Who are the ‘Experts’? Coproducing knowledge with adolescents in Bulgaria and Tanzania

by Kristen Cheney

(This work first appeared in its original form on BLISS on September 26, 2018. This is an updated version. Read the original here with photos)

It is often assumed that social research is the domain of experts—and that those experts are necessarily adults. Most research on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (ASRHR) is adult-led and adult-centered, not only ignoring young voices but denying diversity amongst young people. Information about young people’s sexuality therefore often remains insulated within their peer groups, preventing innovation in ASRHR programming. This too often leads to a deficit or pathological perspective on adolescence in ASRHR research and intervention.

ISS departs from this premise in our latest youth participatory research project, Adolescents’ Perceptions of Healthy Relationships. The APHR project is funded by the Oak Foundation, with the objective to inform their child abuse prevention programming through greater attention to the broader societal, structural factors that provide an enabling environment for the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. The project is led by ISS’ Kristen Cheney and involves Auma Okwany as East Africa lead researcher.


Instead of embracing prevalent adult-imposed models of adolescence, the APHR project departs from the premise that young people are the experts on their own lives. Indeed, we believe that young people are essential co-creators of knowledge, best suited to conduct research on their own thoughts and experiences. Indeed, they have the best access to their peer groups where vital information is often kept locked away from adults’ gazes. So whenever possible, we conduct youth-led, participatory research. This way, young people become not mere objects of research but co-producers of knowledge about young people’s lives through greater disclosure of more authentic viewpoints.

Figure 1: YPRs in Dar Es Salaam discuss important aspects to consider in research on adolescents’ perceptions of healthy relationships (2017). Their input is incorporated into the research design from the start.

Conducting research in Oak’s two main project areas, East Africa and eastern Europe, ISS leads an international team consisting of partners from International Child Development Initiatives (Netherlands), Animus Association (Bulgaria), and Nascent Research and Development Organization (Tanzania). Together, they support young people in Bulgaria and Tanzania to participate in every step of the research, from designing quantitative and qualitative tools to data collection to analysis, dissemination and advocacy. This Circles of Support youth-centered approach provides training for adolescents as young as twelve years old to act as young peer researchers (YPRs), with support for research activities throughout the project—while always ensuring that young people’s considerations take precedence over adults’ opinions (Figure 1). Despite some adults’ concerns that young people might not be up to the task, we consistently find that young people are not only competent researchers but capable self-advocates.

Preliminary Findings

Having completed an extensive survey of nearly 2000 adolescents aged 10-18 across Bulgaria and Tanzania, our approach has proven fruitful for getting at adolescents’ views on what constitutes healthy relationships. We are still collecting qualitative data that will both validate and deepen our understanding of the survey findings, but our preliminary observations from the survey revealed which characteristics and relationships adolescents value most in each setting.

In Bulgaria, responses indicated that adolescents generally value trust and respect most in their relationships. While they reported mostly positive relationships with family—particularly with their mothers—adolescents’ responses indicated that the more problematic relationships were those with peers and others in their school settings.

Figure 2 A YPR in Sofia, Bulgaria, shares her group’s qualitative questions with the team.

The Bulgarian peer researchers are also particularly keen to explore adolescents’ attitudes about healthy sexuality and romantic relationships (Figure 2). They completed qualitative data training before breaking for the 2018 summer holidays, but because many of them work during the summer, they completed qualitative data collection when they returned to school in the fall.

The BG YPRs recently completed qualitative research to help further unpack the survey results, to understand how adolescents define trust and respect, as well as to better understand family and school dynamics

In Tanzania, adolescents also reported supportive relationships with their mothers. In addition, they found that religious leaders were important in guiding young people’s behaviour. They indicated that a large part of their understanding of being loved, in various relationships, is someone providing for their needs, both emotional and material. But preliminary survey findings also pointed to widespread abuses toward adolescents—from various people at home, school, or in the community. To some extent, their answers even pointed toward a normalization of that violence; for example, some pointed out that there were high levels of bullying in school, yet they did not necessarily consider this a bad thing, depending on the circumstances. Some saw excessive discipline from teachers as concern for their learning, while others reported that fi-

Figure 3: A YPR in Tanzania interviews a classmate (2018)

ghting to defend a friend shows that you are loyal and is therefore ‘healthy.’ The TZ team recently completed qualitative data collection (Figure 3), which we hope will help us further unpack these responses during analysis.


Scholar Activism

Our research team has been providing excellent support to our phenomenal young peer researchers (YPRs). Through our Circles of Support approach, the team in each country has been able to tailor training to the YPRs’ needs and abilities. To ensure that young people’s concerns predominate, we have consulted YPRs at every stage, while constantly checking our own tendencies to want to redirect research toward ‘adult’ concerns. As a result, we are seeing exceptional personal growth as well as group cohesion amongst our YPRs.

For this reason, we consider our participatory approach ‘always already advocacy’. ‘Protection’ is sometimes invoked to deny young people’s participation, but participation can be inherently protective, especially in ASRHR, where knowledge is power. Our training covers basic concepts that help empower kids to know their rights and develop their ASRHR competencies—which they then disseminate to others. Participatory research also fosters better interpersonal communication by modeling healthy relationships within the research process itself (Figure 4).

Social Transformation through Research

Figure 4: Boy and girl YPRs in Magu, Tanzania, come up with research questions together (2017).

One of the most exciting things about conducting research with young people is the transformation we see in the adolescents involved: through the research, they are already opening their communities to more discussion about sensitive subjects (whether it be adolescent sexuality in Bulgaria or violence against young people in Tanzania). Many YPRs are therefore already advocating for healthier relationships in their schools, homes, and communities. Moreover, this approach gradually transforms the way the adults around them view young people, garnering more respect for their roles as social change agents. It will be important to encourage and foster this dialogue further in subsequent advocacy.

The project will be completed in April 2019. In the meantime, the leadership team is already presenting various aspects of the research process and findings in various international conferences and practitioners’ workshops. They will also meet in March to discuss how to disseminate results to various audiences in the study countries and beyond, and to plan an advocacy campaign based on the findings.

Ultimately, we hope not only to gain a greater understanding of adolescents’ own views of healthy relationships but to develop a more appreciative, adolescent-centered, and reflective conceptual framework for participatory research with adolescents.

Reblogged with permission from BlISS.

Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at The International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, The Netherlands. She is author of Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS (Chicago) and co-editor of the new volume, Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification and Objectification (Palgrave).