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How to encourage poor young men to open up about vulnerabilities
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 08/11/2021

​How does one encourage poor marginalised young men in informal settlements to speak with candour about their insecurities and challenges?

This is one of the key questions Patricia Zweig, a lecturer at the Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction (RADAR) at Stellenbosch University tried to answer in a study* published recently in the academic journal AREA. She explored how young men in informal settlements in Cape Town are made susceptible to risk and how this in turn shapes both their masculine identities and influences their behaviour.

According to Zweig, research has shown that statistically speaking young men in informal settlements are more often the victims of crime, suggesting a need to interrogate their vulnerability in these communities. Unfortunately, little has been written about this.

Zweig says because it is methodologically challenging to get vulnerable young men to open up about their challenges, she decided to use different methods such as storytelling, interviews using drawing methods adapted from those usually employed in participatory research, and diary-keeping to accommodate different personalities  from shy types needing some encouragement, to verbose young men with a lot to say.

“Exploring the perceptions of poor young men about life on the urban margins to determine how their vulnerability was constructed, required various methods for facilitating engagement with them, not only to understand their daily lives, but also to gain insights into their feelings and emotions.

“Given that oral storytelling is intrinsic to Xhosa culture, it was perhaps not surprising that the young men's engagement improved notably when structured interview sessions were abandoned for a mode of expression with which they were more comfortable and familiar. These “conversational narratives" also subtly shifted the balance of power, allowing them more ownership of the process.

“Asking the participants to draw while recounting their stories diverted their attention to their drawings, which was also useful when they felt awkward, ashamed or emotional, allowing them to keep their eyes averted."

Zweig adds that the research was enhanced by providing the young men with the space in which to lead and guide, and to explain and express themselves through drawing.

“For example, when speaking about his childhood in a rural area, one man felt the need to provide me with more context and drew the layout of his village, explaining the traditional hierarchy and process of daily life, while another participant sketched a diagram to explain his belief system, indicating his place in it."

To delve more deeply into the key themes emerging from the interviews, Zweig turned to the use of diary writing with a smaller group of men.

She asked them to write only when inspired to share a thought or emotion, rather than on a regular basis that might have undermined the candidness of their writing. Contributions of any length were acceptable, from a simple statement to multiple pages, depending on their mood and inclination.

“Diary-keeping allowed the young men more time for introspection and reflection, once again giving more power to them in the research process, while simultaneously building their self-esteem through a sense of personal achievement.

“Over time, due to their growing trust of me, some young men felt encouraged to open up further, often providing details they had previously omitted or describing emotions associated with their experiences."

Zweig says that allowing the young men to express themselves in ways they felt most comfortable with gave them more freedom.

“Some used different mediums depending on their mood – from poetry to freestyle writing, to simple yet emotive descriptions of daily life. The variation in forms of expression provided penetrating views into their lifeworlds."

According to Zweig, the use of methods specifically adapted to encourage disclosure and overcome constraints often noted when exploring emotional issues with men, but also considering culturally appropriate modes of self-expression, ensured that all participants found comfortable ways to share their stories.

She adds that this provided intimate views into the many and varied challenges young, marginalised men in informal settlements face, the somewhat ambivalent masculine identities they are vested in, and the nature of their perceived vulnerabilities in these communities.

  • SOURCE: Zweig, P 2021. Exploring men's vulnerability in the global South: Methodological reflections. AREA 00, 1–9:

*This study is based, in part, on Patricia Zweig's recently submitted PhD thesis at Stellenbosch University.


Patricia Zweig

Research Alliance for Disaster and Risk Reduction (RADAR)

Stellenbosch University



Martin Viljoen

Manager: Media

Corporate Communication & Marketing

Stellenbosch University

Tel: 021 808 4921