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Ethics case example: Guns and Gangs

Challenges in supporting a peer research project


This case example was written by a youth worker, who was involved in taking a lead role in training young people involved in a peer research project on guns and gangs. 'Peer research' is an approach to research that entails people acting as researchers with their own 'peer' groups (e.g. young people researching other young people; people with experience of a particular issue researching others with similar experiences). Peer research is increasingly popular in a youth work context, as it not only enables information and opinions to be collected that adult researchers might not be able to access, it is also a way of young people gaining new skills and generating evidence that they can use to try to influence policy and practice.

The case

The research project was initiated by a Housing Association and a Local Authority, to investigate how to address gun and gang issues in a particular area of a UK city. They were concerned about the high level of gun and gang crime and the perception of this area as a crime 'hot spot'. They contacted the organisation where I work (a youth organisation) to see if we could research the issue with the help of young people. It was agreed that we would take on this piece of work as a peer research project, supporting young people to undertake the research themselves. It was agreed that I would lead the training, with a co-trainer. The project was a partnership between the Housing Association, Local Authority, a University researcher, a local Christian community work project and a voluntary sector environmental and youth work charity. The project entailed working with local young people from a specific ward (small administrative area) with the highest gun-related crime, according to police statistics. The young people were recruited by one of the project partners. When the project first began, the partner organisation had brought together a group of young people aged from 12 up to 25 years old. They were all black young men, except for one black young woman (who only came once or twice to the group) and one white young man. There was a mixture of young people who had experienced gun or gang violence and those who had not. I, the lead trainer, am a white woman, who is a lesbian, but I was not ‘out’ to the group.

My role was to train the young people during weekly sessions to enable them to gain an understanding of the nature of research, to explore and evaluate different research methods and to look at issues of risk and ethics. The young people would then work on developing an action plan, and would undertake and document a piece of peer research. The research was to be carried out with young people from the area, both those who had been involved with gangs and those who had no connection with gangs. The findings were to be presented at a conference for 100 professionals later in the year.

The group was challenging to work with as their attitudes and behaviour could be quite sexist and homophobic. For example, during the first session it became clear that there was a lot of machismo in the group and stereotyped behaviours around masculinity. As was the custom within the sessions, we started with an ice breaker or cooperative game. In one session, after a few weeks, the game involved holding hands and sending a pulse down a line of people by squeezing the hand of the person next to them. The young people reacted to this quite strongly and refused to play the game, saying they did not want to be seen as being gay. However, I never explicitly addressed issues of gender, homophobia, why they were a male group, what issues women faced, nor why there was such a macho culture (of which they may not even have been aware). The general implicit consensus seemed to be that women were not really important to the issue of gang violence or gun culture. This caused me some difficulties since, as a youth worker, I would normally address these issues. In some ways I was scared to do this, because I did not have the mandate to do youth work as such with the young people, and there was limited time to tackle these issues in depth. In addition, the other workers were all men and I did not know how much ‘back up’ I would get from them on these issues, given that one had directly challenged me before when I trained young people on anti-oppressive practice. I also did not want the sessions to become about me and my life instead of about the research.

However, I did discuss racism with the group, acknowledging my own position as a white woman. The young people recognised through our conversations that some of the issues relating to the stereotyping and treatment of gang members had racist elements, especially when they were recounting their own personal stories. During some of these personal stories, however, it appeared that they were as much at fault as the police or gang in question, but positioned themselves as victims of racism. I felt a bit uncomfortable with this as I was not sure whether they were adopting a victim stance and whether this was because of how they felt they had to position themselves in relation to the issue.

As the project progressed the young people designed ways to find out about how to address gun and gang violence through doing semi-structured interviews and questionnaires. Because the peer researchers were from the same area they were researching, they would often start talking about their own experiences, or interpret what other people were saying in relation their immediate situation. One issue that arose was whether they were stuck in their own stories and if this would cloud their judgement as researchers. This was never addressed head-on because we knew we would present the findings at a conference being run by the local authority’s gun and gang strategy team, and a big part of that would be the young researchers telling their own personal stories too. So it served the funders’ priorities to keep them focussed on their own experiences.

The younger people in the group decided to create a play to perform at the conference, as a way of showing how gang violence develops. These young members of the group had not had any involvement in gang crime, and did not particularly base the play on the findings of their research. Instead, they came up with a plausible issue about someone stealing something from another person and that sparking a gang feud. However, this scenario did not recognise the fact that most of the gang violence in the area was carried out by two main gangs, based on longstanding hostility dating back to the 1970s. They did have some training about the origins of the gang violence, but they did not seem to have taken this in. As they were engaging in the project that had been dominated by the older ones, I hung back and let them develop this play, although I did feel a bit compromised in terms of mixed messages this would send to the conference.

When the young people performed their play, and the rest of the group presented the findings and shared their stories, the conference participants treated them as if they were all very close to gang violence and all had connections to it. The conference participants (from a variety of professional disciplines in local authorities, along with social work and criminal justice organisations), seemed as if they were reinforcing the idea that being a gang member gave young people status. It felt like the young people would only be listened to by the professionals if they, in effect, pretended they were in a gang. The professionals quizzed the young people about gang membership rather than looking at why it was that members of this group were not involved with gangs - that is, what protective factors had positively changed their lives in a ways that meant they were less inclined to fall into gang culture.

It also felt like the professionals were putting the young people on a pedestal and expecting them to have all the answers, rather than seeing this research in combination with longstanding academic research on the topic based on the same geographical area. In the afternoon session the young people worked in small groups with the adults, with the hope that they could get the professionals to pledge help from their organisations. Instead, the professionals focussed on a crime and punishment model and 'passed the buck', rather than really listening to what the young people had to say. For example, the research findings showed that cutting the playscheme in the local area some 10 years before had meant that young people from opposing neighbourhoods no longer mixed with each other as children, and therefore were not building up positive allegiances with each other. The young people also said that unemployment was high in the area, but that the satellite job centre only opened one afternoon a week; and that even though lots of building work was happening in the area, there was no pressure from the planning department to recruit local apprentices as part of its contracting requirements. Professionals said that was a shame, but then went on to talk about policing, ‘hot spots’ and ‘reducing silo working’, which was a lot of terminology that the young people did not understand.

This research project made me think about several ethical issues around the sometimes conflicting priorities or motivations of the different stakeholders involved in a community-based participatory research project. In this case, the funders seemed to want the research to fit with their existing agenda rather than really to listen, whereas the young people hoped to be able to educate and influence policy-makers. I also wondered whether as a trainer I could have used my own gender or sexual orientation in a more disruptive way to help the group analyse their own situation. Finally, reflecting afterwards, I considered whether the young researchers should have been more detached from the research as an outside researcher would have been, or have been more honest about their identities when they had not come from a gun- or gang- related background.

Questions for discussion

1. The author of this case example is very honest about the difficulties encountered in the research project. Drawing on the insights of the commentators, how would you go about setting up and conducting a peer research project on guns and gangs to ensure it was ethical and effective, from the perspectives of: the research commissioners; the youth workers; the young people?

2. What do you think are some of the main ethical issues associated with peer research?

3. The youth worker/trainer seemed to take off her ‘youth work hat’ (youth workers are traditionally regarded as informal educators, with responsibility to challenge received ideas and promote anti-discriminatory practice). Why do you think this happened? Do you think she could/should have retained her professional identity as a youth worker in this work?



Commentaries 1 Laura Saija

As indicated by the author of this case example, the choice of ’peer research’ as an approach to exploring gang violence reflects the belief that only insiders can really know what happens in very difficult contexts. This assumption reflects what is often the main argument in favor of CBPR, against traditional research: CBPR is a way to know ’better’. Is it true? If so, what does ‘better’ mean?

In the case example, the author raises doubts in relation to the three dimensions through which CBPR is usually evaluated:

• Knowledge outcomes - how ‘good’ is the knowledge produced on gang violence? The author shares her feeling that young researchers have not been ‘objective’ enough.

• Participants’ learning outcomes - how beneficial are the outcomes for both young researchers and conference participants?

• Practical outcomes - have there been ‘good’ impacts, especially in relation to policies on gangs?

Why did this happen? Could things have been done differently? Answers might be very subjective, but I would like to answer in the light of what I believe is the ethical framework that differentiates CBPR from other traditional approaches.

According to ethical theories that are the foundations of traditional approaches to research, ‘true’ or rigorous knowledge of what is good or right is meant to precede and then guide human and social actions. On the other hand, ethical theories that are the foundation of CBPR are based upon the assumption that:

• not only do individuals and communities (including professional researchers) in different places and times have different legitimate value systems, but also

• they can change their minds, building a common ethical perspective through common experiences.

CBPR is, in fact, conceived to be a common experience between individuals with very different backgrounds and values, in which ’knowing’ is the mechanism through which people explore their ethical understanding of the world, and have the opportunity to modify it through interaction, in order to ’improve’ (according to this new perception) reality. As a consequence, moral judgments do not precede the research process itself, since they do not have a universal value; they can be modified along the way, converging and having a ’positive’ effect on reality. It is the convergence itself that allows participants to act, establishing whether or not a certain effect on reality is or is not ’positive’.

The author describes the differences between her ethical understanding of the world (negative ethical judgment of machismo and racism) compared with those of the others involved in the project (young researchers, research conference participants). Within the ethical framework described in the previous paragraph, we are not expected to wonder who is right or wrong: this would make sense only with predefined criteria to define what is good or right. The main concerns, from a CBPR point of view, are:

Whether or not the research process itself allows different values systems to contaminate each other, and

• More importantly, whether or not such a convergence opens up possibilities for action (policies and initiatives against gang violence).

In relation to these points, the author shares with us her negative evaluation: young researchers and research conference participants have not learnt from each other, nor have they converged in looking at (which also means evaluating) the gang issue differently than before the research project. Neither have they agreed to act collectively to work on this issue.

In the story, the issue of gang violence and the need to address it with urgency, was pretty much identified before and outside the research process itself. Therefore it does not come as a surprise that, during the research, other issues (such as lack of jobs) came out, since the involvement of ’insiders’ helped in reframing the problem in a more holistic and complex way. However the reframing was allowed only within certain boundaries:

• Within the goal of the research itself (to understand the nature of, and how to address, gang violence);

• Within a predefined research structure;

• Within the activities of ’selected’ youth with the trainer, excluding other youth (that I guess have only been asked questions by the peer researchers);

• With a limited interaction (within a research conference) with key actors in terms of opportunities for future actions.

A crucial question arises: would it have been better to enlarge those boundaries, in order to facilitate the contamination of different value systems?

Laura Saija works as Research Fellow at Department of Architecture, University of Catania, Italy. She is currently on leave, and is a visiting faculty member in the Graduate Division in City and Regional Planning at the University of Memphis, USA.

Commentary 2 Michelle Fine

This is a beautifully written case example, on a critical social issue, crafted with intellectual and aesthetic care. A group of marginalized young men have been invited by the government to engage in peer research on an incredibly hot and dangerous topic. The state offers support (lite) and surveillance (heavy). These young Black men (w)rap themselves in a protective discursive layer of machismo and homophobia when narrating lives steeped in poverty and structural abandonment. A politically savvy, culturally sensitive and methodologically astute researcher is hired to facilitate the research; she is well educated, white and lesbian. In the end, some of the young men perform a play for an audience that chooses not to hear the story of racism or structural inequality. They prefer to learn why some boys do, and don’t, make good choices.

On a sea of neo-liberal dispossession, the global dynamics of immigration, political economy, racism, budget cuts, criminalization and inequality gaps are stuffed into a bottle. A single research question etched on a small ripped piece of paper floats above the water, asking why some boys decide to join gangs and play with guns. I fear that participatory researchers are being recruited into this theatre of structural disinvestment to produce a fig leaf of community-based research doubling as ‘voice’ and, if we are not careful, co-optation.

What’s distinct and refreshing about this short essay is the honesty, clarity and the sobering reflective details the author shares with readers. I am hoping we can slow down the research story and map points where critical participatory researchers might challenge the official script rather than watch it unfold, with us caught in the under-tow.

1. Re-framing the shape of the problem

After three decades of work on/for/with/by structurally marginalized youth, and lots of mistakes, I worry that community-based researchers are today being invited to ‘make science’ with marginalized youth in order to create narratives ‘in their own voices,’ that legitimate a very narrow question about ‘risk’ while whiting out histories of structural violence and the collateral damage of global capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, ableism...

When the Housing Authority, Department of Education or Health, Juvenile Justice Unit, a foundation or school next contacts us, what if we explicitly initiated a re-framing, or re-negotiation of the research question:

Before we agree to take up this work, can we talk about the working assumptions of the project? What is your organizational theory of why this problem is occurring, and are you open to generating evidence that might widen the scope of the problem? So, for instance, might your [organization] be willing to subsidize a project in which we study and document with youth, educators, elders, activists and researchers the long history of guns in the UK, the systematic and disproportionate budget cuts to our communities and our playgrounds, the racialized unemployment rates, and the well-funded criminalization of poor and working class youth, and then interrogate why some young people use guns and join gangs?

CBPR can trouble neo-liberal shrinkage, shine an empirical light on history, economics and politics, complicate the commonsense attribution of blame onto the bodies of the young men and women living in poverty, and still examine the original question of responsibility, agency, ambivalence, desire and risk – but in context.

2. Design an intentionally diverse research team: building 'contact zones'

The dynamics on the research team of 'guns and gangs' are also quite familiar: low income, marginalized youth of colour (in this case boys) and a lone woman, often White, facilitating the group. If, as I tried to suggest above, we insist on widening and historicizing the shape of the problem, then we need a research team much broader than boys with (or without) arms.

At the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, we design most of our research spaces with an ethic and aesthetic of intentional diversity, what Maria Elena Torre (2005) describes as a contact zone. Cross generational research groups, dynamically diverse by race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality, come together to share their distinct knowledges, challenge one another, learn with and from, and generate new frameworks for understanding problems that seem individual and but are indeed structural.

As an example: The Morris Justice Project studies racialized policing/stop and frisk practices in the South Bronx of New York City. Brett Stoudt and Maria Torre facilitate a research team of young men (who are most likely to be targeted by policing practices) and young women, elders from the community, researchers, lawyers and a former corrections officer who have finalized the research questions, determined the sample, developed methods and instruments, and will be creating scholarly as well as community-friendly products. This intentionally diverse research team widens the recognition of who holds knowledge, troubles the overly simplified binaries of researcher and researched and broadens the scope of who is responsible for social change.

3. Theorizing audience: working against judgment and empathy or solidarity

Finally, we have also witnessed, the scene when an audience is emotionally moved by and drawn to the stories of the young people. Firmly unwilling to engage the tougher questions of political economy and racism, audience members are entranced instead by their own fantasies of who is in a gang, who is homeless, in foster care, has an incarcerated parent, who is undocumented. We now believe we have an ethical responsibility to rechannel judgments of and empathy for, into a sense of responsibility to and solidarity with. After our performances, youth researchers/performers turn to the audience to say, ‘Now what you are going to do about this?’ (Fox & Fine, 2012)


I thank the author of Guns and Gangs for inspiring me to think aloud about our political and ethical debt to marginalized communities and consider how three pivotal moments in participatory work – negotiating the research question, building the research team and challenging the audience – can be re-imagined to provoke a more ethical set of possibilities for CBPR.


Fox, M. & Fine, M. (2012) ‘Circulating critical research: Reflections on performance and moving inquiry into action’, in Cannella, G. & Steinberg, S. (eds.) Critical qualitative research reader, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, pp. 153-165.

Stoudt, B., Fine, M. & Fox, M. (2011/12) ‘Growing up policed in the age of aggressive policing policies’, New York Law School Law Review, 56 (4), pp. 1331-1370.

Torre, M. (2005) ‘The alchemy of integrated spaces: Youth participation in research collectives of difference’, in: Weis L. and Fine, M. (eds) Beyond Silenced Voices, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 251–266.

Michelle Fine is Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Urban Education and Women’s Studies at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Engaged with participatory and critical psychology, she is committed to social inquiry for social justice.


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