. In total, 178 children and teenagers between 10 and 21 years of age were involved. The research consisted of three phases, in each of which several research methods were combined. In the preparation-phase, we explored how to co-design the research with young people themselves. The core-phase was formed by a narrative analysis (see Jansen, Pijpers, & De Kam, 2017; Biene et al., 2008) of individual interviews with 48 young people. The interpretation-phase consisted of five focus-groups with young people as well as three creative workshops to interpret the findings from the narratives. Thus, our method-mix allowed us to work towards a nuanced picture of young people’s perspectives.



The collective narrative of the informal world of young people as reconstructed from the individual interviews provided insight into who and what they considered meaningful. The participants interpreted and articulated three narrative patterns as overarching themes: ‘The virtual space is essential’, ’Provide us some space’ and ‘Place trust in us’. At large, our findings show that young people would like to be recognized as fully-accepted agents in society, similarly to adults, as well as acknowledged for what they have to contribute. However, in daily life they rather struggle with feeling treated as ‘different’ and excluded from that society.




Based on the results it was concluded that young people desire to have their own spaces within the public space as well as at home, while in fact these spaces are shrinking and becoming scarcer in times of increasing urbanization. This is problematic, as in their view, young people’s unorganized gathering is considered socially undesirable by adults who thereby effectively deny young people’s beings and doings on their own terms, thereby implicitly restricting young people’s subjective capability space. This brings up the central question: How inclusive is the public space for young people?


Furthermore, in the narratives trust appears a key concept, as it expresses the meaningfulness young people assign to different types of relationships with others. Our findings reveal that in the private space young people know what contributions they want to and are able to deliver (such as e.g. technological support). Also, their continuous on-line availability can be considered a form of constant care and engagement towards each other. In the public space, however, young people feel limited recognition by adults for this reciprocity.


Concerning the main research question on the collective and shared responsibility in raising children, all three narrative patterns point towards social resources of young people while growing up. These resources can be considered essential for the development of young people’s capability to aspire and their aspirations, and thus for the development of their agency as members of civil society. The findings on young people’s sense-making of their informal world are positioned within the discourse of active citizenship and civil society.


Methodologically, we also conclude that participatory research with young people leads to an active learning process for all involved, including the researchers. The research has provided the young people with the opportunity to voice their world views, and thereby with increased influence to do justice to the way they (want to) live and give meaning to their lives. Thus, we believe our study increases understanding of the perceived capability space of young people while they grow up in an urban environment.



scroll to top