From Observing the Active Ones to Listening to the Outsiders? The contents, methods and blind spots of research on youth work

Ville Pöysä

(In Finnish: Aktiivisten havainnoinnista ulkopuolisten kuuntelemiseen? Nuorisotyön tutkimuksen sisällöt, menetelmät ja katvealueet)

A central problem in research on youth work is that research knowledge has been fragmentary and scattered. This wide-ranging review of research on youth work and its blind spots strives to correct this problem. The review explores what types of themes and objects of research are emphasized in research on youth work and which thematic areas have received less attention.

The material for the review comprised an approximately 60-page list presenting the research question, a characterization of the material, the research methods and the main conclusions of each study falling within the scope of this review’s definition. Only research on municipal youth work was included in the review because the information available about the youth work done by organizations is limited and because discussion between municipal youth work and church youth work remains scant. Textbook-like works and project reports have also been left in the background unless they have consciously sought to participate in the development of research on youth work. The review has paid particular attention to the nature and quality of the material.

The results of the analysis of research on youth work are encapsulated in five key areas of blind spots: 1) The presence of young adults is missing from research on youth work, and likewise from youth work itself. The Youth Act defines the scope of youth work as encompassing everyone under 29 years of age, but the needs of young adults are neither heard nor studied in youth work. 2) Research on youth work does not know what kind of services those remaining or left outside the sphere of youth work would want. 3) Research on youth work is limited in scope regionally, and mostly involves research on activities in the greater Helsinki area and large municipalities. 4) The research methods employed in research on youth work are limited in scope; quantitative data and, in particular, data provided by research utilizing longitudinal materials would be needed. 5) Very little is known about the impacts of youth work on the life course of young people, although such information would be an important aspect, especially with regard to the justifications for youth work activities.

The results of the analysis give reason to ask whether research on youth work should be directed from the observation of active young people to include listening also to quiet young people who are missing from activities or who have already left them behind, even if this would be a more challenging choice from the research perspective.