Interview: former Young Lives' Director Jo Boyden on the launch of the ESRC project

10 December 2019

This interview is part of a blog series for the Methodological lessons and learning in longitudinal research project. Young Lives will be sharing reflections of its methodology over the coming months: including interviews, blogs, videos, podcasts and reports to support building a community of practice in longitudinal research in low- and middle income countries, and opening 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.

Why was it important to you to be involved in the ESRC funded Methodological project?

Jo: When I took over as Director of Young Lives in 2005, there was very little information on the practicalities and design of longitudinal research in low-income countries and as an anthropologist, I didn’t have a background in it. Having worked with the study for all these years, I’ve come to really appreciate the value of longitudinal data and realise that the field needs a lot more promotion, particularly in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Exchanging methodological challenges and learning with others involved in this work seemed to be a useful step in that direction.

Why was it important to you that Young Lives share its learning in longitudinal research?

Jo: Even though there has been growing interest in longitudinal research in developing countries since 2005, including among donors, there still isn’t much guidance out there. This is partly because researchers don’t tend to share their mistakes—mostly they communicate what’s gone well without explaining the hurdles they encountered along the way. And donors who support this kind of research are often reluctant to invest in methodological learning when getting research results out is a far bigger priority. I have been very lucky to learn from my Young Lives colleagues, many of whom are extremely experienced in longitudinal research, but there’s no template and we’ve often had to resort to trial and error.

What information do you imagine you'll be sharing?

Jo: A lot of our methodological materials are available on the Young Lives website, for example our ethics and qualitative research protocols and analyses of the characteristics of our sample. These instruments have certainly driven our work over the years, but they’re not reflective, so they don’t say ‘why did we use this instrument in particular?’, ‘how did this instrument perform and what were its limitations?’ I’m regularly asked questions like this about our methodology, as well as other topics such as how have we have managed to keep levels of sample attrition down, or compensated participants for their time. I have even been asked if there is a manual on designing and administering longitudinal research in LMICs; the short answer is ‘no, there isn't’.

I don’t want people to think they can simply take stuff ‘off-the-shelf’ and it’ll automatically work for them. I want them to know the real experience behind our findings, and learn where the pitfalls and opportunities might be. But there’s more to it; Young Lives doesn’t have all the answers and we can’t claim that our work is invariably best practice so I’m really hoping to learn from and generate a dialogue with others. For instance, while we’re quite strong on the ethics of social research, we don’t know much about the kind of long-term ethical issues involved in collecting biomarkers through blood and other samples. We really want to involve others, and learn from other experts, as well as gaining insight into what sort of resources researchers are looking for, which is why we’ve also started with a quick survey to help us steer the project.