Young people as co-researchers blazing a trail to sustainable well-being
Nina Tokola (presenter) and Irmeli Mustalahti, University of Eastern Finland
Keywords: co-research, parallel pathways, research ethics, young people
” Themes like sustainability and climate have traveled with me for quite a while already…Co-research
has rather been an empowering circle for me than something unbalancing” (Co-researcher 1).
We would like to challenge established thinking by arguing that knowledge co-creation is essential for
understanding young people’s interests and values concerning sustainable well-being and for
including these in decision-making processes. We see knowledge co-creation as two-way processes
and as genuine interaction between scientists, young people, inter-action partners of research
projects, decision-makers, and the public audience. Harley and Benington (2000) argue that co-
research gives the possibility to create a dialectical process of enquiry by drawing on the
complementary perspectives, skills and knowledge bases of academics and their interaction partners.
An inevitable challenge in participatory action research is connected to “learning to hear the voices
we do not know how to hear” (Cook-Sather 2007, 394). Knowledge co-creation is time-demanding and
comes with challenges, for example power hierarchies. Co-research is chosen as a research approach
to allow us to develop and study trajectories that young people, aged 16-29 years, consider relevant.
Co-research is seen to fix the asymmetry of power relations between young people and researchers.
Pyyry (2012, 37) defines co-research as “participation of people under study in the implementation of
the research and considering them as capable actors who have knowledge about their own world”.
Within participatory action research strategy, we invite young people to participate in ALL-YOUTH
research project as experts of their own lives and as co-researchers with their personal values,
interests, and motivations. We adapt an approach in which co-research with young people can be
understood as parallel pathways: the researcher jointly with the young people affirms that the latter
have pathways that motivate and give direction to their participation (Lohmeyer, 2019). Pathways
may include for example the reason for participation, the method of engagement or the goals being
pursued through the research encounter. Lohmeyer argues that by so doing, researchers can value
young people's reasons for participation. The parallel pathways approach avoids positioning the
participants as disempowered or disinterested. In this study we aim to find out whether co-research
can mean more inclusive research. We highlight the “ethical moments” to increase understanding on
what type of considerations are important while planning and conducting co-research with young
people. We discuss the possibilities and challenges of the parallel pathways approach based on six co-
research processes related to sustainable well-being.
Young people were invited to become familiar with the ALL-YOUTH research project through various
events, workshops and mailing lists, as well as via project partner collaboration. Those interested who
wished to stay engaged with research activities longer, from a few months to two years, were
introduced to the idea of co-research. Two co-research boot camps were organized in November 2018
and May 2019, where basics of research, ethics and methods were explained and where participants
individually chose their preferred methods. Four co-researchers chose autoethnography as their main
method and two engaged with peer-interviewing. The theoretical framework of sustainable well-being
was introduced and discussed during the boot camps and the co-researchers´ parallel pathways were
gradually identified, and there were also regular meetings (Ponder-cafés), joint ALL-YOUTH events and
research activities. The co-researchers participated, each in their chosen way, in various phases of
research process, planning, data production, analysis, and writing. They participated in delivering
research results to various audiences, and in presenting their views in public events, like seminars and
panel discussions. Some participated in co-creation of the Circular Knowledge-model and some
contributed to different statements and position papers written jointly with academic researchers.
In-depth co-researcher interviews
For this paper, five young co-researchers were interviewed by the first author during August and
September 2020 on their experiences as co-researchers during the years 2018-2020. One co-
researcher delivered her views in a written form. A set of thematic questions was prepared to guide
the in-depth and dialogical interviews. The interviews were conducted partly face-to-face and partly
on-line depending on the co-researchers´ wishes. One interview was conducted as a walking interview
(Kinney 2017) on a forested nature trail in line with the co-researcher’s wish. The questions were
about the original reasons for participating in the ALL-YOUTH research project as co-researcher, and
about personal goals for the process. Moreover, parallel pathways were identified and the scope of
commitment to conduct co-research was discussed. Part of the questions tackled the technical
realization of the process: the acquired new knowledge needed as co-researcher, the methods
selected and their application, the scope of the tasks conducted as co-researcher, and ethical
challenges met along the way. The questions were designed to open up discussion through which we
could better understand whether the parallel pathways approach can balance the power hierarchies
between researchers and researched young people and hence increase the quality of research.
Thematic analysis was used to interpret the interview data.
There were several ways the co-research approach benefited and enabled co-researchers personally
to develop skills and to advance along their parallel pathways, such as increasing in confidence and
self-efficacy, establishing a sense of belonging, and gaining professional and social experiences. A
young female co-researcher describes her experience as follows: ”They [academic researchers] have
been interested in hearing more about my own projects and about my knowledge and my views. My
ideas have contributed something essential to the research project… I do feel that they are proud of
me as co-researcher and they let me represent and participate in the name of the project” (Co-
researcher 1). The two co-researchers who engaged in the peer-interview method said that it enabled
them to have a sense of ownership of the project, and taught patience and perseverance with research
work. “It was better that I got to work on my own without someone commanding or giving advice. It
was needed in the beginning, but later it was better to try my own wings… Otherwise I would not have
learned from my own mistakes” (Co-researcher 5). All six co-researchers’ pathways are unique;
however, according to interviews, they all considered their pathways were parallel to the ALL-YOUTH
themes and activities. The co-research approach committed to inclusion and succeeded (to some
extent) to redress the imbalance in the power relations between academic researcher and co-
researcher. One co-researcher portrays her thoughts as:” I sometimes have wondered –what am I
doing in this crowd? But the interaction is such that you forget about the hierarchy” (Co-researcher 2).
Co-research was also described by all interviewees as an important process through which they were
heard and listened to and their ideas were published and executed.
Co-research also challenged us with ethical moments along the way. The interviews taught us
that it would be unfair to expect co-researchers to undertake tasks they have neither skills nor abilities
to undertake. At times, some co-researchers´ capabilities would have needed more strengthening
than what was offered, and some regretted that their time resources ran out. Based on the interviews
we note that, optimally, co-researchers may develop a sense of independence and ownership within
the project through promotion of parallel pathways. These kinds of successes, however, do not come
without continuous work on balancing the power asymmetries related to knowledge, age, cultures,
and time- and financial resources. Apart from recognizing co-researchers´ contribution through
payments, it is of paramount importance to build other forms of recognition through which co-
researchers may feel they are involved and are important and equal partners in the research along
with academic researchers. Engaging in research was considered as a tangible opportunity by the co-
researchers, because it offered not only an opportunity to investigate topical phenomena but also
provided a possibility to do concrete things and have an impact on society.
To produce ethically sound and inclusive co-research, first, a mandatory requirement is to provide
young participants with a tailor-made course on co-research. Training should be developed to
generate interest and to introduce co-researchers to the research approach, methods, and ethics.
Training should be a two-way process in which researchers also learn from co-researchers about their
insights into the context in which the research would be undertaken. Second, following Collier´s (2019,
48) notion, co-research can be seen in terms of an ongoing negotiation of consent and assent. Even
though strong relationships were built with the co-researchers in this study, we noted a regular need
to discuss their motivations and willingness to continue working with us, and about what and how
openly they wished to share. One of the goals of co-research is to honor the perspectives and
contributions of young people as research participants. Thus, the academic researcher needs to have
the right attitude and tools to engage in co-research. (S)he will have to accept not being able to control
the whole research process, but instead to take a position on the backseat. The responsibility of
managing the risks of the research process stays with the researcher, however, and we believe that
this backseat management-setting is the key for building mutual trust and creating space for agency.
Co-research at its best can be a two-way-inclusive capacity-building experience for all participating in
it. But only if the research allows her/him to participate in inclusive interaction, regardless of his/her
educational background, disabilities, ethnicity, or any other diversity aspect.
This study was conducted within the ‘ALL-YOUTH want to rule their world’ research project funded by
the Strategic Research Council, decision numbers 312689 and 312692.
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Kinney, P. (2017). Walking interviews. Social Research Update 67, 1-4.
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Pyyry, N. (2012) Nuorten osallisuus tutkimuksessa: Menetelmällisiä kysymyksiä ja vastausyrityksiä.
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