Broadening our Ethical Horizons: Children and Youth Beyond ‘Vulnerability’

Christos Panagiotopoulos (Cornell University)
[email protected]
NEOS, Volume 12: Issue 1, April 2020

Return to Table of Contents

Anthropologists have long been mediating the institutional decision-making of ethical committees with the complicated realities of a field-based practice. Ethnographies engaging with ‘vulnerable’ populations are scrutinized by well-meaning ethics committees seeking to ensure ethical research practices. But in the name of ethics, protection and vulnerability, and through our collective best intentions, we sometimes commit to unethical choices for both our research participants and ourselves. Engaging with established discussions within anthropology, I consider where our ethical engagements lie in situations of conflicting moral dilemmas. Through a partial discussion of my research experience within the French juvenile rehabilitation system between 2018-2020, I propound some ethical and methodological questions to consider when imagining research with populations considered vulnerable in the anthropological horizons of the future. In doing so, I argue that the meaning of ethical research within ethnography surpasses data collection and management, and diffuses into intersubjective and relational ethics, as well as processes of notetaking, transcription and ethnographic writing, thus escaping the narrow confines of IRB decision-making.

Reproducing vulnerability and tacit exclusion

It had already been a year-long ethnographic journey, when I retreated at a secluded corner of the French countryside in July 2019 to take some distance from my mostly-Parisian field site. It was an opportunity to organize my notes and discuss the state of my ethnography with my advisors, while planning for another year. During this short getaway, I transcribed all my hand-written notes, and prospected the data I had gathered. I printed everything and distributed the ink-filled pages on the floor, trying to get a sense of what I had documented. Reading through my notes, I felt pride and shame. I had come a long way in a year.  My notetaking had gradually changed, and my understanding of the field had radically evolved. Looking at my ethnographic data brought back vivid memories of people, spaces and times, actions and reactions unfolding as if I was reliving them. But one thing was noticeably missing: the youth.

My research takes place in the juvenile rehabilitation system in France, in youth detention centers, and spaces of juvenile justice and healthcare. At the outset, I set out to give voice to the adjudicated adolescents, to document their experiences in the rehabilitation process, and their encounters with specialized educators, mental health professionals and judicial institutions. Obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for my ethnography was an adventure, but one that I genuinely enjoyed. The ethics committee of my university invited me on a continuous debate about ethical research, through which my project came closer to maturity. In order to obtain IRB approval, however, after having obtained the necessary authorizations from my field site interlocutors, I had to agree not to take notes while in the presence of adolescents. The IRB committee considered such notetaking as an added psychological risk to participants.

Local researchers in France normally take notes after obtaining the consent of institutions and research participants, and sometimes also record dialogues with adolescents (Chauvier 2008). Contrary to French local practices and ethical standards, and notwithstanding the consent and anonymization of research participants, I had to agree not to take notes in the presence of adolescents. It was a difficult decision, but I had little to no negotiating power, and complied with the intention of protecting my younger research participants. At that stage, the repercussions of such a pivotal methodological change were unclear to me.

Moral dilemmas beyond consent

My notebooks were filled with deep descriptions of meetings with adult professionals, detailed accounts of institutional reunions, and faithful transcriptions of individual interviews. Initially, I would try to recall what the adolescents told me, or how they interacted with judicial personnel and mental health experts. But at the end of a long day, by the time I got an opportunity to isolate, concentrate and document the unique details of exchanges with youth, I wasn’t able to. I always remembered the gist of events and most of what had happened during my visit in a youth detention center. Though I was never capable of faithfully reconstructing an adolescent’s discourse, scanty phrases jolted back to memory. But making sense of them would require filling in gaps with purely subjective memories. In the absence of ethnographic notes, I confronted a moral dilemma: do I skip these fuzzy memories, or do I fill in the gaps with my own voice? Should I replace the adolescent’s voices with mine, so my ethnographic narrative seems fluid and complete?

That was not what I wanted, nor where my moral engagement stood. And so, gradually, I began disinvesting in these spaces where I couldn’t take notes. The voices of the youth started to fade, to disappear from my notes, in favor of subjective descriptions and detailed discourses of adult caretakers and institutional actors. My ethnographic gaze ultimately shifted, from the adolescents to the caretaking professionals, and that shift was what I was observing in my transcribed notes. On the wood flooring where I laid my printed notes, laid a failure – a personal, disciplinary, and institutional failure. Under the veil of ethics, protection, and vulnerability, and with the blessings of an ethics committee, I was contributing to further silencing the adjudicated and marginalized youth.

The ethnographic mindset as ethical research

Debates over the compatibility of ethnographic research with IRB decision-making strategies often come up in anthropological discussions. Researchers on childhood and youth have recognized an absence of consensus in defining ‘vulnerability’ (Coleman, 2009), and advocated for more relational and intersubjective apprehensions of ethics, grounded in the encounter between researcher and research participants (Meloni et al. 2015). Anthropologists have questioned the ready-made standards of modern ethical research because they silence and homogenize ‘vulnerable’ populations, including prisoners, mental health patients and children and youth, among others (Swauger 2009). A relational consideration of ethics invites us to consider multiple spaces of diffracted moral dilemmas, beyond the mere definition of a population as ‘vulnerable’. Ethical research with youth is not limited to IRB or other institutional decisions on research proposals and data gathering. It is inevitably diffused in the ways we treat and respect our participants when transcribing our notes and writing an ethnography, when we “assume a final interpretation and a definitive reading” of our fieldnotes (Crapanzano 1986, p.51).


The promising future horizon in the anthropology of and with children and youth, is filled with opportunities to challenge and contextualize the current meanings of ‘vulnerability’. How are ethnographers contributing to “educating ethics committees” in shifting from tacit exclusion, towards respect, attention, and caring for vulnerable research participants (Lederman 2007)?  To acknowledge the complexity of ethical research within anthropology, is to consider transcription and writing processes, as well as intersubjective and dynamic relations with research participants, as inextricable spaces of creative ethical decision-making. During this next decade, we need ethnography-specific research guidelines to guide ethics committees in making informed and ethnography-sensible decisions about our research, which unfathomably escape the confines of biomedical ethics research protocols. Anthropologists and ethical committees alike need collaborative actions to resist the normalized use of vulnerability, ethics and protection as implicit silencing mechanisms.


Chauvier, Éric. 2008. Si l’enfant ne réagit pas. Paris, France: Éditions Allia.

Coleman, Carl H. 2009.  “Vulnerability as a Regulatory Category in Human Subject Research.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 37 (1).

Crapanzano, Vincent. 1986. “Hermes’ Dilemma: The Masking of Subversion in Ethnographic Description”. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by J. Clifford and G. E. Marcus, 51-76. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lederman, Rena. 2007. “Educate your IRB (a boilerplate experiment)”. Savage Minds website. Accessed March 16, 2020.

Meloni, Francesca, Karine Vanthuyne, and Cécile Rousseau. 2015. “Towards a Relational Ethics: Rethinking Ethics, Agency and Dependency in Research with Children and Youth.” Anthropological Theory 15 (1): 106–23.

Swauger, Melissa. 2009. “No Kids Allowed!!!: How IRB Ethics Undermine Qualitative Researchers from Achieving Socially Responsible Ethical Standards.” Race, Gender & Class 16 (1/2): 63–81.

Author contact: Christos Panagiotopoulos (Cornell University), [email protected]

To cite this article: Panagiotopoulos, C. 2020. Broadening our Ethical Horizons: Children and Youth Beyond ‘Vulnerability.’ NEOS 12 (1).

To link to this article:


%d bloggers like this: