By Kuukuwa O Manful
In my recently published article titled “Research with African adolescents: Critical Epistemologies and Methodological Considerations”, I make a case for including young people in research about Africa beyond topics limited to ‘youth’ and being young. Noting the specific ethical and logistical issues that come with doing research with adolescents, I present a way to engage them in research that considers context (cultural and institutional) and power. This article is based on my PhD field research in a secondary school in Ghana, particularly the after-school club I used as a primary research tool. This essay discusses some of the thinking that went into my research design and my experiences running the club.
My PhD explores nation-building, social class, and modernity in Ghana through a study of the sociopolitical and physical architectures of secondary schools. One of my research questions is ‘how have secondary schools shaped understandings and expressions of citizenship and modernity, and how has this changed over time?’ When I set out to design my research study to answer my research questions, I chose both historical and contemporary sources – among which were interviews and focus group discussions. In thinking about who to include in my interviews and focus group discussions, I realised early on that in addition to adults, I also needed to include the perspectives of young people – current students – of secondary schools. Discussing my idea to include adolescent participants in my study with colleagues, mentors and teachers helped refine my thinking about why and how to include them.
One of the main issues that repeatedly came up when I first decided to include adolescent participants was that processes of obtaining ethical approvals for research with participants below legal ages of consent tend to be much more involved than those for research with adult participants. This issue was brought up out of concern, seeing as I was doing this for my PhD with limited time, resources, and, as previously mentioned, in addition to other things such as archival research and architectural observation.
In addition to the standard forms I needed to complete for the Ethics Committee of my university (SOAS University of London) and funder (European Research Council), I also had to undergo a Disclosure and Barring Service (background) check to show that I posed no danger to the young people I planned to work with. In the secondary school in Ghana, I needed to present letters and documents to receive in loco parentis consent from the headmaster to work with the students. My supervisors encouraged me to be thoughtful about my positionality in relation to my adolescent research participants by thinking through potential scenarios such as how I would ensure no harm came to them through the information they shared with me and what I would do if one of them came to me with some confidential and sensitive information about some harm that had been caused to them.
Yet, in investigating the ethics approvals and safety checks I needed to complete, it became apparent that while they were crucial, in many ways, they were geared more towards various adult authorities and guardians of young people rather than the young people themselves. This tendency to direct consent and approval checks predominantly towards adult guardians rather than engaging adolescents in their own rights stems from broader ideas about the status of young people in society. It also took me back to my memories of experiences as an adolescent secondary school student in Ghana, where I often felt like my autonomy was not respected enough by the well-meaning adults around me.
In this light, I set out to design my research study to consider the autonomy of my adolescent research participants, their cultural and institutional contexts, and the power differentials between myself and their guardians as authority figures and them as students in a secondary school. I wanted a way to give them the freedom to opt in and out of my study regardless of the consent of their guardians. I also wanted to give them something in exchange for the data I would gather from them. Teaching was one option, but I felt it might be more disruptive than advantageous because I would only be there for a couple of months. This is how the idea of using an after-school club to interact with the students came about. I designed the club to be held during a free period to give students the freedom to opt in to participate in my study by choosing to join and to opt out at any time by leaving or simple not attending any more sessions.
When I arrived at the school in Ghana and started interacting with the adolescent students, I felt confident in my decisions because it quickly became obvious that the standard consent and safety procedures did not necessarily correspond to how my adolescent participants viewed themselves and their participation in my research. As I suspected and later confirmed, several of them were already living more or less autonomous lives. Some of them already worked to earn a living to pay for their own education, and others even had caring responsibilities for other family members. As they would later share with me, their relatively minoritised status in society as young people was further compounded by their status as students in Ghana – and they felt paternalised and infantilised. Giving them the freedom and option to participate or not in my study engendered their trust in me and their enthusiastic participation in my research study.
The after-school club was named the – Architects, Investigators and Rapporteurs (A.I.R) Club – by the students in a display of ownership. I had not thought to name it, but they suggested it after our first meeting based on the activities we had settled on pursuing through the club. The club aimed to study and document their school’s architecture, histories, and myths using skills, tools and techniques such as creative writing, photography, videography, architectural drawing, mapmaking, model-making, and art. I taught them these skills during some club meetings; in others, we held focus group discussions around the various themes I was investigating. The creative outputs they made and chose to share with me also formed part of my research data.
As I got to know the A.I.R. Club members and learned about their school, their villages, towns, country and the world through their viewpoints, it became even more evident to me that these adolescents did not only have perspectives on youth and being young per se – as they are often studied. They had and have knowledge about Ghana and the world that are valid and worth studying, not only about youth and being young but also about broader themes in politics, society, and international relations. Thus, I suggest that knowledge and research about Africa would be greatly improved and expanded by including, to a much greater extent, more of what the demographic that forms the majority of the continent’s population thinks and knows.
One striking example of the knowledge that my adolescent participants held that was not explicitly about ‘youth’ or being young was the knowledge about the location of the first building that was constructed on the school’s campus. None of the adults on campus I spoke to knew where it was as it had long been demolished, and neither did elders from the surrounding community. But the students knew exactly where it was because keeping and transmitting that memory was important to them. That knowledge was part of what I term ‘school myth-making’ through which stories are transmitted from one cohort of students to the next to remind them of the “sacrifices” made for the school and instil a sense of responsibility for the welfare of the school in them.
As some of the students told me later, as we got to know each other better, the A.I.R. club and I were like nothing they had ever experienced in a school setting. Finally, the persistence of the club after I had completed that part of my field research and left the school was a surprising and unexpected outcome that showed me just how engaging and valuable it had been to them.
Kuukuwa’s full article is available as a free download:
Kuukuwa O Manful (2022) ‘Research with African adolescents: critical epistemologies and methodological considerations’ African Affairs, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adac020