Exploring Transformative Participation Constraints in Practices of Co-production with Social Workers and Young People in Hong Kong


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date3 Sep 2020


Ideas of 'participation' intend to be 'transformative' which contribute to greater democratisation, citizenship, and equal power relations within societies. Although, when applied to young people, it often speaks about individual rights, ignoring broader governance structures and sociocultural influences that participation encompasses. 'Youth participation' is a multi-dimensional concept praised as a democratic solution for young people, which recognises young people's different strengths and capabilities. Despite this, unequal power relations between adults and young people remain potent and the way young people receiving welfare services are constructed, often endures 'youth participation' being shadowed by behaviour regulation.

Hence, the term 'co-production' appeals to young people's role in welfare service provision. 'Co-production' claims to address unequal power relations between young people and adults. Most notably, because it seeks to transform the value of young people, the role of professionals and create equal partnerships for more effective service provision. However, it is questioned whether 'co-production' is a more useful concept to understand how 'youth participation' can be 'transformative'. 'Co-production' often takes for granted that attitudes and beliefs of professionals' need to change, as well as the broader institutional and social context for young people's participation. Therefore, this thesis focuses on exploring the role of youth service professionals in 'co-production', underpinned by theories of how structures can constrain practices, but equally how professionals can reproduce structures which become a form of domination over young people.

Applying this to Hong Kong, 'youth participation' has recently implied how young people can be more involved in public policymaking, at a time in history when young people are demanding more democracy. Though, initiatives by the Government have left the desire to know how more comprehensive practices of 'youth participation' are pursued across Hong Kong youth services. Social workers are a specific group of professionals providing welfare services for young people and acting as a 'bridge' between authorities. However, previous studies discovered their control function alongside confusing understandings of participation, and negative attitudes towards young people. While considerable research has been conducted on 'youth' and 'social workers' in Hong Kong, research using concepts of 'youth participation' and 'co-production' is lacking in this particular field, especially with critical contributions of transformative constraints. To explore these concepts in more detail, the empirical strands of this thesis uses an ethnographic approach, and reports from services delivered by a youth NGO in Hong Kong. The qualitative exploration includes 15 months immersed in specific welfare programmes for young people, as well as 24 interviews with social workers, to analyse practices and perspectives of social workers working with young people. The analytical methods adopted principles of constructivist grounded theory, using an iterative approach to unearth new findings and construct new theoretical insights of youth participation in Hong Kong.

Throughout the investigation, findings highlight 'transformative participation' through 'co-production' can be unknowingly constrained by social worker's practices, attitudes and beliefs towards young people. At the same time, social workers' understanding of 'youth participation' is highlighted to be inadequate and questions the appropriate use of this term in the culture of social work. Even when social workers are aligned with aspects of 'transformative participation', this bridges with broader cultures, power relations and social structures which all serve as domination over young people. The empirical discoveries in particular, are compared with existing literature to show both opportunities and constraints of using the term 'co-production' with young people who are subject to behaviour regulation. This thesis makes a contribution by examining the complex co-existence of social workers' regulation and facilitation role within 'co-production' practices. It proposes that social workers promote democratic ideas but also dominate young people's lives through 'participation' in welfare services.