"If I were to do this all again," reflections from former Young Lives' Director Jo Boyden

11 December 2019

This reflection is part of a blog series for the Methodological lessons and learning in longitudinal research project. Over coming months, Young Lives will share reflections on its methodology captured in interviews, blogs, videos, podcasts and reports designed to support building a community of practice in longitudinal research in low- and middle income countries, and open a dialogue. We welcome your feedback and your involvement.

To kick off the series we sat down with Young Lives' former director Jo Boyden, who will be sharing her reflections over the course of the project. In this blog she looks back at when she started working with Young Lives; future blogs will consider a wide range of topics concerning research governance and impact.

You took over the role of Director in 2005, from your experience now, what do you wish you had known when you first started in the role?

There are many things I’d like to have known but I’ll mention just two.

Policymaking: I wish I’d known from the beginning just how unpredictable policy decision-making processes can be, and how hard it is to prove that your research is impacting policy. I would have invested more in communications and done more analysis of how government officials and other key stakeholders in our study countries make decisions. We have had very little time to do that; although the survey rounds are three years apart the schedule is very tight, with designing and piloting the instruments, gathering and analysing the data and so on. Even now, after 18 years of Young Lives research, we still can’t always tell how a particular policy or programme decision was made - while research evidence is of great importance, it is often only one among several determining factors.

So I am always asking myself, how can we ensure policymakers will use our evidence? The challenge is partly about the complexity and volatility of policy environments. One moment a particular policy concern may be top priority and the next it’s gone out of fashion. Plus, policy planning processes vary widely. Research teams need to be very agile in adapting their policy engagement strategies to national contexts. Due to systems of government, historic structures and cultural differences it can be more beneficial to work with media and civil society in some countries, while it can be best to align very closely with government in others.

But it’s also a matter of research design. Cross-sectional research can be tailored to specific policies and deliver findings relatively quickly, but you can’t do that with longitudinal research. The whole point in longitudinal studies is to get repeated observations of the same variables over time, so you can’t suddenly change the direction of your enquiry just because policy interests shift. More challenging still, often the most significant findings from longitudinal research emerge years after studies were initiated. All the more frustratingly, you don’t always know what the most important questions are until after you’ve already gathered all your data—but then this can offer a good opportunity to start a new line of research!

Quantitative vs Qualitative research: The second thing I wish I’d known is just how difficult it can be to reconcile the kind of survey-based methodology that typifies longitudinal studies with a commitment to situate children and young people centre stage in research about their lives. I came to Young Lives with a strong interest in research that draws directly on the experiences and perspectives of children and young people; indeed this was one of the chief reasons I was recruited as the Director. However, the main data collection tools in surveys are questionnaires and tests and while these can provide powerful statistical evidence concerning the universal features of human development and experience, they offer limited scope for incorporating young people’s perspectives. Young Lives began with survey questionnaires—before I was involved—so we are generally more researcher than participant led. We did introduce qualitative research in 2006, but it was quite late in the day by then and I can’t claim that Young Lives’ research priorities are the same as the priorities of the children we talk to and their families. Starting with qualitative research means that you can get a sense of the things that matter to participants, how they view their worlds and the contexts they’re living in and these views can be taken into account in survey design. 

One thing we have found is that both research approaches have a vital role to play, even in policy impact. Statistics may have considerable authority in policy circles, but policymakers also want to hear directly from young people and often it is an individual life story that pulls on their heartstrings and gets them interested in a topic. Whenever possible we have tried to respond to the interests of policymakers by combining statistical and qualitative evidence. Two examples are Changing lives in a changing world  and  “Nothing is impossible for me”: Stories from Young Lives Children. These publications tell the stories of individual children, each one of which speaks to a particular policy challenge highlighted by the statistical findings, for example early marriage and parenthood among girls, or children’s difficulties in combining school and work. So while the challenges of mixing methods remain, outputs such as these provide a great opener for conversations with policy stakeholders and practitioners about intervention opportunities, options and approaches.

Read the first in this interview series with Jo Boyden, where she talks about the launch of the ESRC methodological project, here.