Does participation in a longitudinal study of childhood poverty affect the aspirations of participating children and families?

You know a conference was good when fragments of talks and conversations continue to float around your head sparking new ideas and inspiration days after the event has ended. Last week (26-27 March), I participated in ‘Theorising young people’s aspirations in a global context: an interdisciplinary conference’ held at Brunel University, London. The conference aimed to ‘advance conceptual understanding of how young people form, experience and deploy aspiration; the global institutions and processes that shape young people’s aspirations; and the outcomes of aspiration for young people and wider society’. Mine was one of 38 papers that together covered a mix of disciplines and country contexts, from Brazil to Bangladesh, to England and Ethiopia.

My contribution was to the conference’s methodology stream that invited reflection on the question of how we go about ‘knowing aspirations’. I shared learning from Young Lives, a study that, for the past 15 years, has surveyed 12,000 girls and boys and their families in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam, to investigate the role of poverty in children’s life trajectories. I’ve been a researcher with the study for over a decade, and with others, I often wonder how participation in the study might have altered the behaviours and outcomes of the research participants -- despite the study’s observational, non-interventionist design. Researchers within this multidisciplinary study bring diverse perspectives to this question. A more positivist approach emphasises the study’s observational (non-interventionist) design, such that the research should neither change the lives nor influence the phenomena under investigation. A more interpretivist approach accepts that the research endeavour is a co-production of knowledge and meaning involving researchers and their interlocutors in a complex relationship.

My talk explored whether researchers’ efforts to ‘know’ young people’s aspirations may have resulted in changing participants’ aspirations, albeit in unintended ways. To address this question, I examined data from qualitative interviews generated with a sub-set of the children and families, and looked specifically at references relating to aspirations. The answer to this question was, of course, not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. 

Here, I give examples of how the study attempted to minimise the effect it had on the research sample, and I share evidence of some of the unintended changes we have documented along the way.


Managing expectations of research participants

Much effort was made by researchers during recruitment into the study and during subsequent data collection visits to manage the expectations of the study participants, to reiterate that they would not benefit directly from being part of the study. But even after many years and continued explanations, some families remained hopeful of receiving benefit.

In the following example from India, a researcher asked a mother of one of the study children whether she had any questions about the research.  

Caregiver            I heard there are people who get support from foreigners but there is nothing that she got in the past 8 years. Sometimes, I say what is the benefit of this registration? What is the advantage that we are interviewed all the time?

Researcher         Didn’t the interviewers like me tell you that this is only research and does not have any financial support?

Caregiver            They had told me so; but I always expect something for my child.

Likewise, in Peru, a father misinterpreted what would happen at the end of the study:

Father                   So you’re saying that when they turn 15 years old, you’re going to take them where? To Lima?

Interviewer        No (laughs) … We’re not going to steal Belen. Don’t worry, we’re not going to take her… We will come visit again.

That the study might someday take the children to a different place - to the city or to another country – was for some families a concern and worry, and for other families, it was a hope and valid way for the study to help their children. Researchers reiterated that the study could not facilitate the children’s relocation.


Participants’ understandings of the study changed over time

Generally, participants’ understandings of the nature of their participation in the study became more accurate over time, and they readjusted their expectations.

I thought that you will take me to some other place, you will do some things. I said that I would not go. You were not asking everybody, you were asking just 2 or 4 persons only. You were asking in different areas. I was confused at the time. (Rahmatulla, India)

We came to know, you come to ask about our problems, but you are not going to solve them. (Prasad, India)


Help and advice

However, the passage of time and repeat study visits to the same families (in some cases, by the same researchers) meant that families increasingly looked to the research teams for advice, information and contacts:

You studied a lot about the children. You are like their family. I’d be happy if you gave us guidance on how they can grow and improve their lives. (Habtamu’s father, Ethiopia)

Some researchers felt torn and unsure where to draw the line when the families expected them to act outside of their assigned researcher roles. In the following example, the parents of one of the older boys who had left school pled with one of the researchers to intervene on their behalf:

[His father] also asked me to call Nhat (boy) and “advise him to go back to school” or learn about what Nhat was thinking … I really thought that his requests for me were quite difficult because according to the rules, I should not and would not be allowed to give any personal advice to the children. Therefore, in this situation, I did not know what I should do… his request and actions were not easy for me at all… (Researcher, Vietnam)

In this way, families tried to mobilise researchers to aid their aspirations for themselves and their children.


Aspirations and role models

Being part of the research has created new - and reinforced existing - expectations in the lives of some of the children, for example, with respect to expectations for migration or for particular careers. Some researchers became well-respected by families and were unintentional role models for the children:

[Y]ou must have gone through a lot of hardships to study… If Sarada works hard, maybe she will reach a position like you. (Sarada’s mother, India)

One of the older girls became pregnant during the study and she looked to the  researchers as role models for her child:

I want my children to be like you people. You came for research work… They might not be as great as you are but I want them to be something like you. If they have good education then they can work like you people.


Knowledge and self-awareness

Children and, to a lesser degree, parents/caregivers spoke about positive personal changes resulting from being part of the study. Young people mainly noted changes in how they saw themselves and the world around them. 

I believe that I have acquired better knowledge compared to other children who are not part of the study. I was telling them the things you have been doing. (Kassaye, Ethiopia)

The issues which the program enquires into help me recall memories to reflect on my past experience. (Binh, Vietnam)

By asking so many questions, you bring to mind so many things. It is like sharpening the mind… With this study I became aware of my own thoughts… Usually I don’t think about myself… (Keerthi, India)

The study did not ask parents to change their attitudes or behaviours, nor their parenting styles or investments. However, participation in the study motivated some parents to re-evaluate their lives and, in some cases, to make changes in them: 

First of all, I feel honoured, the research program would affect my thinking, my family’s thinking… The mindset of parents will change in some way. … You come here to evaluate our lives so I have to try so much harder… Even in terms of raising the children, and everything else… We need to enhance our capability. (Binh’s mother, Vietnam)

In the following example, one of the mothers in Ethiopia described becoming more mindful of her household expenditure as a result of having to report this in the quantitative survey:

The study is good. It helps us to understand how to follow up the lives of our children. However, some of the questions in the quantitative survey are difficult… questions about the weekly, monthly and yearly income and expenditure… At the same time, the questions are interesting because they taught us to have records of our weekly, monthly and yearly income and expenditure... I am happy to be involved in the study. (Habtamu’s mother, Ethiopia)


Expectations placed on the study

The longer the study ran, the more heightened families’ expectations of the study became. Families wanted to know why their households or communities had not improved after so many years of taking part in the study. Parents wanted tailored findings about or advice for their individual children. Some families made specific requests regarding the end of the study and their desire for assistance for their children to find jobs, access education, migrate, provide dowry for girls’ marriage, and purchase land or housing.


Aspirations for the future of the study and participants’ relationship with it

Many participants had aspirations for the future of study that extended beyond the lifetime of the research.  Many parents had valued the opportunity provided by the study for their children to mix with other children in a group (for research activities), and they wanted this to continue after the study ended.

Not everyone who agreed to participate in this long-term research desired an ongoing relationship. Some families were content to mark an end to their voluntary participation in the study after 15 years, as they had fulfilled their initial promise.

But many children, families and researchers wanted to stay in touch. Researchers may be unable or unwilling to live up to the expectations of participants who request sustained contact after the study ends. Moreover, some researchers may feel guilty when vulnerable participants do not benefit directly from their participation and for whom suffering is ongoing (cf. Madziva 2015). Researchers were frequently torn between the generous impulse ‘to do something’ and the need to restrain from intervening in families’ lives and in children’s outcomes.


Bringing it back to the conference

The ‘Theorising Aspirations’ conference was a valuable opportunity to engage with other researchers interested in unpacking the concept of ‘aspirations’ in research. I hope to have opened up some challenging questions, not only about the methods of ‘how’ we go about researching aspirations with young people, but, importantly, what might be the ethical implications of such research.

Is it ethical to involve impoverished children in research about their aspirations with no intention of resourcing or supporting them? Do we raise children’s expectations by simply asking them to imagine their future selves? In my view, the answers are ethically ambiguous, since asking about aspirations can also be an important process in ethically-informed research.

By tracking changes in children’s aspirations over time, we have learned so much about what motivates and what matters to marginalised children and families; their orientations towards schooling and work; what causes children to adjust their aspirations in the face of shocks and difficulties; and, crucially, what supports some children to achieve their aspirations and to fare well as young adults, despite growing up in poverty and hardship.


Find related discussions around our research approach on social media with #YLLearnings and details of our research ethics here.