Not all young people share the same views, and researchers should think about how to empower young people to express themselves and their true opinions, says Ellie Wroe-Wright.
“When someone is wrong, you have to accept it… but try to teach it. “
As I moderated a discussion with a group of ages 16-18 on the themes of “Culture Wars”, “Cancel Culture” and “Britishness”, they were open and articulated around the themes of social equality. Young adults are very committed to social equality, confidently discussing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, the use of pronouns, and debating the ethics of ‘culture cancellation’. They are also not afraid to stand up for these principles both in public and in private, online and face to face.
Our research suggests that this trust is often underpinned by a presumption that their values are the right ones. Those who disagree (often referred to as “white old men”) tend to be dismissed as uninformed, uneducated, or overwhelmed in their opinions.
Their confidence made me think; What if someone in the group feels different from the majority? Would they feel comfortable enough to speak out and express their views among people who seem so convinced their opinions are correct?
It is often said that research with children and youth can provide honest and refreshing insight, as participants are less likely to censor their thoughts and opinions. But as children move into adulthood, that starts to change. When conducting research with ‘Generation Z’, there is a risk that participants whose views run counter to the majority (or who simply feel less secure) will become uncomfortable expressing their point of view.
It is vital for us as researchers to create an environment that encourages openness, honesty and respect among participants, regardless of their perspective or age. Based on our experience, there are some practical and common techniques that are already being used to help young people feel comfortable in group research contexts:
- Using ‘mini groups’ of three to four participants to give young people more time / space to share their thoughts and views and avoid feeling intimidated by a larger group of strangers.
- Try not to be “the teacher”, but instead treat young adults as equals, to help them break away from the teacher-student dynamic that many of them are so used to and to help them understand that discussion is by no means a test – it there are no right or wrong answers.
- Be creative with your research design. Young people are often more attentive and encouraged by creative activities than by direct questions. Embrace the freedom to use projective techniques, gamify tasks, and incorporate the use of videos, photos, and drawings to help you achieve your goals without having to ask the questions explicitly.
- If appropriate for research, share some of the discussion questions in advance give young people the time and space to reflect on their answers and responses. Especially on more complex or unfamiliar topics, it gives participants a space to develop an opinion and to feel confident enough to share this as a group.
Beyond these, however, it may be important to supplement group-based and discursive approaches with additional methodologies to ensure you hear dissenting views or less well-formed thoughts:
- Friendship depths: It can often be intimidating for a young person to join in the research surrounded by strangers and to be interviewed by an adult. Pairing young people up with a friend is a perfect way to put them at ease, encourage them to share their honest views, and provide them with a space to exchange ideas or trigger shared memories.
- Peer-to-peer research: This can work very well in a multi-stage research project, giving the researcher time to meet the participants at an earlier stage, before selecting a ‘lead’ participant to facilitate the mini-groups. triads of their peers at a later stage. Once the “lead” participant has been instructed on how to facilitate a simple conversation with their peers, this method is useful in enabling participants to believe in the value of their opinions. Chatting with a peer can allow the participant to share their views on a healthier and more equal basis.
- Make it the expert: Gen Z stands up for what they believe in. Positioning her as an “expert” rather than a “research participant” can allow them to express their honest thoughts and beliefs, knowing that their opinions are taken seriously and can have an impact / change. This can work well in co-creation exercises, as well as in research where participants help shape a strategy or policy. Many young people are often used to adults occupying positions of authority (teachers, parents, employers).
This is by no means an exhaustive list of approaches. As we evolve and adapt to new hybrid ways of doing research, now is a great opportunity for us as researchers to think together and continue to find new and innovative ways to engage this audience. .
Ellie Wroe-Wright is Senior Research Officer at BritainThinks