PhD project

Professional love and relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP) education in a Youth-Work setting

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About the project

This project complements ongoing work identifying the extent to which the embodiment of professional love in Youth Work contributes towards enhanced wellbeing of the young people with whom Youth Work practitioners interact (e.g. Purcell, 2018; Purcell, Page & Reid, 2020). Adopting an institutional ethnographic methodology, the researcher will be embedded in a third sector Youth Work organisation, working alongside and developing relationships with staff and the young people who attend. The primary focus of the researcher’s work with young people will be on the implementation of relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP) education. In so doing they will use creative writing/creative expression methods to explore the needs and expectations of young people with regards to RSHP education.

This recognises the significance of this aspect of work with young people as part of the Scottish Government’s post-Covid ‘recovery programme’ (2021), and that Youth Work supports the personal development and social participation of young people, at the same time reducing the incidence of social and (mental) health problems (Fish, 2014), particularly in work with marginalised and excluded groups (e.g. Fyfe, et al, 2018). It also affords the opportunity to model the relational aspects of the curriculum and to assess the impact of the researcher’s relationships with young people on their engagement with this part of the curriculum. Use of this curriculum also legitimises discussions about love as part of young people’s experiences in relationships with professionals involved in their lives (including Youth Workers, Teachers, Social Workers, Youth Justice Workers, etc.). The research will explore the relational aspects of Youth Work, which – characterized by informality, intimacy and warmth – foster space for reflection, growth and flourishing, and form the basis for support in times of difficulty (see Hart, 2017).

Methodological framework

The research will succeed only if it embraces an ethic of care towards all research participants. An institutional ethnographic (IE) methodology allows for this ethic to be centred in the proposed study, requiring the research to begin in and remain accountable to the lives of the people on whom it is focussed (Smith, 2006). Taking this a step further, the research will embrace a participatory approach inasmuch as it foregrounds the importance of participants’ critical analysis and the transformation of their lives and experiences of oppression (Nicols & Ruglis, 2020). Hence, the young people with whom the researcher engages in activities based on the RSHP curriculum will co-construct the research enquiry as an iterative process, thereby ensuring the research addresses their concerns as well as contributing towards the attainment of the enquiry’s overall aims. This will necessarily impact on the conceptualisation of the underpinning concepts, including ‘love’, meaning that the young people’s lived experiences and descriptions of love should be taken seriously by the researcher, making this an iterative and inductive journey (Gratzke, 2017).


Fish, M (2014). The value of youth services towards child and adolescent mental health. Youth & Policy, 12: 95-112.

Fyfe, I., Biggs, H., Hunter, S., McAteer, J., & Milne, D. (2018). The Impact of Community-based Universal Youth Work in Scotland. Edinburgh: YouthLink Scotland.

Gratzke, M (2017). Love is what people say it is: Performativity and narrativity in critical love studies. Journal of Popular Romance Studies, 6: 1-20.

Hart, P (2017). The reality of relationships with young people in caring professions: A qualitative approach to professional boundaries rooted in virtue ethics. Children and Youth Services Review, 83: 248-254.

Nicols, N & J Ruglis (2020). Institutional Ethnography and Youth Participatory Action Research: A Praxis Approach. In PC Luken & S Vaughan (eds). Palgrave Handbook of Institutional Ethnography. London: Palgrave.

Purcell, Martin E. ‘Investigating the Transformational Potential of Professional Love in Work with Young People’. Radical Community Work Journal 3, No.1 (2018).

Purcell, Martin E, Jools Page & Jim Reid. ‘Love in a time of Colic: mobilizing professional love in relationships with children and young people to promote their resilience and wellbeing’. Child & Youth Services (2020): 1-25.

Scottish Government (2021). Education Recovery: Key Actions and Next Steps: The contribution of education to Scotland’s COVID Recovery. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Smith, DE (2006). Institutional ethnography as practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Tilsen, J (2018). Narrative Approaches to Youth Work: Conversational Skills for a Critical Practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

How to apply

  1. Email Dr Martin Purcell ( to:
    • send a copy of your CV
    • discuss your potential application and any practicalities (e.g. suitable start date)
  2. After discussion with Dr Purcell, formal applications can be made via our direct application system. Apply for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Community Education or Community Learning and Development (Professional Doctorate) DCLD
Learn about applying for a research degree


Principal supervisor

Second supervisor