The Challenges and Benefits of Developing a Rigorous Conceptual Framework in Your Research


This case study provides an account of the conceptual and ethical aspects of developing a 3-year research project into youth transitions, examining several contextual challenges that arose during its development. It highlights the importance of developing a rigorous conceptual framework and provides a practical example of the process of its development. Specifically, this case study focuses on the use and development of key terms within this framework, including defining what it means to be “young,” “soft skills,” the relatively novel concept of “adversity capital,” and related challenges of comparing data on youth transitions across different contexts. The case study provides insight into the particular challenges in using widely used but variable concepts and, more generally, into the ways that the process of “doing” research is iterative and can usefully draw on peer feedback in a variety of forms. These forms range from traditional peer review for publication to the less formal peer review that takes place when presenting research in development at internal faculty seminars and through conference presentations. The aim is to provide early career researchers with examples of how to hone the conceptualization of their work in a rigorous and ethical way.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this case, students should be able to

  • Have a better understanding of the methodological challenges involved in formulating key concepts underpinning their research
  • Reflect on the possible biases of the researcher and how they might impact the research
  • Understand and respond to the ethical dimensions of such biases
  • Examine the strengths and weaknesses of data sources—particularly in comparative research
  • Understand the importance of different types of peer review during the research process

Project Overview and Context

Developing a deep and rigorous conceptual framework is a necessary and vital part of research. It benefits from wide and deep interrogation of the literature and other sources of expertise and peer review. It is an iterative process that can take many twists and turns. This process requires reflection on the part of the researcher to shed light onto and unpack preconceptions, assumptions, and potential sources of bias. This requires a rigorous ethical outlook.

This case study draws from my experience in a research project that took place from 2013 to the end of 2015, at which time the findings were released in a book published by Palgrave Macmillan titled Educating Generation Next: Young People, Teachers and Schooling in Transition (Walsh, 2016). The impetus for the research arose from the aftermath of the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008. At that time, I was director of research and evaluation at the Foundation for Young Australians in Melbourne, Australia. Part of the Foundation’s remit was to better understand and develop responses to challenges arising in relation to the transition of young people from school to work and/or further study and training. Its research, which was both commissioned and conducted by the Foundation, presented some confronting and challenging data around youth transitions both in the long term and immediately following the GFC. The seeds of my research that were planted at the time were practically oriented and applied in nature and effectively grew in real time as the crisis unfolded and rippled across the years to follow.

As the Foundation was focused exclusively on improving the well-being and life outcomes of young people in Australia, the first impulse in response to the crisis was to understand the impact of the GFC on young people and the second was to seek to develop and propose practical responses—particularly through education in schools. The scholarly task of understanding and responding commenced in earnest when I returned to academia in late 2012. Underpinning this analysis was a need to develop a conceptual framework as both a foundation and lens through which this could take place.

Research Goals, Questions, and Output

My research goals were to

  • Paint a detailed picture of young people’s engagement with, and disengagement from, the contemporary labor market in developed economies such as Australia;
  • Develop a conceptual framework for understanding this picture;
  • Propose some recommendations for responses at student, school, and systems levels.

The main output of this research was the previously mentioned book Educating Generation Next, although other papers are also in development.

Key research questions included the following:

  • How will young people cope with adversity as a result of the GFC, as well as long-term changes to the workforce?
  • How prepared are young people during schooling for a more fluid and uncertain labor market?
  • What can educators and other organizations seeking to improve youth transitions from school to work do to improve these transitions?

My case study provides an account of three practical aspects of this research by examining several conceptual and contextual challenges that arose during its development. I am first seeking to provide insight into the particular challenges in using widely used but variable concepts. These include defining what it means to be “young,” “soft skills,” the relatively novel concept of “adversity capital,” and the challenges of comparing data on youth transitions across different contexts. In the context of my research, soft skills are made up of personal attributes and competencies necessary to engage worlds of work. They form a core part of adversity capital, which is a term I use to suggest that young people should develop personal assets to enable them to be able to engage in labor markets defined by increasing insecurity, fluidity, and change. It applies to those who experience adversity when seeking or in work and incorporates an ability to critically engage different cultural, technological, and face-to-face contexts.

Second, there is an ethical component of research that researchers should be mindful of.

Third, my case study includes ways that the process of “doing” research is iterative and can usefully draw on peer feedback in a variety of forms. These forms range from traditional peer review for publication to the less formal peer review that takes place by presenting research in development at internal faculty seminars and through conference presentations.

My aim is to provide early career researchers with examples of how to hone the conceptualization of their work through comparative analysis and presentation in a variety of formats and to different audiences.

Research Practicalities

As mentioned earlier, the historical starting point of this research was the GFC. The downturn had an immediate, disproportionate, and negative impact on young people throughout the world. Although young people typically feel the brunt of such downturns, the GFC was particularly severe. Where youth unemployment was at a relatively low rate of 13% late in 2007, by 2010, it had soared to a post-war high of 19% (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2010, p. 29). Reports emerged of waves of young people seeking work across Europe (Johnson, 2012). Consequently, it was external circumstances that provided the impetus for this project. Working at the foundation, I was required to inform policymakers, practitioners, and popular media about the resulting challenges. Almost without exception, I was asked, “So what do we do?” This simple question had complex implications, particularly as the trends arising from the GFC were enmeshed in long-term economic trends and bound up with technological, cultural, political, and demographic changes. The challenge was to develop a conceptual framework to understand and respond to the empirical data describing these changes. Upon returning to academia, my first project was to develop this framework and analyze the data.

A key personal turning point occurred as a result of a conference presentation. In 2014, I presented a paper at the British Education Research Association (BERA) conference (Walsh, 2014a). The paper was first a consolidation of previous research into the challenges and ambiguities of youth mobility in light of the economic, educational, and cultural experiences of young people (Black & Walsh, 2015; Walsh, 2010, 2016; Walsh & Black, 2015; Walsh, Black, & Berman, 2013). Second, I was introducing and “test-driving” my new conceptual response to some of these challenges through presentation to, and dialogue with, other participants at the conference. In the presentation, I used data and examples comparing and contrasting recent characteristics, trends, and responses in youth transitions in Australia and the United Kingdom. The location of the conference (London) was a good fit for this stage of the research. My intention was to then widen the scope of research to examine, compare, and contrast trends in other parts of Europe, such as Greece and Spain.

This presentation attracted the attention of the publisher Palgrave Macmillan, which provided an ideal opportunity to consolidate my research project into a main output of research: a book. This fortuitous opportunity provided a focal point for the project, as well as one other ingredient, which I’m sure many other researchers would agree is essential to getting research out there: a deadline.

Research Design

The Structure of My Research

To make the research manageable, I divided my project into two parts, each with three components. For Part 1, I focused on the data related to the impact of the GFC, as well as long-term labor market changes, on young people. This included the following:

  • Labor force trends as they related to young people in parts of Europe and Australia;
  • Overarching trends related to structural forms of marginalization experienced by young people, the impact of globalization, demographic change and technology;
  • Specific case studies of contemporary policy responses to the GFC, with a focus on the nature of this policy in Australia and the United Kingdom.

The second part of my research involved developing a conceptual framework as a basis for exploring possible responses to the trends and challenges arising in Part 1 of the project in relation to young people, teaching, and schooling. This included the following:

  • Outlining the concept of adversity capital;
  • Exploring challenges to teachers and the teaching workforce in relation to the trends and challenges outlined in Part 1;
  • Examining possible responses by schools and education systems.

Initially, the project was wider in scope, including higher education and vocational education and training; however, the scale proved to be too ambitious. Consequently, I deliberately concentrated on secondary schooling (with a few pointed exceptions). So, as a practical necessity, I needed to hone my research to certain points in time (e.g., the last three decades of youth employment data, the GFC) and to certain educational contexts (secondary schooling, the teachers and school leaders working within them, and related actors in other sectors seeking to work with schools to improve student outcomes).

The primary focus of my project was on young people aged 16-24 years, although as discussed later, this definition had to be somewhat elastic.

I started by seeking to understand the emerging data as a first point of reference. A variety of statistical instruments were already available, such as those provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and which were compiled in authoritative documents such as the annual report, How Young People Are Faring (Robinson & Lamb, 2012). Then, as the scope of research widened, other instruments, such as those used by International Labour Organization and Eurostat in Europe, were gradually incorporated so that international comparisons could be made. An extensive literature review provided the basis for scholarly understandings of the nature, challenges, and understandings of young people’s transitions from school to work.

I also generated case studies of responses from various forms of gray literature produced in countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia (e.g., see Kahn et al., 2012). Policy responses were also analyzed and compared.

My project was also informed by case study research with young people themselves aged 16-24 years across a range of socioeconomic and geographic contexts in Australia. This process came with a range of ethical challenges that I, and two of my colleagues, have previously discussed (Walsh et al., 2013), which are summarized later in this case study.

When analyzing the collective impact and responses, a number of foundational questions arose—particularly in understanding what it means to be “young.” For example, the wider research indicates that economic uncertainty impacts young people’s security and, consequently, their transitions to normative markers of adulthood, including their ability to plan key life decisions such as starting a family and purchasing a home, as well as the microlevel of daily life (Woodman, 2012). The deferral of key life decisions has sociological implications as the experience of youth is stretched and distorted as a partial consequence of economic uncertainty. Certain policy responses to the GFC also suggested a re-imagining of youth that extended its duration and infantilized young people in the process (Walsh, 2016). Again, these responses were unfolding in real time and often in a state of flux as legislation was debated in Parliament, while other changes in areas such as cessation of government funding of youth programs took place as part of wider austerity measures.

These trends and phenomena necessitated certain decisions to be made over whether and how these organic phenomena would be analyzed and presented in the research. Ultimately, a pragmatic approach was taken for these and other conceptual matters, such as use of the terms “young people” and “soft skills.”

Defining Young People

For this case study, I will focus primarily on the conceptual challenges underpinning the research design, namely, in defining “youth” and “young people,” the notion of “soft skills,” and “adversity capital.”

First, what it means to be young is highly contested and fluid. From a statistical point of view, census and other data feature differing age groupings even within countries, making comparative analysis difficult. In the context of measuring youth unemployment, the United Nations (UN, 2015) refers to people aged 15-24 years. This definition for young people is widely adopted throughout the world; nevertheless, there are significant variations. Understanding these variations was important not only to the degree to which I could compare data but also to being able to talk about the different contexts that they describe to an international audience.

As mentioned, age-based definitions of young people vary within countries. Within Australia, for example, discrepancies emerge between different measures, such as between 15 and 24 years of age (ABS, 2010) according to certain measures of employment; 16 and 24 years of age (ABS, 2007) in relation to mental health; while a Social Trends publication refers to young people as being between 20 and 34 years of age (ABS, 2008). Another widely used publication goes as low as 12 years of age (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2011). These definitions sometimes occur in part because of practical constraints to data collection; collecting census data from people younger than 15 years is seen to be difficult if not infeasible (ABS, 2003). In the end, a fairly fluid definition of young people was adopted for this research project, with comparable data used when available. The contexts in which the experiences of young people were described necessitated both the use of different age brackets and a more elastic notion of what it means to be young. This was because economic, political, cultural, and sociological factors were taken into consideration that challenged the applicability and efficacy of any singular definition.

For example, in the first instance, certain measures of the economic effects of the GFC were compared and contrasted between Australia, United Kingdom, Spain and Greece. Figures such as youth unemployment were used to show the effects of the GFC in the years following the downturn. This was done with an explanatory caveat about some of the differences in measurement between countries; an entire and extensive discussion could have been devoted to exploring these differences, but the purpose here was to illustrate some similarities between the least affected countries (i.e., Australia) and the worst affected (i.e., Spain and Greece). Using the data in this way enabled the portrayal of a striking and at times unsettling picture of the fairly immediate, severe, and disproportionate impact of the GFC on young people across a range of geographic and economic contexts. Importantly, alongside this, a deliberate effort was made to trace the data back through the decades preceding the GFC to locate these trends in a longer historical context. This enabled a more sober examination of which trends appeared to be “new” and which ones were better understood in terms of long-term developments, such as declining opportunities for full-time work among teenagers, which has as its corollary greater participation in schooling (in Australia) and, more broadly, a growth in casualization of the workforce (internationally). The data were used to tell a compelling story that set the context for the deeper exploration of young people, work, and education to follow.

Another context that necessitated a different view of young people was political. Certain phenomena required elasticity in the definition of young people; for example, recent policy approaches under analysis effectively extended the definition of youth to the age of 30 years (Walsh, 2014b). This infantilization of young people was arguably both an intended and unintended byproduct of policy. While intending to “incentivize” young people into work through schemes such as Work for the Dole and the removal of welfare payments, policy proposals also amounted to a form of social engineering that could protract the transition from youth to conventional markers of adulthood, such as secure work. The evidence also suggests that these markers such as secure full-time work are being reached later in life (Stanwick, Lu, Rittie, & Cirelli, 2014).

Cultural factors such as “the standardization of the young lifestyle” are also reshaping the experience of “youth” (Bernardini, 2014, pp. 42-43). These factors are often historically defined, complex, shifting, and relational.

Young people themselves report feeling in between youth and adulthood as imposed by adult regulations, expectations, and institutions that sometimes appear contradictory. For example, young people at the age of 16 years in Australia who work are expected to pay taxes but are unable to vote for the politicians who determine the systems of taxation (Walsh, 2012). Here, I looked to actual examples from young people themselves in an effort to include examples of authentic youth voice in my research.

Often these various factors intersect with other factors and forces, such the local economy. Normative differences in how certain countries determine age groupings have implications for international comparisons using employment statistics. For example, minimum school-leaving ages differ quite extensively and can be as low as 10 years old, as is the case in Haiti. Even within Australia, historically minimum school-leaving ages have ranged from 15 to 17 years (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], 2013). Upper age limits have also differed (Walsh, 2016). These institutional arrangements can have the effect of normalizing certain markers of transition, such as school-leaving ages and, consequently, when one is expected to find work according to both institutional and wider social norms (e.g., parental expectations).

These point to deeper sociological contextual aspects to what constitutes being young. As suggested earlier, transitions from “childhood” to “adulthood” are dynamic and relational, making distinctions between young people and adulthood problematic (Wyn, 2009). Markers of adulthood, such as getting full-time employment, purchasing a home, or starting a family, are shifting. Experiences of what it means to be young also tend to be more fluid than other age groups (UN, 2014). Many young people experience the demands of “adulthood” earlier in life, such as those who work while at school and find themselves in a kind of interstitial zone in between youth and adulthood as a consequence (Black & Walsh, 2015).

Ethical Challenges

There are broader challenges arising from how young people are depicted in the media, located politically as subjects of governance, and understood in popular discourses. These present an ethical challenge to researchers seeking to understand how young people are defined, described, and governed.

It is not uncommon, for example, to see young people framed in negative ways characterized by “deviancy, delinquency, and deficit” (Kelly, 2001, p. 25). At their worst, deficit discourses culminate in a “moral panic” (Cohen, 2002) about the “risks” posed by young people to society.

On the other hand, young people are also imbued with positive characteristics that are themselves problematic (Sukarieh & Tannock, 2011). This latter perspective was revitalized in the 1990s in the form of positive youth development (PYD; Gilding, 2001). As Sukarieh and Tannock (2011) suggest,

youth as a social category has always been double-sided, encompassing both negative and positive characteristics and stereotypes. If there is one stereotype in which youth, simply by their very existence, are said to threaten the core fabric of society, there is a flipside, in which youth are promised to revolutionize society and cure it of its past ills and failures. (p. 688)

The “positivity imperative” (Sukarieh & Tannock, 2011, p. 675) underpinning PYD has been linked to neoliberal forms of governance, in which

the competence, strengths and maturity of youth are emphasized and celebrated, as grounds for pulling young people into the workforce, opening up the spheres of education and youth development to market forces and business interests, promoting the ideology of neoliberalism among the young. (Sukarieh & Tannock, 2011, p. 682)

Examples of this are plentiful in the gray literature related to developing young people’s capacities to participate in social, political, and economic life (e.g., Roberts, 2009). Implicit in these discourses, which include notions of “resilience,” “character strengths,” and “core competencies,” are tropes around what should constitute a good “adult,” while also assuming a level playing field on which these capacities can be developed (Walsh et al., 2013). One of the challenges of the competency-based approach is that it can reduce young people to labor market resources, whose development is framed by the extent to which they are “work-ready” (Sukarieh & Tannock, 2011, p. 679; Walsh, 2016). This was another ethical concern that arose while conducting this research. Put most simply, should the education and training of young people be reduced to work-readiness? That education systems generally seek to develop more in young people prompted a deeper theorization seeking to include but move beyond the capacity to work.

One thing that emerges from these differing views, trends, and fluidities is that young people cannot be treated as a homogeneous group. As Rob White and Johanna Wyn (1998) suggest, “[y]oung people can be treated as a single category only by doing a grave injustice to the complexity of their lives” (p. 324). Treating young people as a homogeneous group can, for example, conceal the inequalities between them (Harris, 2010). The danger of treating young people as homogeneous is consequently another ethical challenge. A key task is to describe the experiences of young people as a (fluidly defined) group in society while doing justice to the diversity among them as individuals who live in often shifting sub-cultures.

Negotiating these economic and sociological factors proved challenging but fascinating. A consequence of this became important to my research; that is, a part of recognizing diversity is to listen to what young people are saying, which in this project was directly through interviews and through survey data created by other researchers. Listening to the voices of young people and engaging them actively in the work of researchers, and educators in general for that matter, are widely acknowledged to be important but often not done well (e.g., see Black et al., 2014). Doing this well requires researchers like myself to recognize and navigate the possible power dynamics between “adult” researchers and young research participants, which may impact the research process. As a researcher, I had to be aware of any possible biases that myself, policymakers, media, and other researchers may be projecting onto young people. This can be challenging, but it is important to remain focused on what the evidence is saying.

Balancing and navigating and interrogating these perspectives of young people are important and often challenging ethical exercises.

Defining Soft Skills

Another conceptual challenge arising in my research was defining the term “soft skills.” There is no consensus on what the term means, and it is used interchangeably with other notions, such as “non-cognitive skills” and “competencies” (Kahn et al., 2012, p. 8), “generic and basic skills” (Roberts & Wignall, 2010, p. 1), as well as “21st-century skills” and competencies (Ananiadou & Claro, 2008, p. 5). Social intelligence, emotional resilience (Roberts, 2009), problem solving, oracy, self-discipline (IYF, 2013), critical thinking, communication, creativity, information literacy, global awareness, financial, cross-cultural, and ecological literacies (Hannon, Patton, & Temperley, 2011; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009) could also be grouped under (or at least overlap with) the notion of soft skills. Occasionally, they appear to represent little more than educational buzzwords, despite having tangible properties through which young people are able to fluently comprehend and express themselves (Hannon et al., 2011). Although sometimes referred to as 21st-century skills, these skills are by no means new, but assume new significance in the context of contemporary uncertainty, change, and fluidity in contemporary global labor markets.

Perhaps most importantly, the term “soft skills” undervalues their power and significance as part of a “tool box” for contemporary living. These skills are important because the pathways that young people tread are changing. They are foundational in navigating pathways to secure work during periods of economic uncertainty and in negotiating life in general. They are also resources for resilience. Recently in sociology, a shift from risk to a wider notion of resilience has been recognized (Rose, 2014) that seeks to move beyond neoliberal permutations and individualistic tendencies that place great emphasis on personal responsibility—sometimes at the expense of the deeper social ecologists in which young people live.

Conceptualizing Adversity Capital

From this line of thinking arose the development of a relatively new concept: adversity capital. The term has been used elsewhere in youth studies (Pavlidis, 2009); however, this research repurposed and further conceptualized the notion in the area of youth transitions. Put most simply, “[a]dversity capital, which draws upon soft skills as a resource for navigating labour force fluidity, enables young people to be more adaptive and resilient” (Walsh, 2016, p. 80). It is based on the premise that in a fluid and often precarious workforce, young people need to develop certain capabilities and dispositions to be resilient, adaptive, and economically mobile. Moreover, it includes the ability to critically navigate different cultural, mediated, and non-mediated contexts, as well as dominant worldviews such as neoliberalism. It includes the possibility of imagining a life beyond work. The concept is therefore bundled with an understanding of resilience that is not individualized in the manner of neoliberalism, but which is situated within a wider social ecology consisting of key actors and support networks around young people, such as family, friends, schools, employers, and others (Ungar, 2008, 2013).

The concept of adversity capital provides a useful basis for theorizing how young people can respond to events such as the GFC while providing a framework through which to understand and develop practical responses utilizing soft skills to improve life outcomes. It also locates young people and their schooling within a wider social ecology that acknowledges and seeks to actively incorporate the work of key actors seeking to improve the employment outcomes of young people—ranging from peers, teachers, and parents to other actors such as non-governmental organizations and businesses.

This conceptual framework evolved as a result of my reflection, ethical outlook, and flexibility. As it evolved, it provided a rich and deep lens through which the challenges and trends could be better understood. For example, where the analysis of adversity capital initially focused on young people, it was then extended to include the working lives of teachers, many of whom experience the same kinds of labor force uncertainty as their students. The evolution of this concept reshaped the actual research by refining the data collection (e.g., looking at related sociological trends related to young people’s transition to work, such as starting a family or purchasing a home), data analysis (e.g., examining levels of digital literacy in secondary school students as a basis for exploring how they might transition to a more automated workforce), and presentation of the research (e.g., by providing a way of linking different global, technological, economic, political, and social trends and practices).

Practical Lessons Learned

Developing a rigorous conceptual framework benefited from a number of factors and opportunities that may be useful to keep in mind:

  • Because the development of key concepts is an iterative process, take every opportunity to present and discuss your research. Various versions of the research were presented at conferences such as BERA in London, as well as at internal faculty seminars. These presentations were incredibly valuable sources of peer review and feedback. I was open to critique and criticism, and virtually all that was received was valuable. Not of all of it was positive. One respected colleague described the notion of soft skills as “a dead language.” This motivated me to delve deeper into the literature, as well as practice, to confirm or reject this criticism. Soft skills have been coming in and out of vogue in education and training systems throughout the world during the last three to four decades. The criticism spurred a refinement and deepening of research into and conceptualization of soft skills. It prompted a deeper analysis that produced a rich vein of work resulting in the development of a moral and political economy of young people (Walsh, 2016, in press).
  • Multiple forms of peer feedback are useful to refining, deepening, and improving your research. As I mentioned earlier, following the presentation in London, I was approached by a publisher to develop the paper into a book. Peer review of the original proposal was again valuable, leading to a more nuanced critique of Pavlidis’ notion of adversity capital and the development of a more critical approach to resilience via the works of Michael Ungar (2008) and Dorothy Bottrell (2013). This peer feedback effectively altered the course of the book. All feedback is useful feedback.
  • Develop a solid conceptual foundation for your research. Following this last point, another lesson was the importance of interrogating concepts, from Pavlidis’ notion of adversity capital to foundational concepts of young people and soft skills. It is important to remember that nothing can be taken as given and that rigorous and vigorous analysis and understanding of key concepts are paramount in the first instance. It frames the analysis that follows.
  • Reflect on what assumptions, value-judgments, and other forms of bias you might bring to your research. It is important for me as a researcher to reflexively reflect upon and critique my own assumptions. This happened very early in my project, whereby an early study sought to understand the perspectives of young people “at risk” of economic and educational marginalization. Young people were interviewed and selected based on degrees of risk; that is, the evidence suggested that those at highest risk left school early, lived in regional and remote areas, and/or came from an indigenous background (Walsh, 2010). One surprising finding was that virtually all participants were optimistic about the future. This was contrary to expectations and revealed an implicit deficit view of the kind described in this case study.
  • Reflect on your ethical role as a researcher in relation to your participants. This leads to the next lesson: in my area of youth research, there is a risk that making positive or negative assumptions of youth risks may perpetuate the types of positive and negative categorizations outlined earlier. This is a very serious ethical consideration when conducting research into and writing about young people. It is, as my colleagues and I have previously written,

    one that risks perpetuating the structural inequalities that beset so many young Australians. An uncritical or breathless valorisation of young people and their actions can be said to be as ethically lax as the kind of wholesale deficit discourses to which they have so long been subject. (Walsh et al., 2013, p. 52)

    The challenge is to analyze the data and actually listen to what young people (and others) are saying with neither preconception nor prejudice. The wider lesson for researchers is to question their own assumptions in relation to their analysis. What value-based and experiential baggage might you bring to your research project?

  • Keep your research in perspective. There is one final and related point: upon reviewing the vast amount of economic data related to young people following the GFC, the further I delved into the research, the more enormous the challenge of preparing young people for workforce fluidity seemed to be. There was an urge to try to develop a grand theory and response to the challenges, which was tempered by recognition that developing adversity capital could at best only address a small part of the wider challenges and opportunities that young people face. Consequently, the research program was, at various points in time, inspiring, overwhelming, and dispiriting in equal measures. But I was reassured by a colleague during one presentation that it isn’t necessarily the task of research to solve the world’s problems—one can be content in understanding them better and possibly provide ways forward in thinking and practice.


Developing a rigorous conceptual framework in your research is important beyond meeting the standards required of academic peer review. Such frameworks bind the research together, which in this case was linking a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of a variety of empirical trends to the task of proposing practical responses. In the case of this research, which was intended to speak to academic, policy, and practitioner audiences, it required a framework that was also accessible and to some extent interdisciplinary in nature. Being open to different ways of thinking about and communicating your research is important.

Consequently, developing a deep and rigorous conceptual framework requires a degree of flexibility on the part of the researcher. For example, the decision to use a fluid definition of young people was, aside from the economic, cultural, political, and sociological lenses described herein, a pragmatic one. Rather than attempting to formulate a universal definition, the relational nature of how youth transitions are socially constructed necessitated a fluid definition of young people depending on the context in which they were being analyzed.

Nevertheless, developing a rigorous conceptual framework is an important part of your research. It requires an extensive examination of the literature and an “open ear” to new ways of thinking and doing. It is an iterative process that requires reflection on your own assumptions and preconceptions. It requires dialogue with colleagues and where relevant, your participants.

And as suggested in this case study, a deadline is also useful!

The trajectory of this research led to the publication of my book Educating Generation Next: Young People, Teachers and Schooling in Transition. However, the project is by no means complete. The conceptual and empirical dimensions continue to widen and deepen. Research remains ongoing, and subsequent publications have developed, refined, and deepened the concept of adversity capital. In a sense, one’s research never reaches a terminus, which is what makes the process of learning and disseminating one’s research exciting and eternally intriguing.

Exercises and Discussion Questions

  • During the course of my research, I discovered that I had a deficit view of young people. What assumptions do you bring to your research (e.g., normative, deficit, and positive assumptions about your area of inquiry)?
  • I relied on census and employment data in my research. What are the limitations of using these kinds of data sets, for example, to compare different countries?
  • I was mindful of certain ethical challenges in writing about and working with young people. What sort of ethical challenges do you encounter in your work and how do these challenges shape the nature of the research (if at all)?
  • How are definitions of young people dependent on and limited by contextual factors, both in quantitative and in qualitative terms? What implications does this have for research regarding young people?
  • What other methods might I have used in trying to define “young people”? What different lenses could you apply to your own research, such as from interdisciplinary perspectives?
  • I refined the conceptual aspects of my research through conferences, mainstream news articles, and faculty presentations (among others). In what ways and to which audiences are you seeking to refine your research?

Further Reading

Heath, S., Brooks, R., Cleaver, E., & Ireland, E. (2009). Researching young people’s lives. London, England: SAGE.


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