Design Research Get Lost: An asset-based approach to support young people to self-organise

Lead Research Organisation: Manchester Metropolitan University
Department Name: Faculty of Education


Participation is a common feature of research and social design projects, between academics and designers and communities. There are many reasons for participatory research and design in that it, for example, reduces power imbalances between academics and citizens and helps produce projects that are relevant to the real world. There are however concerns that participation in research, especially young people are involved, is not as real or as substantive as is claimed and instead there is a form of contrived participation or compliance. There are many reasons why this is the case but we focus on two:

1. Academics are under pressure to develop clear plans of what they intend to do to get funding and ethical clearance, and there is pressure that the research is successfully implemented creating high-impact and robust academic findings. Thus when the research begins and the participants participate what they are asked to do tends to be predefined and there is a hope that they will fulfil their roles to make sure things run to plan (Fox 2007, 2013; Dentith et al. 2009).

2. When young people participate in research, there is a tendency for researchers to perceive and engage with them in terms of their deficits rather than their abilities and assets. So a participatory project might work with a group of young people to teach them how to be an artist or a designer. Some argue that this is a form of control of young people, trying to make them fit into the project and by extension what they researcher wants the project to be (Foucault 1997, Vromen and Collin 2010).
The aim of the research project is to work with and treat young people in terms of the skills, knowledge and assets they already posses and seek to create ways of working that help them self-organise to do things they would like to do. We will work with two groups of young people with impressive skills and abilities in DIY digital making (Manchester Coder Dojo) and self-organisation (Woodcraft Folk). The research focuses on how we as adult researchers learn from cutting-edge design practice to create a space that supports the young people to self-organise. It is important to recognise that the intention of the research is not a 'let the pieces fall where they may' experiment of whether young people can self-organise - this question has been answered and young people can do this admirably. Instead, we will pose a 'challenge' involving a series of conditions (i.e., your parents must let you do the activity) and ask them to self-organise to do something they want to do and give them a budget of £3,000.

The research will have two components, from the adult researcher and young person perspective.
1. As researchers we will carry out participant observations of how the young people respond to the challenge of self-organising and whether this is an effective way of bringing young people together and avoiding contrived participation. Then, after the research, we will write autoethnographic accounts of how we as adult researchers engaged with the challenges of letting go of the power in research situations to young people.
2. As part of the challenge we will ask the young people to record and document what they did and how they did it. We do not want to impose any particular way of researching on them. We hope they will use a range of print and digital media to share what they did and why, which we will curate appropriately to celebrate their achievements.
From the research we will produce an academic paper and a two-page findings report to share with practitioners.

Planned Impact

The main outcome of the project is to challenge the contrived participation of young people in research and design projects by developing a constructive and positive alternative around enabling young people to self-organise. To achieve this, from the researcher side, we will produce a series of 2 blogs per researcher on the project WordPress website and develop these into a two-page 'findings' report and an academic paper (target journal Co-Design). These outputs will be shared through our personal and academic networks (e.g., BERA Youth and Social Justice SIG), and the networks of our partners (e.g., Woodcraft Folk, the Coder Dojo network, the international Learning Hive network). Part of the Challenge will be for the young participants to document and communicate their participation in the project using whatever format and media they would like to use. We cannot state what form these outputs will use but we would aim to work with the participants to curate these young PressBooks, Storify or something similar. We will share these outputs, again, on the WordPress website and through the networks of the research team and our project partners.


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Description The research initially aimed to develop a process to enable youth self-organisation, whereby young people would be free of contrived participation where young people's agency in research is constrained by a series of diffuse and pervasive pressures on and the capabilities of researchers. The anxiety of contriving participation engendered an odd commitment to providing the youth researchers with clear boundaries and the autonomy to succeed or fail. That the young people 'failed' to organise something but continued to turn provoked the challenge of finding new ways of being with and supporting the researchers. After the designed process had finished with the deadline of the opportunity to 'succeed' had passed the youth participants continued to turn up to meetings, unsure, striving to achieve or realise something. Halberstam (2011: 2-3) writes of how 'failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.' Instead of the firmly delineated rules on how and by when the young people could participate in the project we followed Gallacher and Gallagher's (2008: 513) call for cultivating 'methodological immaturity' that 'privileges open-ended process experimentation, innovation and "making do".' Thus we came to focus on a different orientation and type of failure, the failure of the process and one that was generative in seeking to reconfigure the relationships of support, obligation and commitment between the youth participants and the research project.
The research team came to reinterpret the research process as a form of gift relationship. Gift relationships describe interactions where the commitments to augmenting the relationship are more important than the goods or services that are exchanged (Godbout and Caillé, 1998; Graeber, 2001, 2014). The notion of the gift is unexplored in participatory forms of research with young people and communities. Research as gift opens up new ways for understanding and communicating commitments, obligations and ways of being within and between the research team, the youth researchers and the wider community. For example, research as gift aligns with the 'each one, teach one' approach from American informal pedagogy whereby the gift of being taught is presented with the obligation to teach another.
Thinking of participatory research as gifts shifts the focus of research in terms of increasing the scale, extensity or intensity of participation or co-production of non-academic researchers in research projects, from, for example, planning research to publications. Instead, research as gift is open to more informal contributions and relationships that transcend the research project. There are issues in translating gift relationships from other sectors to research in terms of what does it mean for adult researchers to focus on establishing and augmenting research relationships with young people? What ethical concerns are there in employing powerful and potentially suasive forms of sociality and reciprocity amongst young people that the gift illuminates and enacts?
For more information please read the project report, available at:
Exploitation Route This was a small-scale pilot study and the results produced indicative findings that could be used by academics and researchers and practitioners such as university Widening Participation teams.
There are practical steps researchers can take to reduce the potential scope for young people or indeed any non-academic partner group to self-organise. Communicating to the funders the open and risky nature of the research, locating the money with a community partner, writing in conditional clauses into applications for institutional clearance, using a 'challenge' type approach, and building relationships with project mentors are examples of the steps that function to leave research projects unspecified and so open.
We came to understand research as a form of gift relationship within and between research teams, young people and wider communities with which the research seeks to engage. There is a tendency for those seeking to include young people or develop participatory projects to increase the intensity and scale of young people's agency and involvement. Such an approach does not allow participants to make multiple entries and exits to projects. Thinking of research as a form of gift relationship presents a useful way for re-configuring relationships, obligations and commitments to the project and research.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education

Description During the year since the project finished the interpretation of the findings shifted. Where the project was once thought to be about youth self-organisation an alternative interpretation emerged - that the research developed the practices of research as gift. This reading of the project and understanding of participatory research as gift interaction has been useful in Duggan's funded (Co-operative Foundation, £59,950) peer-research project on youth loneliness. Research as gift has been a central component of practice about communicating obligations, commitments, and ways of being, knowing and communicating research within the project.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Impact Types Societal

Description The Co-operative Foundation Peer Research call
Amount £59,950 (GBP)
Organisation The Co-operative Group Ltd 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 12/2017
Description Hulme Community Treasure Hunt 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The group of organised a Community Treasure Hunt as a focus of the project. The treasure hunt was developed on the ActionBound app and took participants on a tour of the history of Hulme. Groups who completed the tour were given a book as part of Waterstone's Books for Syria scheme, whereby money was donated to Syrian refugees and the books that were given as prizes were intended to be read, registered on the BookCrossings website and gifted to other people. We bought 196 books and gifted 140 books to individuals on the day. We also consulted the participants and gave the rest of the project funding to the community centre to build a pizza oven. We had a number of interesting discussions between the research team, the youth participants and the public about youth self-organisation and notions of the gift.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015