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Issue 12 Winter 1995

Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply by email to

Elicitation techniques with young people

Neal Hazel

Neal Hazel ( is a doctoral student in the Department of Applied Social Science at the University of Stirling. He has an Honours degree in Sociology and Social Policy and a M.Sc. in Applied Social Research, for which he conducted an examination of competing approaches to collecting data from young people. His doctoral thesis focuses on perceptions of physical punishment in Scotland. Neal's other research interests include juvenile justice and the application of the World Wide Web in teaching.

Key points

In response to the increasing importance of young people's views in child care policy and practice, this Update explores factors which may increase communication between researchers and young participants in fieldwork.

Research on the lives of children and adolescents has traditionally neglected the views and voices of the young people themselves. Grounded in the socio-legal concerns of the adult researcher, these studies have been about the 'care' of children, rather than directly involving the active participation of young people in the fieldwork. There has been a tendency to treat young people as passive subjects whose opinions are peripheral to the understanding of the issues which fundamentally affect them.

This traditional marginalisation has mirrored a paternalism in our wider society. Supported by Piagetian developmental theory, adults have generally considered that children and adolescents lack the cognitive skills to contribute to important decision making processes in their lives.

In recent years, however, such a position has been challenged from both the scientific and political communities. Psychological research has recognised children's competence to assimilate and report their views, highlighting cognitive capabilities from a very young age. This has been accompanied by a political shift towards 'giving greater weight to what children say' (Harding, 1991:194). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Children Act (1989) are two of the more prominent moves endorsing giving greater credence to the voice of the child.

Such developments necessitate a comparable revolution in social research involving children. Researchers can make valuable contributions to current debates and future policy by recognising and presenting the views of young people.

Any move in this direction is, however, not without methodological difficulties. Although young people may have the cognitive skills to form opinions, the adult status of the researcher may cause problems in eliciting, collecting and interpreting their thoughts. The researcher will need to cross the cultural and communicative divide which has characterised the paternal adult-child relationship.

This Update explores factors which may influence confidence and communication in the research relationship, enabling adult researchers to bridge the 'generation gap' present in fieldwork with young people. The article focuses on the setting for fieldwork and various forms of stimuli which may offer those on both sides of the research relationship a concrete platform on which to build and communicate ideas.

The observations are drawn from recent fieldwork undertaken in Scottish schools involving 11 to 14 year old pupils (Hazel, 1995). The study was concerned with examining the effectiveness of employing a variety of qualitative methods when researching young people.

Fieldwork setting

There must be a fine balance in the setting chosen for fieldwork between the privacy needed for confidential data collection and the setting's 'openness' to public scrutiny needed for assuring the personal safety of a vulnerable young person. Failure in either of these two areas may destroy the young person's confidence in the fieldwork relationship and place both the research and researcher in jeopardy.

A confidential setting is necessary if young participants are to provide uninhibited information. They may fear repercussions from others or feel the need to fulfil expectations, particularly those of adult authority figures like carers or teachers (Koocher & Keith-Spiegal, 1994:55). This may be particularly difficult to avoid within a close home environment.

Conversely, a situation which lacks the possibility of outside 'inspection' or assistance may leave the participant feeling vulnerable or isolated, and lay the researcher open to post hoc accusations of abuse. Researchers should try to find a room for interviews which provides a reasonable degree of audible privacy, but where physical activity is visible to others. Schools may be able to provide classrooms with large windows facing public areas. Researchers may also ease concerns about personal safety by agreeing to a police check to confirm that they do not have a record.


Vignettes (Finch, 1987) may be a particularly useful tool to use at the beginning of an interview. Asking whether anyone would like to read out a short story may break the ice by encouraging someone other than the researcher to gain confidence from speaking.

Vignettes in both group and individual interviews provide concrete examples of people and their behaviour on which participants can offer comment and opinion. The researcher can then facilitate a discussion around the opinions expressed, or particular terms used in the participant's comments. During the ensuing conversation, the participants are able to ease the transition to discussing concepts on a more abstract level by drawing on particular events outlined in the short story. As the participants gain confidence, the use of these reference points may decrease, allowing the topic under discussion to widen to new areas.

Information flows more freely from young people when discussing an issue on which they hold strong political or moral views. As such, the more inappropriate or controversial the behaviour featured in the vignette, the more confident they might feel about offering a response.

Pictures and photographs

The presentation of photographs and pictures is an effective way to obtain the full attention of a young participant, demanding full concentration from both eyes and mind. The physical nature of paper pictures also appear to help relax participants, providing them with an object to handle. In addition, young participants utilise the pictures as a visual anchor when explaining their views. They may frequently consult the image for personal reassurance or refer to the paper as evidence for the researcher.

The use of pictures or photographs allows participants to construct hypothetical stories and suggestions about what might have been happening during the captured episode. This is taking the vignette a stage further by encouraging children's free imagination in play (Pollard, 1987:99). Young participants seem more enthusiastic and confident about telling their versions of stories than commenting on vignettes created by the researcher. Such enthusiasm encourages the free flow of information, although this can be rather difficult to control in a large group situation.

Both pictures and vignettes provide the opportunity to explore behaviour and issues by speculating on the feelings and interests of the actors. Researchers constructing stimuli should note that, although capable of empathising with members of the opposite sex, young participants seem to concentrate on characters or figures from their own sex.

Personification of concepts

Young people are prepared and able to discuss complex concepts if they are seen to be encapsulated by a physical person they have encountered or heard about. This can be used to advantage by encouraging participants to associate a concept or emotion with a particular person familiar to, and chosen by them. For instance, prompting a participant to think of a character or person who they would describe as 'evil' and then referring to the actions of, say, Adolf Hitler may help in examining the otherwise abstract concept in depth.

Quotations and phrases

The presentation by the researcher of well known quotations or phrases was useful in encouraging strong opinions from participants. These may be catchphrases or titles from popular culture, statements by prominent figures, proverbs, or even quotations from the Bible.

Many proverbs and more traditional sayings used by adults may be considered 'old-fashioned' and spark a flow of verbal indignation from participants. Young people demonstrate a very keen sense of their own 'political correctness' in response to sayings which encroach on subjects close to their hearts, such as, 'a woman's place is in the home' or 'children should be seen and not heard'.

These phrases, used in fieldwork last year, were found to be familiar to most participants. However, young people may be more familiar with recent adaptations of phrases than their original form. More than one participant referred to a high profile road safety and advertising campaign, "Children should be seen and not hurt".

Popular culture

Young people have a broad awareness of popular culture and media events. In my own research, I have found that these areas may provide successful sources of stimulation for data, though with interesting gender preferences. Female rather than male participants seem to focus on fictional culture, and particularly soap operas. There may be the opportunity to broach issues of importance in the participant's life, by referring to problems faced by characters in topical soaps and children's television programmes.

Males tend towards factual accounts and hard news, although both sexes do seem to be aware of topical news stories, such as wars and criminal investigations. Importantly, the participants seem to gain comfort from their own knowledge and the common ground held with the adult researcher. Newspapers provide a useful source of visual stimuli in the form of headlines or photographs. Introducing wider political concerns, such as drug abuse and unemployment, may also stimulate a powerful and considered response.

Problem setting

Researchers can also stimulate discussion by asking young participants to propose a solution to a practical problem related to the topic of research. The researcher can then explore the reasons and more abstract beliefs behind the chosen solution, with the participant retaining the ability to support their comments with reference to the original answer. Participants seem particularly willing to deal with problems involved in caring for people of their own or a younger age.

This type of stimulus may be combined with the affinity of young people for popular culture by presenting a problem in the style of a teenage magazine problem page. If an actual magazine letter which deals with the topic being researched is found, it may be possible to develop a discussion around the editorial reply.

Rules and regulations

Presenting a rule or regulation as a topic for discussion can act as a starting point for discussing a participant's view of appropriate behaviour and any wider cultural code which may underpin that view. Participants can evaluate the rule or its implementation, providing their explanation of why the rule might exist and the possible consequences of breaking the rule. Both school rules and criminal law prompt strong opinions from young people, who may offer suggestions on how they might be altered or reasons for their abolition.

Reassurance from the researcher

In addition to using constructed stimuli, researchers can increase the flow of data through the use of various prompts and reassurances. Participants can be encouraged to keep talking by the use of neutral acknowledgements such as repeating a participant's phrase and showing interest through head nodding and regular eye contact. In an interview, a reassuring statement of difficulty may limit the damage caused by an out of place question. Giving direct praise for responses may relax the participant, but the researcher may be perceived as making a moral judgement (Woods, 1986:7). As such, praise should be used sparingly, and on occasions which do not reflect opinion, such as in relation to the participant's memory recall.

Conversely, the inclusion of deliberate pauses after the young person has stopped speaking may also indicate that the researcher was engrossed in what the participant had to say (Strathclyde Regional Council, 1993:26) and encourage them to keep talking.

It is also important to relieve pressure from participants by reassuring them that there are no correct or incorrect responses to any issues which may arise. Fear of false perceptions may be more likely in an educational setting where tests are a familiar occurrence.


This Update has explored factors which assist a researcher in gaining the confidence and co-operation of young people. Although not all children from every age group will feel comfortable reading vignettes, the other techniques can generally be adopted to encourage all those capable of basic communication with adults.

The article has been primarily concerned with techniques for eliciting perceptions and views from young people, rather than obtaining factual information (Rich, 1968:5). Nevertheless, the techniques would be suitable for relaxing young participants and introducing issues prior to questioning even for studies requiring more specific 'factual' answers.

When eliciting information from young people, researchers should be aware that damaging situations, such as experience of abuse, may be revealed. Researchers must tackle in advance ethical decisions surrounding confidentiality and adult responsibility. In some cases, appropriate action may include providing the participant with information on where to find advice and help.

Many of the techniques considered may be suitable for use with a number of formal qualitative methods. However, the need to adapt stimuli in response to the level of communication does suggest more interactive methods, such as in-depth interviewing, when researching young people.


Finch, J. (1987) 'The vignette technique in survey research' Sociology, vol.21, no.1, pp. 105-114.

Harding, L.F. (1991) Perspectives in child care policy. London: Longman

Hazel, N. (1995) Seen and Heard: An examination of methods for collecting data from young people. Unpublished MSc. thesis, University of Stirling

Koocher, G.P. & Kieth-Spiegal, P. (1994) 'Scientific issues in psychological and educational research with children'. In Goldin, M.A. & Glantz, L.H. (eds): Children as research subjects. Oxford: University Press

Rich, J. (1968) Interviewing children and adolescents. London: Macmillan Press

Pollard, A. (1987) 'Studying children's perspectives: a collaborative approach'. In Walford, G. (ed.) Doing sociology of education Lewes: Falmer

Strathclyde Regional Council (1993) Guidelines on the interviewing of children. Glasgow: Strathclyde Regional Council

Woods, P. (1986) Inside schools. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Further reading

Boggs, S.R. & Eyberg, S. (1990) 'Interviewing techniques and establishing rapport'. In Greca, A.M. (ed): Through the eyes of the child. Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Butler, I. & Williamson, H. (1994) Children speak. Harlow: Longman.

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Edited by Nigel Gilbert.

Winter 1995 © University of Surrey

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