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Sociology of Youth

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Youth Thematic Group 'Spotlight On'!
By Naomi Berman
Posted: 2023-05-08T09:46:00Z

Welcome to our monthly 'Spotlight On' where you can find out who's who and what members are up to in their professional and/or personal lives. Contributions always welcome!

To launch our regular post we have our cherished and long-time member (and twice previous convenor) Julia Cook.

Take it away, Julia!

Working with risk and resilience: the tension between emancipatory youth research and ‘solving’ social problems

Julia Cook, University of Newcastle

As youth researchers we’re all familiar with the need to ‘sell’ the importance of our research, whether it is for a PhD application, grant application, promotion application, or other related output. In many cases the importance of our research can be best framed by identifying a social problem and articulating how we will shed new light on it, intervene in it, break new ground in relation to it, or otherwise solve it. This is a space in which a particular risk emerges – specifically, the figure of the ‘at-risk’ young person who is either the cause or the victim of said social problem (on this see Threadgold 2020).

The spectre of the ‘at-risk’ young person has been haunting much of my recent research, which has focused on topics such as young people’s experiences of debt (particularly related to Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) services); the (drastically under-acknowledged and under-supported) role of youth workers in supporting them to manage this debt; their experiences as recipients of unearned wealth (via family financial assistance with first home ownership); their use of gambling apps; and their experience of receiving support from a charitable organization. To be clear, none of these issues are caused by young people, just as they are not hapless victims of them. In reality these issues are caused and exacerbated by the failure of policy and legislature to keep pace with social change and a lack of political will to properly address them (felt most acutely in the short-fall in the funding allocated to do so).     

Situational (as opposed to formal or procedural) ethics has always been important to my research practice. I have sought to attune myself to the ‘ethically important moments’ (Guillemin & Gillam 2004) that arise during fieldwork with young people. However, lately I’ve been reflecting on the ethically important moments that arise before I enter the field, and long after I have left it. How do we represent the complexity of the circumstances surrounding young people’s experiences with BNPL services adequately in pro-forma grant applications within text boxes with a 300 word limit? Is resorting to a ‘social problem’ framing justified if the end result is funding for a project or program that will (hopefully) deliver some benefit to young people? This tension is particularly alive in my efforts to develop applied and translational research programs that seek to increase knowledge and change behaviour. Communicating the need for such programs without resorting to a deficit approach – essentially trying to use a strengths-based approach – can prove challenging while trying to put forward the needs of your participants as the most urgent in the context of philanthropic grant applications.

For obvious reasons, funding applications are something of a black box in youth sociology – hoarded by research offices and passed furtively between researchers. For this reason, I’ve experienced this dilemma centred on the ethics of representation in relative isolation, in contrast to my experience of sharing most of my other work in some way (although it is a dilemma that I am fortunate to share with my wonderful colleagues at the Newcastle Youth Studies Centre, whom I collaborate with on the majority of the studies that I’ve mentioned). I’m therefore grateful for the opportunity to prise open the lid of this black box and ask: has anyone else experienced this particular tension, and does the spectre of the ‘at-risk’ youth also haunt your funding applications?