Researching Youth: An eight-part online interdisciplinary seminar series, May to July 2022
Dr Karenza Moore, Newcastle University. BSA Youth Study Group Co-Convenor
Collectively exploring youth research challenges
The study of ‘youth’ as contested social category, lifestage, and lens through which to understand power relations and social change, has a long tradition in Sociology. Young people are understood as a bounded yet heterogeneous group facing challenges which may differ to those of older people, for example the criminalisation and stigmatisation of their leisure spaces/times. Alongside a vast and nuanced sociological and interdisciplinary youth transitions literature, there is also a tradition of studying youth cultures and related objects, and crucially a melding of the two concerns. Of particular interest is how young people individually and collectively negotiate, manage and respond to ‘intersecting crises of youth’ (Moore et al 2021) within divergent and constrained contexts not of their making or choosing, through for example collectivised action in highly-individualised late neoliberal capitalist labour markets (Schiermer et al 2022).
Sociologists are in dialogue about the twin concerns of youth transitions and cultures with scholars situated in a range of cognate disciplines including Criminology, Politics, and Educational Research. This was apparent in professional association member online meet-ups organised by study group co-convenors during the Covid-19 pandemic. We heard how youth researchers and practitioners were ‘pivoting’ their activities to include (isolated) young people, whilst remaining within the spirit and letter of Covid-19 lockdowns and ethical research practice. This led some scholars to dive into temporary ‘portals of ethnography’ which opened as life migrated to the virtual world (Walsh et al 2022). As we tentatively stepped into 2022 after the Omicron variant brought further uncertainty, we were keen to formalise this fruitful dialogue in an equally supportive space, and so the eight-part online seminar series Researching Youth was born.
Researching Youth took place in Summer 2022 and was organised by co-convenors of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) special interest group on Youth Studies and Informal Education, in collaboration with the British Sociological Association (BSA)’s Youth Study Group and the Political Studies Association (PSA)’s Young People’s Politics Specialist Group. Whilst we cannot claim there is any single disciplinary perspective on youth from sociologists, the discipline does lend a specifically critical edge to fundamental concepts within youth research, not least ‘youth’ itself, as outlined above. So, what did we learn alongside our youth research colleagues in BERA and PSA? Outlined below are three key messages that capture the essence of the series (at least for us!) and the fascinating discussions the eight online events enabled.
Talking and listening to young people
Expertly chaired by BERA Special Interest Group convenor, Dr Frances Howard, University of Nottingham, who was central to establishing and organising Researching Youth, the first seminar delivered a simple message: we must actively listen to young people and eschew simply talking to them, or worse, at them. This holds true, even when discussing ‘sensitive’ and/or highly-politicised topics such as illicit drug use. How might this be achieved? Professor Alistair Ross, London Metropolitan University, helped us in this regard with his exploration of the process of setting up and running youth ‘deliberative discussion groups’ for his European-wide project on youth identities. We heard how deliberative discussion groups foreground young people’s language and concerns, and act as a welcome antidote to traditional researcher-led focus groups (Ross 2019). So, from this first session and indeed throughout the series, we learnt that sociologists of youth must meaningfully seek to incorporate young voices into every aspect of social research and practice, and ensure we are researching with youth, not about them.
Participatory methods and placemaking
There have been a sustained challenges to ‘traditional’ youth research methods in which data collection and knowledge production is undertaken solely by ‘the researcher’ as distinct from ‘the participants’. In keeping with this, several contributors to Researching Youth spoke of research methods involving young people’s direct participation in the entire research process. This includes driving its agenda, direction, and ultimately (at least some) of its outcomes (Batsleer and Duggan 2021). In our fourth seminar on ‘placemaking’, Dr Rachel Benchekroun, University College London, and youth practitioner Pippa Curtin, North-East Lincolnshire Youth Action, shared reflections on co-production from research with young people growing up in English coastal towns (Benchekroun et al 2022). The young people involved found value in being trained to undertake interviewing with peers and older community members to capture intergenerational perspectives, resulting as it did in a shift from passive participant to active young researcher with a stake in local policy-making. Also discussed were the barriers to research project participation faced by local young people. This served as a reminder to carefully reflect on who is included/excluded by any turn to participatory methods. Dr Hannah King, Durham University, and Dr Eveleigh Buck-Matthews, Birmingham City University presented on youth placemaking and belonging in music event research. Their talk on music festival ‘fieldwork’ - literally spending time “undertaking meaningful and ethical research” with young music fans in muddy fields – alerted us to shifting positionalities of ethnographers, shaped by their participation in and observation of transgressive spaces of youth leisure, however brief that may be.
Creative and Digital Methods: Recognising youth heterogeneity
The Covid-19 pandemic forced a dizzyingly rapid re-evaluation of what was ‘tried and tested’, as for example youth ethnographers moved online; about which Dr Harry Dyer, University of East Anglia, spoke so compelling in our Researching Youth session titled Ethnography – Embodiment in the digital world. ‘Youth’ is sometimes understood as an inventive moment in the lifecourse, involving creative risk-taking during a time of imaginative expression enabled by digital technologies and online interactions. Given this, the use of both creative and digital methods within youth research was something we wanted to explore in-depth in Researching Youth, hence three seminars’ focus on methodological innovations in this space. Our contributors reminded us that not all young people are or perceive themselves to be “fonts of creativity”; just as not all are “digital natives” who are “good with technology” (Dyer 2020). In addition to practical advice on undertaking creative research with young people, the implications for social research of the stereotypes we may hold about young people as risk-takers, creatives, or technophiles, were explored across the series, notably in Creative Methods I & II, and Ethnography – Embodiment in the digital world.
Recordings of the eight Researching Youth seminar series recordings are available here.
We have published four blog posts including this one by BERA, PSA and BSA colleagues to capture the issues raised by Researching Youth from the disciplines involved. The other three blogs can be found via the links below (all open in new window):
Batsleer, J. and Duggan, J. (2021). Young and Lonely: The Social Conditions of Loneliness. Bristol: Polity Press.
Benchekroun, R., Keating, A., Cameron, C. and Curtin, P. (2022) Growing Up in Coastal Towns: Intergenerational Perspectives from NE Lincolnshire, London: Institute of London, UCL, available here.
Cuzzocrea V., Gook, B., & Schiermer, B. (2021). Forms of Collective Engagement in Youth Transitions: A Global Perspective. London: Brill.
Dyer, H. (2020). Designing the Social: Unpacking Social Media Design and Identity. Singapore: Springer.
Howard, F. (2022). Global Perspectives on Youth Arts Programs: How and Why the Arts Can Make a Difference. Policy Press.
Moore, K., Hanckel, B., Nunn, C., & Atherton, S. (2021). Making sense of intersecting crises: Promises, challenges, and possibilities of intersectional perspectives in youth research. Journal of Applied Youth Studies, 4(5), 423-428.
Ross, A. (2019). Finding Political Identities: Young People in a Changing Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Walsh, J., Khan, A., and Ferazzoli, M. T. (2022), Portholes of Ethnography: The Methodological Learning from ‘Being There’ at a Distance. Sociology, https://doi.org/10.1177/00380385221122458