Dr Benjamin Bowman

Researching Youth

Dr Benjamin Bowman is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University, and a member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies. In this post, Benjamin talks about the series “Researching Youth”, an interdisciplinary methods project for scholars who are working with young people. The project was a partnership between the PSA, the BSA and BERA.

This year, the exciting seminar series Researching Youth brought together participants and approaches from the British Educational Research Association (BERA), the British Sociological Association (BSA) and the Political Studies Association (PSA). The pandemic has seen an explosion of online seminars and workshops of all kinds, but Researching Youth was a rare opportunity for academics from three professional bodies to join, across disciplines, and explore the latest methodological approaches to working with young people.

Young people are a key demographic group across political studies, and methods with young people in our discipline are charged with additional challenges that include the power imbalance that is inherent to research with young people and children, the tendency among young people to perceive politics in different ways to adults – let alone to respond to the questions of adult researchers about politics – and a growing momentum behind creative, participatory and interdisciplinary research methods that aim for youth-led, youth-centred approaches.

Many researchers are trying to study young people’s politics by exploring and developing methods that are not only appropriate to young people, but which are centred on young people and often co-produced with young people.


Do-It-Ourselves methods

As Sarah Pickard writes, young people tend towards a ‘Do-It-Ourselves’ style of politics (2019) preferring opportunities to get things done with a clear aim and clear and effective outcome, over more orderly and traditional participation in political institutions. From a politics standpoint the Researching Youth series was intriguing for the strong inclination of researchers towards methods that challenged power inequalities between older adults – especially the researcher – and young people. These included seminars on co-production and co-authorship where young people are trained and supported to conduct and write up research themselves.

The interdisciplinary connections in the seminars brought together methods that included digital ethnographies, creative pedagogy, participatory mapping and many other approaches that enabled young people to get involved and directly participate in the work of research. They also included research approaches that were designed to be meaningful as well as enjoyable, as in Thalia Thereza Assan’s research on friendship and political participation in the lives of Black girls and girls of colour in Scotland, and open questioning leading to deliberative discussions in the work of Alastair Ross.

Vitally, researchers explained approaches to ‘doing it ourselves’ online during the COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent control regimes and a more general turn to online work. These ranged from co-collaboration, filmmaking and zinemaking with young fathers by Laura Way, to online focus groups on Votes at 16 in Wales with Katherine A. Smith.


Early career research

One session of the series brought together academics from across career stages, including PGRs and ECRs, to talk about the opportunities and challenges of research with young people for early career colleagues. The session included a roundtable discussion on research career transitions, and reflections from PGRs and ECRs on their research and professional practice.

Many ECRs have found an active welcome and support with networking, conference attendance and many other things through the PSA. In youth studies, for instance, ECRs have been supported by the Young People’s Politics Specialist Group to attend the PSA Annual Conference, to present their work and chair sessions, and through special events like the YPPSG’s annual “Papers to Publications” programme, which has supported PSA ECR colleagues to publish with peer support, feedback and review: for instance, one of last year’s Papers to Publications participants, Janina Suppers of the University of York, has recently published her work on young people’s citizenship activities at and beyond school in the Journal of Youth Studies. Like the sessions that colleagues try to nurture in the PSA, Researching Youth offered early career and more established colleagues space to learn from each other and develop new approaches.


Lasting networks

The Researching Youth series leaves behind its influence on participants, of course. There is also the online repository of recordings, where you can catch up and watch videos from sessions. These might be good for academics who wish to catch up on new research methods, but also for teaching methods to postgraduate or undergraduate students.

The series also, hopefully, establishes a precedent for sharing, collaboration and (at the very least!) online workshops between our three professional membership bodies: the Political Studies Association, the British Sociological Association and the British Educational Research Association. Research is often interdisciplinary, and even those of us with clear disciplinary boundaries on our own work can learn a lot from the methods used by others outside our discipline. The organizers hope that Researching Youth will represent a lasting opportunity for colleagues across the three Associations to work together in future.