new research on youth and nonviolence

While the student anti-gun student movement attracts national attention, two new publications have arrived in my inbox that address youth engagement in nonviolent social movements. Both depict youth as peacemakers rather than victims or perpetrators of violence, but both require significant caveats.

Taylor et al. provide a useful literature review with mixed findings. In some studies, exposure to political violence and abuse during childhood predicts more empathy and more civic engagement–even in some of the worst situations in the world. That suggests that youth can be peacemakers rather than victims of violence. In other studies, the relationships are negative.

Using a longitudinal dataset from Northern Ireland, the authors find (if I understand their complex statistics correctly) that kids who have seen more sectarian violence and discrimination by age 10 are more empathetic and more engaged in their communities, but that prolonged exposure to such violence reduces engagement. Empathy and engagement are positively correlated, but engagement falls for everyone during the teen years.

Dahlum finds that “Campaigns with a high degree of involvement by students and educated protesters are more likely to be nonviolent” and “Campaigns with a high degree of involvement by students and educated protesters are more likely to succeed”–but the latter is only true because students and educated protesters are more likely to opt for nonviolent strategies, which are more successful than violence. (See Why Civil Resistance Works.)

A casual look at Dahlum’s article, which is entitled “Students in the Streets,” might suggest that this is a study of youth. She is actually focused on people of all ages who have a lot of education. That is basically a proxy for social advantage. For example, she mentions a movement in Bangladesh that was led by “students, doctors, lawyers, [and] intellectuals,” among others. That is not a description of an age group but of a social class.

Dahlum combines students with graduates (of any age). If we view them separately, students have these characteristics:

  1. They tilt toward the young. Even in very poor countries, many (and often most) 7-year-olds are students. But nowhere are most 75-year-olds in school. Not only are students experiencing childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood as developmental stages, but they represent the newest generation in any society. (See this post on age versus generational effects.)
  2. They tilt toward the upper socio-economic tiers, because education is an expense and a path to income and power. This tilt varies by country and by age. Seven-year-olds in Sweden are students regardless of their social class. But at age 20, only the elite in many countries are still in school.
  3. Being a student is an occupation, a way of life. It may facilitate social activism because schools and colleges concentrate large groups of peers in places where they can be mobilized (or mobilize themselves); because they often are better protected against retaliation than many workers are; and because institutions devoted to learning are good places to spread news and ideas. (See also: why do students sometimes lead social change?)

Therefore, students often play disproportionately important roles in social movements. But that is only partly a matter of age and generation. Social class and occupation are also relevant.

Sources: Dahlum, S. 2018. Students in the Streets: Education and Nonviolent Protest, Comparative Political Studies, April 2, 2018 (online); Taylor, L., Merrilees, C. E., Baird, R., Goeke-Morey, M. C., Shirlow, P., & Cummings, M. (2018). Impact of Political Conflict on Trajectories of Adolescent Prosocial Behavior: Implications for Civic Engagement. Developmental Psychology (online).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.