Research methods in youth studies: Doing ‘Difference’ differently

Amy Dobson, Benjamin Hanckel and Rose Butler:

On 22 November 2017 the Sociology of Youth Thematic Group, in partnership with the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, hosted a youth symposium entitled Research methods in youth studies: Doing ‘Difference Differently’. Held at the University of Melbourne’s Youth Research Centre, the symposium brought together over 50 eminent and emerging youth studies scholars to explore how youth research can better access ‘difference’ and ‘different’ stories/data in our research.

The day began with a panel of four invited speakers who shared their reflections on how we might better access ‘difference’ in youth research. Dr Julia Coffey spoke about the use of digital photo-voice practices to explore youth everyday embodiment, providing us with examples of the rich data on affect and embodiment that can be generated through photo elicitation and discussion methods. Professor Pam Nilan reflected on ethnographic research conducted in Fiji and Indonesia over the course of her career, on the constraints of popular sociological methods in youth studies, and their limited capacity to translate between cultural contexts. Professor Greg Noble argued for the importance of focusing intellectual work on research questions, and the need to ask innovative or challenging questions in our work. Dr Brady Robards spoke about the ethics of research with young people in digital cultures, and the new challenges and opportunities that are presented through youth scholars’ presence in the on/offline spaces that young people also inhabit. The invited speakers each challenged youth researchers to reflect on the research questions they ask and the methods they use to gather data, as well as relationships and entanglements with young people and the topics explored. Professor Anita Harris brought together these scholars in conversation. Leading a lively discussion, the presenters reflected on the theme of difference and we heard about how, in their own practices, each scholar has needed to consider their own positionality to think innovatively about the research methods they use in youth research.

In the second half of the day we heard 13 paper presentations, selected from a very high quality response to our call for papers in July 2017. These included sole-authored papers and international collaborations that explored new and innovative ways of addressing and seeking out ‘difference’ in youth studies.

Several papers examined innovative approaches to methods. These presentations (Duggan; Nichols, Loeser and Stahl; Ravn, Østergaard and Boddy; Woodman and Cook) reflected on the creative use of digital tools in the data collection phase of research. Employing new and innovative digital tools, scholars asked fellow researchers to consider the possibilities that emerge from using digital methods when investigating and exploring difference, and their potential use in longitudinal datasets.

In further papers complementary to this work, researchers asked the audience to consider the ontological ways we frame ‘youth’ and ‘youth experience’, and how this in turn impacts on our research findings. Presenters (Byron; Reeders and Hendry) raised concerns about how youth experiences and practices are conceptualised in youth research, particularly in researching young people and health. Other scholars (Butler; MacDonald) raised concerns about the methodological tools we use to situate young people’s experiences within youth studies, with their papers highlighting limits and pitfalls in how ethnographic research is approached and pursued in different research contexts with young people.

In work from New Zealand, France and Mayeda presented an emerging case study of research engagement with Maori youth which seeks to understand relationships between networks of diversely situated young people. The research highlighted some of the complex challenges and opportunities that youth researchers face when working with historically marginalised youth and communities, and spoke to long-standing critiques of the production of knowledge and power within such research agendas.

The day concluded with a panel presentation from youth researchers at the University of Newcastle (Threadgold, Kanai, Coffey; Kelly). The scholars asked the audience to consider the role that figures of ‘youth’ might play in our research practices. They suggested that ‘youth’ might be productively used as a theory–method in thinking about how young peoples’ lives are produced in relational, affective and symbolic ways, which assist us in thinking about ‘difference’ in youth research.

The goal of the symposium was to engage in discussions of difference and begin a conversation about the methodological perspectives we have, and the knowledge that certain methods produce, which impact on our thinking about youth and difference. The symposium clearly highlighted the willingness of youth scholars to address and recognise ‘difference’ in youth research work. If youth studies is concerned with social justice, this is a crucial focus moving forward.

We would like to extend our thanks to TASA and the Alfred Deakin Institute for making the day possible, and to Sally Daly, TASA Executive Officer, and Professor Johanna Wyn at The Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne, for their support and assistance.


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