What are the strengths and limitations of using out-of-school youths as researchers in a study of the relationships among young people of the same group? While youth-to-youth research approaches have increased in both popularity and practice, our understanding of the processes and mechanisms underlying the successes or failures of ‘peer researchers’ is still developing. The study addresses the question through qualitative research, drawing on observations of the process of training out-of-school youths as research fieldworkers, reflections on the interviews with respondents, and focus group discussions with the young fieldworkers. We found striking advantages to using fieldworkers who are close in their characteristics to that of respondents: these included ready access to respondents, the immediate use of language appropriate to the respondents, and an ability to swiftly establish rapport. We also observed striking limitations: the peer researchers struggled with the wish of some respondents to establish supportive friendships with them, they lacked the authority of an academic researcher, and they sometimes resorted to false promises in attempts to get cooperation. The main conclusion drawn is that, in principle, using youths as peer researchers is neither better nor worse than using professional researchers, but each approach can produce its own challenges and possibilities.
Keywords: critical pedagogy, insider/outsider research, qualitative research, research methodology, South Africa, youth-toyouth research
African Journal of AIDS Research 2009, 8(2): 223–230