Ethox Seminar: ‘The families give so much, we give so little’: The ethics of research reciprocity in Young Lives, a 15 year international study of childhood poverty

Young Lives (2002-2017) is the first cross-national, longitudinal, mixed methods, multi-generational, child-focussed, policy-engaged study of its kind to have been carried out in the developing world. It uses survey questionnaires and qualitative interviews to trace the life trajectories of 12,000 children growing up in poverty in Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states), Peru and Vietnam. It is designed as a long-term observational study, so actively avoids interventions that might alter the sample. That the study relies on the ongoing participation of vulnerable children and families raises ethical challenges with respect to research reciprocity, and these challenges are exacerbated the longer the study goes on.

In this presentation, I draw on the experiences documented by the qualitative research team over a seven-year period (2007-2014), including the recorded accounts of the children, families and fieldworkers most directly involved in the generation of data ‘on the ground’. I draw on classic anthropological theories of ‘gift exchange’ (Mauss 1924) to describe and explain the way reciprocal relations were created, maintained and challenged in the study, and I offer concrete examples from qualitative fieldwork in the four study countries. Reciprocal relations were experienced in different ways, on the one hand, as a ‘constrained ethics’ giving rise to tensions and frustrations; for example, participants do not gain any material benefit by being part of the study and fieldworkers are asked not to give personal gifts or contacts to families. On the other hand, a ‘transformative ethics’ was also at play and created a generative space for new capacities, identities, relationships and data. Long-term research collaboration with vulnerable children and families has meant developing an ethical literacy that acknowledges both constraints and transformative potential, and is best understood as an evolving, negotiated, imperfect process over time.


Please note: If you are not a member of the Ethox Team and are planning on coming, please email Jane Beinart.