Exploring youth citizenship at the intersection of education, geography, and sociology

Faculty of Education senior lecturer Dr Bronwyn Wood is determined to counter the idea that young people are apathetic.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu and Dr Bronwyn Wood
Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu and Dr Bronwyn Wood
Her research on how young people engage in social issues as active citizens has earned her the 2019 Royal Society Te Apārangi Early Career Research Excellence Award for Social Sciences.

“For about two decades, the main discourse around young people has been about apathy. How they’re not engaged, not voting, and not interested in anything. I’ve been trying to counter this since I got my PhD in 2011,” says Dr Wood.

This discourse of apathy has been greatly challenged by the School Strike 4 Climate marches this year. Such public examples of active citizenship by students are likely to have a significant impact on the way those outside of a school environment perceive student engagement. However, it is still possible to discern some differences in how young people engage as citizens. Dr Wood says, “most social action by young people isn’t necessarily within a political party framework, as with previous generations.

“The climate change concern came out of ‘cause’ and ‘identity’ politics, which doesn’t necessarily translate into voting for particular political parties. What I’ve found, is that the 300-plus school-aged young people that I’ve talked to in the past eight years are all interested in social issues. However, the responses they take often fly beneath the radar of what adults see and don’t necessarily match traditional forms of civic engagement. But they are still active!”

Dr Wood is particularly interested in justice-oriented active citizenship. “Societies want everyone to be engaged in decisions of democracies.

“Justice-oriented active citizenship aims to affect the very structures that build inequality in society. These might be inequality of human rights, of representation, of race, gender, and so on. The justice-oriented citizen looks at the deeper structure underpinning something, and the action they take is often not immediate, because there is no quick fix.”

Dr Wood explored an NCEA curriculum initiative around personal social action but found that unless schools were pushed, they tended to do minimal social action with short-term impact. Around 70 percent of schools did fundraising as their social action, which provided a quick buzz but no long-term effect.

“So we set up a more critical model, and encouraged them to go a bit further,” says Dr Wood. “In the second year of the study, the students started lobbying at a national level on things like policy. We noticed a shift from a local focus, to a national and sometimes global focus, when students were given a little more encouragement to look deeper.”

Before she did her PhD, Dr Wood was a high school geography teacher and helped to write the current New Zealand Curriculum, which inspired her to further her education.

“My work is really interdisciplinary. I publish in geography journals, sociology journals, and education journals.

The education issues are so compelling because they are so hard to solve, so those issues drive the questions which I answer using sociology and geography theories and knowledge. I very purposely attend conferences for geographers, sociologists, as well as Education conferences, and cut between the lines because each sheds light on the problem in a different way.”

Dr Wood is currently working on Marsden Award-funded project, ‘Citizenship in Aotearoa New Zealand: Young people, belonging, and changing times’. An element of her current research was asking students at four super-diverse schools, some with up to 50 ethnicities in one school, ‘what does it take to be a real Kiwi?’

“I ask the students questions like this because I’m very interested in the sense of belonging they have in this context. And this is linked to citizenship because we notice if you have an affiliation to a country, you are likely to be more active as a citizen—you have to have something to link you there.

“There were three types of response, starting from considering legal identity—passports, citizenship, permanent residency; then a Kiwiana identity—loving rugby, wearing jandals, that sort of stuff; then they found themselves critiquing all these notions of identity because many didn’t fit the students in their class. Finally, interestingly, many groups (but not all) said ‘well you are a Kiwi if you decide to be. If you feel that you’re a Kiwi, you are a Kiwi’. Any other definition just didn’t hold.”

In a second element of the same research project, Dr Wood has asked the teachers at these schools what has changed as their school communities have become more diverse. “I discovered that they had to change how they teach identity. They had to change to open up ideas of mixedness rather than one identity—these kids are often holding multiple identities, so particularly for social studies teachers, they had to re-examine some of their fixed notions of identity.”

Dr Wood’s research has attracted worldwide interest, resulting in her invites to give three international keynotes in 2019. Her Marsden grant runs through until the middle of 2020, and she plans to continue publishing on the topic of belonging, identity and citizenship.