The formal vs informal clash: the challenges of ethnographic research with young people in a youth drop-in context

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ethnography

Reflecting on experiences in a current ethnographic research project, Phoebe Hill discusses the particular challenges around consent and ethics when undertaking research in informal youth settings.

The formal vs informal clash: the challenges of ethnographic research with young people in a youth drop-in context

Just an extract from this excellent, self-critical piece,

One final challenge of carrying out ethnographic research in a youth drop-in environment is around your role as researcher. Although young people may know that you are a researcher, they may relate to you as they do to all other adults in the drop-in space: as a youth worker. This creates ‘ethical speedbumps’(Weis and Fine 2000) which catch you off guard in the field, and throw you into quandaries about how and who to be in moments that you aren’t expecting.

Take the following example. I was sat with Charlotte in the quiet room at the drop-in. We were talking about life, and she mentioned that she was being bullied at school. I asked her what was going on, and she shared that she was receiving constant messages on her phone throughout the day and night from the people bullying her. She concluded by saying, ‘No one loves me. No one wants me here. I wish I wasn’t here.’ Without thinking about it or being able to ponder the ethics and intricacies of what I ‘should do’ in this moment, my researcher ‘hat’ was tossed aside and the youth worker and human part of me leapt to the foreground, blurting out: ‘I love you! I want you here!’. Charlotte smiled and said thanks, and the conversation moved on. I’ve reflected on this moment many times since. What should I have done? Not offered any sort of personal opinion or in any way ‘disrupted’ the environment? Charlotte was clearly inviting more from me in that moment than to be a researcher. She was crying out for help. She was asking me to be a youth leader, a human being. I don’t know if I made the right call. This is another of the challenges of being ‘in deep’ in the field with young people, because in actual fact they don’t care who you are – researcher, youth leader. In those moments, they simply want somebody, anybody, willing to listen.

 

 

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