Youth Engaged in Research: Why Young Investigators Are Important

Source: Canva

By Shereen El Mallah, Reprinted from Youth-NEX

In a recent Q&A I described what participatory research is, how it is important, and why more researchers should be using it. In this second publication of the series, let’s examine why engaging youth in participatory research can change the existing researcher-subject power dynamic as well as amplify the voice of under-researched groups through meaningful involvement in the research process.

Youth Expertise in Research Processes

Typically, adults conduct research on youth and youth serve as the data source. Accordingly, adult researchers are considered the experts and hold ownership over the research process and data use. However, we know youth have unique insight into their own needs and lived experiences.

Engaging youth in the research process can leverage their expertise on how best to support their own learning and development. By incorporating their voice in the design, implementation, analysis, and/or dissemination stages of research, we are likely to increase the accuracy and validity of research findings, as well as enhance research translation.

Additionally, engaging young people in participatory approaches during adolescence is a developmentally responsive practice.

By collaborating with adults throughout the research process and actively participating in group decision-making, adolescents develop the skills, knowledge and dispositions to be active and engaged community members.

This includes cultivating a sense of self-efficacy and belonging, inspiring a sense of purpose, generating psychological empowerment, promoting strategic thinking…all of which helps to bridge the “civic empowerment gap,” and pushes both adult and youth researchers to more accurately consider how the lives of marginalized individuals are often shaped by their culture, their communities, and the social, political and economic systems they live under.

Young Researchers Engaging Other Youth

When adults interview youth it tends to be a unidirectional process in which the interviewer asks questions and the participant responds. In this case, the power imbalance tends to be two-fold: first in the researcher-participant paradigm and again in the power and social imbalance between adults and youth.

Having youth researchers interview youth participants through peer interviews recognizes that interviewing is a more dynamic social process that involves co-construction of knowledge. It helps to minimize or eliminate a number of factors that can influence adult-youth interviews including:

  • power imbalances,
  • insider/outsider status,
  • language and ways of using language,
  • ways of knowing,
  • the socio-cultural environment, and
  • societal and economic status.

In a recently published study, it was very easy to see how the use of peer interviews between youth researchers and youth participants facilitated the development of rapport and increased the level of candor, both of which ultimately reduced potential bias and improved the quality of data collection.

Challenges to Note

There are many benefits to engaging youth in the participatory research process, but there are also challenges to the collaborative process that are important to note.

The reality is that youth sometimes struggle to appreciate their own expertise (or accept the idea that adults may not have the “best” or “smartest” answers). This can make it challenging to break out of the typical “adult as authority” and “student as subordinate” patterns of interaction. So, it will likely take time and some trial and error to identify the most effective ways to empower youth researchers and to uncover the right strategies to promote hierarchy flattening.

Youth researchers can also be lose interest when they do not see concrete progress or tangible outcomes related to their efforts. This can be the difference between participatory studies seeking ameliorative change—creating change within a system and transformative change—changing the system itself. The latter takes more time so it becomes important to celebrate early and small “wins” with youth researchers along the way.

To access the post about this discussion, please click here.