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Youth Researching Youth: “Trading On” Subcultural Capital in Peer Research Methodologies

by Karen Nairn, Jane Higgins & Judith Sligo - June 09, 2007

Background/Context: Historically, research about children and young people was done by proxy, by talking to their parents and teachers. In recent decades, researchers have developed ways to collect data directly from children and young people. More recently still, there have been attempts to collaborate with young people in the conduct of research, including youth researching youth, often referred to as peer research. The Clark and Moss article “Researching With: Ethical and Epistemological Implications of Doing Collaborative, Change-Orientated Research With Teachers and Students,” published in Teachers College Record in 1996, was a catalyst for this article.

Focus of Study: Using the concepts of cultural and subcultural capital, we seek to provide a theoretical framework for understanding some of the successes and limitations of a peer research methodology. Reporting on our experiences of this methodology across three research projects, we show how youth researchers’ subcultural and cultural capitals were assets to research teams that included adult and youth researchers.

Setting: We report from three research projects in which we employed young people to conduct research with their peers. The research about young people’s participation in local government was conducted in shopping malls, schools, youth conferences, and local government offices. The research about high school students’ rights was conducted in four different high schools. The research about post–high school transitions was conducted in and outside school spaces.

Participants: A total of 15 peer researchers participated across the three studies. All were young adults in their last year of high school or had recently finished high school.

Research Design: The article is based on data collected via debriefing interviews with 15 peer researchers. We present a theoretical framework for understanding the successes and limitations of a peer research methodology and draw on our data to make four distinct theoretical arguments about the employment of young people as researchers.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Our four theoretical points are: (1) peer researchers’ subcultural capital enabled the establishment of rapport with their interviewees; (2) peer researchers also have cultural capital (like adult researchers); (3) adult researchers might overlook subcultural capital because of its subcultural (and often invisible) status; and (4) there are limits to advantages accruing to a project that trades on the subcultural capital of peer researchers. We conclude by arguing that the theoretical concepts of subcultural and cultural capitals provide a rationale for constituting research teams on the basis of different capitals and knowledges, and a way of acknowledging young people’s contributions as researchers of their peers.


Adults planning to research with, rather than about, young people increasingly recognize the importance of involving young people in the conduct of the research itself. This reflects broader desires in qualitative research to avoid the objectification and disempowerment of research participants. Researchers have attempted diverse ways of involving their subjects, including the employment of researchers who are members of the group being researched (Alder & Sandor, 1990; Clark & Moss, 1996; Dyck, 1997; Jones, 2004), using members of the research population as advisors (Broad & Saunders, 1998; Freeman, Nairn, & Sligo, 2003), checking data with participants, and reconceptualizing the conduct of research from the perspective of those researched (as in the case of Kaupapa Maori research methodology; see Bishop, 1998; Tuhiwai Smith, 1999).

Youth research is an ideal site to explore the problems and opportunities of researching with, rather than about, research participants. Broader social and structural inequalities between young people and adults play out in unique ways in the research encounter. Adult researchers have involved children and young people in research teams to counter these structural inequalities (see for example, Alder & Sandor, 1990; Alderson, 2000, 2001; Christensen & James, 2000; Clark & Moss, 1996; Cook-Sather, 2002; Edwards, 2004; McCormack Brown et al., 2001; Nairn & Smith, 2003). The use of youth as peer researchers is, however, often underpinned by unspoken assumptions that involving children and young people as researchers is a good thing in and of itself. Our experience of involving youth as researchers has alerted us to complexities not noted in this literature. Before going on to discuss our research experience with young people as researchers, we will consider other researchers’ attempts to examine the opportunities and problems of this methodology.



Historically, research about children and young people was done by proxy, by talking to their parents and teachers. In recent decades, researchers have developed ways to collect data directly from children and young people. More recently still, there have been attempts to collaborate with young people in the conduct of research, including youth researching youth, often referred to as peer research. Over time, the research literature reflects changing understandings of young people, acknowledging their competence (France, 2004; Langsted, 1994; Scott, 2000; Warren, 2000), especially as reporters of their own experiences (France, Bendelow, & Williams, 2000; Robinson & Kellett, 2004); their perspectives on the world that may differ from those of adults (Alldred, 1998); and their expertise on their own situations (Broad & Saunders, 1998; Kelly, 1993). The literature also reflects attempts by qualitative researchers to resolve some problematic issues associated with youth research, including issues of participation, voice, and the imbalance of power in the adult-youth research relationship.

These changes in the youth research field reflect both the momentum of institutional change: for example, the advent of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) and interdisciplinary trends in social research toward participatory methods. The participation articles of UNCROC state that children and young people have a right to be informed about, involved in, and consulted about all activities that impact their lives (Alderson, 2000; Fielding & Bragg, 2003; Hart, 1997; Kaplun, 1995; Kellett, Forrest, Dent, & Ward, 2004). This corresponds with interdisciplinary trends in youth research to respect young people’s voices (Alderson; Kelly, 1993; Smith, Monaghan, & Broad, 2002) and to circumvent adult interpretations of young people’s views.


Youth researching youth provides an “insider’s” perspective not necessarily available to adult researchers (Clark & Moss, 1996, Kellett et al., 2004). The peer research methodology is often touted as a strategy suitable for recruiting young people whom adult researchers find difficult to engage in research. This does not account for which young people are most likely to volunteer to be researchers. If volunteers tend to be “more like” adult researchers than their peers in terms of characteristics such as social class, ethnicity, and gender, similarity in age may be irrelevant in establishing rapport. To counter this problem, some researchers explicitly employed youth researchers “more like” their peers in the following examples: homeless youth researching other homeless youth in Australia (Alder & Sandor, 1990); students from diverse ethnic backgrounds conducting research in a multiethnic school in the United States (Clark & Moss, 1996); and in Morrell’s (2004) Palm Beach High Project, researchers being explicitly drawn from a marginalized group within that school.

Once young people are recruited as research participants, supporters of peer research claim that, as participants, they may feel more at ease and give fuller responses when interviewed by people of a similar age (Alder & Sandor, 1990; Clark & Moss, 1996; Kellett et al., 2004: Nespor, 1998). Employment as researchers provides young people with opportunities to learn new skills and build on existing capabilities (Alder & Sandor; Morrell, 2004), such as research skills learned in school (Kellett et al., 2004; Nespor, 1998). Young people’s involvement as researchers provides an opportunity to learn about the politics of knowledge production (Kelly, 1993; Morrell) and to have a stake in the research, control over its uses, and a sense of the audiences whom it might reach (Nespor, 1998).

The literature certainly recognizes the power differentials between youth and adult researchers. This power imbalance is not just about age and size but also about the discourses in society that construct childhood and adolescence as separate and inferior stages of life. When researching with children and young people, adults generally define the questions, methodology, analysis, and dissemination of the information obtained (Morrow & Richards, 1996). A methodology based on assumptions of young people as knowledgeable research participants, and including same-age researchers and participants, is thought to address this power imbalance by reducing hierarchies between the researched and researcher (Kelly, 1993; Miller, McVea, Creswell, Harther, McEntarffer, et al., 2001). These projects are generally collaborative exercises in which adult researchers train and support young people as coresearchers (see, for example, Kelly; Nairn & Smith, 2003; Slee, 1989) so that, in the process of dialogue and working together, adult and youth researchers also reduce traditional power imbalances.


Despite these positive experiences of involving youth as researchers, problems were also detailed in the literature. Some of these were pragmatic issues, such as the time required for collaboration with inexperienced researchers (Alder & Sandor, 1990; Miller et al., 2001; Schensul, LoBianco, & Lombardo, 2004); difficulties working within school structures and timetables (Alderson, 2000; Oldfather, 1995; Schensul et al.); and problems sustaining the interest of youth researchers, especially in projects not initiated by them (Fielding, 2004; Schensul et al.; Smith et al., 2002). Broad and Saunders (1998) found that the responsibility and emotional cost for young people interviewing peers were greater than they had anticipated. For three projects described in the literature (Alder & Sandor, 1990; Miller et al., 2001; Slee, 1989), a commitment to valuing peer researchers’ work through payment led to problems with payment systems, and all the research projects eventually ran out of money. The young people continued to work voluntarily because of a commitment to the project, but this raises questions about existing power structures in which young people believe they should continue to work without income.

Alongside these pragmatic problems is the more deeply rooted concern of unequal power relations. Power imbalances exist not only between adult and youth researchers but also among young people (Orner, 1992). Within peer research teams, power dynamics may suppress certain interests and legitimize others (Kelly, 1993): Equality in age does not equate with equality in power or automatically facilitate empathy between individuals (Smith et al., 2002). Issues of power can also be played out in the analysis, writing, and dissemination of research. Who gets heard, and how, can reinforce particular stereotypes of young people (Fielding, 2004; Kellett et al., 2004).

As with many of the researchers cited above, we set out to enhance youth participation and voice in our research, to address power imbalances in the research relationship, and to recruit subjects whom we were unlikely to reach as adult researchers. Our results were mixed, as we will show. Instead of using the yardstick of our own practices as trained university researchers to evaluate the success of our youth researchers, we sought an alternative. Although the literature provided guidance over pragmatic concerns and focused on power imbalances, it was limited in providing theoretical tools for understanding why the involvement of young people as researchers did and did not work. In our search for a way of theorizing the contributions of young people as researchers beyond the limits of comparing them with adults, we found that the concepts of cultural and subcultural capital offered considerable possibilities.




Our central argument is framed through Bourdieu’s (2004) concept of cultural capital and the related concept of subcultural capital developed by Thornton (1995) and extended by Bullen and Kenway (2005). Cultural capital is knowledge, accumulated through upbringing and education, that confers social status. It is embodied in dispositions of the mind and body, objectified in cultural goods such as books and art, institutionalized in the form of educational qualifications, and converted to economic capital via paid employment usually dependent on the type of qualifications attained (Bourdieu, 1977, 1984, 1990, 2004). Most researchers have forms of cultural capital valued by the dominant middle and upper or professional classes that they have accumulated during their training as researchers, but ironically, this capital might operate as a barrier in research encounters with young people and, in particular, young people marginalized socioeconomically. For example, Nairn, Munro, and Smith’s (2005) account of difficulties encountered in an interview between an adult researcher and a group of high school students located in a low socioeconomic neighborhood of a New Zealand city identifies how the adult researcher’s middle-class ways of speaking and the intergenerational gap between interviewer and the students were obstacles to establishing rapport. Although we do not want to argue that the solution lies simply in appointing interviewers of similar age (or social class, ethnicity, gender, and so on), we do want to consider how young people might have forms of popular and extracurricular knowledge (or subcultural capital) that could complement and extend the knowledge base of teams researching the experiences of youth. We argue that differentiating between these forms of capital offers a way of understanding the respective contributions of adult and youth members to a research team by enabling their contributions to be understood as complementary. The alternative, of measuring youth researchers’ skills against an implicit adult standard, not only risks constituting young people as less knowledgeable and competent than their adult counterparts but also may miss or undervalue the significance of their contribution.


Whereas cultural capital refers to official, curricular knowledge, subcultural capital refers to unofficial knowledge, such as extracurricular and popular knowledge.1 In the field of popular culture, Thornton (1995) described how subcultural capital is embodied in the form of having “trendy” haircuts and dress, “being in the know,” using (but not overusing) current slang, and looking as if you were born to perform the latest dance styles, and is objectified in music collections. Bullen and Kenway (2005) extended the definition of subcultural capital to include the extracurricular knowledge and practices that marginalized youth deploy to survive school, where generally the cultural capital of the dominant classes is recognized and rewarded. These authors show how, in the classroom and the school grounds, girls in their study who were marginalized socioeconomically displayed subcultural capital of being tough, which was recognized, respected, and even feared, by peers if not by teachers. Bullen and Kenway’s synthesis of theories of cultural and subcultural capital “permits a richer and more complex reading” (p. 54) of young people’s lives, especially those who are marginalized, than either conceptual tool would alone. In this article, we demonstrate the opportunities and problems of “trading on” the complementary features of cultural and subcultural capital in a peer research methodology by reflecting on three projects in which we employed young people as researchers.


“Trading on” is our shorthand for describing how researchers might make the most of, or capitalize on, young people’s different kinds of knowledge or capital. Our initial motivation in employing young people as researchers was based on the assumption that our research might benefit from involving researchers who could recruit participants unlikely to respond to adult invitations and/or who could more easily (than adults) establish rapport with their participants so that interviewees would feel comfortable and provide elaborated answers. We assumed that rapport would be facilitated by shared popular and extracurricular knowledge, such as similar ways of speaking (including current slang); informal knowledge of where in the school grounds different groups “hang out” (for example, the smokers’ areas beyond teachers’ surveillance); and the possibilities of shared popular knowledge about current TV programs and music (as three of many possible examples). Adult researchers trade on our abilities to establish rapport in order to facilitate successful recruitment and interviewing, but we are mindful of the limits to this and argue here that acknowledging youth researchers’ subcultural capital could be one way of designing research that values knowledge and practices other than those of dominant groups.


To deepen our understanding of the complementarity between cultural and subcultural capitals in the research situation, it is useful to consider youth research as a field in Bourdieu’s sense of that word (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992; Grenfell & James, 2004). For Bourdieu, a field is a particular social space in which actors occupy positions that are more or less powerful according to the nature of the capital that they hold—economic, cultural, and social. In the field of youth research, adult (rather than youth) researchers occupy positions of authority due to the dominant forms of capital that they hold. Bourdieu’s conceptualization of power is usefully complicated by Foucault’s (1978) theory of power as more of a two-way process between those with structural authority and those without. Drawing on Foucault’s and Bourdieu’s work, we understand the exercise of power as not simply the preserve of those who are structurally advantaged but also possible for those who are structurally disadvantaged. For example, in the case of a “failed” interview discussed by Nairn et al. (2005), the power relations between an adult interviewer and a group of teenage participants were dynamic, and there were times when the teenage participants were powerful in subverting the conduct of the interview. This challenges conventional understandings of power relations between adults and young people as always structurally unequal, in favor of adults. We therefore conceptualize young people as powerful actors but draw on Bourdieu’s work to acknowledge the structuring of power relations due to the hierarchy of different capitals held by adults and young people. In other words, we understand young people as powerful within material constraints (just as adults are).

Bourdieu considers capital to be constitutive of power and argued that any field is also a field of power; he explained that altering “the distribution and relative weight of forms of capital is tantamount to modifying the structure of the field” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 18). We are attempting to use our positions of authority as adult researchers to contribute to the ongoing project of expanding what counts as legitimate ways of researching youth. To do this, we consciously valorize a type of capital (subcultural) that many (but not all) young people possess, and we question the efficacy of capitals adults possess. We seek to change the relative value of different forms of capital in the field of youth research (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992) while also acknowledging the limits of our valorization. Given that many researchers in this field are preoccupied with finding ways of redistributing power in favor of their participants, attention to the knowledge or capitals that young people possess might prove to be an important strategy for facilitating this redistribution.2

So we are conceptualizing youth research as a field in which different forms of capital are powerful in different ways. Such a conceptualization is useful for understanding how knowledge is currently constructed within this field and how it might come to be constructed should these different forms of capital be legitimated within research: “What is thinkable and unthinkable, expressible and inexpressible, and valued or not, is the product of the field structures . . . and the principles of legitimation operating there” (Grenfell & James, 2004, p. 509). As Skeggs (1997) noted, legitimation is a key mechanism in the conversion of capital into power: “Capital has to be regarded as legitimate before it can be capitalised upon” (p. 8). There are of course, longstanding mechanisms for legitimating the cultural (knowledge) capital of university-based researchers (the flow of research monies within and outside research institutions, research assessment exercises, and so forth). But increasingly there are other mechanisms at work that may operate to legitimate the subcultural capital of young people, as noted in the previous section; these include methodological trends in social research and institutional developments that encourage the active participation of young people in research about themselves.

As this trend of involving young people as researchers grows and evolves, it is important to consider its effects on the ways in which youth research is conducted and its results understood. How, in other words, does the logic of this field—the differential placement of youth and university researchers, for example—“condition the object of research and shape its product” (Grenfell & James, 2004, p. 508)? As one contribution to answering this broad question, we argue that although the methodology of involving young people as researchers has become legitimate, the capital that they bring to this field has not been well theorized, and its legitimacy remains unclear because of this.


Three research projects offered differential opportunities for our peer researchers to trade on their subcultural and cultural capitals. Using these examples, we show how this process was shaped by the logic of the different fields in which the research was conducted. We begin by describing a local government project in which the peer researchers’ ability to trade on their subcultural capital was most notable. We then describe a rights project that illustrates how trading on cultural capital is not the sole prerogative of adult researchers. We continue with the example of this project to demonstrate how adult researchers might fail to capitalize on the full range of cultural and subcultural capitals that their peer researchers have to offer. We finish by describing a third project, on postschool transitions, and sound a cautionary note about the potential limits for researchers who aim to value young people’s subcultural capital on research teams.

Opportunities for training in each project were restricted by school timetables, and this meant that all peer researchers went into the projects with the cultural and subcultural capital that they already had, more or less, although extended involvement in the projects did offer opportunities for developing cultural capital. All peer researchers were paid for their work or, in Bourdieuian terms, exchanged their cultural and subcultural capitals for economic capital. During debriefing interviews, the peer researchers reflected on what contributed to, and sometimes inhibited, their data collection. These debriefing interviews provided valuable insights into how subcultural and cultural capital operated across three projects conducted in different fields.


To gain young people’s perspectives on local government initiatives to involve them, we conducted research in different sites. An adult researcher collected data (via interviews, questionnaires, and participant observation) from local government employees who organized youth consultation, conferences for youth, and youth entertainment, and from youth who had participated in these initiatives. Alongside this process, public space, such as a street or a mall, was chosen as a possible site for finding young people (12–19 years old) who did not participate in such initiatives. It is also a space where, unlike schools, young people might find it easier to negotiate the terms of their participation in research (for example, to stop and answer questions or move on, and to do so singly or in groups) and where researchers might meet young people marginalized from schools. At the recommendation of a youth advocate, we employed two female youth workers in their early 20s. These two young women already had cultural capital via their training and experience as youth workers, their respective social class and ethnic backgrounds (Rachel is Pakeha and Moana is Maori),3 and subcultural capital embodied in forms of dress that in turn indicated their music preferences for those young people “in the know” to read as they were approached in public spaces for an interview.

During the debriefing interview for the local government project, Rachel and Moana identified how they traded on their distinctive forms of subcultural capital to quickly establish rapport with potential interviewees “on the street.” They showed their understanding of how subcultural capital worked to create ease (or not) between interviewer and interviewee, depending on what could be gleaned about the elements of a shared subculture based on dress, hairstyle, comportment, and ways of speaking, and how these elements indicated music tastes (Thornton, 1995; Wall, 2000). Rachel was familiar with participants of the youth subculture associated with “heavy metal” music, whom she refers to as “metalers,” whereas Moana felt relatively comfortable with the girls from a “real alternative” youth culture.

RACHEL: It’s like the—I mean, it is a bit stereotyping, the way people look. But the different youth cultures. Like, the “metaler” guys because I myself have had experience in that scene and that culture, then I’m like, sweet you know, they don’t bother me at all. But those two girls, with the far-out hair, and they were just like—the kind of people—and I don’t like to say this—but they are the kind of people that I judge. That youth culture that is real alternative—way out—and I kind of judge people like that. And I’m just, like, I don’t have time for people like that. Which is obviously not really good because you’re meant to be. . .

MOANA: Whereas with the metaler guys I think I was just a bit, “Uhm, uh, no.” It was just the way they looked. And with the girls, with the far-out hair, I just thought, “Oh you know, they look cool. They look different. Let’s just go for it.”

RACHEL: But then I thought the majority of young people we’ve talked to have pretty much looked like the run-of-the-mill young person, which is the majority and I thought, “Well, I’d like to get a bigger selection of people.” So, yeah. But in saying that then I should have been keen to confront those girls as well. But I was like, “Oh, I don’t know.” But we did anyway and it was all good.

Rachel and Moana’s knowledge and familiarity with different youth (sub)cultures, their confidence to approach young people in public space, their appearance, and their style of speaking were all qualifications or assets for this research project. Speaking for ourselves, and possibly other academic researchers of youth, we do not have these qualifications or assets, and if any one of us was to dress and speak as though we were from a particular youth subculture, we suggest that we would be regarded with suspicion at best.

This is not to say that adult researchers are not able to conduct effective interviews with young people (see, in particular, McDowell, 2002; Yates, 2003). Rather, our point is that diverse faces on a research team could increase the likelihood that participants might find someone to connect with (Tuhiwai Smith, 2001; Tuhiwai Smith et al., 2002). In public space, where initial appearances might provide a fragile thread for connecting with potential participants, Rachel and Moana successfully traded on their subcultural capital to establish rapport. They also traded on their cultural capital (such as their training as youth workers) to contribute important analytical insights during the debriefing interview.

Successful peer involvement in research does not, however, only rest on the obvious deployment of subcultural capital. Some peer researchers used cultural capital very effectively, as the following example indicates.


It seemed obvious to involve students as researchers in the project about student rights at high school. We were particularly interested in rights associated with participation, safety, health, and recreation, as identified in UNCROC. This project depended on peer researchers having particular forms of cultural capital to understand and translate for their peers the rather abstract and somewhat individualistic “Western” concept of rights (Stephens, 1995). Although subcultural capital, such as knowledge of popular music, has some potential links with recreation rights, the links with participation, health, and safety rights were less obvious, and questions about all four sets of rights mainly centered on students’ experiences of opportunities provided by schools. This project was also complicated by the logic of the field of education. Although we (adult researchers) were attempting to legitimate school students as researchers, this was in tension with social relations at schools where students occupy less powerful positions relative to their teachers.

Nine students from four different schools were employed as researchers on this project to conduct informal interviews with their peers during school breaks. We consider the examples of two researchers from an all-girls school and two researchers from a coeducational school as illustrative of particular theoretical points that we wish to make about the significance of the respective forms of capital. At the all-girls school, Naomi (who is Chinese) and Kathy (who is Pakeha) had cultural capital in the conventional form of school qualifications, and Naomi had additional cultural capital in her multilingual abilities. At the coeducational school, Colin (who is male and Cook Island Maori) and Talia (who is female and Niuean) had cultural capital in terms of school qualifications and as speakers of Pacific languages and English. Given the restrictive field of education, with uniforms or dress codes for students not wearing uniforms, these students could not perform the visible forms of subcultural capital that Rachel and Moana could in their choices of clothing and hairstyles. It is also possible that adult researchers might not necessarily be “in the know” as to what counts as subcultural capital. By definition, subcultural capital is knowledge not available to dominant groups such as adults, the middle classes, or “the mainstream,” as Thornton (1995) put it. Our experiences of working with these peer researchers are explored below to make the point that cultural capital is not the sole prerogative of adult researchers and to warn adult researchers considering this methodology that some forms of subcultural capital are relatively invisible and easily overlooked.

It is important to guard against the assumption that young people only have subcultural capital. In relation to the rights project, we argue that Naomi’s and Kathy’s cultural capital was an important asset. Naomi and Kathy were assets to the research team because they collected elaborated data, and because we cannot attribute their success to a 1-hour training session, we attribute it instead to their cultural capital. During their debriefing interview, Naomi and Kathy demonstrated their cultural capital in their awareness of research issues, such as keeping their views separate from those of the participant, not influencing their interviewee, and the possibility of misrepresentation when paraphrasing their interviewees’ words in their weekly reports. In the following excerpt, these peer researchers indicated their relative ease in working with a teacher to arrange a special assembly to recruit participants; in effect, they traded on this teacher’s authority (or cultural capital) to facilitate opportunities for recruitment.

I mean like, she organized the assembly and, you know usually we wouldn’t be able to do something like that ourselves because it’s run by the teachers and stuff so it just helped us out a bit, yeah. You know, sort of someone with the bit more authority just to get us out there so [laughs].

Their ease in working with teachers and school processes suggests a congruency between the peer researchers’ and teacher’s cultural capital. This case also demonstrates the working of power. These two peer researchers acknowledged that they did not have the authority to organize a school assembly to publicize the research, but their status as senior students and peer researchers constituted them as powerful enough to activate a teacher to organize an assembly on their behalf to recruit research participants. Although these two peer researchers were structurally disadvantaged because they were students, they were able to coopt a structurally advantaged teacher to achieve their research goals, and this illustrates how power works in more directions than simply from the “top-down” (Foucault, 1978).

These peer researchers were mindful that their status as senior students differentiated them from younger students in particular. Or, in our terms, these two peer researchers had accumulated more conventional cultural capital compared with their younger counterparts, and they indicated an awareness of how this could hinder the establishment of rapport with their interviewees. In effect, they were aware of the limits of the peer research methodology in which a peer researcher’s seniority might work against any shared status as students. With an awareness of these limits, Naomi and Kathy described how, as they gained confidence during the research, they were able to find ways to relate more comfortably to their participants. Although we have emphasized how Naomi and Kathy traded on their cultural rather than their subcultural capital, it is important to acknowledge that they also drew on their informal knowledge (subcultural capital) of being a student at their school. For example, when asked during the debriefing interview to imagine advising adult researchers on the best ways of approaching students at this school, they were quite clear that it would be better for peer researchers, rather than adult researchers, to introduce this research project to students to more successfully recruit students.

Cultural and subcultural capital add value to research in different ways. In each of the projects discussed above, we were interested in reaching young people from diverse backgrounds, including those who might be considered “mainstream,” average, “run-of-the-mill” (to use Rachel’s earlier phrase). Our experience in these projects suggests that researchers like Naomi and Kathy might readily establish rapport with mainstream students. We have already seen how Rachel and Moana used their subcultural capital to establish rapport with young people during their street interviews. But Naomi and Kathy did not interview only mainstream young people, nor did Rachel and Moana only interview young people from the specific subcultures that they were familiar with; rather, the success of these researchers depended on their abilities to establish rapport rapidly with their participants in public streets and school grounds. We suggest that their abilities derive from their subcultural and cultural capitals but acknowledge that it is not necessarily straightforward to identify which form of capital these peer researchers were drawing on at any one time, especially when they had both forms to draw on. Because we consider cultural and subcultural capitals to be complementary, we selected the above examples to illustrate the respective cases in which these forms of capital were clearly assets during two different research projects.

To summarize thus far, we have provided examples from two research projects, both defined by adult researchers: the local government project, which offered more possibilities for peer researchers to draw on their subcultural capital, and the rights project, which provided more opportunities for peer researchers to draw on their cultural capital. This suggests some interplay between the cultural and subcultural capitals that peer researchers bring to the task, and the fields in which the research is conducted. We would argue that in the case of research conducted in public space, subcultural capital, such as the embodiment of popular culture, had more currency, whereas at school, more conventional forms of cultural capital had currency; this is perhaps not surprising. Nevertheless, other researchers (notably Clark & Moss, 1996; Morrell, 2004) have shown that it is possible to trade on the subcultural capital of students at school. The peer researchers employed on Clark and Moss’s research team had knowledge of gang cultures that proved to be an asset. By referring to such informal knowledge as subcultural capital, we argue that young people’s contributions can be more clearly understood. But because informal knowledge is not usually valued in schools or is not readily recognized by adults because of its subcultural status, it can be invisible to adult researchers working in schools.



It is easy to disregard the subcultural capital that young people bring to research projects. It was not until the debriefing interview at the end of data collection that we gained a full sense of Colin’s and Talia’s subcultural capital and of how we could have aligned the rights project more closely with their interests and those of the students they were interviewing. Although Colin and Talia drew on their cultural and subcultural capitals to translate the research agenda on student rights as best they could, the following excerpts provide important clues for how we, as adult researchers, could have adapted our agenda to suit the interests of our research participants. Colin and Talia described how the concept of rights did not make sense to many students at their school and suggested an alternative but related agenda.

COLIN: To the newer ones, it was hard for them too, they didn’t understand it [the interview questions]. So I just changed it around. Oh, just a bit, changed it around.

KAREN [researcher]: Which is good actually, that’s what I wanted you to do, you know, try and put it in their words. So when you say the young ones . . .?

BOTH: No, the fourth formers [aged 14–15 years in New Zealand].

TALIA: Especially those who came from the island [that is, a Pacific Island], it’s really hard.

COLIN: Yeah, coz they can’t speak English properly, so we just help out.

[and later in the interview]

COLIN: We can give it like different languages, different cultures of that, and translated it.

KAREN: So we could have translated it into Samoan, Tongan?

COLIN: Yep [and mentions another language]. Coz there’s lots of Islanders around, that’s why. They don’t understand.

In using their subcultural capital or ways of speaking that were familiar to their participants, Colin and Talia were doing exactly what we had employed them for. But they were hampered by the topic not readily translating into language meaningful to Pacific Island students.

Colin and Talia indicated that they would have preferred to be asking students about what could be understood as subcultural capital in the case of music and sports.

KAREN: What kind of research do you think students here [at this school] would be most interested in? Like if you were doing some research about something. . .?

COLIN: Music.

TALIA: Sports.

COLIN: Cultures. Something that’s up to date.

Colin identified the generational gap between the adult researchers’ agenda and what students at his school would be more interested in. Colin’s informal knowledge about what is and is not up to date is a form of subcultural capital. Despite his and Talia’s efforts, it was difficult to trade on their subcultural capital to make an abstract agenda meaningful for their participants. We would argue nevertheless that their attempted translations of the topic constituted an important contribution to the project even if these attempts served mainly to identify the limits of translation. Better alignment of topics with young people’s interests would create better opportunities for peer researchers to trade on their subcultural capital.

These researchers also had cultural capital that they deployed in this project. For example, Colin drew on his knowledge of the conduct of quantitative research and adapted the informal interviews and associated note-taking into a much more formalized way of collecting and presenting the data. Specifically, he created a survey form on his computer that he filled in as he spoke with participants, and later he produced a summary of the data for female and male students. Given that all the peer researchers had been invited to suggest adaptations of the method, Colin’s initiative was read by us as a sign of his engagement and confidence as a peer researcher. But the data collected by Colin were unelaborated and therefore of limited use to us as academic researchers. This could be explained by the well-rehearsed argument among qualitative researchers that quantitative data are limited, especially if they screen out contextual information. But for the purposes of our argument here, our assessment of data collected by Colin and several other peer researchers as unelaborated reveals an implicit comparison with data collected by adult researchers who, despite many more years of training and their best efforts, sometimes collect unelaborated data too.


Instead, we use this example to point out the limits of such a comparison and to reread this example as a critique of ourselves for not fully comprehending Colin’s and Talia’s subcultural and cultural capital until we conducted a debriefing interview at the end of data collection. Our purpose here is to highlight how adult researchers planning to involve young people as researchers could use the theoretical insights presented here to more carefully canvass what forms of subcultural and cultural capital young people bring to the team. It also highlights the importance of conducting debriefing interviews during the data collection phase rather than waiting to discover insights that could have informed the conduct of research. Colin’s and Talia’s words above also constitute a powerful reminder of how researchers should take seriously young people’s desires to be involved in research that connects more closely to their own interests, thereby enabling them to trade on what capitals they have, both subcultural and cultural.

Nevertheless, the methodology is not only about what young people contribute to research projects, but it is also about what involvement as peer researchers contributes to the development of young people’s cultural capital. For example, we saw it as positive that both Talia and Colin continued to contact one of the adult researchers involved in the rights project up to 3 years later for references for employment and scholarship applications. Meanwhile, Naomi (another peer researcher on the rights project) converted her cultural capital into further paid employment as a peer researcher on the postschool transitions project (described in the next section) because her cultural capital and her proximity to the age of our youth research participants continued to be an asset to our research team.

To summarize, we have described how the peer researchers traded on subcultural and cultural capitals in ways that were compatible with the research goals of the respective projects. Where we have identified limits to trading on subcultural and cultural capitals, we blame the incompatibility of the research topic with participants’ interests; the constraints inherent in the field of education that make it difficult to legitimize young people as researchers; and adults’ inabilities to recognize subcultural capital. There were also instances in which peer researchers’ attitudes and actions could be construed as incompatible with the goals of research. Again, the theoretical tool of subcultural capital is a useful explanatory tool.


In the third project, we purposefully moved away from schools where the logic of the education field makes it difficult to legitimate young people as “knowers” in their own right. In research about young people’s sense of identity during their last year of high school and their first year postschool, 4 peer researchers (2 female and 2 male) were employed to interview 2 peers each outside school hours and in a space where their interviewee felt comfortable. Compared with the earlier projects, the peer researchers had more say in the topic areas and the location of the interview, and we hoped that these modifications would offer more opportunities for peer researchers to trade on their subcultural capital.

Although we have argued that subcultural capital is a valuable asset for interviewers of young people, it is important not to romanticize this form of capital. Adult researchers’ reliance on subcultural capital has its benefits but also has its limits. Attempts by adults to value and legitimize (effectively, to coopt) subcultural capital ironically devalue its status as subcultural capital. But it is also possible that this cooption might work in both directions; that is, some young people may reconstitute, or trivialize, adult forms of cultural capital to resist becoming part of an adult research agenda that they have had no meaningful role in constructing. For example, there were peer researchers who spoke about interviewing in the following way: “There wasn’t a whole lot of skills necessary. You are talking to people and wrote it down. I mean it wasn’t real skill-orientated stuff” (male peer researchers at an all-boys school, rights project). Interestingly, these researchers contradicted themselves elsewhere in the interview: “Some of it was difficult maybe, more than not enjoyable. Trying to get people to talk. Trying to get answers out of them as opposed to just no or yes.” A male peer researcher from the postschool transitions project dismissed the usefulness of information about conducting interviews provided in his training package:

I know you had a huge big thing about, in there, about interviews, you know, I didn’t even bother to take it out ‘cause I just didn’t see what the point of it was, ‘cause to me, it’s not that hard to interview somebody, you just ask them questions from a sheet, but I suppose, if you’re doing it as a job, it might be a bit harder.

In trivializing the practices of research, these peer researchers display a form of subcultural capital insofar as they construct themselves as not like “the mainstream” represented by adult researchers. The above quotes are all from male researchers, and their display of “unenthusiastic masculinity” echoes research documenting how positive engagement with schooling is associated with girls rather than boys, especially if boys wish to maintain their social credibility with their peers (Connell, 1989, 1995; Jackson, 2002). Given that research involves school-like work, it is not surprising that some young men did not openly display enthusiasm during the research, although Colin was a notable exception.

Irrespective of gender or social class explanations for disengagement from school, Bourdieu and Champagne’s (1999) term careless nonchalance (p. 425) describes how some students might act at school to appear “cool” or display their subcultural capital to their peers. Although youth researchers’ subcultural capital associated with being cool is likely to be useful in relating to potential participants, these qualities can also be a problem. If peer researchers are casual about the conduct of research tasks, such as probing for elaborated answers, organizing and summarizing data, and meeting deadlines, this form of subcultural capital is incompatible with the goals of research. In acknowledging young people as powerful in subverting the peer research methodology, we acknowledge the limits of adult researchers’ power and of the methodology itself.


We explained at the outset that many qualitative researchers planning research with participants who are marginalized in some way (as in the case of young people in an adult-defined world) are aware of an ethical imperative to find ways to include these participants in relatively powerful roles in the research process (see for example, Alder & Sandor, 1990; Clark & Moss, 1996; Nairn & Smith, 2003; Tuhiwai Smith, 1999; Tuhiwai Smith et al., 2002). We have focused on the strategy of employing researchers who are members of the group being researched—in this case, youth as researchers of their peers. Having deployed this methodology across three different research projects, we sought theoretical tools to explain why this methodology did and did not work. We presented Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital and the related concept of subcultural capital (Bullen & Kenway, 2005; Thornton, 1995) as powerful theoretical tools for measuring the success of a peer research methodology.

Given the limited opportunities for research training due to school and research timetables, the peer researchers brought the cultural and subcultural capitals that they already had to the three projects described here. There were interesting synergies and tensions between the peer researchers’ capitals, and in the relationship between the deployment of these capitals, the research topics, and the fields in which the research was conducted. We demonstrated how Rachel’s and Moana’s cultural and subcultural capitals enabled them to connect with young people in public space and with the research topic concerning local government provision of music and other leisure events. In particular, we argue that their respective forms of subcultural capital, embodied in their dress, hairstyles, comportment, ways of speaking, and knowledge of music, enabled them to access and establish rapport with different subcultures of young people that adult researchers would not have been able to achieve because we do not have their subcultural capital. In other words, the local government project offered more possibilities for peer researchers to draw on their subcultural capital than the other projects did.

Adult researchers have cultural capital—after all, that is what we trade on to become researchers—but it is not the sole prerogative of adult researchers. For example, Naomi and Kathy had forms of cultural capital similar to those of university-based researchers, and this enabled them to conduct research about the more abstract topic of students’ rights, to collect elaborated data, and to access a range of young people at their high school. It seems that the rights project provided some good opportunities for these two peer researchers to draw on their cultural capital. This again suggests some interplay between project topic and the forms of capital (cultural and subcultural) that peer researchers bring to the task. We went on to examine this possibility further by considering the experiences of two peer researchers who were perhaps constrained from drawing effectively on their subcultural capital because this did not connect readily to the rights topic. This example suggests the importance of involving young people in research that connects closely to their interests, thereby enabling them to trade on what capitals they have, both subcultural and cultural.

Finally, we identified the limits to a peer research methodology that might seek to trade on subcultural capital. If, in the very act of valuing subcultural capital as researchers, we make it “mainstream,” then young people’s resistance to this and to expectations that they exercise their cultural capital in their role as researchers has to be taken seriously. Indeed, the peer researchers who trivialized the practice of interviewing may have constituted a form of subcultural capital in the process insofar as they construct themselves as not like “the adult mainstream.” Unfortunately, this particular expression of subcultural capital is not an asset to a research team.

We have attempted to alter the distribution and the relative weight of cultural and subcultural capitals in the field of youth research by making a theoretical case for the valorization of subcultural capital that many (but not all) young people possess. In doing so, we hope to contribute to a redistribution of power relations between adult researchers and youth participants so that we might get closer to the ideal of researching with, rather than about, young people. But in attending to the limits of our idealism, we have been usefully reminded of young people’s power to determine the success or otherwise of a peer research methodology.

Despite the limits of trading on subcultural capital (in theory and in practice), we believe that it offers a new insight into how we might consider age a qualification and a rationale for constituting research teams on the basis of the different capitals and knowledges. But we also note the importance of being alert to ways in which cultural capital might be subverted by the deployment of subcultural capital. Such theorizing also alerts us to the possibility that the more the research agenda is set by adult researchers, the more cultural capital peer researchers might need—whereas the more it is set by the young people themselves, the more likely it might be that they can make good use of their subcultural capital in the process.


The Rights and High School Transitions Research Projects were both funded by the Marsden Research Grant administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, and the Local Government Research Project was funded by New Zealand’s Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.


1. Although subcultural capital does not have the same status in mainstream society that the cultural capital of the dominant classes has, it nevertheless is a valuable form of capital within the less privileged domains of youth cultures and subcultures. Although sub implies a lesser form of capital, we would argue that the implied “nonmainstream” status of such capital is what makes it valuable from the perspective of some groups of young people. Alternatively, sub could be simply understood as denoting a distinct subgroup within the broader category of cultural capital.

2. In focusing on one strategy—a peer research methodology—for resolving unequal power relations between adult researchers and youth participants, we are mindful that we risk constructing “youth” as a unitary group whose members occupy similar positions of power and/or automatically have subcultural capital by virtue of their age. We understand that hierarchical power relations exist among young people themselves (Orner, 1992), influenced by the conventional axes of difference such as class, ethnicity, and gender, and by forms of distinction that young people themselves establish, often on the basis of who has particular subcultural capital and who does not (Thornton, 1995). Although the employment of youth to research youth might be one way of addressing adult/youth power inequalities, it might also contribute to existing power inequalities among young people, but that is a topic for another paper.

3. All names are code names. Pakeha is the Maori term for White New Zealanders, although this is contested (see Mohanram, 1998). Like Alton-Lee and Nuthall (1993), however, we use the term as a mark of respect for the right of the indigenous people to name those who came after them.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 09, 2007
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About the Author
  • Karen Nairn
    University of Otago
    E-mail Author
    KAREN NAIRN is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Otago, New Zealand. She is a coinvestigator (with Jane Higgins and Judith Sligo) on a 3-year project entitled “In Transition”: How the Children of the Economic Reforms Articulate Identities at the Child/Adult Border. More broadly, her research focuses on processes of exclusion in education shaped by gender, sexuality, and race. Recent publications include, with J. Higgins, “‘In Transition’: Choice and the Children of New Zealand’s Economic Reforms,” British Journal of Sociology in Education (2006); and, with J. Higgins, B. Thompson, M. Anderson, and N. Fu, “‘It’s Just Like the Teenage Stereotype, You Go Out and Drink and Stuff’: Hearing From Young People Who Don’t Drink,” Journal of Youth Studies (2006).
  • Jane Higgins
    Lincoln University
    JANE HIGGINS is a senior research fellow at Lincoln University, New Zealand. Her research explores the experience of young people in transition between school and postschool worlds. She has a particular interest in the dynamics of the youth labor market and youth (un)employment. Recent publications include, with K. Nairn, “Choice and the Children of New Zealand’s Economic Reforms,” British Journal of Sociology of Education (2006); and, with P. Dalziel, “Pareto, Parsons and the Boundaries between Economics and Sociology,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology (2006).
  • Judith Sligo
    University of Otago
    JUDITH SLIGO is a research assistant who has worked on several projects working with young people and their families. She is currently working on two long-term projects, one that investigates young people’s identities at the end of their compulsory schooling, and another that focuses on parents’ experiences of parenting their preschool children. Recent publications include, with C. Freeman and K. Nairn, “Professionalising” Participation: From Rhetoric to Practice, Children’s Geographies (2003); and, with J. Belsky, S. Jaffee, L. Woodward, and P. Silva, “Intergenerational Transmission of Warm-Sensitive-Stimulating Parenting: A Prospective Study of Mothers and Fathers of 3 Year-Olds,” Child Development (2005).
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