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Adolescence Research Approaches

Youth-Led Participatory Action Research

By Emily J. Ozer, UC Berkeley School of Public Health

What is Youth-Led Participatory Action Research (YPAR)?

YPAR is a social justice-focused approach for promoting social change and positive youth development in which youth conduct systematic research and actions to improve their schools, communities, and other systems (e.g. health, juvenile justice). YPAR entails an iterative process of research and action led by youth and guided by adult allies.  YPAR is an approach that transforms the power and process of research; it is not a specific research method YPAR studies can use quantitative and/or qualitative methods.

YPAR differs from forms of adult-led research that gather diverse forms of data from youth (or by youth) because in YPAR it is the youth who formulate the research questions and lead the process. Topics taken up by young people in YPAR projects range widely and include reforming school cultures, promoting environmental justice regarding pollution and pesticides, access to healthy foods, reduction in liquor stores, city planning, policing, and cyber-bullying (see links below for case examples).

YPAR is a form of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), as it called in public health, with “global North” roots in social psychology (Kurt Lewin’s action research for organizational improvement) and “global South” roots in political movements for liberation and empowerment (e.g. Paulo Freire’s popular education models). 

Why does YPAR matter for life course intervention research?

When conducted with integrity, YPAR can:

(a) promote positive development for youth who participate in multiple key domains,

(b) help address inequities in youth-serving systems and organizations,

(c) strengthen the relevance of developmental science questions and validity of methods, and

(d) inform intervention design and evaluation.

One way that YPAR can enhance the validity and impact of life course research is by bringing the insider expertise of young people on sensitive topics to shaping the questions we ask, our sampling approaches, our methods, and our sharing-out of findings for impact on policies and systems.  It can also help transform traditional and highly problematic deficit-focused lenses for understanding the development of non-white young people, including the role of racism and other structural inequalities and forms of marginalization (and resistance) for youth of color, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ youth. 

Practitioners and families can also be engaged in forms of partnered or participatory research to bring their expertise. Fundamentally, YPAR raises key questions about who can create developmental science evidence. What is the potential role of young people in creating the evidence base for further research on themselves? 

Learn more (including case examples and curricula for online implementation): 

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