This paper identifies and evaluates qualitative methods appropriate for use in conducting policy-relevant research on the experiences, motivations, agency and life histories of autonomous and semi-autonomous children and adolescents, including those who migrate independently of parents and adult guardians. It presents an overview of qualitative research practice and the potential for qualitative research to extend and deepen knowledge of children’s varied and independently negotiated life circumstances. It argues that qualitative approaches are necessary to understand and meaningfully respond to the experiences of diverse physical, social and cultural environments. Research ethics are discussed from several points of view, highlighting both the importance of maintaining, and difficulty of defining, ethical engagement with subjects whose vulnerabilities and capabilities are manifest in ways that unsettle many traditional conceptions of children.
The longer section of the paper presents illustrative examples of qualitative research techniques. An illustrated inventory of research tools is presented with seven categories: surveys; interviews and focus groups; observation and participant observation; life histories and biographical methods; visual and textual methods; performance, play and arts-based methods; and virtual and computer-aided methods. Particular attention is given to practical details of field research, including subject recruitment/sampling, research setting, facilitation of interaction with subjects through intermediary contacts and organizations, and the specific steps taken to collect qualitative data. The concluding section synthesizes the information presented and provides guidance on how to incorporate qualitative methods, and qualitative methodologies, into research on children who live independently of parents and adult guardians or who exercise autonomy in more limited contexts.