In Defence of Youth Work Research : Will Mason makes the case

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At the beginning of February the YMCA George Williams College hosted a conference, yresearch, on the role of research in supporting youth and community work.

One of the contributors was Will Mason from the University of Sheffield and we are pleased to post this summary of his eloquent argument in favour of qualitative research and a much closer relationship between researchers and practitioners.


In 2011 a cross-party Select Committee on Services for Young People cited the dearth of ‘objective evidence’ for the impact of services as a ‘historic and continuing problem’ in the youth sector (House of Commons, 2011: 18). Indeed, the quest for measurable impacts seems to colour much of the discussion around youth work research – an agenda driven by the austerity programme to rationalise, if not actually write out, the state’s role in funding youth services (Davies, 2013).

This preoccupation with quantifying the impact of youth work continues despite a broad consensus amongst practitioners and researchers that the value of youth work cannot be meaningfully captured with quantitative data.

Youth work, in its various guises, is a qualitative enterprise.

Yet, the credibility awarded to large scale quantitative data, at the level of policy, and the dismissal of qualitative data as ‘anecdotal’ challenges the value of research with the capacity to evidence critiques of the contemporary youth policy landscape. There are, for example, numerous distinctions between youth work in principle – as espoused by youth policy – and youth work in practice.

The concern is that this context could demotivate those interested in researching youth and community work through a qualitative lens. This is particularly important when rigorous qualitative research is so well positioned to contribute to the development of youth work practice in a time of crisis.

In social research it is something of a conventional wisdom that the appropriate ‘tool’ or method, in any project, is the one that best enables the collection of data that addresses the research question/s. Consequently, the dismissal of qualitative data at the level of policy is not necessarily a reflection on the value of qualitative approaches, but evidence of the prioritisation of a different set of questions – questions which are grounded in an ideology that is unsympathetic to the principles of youth work. Whilst, if youth work is to secure a statutory base, these questions cannot be ignored, research in youth work should address the concerns of young people and the youth workers engaging with them.

Jeffs (2015) has argued that if secular youth work is to secure itself any kind of future then it needs to:

  1. look to develop its work in a way that better marries philosophical reflection with political and social action;
  2. look to new ways of meeting the wider educational needs of young people, which the increasingly narrowing curriculum is failing to deliver; and,
  3. foster closer intergeneration relationships between adults and young people.

These goals are well considered, but the innovation that is necessary to achieve them needs to be coordinated with research findings evidencing what works. Providing it is rigorous, youth work research that captures the lived experiences of youth workers and young people can deliver this.

In addition Hughes and colleagues (2014) have argued that developing more meaningful links between academic researchers (some of whom are involved in youth work) and practitioners is an important step in the defence of youth work. Academics and practitioners have a lot to learn from each other in terms of how to communicate research findings coherently to practitioners and policy makers – something that much social research is not very good at.

As it stands the preoccupation with ‘objectively evidencing’ practice is devaluing the kind of research that has the capacity to:

  • Capture the lived experiences of youth workers and young people;
  • Address the concerns of youth workers and young people;
  • Drive innovations in practice; and,
  • Critique the contemporary youth policy and funding landscape.

Developing a stronger research community in youth work has the potential to significantly contribute to the defence of youth work in a time of crisis. Consolidating the product of this research enterprise could also evidence the value of practice, starting from the questions that are important to youth workers and young people.


Davies (2013) ‘Youth work in a changing policy landscape: the view from England’ Youth & Policy 110: 6-32

House of Commons (2011) Education Select Committee Report: Services for young people London: House of Commons

Hughes, G., Cooper, C., Gormally, S. & Rippingale, J. (2014) ‘The state of youth work in austerity England – reclaiming the ability to ‘care’’ Youth & Policy 113: 1-14

Jeffs, T. (2015) What sort of future? Innovation in Youth Work: Thinking in Practice London: YMCA George Williams College

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