Article: The formal vs informal clash: the challenges of ethnographic research with young people in a youth drop-in context
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.
‘Hey guys, do you want to be part of my research project?’
The three young people, sat down around a small table in the corner of the drop-in room, looked up at me. Gesturing towards the information sheets and consent forms in my hand, I continued: ‘Can I tell you about my research project?’
The girl nearest to me, Charlotte, took a headphone out of one ear.
‘Ok’, she said. James, sat next to her, said nothing, but leaned in a little closer. Shahana, sat opposite, continued typing on her phone.
I sat down next to Charlotte and began my rehearsed spiel: ‘I am doing a research project here at the drop-in, and am inviting young people to take part. Here’s an information sheet about it.’
I handed Charlotte and James an information sheet each, and they began to scan the lengthy text on the page. After a few seconds Charlotte looked up at me.
‘What do I have to do?’ she asked.
‘Nothing really,’ I replied, ‘I’m just going to be observing in the drop-in, and need your permission to observe you as part of the group here.’
‘Oh ok, that’s fine. I’m happy to be part of it,’ said Charlotte, handing me back the information sheet.
Sensing that she hadn’t taken in any of the information on the information sheet, I placed a consent form in front of her and started explaining the key aspects she may have missed. As I was mid-sentence about her ability to opt-out of the project at any point, out of nowhere, Sarah’s hand reached over us and grabbed Charlotte’s water bottle from the table.
‘Oi! Come back! That’s mine!’ Charlotte screamed, as she leapt over me to chase after Sarah. In that split-second she was gone, and I could hear commotion coming from the other room over the fate of the water bottle.
I turned to James, and asked if he’d be up for being part of it. He looked unsure.
‘You don’t have to’, I said.
‘Nah, yeah, not now,’ He replied.
Shahana continued typing on her phone.
This short narrative illustrates just one of the many sorts of encounters I have had with young people while attempting to carry out research in a youth drop-in environment. Anyone who has embarked on research of this kind will sympathise with this account, and know first-hand the unique challenges of carrying out formalised research procedures in a context alien to them. Drawing on my own experience of carrying out ethnographic work as part of my PhD project I will seek to explore and explain some of the difficulties of the informal versus formal clash in a youth drop-in setting: the consent process, the drop-in environment, and the role of the researcher.
Before continuing, it is important to highlight the profound importance of ethnographic research with young people. Many ‘hard-to-reach’ young people simply do not engage with research, and therefore entering into their world is essential in order to make their voices heard (Zlotowitz et al. 2016). Here too lies the deep frustration for us researchers, as in seeking to carry out this important work we may feel tripped up by increasingly ‘bureaucratized’ ethical review bodies (Wiles et al. 2006: 286), necessary procedures and sometimes even by ourselves. I am grateful to others who admit that research doesn’t always follow an ideal, step-by-step approach, and highlight the sorts of ethical dilemmas arising in the field (Guillemin and Gillam 2004: 262; Ellis 2007: 4; Renold et al. 2008: 429). There needs to be more honesty and understanding around the numerous ‘compromises, short-cuts, hunches and serendipitous occurrences’ (1991: 1) that come part and parcel with carrying out real research with real people. In sharing the ‘hidden history’ (Russell 2005) behind my own research I hope to encourage other youth researchers, and keep exploring together how to marry the crucial research processes with the informal drop-in environment.
The opening illustration gave an indication of some of the challenges of gaining young people’s consent in a drop-in environment. The formalised consent procedures, required by most research institutions’ ethical review committees, feel clunky and awkward in a space where casual conversations are the norm, and where young people have come to be relaxed and not to be presented with a technical and long-winded explanation of who you are and what you are doing. Consent therefore becomes, in some cases, a process that unfolds over time, rather than a one-off event. As Bengry-Howell and Griffin explain, ethnographic research with young people may require a ‘negotiated contract’ of consent over the course of the study (2012). There is a need, they argue, for a researcher to build mutual trust and field relations with young people who may be suspicious of researchers and their intentions. For example, it would not be appropriate for me, as a researcher, to approach a young person on their first visit to the drop-in to talk about the research project and invite them to take part. Once they have settled into the drop-in and are known to the staff members, it then might be appropriate for me to get to know them. Although initially introduced as a researcher, it is important to build what Bengry-Howell and Griffin call ‘mutual trust and field relations’ before being able to officially invite them to be part of the project. This is not ‘methodological grooming’, but is simply the reality of being an unknown adult in a young person’s space. Once rapport has been built with a young person – perhaps after a few conversations have happened and names are known – it may be appropriate to introduce the research project. Informed consent may then be sought and received at that stage. But this is not the end of the process.
Take the example of Michael. Michael was one of the first young people that I signed up to the study. He is a young leader at the drop-in, and so a regular attendee and known to the leaders. I met him early on in my fieldwork, and was able to explain who I was and what I was doing from the start. A week or so after he had signed the consent form, we were cooking in the kitchen at the drop-in. He asked me, ‘So what is the research that you are doing?’ I explained what the research involved while chopping up carrots, and what it was that I was observing. He seemed satisfied with my response, and we continued cooking. A few weeks later I was talking to another young person about the research, and Michael asked me how it was going. We had a chat about what I’d been up to. A few weeks after that he asked me how long I was going to be doing the research for. I replied saying that it may be up to two more years, and he was surprised as he’d assumed it would be shorter. A few weeks after that he asked me again how it was going, and we explained together to a friend of his that I was doing research, and invited his friend to also be involved. And so it goes on. Although I had formally gained consent from Michael and had explained much of what we then went on to discuss at a later stage, the process of the ‘negotiated contract’ continued beyond that initial moment and will continue, I imagine, for the duration of the study.
The ‘drop-in’ environment
Young people come along to the youth drop-in I am part of to see their friends, to have fun and to relax. My purpose in being part of the drop-in is to carry out research with the young people. I am neither their friend nor their youth worker, and nor is the research I am carrying out particularly ‘fun’ (even if I might think it is). There is therefore a clash of purposes between what the young people are seeking to get out of their time at the drop-in, and what I am seeking from them. The drop-in intentionally represents something that isn’t ‘like school’, where they can come and go as they please, where they have the freedom to talk to the leaders or not to talk to the leaders, where participation in activities and conversations is optional and where they are not obliged to attend each day. Being presented with an information sheet and a consent form by a researcher makes it feel, in some senses, ‘like school’. At the first whiff of this, some young people disengage.
It therefore depends whether or not a young person is in the right mood on a particular day as to whether they will be up for listening to me and participating in my research. Take the example of Luke. I had asked Luke, an 18 year-old regular at the drop-in, if he might be open to being interviewed a few days later as part of the project. He said he was keen to be part of it, and thanked me for asking him. When the day came, I invited him to be interviewed. He said: ‘Nah I don’t want to. Sorry, not feeling up for it today.’ The lesson here may well be that it is important to be ready at all times to seize the moments when the opportunities arise (Leyshon 2002: 183), but there are also logistical challenges with this, such as having the right pieces of paper with you for consent, the right parental consent in place (if needed), the right space for interviews to be carried out in, the recording equipment you need and permission from the gatekeepers (in this case, the youth workers, and whether it fits in and around the activities planned for that particular day at drop-in). There is therefore a certain amount of planning ahead needed, which makes it more difficult to follow the young people’s lead as to when they are ‘up for it’.
There is also the challenge of where you carry out your interviews when you do actually find a young person willing to do one. I am fortunate that in the particular drop-in space I have worked in there is a small glass-walled room, which is normally used for private conversations and mentoring. It was only when I was interviewing a young person and trying to stay focused (and not laugh) while other young people pushed their faces up against the glass that I realised how problematic it was as an interview setting, despite being the best and most suitable space within the drop-in. It was also difficult to hear what my interviewee was saying on the audio due to the background noise of young people in the adjoining room, laughing and singing together. There were many moments when the interviews had to be paused because other young people walked in and sat down with us, wanting to join in our chat. As all of the drop-in space is rightfully theirs, there is nowhere that is ‘out of bounds’ for them, which, although positive, creates challenges for where formal interviews can take place.
One final difficulty I have faced is the inconsistency of the research cohort. Unlike in other research settings, it is not possible to research a defined sample of young people over a sustained period of time, as young people may attend the drop-in for a season of time and then disappear. Other researchers discuss the ethical best practices of giving young people the opportunity to choose their own pseudonyms and being able to review transcripts and revise them if necessary, all of which sounds wonderful in theory but seems to me to be infeasible in a setting where many young people won’t be part of the drop-in by the time that the transcript or narrative write-up is done. The researcher is therefore required to practice reflexivity and mindfulness (Warin 2011: 813) throughout the research project, taking seriously their ‘epistemic responsibility’ (Code and Burt 1995) to the young people, and only including those who don’t simply know about the research project, but know it well.
The researcher’s role
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.
There are other challenges around the researcher ‘role’ in this setting. One afternoon I was sat with Charlotte and her friend Gaby talking about their end of year prom, and they were showing me which dresses they had bought on their phones. Charlotte made a comment and Gaby responded, ‘F**k you!’. As soon as these words left her mouth there was a sharp intake of breath, and they both turned to look at me. I wasn’t sure what had happened, and my bemused look invited Charlotte to say: ‘Aren’t you gonna give her a warning?’ I discovered after the event that warnings are issued to anyone who swears at the drop-in. As an adult in the drop-in, they had expected me, like all of the adults, to be an enforcer of the rules and the culture of the space. Except that I wasn’t ready or prepared to play that role. In an ideal world a researcher might be able to just play the ‘researcher’ role without having to navigate these complexities, but the reality is somewhat different.
I have been extraordinarily blessed by spending time with young people at this drop-in. However, in the context of increasingly stringent ethical review requirements, research in drop-in environments may become a thing of the past, proving simply too difficult to actually do in practice. Research friends of mine have found themselves so tangled up in ethical knots that they are unable to carry out and publish the research with young people that they set out to do. And yet there is so much to be learned from being with young people in this way. These are just some of the difficulties I have faced, and I hope that in sharing them I can provoke some discussion around how best to carry out research in this uniquely challenging and exciting environment.
 This is a semi-fictionalised account based on field notes. Names have been changed throughout this article.
 According to a survey carried out by staff members at the drop-in.
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Last Updated: 31 October 2017
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Phoebe Hill is a PhD student at King’s College London, is head of research at Youthscape, and a volunteer youth leader at her church in East London.