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

Latest from Youth & Policy


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.



The State of Education: Youth Work breakout group, October 29


“If education should really mean anything at all, it must insist upon the free growth and development of the innate forces and tendencies of the child. In this way alone can we hope for the free individual and eventually also for a free community which shall make interference and coercion of human growth impossible.”
Emma Goldman, 1906

Message from Tania de St Croix

The ‘State of Education’ collective are inviting all educators, students, youth workers and anyone else interested to a workshop in London on 29th October 2pm-4pm: ‘The state of education in Britain today – how should we respond in light of current neo-liberal reforms and racist policies (such as Prevent)?’ as part of the Anarchist Bookfair.

Everyone involved in, or interested in, any form of education is welcome to come along and it will be a great opportunity for those of us involved in youth work to discuss the important challenges we share with other educators, students, etc, and think about what we can do collectively. There will be some discussion in one group, followed by breakout groups – I am facilitating a group for youth, play and community workers (kind of loosely with my IDYW hat on), so I hope some folk are able to come along!  Feel free to share the information with any other relevant groups or networks you can think of. Thanks!

More information at State of Education. The venue is Park View School
West Green Road, London, N15 3QR

The use of story-telling to look at responses to sexual abuse in Argentina


We’ve been taken aback by the global interest in our advocacy of story-telling as a  subjective, qualitative and comparable attempt to illustrate the distinctiveness of informal youth work. Indeed partial translations of our web resource, Story-Telling in Youth Work  have appeared in Russian, Kazakh and Finnish with a Japanese version in the offing.

And now Colin Brent has posted a fascinating translation of a piece by Alejandro Capriati, Researcher at CONICET/University of Buenos Aires entitled, ‘The use of story-telling to look at responses to sexual abuse in Argentina.’

Alejandro begins:

Story-telling in Youth Work is a process used by workers, tutors and students that work with young people. In England many of them are government-employed youth workers specially trained for working with young people that are not part of formal education or health services and work in open-access spaces for young people. These have few restrictions on young people’s engagement and are spaces where young people can hang out, take part in a great range of activities (radio, music, art, courses, cooking, etc.), or just do nothing. Each youth centre works in its own way, but is based on the principal of voluntary engagement, and has a focus on relationships, the building of trust between young people and workers, and personal development. From that starting point, some young people may reengage with formal education, report abuse, get support with substance misuse, etc.

There are similarities and differences in the work with young people in English youth centres and in certain projects in Argentina carried out by charities or as part of some social programmes. Looking at these comparisons has been the focus point of a collaboration with Colin Brent, a manager of a youth centre in London, with the aim of adapting our practice and sharing experiences. As part of this exchange of ideas I have taken up using the story-telling technique.

This technique can be used face-to-face in work with young people; as a resource for organisation change through staff training, supervision and monitoring; to communicate the value of youth work; and to evaluate projects. The general aim is for youth workers and their colleagues to have a clear idea of what is distinct in their practise and how this is important for the young people, using critical reflexion about methods of intervention to identify successes, challenges and inconclusive processes.

The objective is for participants to be able to critically reflect on the uniqueness of youth work through describing and analysing an example of practice, exploring the meaning of it for themselves and for the young people. Of course, the idea is to adapt the technique to each situation and context, and below I share our experience.

Continue here

The web resource also includes the Spanish original at El uso del relato de caso (story-telling) para pensar las respuestas a casos de abuso sexual en Argentina

YOUTH MATTERS : Moving from the Margins – Call for papers

youth matters

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Call for papers: Youth Matters: Moving from the Margins


June 8-9 Newcastle University

Deadline for abstracts: 4th April 2016

Keynote Speakers:

Rob MacDonald (Teeside University)

Bryony Hoskins (University of Roehampton)


To officially launch Newcastle University’s Youth Research Network we are excited to announce our first conference – Youth Matters: Moving from the Margins hosted alongside the Political Studies Association’s Young People’s Politics Specialist Group and Newcastle University’s School of Geography, Politics and Sociology.


The conference will facilitate an interdisciplinary conversation on youth by bringing together scholars from multiple fields researching young people’s lives and experiences of the social world. We will also explore the methodological, theoretical and epistemological challenges, strategies and innovations in contemporary youth research. To achieve this we will be hosting a hands on pre-conference methods workshop day.


We call for papers that speak to an interdisciplinary audience and will invite discussants to comment on each paper and explore the interdisciplinary links. By establishing links between various fields of youth research, we aim to highlight issues which are often side-lined in both academic and public debates, and move youth research in from the margins.


We invite scholars to send a 250 word abstract for consideration. Please share this call widely in your networks, PGR applications encouraged.

Abstracts are submitted through this form by **4th April 2016**

Successful applicants will be notified by April 15th.


We encourage, but are not limited to, contributions which engage with the following issues:

1). Economies of Youth

Young people as economic actors; Transitions and establishment in the labour market(s); Entrepreneurship, Education and training; Austerity policies and impact; Night-time economies.

2). Youth Voices & Agency

Engagement and political participation and agency; Youth citizenship and rights; Political education; spaces, Places and strategies for youth engagement and influence; Innovations in youth engagement.


3). Youth Identities, Embodiment & Everyday life

Contemporary experiences of youth; Embodiment and disability; Peer ethics and morality; Imagined futures and adulthoods; Everyday spaces of belonging; Intersectionality; Migrant youth identities.


4). Youth Spaces, Mobilities and Cultures

Young people’s mobility in and across contemporary society; Digital and new spaces; Contemporary youth cultures and subcultures; Identity across borders; Informal spaces and encounters.


Registration information:

Submit abstracts here , deadline for abstracts by **4th April 2016**

Successful abstract applicants will be informed by 15th April 2016

Conference is free, but spaces are strictly limited so please register ASAP to guarantee a place. We have fewer spaces for the methods workshop. Due to the limited spaces we will confirm your place by April 15th.
For more details and updates see our website.

Young People at the heart of a message of collective hope, of people power.

Yesterday Greece astonished Europe. Like Paul Mason in this video I was gobsmacked at the Greek people’s courageous response to an orchestrated wave of intimidating propaganda.

At the heart of the pluralist alliance of ΟΧΙ voters were young people. Up to 70% of the young people voting said NO to the demands of the Troika of the IMF, EU and ECB. At the very least this crucial involvement challenges the taken-for-granted stereotype of a generation disinterested in politics. It mirrors the animated participation of young people in the Scottish referendum.  It reflects a growing anger at the precarious and exploited future offered to them.

As far as youth work goes it challenges us to reflect upon an increasingly conformist practice, which seeks to fit young people into the status quo. It challenges us to reclaim a practice committed to radical social change. It revitalises a commitment to the creation of critically conscious citizens rather than to the manufacturing of emotionally resilient consumers. It’s time to learn from young people that neo-liberalism and social justice are incompatible. It’s time to put politics back into our work.

Racist and anti-immigration views held by children revealed in schools study | Education | The Guardian

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Racist and anti-immigration views held by children revealed in schools study | Education | The Guardian.

Survey of 6,000 schoolchildren finds many have a wildly distorted view of the number of immigrants in Britain, negative attitudes about Muslims, and pessimism about their own future opportunities

This report also prompted the following response.

Your article (Children have negative views of immigration, survey shows, 20 May) is troubling in its own right, but what is more disturbing is the division made between “young people” on the one hand and “minorities/migrants” on the other. The article reports that young people have been hit particularly hard in the downturn and that it’s easy for their economic concerns to be manifested as hostility towards immigrant communities. This misses the point that the young people who have been the hardest hit by the downturn are black and minority ethnic young people (Report, 11 March). Your March article suggests there was a 50% rise in long-term unemployment for young ethnic minority people in the UK, compared with a 2% decline in unemployment for young white people. Indeed, the implicit distinction between British young people and immigrant communities is precisely what needs to be combatted if we are truly to address issues of dispossession and crisis facing many young people in Britain today.
Gurminder K Bhambra Professor of sociology, University of Warwick
John Holmwood Professor of sociology, University of Nottingham

Thanks to Patrick Ainley for the links.

Poverty Ends Now – campaign created and led by young people

Poverty ends


Poverty Ends Now are a team of 38 young people from some of the most deprived parts of England who have written and developed the manifesto and action plan – speaking in their own words about the issues affecting young people in their communities.   

The full manifesto has six key points and the young people have been working locally and nationally to tackle the issues:

  • Every family in Britain should meet a minimum standard of living, not just surviving
  • An equal school experience for all
  • Affordable, decent homes for everyone
  • Every young person should have access to three affordable, healthy meals a day
  • For all to feel and be safe within their communities and at home
  • Make sure all young people can access affordable transport

The young people will share their action taken and discuss with MPs and decision makers how we can all work together to tackle Child Poverty in England.


The young people launched their campaign yesterday at the Houses of Parliament – sorry we missed the notification. For more information and news of forthcoming events go to POVERTY ENDS NOW.

For example they inform us:

We have written a short, provocative play – Brass Razoo – about what happens to families when their incomes are inadequate. We are showcasing this in Liverpool during Living Wage Week, November 6th. We’ve also invited decision makers and the community to take part in a community debate after the play. We’re hoping to take the play on tour and will make the script available so that other youth groups can share the story.

Come along! For details and to RSVP, go to


We’re gathering stories and ideas about how to make schools a more equal experience, and sharing this with politicians, governors, head teachers and teachers in Newcastle on November 28th.

 For details and to come along, email:

Thanks to Sara Bryson and Rys Farthing for the link.