TASA Youth 2019 symposium: The Ethics of Engagement, Participation and Representation

By Signe Ravn and Julia Cook (TASA Youth co-conveners)

On February 21 2019 the TASA Youth thematic group held a one-day event focusing on ethics in youth research across the full spectrum of the research process: from engagement, to participation, through to representation. Youth researchers often face challenges and setbacks when engaging with university or organisation-based ethics committees because the research participants often (when under the age of 18) automatically are seen as ‘vulnerable’. In addition to this, many youth sociologists use creative and participatory methods which create new ethical challenges that the researcher has to navigate, often ‘on the go’. This was the backdrop against which we put together a programme consisting of a mix of keynote talks, panel discussion and paper presentations.

The day started off with a double keynote from Professor Marilys Guillemin (University of Melbourne) and Dr Bronwyn Wood (Victoria University of Wellington). Setting us up for the day, Marilys focused on challenges pertaining to sensory research, focusing particularly on her influential work on body mapping, a drawing-based research method that she has used to understand lived and embodied experiences of illness. Bronwyn then spoke about the complexities that emerge when working with young people within school and other institutions, especially in relation to creative methods such as photovoice.

The next session was a panel on ‘Challenges and ways forward in creative, participatory and digital methods’. For this session we had asked three speakers to prepare some thoughts and reflections on challenging situations in their own research. The three panellists, Professor Helen Cahill (University of Melbourne), Dr Joni Meenagh (RMIT University) and Dr Bronwyn Wood again, all shared powerful experiences. For instance, Helen Cahill spoke about her experiences with participatory research in a specific project where young people were refusing to openly identify with their individual biographies and experiences, but were happy to act as ‘advisers’ to government and hence came up with creative ways of presenting on the research at a large conference for policy-makers. This research provided rich insights into the ethics of both participation and representation while working with marginalised and stigmatised groups.

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What also came across in the panel discussion was the temporal dimensions of ethical research and how we are often forced to ‘speed up’ because of external deadlines. Part of the discussion centred on how we can slow down the research process as well as work within existing temporal regimes. This session also signified the beginning of a discussion of ‘research failures’, a theme that was returned to throughout the remainder of the day, and which provided a little-used avenue for exploring the ethical implications of research.

After lunch we had two paper sessions with 10 excellent papers. These covered a range of topics such as negotiating access to the field/research participants, managing relations with participants and finding a role as insiders, outsiders, in-between or even ‘insighters’ as Megan Sharp put it. A number of papers also discussed notions of sensitivity and what is sensitive according to whom. Ron Baird revisited the theme of ‘research failures’ through his discussion of working with gatekeepers, while Susan Bird, working with Malin Fransberg, focused on the ethical implications of ethnographic work with participants who often brush up against legality. While the focus was very much on an Australian context, there was also work from sites much further afield such as Faith Gordon’s work in Northern Ireland and Charlotte McPherson’s work in Scotland. Many valuable lessons learned were shared throughout these sessions.

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The closing keynote talk was delivered by Dr Steven Threadgold (University of Newcastle) and focused on the ‘representation’ part of the research process with the inciting title ‘On the Necessity of Representing ‘Youth’: Problems, Politics, Ethics, Demands, Suggestions’. In this tour de force of a talk Steve offered reflections on common representations of young people in research accounts as well as in more popular discourse and asked ‘What youth studies are for’, in particular at a moment in time where the future prospects for young people are not promising. This talk was a great way of rounding off the day and also posing some questions for the participants to take home.

With 60 participants and lots of discussion and engagement throughout a long day the event proved that the Youth Thematic group is thriving and that the topic of ethics was something many people were interested in discussing and learning more about. The strong interest from graduate students and early career researchers also indicated that there is a lack of spaces for discussing research challenges and ‘failures’ (which are often full of information about the topic and hence not a failure but a diversion) during PhD candidatures. An extensive Twitter thread by Dr Joni Meenagh summed up some of the insights from the day.

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The event was kindly funded by TASA and supported by the Youth Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. Thanks to all participants and thanks to the tweeters who allowed us to use their tweets in this report.

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