Social Justice, Research, and Adolescence: An interview with Dr. Stephen Russell

It’s another #MustReadMonday, and we are so excited to highlight a fantastic paper by our very own former SRA president, Stephen Russell.


Dr. Russell’s 2016 paper, Social justice, research, and adolescence, is an in-depth and critical examination of the ways that academia and research can, and should, intersect with social justice and activism. From theory to pragmatics, this article covers all of the bases when it comes to the why and how of social justice in research on adolescence.

Dr. Russell very kindly took some time to sit down with us and talk about the paper and answer all of our questions on how being an activist can work when standing up for human rights can be so politicized.

If you enjoy this post and want to learn more about activism and research, Dr. Russell encourages you to also check out his 2019 paper: Social Justice and the Future of Healthy Families: Sociocultural Changes and Challenges and his 2015 paper: Human Developmental Science for Social Justice.

What would you say is the main takeaway of this article?
There are three important conclusions that I hope people will take away from this paper. First, we need research and a field that is conscious of privilege in our role of scholars. Second, we need research that's conscious of the way that science can contribute to inequality and normativity. And third, we need research that attends to urgency. To me, these lead to three important questions that we should be encouraging all researchers to ask themselves: 1) what are the areas of privilege I hold as a scholar?; 2) how am I / how is my work contributing to inequality or normativity?; and 3) what topics are urgent in the lives of young people right now?

As researchers, we tend to fetishize methods, which may inadvertently allow us to undervalue the urgency that research can have when it is directed at topics that have immediate consequences for young people. What I would like us to consider, as a field, is what it would mean for science to really value topics that are urgent? How might we begin to prioritize urgency as a domain and dimension of the value that science has in society?

In your paper, you describe: “trying to get your hands around ways of doing, thinking about, and using research in ways that are authentic to two joint goals: doing good research, and making a contribution to social justice for and with young people.” Can you describe what you mean by this? And what does this look like when it is done well?
I think that this manifests as a conversation about whether the application, advocacy, and activism is inconsistent with, or incompatible with, the goals of science. What I’m asserting is that we should be thinking of all of these things jointly and together. How do we do the very best science? I believe that the answer to that question should include goals for social change, for justice, and for young people.

What does it look like? This is part of the adventure of being a scientist. I think that we have created a dilemma for the field and for young scholars today because we have not prioritized these domains. So, a lot of people spend a long time looking for examples of how this can be done in an excellent way, and models for how they could contribute.  

One way to get better at this lies within considering the ways that our research can overlap with various types of policy and practice. For example, if we take a unidirectional approach, we can look at the types of interventions, practices, and policies that our research could inform. Building from there, our research could also be engaged with, attuned to, and directly critical of specific policies and practices. So, we don’t have to limit ourselves to informing practice and policy. We can be deeply engaged with what practices and policies are being adopted in ways that allow our research to focus on the impacts these changes might have for children’s lives.

For myself, the times when I have been the most excited and enthusiastic about my own work occurred when I had developed, and was actively engaged in, partnerships with a range of stakeholders who have expertise about what the lived experiences of young people are. We have to recognize that our expertise as researchers can define us away from some of the direct experiences of young people, which can limit our ability to know exactly what young people need right now.

We live in a weird time where, in some instances, advocating for basic human rights has become intensely politicized. What advice do you have for researchers that are concerned that integrating policy work or advocacy into their research may create problems for them within their institutions or research associations?
First of all, we must give ourselves the space to become confident with having opinions about topics that could be seen as controversial. And we must allow ourselves to reconcile our own identities. We can occupy multiple identities, such as ‘activist’ and ‘researcher’ and ‘citizen’ at the same time, and be equally proud of all of these. We do not have to be apologetic about this. We have a stronger field than we did previously for people who are seeking to use science to create change for justice. A piece of advice on this point to individuals considering positions at various institutions is to ask questions about the values of the department, program, institution, and leadership.

Second, my advice is to figure out how we each want to make a change. For some people, that will mean getting involved in University administration, because that allows them to have an active role in the policies within the department. Some people will get involved in larger research associations and committees that focus on topics that they are passionate about and that they feel contribute to inequalities within the lives of adolescents. Whatever position you are interested in, once you find it, speak your truth and speak with humility yet authority. 

And finally, one of the most important things to note is that there are very often misunderstandings about what is, and what is not, allowed within our research agencies. I believe that being nonpartisan is important. However, I think there is a very big difference between stating what we know from research as it pertains to a topic that has become politicized and lobbying for a political group. It is important to remember that having an opinion is not lobbying.

For example, a lot of research associations are registered as non-profit organizations, which means that they have restrictions about how politically active they can be. Communication about these restrictions are often overly general, or even misconstrued, in ways that discourage any behavior that could be seen as confronting issues that have been politicized. However, definitions of lobbying do not prohibit research associations from being assertive about what research says with respect to policy. There have been several instances over the past few years, such as the executive policy to separate children from their families at the border, that revealed our collective limited understanding of these issues within the field of developmental science.

You also describe in your paper “moving from a focus on the characteristics of young people to a focus on the systems and settings which guide their lives. Such an approach helps shift our thinking from a focus on “risk” as the property of an adolescent, to oppression as a character of systems in which adolescents live.”

This is such an excellent point and one that should be highlighted. I’m wondering what advice you have for researchers on how they can do better at this?
This question highlights the dilemma of graduate training and specialization. We have to specialize, but this creates a limit to our exposure to other ways of thinking. Just like we have encouraged students to develop methodological diversity, we should also encourage epistemological, philosophical, and theoretical diversities. We must be willing to recognize for ourselves what our own limitations are based on the perspective we take and try to broaden our viewpoints. For example, regardless of what level you’re at, consider taking a class in anthropology, sociology, religious studies, or gender studies.

Ultimately, from my point of view, it’s okay to use labels like “risk factors”, as long as we recognize that this is only one way to interpret the phenomenon we are studying. We must acknowledge the limitations of viewing our science from a singular viewpoint.

In the article, you also highlight how so many youth may be left out of the conversation due to the “box problem”: youth don’t see themselves fitting into one the very limited boxes we provide for them. I’m curious how academics can approach this given that the youth of today have become so much more educated about complex gender and sexual identities than many of the adults conducting research studies about adolescents?
Adolescents are often the origin of social change and are in the space where many cultural moments happen. We can see this throughout history: in the 60s, young people created a new set of realities. More recently, we have seen young people in Parkland leading and defining resistance to gun violence. With respect to gender and sexuality, young people are now teaching us about that.

While it is becoming more complex, it is also more exciting. The only reason it feels complex is because these ideas are bumping up against normativity. Young people are simply expressing themselves in ways that we hadn’t imagined, and that are extraordinary and can create change.

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