An investigation into the purpose, processes and theory underpinning youth work practice

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


With a widening policy framework, a broad range of funding streams and diversity of practice, youth work is a disparate profession with an ill-defined and evolving purpose. This is not only evident from the literature but also from the array of activities and practices presenting themselves as youth work. While there are definitions relating to purpose, more substantive texts exist to describe the processes and defining characteristics of youth work with greater depth. Examining these purposeful and intentional processes elucidates deeper insights in defining the purpose of youth work. Upon a review and examination of the literature, four specific processes predominated, namely, relationship building, conversation and dialogue, participation and experiential learning. The exploration of these four processes, the underpinning theory and their relationship with the purpose of youth work form the basis of this inquiry. The study examines how youth workers perceive these processes, and their relation to its primary purpose. The research follows a qualitative interpretivist approach to explore core characteristics of youth work involving two phases, focus groups and semi-structured interviews with qualified youth workers from Northern Ireland. These research methods assist in understanding the epistemological perspectives of youth workers as it relates to key processes and the purpose of youth work. Thirty-two youth work practitioners participated in the study. Whilst numerous findings are presented to add to the body of knowledge there are four significant messages from the study. These pertain to youth work’s clarity of purpose and identity, the questioning of normative youth work concepts and ideas and the weakness of theoretical linkages to practice. Fourthly, the place of theory as it relates to the study is explored. This offers Jürgen Habermas’ perspective of learning as a potential unifying theory and the presentation of a new model for understanding the interrelationship between the youth work processes.
Date of AwardJun 2018
Original languageEnglish
SponsorsUlster Univeristy
SupervisorJudith Mullineux (Supervisor), Alan Mc Cully (Supervisor), Linda Clarke (Supervisor) & Anthony Morgan (Supervisor)


  • Relationship building
  • Conversation
  • Participation
  • Experiential learning
  • Informal education
  • Non-formal education
  • Jürgen Habermas

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